Back in 2002, I made what turned out to be my last visit to Istanbul. In those days, it was not simply one of the most beautiful and beguiling cities in the world, it was also completely safe. I was staying with an old family friend, and accompanied by someone who is now a fellow writer for the Catholic Herald. One night we called in for drinks after dinner at a beautiful terraced open-air night club that overlooked the Bosphorus. The sight of ships, blazing with light, making their way up and down that narrow channel separating Europe from Asia, was truly spectacular. Alas, that same club was the site of the massacre in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Since my last visit, Istanbul has been the site of numerous such terrorist attacks. It is no longer the place it was.
As commentators have pointed out, Turkey has not had a good year, or, indeed a good decade. Despite the fact that its government is increasingly authoritarian, it seems unable to stem the rising tide of terrorism. This is an extremely worrying development, and ordinary Turks will continue to suffer, one fears. Tourists too will avoid the country.
Back in 1996, as a newly ordained priest, I spent time in Syria and visited Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Ma’loula. All of these places are now badly damaged by violence, and in some cases it is unlikely that they will ever recover.
Back in 1974, as a child, I went to Beirut, which was known in those days as the Paris of the East. I saw Beirut again in 1996, after it had suffered a decade and a half of civil war. Not a ghost town, but not the same place, either.
As a very small child, I once went to Libya. You can’t go to Libya now. I wonder how the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna (hometown of the Emperor Septimius Severus) are getting on? They were famed as the best Roman ruins anywhere on earth, alongside Palmyra, of course.
Once there was only one failed state in the world, one place where it was simply too dangerous for Westerners to visit – that was Somalia. Somalia became a failed state in 1991, but since then it has been joined by numerous others, places where there is no effective government; and there is another growing list of failing states, states that may soon join the first list.
So what conclusion can we draw from this melancholy situation? Once countries like Turkey and Syria resembled the south of Italy, and had a similar feel to them; well, that was a superficial judgment. Syria did not fall apart by accident, but rather because all the murderous tensions that had been kept under wraps for so long at last rose to the surface. But the lesson is clear. It is wrong to believe in the myth of progress; people can and do take their countries back to the dark ages, even when this makes little economic or any other sense.
Sectarian hatreds remain strong. Moreover, those who speak the language of sweet reason, which includes supranational bodies such as the United Nations and the Catholic Church, as well as international policemen like America, seem unable to stop the slide to terrorism and anarchy. The track record of the United Nations in keeping the peace is not good, to put it mildly. And the track record of the Church in persuading people not to go to war is not good either. We all know negotiation is better than fighting, but that knowledge seems to make little impression on us. Civilisation, often a thin veneer in many places, is in retreat.
That this is very depressing goes without saying. That it cannot be denied should also go without saying. That no one really has a clue about how to deal with this is also plain. American isolationism does not make us safer, and Russian bombs raining down on terrorists do not make us safer either.
Two things need to be done.
The first is the adoption of smarter means of disrupting terrorist activity. This is already being done, as we know many terrorist plots never get past the planning stage. But the way the man who attacked the Christmas market in Berlin was able to travel unimpeded to northern Italy within a few days, when he was the most wanted man in Europe, makes us realise that there is more to be done. Likewise the way terrorists from Syria can make their way back to Europe. We urgently need better and more targeted checks on travellers. That means profiling. We also need to disrupt their communications: that also means accessing what up to now may be regarded as private data. We also need the means to expel, and expel swiftly, from our countries, those who support or propagandise for terrorism.
The second thing we need is to abandon our moral and cultural relativism. Given that these forms of relativism took several hundred years to creep up on us and disarm us, to undo the damage of centuries will take time. But it must start somewhere. We have to abandon the multicultural heresy that all cultures are somehow worthy of equal respect. They aren’t, and never have been. In practical terms this means not just punishing terrorists effectively, but also making those who sympathise with them and support them suffer as well. That means, among other things, adopting cultural sanctions against countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. If we had done this earlier we would not perhaps be in the state we are now; but our pandering to the intolerable is catching up with us. We also need to remember that almost all terrorists have some form of backing from state actors. Those state actors need to be challenged.
2017 started badly in Istanbul and also in Iraq. We can, sadly, expect more of the same. When will our leaders, both civil and ecclesiastical, develop a coherent response?