Bursa Suicide Bombing and the Return of History

Bursa Suicide Bombing and the Return of History April 29, 2016


You can’t keep a dog in downtown Bursa. The people are too pious. Or maybe “traditional” is a better word. In either case, they believe dogs are unclean and the enemies of angels. A Colombian friend of mine who has a golden retriever – named “Athena,” after a pagan goddess and a Greek to boot – felt obliged to relocate before his neighbors were able to talk the police into writing him a ticket for violating some zoning law or other.

Bursa on the whole enjoys a reputation for piety – it is known as the City of Saints. Indeed, a stodginess, both comforting and soporific, blankets the entire city. It rests heaviest on the neighborhood known as Fomara, site of the Grand Mosque, a fortress-like structure completed in 1399, when cries of Christe eleison still echoed inside the Hagia Sophia. In its long shadow, you can find boutiques catering to the tastes of observant Muslim women, dealers in muqaddes kitaplar, or holy books, and travel agents who arrange pilgrimages to Mecca.

This is where the suicide bomber struck on Tuesday.

Actually, as suicide bombings go, it wasn’t much. Eight people wounded and some shop windows smashed seems to have been the extent of the damage – chump change compared to the three recent bloodbaths in Ankara, which claimed a total of more than 160 dead and 500 injured. Turkey’s Interior Ministry has detained 15 people for questioning and announced it believes the attack to have been the work of “a group,” but won’t say which one.

The usual suspects would include the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons – factions that happen, at the moment, to be busily fighting each other in Syria and Iraq. Turkey stands accused of supporting ISIS as a foil to Kurdish militants, but if the accusations are correct, it’s been paid back with attacks on its own soil, including two in Sultanahmet, site of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. There was nothing random about the choice. Islamic End Times prophecies foresee a clash between the forces of Islam and “the armies of Rome” taking place in Syria. Some ISIS adherents believe “Rome” refers to Istanbul, once capital of the Byzantine, or eastern Roman, Empire. By attacking its historic cultural and spiritual center, ISIS bombers were poking Rome where they hoped it would hurt most.

Nobody, at this point, can claim to know why a terrorist – a 25-year-old woman, according to Turkish sources – blew herself into carne asada in such a sleepy, straitlaced city as Bursa. But let the record reflect that Bursa served the Ottoman state as its first capital. Directly across the street from the Grand Mosque, atop a soaring promontory, rise the ancient stone walls of the Hisar, or citadel, invested by Osman Gazi, the bey from whom the state took its name. If you were to wander for a few minutes behind those walls, you would come across the tomb where Osman and his son, Orhan Gazi, along with their relatives, lie in felt-covered sarcophagi.

It seems not too farfetched to suppose that the bomber targeted that particular neighborhood because of its historical importance. To a Kurd, the Grand Mosque would represent the origins of Turkish hegemony. To an ISIS devotee, it would symbolize Rome before it became Rome. Either way, by shifting their attention to Bursa from Istanbul or Ankara, the group behind the bombings is marching backward in history. They are digging up dead actors and dragging them back onstage for a curtain call.

By now it’s well known that the “end of history,” first proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama, has been greatly exaggerated. Radical Islam continues to oppose liberal democracy — and so does Turkey’s less radical version. Earlier this week, Ismail Kahraman, a member of the country’s ruling Justice and Development party, called for the formal overthrow of laiklik, or secularism, in favor of an Islamic constitution. Though President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has distanced himself from the proposal, his ambitions in the Arab world look to many observers like a revival of the Ottoman Empire. (Last year, when I raised the prospect with Akel Bitaji, Mayor of Amman, Jordan, he expressed as much joy as one might expect from the mayor of Athens or Belgrade.) Vladimir Putin’s presidency of Russia has taken on increasingly imperial trappings.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Jonathan Chait, among others, has remarked that the left has adopted ever more illiberal methods when it comes to promoting its radical egalitarian agenda. Last year, after a white supremacist murdered nine African-Americans in Charleston, citizens began demanding that monuments to the South’s antebellum past be removed from the public eye. The removals, which took place in a frenzy, struck Ian Tuttle as “anti-historical” and overtly ideological. Like the suicide bombers’ attacks on historic places, these assaults on history itself suggest that history is very much an ongoing game.

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