Istanbul was our past, Istanbul is our future

This attack is on the culture of tolerance, on the pluralism of Muslim countries that is represented in Istanbul.

Boats At Istanbul
The glorious cosmopolitan urbanity of tolerance and pluralism of Istanbul will triumph against all forces of fanaticism, writes Dabashi [Galata Tower, Istanbul 1937, Getty Images]

I have now blissfully forgotten how many times I have visited Istanbul, or why is it I feel so much at home there. Last time I was there was during the last World Cup, Brazil 2014, which as it happened, coincided with the Muslim month of Ramadan, when many were fasting.

I remember sitting in a cafe/bar in the heart of Istanbul, near the Taksim Square, watching Germany destroy Brazil in the semi-finals, surrounded by Turkish, Arab, German, French, Brazilian, Iranian, and Russian football fans.

It was a sheer joy of being in a Muslim city where women dressed as they wished, with or without an item of modesty, happily in possession of the streets of their homeland without anyone ever bothering them.

Next to them were European visitors, shoulder to shoulder with tourists from across the Arab and Muslim world. You would hear as much Turkish as you did Arabic, Persian, English, French, German, or Russian. That was and remains the real Istanbul.

Before the horrific nightclub attack in the Reina, on the shore of the Bosporus Strait, on the New Year’s Eve is lost into yet another cycle of vicious, mind-numbing violence, which now extends from Orlando to Paris, Berlin, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, deep into Pakistan and beyond.

We might want to pause for a moment and wonder what these heinous crimes actually mean. What do they signify, how are we to read them?

Why would an innocent gathering of young people from around the Arab and Muslim world with their Turkish friends be a target of such a vicious attack?

“In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant] is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey,” according to reports, ISIL has assumed responsibility for this cowardly act, further adding: “a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.”

Cosmopolitan urbanism

This is habitually inane gibberish that may or may not be an indication of ISIL having actually perpetrated this crime. But the question is: What is this inanity targeting? What is it, that it is opposing? What kind of sentiment, however crudely, does it want to provoke?

The answer lies in the location and timing of this attack: A nightclub where a group of young people from around the world had gathered to celebrate the new year on the Christian calendar.

Whoever was behind it, this attack is on the culture of tolerance, on the factual pluralism of Muslim countries now in many ways represented in Istanbul.

The young people in that club represent a new breed of Turks and their friends from around the (Muslim) world. The term “secular” or “Westernised”, which you keep hearing on these occasions, are terribly flawed; deeply misguided. Such clubs, cafes, markets, bookstores, movie theatres or opera houses are all specific insignia of a living, thriving urbanity – the figurative emblem of a deeply rooted cosmopolitanism that is definitive to Istanbul.

Nothing’s wrong with celebrating the new year

There is absolutely nothing wrong with marking and celebrating the new year on Christian calendar, or even Christmas, in any Muslim country.

The birthplace of Christianity is in Palestine, where other sacrosanct sites of Islam and Judaism are also located.

Today, Muslims and non-Muslims, in and out of Islamic world, are facing a vicious battle, not of identity, but of alterity - not who they are, but who their nemesis is.


Christ was from historic Palestine, a Jewish rabbi born and raised in Nazareth. These subterranean creatures that call themselves ISIL, or their kindred souls in any other part of the Muslim world, both inside and outside Turkey, are not just viciously violent, they are pathetically ignorant.

Muslim countries have always been home to thriving Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc communities. Muslims have lived alongside these communities in successive empires – from the Abbasids to the Seljuks to the Ottomans; the Safavids, and the Mughals. How could any such cosmopolitan empire be limited to the myopic zealotry of any particular sect of hateful fanatics?

It is now habitual to refer to the victims of this pernicious attack in the Ortakoy neighbourhood as “foreigners”. These young men and women may have come from anywhere, from India to Morocco.

But they were not “foreigners” in Istanbul. They were at home in Istanbul – which is home to any human being with an urbanity of culture and demeanour to her and his character and culture.

INTERACTIVE: Timeline of attacks in Turkey

What we see today in Istanbul is no accident, nor is it the sign of “Westernisation” or “secularisation” of Istanbul – all of them nasty Orientalist nonsense, entirely ignorant of Islamic social and intellectual history.

Quite to the contrary. This is the perfectly normal post-colonial growth of Istanbul from deep roots of its Ottoman lineage, a vastly and deeply pluralistic society, welcoming artists, literati, intellectuals, journalists, political activists from four corners of the world.

How did Istanbul accommodate all of those varied communities throughout its history and today we hear calls of intolerance from certain voices, even within the Turkish society? Because, up until its fateful encounter with European imperialism, Istanbul was the epicentre of a confident cosmopolitan culture.

Tolerance and pluralism

Today, Muslims and non-Muslims, in and out of Islamic world, are facing a vicious battle, not of identity, but of alterity – not who they are, but who their nemesis is.

Muslims are not the enemies of Christians or Jews, nor are Christians and Jews the enemy of Muslims.

What we have are, in fact, battles of sovereignty among the ruling states entirely bereft of legitimacy from their respective nations.

As many states have degenerated into pure institutions of violence – very much on the model of ISIL – they inevitably pit against each other the most pernicious common denominators of divisive hatred.

Against all odds, the glorious cosmopolitan urbanity of tolerance and pluralism of Istanbul will triumph against all forces of fanaticism, foreign or domestic to Turkey, and as it was a landmark of our past, it will beacon us all to our future.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.