Last weekend was terrible. There were terrorist attacks in Cairo, Istanbul, Mogadishu, Aden, and Maiduguri in Nigeria, killing close to two hundred people. When the news broke of the attack in Cairo, I was spending time with family and friends, one of whom asked me if I was going to be on TV talking about what had happened there and in Istanbul. I am not sure what there was to say. That Egypt and Turkey are under attack? That both countries are unstable? Speculate about the most likely suspects? This ritual seems so banal when friends in both cities are marking themselves “safe” on Facebook.
So what is there to say about the attacks? It is fairly straightforward. People with a bloodlust are victimizing Egyptians, Turks, and others. There are compelling explanations as to why people are attracted to extremism. The exhaustive academic literature on terrorism tells us that there are political ends for the violence. The perpetrators want to destabilize Egypt and usher in their Islamist vision of an Islamic state. In Turkey, the goal is to undermine the state in the service of Kurdish independence. That’s all probably true, but let’s be clear that something else is also at play: the glorification of violence for violence’s sake. If there is any doubt about this, take note of the footage extremists have offered to the world of their bloodshed and mayhem. It is hard to believe that someone like Boubaker al-Hakim, the terrorist who inspired the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, the murder of two Tunisian political leaders in 2013, and possibly the Sousse beach attack in June 2015, and who was killed in an American drone strike on November 26, was truly interested in anything other than spilling blood. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led what became the self-declared Islamic State when it was known as al Qaeda of Iraq, hated Shiites and wanted to kill them because of who they were. Likewise, it should be clear that the Egyptians murdered at the St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church, which is next to the well-known St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral—the Coptic Orthodox Christian equivalent of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican—were blown to bits because they were Christian. The thirty-eight people who were killed outside Besiktas Vodafone Arena in the Besiktas neighborhood of Istanbul were murdered because they are Turks.
Both the Egyptian and Turkish governments have lamentable records on human rights. They have used coercion and violence to establish political control in societies where so much has become contested over the last three to five years. Both are engaged in counterinsurgency campaigns that have demonstrated a shocking indifference to the well-being of civilians. The Egyptians have razed entire towns in the Sinai Peninsula in the fight against terrorism, and the pictures that have emerged from Turkey’s southeast could be mistaken for the destruction wrought in parts of Syria. All that said, the repression-radicalization dynamic, in which people determine that they have no recourse other than taking up arms in the face of repression, only tells part of the story. What did the people praying on a Sunday morning have to do with the Egyptian state’s violence? Nothing. And the people killed in Besiktas, what do they have to do with the deplorable conditions in Turkey’s southeast? Nothing. Although it is reasonable to believe that there were supporters of Egypt’s president among those attending mass at the St. Mark’s complex, and it is beyond any doubt that there are hardcore nationalists among the victims in Istanbul, only in the minds of people like the Qatar-based Islamist preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who argues that all Israelis are legitimate targets because they all serve in the Israel Defense Forces at one time or another, does that make otherwise innocent people legitimate targets.
The perpetrators of the attacks this weekend in Egypt (no one has yet claimed responsibility) and in Turkey (the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, claimed responsibility), murdered people because that is what they do. Full stop. No other explanation needed.