An attack on the bridge between Islam and the West

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The Independent Online

The British consulate in Istanbul blown up with such terrible loss of life yesterday was designed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the House of Commons, the home of British democracy. Its shattered walls lie only 100 yards from the Istiklal Caddesi, the thronging pedestrian street that attracts hordes of young visitors, mostly Turkish, to the bars and restaurants in the area below Taksim Square.

The other bomb target, a modern tower block housing a shopping mall and the offices of HSBC bank, lies northwards in the newer residential city where the main road turns east to cross the first (British-designed) bridge across the Bosphorus to Asia, and where you can tell the wealth of the new middle class by the number of Mercedes and BMW showrooms.

Old imperial representation and modern, Westernised consumerism. It is easy to understand why these targets were chosen. Just as the bombs at the two Istanbul synagogues a week ago were picked as the centres of the largest remaining Jewish community in the Muslim world, so the British consulate and a mall were fingered as symbols of a Western presence in the Islamic world that the terrorists wish to challenge and destroy.

Turkey is the bridge between Asia and Europe just as Istanbul is physically the crossing point. Since Mehmet the Conqueror finally seized it in 1453, it has been the point where the West entered the Middle East and the Muslim world traded with the West. Since Kemal Ataturk made Ankara the capital in 1923, Istanbul has declined as a political centre. The grand foreign embassies such as the British have been downgraded to consulates, and their work concentrated on helping British business and backpackers.

But as a commercial centre Istanbul has expanded at a pace unequalled anywhere in Europe or the Middle East. Thirty years ago it was a city of less than a million, more than 40 per cent of them foreign. Now it is a huge urban agglomeration of nearly 15 million, 90 per cent of whom are Muslims, most of them Turkish and Kurdish peasants from the Anatolian heartlands.

That is the sensitivity, and the danger of this, the worst terrorist outrage in the country's modern history. It was intended to punish Britain for its support of America in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it is also designed to upset a country on the cusp of profound change.

A formally secular nation, it has recently elected its first openly Islamic government. A conservative state traditionally held firm by an army responsible for upholding the secularist and security tradition of Ataturk, it has eagerly sought membership of the European Union with all the changes to its justice system and treatment of minorities this would entail.

To talk as Tony Blair did yesterday of "Britain not yielding an inch" and of the terrorists killing fellow-Muslims is fatuous. The danger here is what it could do to Turkey.

The last thing we should want, and the first thing the terrorists would wish, is Turkey's return to an army-run, high-security country, or one in which Western symbols should seem in direct conflict with conservative religious values.

The government has been tormented enough by Washington's insistence (ultimately aborted) that it send troops to Iraq. It has also been made acutely aware of an ambivalence in Europe about whether we really want Turkey in the European Union.

We must. This is our chance to show that moderate Islam can live easily in a European partnership, if we do not let the men of violence divert us.