Our terrorism double standard: After Paris, let’s stop blaming Muslims and take a hard look at ourselves

I wasn’t Charlie Hebdo, back when it seemed awfully trendy to assume that persona – and I have to tell you I don’t have a French flag on my Facebook profile. Well, in fact, I don’t have a Facebook account. But if I did . . .

It’s not that I support the killing of innocent people to make a political point; and I have the deepest sympathy for the families of those people killed in Paris last weekend.

What I object to is the self-righteous hypocrisy of Western leaders who refuse to acknowledge that their own actions have created this particular monster. I further object to the outrageous racist ethnic prejudice that explodes in paroxysms of hate and revenge over the deaths of 133 white European Christians (or whatever their religion is), while turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of innocent civilians massacred in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, directly or indirectly, by the United States government, its allies and its stooges.


French Premier Hollande, sending envoys off to bring peace to the Middle East

Asymetrical warfare has become a ubiquitous fact of post-modern life – and I can’t see it going away, as long as wealthy Western nations use their economic and military power to punish sovereign states for failing to bow down and grovel. The reaction of the French Government to the Paris attacks has been, once again, to launch more bombing raids on targets in Syria. Does it work, guys? Just ask yourselves, please.

Well, I want to share with you an article I found on the Salon website.

“We must mourn all victims. But until we look honestly at the violence we export, nothing will ever change.

“Any time there is an attack on civilians in the post-9/11 West, demagogues immediately blame it on Muslims. They frequently lack evidence, but depend on the blunt force of anti-Muslim bigotry to bolster their accusations.

“Actual evidence, on the other hand, shows that less than two percent of terrorist attacks from 2009 to 2013 in the E.U. were religiously motivated. In 2013, just one percent of the 152 terrorist attacks were religious in nature; in 2012, less than three percent of the 219 terrorist attacks were inspired by religion.

“The vast majority of terrorist attacks in these years were motivated by ethno-nationalism or separatism. In 2013, 55 percent of terrorist attacks were ethno-nationalist or separatist in nature; in 2012, more than three-quarters (76 percent) of terrorist attacks were inspired by ethno-nationalism or separatism.

“These facts, nonetheless, have never stopped the prejudiced pundits from insisting otherwise.

“On Friday the 13th of November, militants massacred at least 127 people in Paris in a series of heinous attacks.

“There are many layers of hypocrisy in the public reaction to the tragedy that must be sorted through in order to understand the larger context in which these horrific attacks are situated — and, ultimately, to prevent such attacks from happening in the future.”

Read the article

Sebastian Martyrs and the Cult of Atatürk

October and November are big months in modern Turkey. Three important dates in the history of the Republic are commemorated:

  • 6 October – The liberation of Istanbul
  • 29 October – The foundation of the Republic
  • 10 November – The anniversary of the death of the founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

I’ve been in this country long enough to have witnessed a few annual returns of these dates, and it seems to me that of late the celebrations have become somewhat muted. Possibly that’s understandable. The elitist old guard have taken a bit of a beating in recent years from the new political kid on the block, the Justice and Development Party. The AKP, to use its Turkish initials, ‘Islamic-rooted’ as the foreign press persistently tells us, has been governing the country since 2003. Despite vociferous opposition from the left, right and centre of the traditional political spectrum, the AKP has won majorities in five parliamentary elections, and succeeded in having its candidate elected president in the first general election ever held for that position.

The country’s military leaders, long-established protectors of the sanctity of the constitution (which they wrote), have been nudged back to the more conventional role of defending the state from outside threats. Middle-aged social mediaholics, prefacing their Facebook profile names with the initials TC (for Turkish Republic) are convinced that the country is plunging headlong into a dark medieval night of alcohol prohibition, judicial beheadings and compulsory black burqas for women. You can understand their despair, given their total inability to make an impact at the ballot box.


Location of Sivas province

As for me, I’m an optimist. Foreign visitors to Turkey have long been puzzled by the seemingly idolatrous adulation accorded to statues, photographs and death masks of the nation’s founder. I, at least, have read enough about Atatürk’s achievements to sympathise with the veneration accorded him. In a nutshell, if it hadn’t been for Mustafa Kemal Pasha, no country remotely resembling the modern nation of Turkey would exist today.

I do feel, however, that the time is right for authorities to lay aside the conventional blind adoration and work towards a realistic appraisal of Atatürk the man. While this may require some acceptance of his human failings, it will, I am convinced, result in a more profound appreciation of the mental and moral strength required to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against his people in those days.

I worked in a school for some years whose commitment to secular Kemalism would rank among the more dedicated. From the day they entered our doors, pupils were drilled in the minutest details of the great man’s life, the colour of his eyes (piercing blue), the names of his father, mother  and sister (Ali Rıza, Zübeyde and Makbule respectively), the colour of the family home in Salonika (pink); and encouraged to shed tears of grief at 9.05 am every 10th of November. By the time they reached high school, it was difficult to get them to attend school ceremonies on those most sacred days in the Republican calendar. Most of them had had enough. Which struck me as sad.

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

Another thing that struck me as sad – and somewhat surprising in view of the school’s dedication to the lore of secular republicanism, was how many of my students thought that the Liberation of Istanbul had something to do with the conquest of Byzantine Constantinople by the 15th century Sultan, Mehmet II. Very few seemed to be aware that, after leading the army of National Salvation to victory against the invading Greeks, and driving them out of Izmir, Mustafa Kemal turned his troops northwards towards Istanbul, faced down the threat of war with the mighty British Empire, and watched the invaders leave as they had come, without firing a shot. The disgrace to Great Britain actually led to the collapse of David Lloyd George’s government and Winston Churchill’s (temporary) exile to the political wilderness. Whether Kemal Pasha’s eyes were blue, brown or bloodshot red, you’d think that would be something worth telling kids about.

29 October was the date in 1923 when the newly established parliament of Turkey proclaimed the foundation of the Republic. It has enormous symbolic importance, and is celebrated annually as Turkey’s equivalent of America’s 4th, and France’s 14th of July. As an actual historical event, however, the proclamation was a formal acknowledgement of a situation that had already existed for over three years. The nation’s Republican parliament (Millet Meclisi) had been inaugurated on 23 April 1920, in the new capital city of Ankara. Nevertheless, Turkey without Istanbul would be inconceivable, and one might argue, therefore, that winning that city back from the armies of occupation was an event of unparalleled significance.

Undoubtedly the fledgling Republic of Turkey suffered a great loss when its first President passed away on 10 November 1938. On the other hand, they were lucky to get him at all. Few nations in the world have been blessed with a leader whose multi-faceted genius encompassed military victories against fearsome odds, constitutional revolution, and statesmanship on the international stage. And of course, no one lives forever. Have you ever paused to consider what might have happened to Christianity if Jesus Christ had been allowed to see out his three score years and ten, instead of being martyred in the prime of life at the age of 33? Atatürk made it to 57, and it could be argued that his best years were behind him. How would he have dealt with the traumas of the Second World War, and pressure to give his people the vote? Possibly it’s for the best that we didn’t have to find out.

Sivas's famous kangal dog

Sivas’s famous kangal dog

It does seem to me though, that the outpourings of grief on anniversaries of his death, sincere though they may be, militate against a genuine appreciation of Atatürk’s outstanding achievements. Certainly he lives on in true Turkish hearts, and in that sense, is not actually dead – but the reality is that he’s not coming back. The Republic needs to move on, and to do that, 10 November provides an opportunity to give thanks for his life, and to begin evaluating, with a vision unclouded by tears of mourning, exactly what relevance his legacy has for Turkey in the 21st century.

Strange to say, my inspiration for this post did not actually come from any of those dates listed above. Last week there was a festival held in our new park by the seaside at Maltepe. Entitled ‘Sivas Günleri’, it was a celebration of the cultural identity of a region in central Anatolia east of Ankara. Sivas, its citizens driving cars whose number plates are prefixed with ‘58’, is, in area, the second-largest of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and one of the most sparsely populated.

It was a very Turkish festival. Two large marquees had been erected in the vast public square of the new park. The larger of the two housed displays of Sivas’s various districts, displaying local handcrafts and traditional costumes, and serving tea and snacks to mustachioed middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, one assumes hailing from those parts. There was also a central auditorium with a stage from which various minor dignitaries were holding forth about whatever these kind of guys like to hold forth about – with a rather sparse audience exhibiting scant interest in what they had to say.

Help yourself

Mouth-watering Sivas cuisine

The adjacent marquee held more appeal, not only for me, but for the crowds in attendance. It contained a number of restaurants serving Sivas cuisine, and stalls purveying local produce: honey, fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, and a marvellous variety of peculiarly Turkish delicacies. I bought a doll in traditional costume for my granddaughter, Kiri, and a packet of sweets made from hazel nut paste, which were a taste sensation! Then, since it was around lunchtime, and my salivary glands were in a state of high excitement, I allowed myself to be enticed by the sight of lamb carcasses rotating on spits over hot coals, and sat down to a meal of sırık kebab. Words cannot describe . . .

But what has this got to do with the Turkish Republic and its revered founder, I hear you ask. Well, Sivas, in contrast to its current relative insignificance, has a very colourful history. My sources tell me there was a Hittite settlement in the area as early as 2,600 BCE, though little is known about the town until the Roman general and political luminary, Pompey, founded the city he named Megalopolis, which later became Sebaste. You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the name ‘Sebastian’ derives from the Latin adjective meaning a citizen of that city.

Apparently Sebaste was quite a hive of early Christianity, back in the days when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp it out – and consequently is remembered for a number of martyrs, by churches that go in for that sort of thing. One particularly memorable event involved forty soldiers back in the 4th century who, to demonstrate the error of their ways, were exposed naked overnight on a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Well, nights can get pretty chilly out there on the Anatolian steppe at an altitude of around 1,500 metres, and there weren’t many signs of life the next morning; but to make certain, local authorities had the bodies burned and the ashes cast into a nearby river.

Sivas's 4th century 40 martyrs

Sivas’s 4th century 40 martyrs

Continuing the tradition of misfortune, Sebaste’s location at the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire exposed it to the earliest depredations of Turkic invaders in the 11th century. By the 12th century it had become Turkish to the extent that it served as one of the capitals of the Seljuk Empire, and in 1408, was incorporated into the expanding Ottoman dominions. In spite of Muslim conquest, however, Armenian and Orthodox Christian communities survived, with their churches, into the 20th century.

The Republican connection dates from September 1919. British and French armies had occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul at the end of the First World War, and their governments began the process of dismembering the empire according to plans they had been making in secret for some years. The last straw for Turkish patriots was when a Greek army, sponsored by the victorious allies, landed in Izmir, intent on re-claiming their once extensive Byzantine territories.

There is some debate about the circumstances surrounding Mustafa Kemal’s departure from Istanbul and arrival in the Black Sea port of Samsun on 19 May 1919. Nevertheless, that date is recognised in modern Turkey as the beginning of the War of Liberation (Kurtuluş Savaşı). He wasn’t alone, of course, but it was undoubtedly Kemal Pasha’s charisma that inspired his war-weary people to one further struggle. Two congresses were held, in Erzurum and Sivas, laying the groundwork for the forthcoming conflict, and these two cities are recognised as crucial in the foundation of the Republic.

Sivas has two other claims to fame. One is its status as the home of the kangal, a large breed of dog renowned as a guardian of livestock and villagers against wolves, bears and jackals.

The other, less honourable, is a shameful event that took place on 2 July, 1993. On that date, the city was the venue for a cultural festival attended by a gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom were Alevi. A mob of religious extremists set fire to the Madımak Hotel where many of the visitors were staying, resulting in 35 deaths.

Stop the killing - there are better things in life

Stop the killing – there are better things in life

Again there is some debate about the reasons for the attack. Some say it was targeting a gentleman by the name of Aziz Nesrin, who had angered orthodox Sunni Muslims by translating Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, into Turkish. Others say it was more generally directed at the Alevi community as a whole. It was asserted at the time that local police stood by and allowed the arsonists to do their work unmolested. That’s entirely possible – although the government of the day did seem to do its best to bring perpetrators to justice.

Well, the 1990s are not so long ago, when you think about it. Those were bad times in Turkey, as opponents of the present government should not forget. The history of Sivas has a lot to teach us, if we choose to listen.

The Lasting Legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

On 10 November people in Turkey pause to commemorate the achievements of the revered founder of their republic, on the anniversary of his death in 1938. I’m reblogging this tribute published on the website of the Turkish Coalition of America:

ataturk-10-2“On November 10th, TCA paid tribute to the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led the Turkish National War of Liberation, founded the modern Republic of Turkey and launched an extraordinary series of reforms that continue to inspire the Turkish nation. World-over, Ataturk is honored as one of the greatest national leaders of the 20th Century. In the words of Scottish historian, Patrick Balfour (the 3rd Baron Kinross): “the soldier in Ataturk had saved his country, the statesman in him had won for it the honorable peace, the reformer in him was now to make of it a new country.”

Ataturk: The Soldier

Ataturk: The Statesman

Ataturk: The Reformer

Please click here to listen to the speech of President John F. Kennedy delivered in 1963 on the 25th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s passing.” 

Read the whole article.

‘The War I Experienced’ – A Palestinian teenager’s vivid memory

My university classes are quite cosmopolitan these days. The Ottoman Empire was characterized by ethnic and religious diversity, but its successor, the modern Republic of Turkey became, at least ostensibly, more homogeneous. In recent years, however, migrants, students and refugees from Middle Eastern neighbours and some African countries have been altering the ethnic mix. My classes include young people from Libya, Jordan, Malta, Syria and Iran.

One young man, Yaser, a recent arrival from Palestine, wrote this short piece when asked to share a vivid memory. I want to share it with you:

palestine-rubble_1‘It was about two years ago. I was living in Gaza when the war came. I was 15 years old and the war started with twenty killings by the Israeli ‘terrorist’ army. I was very angry about that and afraid at the same time – not for myself but for my family and the people I love.  

‘The war lasted three months. One day I was watching a movie with my family to forget the war a little bit. While we were watching the movie outside in the garden. Israeli planes bombed the house of a family near ours. They fired rockets. I remember the sound of it, it was so loud! I couldn’t hear anything else at that time. I ran to help my mom and my little brothers go into the house. There were rocks flying and people crying for their children. There was a lot of dust and flames reaching up to the sky; smoke and the smell of burning people. It was really a terrifying day.  

‘We lived our lives like we would die tomorrow. One day we will free Palestine. I feel so angry about the things that happened in my country. They killed peaceful people, children and old people – and the Israelis say we are the terrorists! Can someone be a terrorist in his own country?  

‘When the war ended after three months there were 2,500 killed by Israel’s army, and more than 10,000 injured.’


Another Election in Turkey – What’s it all about?

November Election results: Red=CHP, Orange=AKP, Purple=DHP

November Election results: Red=CHP, Orange=AKP, Purple=DHP

Some argue it’s the little things that count most in life – and as I enjoy a leisurely Monday I feel a sense of gratitude towards whoever is responsible. Yesterday was Election Day in Turkey. Voters were getting a chance to reconsider the options five months after an earlier poll had produced an inconclusive result; followed by a day off to catch their breath, lick their wounds or celebrate, depending on how things had gone.

So I went for a bike ride along the Marmara coast, dropped into our local bakery for a couple of simits, and our next-door supermarket for a newspaper. Normally I just grab our paper of choice, pay and go – but today I lingered, letting my eyes run over the headlines screaming from the front pages of the multitude of brightly-coloured rags that daily deplete the nation’s forests, catering to every shade of political opinion and the average guy’s appetite for scantily clad young ladies.

‘Terror increased, our currency lost value, the votes went up . . . the sultanate continues!’ cried Sözcü, the one favoured by the government’s more vociferous opponents. Cumhuriyet, inclining more to the left-leaning intellectual, announced ‘A Victory for Fear.’ The folks at Sözcü, as is their wont, went on to speak of a social media frenzy accusing the AKP government of electoral jiggery-pokery, and quoted Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders as saying ‘any Turks in his country who voted for the dictator Erdoğan should go back and enjoy his Islamofascism’. Well, if that guy ever wins enough votes in Holland he may send them back, whoever they voted for. But were not discussing Dutch politics.

The English language edition of Zaman, generally acknowledged to be the mouthpiece of Fethullah Gülen’s Cemaat, contented itself with polling the opinions of the main opposition parties, whose only point of unanimity is blaming the government rather than their own limited vision. Most bitter, understandably, was Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the extreme nationalist party MHP. He started well, ‘noting that the MHP of course respects the nation’s choice’, before his magnanimity vanished in a declaration ‘that every vote cast for the AK Party will lead to more disasters for Turkey.’ 

President Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu

President Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu

A quick glance around foreign media suggested that most observers were ‘shocked’ by AKP’s ‘unexpected’ victory. The BBC echoed unknown informers who fear that ‘the political polarisation stoked by President Erdoğan could deepen and a clampdown on free speech worsen as the AK Party feels emboldened.’ CNN quoted a couple of Turks working for the Brookings Institute[1] as sayng ‘What is certain is that distancing Turkey from the brink of a civil war will be one of the greatest challenges for the country’s next administration.’ The Guardian wrote balefully that ‘Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tightened his grip on power’, referred ominously to ‘the conservative, Islamic-leaning AKP’ and predicted that ‘the result could exacerbate divisions in a country deeply polarised along both ethnic and sectarian lines’.

I couldn’t find any immediate response from The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times, usually quick to criticize Turkey and its government. Seems they have more on the minds with their own farcical presidential election, whose candidates haven’t even been selected yet.

Largest picture on the front page of Hürriyet's e-edition, Sunday

Largest picture on the front page of Hürriyet’s e-edition, Sunday

As for my own New Zealand Herald, the folks back home are still too busy rejoicing over the national team’s victory in the final of the rugby union World Cup to care much about what’s going on in the rest of the world, although minor interest was apparently sparked by a naked woman having been spotted on the roof of an arts studio in East London.

So what do I think? I’m sure you’re dying to know. Well, briefly, first of all, no one should have been unduly surprised by the election result – unless they had been paying too much attention to the loud, inharmonious but largely ineffectual choir determined to demonise the AK Party government, and belittle their every achievement. Second, while Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan, whose position under the constitution is largely ceremonial, will no doubt be very happy with the result, he was not actually a candidate for any office in this election. Third, as the more moderate daily Hürriyet said in its own Monday headline, ‘The Ballot-box decided.’ If Mr Erdoğan is a dictator, he clearly needs to take lessons from more qualified exponents of the art of rigging elections. Allowing his party to lose its parliamentary majority in June, and giving the country a second chance to vote in a free election where his party managed only 49.4% of the vote are unlikely to be recommended in ‘The Dictator’s Guide to Successful Autocracy’ – if such a book exists.

Interestingly, all sources agree that 87.3% of Turkey’s registered voters took the opportunity to express their opinion on Sunday – the highest number so far this century – and almost half of them voted for four more years of AK Party government. Well, admittedly that does leave half who wanted something else. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on exactly what they do want. At least Turkey’s proportional representation system allows for smaller parties to gain parliamentary representation, unlike the United States and the United Kingdom. Three other parties have a substantial minority presence in the legislature, including the predominantly Kurdish HDP.

Voting percentages, November election

Voting percentages, November election

For comparison, 58.2% of American voters turned out in the 2012 presidential election, of whom 51.1% voted for Barack Obama. To save you the trouble of reaching for your calculators, that means an approval rating of 29.7% in the only poll that actually counts for anything. The UK had a better turnout in their 2015 election with 66.1%, but only 39.6% voted for David Cameron’s Conservatives. In spite of that his party won 330 seats out of 650 and continued governing the country. So check the state of your own democracy, guys and girls.

Still, I know, you’ll say that doesn’t make the situation in Turkey right. Most Americans know their democracy stinks even if Brits still have some illusions about theirs. To understand why a large block of Turkish voters continue to support the AK party after 13 years, you need to have some knowledge of the country’s recent history and how its electoral system works.

Let’s start with the easier of the two, the electoral system. Turkey operates under a voting system that allocates parliamentary representation proportionally within each of its 81 electoral districts – to parties gaining 10% or more of votes cast. This threshold is arguably too high, but it was fixed under the constitution brought in after the military coup of 1981 with the intention of keeping out left wing parties. In the last three elections, supporters of the latter have got smart and tended to coalesce around the Kurdish cause, allowing the newly formed HDP to gain substantial representation. It is possibly worth noting that it is under AK Party governance that Kurdish ethnicity has gained respectability to the extent that this could happen.

In the 2002 election when the AK Party first swept into power, they actually won only 34% of the vote, but because the remainder were hopelessly divided amongst a host of other groups, only one of which, CHP, passed the threshold, they gained more seats than in any subsequent election. Is it a good system? Of course, that’s matter for debate, but it wasn’t set up by the AK Party – and you have to work within the system you’ve got.

Which brings me to another important point. A major argument put forward by opponents of proportional voting systems is their alleged instability, in that it is difficult for any one party to achieve outright victory. The most common result is coalition governments. Well, one could argue that compromise and cooperation may not be bad things in a democracy, but leave that aside. What we have seen in Turkey is a political party consistently winning, against the odds, enough support to govern alone in four elections.

For the explanation, we need to look at a little history. I can’t do better than quote from Wikipedia (a summary which has been extensively quoted elsewhere). For your convenience I have highlighted some key sentences:

One million Turkish Liras - worth about US 60c in the good old pre-AKP days

One million Turkish Liras – worth about US 60c in the good old pre-AKP days

‘Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey relied heavily on foreign investment for economic growth, with trade above 40% of GNP. The Turkish government and banking systems lacked the financial means to support meaningful economic growth. The government was already running enormous budget deficits, and one of the ways it managed to sustain these was by selling huge quantities of high-interest bonds to Turkish banks. 

In March 1997 a coalition was formed between the Motherland Party’s Mesut Yılmaz and the True Path Party’s Tansu Çiller. The plan was for Yilmaz and Çiller to alternate the Prime Ministry. However, there was much public distraction caused by leader of the Welfare Party Necmettin Erbakan’s threats to investigate Ciller for corruption. Meanwhile, Erbakan, who had been excluded from the coalition, did everything he could to rally support for an Islamic NATO, and an Islamic version of the European Union. 

The Motherland Coalition collapsed in part because of Erbakan’s widespread public support. Additional tensions wreaked havoc on the government. Yilmaz was forced to resign on June 6, 1996, with the government having lasted for only 90 days. Erbakan became Prime Minister on June 29 as the head of a Welfare/True Path coalition. The success of the new Welfare-Path Coalition was viewed with hostility by the military. Erbakan’s explicitly Islamist politicies resulted in a post-modern coup in which the military forced Erbakan to yield power to Demirel who yielded to Yilmaz on June 19, 1997. The political fighting between Yilmaz and Çiller on one side, and Erbakan on the other would continue, making coalitions difficult to create. In addition, corruption was rampant at this time. People were highly disillusioned with their government. This lack of faith and efficacy would cause foreign nations to carefully examine any investment in Turkey. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) team in 1996 warned of an impending financial crisis because of the deficit, which soon came into being. Turkey’s unstable political landscape led many foreign investors to divest from the country. As foreign investors observed the political turmoil and the government’s attempts to eliminate the budget deficit, they withdrew $70 billion worth of capital from the country in a matter of months. This left a vacuum of capital that Turkish banks were unable to alleviate because the government was no longer able to pay off its bonds. With no capital to speak of, the Turkish economy slowed dramatically. 

In November 2000, the IMF provided Turkey with $11.4 billion in loans and Turkey sold many of its state-owned industries in an effort to balance the budget. In the case of Turkish Airlines, advertisements were placed in newspapers to attract offers for a 51% stake in the company. By 2000 there was massive unemployment, a lack of medicine, tight credit, slow production to fight inflation and increasing taxes. 

On February 19, 2001, Prime Minister Ecevit emerged from a meeting with President Sezer saying, “This is a serious crisis.” This underscored financial and political instability and led to further panic in the markets. Stocks plummeted and the interest rate reached 3,000%. Large quantities of Turkish lira were exchanged for U.S. dollars or euros, causing the Turkish central bank to lose $5 billion of its reserves. 

The crash triggered even more economic turmoil. In the first eight months of 2001, 14,875 jobs were lost, the dollar rose to 1,500,000 liras, and income inequality had risen from its already high level. 

Andreas Gross from the EU advising Turkey what to do about those 2 million Syrian refugees

Andreas Gross from the EU advising Turkey what to do about those 2 million Syrian refugees

The crash was emblematic of the political and economic problems that had been wearing on Turkey for years. Confidence in the government had been eroded by corruption and the inability to form lasting coalitions. The stock market crash revealed Turkey’s economic situation to be not only extremely fragile but also entirely dependent on foreign investment.’

That’s pretty much how I remember it. In fact, at its lowest point, the Turkish Lira dropped to 1.7 million to the US dollar, making a mockery of claims that it is currently at a record low.

The AK Party was formed in 2001 by a group of people who believed they could do a better job of governing. The level of desperation in the country can be seen in the 2002 election result where a new and untested party was given a mandate to govern alone. AK actually has a double meaning in Turkish. The initials stand for Adalet ve Kalkınma (Justice and development) but together they spell the old Turkish word for ‘white’ – offering hope for relief from the black despair that had previously gripped much of the country. Another significant result of the 2002 poll was that all of the parties that had been in the national assembly were thrown out.

That’s a brief summary of why the AK Party was initially successful, and many still remember the bad old days of military coups, disappearances, political assassinations and police torture. What has happened since is an unprecedented period of political stability without military intervention, sustained economic growth, and increased credibility on the world stage. Not everyone is happy – but America’s own Abe Lincoln had something to say about that as I recall.


[1] As of 2014 the Brookings Institution had assets of $496 million. Its largest contributors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Hutchins Family Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, David Rubenstein, State of Qatar, and John L. Thornton (Wikipedia)

The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

The Golden Horn has a special association in Western minds with the magic of a city some still insist on calling Constantinople. As a geographical feature, it is one of the main reasons that city has been settled for more than 6,000 years, and that it was the centre of three major world empires for more than a millennium and a half.

The Golden Horn at sunset

The Golden Horn at sunset

In physical terms, the Golden Horn is an estuary of two small rivers some 7.5 km in length, 750 metres across its widest point, and 35 metres deep where it flows into the Bosporus as it joins the Sea of Marmara. With that sea it forms two sides of a roughly triangular peninsula on which the Emperor Constantine established his New Rome in the third decade of the 4th century CE. Twenty-two km of massive defensive walls, mostly still in existence, surrounded the city, and the Golden Horn was the main harbour, port and centre of shipbuilding until well into the 20th century.

Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, and became the capital of their 600-year empire. The Republic of Turkey established its capital in Ankara, but Istanbul remains the financial, commercial and emotional heart.

Surprising then that the Turkish name for the historical waterway is simply Haliç – derived from the Arabic word for estuary. There is some debate about how the Golden Horn acquired its name in Greek and English. One theory says it symbolises the wealth that entered the legendary city through its waters. That may be so, but it was equally true for the Ottomans. The second explanation, which I prefer, refers to the colours that bathe the harbour as the sun sets in the west – a sight only visible from the north-eastern shore where was located the satellite city housing merchants and ambassadors from Europe. For a thousand years or more, attracted by the city’s fabled wealth, they built their towers, warehouses, churches and palaces, and watched the setting sun enflame the waters separating them from the imperial capital.

The Kağıthane stream today

The Kağıthane stream today

Last week the adventurous new driver of our staff shuttle bus took a lengthy detour to avoid the deadlocked traffic through Istanbul’s new financial centre coming to be known informally as ‘Mashattan’. Istanbul is a huge city, and there are undoubtedly many areas with which I am not familiar. Our circuitous route brought us to the bank of a medium-sized stream flowing down a surprisingly verdant valley interspersed with sports facilities and amusement parks. The slopes of the valley were lined with modern high-rise apartment blocks, office buildings, and the ostentatious campuses of several new universities. The area is Kağıthane, and for the first time I felt motivated to visit it.

It’s not a very accessible area for those of us residing on the Asian side of Istanbul – but there is a ferry, departing hourly from Üsküdar that crosses the Bosporus and follows a zigzag course up the Golden Horn ending at Eyüp, a district popular with the Muslim faithful. Its second-to-last stop is Sütlüce, my point of disembarkation.

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Whatever doomsayers may tell you, Istanbul is a more salubrious metropolis in the 21st century than it was in the final years of the old millennium. Fish thrive again in the Golden Horn in sufficient numbers to encourage a forest of fishing rods on the Galata Bridge. The water at least looks relatively clean, and certainly doesn’t stink as it formerly did. The industries that lined its banks and the Kağıthane valley have been relocated, their buildings demolished, derelict or converted to new uses.

A prominent landmark near the jetty at Sütlüce is the Haliç Congress Centre, a sprawling complex whose central feature is the old city slaughterhouse, built in 1923 and finally closed in 1984. I am too squeamish to begin imagining what flowed from its bloody operations during the 61 years it served its original purpose.

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

Further along the shore is the campus of Bilgi University, located on what had been the coal-burning Silahtarağa thermal power station, established in 1911, and the sole supplier of Istanbul’s electricity needs until 1952. Electricity generation continued until 1983, and I can only guess at the contribution it made to the city’s air and water as it leached its poisons and belched forth its toxic clouds of smoke. I am assured that there is now a Museum of Energy on the site – but yesterday being a holiday, it wasn’t open to the public. It’s not the first time in Turkey I have been offered this reason for a museum’s being closed. Does it strike you as peculiar?

So I had lunch as I revised my plans, which had involved spending an hour or two learning about energy in Turkey, past and present, with maybe some light being shed on the proposed construction of three nuclear-fuelled power plants. Probably because of the universities, there are now a number of tasteful cafes and restaurants raising the tone of a neighbourhood struggling to shake off a heritage of auto mechanics and tyre repairers.

I was now at the point where the two streams, Kağıthane (or Cendere) and Alibeyköy flow into the Golden Horn, and faced with a choice, I decided to follow the former to see where it would lead. Clearly the valley has been beautified since the days when it was Istanbul’s first industrial area, and home to squatter villages erected by displaced Anatolian peasants flocking to the city in search of work. The stream now flows through an extensive park stretching along both banks for several kilometres, further than I chose to explore. The water still looks uninviting, and the metre or so of grey mud at the water’s edge would likely discourage children trying to retrieve a football. At least it doesn’t stink, however, which places it a little higher on the water purity scale than the Asian stream flowing past the stadium of Fenerbahçe, one of the city’s premier football clubs.

Day-trippers in former days

Day-trippers in former days

The name Kağıthane comes, as one might guess, from a paper factory that was one of the first industries to be established on the banks of the stream. In Ottoman times, the district was known as Sadabad, actually a forest frequented by Sultan Süleiman and his court in the 16th century for riding and hunting. In the 17th and 18th centuries the wealthy built mansions and summer palaces along the banks of the stream. It began to attract a wider public in the early years of the 18th century, the so-called Tulip Age, as the empire increasingly opened its doors to Western influence, becoming a popular location for picnic daytrips, weddings and other festivities. Postcards and engravings, often inscribed with French titles, made their way to Europe, depicting Les Eaux-douce d’Europe – the Sweet Waters of Europe.

What remains from the leisured life of those far-off days? A picturesque 18th century mosque known variously as Aziziye, Çağlayan or Sadabad, extensively rebuilt by two brothers of the Armenian Balyan family that contributed much to the architecture of Ottoman Istanbul. Not much else is to be seen from those days; a stable in the process of restoration, and some stone work half-buried in front of the Kağıthane Council building.

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interestingly, a good deal of that palatial grandeur disappeared in the first half of the 18th century. Ahmed III seems to have been one of the Ottomans’ more controversial sultans. He ascended to the throne in 1703 at a time when the empire was past its glorious best. Nevertheless, he had some notable achievements: he turned the eyes of his country outwards towards Europe, perhaps encouraged by his two French wives, and built good relations with France; his armies achieved unprecedented success against Russia; he fostered literature and the arts; during his reign the first printing press in Ottoman Turkish was set up, and an official fire brigade inaugurated; factories producing china, clothing and paper were founded.

Nevertheless, at the same time, Ahmed made enemies. His reign is particularly remembered as the Tulip Age, and the pomp, splendour and luxury associated with the wealthy upper classes led to a major revolt in 1730.

Patrona Halil was a Janissary of Albanian extraction who somehow managed to incite a revolt that toppled Sultan Ahmed. The insurgents placed Ahmed’s nephew Mahmud on the throne, but treated him as a kind of puppet until, with the aid of the Khan of Crimea, the ringleader was executed and peace restored. In the mean time, however, most of the palaces and summerhouses of Sadabad had been destroyed in a riot of vengeful leveling.

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

The 1730 revolt was followed by another ten years later – and these events are considered by some historians to have been a major factor contributing to the rapid decline of the empire in the 19th century. While the luxurious lifestyle of the Ottoman elite was the ostensible cause, the Janissaries, for centuries the source of Ottoman military power until their final abolition by Mahmud II in 1826, were a force of reaction in Ottoman society, and one of their major grievances was the Westernising policies of Sultan Ahmed, which placed their very existence under threat.

The Sadabad Palace, one of the chief features of the Kağıthane pleasure grounds, was rebuilt twice more after the riots, by Mahmud II in 1809 and Abdülaziz in 1863. After the First World War it was used as military headquarters by the occupying British forces, then served as an orphanage in the early days of the Republic. During the Second World War the area was handed over to the Turkish military and the remaining palaces were demolished. In the 1950s the process of rapid industrialisation began, factories mushroomed, squatter shantytowns sprang up and the Kağıthane stream turned to a turgid black river of foul-smelling ooze.

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Istanbul is a vast and ancient city with a complex past. A trap for Western visitors is the temptation to interpret events in terms of the context we know from our own education and experience. They can lead us to jump to conclusions that may be quite wrong. Just as in our own countries, a knowledge of past events is crucial to an understanding of the present. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself.

As I wended my way home to Asia, on a route I probably wouldn’t have chosen had I been more familiar with the area, I chanced on two totally unrelated, but nevertheless interesting sights. The first was in a cemetery just outside the Edirnekapı gate in the old city walls. Normally Turks bury their dead with other family members, but these two adjacent graves, in pristine white marble had something in common other than blood

Restoring Aya Yorgios

Restoring Aya Yorgios

relationship. A stone linking the two bore the inscription: ‘We ask God’s mercy for our friends who were martyred when the Mavi Marmara ship, attempting to end the embargo on Gaza, was attacked on 31 May 2010.’ There is no criticism, or even mention of the Israeli Government – just a verse from the Koran on each headstone.

Inside the walls stands the monumental mosque dedicated to Mihrimah Sultan, beloved daughter of 16th century Sultan Süleiman. Near the recently renovated mosque is a construction site with a notice informing passers-by that another restoration is in progress – an old Greek Orthodox Church and its associated buildings. The government of Turkey and the Istanbul City Council come in for a good deal of criticism these days, from a number of directions, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

The Arab Spring: Made in the USA

I am reblogging this stunning review of a book detailing the organisational role of the United States and the CIA in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Have you noticed how little has actually changed in the Middle East since the ‘democratic’ upheavals of 2011?

Arabesque$, an update of Ahmed Bensaada’s 2011 book L’Arabesque Américaine, concerns the US government role in instigating, funding and coordinating the Arab Spring “revolutions.” Obviously most of this history has been carefully suppressed by the western media.

arabesque-The new book devotes much more attention to the personalities leading the 2011 uprisings. Some openly admitted to receiving CIA funding. Others had no idea because it was deliberately concealed from them. A few (in Egypt and Syria) were officially charged with espionage. In Egypt, seven sought refuge in the US embassy in Cairo and had to be evacuated by the State Department.

Democracy: America’s Biggest Export

According to Bensaada, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Arab Spring revolutions have four unique features in common:

1. None were spontaneous – all required careful and lengthy (5+ years) planning, by the State Department, CIA pass through foundations, George Soros, and the pro-Israel lobby.*.
2. All focused exclusively on removing reviled despots without replacing the autocratic power structure that kept them in power.
3. No Arab Spring protests made any reference whatsoever to powerful anti-US sentiment over Palestine and Iraq
4. All the instigators of Arab Spring uprisings were middle class, well educated youth who mysteriously vanished after 2011.

Source: The Arab Spring: Made in the USA