Banking Wizardry in the Land of Oz

The original Wizard of Oz - an allegory about money?

The original Wizard of Oz – an allegory about money?

Among the blogs I visit from time to time is one produced by the British Museum. On my one visit to the actual institution, a section I overlooked was the Citi Money Gallery which apparently deals with the history of money. Sorry I missed it. Anyway, the museum blog informs me that their collection of money-related objects and artifacts includes a copy of L Frank Baum’s 1900 book ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.

Probably no one would be paying much attention to Mr Baum or his book these days if MGM hadn’t made a Technicolor film of it in 1939 – the company’s most expensive movie to that date. It wasn’t apparently a box-office hit at the time, losing the Oscar-winning race to ‘Gone with the Wind’. Television reruns in the mid-50s introduced it to a new audience, however, earning it a place in the hearts of post-war baby-boomer Americans, and 2014 marks the film’s 75th birthday.

That’s fine and dandy, you may say, but what’s the connection with the world of banking and finance? Well, according to the British Museum blogger, ‘some economists, politicians and historians believe that the story is actually a monetary allegory.’ Not that L Frank ever made such a claim himself. It seems that the theory only surfaced in 1964 when a high school English teacher, in a flight of fanciful literary analysis, claimed a connection between the exploits of Dorothy and her ragtag trio of traveling companions, and a short-lived late-19th century monetary theory known as ‘bimetallism’.

The film appeared in 1939 - A fable for the Great Depression

The film appeared in 1939 – A fable for the Great Depression

‘Dorothy’s silver shoes walking on a gold road,’ so the story goes, ‘could represent the two metals working together to provide a route towards a stable economy. . . Is the land called ‘Oz’ because this is an abbreviation of ounces, the standard measure for gold? Did farmers (the Scarecrow) need more business sense (a brain) to help them survive during a period of economic instability? Is the all-powerful Wizard really the President, who hides behind a smoke-screen of promises but in fact has very little actual power? Do the different locations of the four witches represent the geographical divides in America? Did advances in industry create automated production lines which reduced the workforce (or created workers with no heart)?’

Can’t you just see the blue-stocking students of that high school English Lit. teacher dutifully writing down all that nonsense, regurgitating it word-for-word in his end-of-semester exam and being rewarded with A+ grades?

The power behind everything

The power behind everything

Nevertheless, that blog post got me thinking. Maybe those guys in the pre-war MGM studio had some allegorical purpose of their own in mind. The United States and much of the developed world had been suffering through the 1930s the effects of a disastrous economic depression. Many perfectly reasonable people believed that the Great Depression, with its miseries of widespread unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, dispossessions, loss of savings, starvation, suicides and police brutality, had been a totally preventable event caused by the greed and selfishness of ruthless bankers and financial speculators. There was a powerful groundswell of opinion that saw a crying need for controls on the financial sector, and wanted governments to seize back the power to create their nation’s credit.

Give them the power and the result is a foregone conclusion

Give them the power and the result is a foregone conclusion

Now I’m not saying those people at Metro Goldwyn Mayer were actually taking a pot-shot at the banking industry – but to me the idea makes a lot more sense than that stuff about bimetallism and ‘Oz’ ounces. Maybe the all-powerful Wizard represents the international banking system which has the whole world under its control. We poor credulous citizens of the world are the Scarecrows, Tin Woodsmen and Cowardly Lions who pathetically believe in the magic of money and the mystical power of banks to solve all our problems. The Wizard (the bankers) use every trick, threat and weapon at their disposal to prevent anyone form challenging their power – while in fact they are really only sad old men fit for not much else but working in a circus. It is our credulity that gives them their power. Dorothy returns home to Kansas and lives (we assume) happily ever after – but sad to say it’s only another American dream.

Orientalism – Alive and well in the NY Times

Turkey is a difficult country to get a handle on. Citizens themselves don’t find it easy. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Republic in 1923, is credited with uttering many wise words for the guidance of his people. Among the best known: “Happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk.’” He was a wise man, that Mustafa Kemal. He knew he needed to foster a spirit of Turkish nationalism that would inspire a war-weary people to fight once more for the survival of their country. He was equally aware that ‘Turkishness’ was not an easy concept to define, but he wanted to encourage the same feelings of patriotism others invoke when they say, ‘I’m Australian’, ‘I’m British’, or whatever. Try to define any of those words, however, and you may soon find yourself in difficulties. Possibly it’s enough to say ‘I’m American’ and believe it in your heart, without having to provide specific details of your personal creed and ethnic origins.

Camels in Turkey - a photo op for tourists

Camels in Turkey – a photo op for tourists

For that reason, I guess, it’s pretty nigh impossible for outsiders to grasp what is that makes an American or a Turk what he or she is – but of course that doesn’t stop us from trying, and often falling into the trap of stereotyping. In the opening years of the 21st century the Republic of Turkey seems to have emerged as an influential figure in international affairs, with a (sometimes disturbing) will of its own – so it’s not surprising that more attempts are being made to understand what makes Turkey tick.

I’ve just been reading a book review clipped from the New York Times and sent to me by an American friend. The book is ‘Midnight at the Pera Palace – The Birth of Modern Istanbul’ by Charles King, reviewed by Jason Goodwin – and it happens that I have books by both writers on my shelves at home. Mr Goodwin is a Cambridge-educated historian and novelist who clearly has a fascination for the old days of the Ottoman Empire. I haven’t read his novels – the book in my collection is ‘Lords of the Horizons’, a history of the Ottoman saga that begins in the third millennium BCE in the steppes of Central Asia and ends in 1923 when the last Ottoman Sultan is smuggled on board a British warship and spirited away from an empire that has ceased to exist.

Istanbul's Pera Palace Hotel - recently restored to glory

Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel – recently restored to glory

Charles King is probably a more committed historian, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University, Washington DC, an institution, Wikipedia informs me, that is the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States. Feeling a need to learn about a mysterious region that attracts media attention from time to time, I purchased Prof. King’s ‘The Ghost of Freedom – A History of the Caucasus’, which I found both readable and immensely informative.

So I have nothing against either of these gentlemen. I respect their scholarship, writing skills and interest in helping outsiders, especially in the West, to gain better understanding of distant lands and people that continue to influence world affairs. I was, however, somewhat disappointed to find significant errors of fact and misleading statements of opinion in the review which I hope were not sourced from Prof. King’s new book.

Jason Goodwin does concede that Istanbul (and possibly by extension, Turkey) ‘is a rare blend of Islam and democracy’, but he can’t resist beginning his review with reference to the so-called ‘Gezi Park’ demonstrations of 2013. While distancing himself with the use of phrases like ‘many people felt’ and ‘Some suspected’, he manages to work in the one-sided opinion that a dictatorial government and its leader were using police violence to enforce their ‘narrow ends’ on a peace-loving population.

Ottoman army conquers Constantinople - May, 1453

Ottoman army conquers Constantinople – May, 1453

Well, he’s entitled to his views, although as a ‘historian’ one might expect him to be a little more objective – not to say knowledgeable. ‘Constantinople,’ he says in his review, ‘as Istanbul was known in the 1930s.’ Known to who? Even followers of popular music in the USA would be aware that it was ‘Istanbul, not Constantinople.’ and had been for nearly five centuries. And a quick glance at Wikipedia would inform the reviewer that the Pera Palace Hotel was built a good forty years earlier, in 1892, in a district not ‘decimated by fire’ (whatever that means) but even today characterized by an abundance of spectacular 19th century architecture.

Goodwin’s most outrageous sentence would have to be the one where he says that ‘Muslims [were] outnumbered, by one estimate, 15 to one’ in First World War Istanbul. According to 1914 census figures, Muslims in Istanbul numbered 560,434 out of a total population of 909,978 – ten times more than the figure that reviewer’s unreferenced ‘estimate’ would yield. Possibly he is thinking of just the Pera/Galata area on the northern shore of the Golden Horn where traders, ambassadors and other migrants from Europe had been allowed for centuries to take up residence in this ‘City of the World’s Desire’. If so, he should certainly know better. The real Istanbul, even Constantinople, was located on the other shore, enclosed by the walls of the ancient city, and reserved for citizens of the Empire – Muslims, Jews, Armenians and Orthodox Christians.

Goodwin suggests that Professor King’s book tells stories ‘the Erdoğans [referring to Turkey’s President] of today would gladly leapfrog’, and it may well be that the book contains anecdotes and historical asides that are not well known. Leon Trotsky, referred to as ‘Istanbul’s most famous interwar Russian guest’ is said to have preferred Germany, Britain or France. In fact the exiled Russian revolutionary did spend four years on an island off the coast of Istanbul before being granted a visa to live in France. He was, however, never permitted to enter Paris, and was eventually asked to leave the country. Subsequently he spent a brief period in Norway before moving to Mexico where we was assassinated in 1940 on the orders of Josef Stalin. He might have been better advised to remain in Istanbul.

Greek army invades Izmir - May 1919

Greek army invades Izmir – May 1919

I’m inclined to think that Turkey’s current leaders are more knowledgeable about their county’s history than Mr Goodwin would have you believe. They would certainly know, for instance, that the Treaty of Lausanne (signed in 1923) had very little to do with World War I. It was, in fact, an agreement reluctantly accepted by Western powers after the Greek invasion of Anatolia (that they had sponsored) was defeated by Turkish nationalists fighting for their country’s very existence. They would also know that those same Western powers had been manipulating the ‘Eastern Question’ with the use of ‘ethnic labels’ long before the Lausanne agreement was signed. Those powers had been talking about ‘Turkey’ and ‘Turks’ for centuries before that country came into existence and those people had any sense of national identity; encouraging Greek nationalism for at least a hundred years, and Armenians for fifty, with the aim of splintering the multinational Ottoman Empire from within.

Ottoman army liberates Izmir - September, 1922

Ottoman army liberates Izmir – September, 1922

In his book, according to Jason Goodwin, Professor King compares Kemal Ataturk and his republican nationalists to the Bolsheviks in Russia with their ‘show trials, massacres and expulsions.’ If he did indeed make such a comparison, I am disappointed in the learned writer whose work on the Caucasus I found so interesting and informative. Surely he knows that the Bolsheviks were insurrectionists who, rightly or wrongly, overthrew their own legally constituted government, while the Turks had to fight and drive out invading enemies that had occupied their capital city, virtually enslaved their sultan and his ministers, and were intent on dividing the country amongst themselves. I am sure he must know that ‘Turkey’ had long provided asylum for Muslim refugees driven from neighbouring regions by Christian aggressors. Christian citizens, rather than being expelled from the new Republic of Turkey, were exchanged for Muslims from Greece – their situation having become untenable because of their jubilation over the above-mentioned invasion.

Circassian (Muslim) refugees fleeing Russian ethnic cleansing - 1860s

Circassian (Muslim) refugees fleeing Russian ethnic cleansing – 1860s

Well, as our reviewer concedes at last, the story of Istanbul is ‘complex and highly nuanced’, and (this he does not say) historians, like the rest of us, tend to view the world through the filters that lie behind their eyes. Possibly a double-filter is at work here, and Professor King’s work of scholarship has been misrepresented by a reviewer whose Orientalist nostalgia for a land of mystique and intrigue, of exotic harem slave-girls and omnipotent but mentally unhinged sultans immured in gilded cages has prevented him from following the last ninety years of Turkey’s development. Probably I should set aside the review and let Professor King speak for himself.

What worries me, however, is that others may not do this, mistaking the messenger for the message itself. This is all the more likely when there are Turkish nationals contributing to the distortion of their country’s image abroad. Killing time at the airport the other day waiting for my wife to return from a visit to the USA, I picked up a copy of the New York Times. Among other interesting bits and pieces, I chanced on a brief item announcing ‘US Warns of Attack in Turkey’. According to the article, an official US source had suggested that unspecified extremists might be planning an attack on the headquarters of a group opposing the beleaguered Syrian government of Bashar al Asad. The item went on to inform us that the group is based in the city of Gaziantep ‘near the Syrian border’ and contained the following intriguing sentence: ‘The statement, issued by the United States Embassy in Ankara, did not name the supposed planners of the attack, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has been active along Turkey’s 560 mile border with Syria.’ Huh?

Well, first of all I’m wondering why a New York newspaper has to run an article about a vague possible threat to supporters of a civil war thousands of kilometres and an Atlantic Ocean away from downtown Manhattan. But leave that aside. How does the writer justify making a connection, in the same sentence, between unnamed planners, and ISIS or ISIL, the latest in a long line of Islamic bogeymen bringing terror to the West? Why do Western ‘news’ sources insist on referring to Turkey’s government as ‘pro-Islamic? They never seem to feel a similar need to label the US government pro-Roman Catholic, or pro-Zionist despite compelling evidence that it is.

Interestingly, the by-line of this item links it to a woman in Istanbul with the distinctively Turkish name of Şebnem Arsu. She quotes a spokesman from the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara saying ‘the US has intelligence operations all along Turkey’s borders. They must have gathered information that pointed at risks that can’t be dismissed.’ As for me, I’m not convinced those US intelligence gatherers would have the degree of fluency in the Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish languages necessary to operate in the region with greater efficiency than local spooks – but maybe I am underestimating US resources. Be that as it may, it is once again clear that, if you want to gain a better understanding of the modern Republic of Turkey, you’d do well to double check anything you read in the New York Times.

A Mosque in Munich – Book review

The following review appeared recently in the English language daily ‘Hürriyet Daily News’ – an interesting chapter in an on-going tale of woe: US encouragement of extremist groups for its own dubious purposes.

A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’ by Ian Johnson (Mariner Books, 336 pages, $16)

2012005947William ARMSTRONG

Everyone knows by now about U.S. backing for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s – Exhibit A for those shaking their heads at Washington’s foreign policy blunders in the Muslim world. Rather less widely known, at least until this book was written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson, was how that support had precedents at the start of the Cold War in post-World War II Europe, when U.S. and German intelligence jostled for influence over various Muslim groups as anti-communist instruments to undermine the USSR. With a cast including Nazis, the CIA, the German intelligence agency, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a host of flamboyant individual characters, the subject matter certainly makes for a spectacular title.

Johnson begins the tale back in the war, when the Nazis recruited proxy forces from the Muslims of Central Asia and the Caucasus to fight the Soviets on the Eastern Front. After hostilities ended, many ex-soldiers of these units found themselves living in West Germany, as did other Nazi collaborators from the Soviet Union’s Muslim regions and those who were able to flee Stalin’s Russia. Before long, the attention of post-war German and U.S. intelligence agencies would turn to these groups as intelligence sources and voices in the West’s propaganda war against the godless communist bloc behind the Iron Curtain.

The mosque in the book’s title is the Islamic Center of Munich, which started out as a humble community center for Central Asian Muslim refugees in Germany after the war. In subsequent years, however, it would develop to become a hub for U.S. and German governments and several prominent Muslims to jostle for influence at the center of Europe. The U.S. placed its bets with Said Ramadan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood exiled by the Nasser regime in Egypt, who is today better known as the father of prominent Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. The elder Ramadan eventually emerged as the authority at the top of the mosque, which although very humble (it was originally located next to a rubbish tip) ended up becoming the controversial center of a wide range of Islamist activity across Europe, “a center of international Islamism” in Johnson’s words. Read the full article.

Cultural Amnesia – Islamic contributions to modern science and technology

It gives you some idea of the wealth of the Ottoman sultans that the stables of the old Topkapı Palace have been converted into a moderately large museum; not actually dedicated to equestrian pursuits, but housing Istanbul’s Museum of Science and Technology in Islam.

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Well, you might think it’s a long name for a museum that won’t contain very much – but you’d be wrong. The MSTI (or in Turkish, İBTTM) features displays and models in fifteen scientific fields from a thousand years of high Islamic culture, beginning in the 7th century and ending at the start of the 17th when Western Europe took over as the centre of scientific research and discovery. Somewhat unusually for a museum in this country, the displays are fully and clearly explained by text in four languages, German, French and English as well as Turkish.

The linguistic competence, and in fact the foundation of the museum itself, are attributable to Professor Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Professor Sezgin taught at Istanbul University until 1960 when he, along with many other intellectuals, was removed from office after the military coup in May of that year. Escaping the fate of the unfortunate prime minister at the time, Prof. Sezgin made his way to Germany where he embarked on a successful academic career specialising in the history of Arab-Islamic science, helping to found a museum in Frankfurt with replicas of historical scientific instruments, tools and maps.

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Several government ministers and the mayor of Istanbul visited the German museum, and were so impressed that they decided to support the establishment of a similar institution in Turkey’s largest city. The old Topkapı Palace stables in the beautiful Gülhane Park had just been renovated, and the museum was opened in 2008 with models and displays related to astronomy, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry and other sciences.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan has once again provoked mirth in some circles with his claim just the other day that Muslim sailors had discovered the American continent 300 years before Columbus. Well, some criticism is justified, given that it was actually Native Americans who stumbled upon the place around 12,000 years before Vikings, Portuguese or Muslims even thought about looking – and Americans have been giving thanks as usual this week for their support of the early colonists from England. Nevertheless, Mr Erdoğan has an ally in Professor Sezgin who claims that Islamic scholars had accurately calculated latitude and longitude, and created a partial map of the American continent by the early 15th century at the latest.

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

The Istanbul Museum has a wonderfully informative website, where you can find the text of Prof. Sezgin’s five-volume catalogue of the Frankfurt collection. It’s a challenging read, but the key ideas were summarized in an interview with the learned professor published in Turkish Airlines’ Skylife magazine last year.

Essentially, Sezgin believes that the traditional Western view of a ‘renaissance’ of classical knowledge taking place from the 14th to the 17th centuries is a distortion of the truth. He argues that the accepted idea of ‘The Renaissance’ was a deliberate obfuscation of the fact that Arab and other İslamic scholars had translated the works of classical philosophers from the early days of their conquests in the 7th century, assimilated their knowledge and developed it further. As the Arab Empire spread through the Middle East, North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, Prof. Sezgin claims, these advanced ideas were carried as far as Spain and Portugal, thus becoming available to Western Europeans. He goes on to suggest that Crusaders from Europe in the 12th century also came in contact with this knowledge and began bringing it back when they returned to their scientifically and technologically backward homes.

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

I checked out some of those volumes from the Frankfurt Museum catalogue, and for sure there is some thought-provoking material. Professor Sezgin makes the case that, as Muslim Arabs conquered cities that had been centres of learning in the Roman and Byzantine world, Damascus, Emessa, Aleppo, Antioch and Alexandria, they recognised the importance of the knowledge contained there, and took care to absorb it into the new world they were creating. The 9th century Abbasid caliph al-Mamun receives special mention for his encouragement and fostering of scholarship and research, particularly in the field of geography and map-making. He had astronomical observatories built in Baghdad and later Damascus. The 9th century Persian scholar Musa al-Khwarizmi is credited with bringing algebra (the word is derived from Arabic) and the decimal place-value number system to the West when his works were translated into Latin. The Latinised version of his name is the source of our word ‘algorithm’ and this Muslim gentleman is sometimes referred to as the father of computer science. Another Persian scholar al-Biruni in the 11th century made important contributions in many fields including mathematics and astronomy where he analysed and developed the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Undoubtedly the contribution of these Islamic scholars to the blossoming of scientific knowledge in Western Europe was recognised by some at the time. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the 14th century when the Crusades were relatively fresh in memory, and ‘Christians’ were in the process of ‘reconquering’ the Iberian Peninsula. In his ‘Prologue’ to the Tales, Chaucer describes his physician thus:

Well read was he in Esculapius,
And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,
Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,
Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,
Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.’

Of the poor scholar, subject of the Miller’s Tale, we are told, ‘His Almagest and other books great and small, his astrolabe, which he used in his art, and his counting-stones for calculating, all lay neatly by themselves on shelves at the head of his bed.’

Razis, in fact, is Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian Muslim physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and scholar.

Avicen is Ibn Sina, 11th century Persian Muslim scholar, especially known for his writings on philosophy and medicine.

Averrhoes is Ibn Rushd a 12th century Andalusian Muslim polymath, master of philosophy, Islamic theology, law and jurisprudence, psychology, politics, music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.

Almagest refers to Ptolemy’s work on astronomy that came to Europe from Greek via Arabic, and the name used here is Arabic[1].

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

So clearly Chaucer was well aware of the contribution these Muslim scholars had made to European scientific knowledge. One volume of Professor Sezgin’s Frankfurt catalogue deals with the ‘Reception and Assimilation of Islamic Science in the West’. He refers to the research of a 19th century French Arabist scholar, Ernest Renan, who postulated that, because Arabic was the language of educated Muslims, Christians and Jews in ‘Spain’ in the Middle Ages, all had access to the learning of the Islamic Golden Age. Jews in particular, for example the 12th century philosopher Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun) carried this knowledge into Western Europe. Sezgin also refers to the work of a 20th century German scholar, Heinrich Schipperges who identified an Arab physician Constantinus Africanus. This gentleman, in the 10th century, converted to Christianity and became a monk in Salermo, Italy, bringing with him dozens of Arabic medical books which were subsequently translated into Latin. Medical texts written by those Arab scholars mentioned in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ were translated into Latin in Toledo in the 12th century.

Possibly Professor Sezgin’s most interesting suggestion is that one of the major reasons for the sudden emergence of Spain and Portugal as leaders in the European ocean-going race and exploration of the New World was their fortuitous inheritance of the astronomical, geographical and mathematical knowledge of the Muslim scientists as they ‘reconquered’ the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. It has also been suggested that the inquisitorial clearing out of Muslims and Jews that ended in Castille in 1614 had a part to play in the fall from prominence of those two early starters in European imperialism.

16th century European image - 'A Moor of Arabia'

16th century European image – ‘A Moor of Arabia’

Wikipedia’s entry on Islamic architecture lists twenty-four prominent buildings from the ‘Moorish’ period still to be seen in present-day Spain, among them the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and the Alcazar of Seville. The use of that word ‘Moorish’ is one I never had cause to question before, but there does seem to be some confusion in its origins. As far as I can tell, it is a rendering into English of the Latin word ‘Mauri’, referring to the inhabitants of North Africa and deriving from the Greek word meaning ‘black’. Once the word arrived in English (and other European languages) it appears to have been used pretty indiscriminately to refer to black Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and pretty much anyone who was non-Aryan and non-Christian. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to deduce that referring to the Arab-Muslim culture that ruled the Iberian Peninsula for the best part of 700 years as ‘Moorish’ was/is a trifle perverse and demeaning. Why would anyone want to do that? And why would you not want to credit the sources of your new scientific discoveries? And then there is a third question that Professor Sezgin raises: If the Muslims were so advanced in the history of science, why are they so far behind now?

Let’s take the last question first, since it clearly has a bearing on the first two. What happened to this Islamic civilisation that had been supposedly so advanced? The first suggestion that Sezgin offers is the Crusader wars that lasted for nearly two hundred years beginning at the end of the 11th century. Although both sides had losses and victories, in the end it was the Europeans who were the main beneficiaries, in terms of the economic damage they inflicted on Muslim society, the negative impact the wars had on the development of science and technology in the East, and the fact that the flow of knowledge was essentially one-way, from East to West. Allied to this was the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, whose conquests extended through Persia, Anatolia and as far as Eastern Europe with the destruction of many centres of culture and learning, following so soon after the deleterious effects of the Crusades.

While it is true that the Ottomans picked up the baton of Islamic culture, forging a powerful empire from the 14th century, Sezgin suggests that they were always fighting a losing battle. Islam’s loss of the Iberian Peninsula and the takeover of scientific and technological know-how by the Spanish and Portuguese meant that those two countries were in a position to round Africa into the Indian Ocean and cross the Atlantic to the American continent. The result was that the centre of geo-political power shifted and Western Europe gained advantages which the Ottomans could never overcome, despite occasional forays in that direction.


Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

That this shift in the balance of power began with the Portuguese and their gaining control of the Indian Ocean was no accident, according to Professor Sezgin. He notes that Portugal had been under Arab rule for nearly 400 years. Western sources generally claim that Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Indian Ocean. Sezgin points out, however, that Phoenician sailors had very likely achieved the same feat in the 6th century BCE, and that there was a trade route between Morocco and China in Islamic times. For their navigational, shipbuilding and sea-faring skills, the professor suggests, the Portuguese were indebted to the earlier work of their Arab-Islamic rulers. These skills and knowledge subsequently found their way to the rest of Europe which gradually rose to prominence and eventual superiority over the Muslim World.

Why, however, the West is generally so reluctant to give credit for the true sources of their ‘renaissance’ is another question. In fact, it is not so much that the truth is not known. As mentioned above, Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly aware of the importance of Islamic scholars in bringing their knowledge and that of the ‘Ancients’ to the West – and assuredly this awareness was not his alone. The problem seems to be more that general histories dealing with the Renaissance in Europe and the advancement of science and technology tend to gloss over the key importance of Islamic sources, and make a direct connection with Ancient classical scholars, insisting often that the rediscovery took place in Italy.

Sezgin tactfully refrains from seeking explanations, merely noting that it happened. In the interests of natural justice, we may wish to go further. Possibly the reason for our cultural amnesia lies in the centuries of conflict between Western ‘Christendom’ and the ‘East’ – including the Orthodox Byzantines. The self-evident superiority of those eastern cultures in wealth, civilization, arts and sciences created envy and a need to conquer and belittle their achievements. When the West finally began to assert military and technological dominance, it suited their new self-image to erase that inconvenient and embarrassing period from their collective memory. It wouldn’t be the only instance in history where such a deliberate ‘forgetting’ had been perpetrated.


[1] With acknowledgements to: and


Who are the Terrorists? The search for justice in Jerusalem

Back in January 2009 the then Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan, made international headlines by publicly confronting his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres. The stage was a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Among other things, Mr Erdoğan accused the Israeli regime of murdering children, referring to the 6th commandment of the ‘Ten’ sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians – ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

Turkey's president Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdoğan

Mr Erdoğan was mocked in some circles in his home country for his limited English, and his insistence on his right to speak by repeating the phrase ‘One minute!’ Subsequent events in the Middle East might suggest, however, that world opinion is moving towards support of his position. Most recently, in the last few weeks, events in Jerusalem, particularly focusing on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, have highlighted the injustices perpetrated against Palestinian Arabs by the state of Israel, supported by the United States of America.

Jerusalem is, and has long been, a major focus of conflict among the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians and Muslims all ascribe enormous significance to the city. For Jews the Temple Mount is ‘one of the places where God’s divine presence was manifested . . . from here the world expanded into its present form and where God gathered the dust used to create the first human, Adam’. It is the site of the legendary Temple of Solomon, though archaeologists have as yet found no signs of that building’s existence. It is known,however, that a ‘second temple’ was constructed in 516 BCE and survived until destroyed by the Romans after a Jewish rebellion in 70 CE. The Romans finally razed the Jewish city in 135 CE, since when, until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, no Jewish political entity existed in the region.

When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as a state religion, the Emperor Constantine had Jerusalem rebuilt as a Christian centre in 335 CE, and had erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His mother Helena, while on a pilgrimage to the city, claimed to have discovered the very cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Jews were banned from the city under the rule of the Christian Graeco-Romans.

The Dome of the Rock - one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture

The Dome of the Rock – one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture

From 638 CE Jerusalem was under the governance of Muslim Arabs, in the course of which the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were built. During this time Christians and Jews were both permitted to live and worship in the city. The oldest synagogue dates from this period, having been built in the 10th century. This period of tolerance, however, came to an end with the Crusader conquest in 1099, when, in the spirit of brotherly love, most of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants were massacred and the mosques converted for use as shrines of Christian worship.

The holy city was reconquered by the Muslim leader Saladin in 1199, and tolerance of religious worship was reinstated – but for the rest of the 13th century Jerusalem passed through many hands, ending up with the Egyptian Mamluks, who also allowed Christians to visit, restore their churches, and even construct a Franciscan monastery. The Ottoman Sultan Selim I added Jerusalem to his dominions in 1519, and freedom was granted to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Ottoman rule continued until the dissolution of that empire after the First World War, when, one might say, most of the current problems began.

So, from a purely mathematical point-of-view, if we consider the 2,464 years up to 1948 for which there is conclusive evidence, Jewish occupation counts for 651 years (ending 1,813 years previously), Christians maybe 400 years, leaving the remaining, and most recent 1,313 years to the Muslims. And if you wanted to award a prize for the religion that accorded most tolerance to others, Muslims would win it without a contest.

But life and history aren’t always fair. I’ve been reading a book on the recent history of Palestine called ‘The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict’[1]. The author is Michael J Cohen, professor of history at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, credentials which must give him some claim to objectivity, if not to pro-Israeli bias.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque - the 3rd holiest site in Islam

The Al-Aqsa Mosque – 3rd holiest site in Islam

Professor Cohen suggests that Arab nationalism began with the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798, but made little headway until the First World War. At that time much of today’s Middle East was ruled by the Ottomans and there was no political entity corresponding to Palestine. The British Government, motivated by stalemate on the Western Front and the imminent failure of the Gallipoli Campaign, began to see merit in encouraging the Arabs to rise up against their co-religionist rulers. Despite the widely disseminated myth of Lawrence of Arabia, Cohen gives little credit to TE Lawrence, and suggests that the British used Arab forces as propagandist window-dressing to encourage further revolt, with the aim of transferring control of the region to themselves. According to Cohen, the British High Commissioner for Egypt, Henry McMahon, acting with the authority of the Foreign Secretary, wrote a letter dated 24 October 1915, admittedly a little ambiguous in its wording, to Husayn, one of the most prominent Arab leaders, which the latter understood as containing a British promise to support Arab self-governance in an area that included Palestine.

Sykes-Picot 1916 - You can see why the Turks might not have been happy

Sykes-Picot 1916 – You can see why the Turks might not have been happy

Emerging around the same time towards the end of the 18th century, however, Europe witnessed the political emancipation of the Jews and the rise of Zionism, whose main aim was the return of Jews to their ancient homeland in Palestine. Without getting bogged down in detail, we can say that there was a trickle of Jewish migration into Palestine in the latter half of the 19th century, but a British census taken in 1922 recorded an overwhelming majority of Arabs in proportion to Jews (about 9:1). By that time, however, control of the region had passed from the now defunct Ottoman Empire into the hands of the French and the British. The Sykes-Picot agreement, signed between those two allies in secret in May 1916 had divided the ‘Near East’ into mandated territories and spheres of influence, which goes to explain why the British were conducting that census.

Subsequently it began to occur to the British Government that the establishment of a Jewish state in the southeast Mediterranean would serve the useful purpose of providing extra security for the Suez Canal, the all-important imperial link to India. There was the additional advantage that encouragement of Zionist aims could be presented as enlightened idealistic support for the dispossessed Jewish community. Furthermore, there was the not inconsiderable influence of a rather muddled religious belief which saw merit in returning Jews to the Holy Land. The result was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 in which among other things, the British Government would ‘Favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.’

Wikipedia informs me that the use of the word ‘perfidious’[2] to describe England dates back at least to the 13th century. It was apparently particularly popular with the French over the centuries, and the actual phrase ‘Perfidious Albion’ is said to have been coined by a French poet in 1793. It is not known whether Palestinian Arabs ever employed the term, but it seems they may have had good cause for doing so. The precedent set by the British Government back then in 1917 set the stage for the Arab-Zionist conflict that bedevils all attempts to bring lasting peace to the Middle East.

In those days, the First World War and afterwards, Great Britain and the United States were by no means of one mind in their ‘Near East’ policies. Britain had come to support Zionist aims (largely for their own strategic reasons) while the USA was, at least at first, keen to come to an arrangement with the Ottoman Empire – who for their part had begun to oppose unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Later, as US power increased and Britain’s influence declined, further conflicts of interest occurred, as for instance in 1956 when President Eisenhower forced Prime Minister Anthony Eden, with his allies, Israel and France, to back down over the ‘Suez Crisis’ in Egypt.

Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of these conflicts, leaders of the Zionist movement have, since 1948, been able to increase the area under the control of Israel. The issue is particularly sensitive because Jewish leaders, with the support of the United States and Great Britain, have argued successfully for the creation/existence of a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine on the grounds that:

  • It is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, and
  • Jews have suffered so much persecution over the centuries that they need/deserve a haven of safety to call their own. This motive was particularly strong after the Nazi Holocaust came to light.

They have the useful additional argument that opponents are ‘anti-Semitic’ – a term with very unpleasant connotations. Opponents argue, however, with some credibility, that Palestine was not unoccupied territory when the state of Israel was established; the establishment required displacement of existing inhabitants; and the real Zionist aim is to create a homogeneous Jewish state.

UN plan for the partition of Palestine

UN plan for the partition of Palestine

Long before the actual foundation of Israel, Zionist leaders at least, and some pragmatic British politicians, were well aware that such a state could never be the peaceful refuge for Jewish people envisaged by idealistic Christians. Future problems were exacerbated by the British policy of dealing with and rewarding one or two influential Arab families, thereby perpetuating a situation where Palestinian Arabs had no political cohesion of their own to oppose the rise of Israel.

As an aside, this policy has been continued in the wider region by the United States, whose government, in spite of pious protestations to the contrary, clearly prefers to deal with autocratic dictators, hereditary monarchs if possible, rather than democratically elected leaders – in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Egypt, for example.

The modern state of Israel was born in violence. The United Nations drew up a partition plan in 1947 dividing the region of Palestine into almost equal areas to be administered respectively by Jewish Israel and Arab Palestinians. The city of Jerusalem, in recognition of its importance to both peoples, would exist as an independent internationally administered enclave within one of the majority Arab areas. The UN plan was passed by a vote of 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions. Interestingly Turkey was one of the ten opposing votes, and the United Kingdom was among those abstaining.

As soon as the British gave up their ‘Mandate’ and withdrew, however, violence broke out which rapidly escalated into war. Exactly what happened is a little clouded by differences of interpretation, but some facts seem clear. Arab leaders rejected the UN-proposed partition and a strike was called with some violent incidents. ‘Yishuv’[3] occupied areas that had been granted by the UN to Palestinian Arabs. Troops from four Arab countries, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq moved into the area and the 1948 ‘Arab-Israeli War’ broke out. Exactly how the ‘Israelis’ managed to prevail is not easy to ascertain. No state of Israel existed as this time, yet the ‘Yishuv’ apparently had sufficient trained soldiers, organisation and military hardware to defeat the armies of four neighbouring countries. Arab incompetence seems to me an inadequate explanation. American sources claim that they placed an arms embargo on both sides – which may deepen the mystery or merely dodge the issue.

Whatever the reason, the result was the creation of an unofficial state of Israel occupying a much larger area than had been envisaged by the UN plan. Egypt and Jordan managed to retain the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively for the displaced Arab refugees. Despite the failure of its partition plan, the United Nations, in May 1949, accepted the new country of Israel as a member, fait accompli. Interestingly, again, in the Security Council vote, Great Britain abstained.

The Iron Dome - Why Hamas rockets don't do much damage to Israel

The Iron Dome – Why Hamas rockets don’t do much damage to Israel

In the years since, wars of greater and lesser scale have broken out, and Israel has gradually increased the size of its territory, again, in defiance of United Nations warnings. Israel took full control of Jerusalem after the ‘Six-Day War’ of 1967, and claims that city as its capital – a claim which the international community does not recognise.

So the cycle of violence continues, with no end in sight. Last Tuesday five people were killed in a bloody attack on a West Jerusalem synagogue by two Palestinians from East Jerusalem’. Israeli spokespersons label it terrorism – and of course no one can condone the killing of innocent people in this way. One man’s terrorist, however, is another man’s freedom fighter, We may understand how the frustration of Palestinian Arabs can burst out into acts of apparently senseless violence because:

  • The very existence of Israel is perceived by many Arabs as having been imposed by outsiders for the benefit of outsiders.
  • Modern Israel is perceived by some as an exclusive ‘apartheid’ state bent on extending its borders and removing Arabs and Muslims. They see the United Nations powerless to enforce its resolutions on Israel, and eventually recognizing the fait accompli.
  • Palestinian Arabs consider that they have been prevented from establishing a state of their own, and consequently have no political leadership able to fight for their rights on the international stage. They find themselves faced with an effectively invulnerable enemy whose military superiority is largely financed by the United States of America.

In a disturbing recent development, the President of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan warned the international community that Israel’s actions in Jerusalem, especially with respect to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, could lead to a ‘new Intifada’ – an uprising of Muslims that could have worldwide implications. Mr Erdoğan has long been suspected by some of having Neo-Ottoman aspirations for his country. If he does indeed harbour such ambitions, failure of the international community to heed his warning could be playing into his hands. Turkey has shown itself capable in the past of taking unilateral action when such failure occurs – as in the case of Cyprus. Constant failure to stand up for justice, and weak acceptance of a status quo established by right of might creates dangerous precedents whereby rogue states get a clear message: We have carte blanche to do what we want. Terrorist activity thrives where injustice prevails.


Further reading:

[1] University of California Press, 1987

[2] treacherous, untrustworthy, two-faced

[3] A term used to refer to the Jewish residents of Palestine before the establishment of the modern state of Israel

The Simit Comes to New York City

The ad in our local newspaper

The ad in our local newspaper

There was a full page ad on the back of my newspaper on Monday. I’m sure that page doesn’t come cheap for advertisers because most of the time it features scantily clad young ladies and short punchy stories of the kind normally associated with British tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail. Well whatever you think of those journalistic techniques, they sell newspapers – The Sun and The Mail being respectively No. 1 and No. 2 in the United Kingdom for daily circulation.

Monday’s back page, however, didn’t have any kind of picture – its entirety was filled with text! As a general rule I avoid making any kind of commercial plug on this site, but I’m making an exception today. I just had to tell you New Yorkers the big news, if you haven’t already discovered it for yourselves. Here’s my translation for those who don’t read Turkish. I have taken one or two liberties, since some expressions in the original don’t have quite the same ring in English:


It’s a simple fact.

We are a nation addicted to food and to satisfying our taste buds.

We make and eat the most delicious food.

We love to eat and to feed others.

So in 2002 we took to the road.

We wanted to ensure that no one in the world should remain ignorant of the name and taste of Turkey’s irresistible delight, the simit.

We opened the first Simit Sarayı[1] in Istanbul’s Mecidiyeköy district.

At all hours, morning noon and evening, we brought piping hot simits from our oven and served them to our customers.

With, of course, the indispensible accompaniment of Turkish tea.

We won the loyal support of our customers, and we thank them for it.

In a short time we opened branches all over Turkey.

Turkish tea and simit - like a taste of heaven

Turkish tea and simit – like a taste of heaven

From east to west and north to south we welcomed customers throughout our land. Before long we ventured abroad, opening branches in all corners of the globe. From Holland to Saudi Arabia we presented our taste sensations. As if that was not enough, we crossed the oceans to other continents.

And today, on 9 November 2014, we realized our long-cherished dream.

We opened our first Simit Saray in America, on New York’s 5th Avenue

without changing our name or our taste.

We wanted this unique flavour of Turkey to be known in its true identity.

Turkey’s Simit Sarayı is now a world brand.


[1] Simit Palace

Warmonger Sen. John McCain, the expected next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee

Alan Scott:

This blogger expresses the point more strongly than I have – but clearly he has done his homework. Now President Obama is sending US soldiers back to Iraq. What is the actual proven threat to Homeland USA?

Originally posted on Ronmamita's Blog:

I recall the last time the Repugnicans were in full control of both Congressional chambers, they mastered coercion and brutality tactics to force their policies and agendas, we can expect more of that in even greater degrees for escalating war.
The expectation is that the 2016 elections will grant the White House to the one party as well.
That is the likely scenario, but all of the above is written merely as reminder to point out that more war escalation is expected by iconic, rabid, war mongers such as republican Senator John McCain from Arizona.
A simple false flag operation, would be the only requirement to gin up the war machine to crush all opposition… ~Ron

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he is “leaning towards” running for reelection and is well aware he’ll likely face a tough primary challenge from the right.

MiddleEast terror

Who were all the…

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