Lies, Damned Lies and . . .. What was the other kind?

top-1-percentI don’t often go searching for words of economic wisdom in the pages of The Washington Post, but the headline grabbed my attention, and I wondered if, just maybe, someone over there was starting to get f****** real’, as a young economist eloquently instructed someone on NZ television the other day.

Admittedly the headline was a little equivocal, but wasn’t it at least a step in the right direction? ‘Why some billionaires are bad for growth’, it said, before adding, ‘and others aren’t’. Well, probably the best thing that can be said about economists is that they like to have a dollar each way on most issues – though in this particular case, the writer, according to her Forbes bio, worked as a pajama model in China for a few years, so that could also be considered a plus.

The sad fact about people in that line of work (economics as well as pajama modelling) is that, like most of us, they have to earn a living, and, like the proverbial piper, they tend to play the tune called by whoever is paying them. English economist Tim Harford is on record as saying, ‘People today don’t become economists to make the world a better place’, if they ever did.

Anyway, in this article, Ana Swanson is reporting on a new study by Sutirtha Bagchi of Villanova University and Jan Svejnar of Columbia University that reputedly resolves the debate about whether the mega-rich are beneficial for the world economy, or, as some believe, an unmitigated disaster.

Apparently these two academic pipers found that wealth inequality is actually growing over time – confirming our own empirical observations. They also found that their measure of wealth inequality corresponded with a negative effect on economic growth. However, acknowledging, one imagines, the sensibilities of their paymasters, the pair moved on to examine what they considered a crucial difference in the way the mega-rich acquired their mega-riches, namely, whether as a result of political connections, or their own entrepreneurial talents with a little help from Lady Luck.

inequality crtnWell, at least Ms Swanson recognises the potential difficulty here – and admits that the researchers used a rather narrow definition of ‘political connections’. Nevertheless, building on this flimsy premise, they went on to conclude that “The negative effects of wealth inequality are largely being driven by politically connected wealth inequality.” The researchers suggest that when wealth and power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, those business and political elites often influence government policy in a way that hurts the broader interest. Amen to that, say I!

As far as I could understand the argument, the two economists were suggesting that extreme wealth acquired as a result of ‘political connections’ exerted an adverse effect on a country’s economy and slowed growth compared with squeaky-clean countries where the rich got rich by their own talent and efforts.

For example, they said, politically connected business elites can charge consumers higher prices for services, control access to bank loans and other funding, and prevent outsiders from starting competing businesses. “One of the things that shocked us is that once the billionaires had a significant amount of wealth, they would often take steps to try to limit the amount of competition,” Bagchi said. But only in corrupt Third World states, you understand.

Well, I’m not an economist, and haven’t been anywhere near Harvard Business School or any other MBA-dispensing institution of higher learning, but it does seem to me that there are several flaws in this case:

Dark_MoneyFirst, political influence comes in many forms, of which nepotism, family connections, such as exist, say, in Saudi Arabia, are only the most obvious and crude. According to Atlantic.com, Corporations [in the United States] now spend about $2.6 billion a year on reported lobbying expenditures. Today, the biggest companies have upwards of 100 lobbyists representing them, allowing them to be everywhere, all the time. For every dollar spent on lobbying by labor unions and public-interest groups together, large corporations and their associations now spend $34. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business.”

Then there is so-called “Dark Money”, “a term for funds given to non-profit organizations that can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions, and spend funds to influence elections, but are not required to disclose their donors. . . . According to the Center for Responsive Politics, ‘spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors has increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to well over $300 million in the 2012 presidential cycle and more than $174 million in the 2014 midterms.’”

Bagchi and Svejnar produced a table purporting to show the level of ‘political connection’ in the wealth acquisition of billionaires in twenty-three countries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Columbia came out on top of the list with a rating of 84%, followed by India. Indonesia, Korea, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Brazil also featured in the top ten. I have to tell you I was a little shocked, though, to see our trans-Tasman cousins Australia highly placed at Number Three! However, shock turned to disbelief when I found the USA and the United Kingdom with a 0% rating for political involvement in wealth creation.

Child poverty protestThe article didn’t append comparative figures for economic growth of the 23 countries, so I checked them myself – and found that, contrary to what the researchers seemed to be arguing, growth in the top (worst) five averaged 4.6% in 2014, while the second five only managed 1.3%. The USA and the UK did achieve growth of 2.4 and 2.6% respectively – but it’s hard to see any clear evidence to support the conclusion that “our” billionaires are good for the economy and “theirs” aren’t.

This would seem to be borne out by the fact that the government of my own beloved homeland, New Zealand is doing its best to encourage wealthy Asians to ‘invest’ in the country by offering fast track residence visas. According to the government website:

“The Investor Visa (Investor 2 Category) is an option if you plan to invest a minimum of NZ$1.5 million over a four year period. If you’re looking to invest $NZ10 million or more then the Investor Plus Visa (Investor 1 Category) could be a better option.”

For foreign billionaires who may not see residence in New Zealand as an attractive option, a new organisation has been established, the New Zealand Super Yacht Group (NZSG) whose stated aim is to provide facilities encouraging the owners of super-yachts to call in and spend big. Additional incentives apparently include tax exemptions and the right to tie up in the marina for up to two years. One that availed itself of the opportunity recently was the 119-metre ‘A’ owned by the Russian couple Andrev and Aleksandra Melnichenko, reportedly purchased in 2008 for $US 300 million.

The mega-yacht 'A'

The mega-yacht ‘A’

Sad to say, the mega-riches of these privileged ‘investors’ and ‘visitors’ don’t seem to be trickling down to the needier levels of New Zealand’s society. According to a recent UNICEF report “as many as 28% of New Zealand children live in poverty.” House prices in the main cities, especially Auckland, are rising astronomically, primarily as a result of speculative ‘investment’ by wealthy Asians. Just this week The New Zealand Herald reported that a house in a very modest Auckland suburb, purchased for $NZ 291,500 in 2012, had been sold in May this year for $475,000, and subsequently flicked over twice with the price reaching $559,000. Last week it was sold again, but the real estate agents coyly declined to disclose the price.

In terms of immigration to New Zealand, there seems to be little sympathy for less affluent would-be migrants seeking refuge from zones of conflict such as the Middle East. A recent article in the same newspaper declared, “New Zealand is a heartless country and a bad global citizen. There’s really no other conclusion to be drawn from the pitifully low number of refugees allowed into this country.”

So, the big question is, can we believe The Washington Post, Ms Ana Swanson, and those two piping economists when they tell us that letting these super-rich hold on to and increase their mega-millions is actually good for you and me? According to Wikipedia, the term ‘trickle-down’ applied to an economic theory of wealth distribution was coined by the American comedian Will Rogers during the Great Depression – and we can assume that Mr Rogers had his tongue firmly in his cheek at the time. US President Ronald Reagan and economist Milton Friedman coined a new phrase, “supply-side” to lend credibility to the theory in the 1980s. JK Galbraith cynically referred to it as the horse-and-sparrow theory: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.

Ayşedeniz Gökçin – Pink Floyd for virtuoso piano at Gümüşlük Classical Music Festival

Eren Levendoğlu playing in the old Gümüşlük church

Eren Levendoğlu playing in the old Gümüşlük church

One of the highlights of our summer holiday is the annual Festival of Classical Music held in Gümüşlük. We’ve been following it since its early days of free concerts near the seaside village. In those days the concerts were held in an old church with a special atmosphere created by stones recycled from the ancient city of Myndos, and the chirping of swallows nesting in the rafters.

The popularity of the festival soon outgrew that small venue, however, and a couple of years ago it was moved to a larger and more spectacular location. There is not much to see of Myndos nowadays. The small natural harbour still provides safe anchorage for fishermen and pleasure craft; finely shaped black stones and white marble columns can be seen reused in more recent buildings, half-submerged in coastal waters, or beckoning secretively from farm paddocks – but the city still awaits serious archeological attention. A few kilometres along the coast towards the new billionaires’ playground of Yalıkavak, however, is evidence that here, once upon a time, was a large thriving centre of a vanished civilisation.

8 August concert in the quarry

8 August concert in the quarry

The new venue for Gümüşlük Festival concerts is the quarry where workers of bygone times hewed the black stone to construct ancient Myndos. A sign in the trendy modern village claims that Mark Antony and Cleopatra called in here on their way to Egypt, and it is also evident that sufficient stone was quarried to build a town of some size and importance. The modern festival audience sits with its back to the sea, facing a raised stage whose backdrop is the illuminated rock face carved out by human hands and subsequently softened and reshaped by millennia of wind and water. Even before the music begins, it is impossible not to be affected by the interplay of historical and natural forces that has been shaping this land since the very birth of human civilisation.

Part of the appeal of the Gümüşlük Festival is its down-home flavour. A driving force in its success has been the devotion of Eren Levendoğlu. A highly talented classical pianist in her own right, born in London and educated in South Africa, Ms Levendoğlu has helped to create, on a shoe-string budget, an event where young musicians come to study in a summer camp under the guidance of older mentors from Turkey and further afield. The concerts provide a showcase and inspiration for young talent, as well as bringing acclaimed musicians to an unpretentious holiday audience. They are always a delightful sensory experience – but last night’s was something very special.

Ayşedeniz Gökçin adjusting the blu tack for her Pink Floyd performance

Ayşedeniz Gökçin adjusting the blu tack for her Pink Floyd performance

Ayşedeniz Gökçin is a young Turkish pianist/composer who has made a name for herself in the crossover world of rock and classical music. She had already been marked for greater things before leaving Turkey to further her musical education in London and Rochester, NY.

Her programme here featured her arrangements of Pink Floyd and Nirvana, as well as a composition of her own, interpreting the life and death of Kurt Cobain. The young lady won the admiration of her audience with her wholehearted and idiosyncratic playing style – and their hearts with her delightfully natural commentary between pieces. Her playing involved not only a sensitive and highly skilful touch on the keyboard, but some fascinating fiddling ‘under the hood’ as she  made mechanical adjustments to strings and hammers with ‘blu tack’ and who knows what, to create special audio effects. Chatting cheerfully and comfortably with the audience, she noted at one stage that she was the same age as Cobain when he committed suicide, but she had no immediate plans of her own in that direction – which we were all happy to hear.

You can find Ayşedeniz’s website here, and listen to her Pink Floyd arrangement on YouTube. I’m told that the Pink Floyd guys themselves have been so impressed they’ve got links to her on their own website. For my money, though, you really need to see her perform live. In Gümüşlük she played a Michael Jackson arrangement as an encore, leaving her audience whistling and calling for more.

Sultan Abdül Hamid – Hero or villain?

THe tomb of Abdül Hamid II in Istanbul

The tomb of Abdül Hamid II in Istanbul

Who is your favourite Ottoman Sultan? It’s a question addressed more to my Turkish readers. Visitors to Istanbul probably figure that there must have been a Sultan Ahmet (in fact there were three); some may have heard of Suleiman the Magnificent or Mehmet the Conqueror. Turkish people themselves are most likely to favour a pre-1600 Padishah. After all, those were the glory days of empire – and anyway, there were 36 Ottoman rulers during the dynasty’s span of 620 years. Who can remember all of them?

Osman was the guy who got it all started at the end of the 13th century, and whose name, a little mangled in English, identifies the entire bloodline. Mehmet II, at the age of 21, led the final successful siege of Constantinople, putting an end to the Roman Empire, or that of the Byzantine Greeks, depending on how you look at it. Suleiman the Lawgiver, as he is known in Turkey, presided over the empire in its golden heyday, ruling for 45 years, and will probably be number one choice for most Turks. A local soap opera, Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century) has recently given that age mass popularity. Süleiman’s father, Selim I, has been the centre of some controversy in Turkey of late after authorities decided to name the new Bosporus bridge for him. He has fans and detractors in possibly equal measure.

So who’s my pick? I’ve written before about Beyazid II, who reigned from 1481 to 1512. Back in 1492, when ‘Christians’ were beginning the genocide of Native Americans, and ‘reconquering’ the Iberian Peninsula, in the process offering Muslims and Jews the alternatives of conversion or death, Beyazid sent the Ottoman navy to evacuate Jews looking for a third option. He is reputed to have complimented himself on enriching his own dominions while Fredrick and Isabella of Spain were impoverishing theirs. A fairly enlightened action for those days, wouldn’t you say? If he achieved nothing else during his 30-odd years on the throne, that alone should secure him a place in heaven.

An unflattering contemporary French caricature of Abdül Hamid

An unflattering contemporary French caricature of Abdül Hamid

The big problem here, though, is that Muslims, pretty much since they first appeared on the stage of history, have had a bad press in the ‘Christian’ West. For close to a thousand years, Western Europe lived in fear of being overrun, and suffering death or a fate worse than, at the hands of one Islamic empire or another. Even after they finally managed to gain military and technological superiority, the memory of those humiliating centuries persisted, encouraging the use of disparaging or demonising stereotypes that worked against an objective assessment of Muslim achievements during their years of ascendancy.

As a result, the few Ottoman sultans known by name in the West tend to have been matched with less-than-flattering epithets. Selim I, known to Turks as ‘Yavuz’ (the Indomitable), is Selim the Grim in English; his grandson, Sarı (Blond) Selim, is anglicised as ‘the Sot’. Even the great Suleiman, in a backhanded compliment, is celebrated for the opulence and magnificence of his court rather than his achievements in the field of jurisprudence. Such was the fear and hatred of Muslims and Turks (particularly in combination) that the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe chose to lionise the pagan Tamburlaine who, with his Mongolian hordes, invaded Anatolia and enslaved the Sultan Beyazid I in 1402.

By the 19th century, the days when European ambassadors were obliged to learn Ottoman Turkish, and crawl into the presence of the Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, were long gone. Facing threats of invasion from without and disintegration from within, its shrinking borders circled by the great neighbouring imperialist powers, the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ continued to survive only because those gathering vultures, like the two nuns in the old joke, were more intent on ensuring that the others wouldn’t get more than they did.

So, Abdül Hamid II ascended to the Sultanate in 1876 in inauspicious circumstances. He was actually installed in place of his brother Murat V, who was considered mentally unstable – and was expected by his supporters to continue the democratising reforms begun by his immediate predecessors. Well, to everything there is a season, as the Good Book says – and democracy is no exception to the rule. Shortly after commissioning a team of experts to draw up a constitution, Abdül Hamid suspended it, exiled its principal author, and ruled for the next thirty years as an absolute monarch. His Wikipedia entry sums up the case for the prosecution: He oversaw a period of decline in the power and extent of the Empire, including widespread pogroms and government-sanctioned massacres of Armenians’; he was overthrown in 1908 in a move ‘hailed by most Ottoman citizens’; ‘Often known as the Red Sultan or Abdul the Damned due to the atrocities committed against the Empire’s minorities under his rule and use of a secret police to silence dissent, Abdul Hamid became more reclusive toward the end of his reign, his worsening paranoia about perceived threats to his personal power and his life leading him to shun public appearances.’

An actual photograph

An actual photograph

Continuing the list of his sins, the ‘Red Sultan’ curtailed the privileges of foreigners, obstructed the settlement of Jews in Palestine, got the Empire into ‘financial embarrassment’ and carried out a policy of Islamification, particularly through a series of educational reforms. Confirming him as a true representative of Ottoman depravity, ‘Abdül Hamid had thirteen wives and seventeen children.’ The one positive seems to be that he was responsible for some modest modernization’ mainly in the areas of telegraph and railway building – though even in the latter case his major motive seems to have been the facilitating of travel for Muslim pilgrims heading for the holy city of Mecca.

On the whole, not a good look; and another writer has remarked that Abdül Hamid II has justifiably not been treated kindly by the history books.’ She does, however, reduce his bevy of wives and brood of children to, respectively, eight and thirteen – so even in this department it seems there is room for debate. And perhaps a more important question arises: Whose history books?

History, it has been said, is written by the victors, and since around 1700, Western Christendom has been progressively asserting its dominance over the realms of Islam. As a result, if you want to find an alternative view of history, you need to overturn a stone or two. Under one such stone I found an interesting website, Lost Islamic History, and an article lauding our man Abdül Hamid as ‘The Last Great Caliph’. The Caliph, as you may know, was the Islamic equivalent of the Roman Emperor, combining spiritual and temporal power, and the first ones, of course, were Arabs. However, when the Ottomans established themselves as the dominant Muslim power at the beginning of the 16th century, it made sense, at least in the mind of the Indomitable Selim, to assume the mantle of leader and protector of his co-religionists. Thereafter ‘Caliph’ became one of the hereditary titles of the Ottoman Sultan.

A thought-provoking claim in that article is that ‘Throughout Ottoman history, Christians had been a major part of the population, at some times being about 80%’. Certainly the Ottomans conquered lands that had become predominantly Christian, yet they allowed their new subject peoples to continue speaking their languages, practising their religions, educating their children, even holding high positions in the empire and administering their own justice. Furthermore, as we noted above, they added to the native Jewish population by encouraging immigration from less enlightened lands to the West such as Spain.

As enlightenment struck the Great Powers of Europe towards the end of the 18th century, however, they began to realise that they could enlarge their own territories by picking fights with the increasingly vulnerable Ottomans. Picking fights with neighbours of course wasn’t quite in the true spirit of enlightenment, but if you could find a credible pretext, such as aiding fellow Christians escape intolerable oppression by an evil barbaric Muslim empire, you would not only have right on your side, but you would have allies causing trouble behind enemy lines, and a gratefully liberated populace running to your arms after victory was achieved.

Russia was the main exponent of this technique, although to be fair they probably got the idea from the Brits who encouraged and then supported militarily Greek nationalism leading to the establishment of the modern kingdom of Greece in 1832, with a real German king on the throne, King Otto I.

The tide of victory had begun to turn against the Ottomans towards the end of the 17th century, when their westward expansion was repulsed at the gates of Vienna. By the beginning of the 19th century defeat was becoming more the norm than the exception. Nationalist movements, encouraged by Western philosophers and politicians, were gaining strength. Christian-majority lands in Europe were forcibly ‘liberated’, often expelling their Muslim minorities. Imperial Russia was expanding southwards in search of warm water ports, pursuing a policy of Russification, which generally meant killing or driving out the Muslim inhabitants. For the Ottomans, the population balance was radically altered by the loss of Christians and a flood of Muslim refugees.

Surprisingly, San Stefano isn't in Italy - its a suburb of modern Istanbul

Surprisingly, San Stefano isn’t in Italy – its a suburb of modern Istanbul

In 1839 the Sultan Mahmut II began a process of reform and democratisation known in Turkish as Tanzimat. A major aim was to discourage the growth of nationalist movements by granting equal rights to all citizens. It was too late, however, and anyway, as we have seen, the encouragement of nationalism among Ottoman minorities was a means to an end for the Great Powers of Europe, who clearly had little sympathy for such movements within their own expanding empires.

Nevertheless, it seems Sultan Abdül Hamid II had intended to continue the process of administrative reform and modernisation when he was handed the top job in 1876. The fact that he actually had a constitution drawn up limiting the powers of the monarchy testifies to this. Within a year, however, he was caught up in a disastrous war with Russia who, pursuing its goal of access to the Mediterranean Sea, attacked from the west and the east, with the support of Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and Armenians in the east of Anatolia. With the Russian army set to enter Istanbul, the Ottoman government was obliged to make peace. The so-called Treaty of San Stefano amounted to virtual unconditional surrender: loss of most of its Balkan territories and several important districts in the east; opening of the Bosporus Straits to Russian shipping, and payment of a large war indemnity to Russia.

The British and the French, who had until recently been supporting the Ottomans against Russia, had turned against them. It must have been obvious to Abdül Hamid that the time for democratic liberalisation was not now. It was clear that non-Muslim minorities within the Empire were intent on going their own way, and that the Great (Christian) Powers of Europe would exploit these nationalist uprisings for their own advantage. It must also have struck him that the one chance of holding the remains of the Empire together was to appeal to Muslim solidarity. At that time many of the Sultan’s Muslim subjects were Arab, not Turk – and anyway, the Ottoman aristocracy did not consider themselves Turks.

So, according to Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, seeing himself as the inheritor of a sacred trust to preserve his 600-year-old Empire, Abdül Hamid suspended his newly written constitution and assumed the historical mantle of God-appointed sovereignty. Dusting off the hitherto largely symbolic title of Caliph, He took out the Prophet’s mantle from the Topkapi palace, declared the resistance to Russia a jihad, proclaimed himself a ghazi after the example of the early Ottoman Sultans and appealed to Muslims worldwide for support. This pattern of appeal to the global Muslim community was to be repeated, time and again, during [his] reign.

Istanbul High School - originally built by the Great Powers of Europe to administer the Ottoman debt

Istanbul High School – originally built by the Great Powers of Europe as an HQ to administer the Ottoman debt

The punitive terms of the San Stefano Treaty were moderated somewhat by the intervention of Britain and France, who feared the expansion of Russia into their spheres of interest. The Ottomans were permitted to maintain a foot in the Balkans, and their reparation payments were reduced. Nevertheless, there was a price to pay: the British proceeded to occupy the island of Cyprus, purchased French acceptance by allowing them to occupy Tunisia, and subsequently moved themselves into Egypt. Professor Nazeer says that ‘the war with Russia and the loss of Egypt and Tunisia had cost the Empire more than 60% of its population’ – becoming a largely Muslim entity in Anatolia and the Middle East.

Abdül Hamid’s move to become champion of the world’s Muslims was not purely pragmatic. In fact he had been a follower of Shadhili Sufism before ascending to the throne, so his donning of the Caliph’s mantle did not lack spiritual credibility. At the same time, however, it undoubtedly gave him a powerful card to play in negotiations with the Great Powers of Europe whose global expansion brought many Muslims into their imperial folds.

The Empire was disastrously in debt, however, and religion alone would not save it. Having centralised imperial power in the hands of his Vizier, Abdül Hamid was in a position to dictate a series of economic reforms: renegotiating the debt burden, encouraging the development of agriculture and industry, setting up a bank to provide low interest loans, encouraging foreign investment for building railroads, telegraph lines and building silk, tobacco and fabric processing factories, modernising the armed forces and upgrading standards of education.

The last Ottoman palace

The last Ottoman palace

Professor Nazeer concedes that ‘Abdul Hamid kept a close watch on all of his appointees, as well as on the extensive bureaucracy in the state, through an efficient system of police and spy network.’ On the other hand, he concludes that ‘In the face of aggression from without and sabotage from within, hammered by forces of nationalism and weakened by internal terrorism from some of the millets, he waged a valiant battle to preserve what was left of the once mighty empire. In this effort, he was partially successful, preserving its Islamic core for forty years and keeping the empire out of a major war for as long.’

So, to sum up the case for the defense:

  • Abdül Hamid did not set out to be an autocratic dictator – the role was forced upon him by a combination of lethal threats to his empire.
  • He used the Muslim religion also out of necessity as a cohesive force against external and internal dangers, just as later, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk fostered the development of Turkish nationalism.
  • It suited the goals of the so-called ‘Christian’ powers of Europe to ignore atrocities committed against Muslims (starting with the expulsion of the Crimean Tatars in 1783) and portray the killing of Christians as unwarranted acts of barbarity.
  • There were undoubtedly many within the empire and beyond its boundaries who did not wish the Sultan well. A certain measure of paranoia may have been justified.
  • The Ottoman Empire ended with a whimper in 1923. Without the efforts of Abdül Hamid II, it might well have ended forty years earlier.
  • Ironically, his educational reforms, in creating a new intellectual elite, may have led at last to his own overthrow.

Selfless Newlywed Couple Spend Their Wedding Day Feeding 4,000 Syrian Refugees

You have to read this! And I hope one or two of those multi-zillionaires mooring their outrageous yachts around the corner from us in Yalıkavak read it too:

Not all today's news is bad

Not all today’s news is bad

A bride and groom decided to shun their traditional wedding day feast by instead choosing to feed 4,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Selfless couple Fethullah Üzümcüoğlu and Esra Polat were pictured in their wedding outfits sharing their big day with thousands who have fled the war-torn country. The pair got married in southern Turkish city, Kilis, and they donated their wedding feast to families who are struggling for food and living in poverty.

Ali Üzümcüoğlu, the father of the groom, came up with the idea after realising that the massive wedding feast for guests was “unnecessary”. He told i100: “I thought that sharing a big delicious dinner with our family and friends was unnecessary, knowing that there are so many people in need living next door.

“So I came up with this idea and shared it with my son. I’m very happy that he accepted it and they started their new happy journey with such a selfless action.”

Bride Esra was only too happy to go along with the plan and share her wedding with the starving refugees. She added: “I was shocked when Fethullah first told me about the idea but afterwards I was won over by it. It was such a wonderful experience. I’m happy that we had the opportunity to share our wedding meal with the people who are in real need.”

Four million people have fled Syria since the country descended into civil war, with half of those travelling to neighbouring Turkey.

Source: Yahoo News

Turkey’s safe harbor

6B21992A-B6FB-47A3-AFC09E8E37A79F6EThe following article by G. Lincoln McCurdy, President of the Turkish Coalition of America, appeared on the website The Hill on 8 July. I’ve written on this subject myself, but I’m always happy when someone agrees with me ;-) so I’m sharing this with you:

While the term “nation of immigrants” is most readily associated with the United States, an American strategic ally on the other side of the globe can claim the same distinction dating back centuries.

For Turkey, the term takes on new meaning today while the country shelters nearly two million Syrian refugees who have fled civil war. This Turkish practice of incorporating diverse ethnic groups precedes modern day Turkey. During the Ottoman Empire, the ethnic makeup of Anatolia evolved thanks to generous government policies towards immigrants and refugees during regional and global conflicts that shifted large population groups. As a result, modern Turks exhibit a cultural mosaic of ethnicities and religions, with ancestral roots tracing throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Refugees attempting to reach a Greek Island from the Turkish coast

Refugees attempting to reach a Greek Island from the Turkish coast

In 1492, while Columbus voyaged across the Atlantic, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain expelled their Jewish citizens. Nationless, Jews in the region were desperate for safe haven until the Ottoman Empire financed their immigration to Asia Minor in 1497. Nearly 250,000 Jews would ultimately settle in Ottoman lands. This Jewish population has remained an integrated part of Turkey, and vibrant Jewish communities continue to thrive in the cities of Istanbul and Izmir.

Leading up to and in the years following the Russian Empire’s annexation of Crimea in 1783, more than 100,000 Crimean Muslims would enter Anatolia. After the Crimean War ended in 1856, another 100,000 Crimean Muslims again escaped persecution by becoming Ottoman, and then Turkish, citizens. Additionally, the Ottoman Empire opened its doors to up to one and a half million Circassians, the indigenous people of the northwestern Caucasus, when they were massacred and exiled from their villages by the Russian army in 1864.

Read the whole article

‘Turkish Awakening’ – A kind of book review

How do you feel when you wake up in a strange bed in a strange house? A little disoriented, yeah? You’re probably confused at first, then you start to look for ways to make sense of your new surroundings – based on your own previous experience of what’s normal, and the new reality in which you find yourself. Whether your new construct tends more to the former or the latter probably depends a lot on how often you’ve had to go through this process before. Certainly you’ll appreciate any guidance you may be offered by friendly locals.

Note the sinister black mosque and red Islamic flag

Note the sinister black mosque and red Islamic flag

I’m trying to keep an open mind here. A friend loaned me ‘Turkish Awakening’ and I felt a twinge of kindred spirit with an author whose name so resembled my own. On the positive side, I can tell you that Ms Scott writes very lucidly and well, and offers some interesting insights into a country sadly misunderstood by outsiders.

On the other hand, if you really want to understand the modern Republic of Turkey, you possibly need to give some thought to where Ms Scott is coming from. Her author blurb in the book sounds ingenuous enough. She was born in London in 1987 to a Turkish mother and British father and studied classics at Oxford University. After graduating in 2009 ‘she worked in London as an assistant director in theatre and opera before moving to Istanbul in January 2011, where she now works as a freelance journalist for the British press’. Her stated aim was ‘to discover what it means to be Turkish in a country going through rapid change.’

In her introduction, she informs us ‘It is not an intentionally political book’ – which may or may not be true. It is a rare writer, however, whose political beliefs do not colour his or her writings, and Ms Scott has not hesitated to nail her political colours to the mast. The first sentence of the book tells us that the young lady ‘had nearly finished writing this book when the Gezi Park protests broke out in Istanbul at the end of May 2013.’ If that is indeed the case, she must have engaged in a fairly major and somewhat hurried rewrite, because not a chapter goes by without frequent reference to those protests and her interpretation of what they mean for the country.

If you do the calculations, Ms Scott was 24 years old when she moved to Turkey, having graduated from university two years previously. Her degree major and work experience do not seem especially to qualify her for a career in journalism, yet not only are her articles published in the Guardian and the New Statesman, but also in an interesting online news site Politico, and seem to have crossed the Atlantic to the American Newsweek. Maşallah! as they say in Turkey.

I'm not saying there's a conspiracy, but . . .

I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, but . . .

Well, it’s possible that her freelance writing was sufficiently lucrative to finance extensive travels over the length and breadth of Turkey, staying long enough in each place to get a feel for the local culture and conduct interviews with the people. It is also possible that Ms Scott’s youthful enthusiasm and writing talents have been harnessed by more sinister forces. Politico Europe went online this year with the stated aim of becoming ‘the dominant politics and policy publication in Europe’. It was established ‘as a joint venture between US-based political published Politico and Berlin-based Axel Springer AG. Politico is a political journalism organization based in Arlington County, Virginia, that covers the issues, ideas and personalities behind politics and policy in the United States and in the global arena. The Axel Springer company is the largest publishing house in Europe and controls the largest share of the German market for daily newspapers; 23.6%.’ (Source: The Guardian)

‘Turkish Awakening’ is touchingly dedicated ‘Anneciğime’ – ‘To My Dear Mother’ in Turkish. That’s very sweet, but I’m curious about Ms Scott’s boyfriend, who features often in the text and obviously accompanied her on her fact-finding travels – yet isn’t identified by a specific mention in her dedication or acknowledgements. Is he Turkish? Does that explain why Ms Scott was able to travel so easily around the country interviewing locals? From her own admission, she couldn’t even pronounce her own Turkish name correctly when she arrived in the country at the beginning of 2011 (despite having been brought up by that Turkish Cypriot mother, and non-English-speaking grandmother) – yet two years later she had travelled to all corners of the country conducting interviews in colloquial Turkish with natives and taxi drivers from Istanbul to the Arab border and north to the Black Sea, and written this book.

Well, she is a classics grad from Oxford, so clearly is a clever young lady – but still, that’s an impressively rapid progression from zero to advanced competence in a language not generally considered easy for English-speakers. At the same time, judging from the articles she has had published in Newsweek, she also managed to research big-game hunting in Zimbabwe, and spend time in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Vienna.

You can see why the Western Alliance would have loved Indonesia's Sukarno

You can see why the Western Alliance would have loved Indonesia’s Sukarno

Apart from the mother who gave her daughter a Turkish name but failed to teach her how to pronounce it, it’s easy to miss the other people who assisted in the compilation of this book, tucked away, as they are, in a brief afterthought of ‘Acknowledgements’ between the final page of the text and the very scholarly index. None of the names are identified in any way (boyfriend, proof-reader, British Ambassador etc) that might give us some clue as to how these people contributed to the project – so that obliges a curious reader, me for instance – to do their own research.

Two of the nine personally acknowledged have the surname Reddaway, one of whom, Alex, seems to get two mentions in the brief 80-word paragraph – so it’s possible he is the mysterious boyfriend. The other, Sir David, has quite an ‘Internet presence’, which makes interesting reading. He is a British diplomat like his father before him, having served in Iran, India, Spain, Argentina, Afghanistan, Canada and Ireland. Strangely, his previous experience in Iran, his fluency in Farsi and his Iranian wife didn’t impress the Iranian government, who rejected him as British ambassador to Teheran in 2002. The Wikipedia entry says “some Iranian newspapers (incorrectly) accused him of being ‘a Jew and a member of MI6’”. The sentence seems to say that Reddaway is neither a Jew nor a member of MI6, thereby implying that the rejection was just a capricious act of provocation by the Teheran government. Other sources suggest that the Iranians considered Reddaway to be a Zionist supporter (not actually a Jew); and there seems good evidence to suggest that he was, or had been a member of MI6. He was implicated in Wikileaks revelations that Turkey’s and some other delegations had been spied on by the British government at the 2009 G8 gathering in London.

While following leads on this gentleman, I chanced on an article entitled The Reddaways: Britain’s Answer to Cambridge’s “Ring of Five” Spies’. The writer provides some fascinating background on Sir David Reddaway’s father Norman whose first big assignment at the Foreign Office was to help Christopher Mayhew institute the Information Research Department (IRD), an agency designed to spread black propaganda throughout the world.’ Two of the IRD’s important achievements during the 1960s were, allegedly, orchestrating the overthrow of Iraq’s leader, General Qasim, and President Sukarno of Indonesia.

Qasim had led a military coup in 1958 that eliminated the Iraqi ‘royal family’, a puppet regime installed by Britain after the First World War. Qasim’s government had expelled foreign military (viz. British and US) from the country, made overtures to the Soviet Union, and threatened to nationalize Iraq’s oil industry. Britain and the USA denied involvement in his ousting, but . . .

Sukarno was a nationalist hero whose left wing, anti-imperialist policies made him unpopular with the Western Alliance. He was also overthrown by military intervention in 1967.

What has all this got to do with Alev Scott and her book about Turkey, you may ask. Well, the Turkish Republic has a chequered history of military coups ousting democratically elected governments – three times between 1960 and 1980, plus the post-modern bloodless coup of 1997. The country has experienced its longest period of political and economic stability since the AK Party of Tayyip Erdoğan won its first election in 2002. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that, had they not pre-empted it by rounding up a large number of high-ranking military officers, various academics and journalists in the so-called Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, they themselves would have been forcibly removed from office – and Mr Erdoğan would very likely have found himself back in prison.

Kidnapping and murder of Aldo More - was it a false flag operation?

Kidnapping and murder of Italy’s Aldo Moro – was it a false flag operation?

There are many who believe that the CIA and NATO’s undercover Gladio operation were involved behind the scenes in those earlier takeovers. It is also probably true that the governing powers in the USA do not love Mr Erdoğan. His government, while having no local oil industry to nationalize, has been just a little too independent in its foreign policy, I suspect, refusing to get involved in George Dubya’s Iraq invasion, publicly criticizing Israel for its state terrorism in Palestine, and dragging its feet in the new US-led alliance against ISIS.

Ms Scott denies that her book is ‘intentionally’ political, which perhaps leaves her a legal ‘out’ – but the single cohesive thread running through it seems to be an unreasonably strong dislike for Mr Erdoğan and the AK Party government of Turkey. I say ‘unreasonable’ because the young lady is really a foreigner, with no serious attachment to the country, and focusing on the AK Party government rather locks her book into the present moment, and invites the fate of irrelevance when they are replaced by a new team.

Two other names featuring in the book’s acknowledgements are Andrew Boord and Roger Scruton. Again, no clue as to who they are and how they helped. However, I can tell you that Mr Boord is reputed to be a key man in Istanbul’s Anglican community, and owner of a company called Enver Borlu Business Consultancy services. According to his online bio, In 1986 he began his career in Turkey as a lecturer at the Banking and Insurance Institute at Marmara University, Istanbul, while pursuing parallel freelance projects in journalism and business consultancy. In 1992, he was appointed special advisor to the Chairman of a leading Turkish multinational corporation . . . expanded his activities in political and risk analysis, and political lobbying for Turkey at the highest levels, and was granted citizenship of Turkey in 1997 while working for a prominent Member of Parliament with high level responsibilities on such bodies as the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission. He was instrumental in the establishment of a successful political and corporate advisory company in Brussels in the year 2000.’

Wow! Another whiz kid, for sure. Straight out of Oxford University (1985, BA) into a lecturing position in Istanbul’s Marmara University. Interests in banking, big business, government, and Brussels. Became a citizen of Turkey in 1997 (retaining his UK citizenship I assume) at a very insecure time in the country’s recent history. Before or after the post-modern military coup, I wonder?

Paris 1968 - student injured in demonstrations

Paris 1968 – student injured in demonstrations

Roger Scruton – an elderly academic philosopher who has written a number of books, particularly as a champion of global conservatism. According to WikipediaScruton first embraced conservatism during the student protests of May 1968 in France. Nicholas Wroe wrote in The Guardian that Scruton was in the Latin Quarter in Paris at the time, watching students overturning cars to erect barricades, and tearing up cobblestones to throw at the police. “I suddenly realized I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilization against these things. That’s when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”’

Fair enough – but given Alev Scott’s enthusiastic support for the anti-government demonstrations in Turkey during 2013, which many at the time compared to events in Paris in 1968, it’s surprising to see her acknowledge Scruton’s contribution to her book. She constantly refers to Turkey as a Middle East country, and an emerging economy, yet in her analysis insists on judging it by the standards of her own privileged life in post-modern, post-industrial England.

Through a longish life I have developed a deep-seated mistrust of politicians – but I am not one of those commentators, amateur and professional, who ascribe all of Turkey’s problems to one man, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and refuse to give him credit for any of the positive transformations that the country has undergone in the first decades of the 21st century.

When I first came to Istanbul in the mid-1990s, there were regular and lengthy power and water outages. Now there aren’t. The Golden Horn was like an open sewer. Now it isn’t, and people are once again swimming in beaches around the city. Inflation was, and had been for many years, running at 50-100%. Weak coalition governments seemed to come and go every few months. Turkey’s secular first woman prime minister was accused of large-scale corruption and formed a coalition with the overtly Islamic party of the day – subsequently ejected by that post-modern military intervention in 1997. In 2001 the Turkish Lira halved in value overnight, reaching an incredible 1,700,000 to the $US. Within two years, the AK Party government was able to knock six zeroes off the currency and keep it that way. Ms Scott writes of unregulated construction in the last two decades. In fact Istanbul’s huge growth spurt began in the 1960s when the population was less than two million. Now population growth has slowed and there are some signs of urban planning, and building and zoning regulations in a city of more than 15 million.

Taksim Sq, Istanbul, morning of 1 June 2013 (my photograph)

Taksim Sq, Istanbul, morning of 1 June 2013 (my photograph)

I agree that taxes on petrol and alcohol are too high. On the other hand, the alcoholic beverages market has blossomed in recent years. The wine sector has grown and diversified, there are now many varieties of the local spirit, rakı, and beer is comfortably sipped in outdoor cafes in many parts of Istanbul. Certainly some controls have been applied to advertising, and drinking in public places – but no more so than in the alcohol-loving nations of Australia and New Zealand.

Whatever threats Orhan Pamuk may have received in response to his support for accusations of Armenian genocide, the literary gentleman was never imprisoned, or even punished, and now, not only spends time openly in this county, but has established a ‘museum’ in trendy Cihangir to publicise his works of fiction.

Well, I did start out with the intention writing a review of ‘Turkish Awakening’ – but like Ms Scott, perhaps, my intention morphed as I began to write. The misgivings I felt while reading the book turned to more serious concerns. Possibly my suspicions are unfounded, but I do urge you to keep your critical faculties on the alert if you do decide to outlay the rather hefty cover price on a copy of your own.

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Turkish Awakening, A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey, Alev Scott (Faber & Faber, 2014)

Başınız Sağolsun – Sympathy and condolences for your loss

_84381769_84379585Turkey continues to pay a huge price for ongoing chaos in the Middle East. 30 dead and 104 injured by suicide bomb attack in the south east town of Suruç.

“An explosion has killed at least 32 in a municipal culture center in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa’s Suruç district, as scores of people have been hospitalized.

“Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu confirmed ISIL was the prime suspect, adding that 43 people, 9 of them with serious injuries, were hospitalized after the attack.

kobani-nerede (2)(1)“The Health Ministry has dispatched 33 land ambulances, each with three paramedic staff on board and a helicopter ambulance. 

“Kadir Ergün, an eyewitness, told CNNTürk that he was 100 meters away from the explosion. “It is hard to describe it with words. Blood donations are urgently needed. The people of Suruç are now called to donate blood,” he added.

Read more.