The Prime Minister of Israel has officially apologised to his Turkish counterpart. It’s big news in Turkey. Israel doesn’t say sorry. They do stuff that, if any other country did it, would be a virtual declaration of war, or at least a major international incident – then they brazen it out and get away with it. So this must be a first.
In case you missed it, the incidentthat elicited an apology was the killing, by Israeli military personnel, of nine Turkish citizens on board a Turkish civilian ship, the Mavi Marmara, in May 2010. The Israeli action wasn’t entirely unprovoked, it must be admitted. The Mavi Marmara was carrying food and other necessities of life to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip suffering under an Israeli blockade. The Israeli government gave the Turkish vessel what they considered fair warning, then boarded with armed soldiers, and in the ensuing struggle, nine Turks were killed.
Well, it’s a complex issue, to be sure. As far as the Israelis were concerned, they were justified in using force to repel foreign nationals from interfering in an internal security matter. From the Turkish point of view, they were bringing humanitarian aid to people suffering from Israeli oppression in what most of the international community considers illegal incursion into, and occupation of another people’s sovereign territory. The result was a three-year freeze of diplomatic relations between two relatively democratic, Western-friendly states in a region where those two qualities are not so widespread.
Nevertheless, the Israelis didn’t want to apologise, you can be ninety-nine percent sure of that. Not just because of national pride and reluctance to lose face, but because they more than likely still believe they did the right thing. It’s no coincidence that the apology followed closely on the heels of US President Obama’s visit to Israel and talks with PM Netanyahu. And here, I fear, is the danger for Turkey.
Israel gets away with its aggressive, arrogant behaviour on the world stage because its government believes that the US will back them when the chips are down. Some of this US support is undoubtedly due to residual sympathy for what happened to Jewish people in the Second World War, and some to a continued belief by US Bible Belters that the fate of Israel and the Holy Places are somehow bound up with the last trumpet, the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Rapture and the Day of Judgment. US Presidents play along with this, of course, but of far greater importance are American strategic interests, particularly with regard to a continuing supply of oil and the need for an excuse to send in the military when this supply is threatened.
So, why, we should be asking ourselves, is President Obama suddenly so interested in the hurt feelings of Turkey, that he steps into a seemingly minor local dispute and puts the Israelis in an embarrassing position that they will certainly resent? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that everything has a price. As we learnt from ‘The Godfather’, when a favour is called back, you do it. I just hope, for Turkey’s long-term welfare, the price is not one they will regret having to pay.
I saw recently the results of a Gallup poll showing that ninety percent of Americans place Iran at the top of their list of countries they view with disfavour – ahead of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. Even North Korea, which claims to have missiles aimed directly at US targets, received a better rating. Well, no doubt those Americans have their reasons, and it’s a fact that Iran (or Persia, as it was formerly known in the West), was a thorn in the side of Western empires millennia before Christopher Columbus was a gleam in his father’s eye. It is also probably true that Iranians, at least some of them, have contributed to their unfavourable rating by US citizens. Nevertheless, they are next-door neighbours of Turkey, and hence of mine. The Turkish language, Turkish literature, art and music owe a debt of gratitude to the ancient culture of Iran, and most Turkish people recognise this. So I would like to take a quick look at some positives, in the interests of natural justice.
Iran is indisputably an ancient land, home to some of the very earliest human civilisations. The oldest cities have been dated to the 5th millennium BCE, and people there developed the art of writing around the same time as the Egyptians and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. By the 8th century BCE, the Medes had established an empire that was a power in the region, and Zoroastrianism had emerged as a forerunner of the great monotheistic religions, all of which have their roots in the Middle East.
The Persian Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE, and these were the guys who caused so much trouble for the Greek city-states. Our modern marathon race is said to have originated when a messenger ran back to Athens to announce his side’s victory in a decisive battle. If the Greeks had lost that one, we Westerners might have a more intimate knowledge of Persian/Iranian culture. The Persians are also credited with being the first to establish a professional army and civil service, both of which concepts seem to have retained their popularity down to our own times. Perhaps the brass hats in the Pentagon should show some gratitude.
There was a relatively brief interlude (of a century or so) when history’s ultimate megalomaniac, Alexander, passed through on his self-appointed task to conquer the world before his 30th birthday. His Hellenic successors held on until the Parthians regained local ascendancy around 250 BCE, giving endless trouble to the Romans, and establishing a limit to their eastward expansion that has pretty much survived to the present day. Visitors to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna will be impressed by the vast Parthian Monument, originally set up in the Aegean city of Ephesus to commemorate one of the rare Roman victories over their eastern neighbours.
Parthians gave way to Sassanids, but the fighting continued even after the Romans converted to the Christian religion of peace. All in all, the Roman-Persian Wars went on for over seven hundred years, and it has been suggested that the Muslim Arab conquests of the 7th century CE were facilitated by the fact that both sides had fought themselves to the point of exhaustion – a lesson there perhaps for modern-day empires.
Iran’s strategic location between East and West has made it a major target for invasion and conquest throughout history. After the Arabs, came Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and Tamerlane in the 14th. Each time, however, the strength of native Iranian culture allowed its people either to shrug off or to absorb the conquerors. Most persistent of the invaders were the Turkic tribes who began their incursions in the 10th century. At first employed as slave warriors, they slowly assumed positions of power, while at the same time adopting much of Iranian culture. One major outcome was the Seljuk Turkish Empire that ruled Persia and Asia Minor/Anatolia into the 12thcentury. These were the people whose westward march threatened the existence of the Roman/Greek/Byzantine Empire, and prompted Western Christendom to launch its Crusading armies eastward.
The Golden Age of Persian culture coincided with this rise, morphing into a distinctive Turko-Persian identity which produced a great flowering of art, music, philosophy, architecture, science and literature. Much of the culture and knowledge that ended Europe’s Dark Age, and fuelled the incipient Renaissance can be said to have originated in the cross-cultural contact with contemporary Muslim society. The reason is that here was where the knowledge of Indian, Hellenistic and earlier Persian thinkers was brought together and developed.
In medicine, the Academy of Gondishapur housed the first training hospital where medical treatment and knowledge were systematised. In part, this institution owed its fame to an influx of scholars from Edessa in the Byzantine Empire after the Christian Emperor expelled them for their unorthodox beliefs. Muhammed ibn Zakariya Razi (Rhazes) was a pioneer of paediatrics and ophthalmology around 1000 CE. Shortly after, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote his “Canon of Medicine” which was still being used as a textbook in some European universities into the 17th century.
In mathematics, Abu Abdallah Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (Algoritmi) is credited with introducing the decimal place value system to the West, and our word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic title of his book on quadratic equations. Al-Kharaji has been called the father of algebraic calculus, and Omar Khayyam, better known in the West for his poetry, also did pioneering work in geometry and algebra. Speaking of poetry, in 2002, Time magazine published an article informing its readers that the 13thcentury Persian mystic Jalaluddin Rumi (Mevlana) was the most popular poet in America. The game of chess, with much of its vocabulary, came to us via Iran. Our word ‘rook’ for ‘castle’ comes from the Persian word for the castling movement. ‘Pawn’ is a direct borrowing, as are ‘check’, the word ‘chess’ itself from ‘Shah’ (king), and ‘mate’. And just to confirm that European prejudice against its Eastern neighbours is not a new phenomenon, the Georgia Tech Paper Museum informs us that the introduction of that very useful material was impeded for several centuries by Papal Decree, on the grounds that it was ‘a manifestation of Moslem culture’.
The Safavid era began in Iran around 1500, and its peak of power coincided with that of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. This could be another reason for Western Europe to be grateful to the Iranians. Had it not been for the distracting influence of their wars with the Ottomans, the gates of Vienna might not have stopped Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors from further territorial gains – and who know where they might have finished up?
One of Turkey’s main economic disadvantages is its surprising lack of fossil fuel resources, given the wealth in that respect of its Middle Eastern and Central Asian neighbours. On the other hand, it could equally be argued that absence of such petroleum riches has saved Turkey from the outside interference and manipulation that has plagued its ‘more fortunate’ regional brethren. Iran, with proven resources ranking it second in the world for natural gas, and fourth for petroleum, has been a target for foreign powers since the mid-19th century: first Russia and Great Britain, and more recently, the United States.
An earlier edition of Time, January 7, 1952, featured another Iranian on its cover – Mohammed Mossadegh. Democratically elected by a majority of his people, and holding hopes for leading his country into the modern world of liberty and justice for all, MM made the mistake of trying to secure a more equitable share of Iran’s mineral wealth for its own people. In nationalising the nation’s petroleum industry, he incurred the wrath of the British government. Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded newly elected US President Eisenhower to instruct the CIA to promote a coup deposing Mossadegh and reinstating Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as ‘Western friendly’ Shah. Twenty-six years of friendship and cooperation with the West, at the expense of looking after the folks back home, led to growing internal opposition, culminating in the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the currently ongoing troublesome rule of the mullahs.
If any of the foregoing surprises you, you may like to share it with friends who are keen to start another war in the Middle East. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”