Czechs and Chechens, Christians and Muslims

I read an article in a recent Time magazine by a gentleman who had apparently spent some time in Turkey and Israel. The gist of his thesis (as far as I could understand) was that he had found living in those countries strange because of the level of security evident in daily life. His main evidence for this in Turkey seemed to be a shortage of rubbish bins in public places.
Well, I will admit I have found this frustrating myself, but alongside the other difficulties one must surmount to live in a country without a tradition of British colonialism, it ranks as a relatively minor inconvenience. I have also got used to metal detectors and cursory security checks on entering the large modern shopping complexes mushrooming in every corner of the country. More surprising to me was the presence of a guard with an automatic weapon outside every police station, and small troops of armed uniformed soldiers jogging around the streets of my local neighbourhood. At least the latter phenomenon seems less in evidence these days since the justice system started calling top military brass to account for their roles in past military coups and planning of the next one.
I haven’t been to Israel, so I can’t speak for conditions there, but I suspect that, if anything, security will be more visible. Why wouldn’t it be? This is a dangerous region. Grievances go back a long way in a part of the world where Turks, in Asia Minor for a thousand years, are regarded by many as Johnny-come-latelies, and Islam, which took hold in the 7th century, as an uninvited guest who has outstayed his welcome.
Getting back to Turkey, it’s a question of give and take, don’t you think? I accept a certain level of visible security in return for feeling relatively safe on the streets and in public places. And I do, I really do! I feel safer in Istanbul than in my own home town of Auckland, for example. I may have mentioned before that I am a keen cyclist. Turkish friends are surprised when I tell them I feel less threatened cycling in the frenetic traffic of megalopolitan Istanbul than in underpopulated New Zealand. My anecdotal evidence was supported recently by a news item suggesting that motorists in NZ deliberately target people on bicycles. I can’t speak with authority about the United States, since my one brief visit doesn’t entitle me to make generalisations. However, I can say I would prefer to see the automatic weapon in the hands of a uniformed accountable servant of the state than freely available to any adolescent with bipolar disorder and a grudge against society.
We have friends in Boston, so we have been following with interest and concern news about the bombing at the annual marathon race. It was mightily impressive to see how the general public and law enforcement agencies united to catch the perpetrators within a matter of days. Still, I can’t help having some misgivings about the business. One question that comes to mind is how many security cameras operating 24/7 there must be in that city for authorities to see those two guys with their backpacks prior to what we must assume was a totally unexpected event. Do you prefer your security visible or invisible? Is it better to catch the lunatic fringe after the event or deter them beforehand? Of course, terrorist bombers are by definition dangerous characters, and you wouldn’t expect police officers to mess around with kid gloves – but it is surely unfortunate that one of the supects was shot dead and the other is fighting for his life in hospital, the gunshot wound in his throat making it difficult for him to tell his side of the story.
European geography clarified
My major concern, however, is the xenophobia that clearly lurks very close to the surface in the psyche of many US citizens. Much of it stems from ignorance, and America certainly has no monopoly on that human failing. I read that diplomatic staff representing the Czech Republic found it necessary to expain to denizens of the social media netherworld that Chechnya is in fact an entirely separate country, about as far from their borders as Cheyenne, Wyoming is from the White House – though Cheyenne is at least still in mainland USA. Forty percent of Czechs are reportedly Christian, with most of the rest preferring not to label themselves, which, apart from geographic location, differentiates them from the people of Chechnya who are, according to my source, overwhelmingly Muslim. In fact it’s a pity the bombing suspects weren’t of Czech origin since in that case we would probably have heard less about their religious affiliations.
Sadly, however, the Muslim connection seems to have been established, no doubt further cementing hatred in the minds of US and West European citizens all too ready to blame followers of the Prophet Muhammed for most of the world’s current problems. At least, then, we must be grateful that the two young men were not Iranian, otherwise Operation “Smash Iran Back to Paleolithic Oblivion” would probably already be under way. The Chechen connection is actually surprising. You might have expected the Moscow or St Petersburg marathon to be a preferred target, given that Russians have been suppressing, persecuting and displacing Muslim people of the Caucasus region for more than two centuries. But once guys get it into their minds to kill and maim ordinary citizens going about their lawful business, they’ve probably ceased thinking in ways that you and I can understand.
Another big question in my mind, though, is to what extent do these two sad Chechen lads represent the worldwide Islamic community of faith? And following from that, should we consider their Muslim affiliation the key rationale for their actions rather than their twisted personal psychological state? According to Wikipedia, approximately 1.6 billion people, or nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s population is Muslim. They are  the majority demographic in fifty countries, and speak sixty native languages. In addition, there are 178 million Muslims in India (roughly equivalent to the population of Pakistan), and around twenty million each in China, Russia and Ethiopia. By the law of averages, you’re going to expect a few nut cases amongst that lot.
Apparently it is less easy to get an accurate estimate of the number of Christians in the world. Most sources agree that Jesus leads the world’s largest religious congregation with numbers ranging from 1.5 to 2.2 billion. The same source tells me there are 125 countries with majority Christian populations, although that total includes a good number of international minnows, Greenland, the British Virgin Islands and the Falklands, for example. Somewhat to my surprise, my own homeland, New Zealand, only just scraped into the list of Christian nations with 55.6 percent, not, as you might suspect, because of vast inflows of Taoists, Shintos and Buddhists, but because, like the Czechs, most of you guys claim to be atheists or just want the pollsters to bugger off and mind their own business.
Speaking of Christians, it was George Bush the Son and his Holy Spiritual offsider, Tony Blah, professed Believers both, who led that ‘coalition of the willing’ back in 2003 – convinced, against all the evidence, that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. But then, weight of evidence to the contrary tends not to be a major factor in the belief system of the more dedicated follower of Christ. The USA is the most ‘Christian’ nation on Earth, with almost 250 million faithful, and around half of them are apparently convinced that Jesus Christ will return to Earth and Rapture them some time before the year 2050, though there is disagreement about the exact date.
Nevertheless, both Bush and Blah would have dearly loved to see Muslim Turkey join their band of willing helpers when they invaded Iraq, if only to show the world that it wasn’t just a latter-day Christian Crusade. Maybe Turkey missed a good opportunity there to join the Christian club as an honorary member – but sometimes you just have to stand up for what you believe is right – or against what you believe is wrong, would perhaps be more accurate.
These days it seems that the tide of opinion, even amongst previously willing supporters, has turned against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The number of Iraqi deaths is open to considerable debate – estimates range from one hundred thousand to more than a million. Even if you look at the lower end figures, the Iraq Body Count Project, generally accepted to be conservatively reliable, gives the  total as over 170,000 including 120,000 civilians.  The number of US military personnel killed is more precise – 4,409, with other ‘coalition’ deaths bringing the total to 4,799.
I certainly don’t want to make light of that awful day in Boston last month, especially since we know that one of the three killed was an eight-year-old child – and many of the injured will be maimed for life. Perhaps the bright spot in an otherwise tragic event is that those weapons of mass destruction surfaced after all, having made their way across the Middle East, Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to east coast USA. 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will apparently be charged with using them, and if convicted will, quite rightly, face the death penalty. I have to confess, however, to some disappointment that the WMDs turn out to have been relatively small bombs made in his big brother’s kitchen from domestic pressure cookers, rather than the more impressive chemical, biological and nuclear arsenal we were encouraged to believe in at the time.


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