Probably most of us living in benighted regions beyond the borders of the United States of America struggle to understand what makes that nation tick. We watch bemused the drawn-out hysteria of presidential elections; and world championship tournaments in sports that no one else plays. Occasionally we are granted an insight into the workings of the American mind that serves more to increase our puzzlement than dispel it – such as my recent discovery of what they mean when they speak of Black Friday.
To citizens of the USA, apparently, Black Friday refers to the day after Thanksgiving, always held on a Thursday, for no particular reason that I could ascertain. That Friday has become enshrined, it seems, as a national day of shopping, kick-starting the consumer frenzy leading up to Christmas and New Year celebrations – thereby getting struggling retailers ‘into the black’. These days, of course, all have their origins in the Christian religion – whose messages of peace and other-worldliness sit somewhat uncomfortably alongside the feverish materialism that characterises the modern celebrations.
Anyway, to outsiders, eating a turkey seems to be the major focus of Thanksgiving Day festivities – but that’s not the problem. What is triggering debate is the encroachment of Black Friday shopping on the traditionally sacred day, established in the Constitution by President Lincoln in 1863 so that citizens could deliver ‘Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And . . . with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.’ Behind the antiquated language we can perhaps discern admirable sentiments, although they were uttered in the midst of a catastrophic civil war.
America’s ‘Turkey’ problem, however, has more to do with the country than the bird. As First World nations clamour to join President Obama’s coalition of the sycophants, their news media have been criticising the government of Turkey for its perceived reluctance to engage wholeheartedly in his ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ against . . . whoever he thinks he is fighting in Iraq and Syria. But can you really blame them for showing a little hesitation? The US President has already admitted that his operation ‘is going to be a long-term campaign,’ and that would seem to be a reasonable expectation, given that its actual objectives are by no means clear.
George Bush the Father stormed into Iraq in 1991 and foxy Bill Clinton had another go in 1998. George the Son launched his Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002 – the name modified in 2010 by the Obama administration to Operation New Dawn. It’s hard to see much sunshine, though, amidst the smoke from all those billions of dollars of bombs and missiles unless your aim was to kill a lot of Muslims and drive more of them into the ranks of extremist anti-American fanaticism. The main result seems to have been the creation of a power vacuum in the region, in which so-called Islamist fundamentalists are vying for supremacy. I’d been curious about where this new ISIS outfit had come from. Apparently 500 or so senior al Qaeda operatives were busted out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in July last year – so I’m guessing now we don’t need to look much further than that.
Whoever those ISIS people are, it’s fairly evident that they are a symptom rather than a cause of the chaos in the region. The position adopted by the government of Turkey is that the United States and its allies need to consider the bigger picture. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote last week, in an article published in The Guardian newspaper, ‘Beyond Kobani, effective action requires a clear strategy and endgame. Everyone has to be prepared to play their part, and nobody should be left to bear the consequences alone. The number of Syrians from all ethnic and religious backgrounds who have fled and found refuge in Turkey continues to rise, and is now approaching 2 million people. Over the past couple of weeks 200,000 Syrians have arrived from Kobani. This burden has been appreciated in words but not in deeds. The costs so far have reached $4bn, and Turkey cannot continue to act as if it were the United Nations. A collective responsibility to address Syria’s plight, including a no-fly zone, becomes imperative.’
Sad to say, such apparently reasonable words are not what the United States government wants to hear. Why? Possibly because admitting that Turkey has a valid point will require the USA’s leaders to confront issues that they would rather ignore. Most commentators on US politics these days seem to accept that government policy, both within and without the Homeland is largely shaped by lobby groups. Wall Street, I guess, is Number One – but the Israel lobby is up there with the big ones. A recent article in The Independent called it ‘one of the most potent advocacy groups in Washington DC. . . Fall foul of the Israel lobby, with its financial muscle and ability to put the word out, and, it is said, your political career may be doomed.’ The Greeks also wield some clout, though their focus is rather narrower, aiming mainly at discrediting Turkey in the eyes of Americans and the world. Both groups work together when it suits them, lending support to and seeking it from the Armenian diaspora, especially since the Turkish Government has raised its voice against Israeli expansionism in Palestinian territories.
I turned up an article the other day that I’d put aside a year or so ago. It was published in the English edition of Hürriyet, a Turkish daily not very sympathetic to the current government, and written by one Burak Bekdil. The occasion was the release of a blockbuster movie from the Turkish film industry glorifying the achievements of Sultan Mehmet II in conquering the Byzantine Imperial capital Constantinople. Well, I confess I tried to watch that film,’Fetih [Conquest] 1453’, but I wasn’t able to see it through to the end, so I’m not here to defend its claim to cinematic distinction. What interested me at the time, and strikes me more strongly now is the feeling I got that the writer was not merely reviewing a film – but actually had a personal axe to grind.
Mr Bekdil complained that Turkey is the only country in Europe that celebrates having conquered its largest city from another nation by the sword. He asserted that Sultan Mehmet was too keen on Shariah and wanted to conquer the Byzantines for religious reasons. He made snide references to Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus and the so-called Armenian genocide, and lambasted Turks for refusing to use the word Constantinople. He mocked the Turkish government for its criticisms of modern Israel, claiming that ‘their ancestors had travelled from the steppes of Asia to capture Constantinople while the Jews are natives of Jerusalem’.
I don’t know Mr Bekdil’s ethnicity. He has a Turkish name – but I doubt if any Turk would be so ignorant of his country’s history. The article would be laughable if it weren’t that those lobby groups disseminate the same nonsense, and many otherwise intelligent, educated people in the West seem to accept them as truth.
In fact Turks really don’t celebrate the conquest of 29 May 1453, and it is not a national holiday, unlike Thanksgiving in the USA. 4 July may commemorate the fledgling republic’s victory over the British Empire – but certainly not much effort was made to restore the land to its native inhabitants. Americans were happy to accept the territorial benefits resulting from British imperial wrongs perpetrated against Native Americans. Perhaps modern French do not celebrate the Roman conquest of Paris and the rest of the country from Asterix and his Gaulish brethren; the English the victory of their Germanic Anglo-Saxon forebears over the native Picts and Celts, but those events happened nonetheless. New Zealanders of Caucasian extraction still insist on celebrating 6 February as Waitangi Day – when Maori chieftains were pretty much conned into signing their land over to Queen Victoria. And Australians turn on major displays of fireworks and what not to laud the arrival of convict ancestors and their military jailers back in 1788.
Was the city of Constantinople seized from another nation? And was the Ottoman conquest driven by religious motives? Pretty questionable. The Byzantine Graeco-Romans represented the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire, a cosmopolitan, multinational entity which in its later years was ruled by emperors who were definitely not Roman/Italian – or Greek. The retrospective concept of a Greek nation happened towards the end of the 18th century with the encouragement of aristocratic English Hellenophiles. By 1453 the once great city of Constantinople had been reduced to its pre-Constantinian scale, a small island of Byzantium in a vast sea of Ottoman domains, with a population of perhaps 50,000. Bekdil concedes that Sultan Mehmet’s mother was Greek and that Ottomans were remarkably tolerant of religious differences. In fact it was probably Mehmet’s family ties to the Greek royals that preserved the city so long, and its conquest was pretty much the last nail in the Byzantine Greek coffin.
Admittedly Turks are not keen on the word Constantinople. I remind my students that the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, not Istanbul, though, as the writer implies, that name may already have been in use before the conquest, if it was in fact a corruption of ‘to the city’, or even of ‘Constantinople’ itself. Anti-Israel protests are pretty rare in Turkey, and not well attended – but the number of countries in the world that actually support Israel’s expansionist policies in Palestine is small – the United Nations frequently objects. Without US support, would that country survive? Equally, modern Greeks, and some English writers who definitely should know better refuse to use the name ‘Istanbul’. Check the old 50s song. It’s been 461 years now, and the chances of Turks packing up and returning to Central Asia are pretty low.
Did Turks come from Central Asia to seize and pillage the great Christian city? That’s pretty dubious history too. A Seljuk Turkish army under the Sultan Alparslan conquered the Byzantine Roman-Greeks at Manzikert in 1071, so they were in Anatolia in force for almost four centuries before capturing Constantinople. Even before that they had been living in the region for a good long time, enough to become Muslims. Ignoring that, however, nine centuries of intermarriage with locals and constant immigration from surrounding lands has ensured that the proportion of Central Asian DNA in modern Turkey is surprisingly low. The concept of Turkishness that continues to feed Western prejudices and nationalist Greek fervour owes more to Western prejudice itself, and to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s need to foster a spirit of national identity than to any real biological genetic inheritance. Bekdil said it would be hard to think of the English celebrating the conquest of London or the Germans of Berlin – though England was conquered by the Norman French in 1066, around the time that the Seljuk Turks won that first crucial victory over the Byzantines, and aristocratic Brits have long been happy to lay claim to Norman French ancestry.
Did the Turks invade Cyprus? Truth to tell, problems there can be attributed more to attempts by the modern kingdom/republic of Greece to annex the island than to Turkish aggression. I have written enough on the Armenian business in the past, and I made a kind of vow not to revisit it, so I’m not going to. If you’re interested click here.
As for the idea of Jews being natives of Jerusalem, that must be one of the more mischievous fictions about in the world today, if in fact it is widely held. Judaism was for a time one of the religions of what is now called the Middle East until its adherents were finally dispersed by Roman Empire in the 2nd century CE. Prior to that and subsequently, Jewish people migrated to all corners of Europe and farther afield, mixing with other peoples and races in their new homes. Hebrew as a language may have been preserved in religious ritual by some, but most adopted other languages – Yiddish and Spanish for example. Hebrew was re-adopted after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947 in much the same way as was classical Greek when Western European powers for political reasons of their own, used their military power to wrest territory from the Ottomans and establish a tiny kingdom they called Greece back in 1821. The Jewish community in Turkey are largely Sephardic Jews whose ancestors, fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, were welcomed by the 15th century Sultan Beyazit. They were arguably more natives of Spain than of Jerusalem, and their language was, and in worship I believe, still is Ladino Spanish.
The population of Turkey is predominantly Muslim. It would be surprising if their leaders were not of that faith – just as Americans expect their President to at least pay lip service to Christian doctrine and practices. Perhaps 20% of Turkey’s population is Kurdish – and the current government is trying to solve a problem that has been simmering and sometimes exploding for 90 years. Armenia, Iran and Iraq lie just on the other side of Turkey’s eastern borders; ‘Greek’ islands an almost swimmable distance from its western coast. American singer-songwriter Joe South had a hit in 1970 with the song ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’. You might want to click and listen.