What’s Turkey’s problem?

erdogan danger

Turkey hasn’t used the Arabic alphabet for 90 years! Beware of Photoshop!

Some people don’t like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That’s ok, I guess. Outside of North Korea, there aren’t too many countries where the president gets a 100% approval rating. Even in the USA, the latest poll conducted by NBS News and the Wall St Journal showed Barack Obama with 51% support – and that’s not counting the people who don’t bother registering because of America’s electoral sham. Nevertheless, NBS and WSJ seem to think that’s pretty damn good. It’s the best he’s had for years.

But still, they’re only polling US registered voters. I haven’t seen any indication that anyone over there is asking whether the rest of the world want Hillary or Donald to take over the big job in November – or neither of the above. They don‘t care, do they? So why should Turkey care what Western media say about their president? Or perhaps more to the point, why do Western media think it’s any of their business?

England’s PM David Cameron went on record the other day saying that Turkey could expect to join the European Union somewhere around the year 3000. Apparently he was trying to reassure UK voters, prior to the British referendum on EU membership, that Europe is not about to be overrun by another horde of marauding horsemen from Central Asia. But, to be fair, that’s probably a more honest appraisal of Turkey’s chances than you’ll hear elsewhere.

Successive governments of Western Europe have kept Turkey dangling on a string for more than sixty years. They were quite happy to have Turkey play a buffer role against Soviet Russia during the Cold War, using its convenient location for siting several nuclear missile bases. They accepted Turkey as an associate member in 1963, and magnanimously permitted its government to apply for full membership in 1987. Well, that’s nearly thirty years now, and the odds against seem to be lengthening rather than shrinking.

Why? A recent article in Time Magazine provided some of the answers. ‘It’s time for Turkey and Europe to face reality’ said the headline, but the only argument of any substance was the Cyprus issue. Even that is debatable at best. The United Nations and Britain were supposed to protect the island’s independence, but failed to do so when Greece’s military junta attempted a takeover in 1974, forcing Turkey, as the third guarantor, to step in. UN attempts to find a solution have repeatedly foundered on Greek intransigence. Another dubious argument is geographical. Only 3 percent of Turkey’s territory is, strictly speaking, in Europe’ says the writer – yet the gnomes of Brussels would dearly love to have Ukraine in their club, never mind that two-thirds of that country lies east of Istanbul. Isn’t it time modern Europe let go of the ancient Greek and Roman definition of Asia starting at the Bosporus? So where does it start in Russia, which stretches 7,000 km east from Poland, beyond China, Korea and Japan?

We get nearer to the truth of the matter when the Time correspondent points out that, in 2014, 69% of Germans and 83% of French were opposed to Turkey joining the EU. Again we may ask why? And in a previous post, ‘Why do they hate Turkey?’ I addressed this question. In short, I believe there is a deeply ingrained fear and hatred of an abstract concept of ‘Turks’ going back a thousand years, fed and nourished regularly by political and religious leaders, and in modern times, by the mass media. Criticism of Mr Erdoğan is merely the latest manifestation of this – it really wouldn’t matter who led the country.


Who’s kidding who?

Istanbul has just finished playing host to the first World Humanitarian Summit under the auspices of the United Nations. Apart from Germany’s Angela Merkel, however, leaders of western First World countries were conspicuous by their absence. The number of refugees from the Syrian civil war now in Turkey is estimated at 2.7 million. Politicians and news media in the West persist in criticising Turkey while adding fuel to a humanitarian disaster that has been raging for more than five years. A spokesperson from MSF (Doctors Without Borders) said it was ‘unlikely that the same countries who are currently shirking their obligations to refugees would turn over a new leaf next week’. Oxfam’s chief executive spoke of a need totackle the repeated failure of governments to resolve conflicts and end the culture of impunity in which civilians are killed without consequence’.

So who are the real guilty ones? Associated Press reported on 29 April that a US AC-130 gunship, ‘bristling with side-firing cannons and guns’, fired on a charity-run hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz for 30 minutes before it was realized that the attack was a mistake and the real target was an Afghan intelligence agency building half a kilometre away. 42 innocent civilians were killed and an unknown number injured in the attack. The U.S. government has made “gesture of sympathy” payments of $3,000 to each injured person and $6,000 to each family of the killed.

msf hospital

Remains of Kunduz MSF hospital after US ‘mistake’.

Well, at least the US is kind of at war with Afghanistan. Their government seems to reserve the right to take out people they consider enemies wherever they are. 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama confirmed last week that an American drone strike had killed an Afghan Taliban leader IN PAKISTAN as part of a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability’. The deceased gentleman, Muhammad Mansour was apparently considered a threat to American forces in Afghanistan – where the latter have been working for peace for fifteen years. In another positive move towards global peace, Obama was reported on 23 May as announcing an end to the US arms embargo on Vietnam. Vietnam apparently, is emerging as ‘a key strategic partner for the United States’ despite being a police state whose president was formerly head of the Ministry of Public Security, a para-military outfit set up with the assistance of China and Soviet Russia. You can check out a recent report on the state of democracy in Vietnam here.

The justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, you will recall, was the demolition of the Twin Towers World Trade Centre back in 2001. It seems certain, however, that the US government has been steadfastly refusing to release documents confirming the role played by Saudi Arabia in the New York attacks. Meanwhile, another recent Time article informed us that Americans want a military general in the White House. God bless them!

Armed Staff at School

ISD = Independent School District. So who’s got problems?

Still if that fails, there’s always Donald Trump. The likely Republican presidential candidate was quoted the other day as suggesting that some teachers in the United States should be armed with guns inside their classrooms. Even if you are one of those who think the big DT is crazy, the fact that he can say it and be reported in reputable news media suggests that it wouldn’t go amiss if some of the billions currently spent on military hardware were redirected to the homeland education system.

That’s not very likely, however. Worldwatch Institute reports that the 5% of the world’s population who live in America consume a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources; and together with Western Europe, 12% account for 60% of the world’s consumer spending. An article in The Guardian reported that the wealthiest 0.01% of US citizens own as much of the nation’s wealth as the bottom 90%. That figure may be marginally less in Western Europe, but nevertheless, it’s pretty evident that such inequality can only ultimately be sustained at the point of a gun.

Turkey’s problem could well be your problem too!


Anti-Turkey Bullswool

My New Zealand diplomatic people in Ankara send me regular updates on how they view the security situation in Turkey. Recently I got this one:

‘We now advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk). This is an increase to the risk level for Ankara and Istanbul.’

On 9 April 2016, the US Embassy in Ankara advised US citizens of credible threats to tourist areas, in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya.

Belgium bomb

While in Brussels don’t forget to ride the Metro

So if you had been thinking of a trip to Turkey in the near future, you may now be reconsidering. On the other hand, Auckland’s number one (and only) newspaper, The NZ Herald, published a travel advisory on 23 March entitled ‘Why you need to visit Belgium’. The piece begins:

‘We love Belgium. This week’s terror attacks in Brussels have cast a pall over a beautiful country.

The best thing Kiwi travellers can do? Put Belgium on the list for your next European visit. Here are five reasons to visit the home of Tintin and great chocolate.’

Well, I’m ok with The Herald’s position here. In fact, the best response to terror is to get on with your life and not bow to the fear. I do, however, find the contrasting advice somewhat paradoxical. Especially given the rather limited list of attractions the writer offers to recommend Belgium:

Apparently the food is great, though specifics boil down to chocolate, waffles and hot chips! There’s a comic culture, and it’s not just about Tintin! Beer is plentiful and available in 1,000 varieties. There are lots of markets, and Christmas time is especially lovely. AND THE CLINCHER . . . There are 67 kilometres of coastline! That’s about the same length as Auckland’s Muriwai beach, in the entire country!


Picturesque Belgian beach

The whole glowing article took 435 words – approximately the number of people you can expect to rub shoulders with per square metre of beach, I’d say, during Belgium’s month-long summer. My guess is, if you don’t have local friends to entertain you, you’ll be lucky to last a week. I’m not going to begin to list the attractions of Turkey. I reckon you could spend 435 days here, and do something memorably different every day.

Sadly, Western news media everyday publish ‘news’ and opinion pieces denigrating Turkey and its government. I have in front of me a page from CNN’s website penned by a Turkish academic and follower of the shadowy ex-pat. Fethullah Gülen. It’s not so long ago that Gülen was arousing much suspicion in his adopted homeland, America, and was the evil bogeyman of Turkey’s secular elite. In the last couple of years, however, there has been an about-face, and the mysterious Muslim cleric seems to have become the darling of anti-government propagandists within the country and abroad. We hear the same criticisms repeated again and again:

President Erdoğan is polarizing Turkish society.

In fact, a noisy minority of Erdoğan-haters has been doing its best to polarize Turkish society since the AK Party was elected to govern in 2002.

The state cracked down brutally on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, and holding public protests has become a life-risking activity.

Political protests in Turkey have always been known for violence. The so-called Gezi Park protests attracted a motley collection of anti-Erdoğanists with nothing in common other than their hatred of him. Some of the protesters may have been well-meaning tree-huggers, but there was the usual hard core of anarchic vandals.

The government is waging a war of terror on peace-loving Kurdish villagers.

The AK Party government made genuine efforts to work out a peace process with its Kurdish minority, including the establishment of Kurdish-language TV channels and the opening of a previously impossible dialogue. The US government, on the other hand, has been supporting and supplying Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria for years for its own ends, making it more difficult to find a solution in Turkey. The PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization.

Opposition media and members of parliament are harassed by the government and its supporters.

Political opposition to government policies is one thing – libelous personal attacks and deliberate incitement to violence quite another. Freedom has its limits.

Erdoğan has been seeking to change the constitution to create an all- powerful, executive-style presidency.

This is what the United States already has. But anyway, Mr Erdoğan can’t change the constitution by himself. There is a democratic process that must be followed. The USA might benefit from public debate on its own incomprehensible electoral system.

Reporters Without Borders call Turkey “the biggest prison for journalists in the world.”

This is nonsense. Who are these journalists that are in prison? Can we see a list of names?


Memories of Turkey’s 1980 military coup linger on

The writer of this article, Alp Aslandoğan, says: ‘I was a middle school student in the 1970s during another period of instability, when armed groups thrived and thousands of young people were killed. I’m even more worried for Turkey now.’

I would wonder what a 12-year-old child of a privileged Turkish family really understood of the political chaos that reigned in his country in the 1970s; chaos that began with a military coup in 1960 when the Prime Minister was summarily hanged by the coup-leaders, and continued through the 1990s until the most recent military intervention in 1997. Anyone who says that Turkey is less democratic now is either ignorant of his (or her) own history, or deliberately distorting the facts for some ulterior purpose. ‘Thousands of young people were killed’ then – and it’s worse now?

Then there are the accusations of government corruption. Even if these accusations had been proven, which they haven’t, they would pale into insignificance beside previous governments that twiddled their thumbs while presiding over decades of banana-republic inflation, as they allowed 90% of the country to languish in medieval backwardness.


Not everyone loves him either

Like me, you may have been following with interest the current scandal unfolding as a result of the ‘Panama papers’ leaks. One of my foreign colleagues, outspoken critic of Turkey’s AKP government, expressed surprise that Mr Erdoğan and his people had not been mentioned as involved in this ocean of money-laundering and tax evasion. British Prime Minister Cameron, however, has been named, and is facing calls to resign from his own citizens and local media.

NZ protest

New Zealand police dealing with protester

New Zealand, it seems, is one of the countries recommended by lawyers Mossack Fonseca to their mega-rich clients as a reliable place to hide cash. Prime Minister John Key has made no secret of his grand scheme to turn our tiny nation into the Switzerland of the South Pacific. And what exactly does that entail? Mr Key has made a name for himself over the past year for his sponsorship of a project to change NZ’s flag, pushing ahead with referenda despite apparent lack of public support. Just yesterday it emerged that much of the financial backing for Mr Key’s questionable project came from ‘wealthy Chinese donors’ wooed at secret private fund-raising luncheons – which must surely raise speculation as to how much the NZ PM’s political success depends on those same wealthy Chinese donors. Despite his government’s repeated denials, it seems certain that the property boom making Auckland houses amongst the world’s most unaffordable, has been driven by rich Chinese ‘investors’.

Another frequent criticism leveled at Turkey’s government is that they are ‘Islamic-rooted’, whatever that means. So it was with interest that I read on Friday that Democratic presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, beloved of the American intellectual Left, has accepted an invitation from Pope Francis to attend a conference in the Vatican just four days before the New York Primary. According to NBC, ‘Since 1972, the winner of the popular vote in every presidential race won the Catholic vote, going by the exit polls. From Nixon in 1972 to Obama in 2012.’ And what has the Catholic Church got to say about a woman’s right to choose? Anyone? Anyone?

Sanders and pope

Bernie Sanders – friends in high places

So don’t expect too much from President Sanders, is my advice, even if he does manage to edge out Mrs Clinton for the Democratic nomination – and whichever capitalist ignoramus the Republicans select. Previous darling of the liberal Left, Barack Obama, has had eight years to close Guantanamo Prison as he promised – and those unconvicted inmates are still waiting. On Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged that “civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been” in past U.S. drone strikes, but said the administration is now “very cautious” about striking where women or children are present. Good to hear – especially for those families of civilians killed in previous US drone strikes. Mr Obama went on to say, “In situations of war, you know, we have to take responsibility when we’re not acting appropriately.” As far as I’m aware, however, the United States has not actually declared war on any of those countries whose citizens they are killing with drone strikes. But maybe that’s just a semantic quibble.


Not the only beach in Turkey – and five months of summer

Anyway, what I really want to say here is, if you were thinking of a trip to Turkey, don’t be put off by the bad publicity. If you’re American, you or your children are probably more likely to be shot by a disaffected nutcase in a random massacre; or if you’re an Asian in New Zealand, to get mugged on the street by young hooligans. It’s a dangerous world – but Turkey is a beautiful country. There may not be a thousand varieties of beer, but there are a thousand-and-one other things to do.

Why the Hate? Is there something I’m missing?

Business Insider is not a source of news I visit regularly. If you asked my opinion, I’d probably say that anyone who would call their website that, or work for such an organisation, must be a selfish jerk of majestic proportions.

The answer can't be b, so it must be a

The answer can’t be b, so it must be a

Nevertheless, in my roaming around the Internet my attention is occasionally grabbed by some outrageous headline, and so it was just the other day: ‘Turkey’s flirtation with terrorism is falling apart’ (Sept 16). I don’t know who the writers are – a guy and girl, Natasha and Michael, and I can’t be bothered googling them. I’ve had some negative feedback in the past after checking the backgrounds of foreign ‘journalists’ writing smear stuff about Turkey, and publishing their connections to Israeli Zionism.

This particular article claims that A key Hamas official who operated out of Turkey for years was sanctioned [whatever that means] last week by the US Treasury Department for his role in organizing and inciting terrorism in the West Bank and Israel.

And given Ankara’s history for working with US-designated terrorists — and some of the disastrous implications by those connections [strange preposition] — the most recent designation [??] shows how Turkey’s quiet dance with terrorism finance is falling apart.’ [Does this sentence make sense?]

Well, the name ‘Natasha’ has bad connotations in Turkey – but I’m not going into that. Neither name sounds particularly Jewish, and maybe those young business insiders are not aware that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, forms the largest part of Palestine. 80% of the population is Palestinian Arabs – and the 500,000 Israeli settlers are considered illegal by the international community (apart from the USA). It may well be that the US government considers Hamas a terrorist organization – but some might ask what a red-blooded Palestinian should do when Israel and their American backers ignore United Nations appeals to stop their racist Zionist expansionism.

From the Tea Party website. Will the real religious nutcases please stand up?

From the Tea Party website. Will the real religious nutcases please stand up?

I don’t know how many of Natasha-and-Michael’s claims are true. How do they know that Ankara has provided $300 million to Hamas, for example. But being ‘journalists’, they don’t have to list their sources, so we are expected to take their word for it.

What I find surprising is the amount of hatred I see expressed regularly in American news media towards Turkey and its democratically elected government. After all, Turkey has been a key member of NATO since it was formed after the Second World War, and acted as a crucial buffer state against Soviet expansion during the Cold War. Turks even allowed the Yanks to site several nuclear missile installations targeting the USSR in those days, obviously putting themselves at serious risk in the fight to make the world safe for democracy and capitalism. You’re supposed to be on the same side, guys! What’s going on?

A few days later, our Natasha went out on her own with an even more unpleasant piece: Turkey has a huge problem that it has no idea how to deal with’ (Sept 21). While recognizing that Militias in eastern Turkey aligned with the insurgent Kurdish PKK have taken the war against the state to the streets’ and ‘reportedly killed 33 police officials in recent days’ the young lady appears to be criticising the government of Turkey for responding with escalating force. I wonder what she thinks of the Israeli government’s murderously disproportionate response to the occasional violent protest by desperate Palestinians.

How can we account for the apparent glee expressed here by a US news source when a key ally is struggling to contain vicious attacks on police and civilians by members of an outlawed group recognised as a terrorist organisation by NATO and the European Union? The United States government has applied considerable pressure on Ankara to join the fight against ISIS/Daesh – whoever they are – who, as far as I know, have posed no actual danger to anyone on American soil.

Turkish democracy 1980-style - with US govt approval!

Turkish democracy 1980-style – with US govt approval!

Natasha does quote a source this time, a certain Halil M Karaveli, a rabidly anti-Turkish journalist who I did take the trouble to check out a year or so ago. His young protégé employs the same journalistic techniques of logical non-sequiturs, unsubstantiated assertions and unexplained innuendo. For example:

‘President Recep Erdogan’s renewed war with the Kurdish PKK has raised questions about how much political power he will ultimately cede to the military.’ Whose war? The PKK have been carrying out terrorist attacks on Turkish security forces and innocent civilians. Whoever is asking those questions clearly has no knowledge of the political system in Turkey.

‘As Halil M. Karaveli noted in the New York Times, Erdogan’s imposition of “de facto emergency rule” throughout Turkish Kurdistan has forced him to give political control back to the Turkish military, effectively reversing what was once a cornerstone of his presidency.’ ‘De facto’?? There is no such place as ‘Turkish Kurdistan’, or any other Kurdistan, for that matter. Is the writer suggesting that the military has been given political control of Turkey? If this is ‘journalism’ these people deserve to be locked up.

‘Before his party lost its parliamentary majority back in June, Erdogan had been trying to expand his presidential authority beyond its mostly symbolic role.’ So Mr Erdoğan has no actual say in the day-to-day governing of Turkey – and changing the constitution requires a 60% majority of the democratically elected parliament.

‘The unexpected loss effectively derailed Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate more power, prompting him to call for a snap election if talks to form a coalition government — which he reportedly opposed from the outset — failed.’ Doesn’t the AK Party’s failure to win an absolute majority clearly show that the election was not rigged in any way? The other three parties refused to cooperate in a coalition with AK Party, but hate each other almost as much as they hate the government.

‘New elections have been set for November 1st, but what happens before then may determine whether or not those elections are legitimate.’ See the previous point.

“How far will Erdogan go in violating Turkey’s democratic norms,” asks Foreign Policy’s Nick Danforth, “and how effective will they prove in constraining him?” In fact Turkey didn’t have a great record of democratic government before the appearance of Mr Erdoğan and his AK Party on the scene. Three actual military coups and a virtual one took place between 1960 and 1997. What is Nick Danforth’s point?

I have been reading for some years reports that Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world. Figures vary considerably, so I can’t tell you how many there actually are. What I can do is quote from a recent article published on Huffington Post (15 September) written by an assistant professor at Istanbul’s Marmara University. In the course of the article, the learned gentleman says of Tayyip Erdoğan:

Like the Ottoman sultans of centuries past, Erdoğan resorted to all manner of intrigue to undermine his political opponents and protect himself.

Erdogan is saying to voters: give me the majority I need to change the constitution, or suffer the consequences — i.e., political turmoil and social instability.

Since June 7, Turkey has gradually begun to spiral out of control, with a plummeting currency and a rapidly deteriorating security situation.

In the midst of a political and security crisis, it is doubtful whether Turkey can hold truly free and fair elections six weeks from now. Why then has Erdogan opted for such chaos and conflict?

[Opposition leader] Kılıçdaroglu has stirred up controversy in the past by referring to Erdogan as the “prime thief” and the AKP government as a “kleptocratic regime.”

Many Turkish officers who were opposed to the ceasefire to begin with surely feel that they are being used as political pawns by Erdogan, who is now asking them to give their lives fighting the PKK.

In his final paragraph, the professor stops just short of calling on the Turkish army to oust Mr Erdoğan by force, but the wish seems to be in his mind. I have been reading this kind of inflammatory rhetoric posing as journalism in this country’s media since the AK Party came to power 13 years ago, and I wonder what those imprisoned ‘journalists’ had to do or say to get themselves locked up.

Illustrating the apparently irreconcilable contradictions in the barrage of criticism directed at Mr Erdoğan since his days as highly popular and successful Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, another recent article in a foreign source had this to say:

Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014, has become the single most important force driving today’s Turkish foreign and domestic policy—the new sultan, as both his critics and admirers have dubbed him. He has emasculated the nation’s once-powerful military as a domestic political force: Starting in 2007, his government launched a massive investigation into an alleged several-years-old coup plot, accusing top generals and officers, opposition leaders, journalists, and academics of conspiracy and, by 2013, jailing nearly 300 of them. This helped cement his position as the most potent leader in modern Turkey’s history, with the exception of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, its founder.’

So who's fighting for democracy and freedom of speech?

So who’!s fighting for democracy and freedom of speech?

So he is a sultan without an army. The writer seems to regret that Turkey’s military is no longer a domestic political force. Some would argue that military interference in Turkey’s domestic affairs over a 40-year period was anything but democratic – and some believe that, if Erdoğan and his government had not pulled the teeth of the generals, there would have been a fifth military coup to oust his popularly elected government.

The writer, Yigal Schleifer, has an interesting CV. As well as appearing in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Foreign Policy, it seems he also writes for Christian Science Monitor and the Jerusalem Report, so who knows where his perspective on world affairs is located – but I have my suspicions. Anyway, his article here is subtitled WHY TURKEY’S RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN MAY BE THE NEXT PUTIN.’

Once again, it’s not easy to pin down exactly what is meant here. Can we expect Erdoğan to pursue a political career in Russia if he is shunned by Turkey? Or is Yigal Schleifer making some value judgment about Vladimir Putin’s presidency and suggesting a comparison with Turkey’s man? I read an article the other day on Bloomberg Business reporting that bankers and financiers were fleeing Russia as a result of President Putin’s policies. Well, if that is the case, those policies may well be worth a second look. Maybe President Obama could pick up some tips on how to get Wall St under control. An article in Newsweek complained that Putin’s Gambit of Destabilizing His Independent Neighbors Is Working.’ If the Russian leader is pursuing such a policy, it would only be emulating what Israel and the United States have been doing for decades. Turkey under AKP rule, on the other hand, followed a ‘Zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy for some years – and was soundly mocked for it.

To round off this quick overview of the semi-hysterical vitriol I constantly see hurled at the Turkish government, let me refer to an article that appeared in England’s Independent back in August, entitled, While Erdogan is ensconced in his opulent new palace, Turkey is on the brink of civil war.’ Robert Ellis vents about Erdoğan’s ‘delusion of neo-Ottoman grandeur’, suggests he is ‘intent on creating what many see as his own caliphate’, and ends with a rhetorical flourish and classical allusion: ‘President Erdogan is safely ensconced in his opulent new palace like the Roman emperor Nero who fiddled while Rome burned.’ On the contrary, many anti-government Turks believe Erdoğan gets out too much in an attempt to influence the vote for his party. Who’s right? And does anyone ever refer to the DC White House as Obama’s palace? As far as I know, it goes with the job. Finish your term in office – move out. Same in Turkey I guess.

Till death do us part - and maybe beyond . . .

Till death do us part – and maybe beyond . . .

Well, we had a torrential downpour in Bodrum yesterday – shops and houses flooded, cars washed away down flooding streets. Act of God, you might say – but I hear some folks are blaming Turkey’s President! Of course, no one is forced to love the guy, but I do find it hard to understand the almost fanatical hatred he has seemingly aroused, at home and abroad.

Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to prison for corruption, and Nicolas Sarkozy could go the same way. Barack Obama has broken, or failed to perform on, most of his first time election promises. George Dubya Bush and Tony Blah led their respective nations on a crusade to destroy a far weaker country on the basis of lies and deceit; Britain’s David Cameron has been reported as having a history of kinky relations with deceased barnyard animals – yet none of these guys seems to field a fraction of the venomous fury that Mr Erdoğan has suffered for the better part of twenty years. What’s it all about?

A Passage to India – with David Cameron and Boris Johnson

Well, it seems good Queen Bess is not going to give the Koh-i Noor diamond back to India – in case anyone had seriously expected she would. It will remain there, sparkling in the crown worn by queens of Great Britain, as it has since 1901 when it was set there for Alexandra, Consort of King Edward VII, and placed on her royal head at their coronation.
Now I understand it’s not a popular decision in India, so Elizabeth R is probably secretly pleased she didn’t have to deliver the bad news herself. One of the advantages of constitutional monarchy is being able to delegate such responsibilities to your Prime Minister, or ‘First Lord of the Treasury’, as I learnt he or she is still quaintly known in official circles. As a result, it was David Cameron who was given the task of informing the government and people of the Republic of India that the legendary jewel, expropriated by the British East India Company in 1850, would stay where it was, or is. News coverage quoted Cameron as comparing the diamond to the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’, formerly decorating the Parthenon in Athens, and on display, since 1816, in the British Museum in London – which the Brits also have no intention of returning. So, I guess Cameron managed to upset the Greeks and the Indians with one impolitic word.
Nevertheless, the news wasn’t all bad for India. PM Cameron apparently took the opportunity, while visiting the country recently, to stop by the Sikh holy city of Amritsar and ‘pay his respects’ at the memorial to the hundreds of unarmed Indian civilians who were massacred by soldiers of the British Raj on 13 April 1919 – the first British Prime Minister to do so, so credit where credit’s due. While accepting that the massacre was a ‘deeply shameful event’, Cameron stopped short of offering an apology, saying, I dont think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.’
Well and good, if acknowledging, recalling and understanding what happened is what you actually do. On the other hand, there are knowledgeable people in India today with the feeling that what contemporary British governments prefer to do is sweep past events under the carpet, take a selective view of history and tippex out the parts that don’t fit with the national view of Britishness as characterized by honesty and fair play.
That diamond, for example, was added to Queen Victoria’s jewellery collection by a certain Lord Dalhousie at the conclusion of the Second Sikh War in 1850. If you want to know why the British were fighting wars in India (and Afghanistan) at that time, you’d better look it up elsewhere – it’s a fascinating story. Suffice it to say here that the Sikhs were defeated, their territory, the Punjab, was incorporated into British India, and the Koh-i Noor diamond passed, along with other spoils of war, into British hands.
I don’t know what else they acquired at the time, but the diamond itself was quite a prize. According to Wikipedia, one of Nādir Shāh [an 18thcentury Shah of Iran]‘s consorts supposedly said, “If a strong man should take five stones, and throw one north, one south, one east, and one west, and the last straight up into the air, and the space between filled with gold and gems, that would equal the value of the Koh-i Noor.”’ Still, when you read what happened after the gem got back to England, you can’t help thinking there must have been some guilty consciences. Queen Vickie’s beloved husband Albert apparently had the jewel significantly cut from 186 to 105 carats because he didn’t like the look of it. The Wikipedia entry goes on to tell us, ‘It is believed that the Koh-i Noor carries with it a curse which affects men who wear it, but not women.’ Subsequently the crown in which it is set has only been worn by female British royalty. Well, we’re not scared of that heathen mumbo jumbo, but why take unnecessary risks?
Some seven years after the Sikhs had been subdued, more violence broke out in an event generally referred to in British history as the Indian Mutiny. Indians tend to prefer calling it a nationalist uprising, but Brits justify their position by pointing out that many of the participants were employed as soldiers in the Queen’s regiments. Interestingly, this time, defeat of the rebels was aided by the Sikhs, a proud warrior race. Apparently they chose to support the British because of their hatred and contempt for the Hindu sepoys who had helped to defeat them in the previous decade. Sixty years later, they were perhaps wishing they had taken a longer term view.
The British Empire was starting to creak a little by the early 20thcentury, and the movement seeking Indian independence was growing stronger. Nevertheless, nationalists refrained from taking advantage of Britain’s difficulties in the First World War, even contributing militarily to the imperial cause and taking heavy casualties. When hostilities ended, however, there was a natural desire to get back to business as usual, which meant, among other things, that India would resume its place as literal and figurative jewel in the crown of empire. Nationalist meetings were discouraged and in 1919 large public gatherings were banned.
The crowd that assembled in Amritsar on 13 April was entirely peaceful, with a religious rather than a political purpose. The city is the site of the Sikh Golden Temple, a place of pilgrimage. The crowd assembled in the Jallianwala Bagh (garden), estimated at between twenty and thirty thousand, included unarmed men, women and children of all ages. The official inquiry after the event heard that General Reginald Dyer, wishing to teach a lesson of unquestioning obedience to the Indian people, ordered his troops to fire on the assembled multitude, who had no way to escape from the enclosed space. Firing continued for ten minutes, during which 1,650 rounds of .303 Lee Enfield ammunition were expended. British and Indian sources dispute the number of dead, but indisputable is the fact that these were trained soldiers firing with lethal intent at defenseless civilians from close range. Does the word ‘shameful’ do justice to that, I wonder?
Admittedly, Winston Churchill did, at the time, use the word ‘monstrous’ to describe the atrocity – but generally he seems to have been unsympathetic to, even contemptuous of the Indian people. There was a feeling among the British ruling elite at the time that General Dyer had done the right thing, and certainly India remained subjugated. There also seem to have been attempts made to keep the event a secret, but, As Kurt Vonnegut said later of the 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden, ‘I wrote the Air Force back then, asking for details about the raid . . . who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on. I was answered by a man who, like[1] myself, was in public relations. He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.
I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, “Secret? My God—from whom?”’
Getting back to the business of acknowledging, recalling and understanding events of the past, I am currently reading an interesting book, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. The author, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has chosen his one hundred objects from that institution’s stupendous collection. One chapter describes a 2000 year-old Native American carved stone pipe found at Mound City, Ohio. Discussing the use of tobacco, MacGregor mentions that it came late to Europe, and that ‘Bremen and Bristol, Glasgow and Dieppe all grew rich on American tobacco’. I can’t speak for the other three cities, but it is well known that the wealth of Bristol (and Liverpool) derived from what is euphemistically referred to as the Triangular Trade, which involved shipping manufactured goods to West Africa, exchanging them for local natives who were then transported to the Americas and sold as slaves to work on the plantations. The produce of these plantations, part of which was certainly tobacco, was then brought back for sale in Britain, but the whole truth seems to be missing from Mr MacGregor’s glib statement.
Another book I read recently, ‘Colossus’by Niall Ferguson[2], discusses the question of whether the modern-day US is an empire – and there does seem to be reluctance among the rich and powerful to accept that their behaviour is not much different from that of other historical elites. Chapter 35 in ‘100 Objects’ quotes Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and an Oxford classics graduate, as saying, ‘If you think about the tsars [of Russia], the Kaiser, the tsars of Bulgaria, Mussolini, Hitler and Napoleon, all of them have tried to imitate that Roman iconography, that Roman approach, a great part of which began with Augustus’. If you think about Mayor Boris’s list, you might suspect there is at least one major omission.
3rd Century BCE Hellenistic coin
with image of war goddess Athena
An earlier chapter in MacGregor’s book describes a coin with the head of Alexander, dating from around 300 BCE. The obverse of the coin depicts ‘the goddess Athena Nikephoros, bringer of victory, carrying her spear and shield. She is the divine patroness of Greeks and goddess of war.’ When I was a lad in New Zealand in pre-decimal currency days, there were still to be found old bronze pennies from the reign of Queen Victoria bearing the inscription: VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP, which says, in abbreviated form, in the Latin of Imperial Rome, ‘Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen of Britain, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India’. The obverse of those pennies bore an updated version of that same goddess Athena. OK, if you want to quibble, a mixture of Hellenistic and Roman iconography, but still . . .
19th century Victorian coin
with image of . . .
As an interesting little sideline, while checking out Mayor Boris, I turned up the intriguing fact that his paternal great grandfather was a Turkish gentleman by the name of Ali Kemal Bey, one of the last interior ministers of the Ottoman Empire, assassinated during the Turkish War of Independence. The grandfather, born in England in 1909, went by the hybrid handle of Osman Wilfrid Kemal. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s parents seem to have preferred their aristocratic German connection in naming their boy child. Make what you will of that!
Anyway, let’s get back to the British Museum. No. 39 of the 100 historical objects is a Chinese painting known as the ‘Admonitions Scroll’, dated somewhere between 500 and 800 CE. MacGregor notes that this scroll had been the prized possession of many Chinese emperors. The Wikipediaentry informs us that its last Chinese location was the Summer Palace near Beijing whence it was uplifted by a Captain Clarence A. K. Johnson of the 1st Bengal Lancers in the aftermath of the so-called Boxer rebellion. This event, in 1899, involved an uprising by Chinese nationalists opposing foreign imperialism and the intrusion of Christianity. The uprising was forcefully put down by a group of like-minded states known as the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), after which there was ‘uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside . . . along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers’.
Thereafter, with the assistance of Captain Johnson, the priceless scroll found its way to the British Museum. None of this will you find, however, in the above book or on the Museum website, the latter merely stating laconically: ‘Before its arrival at the British Museum in 1903, the scroll passed through many hands.’
Apart from admiring their table-tennis players, I confess I have never taken a lot of interest in the Chinese or their history and politics. However, I am currently feeling more sympathy, since reading about the Scroll, the Boxers, and the earlier Opium Wars (1839-1860) where the British Government used its military might to assert the right of its citizens to import and sell opium in China against the expressed wishes of the country’s rulers.
I am fully aware that, as usual, I have gone on too long, roaming far and wide over large swathes of the globe. I would like to leave you with one final example that may usefully be acknowledged, recalled and understood. After the suppression of that Indian Rebellion or Mutiny of 1857, severe reprisals were taken against those who had participated. One exemplary form of execution employed by the British victors was tying the victims over the mouths of cannons and blowing them into pieces difficult for relatives to reassemble and bury. A Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin, painted a recreation of the scene in 1884. There are many reproductions but the original seems no longer to exist. The Wikipedia entry says it ‘was in the United States. According to legend, [it was] bought and then destroyed by the British’.
In spite of the foregoing, I have some sympathy for David Cameron’s position. Most of us, nations, families and individuals have skeletons in our closets. Disinterring long-buried bones for the sole purpose of ascribing blame is unlikely to achieve positive results. On the other hand, true understanding will not come from selective recollection. Lasting peace can never be attained so long as powerful states continue to interfere in, and try to manipulate the internal affairs of others. Nor can it by calling other nations to account for past sins while conveniently ignoring one’s own. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, four centuries ago, ‘God’s bodykins . . . Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?’

[1] ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, Neil MacGregor (Penguin, 2012)
[2] Colossus – The Rise and fall of the American Empire’, Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2005)

UK Riots and the Istanbul Grand Prix – The End of the Golden Rapture?

Faith and belief are marvellous things, aren’t they? I’ve never been one for millenarianism or doomsday predictions. I never doubted for a moment that my Apple Mac would see me through to the 21st century. I’m content to meet my Maker when He (or She) decides the time has come, and I’d sooner not know the date in advance, though I can see how some might want to. I don’t have a great deal of faith in politicians – but I do have some sympathy for the impossible situations democracy puts them in. They have to promise heaven and earth to get elected, then have to back-pedal rapidly when post-election reality bites. Hands up who really thought Barack Obama would be allowed to close Guantanamo and stop the water-boarding.
So I’m not generally one to point the finger at politicians and accuse them of breaking promises. I was pretty sceptical in the first place. And I’m certainly not generally given to laughing at the misfortunes of others. Those recent riots in cities across the UK looked pretty scary, and nothing can excuse the burning of property and looting of businesses large or small. David Cameron’s government re-established the rule of law, and good on him, you have to say. However, I couldn’t help noticing that he pre-empted criticism by referring to his own pre-election promise to mend Britain’s ‘broken society’. It seems that ‘There are pockets of . . . society that are not just broken but frankly sick’ which seemed to suggest that mending society might be just a tad trickier than British voters had been led to believe. We need a medical professional rather than a simple repairman. But then most of us knew that already, right?
I’m not going to join the ranks of those who suggest that inequalities of wealth distribution are the root cause of these riots, and other forms of violent social unrest. I certainly do not intend to suggest that burning and looting are understandable or acceptable responses to social injustice. In fact, I want to agree 100% with Dave Cameron in his belief that pockets of modern society are sick. On the other hand, I’m not sure he and I would agree totally on which ‘pockets’.
Istanbul Park – former home
of Turkey’s Grand Prix
My work-place is located on the southern outskirts of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the city. It’s a pleasantly green spot still, despite the building of airports, industrial complexes, monstrous shopping centres and acres of two-storey villas with private swimming pools. A kilometre or so across the fields from our campus stands Istanbul Park, the venue for the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix. Most of the time it sits there, in patient torpor, waiting for the one weekend a year when it will spring to life, and the hills will echo to the whine of high performance engines operating at rpms that would cause our Honda Jazz to melt down to a blob of metal and plastic.
I couldn’t help wondering what sort of money went into this project, so I checked it out, and I can tell you that Istanbul Park was built in 2005 at a cost of €80 million (about 200 million Turkish Liras at today’s rates). I went to the Grand Prix in Auckland once. We didn’t see any spectacular crashes, and we weren’t sitting in a corporate box being served chilled Dom Perignon and crab claws, so maybe I didn’t get the full effect, but honestly, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Still, I’m not one to spoil other people’s fun. Sadly for those other people, however, it seems that the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix may actually be the last one to take place at Istanbul Park. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, head honcho of international Formula One racing, decided to double the fees Turkey would be charged for hosting the race. The Turks said ‘%&$#?@ off!’ or words to that effect, and that, it seems, is that.
Well, of course, running a business like Formula One racing costs money, and no one would begrudge Bernie his right to make a living – but this spat did come to mind when I saw a news item in July that the most expensive house in the USA had just been sold to . . . Bernie’s 22-year-old daughter Petra. Reports say the 5600 m2 house in Bel Air, Los Angeles had been on the market for two years for $150 million, but some tough negotiating got the sellers down to $85 million. I just hope Petra’s making a generous donation to help those starving kids in Somalia. By the way, for the sake of comparison, I read that Mr and Mrs Brad Pitt have just put their California mansion on the market for a relatively modest $13.75 million. I guess at that level, the 0.75 is still important.
Nevertheless, one swallow doesn’t make a summer – and one sick billionaire doesn’t make a sick society, right? But did you see that film, ‘Inside Job’ that won the 2010 Oscar for best documentary? As the Timereviewers said: ‘If you’re not enraged by the end of the movie, you weren’t paying attention.’ I’ve read a number of articles about a gentleman by the name of Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group. Most sources agree that he is a major player in the world of finance, and he has been quoted as saying in a speech in March 2009, that 45% of the world’s wealth had been destroyed by the global credit crisis. However, he took heart that the US government was committed to the preservation of financial institutions (like his, one assumes) and would do whatever it took to restart the economy. It’s hard to establish exactly how much money Mr Schwarzman earns. Some sources say he made $5.1 billion in 2007, down to $702.4 million in 2008. Some say he took a 99% pay cut in 2009 down to a paltry $350,000. Whatever the truth of it, it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of that missing wealth ended up in his pocket. But somehow, I suspect that’s not one of the ‘pockets’ David Cameron was referring to.
Getting back to Petra Ecclestone, and her generosity to the kids in Somalia, don’t you find it interesting how a girl (or a guy) can make mega-tanker-loads of money from some dodgy enterprise, then, at some later date, donate large sums to a pet charity, and suddenly she’s on the fast track to benefactor’s heaven? Back in 1992 a Hungarian born gentleman of Jewish parentage by the name of George Soros achieved fame (or notoriety) as ‘the Man who broke the Bank of England.’ Surprisingly, the ‘breakage’ didn’t involve safe-cracking, ripping ATM machines from walls, armed holdups, or, in fact, any violence at all. The technique is known in the trade as ‘short-selling’, and, according to well-informed sources, it allowed George to pocket a cool $1.1 billion (whatever that was in sterling at the time).
Well, Wikipedia tells me that Mr Soros is ‘a financier, businessman and notable philanthropist focused on supporting liberal ideals and causes’, but it hasn’t always been so. Back in 1997, when Asian economies suddenly began to crash, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, went public with his opinion that the crash of Asian currencies had in fact been caused by Mr Soros and his short-selling ilk. To be fair, it seems George didn’t actually invent this dubious financial activity. That honour goes to a Dutch merchant named Isaac le Maire, who, it seems, came up with the scheme in 1609. Subsequently, the British Government banned it totally in the 18th century, but more recently un-banned it. Some economists blame short-sellers for the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the US Government passed regulations controlling it – which, apparently, were also repealed in July 2007. Any significance in that date, I wonder? Still, you can’t blame a guy for making a buck any way he can – but again, I feel pretty sure that Dave Cameron wasn’t referring to George Soros’s pockets when he sought the cause of the UK riots. Interestingly, one of united Europe’s attempts to save their common currency has recently involved the banning of short-selling in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.
If you don’t live in the Southern Hemisphere, you probably don’t care overmuch, but New Zealand is about to play host to the 2011 Rugby World Cup Tournament. Old guys like me can actually remember when rugby was still an amateur sport, but these days, it sure as hell isn’t. Professionalism, as you know, means a whole lot more than merely paying the players to play. Commercial sponsors are the life-blood of professional sport – but there are times when they seem to lose sight of the fact that, without the nameless millions of supporters, blood wouldn’t flow. Sportswear giant Adidas is one of the major sponsors of the Rugby World Cup, and they have recently upset rugby fans in New Zealand by offering to sell replica ‘All Black’ uniform jerseys for $NZ220. Quite steep, you might think, especially with the current strength of the NZ dollar – and most NZ rugby fans thought so too, more so when they found the jerseys were available online for about half the price . . . until, that is, Adidasmanaged to close the sites to purchasers in New Zealand.
Still, manufacturers are entitled to earn a fair living too, and, as the Adidas people have pointed out, they invest a good deal of money in New Zealand rugby. On the other hand, most Adidas products are produced in Asian factories where workers typically earn around $1 an hour. It’s been estimated that the cost of producing the replica All Black jerseys in a Chinese factory is approximately $8 – which leaves a tidy profit for the owners and shareholders of Adidas to pocket. But I don’t suppose David Cameron was referring to those ‘pockets’ either.
Back when I was a lad, science fiction was a popular literary genre. There were some prophets of doom, but, on the whole, there was a strong feeling around in those days that science had, or would soon have, the answers to most of the world’s problems. Labour-saving devices would remove the drudgery from human existence, the green revolution would do away with famine and starvation, and anyway, if by chance we weren’t able to solve all the problems on earth, such as over-population, it wouldn’t be long before we set up colonies on the Moon, Mars, or other extra-terrestrial real estate. The future was generally expected to be Utopian.
Well, somehow, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. A recent Timemagazine article[1] on rapidly increasing global food prices suggests that the only way for prices from here is further up. Increasing population, climate change, the channeling of food-growing land to bio-fuel production and falling water tables will all contribute to a continuing rise of demand over supply. ‘Enjoy your dinner tonight,’ the writer concludes. ‘While you can still afford it.’
So it seems that technology isn’t going to save us after all, and you’d have to think that most of the major techno-companies in the world have figured that out. Make your buck while you still can, they seem to have decided. Get cell phones into the hands of the Somalian public, and at least they’ll be able to keep in touch while they’re dying of starvation. I guess it’ll be a while before they can afford self-driving cars, but the rest of us have that to look forward to – once the automobile industry gets the bugs ironed out. Despite the entry of Google into the market, I’m backing the Germans to sort out that technology first. Apparently Google’s self-drivers are still tail-ending each other on the testing circuit.
Well, if technology hasn’t got the answers after all, what’s a person to do? Surely there must be hope somewhere. Luckily, there is, and, according to another recent Time article [2], a lady by the name of Michele Bachmann has the matter in hand. Michele has stormed on to the scene as the possible Republican nominee to contest the US Presidency, and she’s hot! Apparently God Himself thinks so, because, so she says, ‘She’s hot for Jesus Christ.’ This divine support has clearly struck a chord with Middle America – probably some of those recently disappointed by the failed doomsday predictions of Harold Camping. The Time writer quotes one of Ms Bachmann’s supporters, a certain Becky Magee, as saying, ‘I think Jesus is coming to get us. I think we’ll be raptured soon.’
Now I’m going to make a confession here, and confide in you that, until May 22, the day after Harold Camping and his flock attracted media attention because the world didn’t end as they had expected, I had always thought rapture had something to do with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But the world has changed in many ways, and even my MS Word dictionary hasn’t caught up with the new usage, as evidenced by the squiggly red line underneath the word when I typed it. Microsoft’s best suggestion was, in fact ‘ruptured’, which may not be far from the truth. My trusty old Chambers lexicon at least provided a range of options:
Rapture: a seizing and carrying away [it says], extreme delight, transport, ecstasy, a paroxysm (a fit of extreme pain, laughter, passion, coughing, etc)
From Latin – to seize and carry off [3]
Well, much as I’d like to think Jesus or some other omnipotent immortal would come and save the world from the consequences of our greed and stupidity, I just can’t seem to get my head around the concept. I have to say, it seems more likely to me that we’ve had the ‘Rapture’; the good old days are over, and we’d better start figuring out ways to save ourselves and Planet Earth, because time, I reckon, is running out.
[1] Time, July 25, 2011
[2] ibid.
[3] Chambers English Dictionary, 1990)