A Muslim Country Should Host the Olympics

Well, first of all, I didn’t write this – it’s reprinted here courtesy of Time Magazine, latest issue. Second – well, hosting the Olympics, like joining the European Union, might be seen by some as a mixed blessing, since most host countries end up zillions of dollars in debt and in possession of fantabulous sports venues that they will probably never use again. Ask Athens. Still, I’m not sure that the IOC had that in mind when they made their decision. 
“Before we recently learned that the 2020 Summer Olympic Gameswas officially awarded to Tokyo, Japanby the International Olympic Committee (IOC), there were literally hundreds of millions of people around the world who had our fingers crossed and earnestly hoped that Istanbul, Turkey would finally become the first Muslim-majority country in history to ever host the Summer Olympic Games.
Istanbul made it to the final round of voting against Tokyo after beating Madrid in a tiebreaker round of voting where Istanbul received 49 votes to Madrid’s 45 votes. But in the final round of voting, Tokyo ultimately beat Istanbul with a final vote of 60 to 36.
So Japan will get to host the Olympics for the third time (they also hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics and 1972 and 1988 Winter Olympics) while Turkey has never been chosen even once, despite having been in the running five times.” Read more:

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It’s Not a Conspiracy – We just don’t like Turkey

‘Turkish shepherd shot dead by Armenian border guards.’ It was a small headline on a 100-word item in our local English language Turkish newspaper. Apparently the shepherd, 35 year-old Mustafa Ülker, had gone looking for a ewe that had wandered across the border in search of a quiet place to give birth. Armenian authorities notified their Turkish counterparts and handed over Mustafa’s body. It took a few days for the news to get out. It’s a long way from the restaurants and bars of Taksim and Cihangir to Turkey’s eastern frontier. Still, the guy was in the wrong, no doubt about that. You can’t just stroll into a foreign country, lost sheep or no lost sheep.
Turkish shepherd shot while invading Armenia
I was interested to see if anyone else had picked up the story, so I googled it. I checked three or four pages and couldn’t find a mention in any international news media – except for the Armenpress’. In that English language site I found a lengthy piece by an Armenian ex-pat living in California, Harut Hassounian.
According to that gentleman’s account, twoTurks had crossed from the Turkish side into Armenia and mocked the Russian border guards who ordered them back. The Turks ignored two warning shots fired into the air and one of them allegedly opened fire on the soldiers, whereupon the Russians shot one of the intruders. Hassounian then launched into a tirade about how the ‘fascist’ Turkish government was seeking to exaggerate this incident in order to draw attention away from its serious and well-publicised internal and external difficulties, which he itemised in some detail.
Well, who am I to enter into a debate on the issue? Clearly there are two sides to the story, and we will probably never know the truth. However, I will make an observation or two. First, as far as I know, the Turkish government has not made a big issue of the killing, and Turkish news media have pretty much ignored it. Second, I’m interested to learn that Russian soldiers are patrolling the border between Armenia and Turkey, but I don’t think it absolves Armenia from responsibility for such incidents, merely because they have delegated the duty to a foreign power. Third, it’s hard to imagine a Turkish country bumpkin, or even a couple of them, defying armed border guards who would, we must assume, have been wearing military uniforms. Does this version ring true to you?
I couldn’t help wondering whether ‘the world’ might have taken more notice if the headline had read ‘Armenian shepherd shot dead by Turkish border guards,’ but I’m not going to speculate further on that. The sad thing is, however, that Western media all too often accept and disseminate an anti-Turkish view of events without considering that there might be an alternative position. Let’s be charitable, for the moment, and call it laziness. One of Mr Hassounian’s criticisms was The Turkish Prime Minister’s threatened lawsuit against The (London) Times for publishing a full-page paid letter, signed by dozens of prominent Western intellectuals and artists, which would more widely expose his intimidating tactics.’
Well, at least he acknowledged that the ‘intellectuals and artists’ had paid for the page, or  someone had. I can’t speak about the legal position, but it does suggest questionable editorial judgment for a reputable major newspaper to allow private citizens to buy a page for the purposes of slagging off the leader of another country, especially an important and long-standing loyal ally. Most of the famous signatories seemed to be film stars or directors, which may or may not qualify them to be recognised as ‘intellectuals and artists’ – but even if it does, it’s another jump to give serious credence to their opinions on international affairs.
Much was made, internally and abroad, of the presence of actors and other ‘artists’ among the protesters in Turkey’s recent anti-government street demonstrations. Apart from attracting media attention, I’m not convinced that their participation added anything of substance to the rallies. About as much, probably, as the fans of Istanbul’s three major football clubs who laid aside their differences during the summer break to unite in comradely çapulcu[1]action.
It is interesting, however, that just last week, after a lengthy investigation, police drug squads raided residential premises in several Turkish cities, and took in a number of well-known actors and directors for questioning. Not surprisingly, there have been accusations that the government was seeking revenge against activists, invading the privacy of citizens, and damaging the reputation of those apprehended. The implication seemed to be that the bust was a set-up by police acting on government instructions. I suspect the courts will take some convincing, given that 115 cannabis plants were discovered, as well as high amounts of ecstasy, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, measurement devices and cash’ in the Cihangir apartment owned by one of the actors.
Whatever the outcome, it gives some indication of the freedoms and rights some ‘intellectuals and artists’ include in their understanding of democracy, and highlights the contrast between their lives and that of the shepherd out east who would have been happy just to take his lost sheep back home without being shot to death.
What worries me is that this tiny minority of privileged people tweet and twitter their narrow picture of what is going on in Turkey, and foreign media swallow it and repeat it as though it is a fair representation of on-the-ground reality. Just this week, a Turkish court finally reached a verdict on the long-running Ergenekon case, handing down lengthy prison sentences to top military brass hats and an odd collection of academics, writers, journalists, lawyers, known gangsters and extreme left wing activists. Justice has taken its course and we can no longer speak of an alleged conspiracy. Mountains of evidence have been presented and sifted; teams of lawyers have tried every trick in their book to discredit the prosecution and the government, and stretch out proceedings with delaying tactics and unsuccessful appeals to the European Commission on Human Rights; mainstream media and the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) have done their best to undermine the legal proceedings and sell the line that this too was a government-sponsored attempt to get rid of rivals and exact revenge for previous grudges. Despite all that, the court deemed at last that the majority of the accused were in fact involved in ‘a clandestine and terrorist gang guilty of attempting to overthrow the government,’ and sentences reflected the gravity of the crime.
Once again I went a-googling. I was keen to see how the international press viewed an event which one might think had fairly major significance for the future of democracy in a troubled part of the world. In fact, there was surprisingly little to be found. Even the New York Times, normally a rich source of comment on affairs in Turkey, seemed unsure what to make of the trial and its aftermath. I turned up only one article on its website, relegated to minor importance behind the ‘election’ of a new president in Iran and the discovery of a 15-tonne ‘fatberg’ in the sewers of London.
Apparently it took three writers to pen this particular piece, only one of whom was actually in Turkey, and she in the city of Izmir, a hotbed of anti-government fervour a good 7-hour drive from Istanbul. Most of the article focused on the deep divisions within Turkish society between Islamists and secularists’ and quoted a defence lawyer accusing the government of ‘silencing opposition and intimidating patriotic people with secular principles’. Readers were told that ‘Nearly half of the country did not vote for Prime Minister Erdoğan’ but not what percentage of US voters did not vote for President Obama. The article concludes with a reference to ‘Turkey’s poor record on media freedom’, quoting the French organisation Reporters Without Borders, which ‘ranked Turkey 154th of 179 countries, behind Iraq and Russia, in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index’.
My own country, New Zealand, did marginally better. The TVNZ website I use to keep up with events back home also turned up only one article on the trial, but at least managed to summarise the case and report the outcome with more objectivity and without the outrageous innuendo of the NY Timespiece.
Elsewhere, I read that the European Union Commissioner Stefan Füle had expressed concerns about ‘how the trial was conducted’. In particular, he was worried about the rights of defendants, lengthy pre-trial detention, and the nature of the indictments. He seemed unsure about ‘compliance with EU standards’ and pointed out, perhaps unnecessarily, that ‘a fair independent and accountable judicial system is a key pillar of any mature and functioning democracy.’
Well, I won’t say I was shocked, because nothing much can surprise me about how Western media portray Turkey. Disappointment might be a better word to describe my feelings. One of the major sticking points, as far as I am aware, to Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union, for example, has been the country’s record of human rights abuses. Undoubtedly there is some truth in such accusations, but surely it must be obvious that most of the torture and disappearances occurred in the lead up to, or aftermath of military coups that took place on a regular basis from 1960 into the 1990s. That the AK Party government of Tayyip Erdoğan has finally managed to pull the teeth of armed forces commanders who considered themselves constitutionally above the elected politicians should surely be a cause for congratulations by true lovers of democracy everywhere.
The congratulations have been muted, to say the least. The Turkish Prime Minister and other spokesmen have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the military action that deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July. Their lonely and principled stance has been criticised on two counts. First, we would expect them to oppose what happened in Egypt because they are scared of the same thing happening at home. What? They should hypocritically support an action in Egypt that has been the subject of criminal prosecution in their own country? And at the same time lend moral credibility to those anti-government forces in Turkey who wish to overthrow the elected government? Second, there is the realpolitik argument thrown at them by all the governments (from Saudi Arabia to the USA) that have chosen to ignore what happened in Cairo and recognise the new regime: what’s done is done. Swallow the reality and get on with business as usual.
One might have more sympathy for the realpolitikargument if the United States, for example, didn’t have a history of interfering in the affairs of sovereign states and deposing leaders considered unsympathetic to US interests. Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq but the US wanted him out. Egypt’s Mubarak was a military dictator with a 29-year record of oppressing his people, but he supported the US and Israel. Morsi, on the other hand, was an unknown factor who may have been more responsive to the will of the Egyptian electorate. Maybe we didn’t help to get rid of him, but we’re not sad to see him gone. Turkey should shut up and fall into line with the rest of us. Am I overstating the case?
As for the European Union, the contrast between words and action is perhaps more obvious in that that august body is more prone to occupying the moral high ground than their more pragmatic trans-Atlantic partner. As a Turkish correspondent observed, ‘The problem . . . emanates from the fact that the EU tries hard to position itself as a “normative power” that puts special emphasis on democracy, human rights, and freedom more than any other actor in the world. This discrepancy between principles and actions [in the case of Egypt] is a tragedy deserving of a global audience.’
Another criticism I am reading of the Ergenekoncourt case in Turkey is the harshness of the sentences handed down. Certainly it has come as a shock to most in this country to see the former supreme head of the Turkish Armed Forces sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Well, maybe there was a plot, say some, but in the end, those guys didn’t actually do anything, did they? To which there is a very clear response. They didn’t achieve their aim because they were found out before they could put it into action. If they had been successful, they would have been the new leaders of Turkey, and God help the elected politicians they had deposed. The crime is the plot, and it is only a crime if you are unsuccessful – otherwise you legitimise your own actions retrospectively, as in Egypt.
As a comparison, I am waiting to see what happens to Private Bradley Manning who was 22 years old when he is alleged to have supplied the Wikileaks website with material seriously embarrassing to the government and military command of the USA[2]. Last I heard, the charges against Manning could have him put away for 90 years – for telling the truth and making available information that many would argue the American public had a right to know. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (who is not even a US citizen) have been forced to seek asylum in foreign states to escape the long arm of American democracy.
The NY Times article quoted above refers to Turkey’s ranking of 154 out of 179 countries for press freedom according to that Paris-based organisation Reporters Without Borders, I gather, because of the number of ‘journalists’ in custody in this country. I have to tell you I find that ranking beyond laughable, and I’ll tell you why. I read at least one Turkish newspaper every day, and I find no shortage of criticism of the government within their pages. It’s fairly clear that you have to do more than merely express disapproval or contrary opinions to get yourself locked up. At least six of those ‘journalists’ have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for their involvement in the Ergenekon conspiracy. If the US legal system can put away a young naïve gay computer nerd like Private Manning for 90 years, I can’t imagine what they would do to a gang of 5-star generals, university professors, mafia bosses, lawyers and communists who were caught planning to depose the president by force of arms.
And take a close look at that list of countries prepared by those borderless reporters. Turkey’s ranking of 154 places them behind such paragons of democracy as Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Maldive Islands, whose courts can order women flogged for having sex outside of marriage, comes in at 103rd, while Armenia, whose Russian border guards shoot wandering Turkish shepherds on sight, ranks an impressive 74th.
I’m not saying that Turkey has surmounted its final hurdle on the path to true democracy – but if RWB had placed them a little closer to the US ranking of 32nd, it might have been a fairer reflection of comparative press freedom. It’s not easy to define occupations like ‘writer’, ‘journalist’, ‘artist’ and ‘intellectual’. Does writing a blog and possessing a good-sized home library entitle me to claim a place in any of those categories? What about Julian Assange? I would give him a tick for at least three out of four – and I can well understand why he is not keen to be extradited to the USA for questioning. As for the US media, it’s interesting to note how outlets that were originally delighted to publish material from Wikileaks seem now to have forgotten what those leaks were about, and chosen to focus instead on Assange’s alleged sexual peccadilloes. In the United Kingdom, whose media were all too ready to criticise Turkey’s police for using excessive force on demonstrators, sectarian troubles have once again broken out in Northern Ireland, we hear, and police have had recourse to water cannon and plastic bullets.
What’s my point, you may be asking? Merely this. A government’s job is to govern – and a major part of that role is to maintain order and the rule of law. Most of us would probably agree that the job is easier when the general populace is allowed a say in who will govern them. If pressed, we might also express a feeling that freedom from outside interference will also produce better results in the long term. The Republic of Turkey is a youngish democracy that has made, and continues to make, tremendous strides on the road to economic and political freedom for its people. In the interests of natural justice, foreign critics could focus more on the progress that has been made – or failing that, work on removing the beam from their own eyes.


[1] A Turkish word used by the Prime Minister to disparage the protesters, and picked up on social media to satirise the government’s position.

Cyprus, Turkey and the EU – Getting it wrong again?

I don’t remember when I took out my first subscription to Time Magazine. I’m sure I must be one of their most loyal long-standing followers. Certainly there are occasions, generally during the lead-up to another United States presidential election, particularly when the opposition are going through the seemingly endless mumbo-jumbo of trying to select a candidate to challenge the incumbent, when I wonder why I bother. But I renew my subscription, mainly because I have never found a satisfactory substitute: a convenient and colourful package which keeps me more or less up-to-date with what’s going on in the world, from arts and literature to technology and politics, international affairs, sport and economics, to medicine and the environment.

Scary thought!

Sometimes you have to read between the lines, of course, and always be aware of its Americo-centric viewpoint – but lately they seem to have been working on that. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a number of distinctly Muslim-sounding names showing up among their team of writers. On the other hand, there’s been another, more disturbing trend in recent issues: a most uncharacteristic negativity, or pessimism about the state of the world: the inevitability of food shortages, how to deal with the reality of sea-level rise – and, scariest of all, a cover story entitled ‘The Decline and Fall of Europe’[1].



I’m not an economist, and I’m not privy to any inside information. Some of us thought the capitalist system was on the verge of collapse back in the 70s, but somehow it managed to keep itself going. The US Dollar, the Euro and the Pound Sterling seem remarkably strong, considering the parlous state of the economies they represent, so clearly there are issues involved beyond my ken. Nevertheless, if United Europe does survive into the third decade of the 21st century, it will, in my opinion, be more a result of good luck than good management.

The original six nations of the 1957 European Economic Community had expanded to twenty-seven by 2007. The European Commission has stated that it believes accepting countries like Bulgaria and Romania into the Union will encourage them to make the reforms needed to bring them in line with European standards – and it’s becoming increasingly evident that they were wrong. There is no need for me to question the wisdom of accepting twelve new members since 2004. The current economic woes of the EU speak eloquently for themselves. I do not intend to argue for the acceptance of Turkey. I am well aware that the Commission has many reasons for postponement. However, it seems that the long-running Cyprus problem is about to blow up again, and this, I believe, is a direct result of misguided EU policies.

The Government of Turkey has announced its objections to two matters related to the Cyprus problem. The first is that the Republic of Cyprus (in fact the Greek republic of Southern Cyprus) is planning to begin offshore drilling for natural gas. The second is that the aforesaid ‘Republic of Cyprus’ is in line to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in 2012. The Turkish Government is understandably upset, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs has conveyed their strong feelings to the EU Commissioner.

Interestingly, the report I read referred to ‘the 37-year Cyprus conflict’, which implies that the problem began when the Turkish Government at the time sent troops to the island and established the partition which continues to this day. This line of thinking has led to international condemnation of Turkey, and recognition of part of the island as representing the whole. However, it doesn’t take much research to establish that the roots of the problem go back way beyond 1974.

Like everywhere else in this part of the world, the island of Cyprus has a long history of conquests and occupation. It became a Roman province in 58 BCE, and subsequently part of the Eastern Byzantine Empire. When the Arabs began their expansion in the late 7th century, Cyprus was in the firing line, and the Byzantine emperor came to a compromise arrangement with the Muslim caliph whereby both ruled the island jointly – until the Eastern Christians were able to reassert ownership in 965 CE. As we have noted elsewhere, crusading Christians from Western Europe did not focus their aggression on Muslims alone. Ever wondered where Richard the Lionheart actually was when Robin Hood and the downtrodden English were struggling against wicked King John? It seems at least some of his time was spent conquering Cyprus (from Christians) and rescuing a French damsel-in-distress (as knights were expected to do in those days).

For the next four hundred years, Cyprus was occupied and ruled by a succession of crusaders and their hangers-on, various local potentates and Genoese mercantile interests, until finally it was purchased by the Venetians, from whom the Ottomans took it by conquest in 1571. It should be noted that, during those four centuries, the religion of the rulers was Roman Catholicism, whose adherents had little love for their Eastern Orthodox cousins, whom they persecuted and kept in subservience.

Needless to say, the Ottoman conquest was not a peaceful affair. It was pretty much standard practice in those days for conquering armies to exact revenge on the defeated populace in proportion to the amount of difficulty they had put the conquerors to. Nevertheless, the Ottomans subsequently applied their ‘millet’ system to the island, whereby the Greek Orthodox community was allowed to maintain its own culture, language and religion. Without this tolerance, it is arguable that there wouldn’t be a Cyprus problem today – the island would be simply Turkish and Muslim. Take as a comparison, the situation in contemporary France and Spain, where religious dissidence was violently suppressed, resulting in homogeneous communities of (Roman Catholic) ‘faith’.

So, Cyprus became Ottoman territory, and remained such for the next three centuries. Its Greek Orthodox inhabitants may not have been altogether happy, but at least they were allowed to stay, to speak their own language, practise their own religion, and within certain limits, administer their own affairs. Ottoman domination came to an end in 1878 when the British claimed the right to occupy the island. How this came about is an interesting example of 19th century European power politics. Russia is a huge country, but an ongoing historical problem has been the lack of convenient all-seasons sea access to the west. Consequently, a major focus of its expansionist drive has always been gaining access to the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Mediterranean. An important facet of Britain’s foreign policy in the 19th century was preventing them from doing just that.

In 1877-78, the Ottomans were engaged in a losing war with Russia, who were altruistically supporting the nationalist struggles of Romanians and Bulgarians in the Balkans, and Armenians in eastern Anatolia. At the conclusion of this war, the European Great Powers met, at the Congress of Berlin, with the Ottoman Empire, to reorganise the Balkans, which more or less meant ejecting the Ottomans. While everyone was looking the other way, the Brits managed to insert a clause whereby they acquired ‘informal’ control of Cyprus. Behind this move, of course, were, the recent opening of the Suez Canal, the growing importance of oil as an energy source, and the associated inclination of Britain to consider the Mediterranean part of their own sphere of influence.

Informal control of Cyprus was formalised in 1914 when the British illegally annexed the island. The Ottomans weren’t happy, but were far too occupied fighting for survival elsewhere to offer any opposition. Many Muslim Turks left the island, especially during the population exchanges at the end of the Turkish War of Independence in 1923. In the 1950s a struggle for independence began, largely involving the Greek community who wanted not only independence, but ‘Enosis’ (union with mainland Greece). The British Government on its part was reluctant to surrender its strategically important military bases on the island, and opposed the insurgents, often employing local Turks as police to maintain order (thereby, needless to say, exacerbating inter-communal bitterness).

Eventually, however, the struggle was partially successful and Cyprus became an independent nation in 1960. The new constitution, guaranteed by the British, Greek and Turkish Governments, enshrined significant representative rights to the Turkish minority, somewhat reduced, but still close to twenty percent of the population. The Greeks hadn’t given up, however, and the main evidence of this was their choice of Michail Christodolou Mouskos, a.k.a. Archbishop Makarios III as first president of the new republic. Hard to imagine a more provocative choice, given the saintly archbishop’s well-known involvement in the Cyprus independence movement and strong support for Enosis, but there you are. Within three years he was proposing amendments to the constitution to reduce specific Turkish representation. Cypriot Turks withdrew from the government and increasing incidents of inter-communal violence broke out. Greeks from the mainland began entering Cyprus to aid the struggle for Enosis and Turks began to retreat into safer conclaves. In 1964, a United Nations peacekeeping force was set up on the island.

Over the next few years, The Turkish Government repeatedly warned the international community about violence and intimidation of the Turkish minority. There was talk but little action, and in July 1974, the military junta in mainland Greece sponsored a coup to depose the good archbishop and take over the island. Turkey’s first response to this was to ask the other guarantors of Cyprus’s independence, Greece and Britain, to intervene to stop renewed violence on the island. Receiving no reply, the government under Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sent troops, and enforced partition of Cyprus into northern and southern sectors, which continue to this day. Interestingly, it was the threat of war with Turkey that led (by a process too complex to detail here) to the restoration of parliamentary democracy on the Greek mainland.

Interesting too is the fact that Great Britain (or the United Kingdom – the terminology still confuses me) retains two significant chunks of the island (in total, a little over 250 km2) where it maintains military bases. These areas, of course, are not within the Turkish sector, though in theory they are not Greek either.

Despite all the foregoing, it is the Greek southern section of the island that is recognized by the international community, and Turkey that is continually blamed for causing and perpetuating the problem. A 1998 decision of the European Human Rights Commission held Turkey responsible for denying human rights to Greek Cypriots by preventing them from returning to their homes in Northern Cyprus. On the other hand, in 2004, the European Union admitted the (Southern, Greek) Republic of Cyprus as a member, despite a clear stipulation in the 1960 Constitution that both sectors of the Cypriot community must agree before the island could join another state. Evidently going for the letter of the law rather than its spirit, the EU decided that, since it is not actually a ‘state’, the condition didn’t apply. Perhaps, in retrospect, Turkish Cypriots would have been better not to resign from the government back in 1963 – though, given the violence being perpetrated against their people, it’s difficult to see what else they could have done.

As I mentioned earlier, it is stated policy of the EU Commission to admit countries which may not have fulfilled all the prerequisites of membership, on the principle that, once they are in, they can more easily be brought into line. Well, ask Angela Merkel if she feels that Greece and Ireland, Spain and Portugal made much effort to bring their economies into line with EU requirements after joining. As for the ’Republic of Cyprus’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that international and EU acceptance has merely hardened their attitude to their Turkish brethren in the north. United Nations Secretaries-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan, both proposed peace settlements for the Cyprus issue. The most recent of these, the Annan Plan (2002), was accepted by the Turkish Government and the people of Turkish northern Cyprus in a referendum, but rejected by the Greeks in the south.

Once again the Cyprus issue is making headlines around the world. The Turkish Government is vociferously objecting to Greek Cypriot plans to conduct natural gas exploration in waters off the coast, and to the likelihood that Greek Cyprus will provide the next EU President. It is unlikely that Turkey would be prepared to go to war over either of these issues, given that they would undoubtedly be warned off by Europe and the USA. However, it is a sign of Turkey’s increasing confidence in the region that its government is prepared to take the initiative on the Cyprus issue rather than continuing to accept a defensive pariah role. If the international community decides to take a more even-handed approach to solving the problem, Mr Erdoğan and his government will probably consider the risk to have been worthwhile.


[1] Time Magazine, 22 August 2011

Neo-Ottomanism: A new direction for Turkey?

Once upon a time I dabbled a little in politics, to the extent that I actually tried twice to get myself elected as a Member of Parliament. It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. I guess my main motivation was to preserve my right to criticize. People would say, ‘Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you do something constructive to change things?’ I wasn’t successful, of course, and I’m equally glad, in retrospect, that I wasn’t. To get elected on a party ticket you have to juggle the dictates of the party itself, the fickle winds of public opinion, the oppressive power of the media circus, your own desire for power, and your private beliefs and personal integrity. All too often, the still small voice of the latter is drowned by the insistent bellowing of the former.

All politicians know this, of course, and choose to pay the price for success, so you can’t feel too sorry for them. Barack Obama should have known (if he truly didn’t) before swearing the presidential oath, that the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to shut down Guantanamo and stop the torture; that adhering to the demands of the Armenian diaspora would run him into difficulties with the Turkish Government; and that the too-big-to-fail US banking sector would force him to help them out of their self-dug hole with a multi-billion dollar taxpayer-funded handout. Democracy is the machinery that allows us to call politicians to account when they stray too far from the path we want them to follow. Never fear, America, here comes Sarah Palin to the rescue!

I guess have a longish history as a political sceptic, but I do feel a certain sympathy for those charged with the responsibility of forming Turkey’s foreign policy these days. Neo-Ottomanism is a word I hear bandied around a lot. The implication seems to be that Turkey is moving away from the Western orientation it has followed since the founding of the republic, turning instead towards the Central Asian and Middle Eastern regions associated with its Turkic and Ottoman origins. The argument clearly has appeal for those, abroad and at home, wishing to label Turkey as eastern, Islamic, uncivilized and ‘other’; and the present government as all those things, plus backward-looking and anti-democratic. What do I think? Let me share my thoughts . . .

The Turkish Republic had its birth in a land devastated by decades of war – and it has often been said that the first casualty of war is truth. The Ottoman Empire had been reduced by a century of nationalist splintering from within, and imperialist manipulation from without, to a shrunken rump on the verge of collapse. The last nationalist movement to emerge was Turkish nationalism, forced into self-awareness by the threat of imminent destruction. In order to foster this national identity, the leaders of the republican independence movement were obliged to create an identity of Turkishness, to decimate the elitist Ottoman language and exalt its poor Turkish relation; to develop myths of a legendary Turkish past, and sever ties to the Islamic Empire which had finally been brought to its knees by Western European power.

Osman Gazi,
founder of the Ottoman dynasty

The new Republic had, from its inception, an uncomfortable relationship with the Ottoman Empire from which it sprang. Osman Gazi, the founder of the Ottoman state, was a 13th century Turkish warlord. The Ottoman Sultans, for centuries, claimed, largely by dint of military might, the title of Caliph, or leader of the Muslim ‘nation’. Nevertheless, though officially Muslim, the empire contained relatively autonomous populations of Jews and Christians, as well as the various Islamic communities. The Ottomans did not regard themselves as ‘Turkish’. Turks were the warriors and tillers of the soil. The basis of the Ottoman language may have been Turkish, but it had substantial overlays of Arabic and Persian, incorporating three distinct language families[1]. The Ottomans were a ruling elite intermarrying with Russian and Greek princesses, and happily mingling with maidens fair from the conquered lands of Europe. In its declining years, however, their Empire had become a virtual puppet of the European Great Powers, accepting support and indignities from all and sundry to eke out its existence a little longer. When the armed forces of France and Britain occupied Istanbul at the end of the First World War, the ‘virtual puppet’ status became reality. The Sultan and his ministers were compelled to sign at Sevres a treaty that would have dismembered the once mighty empire. The final insult must have been the Entente-sponsored invasion of Anatolia by the army of Greece, intent on re-establishing its ancient Byzantine glory.


In short, we can say that the founders of the Turkish Republic had to split from and deny pretty much everything that the Ottoman Empire had represented. The fostering of a Turkish national identity required a rejection of all things Ottoman, even religion – yet the new state, unlike its predecessor, was now almost exclusively Muslim. Contradictions abounded, so, of necessity, there was some rewriting of history, some adjusting of reality, some myth-creation in order to ensure the survival of a nation that, like Hans Andersen’s ugly duckling, no one else in the world really wanted.

It is only recently that Turks have started to become comfortable with their Ottoman heritage. Sufficient time has passed that they can begin to feel pride in the achievements of ancestors whose existence cannot be denied. Most of the excesses of early republican nationalism and secularism are being quietly put away on high shelves. Atatürk himself insisted that the ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, should be intoned in Turkish. Now that is a dead issue. Even the most ardent Kemalists seem content to hear Arabic broadcast at high volume five times (or more) a day from a forest of increasingly lofty minarets. One of the most popular drama series on television these days is “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (“The Magnificent Century”), set in the 1500s, during the reign of Sultan Süleyman, generally acknowledged to have presided over the Ottoman Empire at the zenith of its power. Modern Turkey is achieving a synthesis, as its middle class multiplies and the process of urbanization accelerates, of modernity, economic consumption, globalization, secular democratic government, Islamic traditions and Turkishness. That is as it should be. The government may try to direct these processes but it cannot control them.

So far, then, I have been looking at the domestic situation in Turkey, but of course, there is another aspect to the label of Neo-Ottomanism. When the Turkish Republic came into being, its founders resolved to turn towards the West in the search for a new direction. The founding principles included democratic republicanism, separation of religion and government, state-sponsored economic development, and reforms of alphabet, language, clothing and religious practices. Europe represented the goals of the new republic, and all things Western and European became desirable. Although remaining neutral during the Second World War, Turkey sent armed forces to the Korean conflict, and was a major military contributor to NATO defences during the Cold War. I have recently learned that, when President JF Kennedy was indignantly ordering the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, the United States had bases in Turkey with missiles trained on the USSR. I suspect the Soviets knew about these, were not too happy about them, and very likely had Turkish locations pretty high on their list of targets to hit, should the need arise. It was a risk the Turkish Government took, one assumes out of a desire for friendship with the West.

At this point, I would like to quote from Wikipedia on the subject of Turkey’s attempts to gain admission to the European Union. I am aware that some people disparage Wikipedia as a source, but on this one I’m prepared to trust them. You can check the facts elsewhere if you have the time and the inclination:

“Turkey’s application to accede to the European Union was made on 14 April 1987. Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union (EU) and its predecessors since 1963. After the ten founding members, Turkey was one of the first countries to become a member of the Council of Europe in 1949, and was also a founding member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1961 and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1973. The country has also been an associate member of the Western European Union since 1992, and is a part of the “Western Europe” branch of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) at the United Nations. Turkey signed a Customs Union agreement with the EU in 1995 and was officially recognised as a candidate for full membership on 12 December 1999, at the Helsinki summit of the European Council. Negotiations were started on 3 October 2005, and the process, should it be in Turkey’s favour, is likely to take at least a decade to complete. The membership bid has become a major controversy of the ongoing enlargement of the European Union.”

It looks to me as though Turkey has been pretty determined, one might say patient, in its efforts to be accepted into the European fold. I am well aware of the arguments against acceptance, however, spoken and unspoken, and (just between you and me) I suspect that a blue moon will rise over a cold day in hell when the EU finally welcomes Turkey aboard as a full member. So what are the Turks to do in the mean time?

The key issue that makes Europeans shy away from inviting Turkey into their club, namely religion, is the very factor that gives Turks an advantage when it comes to dealing with nations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Muslims have felt marginalized by Western societies for a long time now, and the accelerating speed of modernization has served to accentuate the sense of superiority in the West, and corresponding sense of exclusion in the rest of the world. Turkey, with its unique combination of secular democracy and traditional Islamic viewpoint, coupled with the detachment that its Turkishness brings to the mix, finds itself in a position to play a mediating role in an area that remains a mystery to most in the West. Central Asian Turkic republics, freeing themselves from decades of oppression by Russian and Soviet conquerors, see Turkey as the big brother that has trodden the difficult path they themselves aspire to follow. Middle Eastern states have a more problematic relationship with their liberal neighbour, but still, Turkey stands as an example of a country that has managed to achieve impressive political, social and economic freedoms while retaining its Islamic identity.

Is it any wonder, then, that the government of Turkey, and the private sector of its own accord, have been working to build bridges with neighbouring states in their immediate vicinity and further to the east? Can Western nations continue dangling carrots while holding Turkey at arm’s length, and at the same time, seriously expect the Turks to forego all other international contact in the hopes of future acceptance? The United States at least, has a pragmatic approach – unlike France for example, they refrain from grandstanding to special interest groups at home who have a historical axe to grind. They encourage EU members to adopt a more positive approach to Turkey’s membership application – even if only because of Turkey’s strategic geo-political significance. Britain also pushes Turkey’s case from time to time – though a cynic might suggest this stems more from its desire to maintain a Euro-sceptic position than from any great love for Turks as a race.

In the mean time, we see Turkish construction companies working in partnership with locals in Kazakhstan and Libya, and Turkish educational foundations building schools. We have seen the Turkish government (in league with Brazil) trying its own approach to ease international tensions over Iran’s nuclear development programme. We are seeing tent cities established near the southeast border to accept thousands of refugees fleeing violence and oppression in neighbouring Syria. Students from 130 nations are currently in Ankara to participate in the 9th International Turkish Language Festival.

In 2010 Istanbul was chosen as one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture, and, major projects were carried out all over the city to showcase its historical riches. Twenty-one million Turkish Liras were spent on a three-year restoration of the 16th century Süleymaniye Mosque, simply the best of many architectural treasures built during the reign of that ‘Magnificent’ sultan. But it is not merely Istanbul and Ottoman treasures that demand huge sums for historical restoration and preservation. A farmer near the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, better known for its coal mines, recently uncovered, while digging foundations for a hothouse on his property, the perfectly preserved mosaic floor of a 3rd century Roman villa.

Then there are the Ottoman heritage buildings beyond the boundaries of modern Turkey. The international community recognises the debt owed to the civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome, and there is no difficulty in raising money to restore and preserve classical remains, wherever they may be located today. The British Empire left its architectural footprint all over the world, from Sydney to Kolkata, Istanbul to Shanghai. Most of those cities are in countries that have long-since thrown off the colonial yoke, yet they are happy to find new uses for the buildings. The Ottoman heritage is a different matter. In the Balkans and Greece, emergent Christian states couldn’t wait to erase all traces of their Muslim Ottoman past. In Central Asia, a century or two of Russian and Soviet hegemony, and economies with little surplus for luxuries, have combined to the detriment of important historical sites. Recently the Turkish Government has been involving itself in the restoration of their historical heritage in neighbouring nations. There are critics who see this as yet another aspect of emerging Neo-Ottomanism. Yet imagine the outcry if Turkey allowed, never mind contributed to, the decay and destruction of a 15th century church or cathedral within its borders. Without Turkish Government involvement, the six-century-old Fethiye Mosque in Athens would continue its descent into rubble; the Orhun inscriptions in Mongolia, the oldest known written documents of Turkic history, would meet the same fate, as would, probably, the madrasah where Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi was born in Afghanistan.

As I said in my opening paragraphs, I don’t generally have much sympathy for politicians. Dealing with criticism is part of their job, as are making unfulfillable promises and obfuscating the truth. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the present Turkish government gets more than its fair share of unreasonable criticism. Can they really be in the United States’ pocket, and at the same time, have a shariah and Neo-Ottoman expansionist agenda? Should they spend tax-payer money restoring and caring for their historic buildings, or leave them to rot and decay – and if restoration is the decision, who should decide which ones and where? Should Turkey cut itself off from contact with its Muslim and Central Asian neighbours in the hopes of currying favour with Europe? The path of political success is a minefield, and I’m pleased, when I look back, that New Zealand voters kept me from it.


[1] English, in comparison, though indebted to several major sources, is pretty pure Indo-European.

Turkey’s Foreign Policy – Alone on the World Stage

I read an interesting article in a recent issue of ‘Time’ magazine. It was entitled ‘How Syria and Libya got to be Turkey’s Headaches’. It interested me on two counts – first, because it seemed to contradict my own feelings about how events in the Arab world would affect Turkey; and second, because it was written by a Turk who seemed to be portraying her country in an unnecessarily pessimistic light in an international news magazine.


The writer, Pelin Turgut, began by announcing that, with the current crisis in Syria, the ‘Arab Spring [had] arrived on Turkey’s doorstep.’ What do you take from that? It seemed to me an unfortunate statement, pandering, as it does, to misinformed Western stereotypes of Turkey. Turks are not Arabs. Unlike the Arab nations experiencing popular unrest, Turkey has a democratically elected parliament and government. Further, there has been no sign of the kind of grass roots protests that have racked neighbouring states. Ms Turgut knows these things, yet she seemed to be implying something different.

In her article, Ms Turgut seems to have compiled a litany of innuendo aimed at discrediting the Turkish Government, with little solid foundation. She calls the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ‘Islamic-rooted’. What does that mean? Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and any government that does not at least pay lip service to that fact has no chance of success at the polls. For nine years I have heard ‘secular’ Turks claim that Mr Erdoğan’s party has a secret agenda to dismantle the secular state and introduce shariah law. If that is the case, they are showing remarkable stealth and patience.

Ms Turgut goes on to suggest, with weasel words, that the Turkish government has forsaken attempts to join the European Union, and instead, moved closer to Islamic Arab states. She highlights Mr Erdoğan’s criticism of Israel, and seems to imply that his government’s bridge-building with Syria and Libya were in some way, a bad thing. In fact, as I read it, world opinion has been shifting against Israel’s intransigence in the West Bank. It is Israel who is defying the United Nations, not the Turkish government. Similarly, it is the European Union that, rightly or wrongly, has been rejecting Turkey’s attempts to gain membership for fifty years – not the other way around. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the USA or Europe would have been happy to see Turkey and Syria go to war – yet Pelin Turgut seems to be implying some kind of hypocrisy in Turkey’s peaceful overtures under Mr Erdoğan’s leadership.

Similarly, she criticizes what she seems to see as inconsistency in Turkey’s attitude to neighbours experiencing the ‘Arab Spring.’ She notes that the Turkish PM ‘denounced’ Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, while remaining silent on Libya and Syria – ignoring the fact that the Turkish PM got it right with Egypt, and the jury is still out on Libya. Turks have to live in this part of the world. They don’t have the luxury of 2000 km of Europe and 5000 km of Atlantic Ocean buffering them against the realities of the Middle East, so it’s hardly surprising that they are less than enthusiastic about charging into neigbouring nations with guns blazing.

Ms Turgut enlists the support of a couple of ‘Turkey experts’, Soli Ozel, ‘international relations professor at Bilgi University and a political columnist’, and Henri Barkey who apparently wrote ‘an article for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace’. With all due respect to these gentlemen, despite Turkey’s increasing interest in playing a peace-keeping and mediating role in the Middle East, it has no power to, and probably no desire to coerce neighbours to follow its wishes. The ‘neo-Ottoman’ label may have a catchy ring to Turkey’s detractors, but on examination, it is a largely meaningless tag. The Ottomans were a religion-centred, autocratic, monarchic empire. The modern Turkish republic is none of these things. However, should a lack of power to enforce its wishes prevent Turkey from attempting a moderating role in the region? Surely no one with a genuine interest in world peace would argue so.

As an example of failed policies, Pelin Turgut cites the presence of Turkish construction companies and workers in Libya. Admittedly, the Turkish government has had to evacuate large numbers of its citizens from that troubled nation – but one could argue that sending builders to construct projects is preferable to sending bombers and cruise missiles to destroy them. How many soldiers does the US have in Iraq and Afghanistan? And has their presence there been more successful than the Turkish presence in Libya? Henri Barkey is quoted as criticizing Turkey for having become ‘a status quo power’ in the region. That may be a little unfair, given Erdoğan’s reprimands of Israel and Egypt’s Mubarak, and the United States’s record arms sale to Saudi Arabia and its major financial contributions to Mubarak’s military machine. In the end, a nation’s foreign policy is its own affair – and who is to say that Turkey’s foreign policy is any more self-serving than that of the United States or France?

Soli Özel, the international relations expert from Bilgi University asserts, almost gleefully, that “Turkey now finds itself very alone on the world stage.” It may be so, but who is to blame? Turkey will never be truly accepted by the Arab Islamic countries, because Turks are not Arabs, and they espouse secular democratic ideals. By its very existence, Turkey is a threat to its autocratic Arab neighbours. On the other hand, it will (most likely) never be fully accepted as one of the Western democracies because it is a Muslim country. Being alone on the world stage is nothing new for Turks. Nevertheless, United Sates foreign policy-makers at least, recognize Turkey’s value as a key player on the spot in the volatile but vital Middle East. And Turks themselves, in my opinion, should recognize their need to work together in their isolation.

Turkey and the European Union

OK – A geography question for all you pub trivia freaks out there. What’s the capital city of Estonia? Yeah, I know it’s on the tip of your tongue. Come on, spit it out! Tallinn, right? Bravo, well, done! And, of course, you knew it would be European Capital of Culture this year, right? Along with Turku, Finland? Seems the gnomes of Brussels accept that they erred last year. Essen, Pecs and Istanbul were just too many culture capitals for one year, so from now on, they’ve decided two at a time will be enough.

So, it seems we have two things to congratulate the Estonians on. The other, of course, is their elevation to membership of the EU Euro club as of 1 January 2011. No doubt the Germans will be delighted to know they’ve got the ‘Baltic Tiger’ at their side to help bail out those frailer members of the club: Greece, Ireland, and the other ones making up the economic barnyard of ‘PIIGS’.
But seriously, folks, I really have to admit I knew nothing about Estonia until I read that news item on the latest member of the Euro Club . . . so I checked them out, and I want to share my findings with you.
I had previously heard of the ‘Baltic Tiger’ – apparently a reference to their booming economy around the time they were accepted into the EU in 2004. Sadly, it seems the growl has gone out of the tiger in recent times. The CIA World Factbook website reports that, since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, their economy has been contracting at an annual rate of around 15%, one of the highest (or lowest) rates in the world.
Still, the Germans don’t need to fear a major drain on their financial largesse. According to the 2000 census, Estonia had a total population of 1,370,000 – not a figure to strike fear into anyone’s heart. Interestingly, according to latest estimates, that population has fallen by 30,000 in ten years. Wonder where they went?
Another item of interest I came across on the CIA site, and I’m quoting here:
Estonia is a ‘growing producer of synthetic drugs; increasingly important transhipment zone for cannabis, cocaine, opiates, and synthetic drugs since joining the European Union and the Schengen Accord; [there is] potential money laundering related to organized crime and drug trafficking is a concern, as is possible use of the gambling sector to launder funds; major use of opiates and ecstasy.’
Well, that’s enough on Estonia. I don’t want to dwell on their plight – looks like they’ve got enough troubles to go on with. However, the news about their joining the Euro club did prompt me to check out one or two other recent additions to the united Europe. Bulgaria and Romania were judged to have met the EU’s membership conditions, and joined on 1 January 2007. BBC News, around that time, ran an article on the subject, asking, among other questions, whether these two former Communist countries were really ready for membership. Again, I’m quoting:
‘Officials at the European Commission [were]quoted as saying that they are not really ready, but that delaying accession may not be the best way to encourage further reforms. The Commission was hoping, for example, that Bulgaria would take big steps over the summer to tackle high-level corruption and organized crime, but officials in Brussels say they have been disappointed.’
According to the same report, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia are expected to join in the near future. Meanwhile, Turkey’s membership talks are on again-off again, which brings me to the point of this article. I’ve just been reading an interview with a Turkish academic, Dr Armağan Emre Çakır, assistant professor at the European Union Institute of Marmara University in Istanbul. Dr Çakır has apparently, recently published a book entitled ‘Fifty Years of EU-Turkey Relations: A Sisyphean Story’.
Now Sisyphus, as I’m sure you are aware, was a king in ancient times who was punished by the gods in a particularly infuriating way. A thoroughly objectionable character, Sisyphus apparently let it be known that he considered himself superior, not only to his mortal subjects, but to the gods themselves. His divine punishment was to roll, for all eternity, a huge boulder to the top of a hill. The fiendish nature of the punishment was that, with the summit in sight, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom, whence the unfortunate king would have to begin his task again.
Now, I haven’t read Dr Çakır’s book, so I can’t say whether, with this analogy, he is comparing Turkey to the obnoxious King Sisyphus, justly punished; or Turkey’s attempts to join the EU to the task of rolling the boulder uphill. In the interview, the learned professor claimed that he had taken great pains to avoid seeming biased in Turkey’s favour, so it may, indeed, be the former.
Nevertheless, I checked out the other part of the title, and it’s true: Turkey did, in fact, first apply to what was then the EEC (European Economic Community) for associate membership in July 1958. Almost 30 years later, in April 1987, after making little appreciable progress, the Turks applied for formal membership into what was now the European Community. Since then, the occasional crumb has been thrown their way. In 1995, for example, a customs union agreement was signed between the EU and Turkey. One assumes, the thinking behind this is to keep them nibbling at the hook – to keep them believing that acceptance is just around the corner, if they’ll only try a little harder.
You can understand why Europe would want to do that. Turkey has been a member of NATO since its inception, and has always been a major contributor to its military forces. The US maintains at least one important air force base on the Turkish mainland, and makes it clear to all and sundry that Turkey is an important ‘friend’. Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949 and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in 1973. Coming straight out and telling them to get lost is clearly out of the question.
On the other hand, to accede to the EU, Turkey must first successfully complete negotiations with the European Commission on each of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the total body of EU law. Afterwards, the member states must unanimously agree on granting Turkey membership to the European Union. And the day that happens, a squadron of flying pigs will land at Istanbul International Airport, and be given an official welcome.
Call me a cynic, but I can’t see either event happening. Whatever misgivings Europe has about Turkey’s political and social fabric, it is clear that, when they want to accept a country into their fold, they do so, in the stated belief that desirable change is more likely to take place once that country has become a member. One of the major sticking points in Turkey’s on-going negotiations for membership is the Cyprus situation. In 2004, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, submitted a plan for the reunification of the island. The plan was supported by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots, but rejected by the Greeks. Shortly thereafter, the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus was admitted to membership of the EU.
I can’t escape the feeling that the antics of Western leaders re Turkey’s application for EU membership are simply a variation of the ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine. The UK Prime Minister and the US President, and the occasional other high profile politico, regularly go public with statements about the desirability of admitting Turkey. However, for my money, I’d give more credence to the words of French President Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Merkel, both of whom have made it abundantly clear that they see no place for Turkey in the European Union.
Would it be surprising, then, if Turkey began to take an increasingly independent stance on international affairs; and to seek economic and strategic alliances elsewhere?