Trust the world’s bankers – They know what they’re doing!

Good news for the global economy, from the economists at Time Magazine . . .

What the World Can Learn from the Greek Debt Crisis

jesus save greeceOn Aug. 21, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced the end of his country’s bailout era from the island of Ithaca*, a reference to the successful end of the Odyssey and its hero’s arrival home. Given Greece’s ongoing economic challenges, the more apt mythological analogy would have been Sisyphus rolling an immense boulder up a hill—only for it to roll down when it nears the top.

Ten years and more than $300 billion in rescue loans later, the country has begun its recovery, but Greeks still have an economy that’s 25 percent smaller than it was before the crisis began. Its unemployment rate is the highest in the Eurozone. A third of Greeks now live in poverty or close to it. In terms of length and severity, Greece’s economic slide is comparable to the U.S. Great Depression.

There are lessons here for the rest of the world. Here are some of the biggest.

greek austerityAusterity politics are dangerous, even if some countries, like Germany, still haven’t gotten the message. Populism is the driving political concern in today’s world, and austerity politics like those championed by policymakers in Berlin add fuel to the fire in two distinct ways. They widen the divide between haves and the have-notswithin individual societies, helping to make resentment and fear the driving forces in domestic politics. They also exacerbate inequality among European member states: Germany and Greece have seemingly never been as far apart in terms of quality of life as they are today. 

Austerity may be good at balancing bank accounts, but it’s disastrous at shrinking widening inequality of both the economic and political varieties. Europe will continue to pay the price for that miscalculation for years to come.

Relatedly, the failure of austerity politics in Greece has created strange anti-establishment bedfellows. the right-left divide of politics gives way to the “Us vs. Them” politics that pits political upstarts against the establishment, with increasingly little concern given to actual policy overlap. the Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition government it’s looking increasingly as a sign of things to come, heralding a future of increased political paralysis.

GREECE-ECONOMY-DEBT-EU-IMF-DEMOAnother critical lesson the Greek ordeal has taught the world: In the 21st century, the economic troubles of the present can extend far into the future. While most reports on Greece have understandably focused on the economic misery of the moment, the real tragedy of Greece’s lost decade of economic growth is that it will shortly become a lost generation of economic growth, even if the economy could manage to magically snap back to its pre-crisis levels tomorrow. Nearly 500,000 Greeks have already fled the country in search of better opportunities abroad, and there is little hope of these people returning as they start their careers and families elsewhere. 

This is not the first time there’s been a mass migration of Greek workers, but the ones leaving this time around are the most educated and capable individuals that the Greek educational system has produced. Their flight means that Greece’s already-broken pension system will be starved of the country’s most economically productive members, and will exacerbate a looming demographic crunch already in the making as the elderly and the young get left behind. In a globalized world where the movement of people is now easier than ever (and particularly within the European Union), a country’s current economic missteps have the potential to reverberate for years to come. 

As Greece continues to claw its way back to financial health [sic!], other countries would do well to track Greece’s progress. Nearly 3,000 years on from Homer’s epic poems, the country still has much to teach the world.

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*Ithaca -a tiny Greek island located in the Ionian Sea, off the northeast coast of Kefalonia and to the west of continental Greece. Ithaca’s main island has an area of 96 square kilometres and had a population in 2011 of 3,231.

So why didn’t Mr Tsipras announce his “good news” to crowds of adoring grateful supporters in the Greek capital of Athens? No prizes for answering that one!

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Why do they hate Turkey?

I used to think that most of the Turks I met were paranoid, their outlook clouded by a persecution complex, obsessed with the conviction that everyone out there hated them. These days, however, I have more sympathy. Listen up.

First of all, I’m not talking about a full-blown international conspiracy here – though I’m reasonably sure there are conspiratorial elements at work. What I’ve got in mind is something much deeper and more subtle: a kind of millennia-long propaganda programme; a brainwashing process that began in the 11th century, and continues to this day.

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Statue of Seljuk Sultan, Alp Arslan, in Muş, Turkey

Everyone who has passed through the education system in Turkey can tell you of a battle that took place in 1071 CE out in eastern Anatolia/Asia Minor. Known as Malazgirt to Turks, and Manzikert in English, the battle saw the defeat of the Byzantine Roman Emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, by the army of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. Historians generally agree that this battle marked the beginning of the end for the Eastern Roman Empire, though it staggered on, steadily shrinking, for a further four centuries. Certainly it was the first time a Christian Emperor had been taken captive by Muslim forces, and began the incursion of Seljuk Turks into the Anatolian heartland of the Byzantine Empire.

Twenty-four years later, by 1095, the initial entry had become a flood, and the new Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, sent a plea to his Christian brothers in Rome for military assistance. Pope Urban II responded favourably, and his impassioned speeches to Roman Catholic Europe launched the First Crusade in 1096. But what was that Crusading business really about?

Certainly the Pope and his Roman Catholics had no great love for their Eastern Orthodox brethren. Centuries of doctrinal conflict had led to the Great Schism in 1054, when Eastern and Western Churches made their split official and final. Consequently, there was no help forthcoming from the West when those Seljuk Turks won their great victory seventeen years later.

Supporting the Eastern Empire soon morphed into liberating the so-called ‘Holy Lands’ from Muslim occupation as the main motivation for Crusaders. This also seems less than convincing, however, given that those lands had been in Muslim hands for 400 years. It is far more likely that the Roman Pope was keen to unite Western Christendom – currently engaged in vicious internecine warfare – and establish a Holy Roman Empire with temporal power to match that of his eastern rivals. The Muslim operation was more of a pretext, deriving from the need to create a fearsome enemy, a bogey that would inspire and unite Christian warlords with religious fervour. Sound familiar?

So was born the thousand-year hatred of Turks – never mind that the Muslims in possession of Jerusalem were mostly Arabs; and zealots of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, laying aside earlier pretense, besieged, captured, desecrated and  pillaged Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Christians they were supposed to be helping.

Crusaders and Turks had their ups and downs, but it was other Turkic invaders and their Mongol cousins that finally ended the Seljuk Empire in the mid-12th century. It wasn’t long, however, before another, more ambitious and durable Islamic empire began to rise. Ertuğruloğlu Osman is generally credited with founding the Ottoman dynasty in 1299. By 1400, Osman’s successors had brought Anatolia under their control, and extended their reach into the Balkans. Fifty-three years later they completed the demise of the eastern Byzantine Christian Romano-Greek Empire (a rather confusing entity) by conquering their last stronghold, the fabled city of Constantinople.

Zonaro_GatesofConst

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II enters Constantinople, 1453

The fall of Constantinople was a matter of some ambivalence in Western Christendom. First and foremost, Roman Catholics saw their Eastern cousins as heretics and rivals, and once again refrained from sending military assistance. On the other hand, as historian John Julius Norwich has observed, those eastern Christians had acted as a buffer against Muslim westward expansion for 800 years. Without their resistance, the whole of Europe might have been overrun, and we might all have a more personal first-hand knowledge and understanding of Islam. The Eastern capital may have been the centre of heresy and dissolute corruption in the eyes of Western Papists, but its fall undoubtedly sent shivers of dread running down their spines.

Far from creating an exclusively Muslim domain, however, the Ottoman conquerors ruled over an empire that was indisputably multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious. Islam was the official state religion, but its adherents included Arabs and Kurds, and were not exclusively Turkish. Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Jews were given freedom to worship in their own churches, educate their children in their own schools, bury their dead in their own cemeteries, speak and write their own languages, conduct business, make money, build palatial houses, and serve at the highest levels of Ottoman society.

Hürrem sultan

Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana) wife of Suleiman the Great, and definitely not Turkish

As for the Ottoman sultans, they were a mixed lot from the earliest days. The mother of Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, was from a Christian family, possibly Italian or Serbian. Mehmet’s own consorts included women from non-Muslim families, and the mother of his successor, Beyazit II was reputedly of Greek or Albanian origin. This trend continued for centuries, making nonsense of the Western fiction labelling the Ottoman Sultan ‘The Grand Turk’. European insistence on referring to the Ottoman domains as ‘Turkey’ clearly owed more to a desire to belittle a dangerous opponent than any actual ethnic reality.

The danger to Europe was ever-present to the end of the 17th century, when Ottoman forces were finally turned back from the gates of Vienna in November 1683. So the stereotype was firmly established – European Christendom had had 600 years to develop a fear and hatred of ‘Turks’ – regardless of whether or not that’s what these people actually were.

Then the tone changed. Western Europe moved into its ‘Enlightenment’ period. Its wealth, industry, science, technology, and military effectiveness began to overtake that of its Ottoman rivals. Victories over their Eastern neighbours became increasingly common, and territorial expansion went into reverse. What began as a patronising Orientalist Ottomania for eastern fashions gradually turned into supercilious arrogance by the 19th century. Czar Nicholas I of Russia is credited with coining the term ‘The Sick Man of Europe’; and the dominant concern of the European ‘Great Powers’ Britain, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire in international affairs was ‘The Eastern Question’: simply put, when would the Ottoman Empire finally collapse and disintegrate, and which of them would get what when it did?

For the last hundred years of its existence, what kept the Ottoman Empire afloat was primarily the selfish desires of those ‘Great Powers’ to see that, individually, they got the best bits and the others didn’t. The building of the Suez Canal and the discovery of oil in the Middle East increased the importance of the eastern Mediterranean to the West. Mainland Greece was forcibly seized from the Ottomans in 1830, and the puppet Kingdom of Greece established with the support of Britain, France and Russia. The islands in the Western Aegean were ‘given’ to the new kingdom at that time. In the Balkan Wars of 1812-13, Greek and Italian troops seized the eastern islands, the seizure given ‘official international’ recognition under the Sevres and Lausanne Treaties (see maps below). Subsequently the Italians gifted their share of the islands to Greece, and precedent had been established for later events in Rhodes and Cyprus.

While the European Powers were systematically dismembering the territories of the Ottoman Empire, it was necessary for them to at least pretend that their motives were pure. In consequence, it suited them to foster in the public mind an image of ‘The Turk’ as unbeliever, barbarian and monster. This, then, justified their aggression and seizing of territory under the guise of protecting the Christian subjects of a cruel and ruthless regime. Their own ethnic cleansing of Muslims from areas they conquered took place far enough from home that it could be swept under the carpet. Ottoman attempts to stem the tide could be portrayed as characteristic incidents of gratuitous barbarity, justifying further crusading action.

All such pretence finally evaporated in the aftermath of the First World War. It is generally accepted that harsh reparations enforced by the victorious allies led to Germany’s economic collapse, and the rise of Adolf Hitler. It is less well known that the machinations of those victors, in particular Britain and France, created the conditions that pretty much directly produced the current turmoil in the Middle East.

7-sykes-picot

1. Sykes-Picot plans for the Middle East

Britain and France, with Russian concurrence, signed the secret Sykes-Picot agreement (see Map 1) in 1915 whereby Ottoman territory would be divided amongst them, with some allocations to Greece and Italy. The Treaty of Sevres (Map 2), signed in 1920 without the participation of the USA or Greece, more or less confirmed the Sykes-Picot boundaries. It was all very nice and tidy – and ‘Turkey’ would have to content itself with a rump of central Anatolia and Black Sea coastline.

treaty-of-sevres-corrected

2. Sevres Agreement – they would have if they could have!

What happened to upset their plans was the emergence of Turkish nationalism which – European insistence on the name ‘Turkey’ notwithstanding – had previously been pretty much non-existent. For three years, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk) led an army of liberation that drove the invading Europe-sponsored Greek military out of Anatolia, and forced the British and French to quit Istanbul, which they had been illegally occupying since 1919. The modern Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, at last bringing into existence a ‘Turkish’ state on which that thousand-year hatred could be focused. I am as sure as I can be that Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, Russia, have never forgiven Turkey for those humiliations.

In the 93 years since, Turkey has slowly turned itself from an economic basket case, destitute after decades of war, into a modern nation with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It hasn’t been an easy road. Turkey’s location at the gateway between Europe and the Middle East; and on the frontline in the Cold War with Soviet Russia, has meant that it would never be left alone to work out its own destiny. Unbeknown to most of us in the West, the United States maintained several military bases in Turkey during the Cold War, with nuclear-armed missiles aimed, from point-blank range, at targets in Russia. President JF Kennedy’s 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis takes on a different aspect when viewed in this context.

The 1974 crisis in Cyprus, when Turkey’s Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sent troops to the island to secure a Turkish sector, has led to unceasing international censure and accusations. It was, however, within the power of the British Government at the time, as guarantors of the treaty establishing the independence of Cyprus, to step in and make the Turkish action unnecessary – which they declined to do. In contrast, the action of Armenia, in invading and occupying the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, within the internationally recognised boundaries of Azerbaijan, arguably a less justifiable intervention, has been met with an almost universal silence from Western nations so unforgiving in their criticism of Turkey.

From 1960 to 1997, the Republic of Turkey experienced four military interventions that overturned democratically elected governments – according to some, with the connivance of United States administrations. Three of those coups resulted in periods of martial law, accompanied by detention, imprisonment without trial, torture and ‘disappearances’ of political ‘dissidents’. Many academics were removed from their positions in universities, and intellectuals obliged to flee the county.

Since the AK Party became the government in 2002, military intervention in the political process seems to have passed into history. Inflation of banana-republic proportions that had plagued the country for decades, was wiped out virtually overnight. Public transport and provision of water and electricity in the major cities has improved out of sight. Service over the counter in state offices has become an orderly process relying on numbered queues rather than crossing a public servant’s palm with silver. Medical treatment in state and private hospitals is now more accessible to all, and the Third World chaos formerly reigning in state clinics is also a thing of the past.

In spite of this, news media in the United States and Western Europe are unrelenting in publishing articles belabouring Turkey for its alleged descent into autocratic Islamic fundamentalism. They are aided in their propaganda by discontented Turks who seem to be hoping that they can enlist outside support for political ‘change’ they have been unable to achieve through the ballot box.

Sadiq Khan MP at Westminster, London, Britain  - 11 Oct 2012

Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London

The ongoing problem for the West, however, is that they have never quite been able to bring Turkey under their direct control. Attempts in the past at invasion and occupation failed. The present government has, at least so far, been able to forestall attempts through the courts and by the military, to remove them from office. The current refugee crisis, not of Turkey’s making, but imposing a huge burden on its economy and infra-structure, has been turned into a powerful lever forcing European leaders to enter into negotiations in a way they have previously refused to do.

We live in interesting times. As I write this, citizens of London have just elected a Muslim Mayor whose parents were immigrants from Pakistan. Well, at least he’s not a Turk – but still, it looks like an event that will require some shifting of mental gears in the birthplace of democracy.

Syrian Refugees in Turkey – Only Muslims after all

In September 2012 Angelina Jolie visited Turkey in her capacity as United Nations Special Envoy for Refugees. At that time the civil war in Syria had been going on for eighteen months, and there were approximately 80,000 men, women and children who had fled across the border to escape the violence. Ms Jolie and the UN High Commissioner António Guterres expressed high praise for the twelve well-organised camps set up by the Turkish Government to house the displaced Syrians. At the same time, they also urged other UN member states to recognise the need to provide tangible assistance to neighbouring countries like Turkey that were directly affected by the influx of destitute refugees.
Syrian refugee family in Istanbul 2014
That was then – this is now. There are currently 224,000 Syrians in those camps near Turkey’s southeastern border. The UN estimates that to be less than one third of the 700,000 they believe are in the country. The Turkish Government puts the number higher, at around 900,000. Whichever is correct, it is evident that those government camps, however, well-organised, are no longer able to cope with the vast numbers fleeing the war – and hundreds of thousands of homeless, jobless Syrians have now made their way to the larger cities in search of work and accommodation.
Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been in Jordan meeting with Mr Guterres and other regional foreign ministers. According to an article in Hürriyet Daily News, ‘the U.N. refugee chief criticized the international community for “not contributing enough” to solve the issue’.
“Let me be very clear, there has been very little support. There must be massive support from the international community at the level of government budgets and development projects related to education, health, water and infrastructure,” he said. He stressed that the problem of refugees was not only the responsibility of regional countries, but of “all countries in the world.”
“To share the responsibility that has fallen upon the neighboring countries, every country should open its doors to Syrian refugees,” Guterres added.’
For his part, Mr Davutoğlu suggested that what was really needed was international aid to protect Syrian citizens in their own country. While Turkey maintains an open border policy and does not turn refugees away, the huge numbers are placing great stress on the economy, and there is a danger that resentment against them will grow and lead to undesirable outcomes.
This influx of refugees, however, is by no means just a recent phenomenon. The first major wave of immigration was large numbers of Sephardic Jews fleeing from religious persecution in Spain at the end of the 15th century. The so-called ‘reconquest’ of the Iberian Peninsula involved the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews whose families had lived there for centuries. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jewish settlers into his empire, reputedly saying “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched us”. By the 19th century, the Ottoman city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki in Greece) was home to the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Many of them relocated to Istanbul after the Greek occupation, and later to the new state of Israel. There are still, however, many synagogues to be found in Istanbul, their congregations worshipping in the archaic Spanish dialect known as Ladino.
It is generally agreed that the Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman around the middle of the 16th century, although it continued to extend its territorial reach until the armies of Mehmet IV were notoriously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683.
From that time, the seemingly invincible Ottomans began losing battles and ground to, in particular, the rising and expanding powers of Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia. Habsburg expansion occurred primarily in the Balkan region, much of which had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. For the Russians, a major goal was annexing territories that would give them access to warm water ports on the Black Sea and ultimately the Mediterranean. These territories, Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus, while not directly under Ottoman control, were inhabited predominantly by Muslims and definitely within their sphere of influence.
As Habsburg and Russian forces seized control of these regions, vast numbers of Muslims were killed or uprooted. It has been estimated that between five and seven million refugees flooded into the shrinking Ottoman Empire between 1783 and 1913. More than half of these were Crimean Tatars and Circassians displaced by the Russian southward advance. Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration in the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, in an article entitled Refugees, Exiles, and other Forced Migrants in the Late Ottoman Empire, suggests that an understanding of historical context is essential in the study of refugees. She argues that  ‘by and large the circumstances, experiences, and influences of refugees and exiles in modern history are ignored’. Her article focuses on ‘the forced migration of millions of largely Muslim refugees and exiles from the contested borderland between the Ottoman Empire and Tzarist Russia’. In particular, Professor Chatty examines the plight of the Circassians, hundreds of thousands of whom sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after Russian conquest of the Caucasus was completed in 1864.
In March 1821, encouraged by Lord Byron and other romantically poetical, classically indoctrinated English aristocrats, ‘Christians’ on the ‘Greek’ peninsula began a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Certainly there were decidedly unromantic atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict, but the end result was that Muslims, whose families had lived there for centuries, and others perceived as Ottoman sympathisers (eg Albanians and Jews) were pretty much exterminated on that side of the Aegean Sea. Those who managed to escape sought refuge on the opposite coast.
This is the context in which we need to the view the later sufferings of Armenians and Orthodox Christians in the early years of the 20thcentury. Ottoman Muslims (who had long coexisted with Christian minorities within their own borders) had learned that defeat by ‘Christian’ powers would quickly result in extermination or expulsion of Muslims from the conquered lands. They had also learned that a tactic of those powers was to incite Christian minorities to rebel, then claim the right to ‘defend their co-religionists’ from reprisals.
A sad result of Britain’s encouragement of the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 was the event known to Greeks as ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’, when, after their defeat in 1922, more than a million Orthodox Christians were forced to relocate to Greece, their places taken by almost half a million Muslims sent the other way. Other refugee flows to Turkey occurred as a result of state-sponsored terrorism in Bulgaria and Romania from the 1940s to the 1980s when Muslims were forced to change their Turkish-Arabic names. It is estimatedthat 230,000 Muslim refugees and immigrants sought refuge in Turkey from the Balkans between 1934 and 1945, and 35,000 from Yugoslavia from 1954 to 1956. In 1989 a further 320,000 Bulgarian Muslims fled to Turkey and perhaps 20,000 from Bosnia.
In the end, of course, these events are all in the past, and to be fair, some Bulgarian Muslims were able to return to their former homes after the collapse of the Communist regime. In general, however, the developing economy of Turkey (and before it, the struggling Ottoman Empire) has been obliged to deal with huge inflows of impoverished refugees displaced by events occurring beyond their boundaries and control. In large part, they have done this without complaint and with little assistance from wealthier nations. Now, it seems, they are doing it once more.
Again, to be scrupulously fair, the British Government agreed in February to take five hundred of ‘the most traumatised Syrian refugees’. The decision came, however, only after stiff and protracted resistance to UN pleas for support. Even New Zealand has offered to accept 100, which, on a per head of population basis, is about three times more generous. Still, when you set it against the numbers flooding into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (without getting into a comparison of per capita GDP) both look like token gestures.

I too feel sorry for those two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, but I can’t help feeling that anger in Western nations seems disproportionate when compared with their lukewarm response to the unfolding human tragedy in Syria. And I can’t help wondering whether, had those Nigerian girls been Muslim instead of Christian, the cries for action would have been quite so strident and widespread.

Greece’s Hidden Centuries – Revising History and Forgiving the Turks

A news item earlier this year announced that a mosque in Thessaloniki, had been opened for Muslim worshippers. Not such a big deal, you might think, if you are resident in another major European city where mosques are a not uncommon feature of post-modern multi-culturalism. The situation in Greece, however, is an altogether different story, for a number of reasons.
  • First, until the early 20thcentury there were over twenty mosques in that city, known in those days as Selanik, and a major city of the Ottoman Empire. Now there is one, and that opened in April this year.
  • Second, Athens is the only European capital city that does not have a functioning mosque.
  • Third, the newly re-opened mosque in Thessaloniki is actually 111 years old but served in its intended capacity for only twenty-one of those years. It was closed, along with all the other mosques in the city, in 1923, after the unsuccessful Greek invasion of Anatolia necessitated a population exchange according to religious affiliation.
  • Fourth, the Yeni, or New Mosque, as it is called, designed by an Italian architect, is notable for its interior and exterior design. One writer describes it as: ‘A hybrid of European and Islamic styles, fusing Baroque, neoclassical, and Byzantine, it also contains Jewish features.’ The reason for this last peculiarity is that Thessaloniki/Selanik, was, in Ottoman times, one of Europe’s main centres of Jewish religion and culture. Some of those Jews, however, as a result of events I have described elsewhere, converted, at least overtly, to Islam – while continuing, according to some, to retain the practices of their original faith behind closed doors. 

Greece and its next-door neighbour Turkey have a strange relationship, whose intricacies can only be understood by a study of their shared history. Visitors from one country to the other find great similarities in the cuisine – and citizens of both nations argue heatedly about who actually invented Turkish/Greek coffee, the delicious sweet pastry baklava, or the stuffed vine-leaves known as dolma/dolmas. It has been said jokingly of Britain and the United States that they are two countries divided by a common language. It might be said of Greeks and Turks that they are one people divided by two religions.
Some months ago I referred to a book I had been reading, ‘Greece, the Hidden Centuries’, and I undertook to write about it in more detail. In the mean time, my attention was captured by political events in Turkey and Egypt, and my promise remained unfulfilled. The situation in Turkey, at least, appears to have settled down somewhat, and what’s happening in Egypt is there for all to see – so the time has come to tell you about that very interesting book.
The author, David Brewer, seems to be an unusually modest chap and you won’t learn much about him personally from Amazon’s author page, or even a Google search. The notes in my copy of the book told me simply that Mr Brewer ‘is the author of “The Flame of Freedom: The Greek War of Independence, 1821-1833”. After studying Classics at Oxford University, he divided his life between teaching, journalism and business before devoting himself to the study of the history of Greece.’
What you will find, if you visit the Amazon website, is an interesting range of opinions indicating clearly that the author has ventured into controversial territory, and challenged the strongly held beliefs of some readers. As one reviewer comments, the book is obviously anathema to the average Greek whose notions of the period are derived from his grandmother, his church, and from Greek political thought.’
One such Greek writes: ‘it is evident by his conclusions that it is simply biased and one sided. I am sorry Mr Brewer, but you have it very wrong on this one. I do not recommend this book.
With all due respect to that Greek reviewer and his grandmother, you’d have to think that an Oxford Classics graduate would have some sympathy for the Greek cause. That he took the trouble to write a history of the Greek War of Independence (fought to break free from the Ottoman Empire) would suggest a continuation of that sympathy into modern times, and perhaps some detailed knowledge of the subject. In his introductory notes to the book under discussion, Brewer informs the reader that, out of respect for the Greeks who prefer to hold that they were ruled by Turks rather than Ottomans, and have never accepted the loss of their Byzantine Empire, he will speak of Turks and Constantinople (rather than Istanbul). This in itself should convince an objective reader that the author has gone to some lengths to avoid upsetting Greeks – even at the risk of offending Turks.
Brewer sets out the rationale for the book in his prologue, subtitled ‘The Greek View of Turkish Rule’, which he begins with an anecdote about the arrival of an Ottoman official in a Greek village in 1705. The purpose of his visit was to recruit fifty youths who would be taken to Istanbul to be trained for service in the Sultan’s court or the elite military unit known as Janissaries. There could be no refusal of course, but the villagers not only refused – they killed the official then formed a band of outlaws whose principal occupation was robbing and murdering Turks. Needless to say, the Ottoman authorities took a dim view. Retribution was forceful and brutal.
The anecdote illustrates the approved Greek view of Ottoman rule. Greeks were virtual slaves, the flower of their male offspring were torn from their families by force, and any attempts to assert their human rights met with vicious suppression. This state of affairs continued from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the foundation of the modern kingdom of Greece in 1833. During that black period of almost 400 years, referred to as Tourkokratia, Greeks were under constant pressure to change their religion, were not allowed to build churches, had to educate their children in secret to keep their language alive, and were heavily taxed. It was a dark age where Greeks were cut off from the processes of modernisation going on in the rest of Europe, and the Turks left nothing of value to show for their four centuries of rule.
Challenging this received version of history is not a task undertaken lightly. In his final chapter, ‘Some Conclusions’, Brewer gives an account of an attempt by the Greek government in 2006 to introduce a new school history textbook for twelve-year-olds. He quotes the Minister of Education, Marietta Yannakou, as saying, ‘I believe in truth, in what really happened in history. We must not tell children fairy tales at school.’ In the face of fierce opposition from the Church, some academics and the leader of the far-right political party, the textbook was withdrawn for some judicious revision. In spite of that, Ms Yannakou lost her parliamentary seat in the 2007 election, and the book disappeared from the education agenda.
Between his prologue and his concluding remarks, Brewer covers all the pertinent issues in a detailed but readable fashion. What was the status of Greeks before the Ottomans arrived? What actually happened when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople? Would Greeks have been free and happy if not for the Ottomans? Were all Greeks of one mind on the question of freedom and independence? Did they get what they wanted in the end?
Brewer limits his discussion largely to the Greek mainland and the islands in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas generally considered to be their territory. In fact, however, as he says in his prologue, the Greek dream, formulated shortly after gaining independence from the Ottomans, was the recreation of former Byzantine glory, a Great Idea (Megali Idea) envisaging an empire centred, not on Athens, but on Constantinople. The likelihood of this, however, had disappeared long before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II led his victorious troops into that city.
The once great Roman Empire had lost its western half when the city of Rome fell in 476 CE. The increasingly Greek eastern Romans had two peaks of imperial greatness in the 6th and 10thcenturies – but found themselves constantly under threat from Arab and other Islamic expansion from the south and east, and later from their Crusading western Christian brethren. The latter, despite their stated purpose of evicting the Muslim infidels from the ‘Holy Lands’, set up kingdoms and principalities in former Byzantine territories, even besieging, sacking and occupying for 57 years, the imperial capital in the early 13thcentury.
In fact, long before 1453, Greeks were predominantly a subject people – and even after that year, their overlords were not Turks alone, but Europeans, especially Genoese and Venetians, masters of the Mediterranean until the rise of Ottoman power largely supplanted them. So, it was not from the Greeks themselves but from the Venetians that the Ottomans seized mainland Greece, Chios and other Aegean islands in the early 16thcentury, and Cyprus in 1570. Venetians had ruled the island of Crete for 400 years before finally surrendering it to the Ottomans in 1669, and for twenty years after that, were still trying to reconquer the Greek mainland. Brewer suggests it is at least open to debate whether Greeks were better off under Venetian or Ottoman rule, given that the Italians were Catholics whose Church had no great love for their schismatic eastern cousins.
President Obama meets with Bartholomew I,
Patriarch of the Orthodox Church
based in Istanbul, Turkey
Contrary to the commonly painted portrait of the Turks as brutal suppressors of subject peoples, Muslims viewed Christians and Jews as ‘people of the book’. Orthodox Christians, Jews and Armenian Christians ‘each formed a partly self-governing community, a millet. Each had a spiritual head who was also to some extent the political leader: for the Jews it was the Chief Rabbi, for the Armenians the Gregorian Patriarch, and for the Orthodox, the Orthodox Patriarch’. According to Brewer, 100 years after the conquest of Constantinople there were 77 churches on either side of the Golden Horn. Even today, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs continue to minister to their flocks from headquarters in Turkish Istanbul. My research indicates that there are sixteen synagogues in modern Istanbul and somewhere between forty and 123 churches. I can’t account for the discrepancy, but even the radical Armenian website Armenian Weekly admits that there are 28 active Armenian churches. According to Wikipedia, at the beginning of the 20th century (70 years after mainland Greece became independent) there were 1.8 million Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire. Even after the enforced population exchange of 1923, 200,000 of those ‘were permitted to remain’ – all of which suggests that life under Ottoman rule must have had some compensations.
Returning to Brewer’s book, the author makes the interesting suggestion in his prologue that ‘Greek bitterness about past rulers largely depends upon what happened after that rule ended, and has rather less to do with the nature of the rule itself.’ Genoa and Venice, even Italy itself, no longer wield much power in world affairs, so there is little to be gained from venting spleen on them. Russia proved an unreliable ally over the centuries of Ottoman rule – but in the end, with Britain and France, helped to win the naval battle[1]that secured Greek independence. Besides, they are fellow Orthodox Christians (at least in history and traditional culture), so it’s harder to hate them. It might have been a different story, however, if they had been allowed to fulfil their ambitions of capturing Constantinople/Istanbul and controlling the Bosporus Straits.
The Turks, however, for better or worse, continue to occupy that city of cities, and show no signs of relinquishing their hold. It was Turkish nationalists who turned back the Greek invasion of Asia Minor, on which they had embarked with the encouragement of their European allies, especially Great Britain. When their erstwhile friends left them in the lurch, there was little to be gained by aiming recriminations in that direction. It was Turks who drove the Greek army into the sea in the victory that ensured Ottoman Orthodox Christians would have to be uprooted from their ancestral homeland, to be exchanged for Muslims expelled from the Greek mainland, in what Greeks came to know as the Asia Minor Catastrophe. For Turks, on the other hand, it is the War of Liberation..
Brewer concludes his final chapter with a quotation from a modern Greek poet, George Seferis: ‘The Greeks say it was the Turks who burned down Smyrna[2],the Turks say it was the Greeks. Who will discover the truth? The wrong has been committed. The important thing is: who will redeem it?’
It’s a step in the right direction that the Greek government is reopening a mosque in Thessaloniki – though we might wonder why they chose that one, with its dubious Islamic provenance, rather than the 15th century Hamza Bey Camii, which suffered the indignity of being used as a cinema before being abandoned to decay. As for Athens, plans for a mosque there seem to have stalled for a variety of reasons. Again, rather than reopening one of the historic mosques in that city, despite Turkish government offers to finance the project, the Greek government planned to erect a new building from scratch, according to a Reuters report, in a disused naval base littered with weeds and rubble in a rundown neighborhood.’ Even that humble proposal, however, seems to have foundered on the rocks of opposition from the ultra-right Golden Dawn Party. Greek construction companies are showing a reluctance to tender for the job, allegedly from ‘fears of intimidation’.
Brewer’s achievement in this book is to draw attention to a major act of historiographical distortion. Of course all countries prefer to view their own history in terms flattering to themselves, or evoking sympathy for their plight. In this case, however, the Greek ‘fairy tale’ has found wide acceptance beyond their own shores. It is not merely 400 years of history that have been hidden. From the final conquest of the Greek city states by the army of Rome in 146 BCE to the foundation of the independent kingdom in 1832, there was no Greek political entity as such. The Byzantine greeks are a Western construct. That empire considered itself Roman, and its church, Roman Orthodox (Rum Ortodoks in Turkish). It has suited Western powers, for various political and quasi-religious reasons, and for a thousand years or more, to pretend otherwise.
Thanks to David Brewer for lifting the veil. I found his argument to be well researched and convincing. While detailed notes and an extensive bibliography lend scholarly credibility, the author’s style is lively and accessible to the non-academic reader. I think he has got this business pretty right, and I emphatically recommend this book.
Greece: The Hidden Centuries: Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence David Brewer (IB Tauris, 2010)


[1] Battle of Navarino, 1827
[2] Modern Izmir

Who Killed the Armenians?

There is currently a resolution before the United States Congress to give official recognition to the event in 1915 often referred to as ‘The Armenian Genocide’, and to incorporate this recognition into US foreign policy. For the sake of brevity, this resolution is referred to as H.Res.252, and it was introduced in March 2009. Barack Obama, prior to his election as President, made it clear that he fully supported such official recognition. It is a measure, then, of the controversial nature of the issue that, two years on, the resolution has not been passed, and very likely never will be. Mr Obama, for his part, seems to have cooled off on the issue.
I doubt that any of my readers are ignorant of the claims underlying this resolution, but, to be fair, let’s hear them from the Armenian National Institute:
‘The Armenian Genocide was centrally planned and administered by the Turkish government against the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. It was carried out during W.W.I between the years 1915 and 1918. The Armenian people were subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation. The great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Large numbers of Armenians were methodically massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire. Women and children were abducted and horribly abused. The entire wealth of the Armenian people was expropriated. After only a little more than a year of calm at the end of W.W.I, the atrocities were renewed between 1920 and 1923, and the remaining Armenians were subjected to further massacres and expulsions . . . It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923.’
Sounds bad, for sure, and not something that can be easily dismissed. However, no event in history can be isolated from what preceded it, so I plan to take you on a trip back in time. Before departure, though, I want to draw your attention to a small but significant detail in the first sentence of the ANI statement above: the genocide was planned and administered by the Turkish government between the years of 1915-1918. Admittedly there is a reference, later in the same sentence, to the Ottoman Empire, but I am sure the distortion is deliberate. In fact, there was no Turkish Government until it was established when the Republic of Turkey came into being in 1923, just as there was no United States Government until independence from Britain was declared in 1776.
I am not, at this stage, taking issue with anything else in the ANI’s statement – merely clearing the way for our journey back to an earlier and arguably happier time in the Ottoman Empire, whose government should more correctly stand accused. Generally dated from 1299, it was one of the longer-lasting empires in world history, and one of its features, little-known but deserving of recognition, was the ‘millet’ system of government. A ‘millet’ was a community of faith whose members formed a relatively autonomous group within the empire. They had their own leader, administered their own laws at a local level, collected and disbursed taxes, practised their own religion, educated their children, spoke their own language – and lived alongside members of the other millets in comparative harmony.
There were five millets in the Ottoman Empire: Muslims (not just Turks, by the way), Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Jews, and later, Syriac Orthodox Christians. It was a system based on religion rather than race or nationality, because that’s the way the world was in those days. No doubt as a system of government it had its imperfections, but set it alongside what existed in Europe at the same time and it looks like a beacon of tolerance and open-mindedness. Take Spain, for example, as Roman Catholicism established itself in the Iberian Peninsula to the accompaniment of Inquisitorial torture, burnings and forced conversions of Muslims and Jews. Many of those Jews accepted the invitation of Sultan Beyazit to settle in the Ottoman Empire, and their descendants can be found in Istanbul today, worshipping in their medieval Spanish dialect.
Recently restored Armenian church,
Lake Van, Turkey

So maybe the question arises in your mind, as it did in mine: if the Ottomans were so tolerant and open-minded, why did they suddenly decide to commit genocide on those poor, harmless, law-abiding Armenians? The roots of the answer lie in the growth of the major European powers during the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the associated forces of Romantic Nationalism and Imperialism. The Ottomans had been a (if not the) major European power until the end of the 17th century, but times were a-changing. In particular, the imperial ambitions of its northern neighbour Russia were threatening its territorial integrity. Russia was expanding in all directions, but its southern march posed the greatest threat to the Ottomans. As they moved towards the Black Sea, into the Crimea and the Caucasus, the Russians pursued a policy of Russification, killing and displacing the majority Muslim inhabitants of those lands and replacing them with Christian Russians, Slavs and if necessary, Armenians.
As well as loss of territory, another negative result of this for the Ottomans was an enormous influx of penniless refugees who had to be fed, housed and settled – a huge financial drain on an empire that was already struggling economically. The Russian advance into Ottoman territory continued right into the First World War, and the Armenian population became an increasingly important tool in their expansion. It suited the Russian cause to encourage Armenian nationalism with promises of support for the creation of an independent state in return for assistance against their Ottoman overlords. The Ottoman government and its Muslim subjects, for their part, became increasingly intolerant of Armenian acts of insurrection and terrorism within their borders. It is interesting to note that, when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of the Great War, far from supporting their independence, the new Communist Government swallowed the Armenians into their Soviet maw in 1921, after a scant three years of national sovereignty.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself here. There was one positive outcome for the Ottomans, at least in the short term, from the emergence of the Russian threat. The other European powers, in particular Britain and France, began to take an interest in the unfolding events. For a start, they were determined to prevent the Russians from achieving their ambition of controlling the Istanbul straits and gaining free access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. One of the key issues in the foreign policy of all the European powers in the 19th century was what became known as ‘The Eastern Question’, the essence of which was: When will the ailing Ottoman Empire finally collapse, and which of us will get what parts of it when it does? The corollary of wanting to get the best bits for yourself, of course, was, naturally, ensuring that your rivals didn’t get them.
In practice, this involved encouraging national consciousness among the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire in order to hasten its fragmentation and demise. Needless to say, it is not to be thought that the European powers concerned had any great love of nationalism as a philosophy per se. If you have any doubts about this, ask the Irish or the Indians, or the Algerians, or the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The first ‘nation’ to benefit, however, was the Greeks, the success of whose struggle for independence was ensured by the intervention of the British, French and Russian navies, which combined to destroy the Ottoman fleet in 1827. A little publicized side effect of Greek independence was the massacre and displacement of thousands of Muslims whose families had lived there for centuries.
The original Greek state established at this time was perhaps only 40% of its present area. Over the next century, successive governments took advantage of the weakening and embattled Ottomans to expand their domains northwards and eastwards into Macedonia, the Balkans and the Aegean Islands. As they advanced, non-Christian minorities were slaughtered or driven out. An interesting example is the city of Salonika, which fell to the Greeks in 1912. At that time the second city of the Ottoman Empire, Selanik had the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Fifty percent of its inhabitants were Jewish, twenty-five percent Muslim and the remainder, mostly Orthodox Christian. In 1917, a mysterious fire broke out destroying most of the Jewish and Muslim parts of town. Subsequently most of the Jews and Muslims, prevented from rebuilding their homes and businesses, departed. There were still, however, a large number of Jews in Salonika when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941. As far as I know, there is no suggestion that the Greeks conspired with the Nazis to exterminate the Jews – but they certainly benefited from the destruction of the large historic Jewish cemetery, where the city’s university is now located.
Interestingly, if you visit Istanbul and make inquiries, you will be shown numerous Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish churches, synagogues and cemeteries occupying large and prominent sites in very expensive parts of the city. The land they stand on must be almost priceless – yet they remain, respected and untouched in this nation of Muslims. In contrast, Athens is, I’m told, one of the few European capital cities which lacks a functioning mosque, despite the existence of half a million Muslim residents.
Which brings me back to the Armenians – whom I am sure you were beginning to think I had forgotten. I mentioned, above, that the Russian Empire massacred and expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Tatars, Circassians and Abhazis as it expanded into the Crimea from the 1770s, and the Caucasus from the 1790s. An article in a recent Time magazine[5] discussing the January terrorist attack at the Moscow airport, alleges a link to Chechen activists, and blames the situation on 200 years of Russian oppression. As occupied territories were cleared of their Muslim inhabitants, they were systematically resettled by Christians, more likely to be supportive of their co-religionist overlords. Among the groups used as pawns in this game of Russification were the Armenians, many of whom were invited to occupy the homes and farms of the dispossessed Muslims. Undoubtedly the Muslim refugees who flooded into Ottoman Anatolia would have harboured some resentment against the peoples who were seen to be profiting from their tragedy, and we need look no further for the roots of the sectarian hatred that began to build through the 19th century.
As an interesting aside, there are attempts internationally to have present-day Russia acknowledge a ‘Circassian Genocide’ that allegedly took place in the second half of the 19th century. The Putin government, of course, rejects responsibility for events that took place under the Czarist regime – yet, according to the Time article [1] cited below, similar policies continue to be implemented against Muslims in the area to this day.
What happened in Anatolia during the 19th century, then, was increasing encroachment on Ottoman territory by the Russians, and increasing desperation in the Ottoman Empire as their boundaries retreated, impoverished refugees flooded in with tales of horror, and the Armenian ‘millet’ (see above), encouraged by the Russians, increasingly resorted to terrorist attacks and insurgency.
But let’s not pick on Russia alone. I recently came across writings of a gentleman by the name of Edward J Erickson. Apparently he is a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognized as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He writes of the activities of the Royal Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean from December 1914. In particular he refers to an RN cruiser, HMS Doris, commanded by a Captain Frank Larkin, which conducted operations around the Ottoman port of Iskenderun (Alexandretta), shelling shore installations and gathering intelligence from local Armenians. Erickson suggests that the Ottoman high command expected an allied invasion. They did not know where it would take place (with hindsight, we know it was directed at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles), but the rail links near Iskenderun were of enormous strategic importance to the Ottoman forces, and at the same time, very vulnerable to a sea-launched attack. Erickson suggests that the activities of Captain Larkin and the Doris, as well as the military incursions and machinations of the Russians, were instrumental in the decision to ‘relocate’ Armenians later in 1915.
In fact, ‘relocate’ is Dr Erickson’s word, not mine. Undoubtedly, Armenian people in the east of Anatolia suffered a terrible tragedy. I do not have the space here to discuss the extent to which the present Republic of Turkey should be held responsible for the sins of the Ottoman Empire; nor whether there was actually an official government decision, and if so, what its aims were. I do not intend to get involved in the discussion of how many Armenians died (also apparently a highly debatable issue), nor to question why so many Armenians remained in Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman Government, retaining their property, churches and cemeteries to the present day. My aim has been solely to suggest that whatever happened in that part of the world in 1915 needs to be seen in terms of events leading up to it in the previous 130 years. To compare what happened with the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire to the Nazi German extermination of the Jewish people is not only a distortion of historical evidence, but a grave injustice to the victims of the Nazi holocaust.

[1] Putin’s Terrorist Problem, Time European Edition, February 7, 2011