Original Hagia Sophia tiles in France

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Ruins of the Achaemenid city Persepolis, Iran

My step-daughter has just returned from a visit to Iran. She was there to deliver a paper at a conference, but was able to do a little sight-seeing. One of the “must-sees” for tourists is the UNESCO-listed ruins of Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE). Those guys get an honourable mention in the Biblical Old Testament for permitting exiled Jews to return to their homeland and build a great temple in Jerusalem. Their kindness to the Jews, however, didn’t save them from having their magnificent city looted and burned by the army of the Great Macedonian Alexander as he marauded his way east on his mission to conquer the world.

Apparently present-day Iranians are unhappy that many artefacts from Persepolis later found their way into the collections of museums in Europe and the United States. I did a quick check online, and sure enough:

“A number of bas-reliefs from Persepolis are kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. There is also a collection from Persepolis at the British Museum. The Persepolis bull at the Oriental Institute is one of the university’s most prized treasures, but it is only one of several objects from Persepolis on display at the University of Chicago. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum houses objects from Persepolis, as does the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon and the Louvre of Paris hold objects from Persepolis as well.” (Wikipedia)

Inevitably our discussion turned to the matter of other historical and archaeological treasures housed in museums far from their original homes. Step-daughter was sure she’d seen the Rosetta Stone, key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics, in Cairo. I was equally sure I’d seen it in the British Museum – and another online check confirmed that the one in London is the real one. The same institution counts among its most prized possessions, apart from probably more Egyptian mummies than you’ll find in Egypt, the so-called Elgin Marbles – a vast store of marble friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, smuggled away in several shiploads by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the 19th century. Greek governments have repeatedly asked for them to be returned – but the Brits are having none of that.

Elsewhere, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a large section devoted to treasures from the classical city of Ephesus in modern Turkey, including a 70-metre frieze commemorating a (rare) Roman victory over the Parthians in 165CE. The Treasures of Priam, King of Troy (also in modern Turkey) were spirited away in the 1870s by the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. They were exhibited in the Berlin Ethnological Museum until 1945 when they disappeared – turning up later (in 1993) in Moscow, of all places. Well, it’s hard to get self-righteous about having stolen property stolen by someone else, I guess.

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A popular conversation piece in 19th century drawingrooms

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori have for years been trying to get back tattooed human heads that were popular with European collectors of cultural curiosities in the early days of colonisation. I’ve recently been made aware (thanks Lara!) of a similar campaign by native American peoples to repatriate human remains from universities in Canada.

It seems the government of Turkey is at the forefront of this worldwide struggle to have purloined cultural and archeological objects returned to their homeland. In recent years, they have won several significant court battles resulting in the handing back of disputed sculptures and other artefacts. One such was the Sarcophagus of Heracles, smuggled out of Turkey in the 1960s, seized by port authorities in Switzerland in 2010.

And here’s another interesting one in the news this week:

A panel of tiles in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum were smuggled to France in the 1890s and replaced with imitations, according to museum director Hayrullah Cengiz. 

“You can see the logo seal ‘made in France, Sevres’ behind the tiles,” he said, speaking to the state-run Anadolu Agency. 

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“Identical” ceramic tile panels on the tomb of Sultan Selim II

According to Cengiz, the Hagia Sophia receives nearly two million local and foreign visitors every year. One of the two panels on the sides of the entrance of the tomb of Sultan Selim II, son of Süleyman the Magnificent, are an imitation of the original tiles, he said. 

“The tomb is a work of Mimar Sinan, the greatest architect in the Ottoman state. These tiles were taken to France for restoration in the 1890s by the Frenchman, Albert Dorigny, who came to the Ottoman Empire as a dentist. But they were not returned. Instead, imitation tiles were made in France and mounted in place of the originals. The original tiles are on the right side. You can see the difference between the two panels. These are a perfect example of 16th century tiles.”

Cengiz said the Culture and Tourism Ministry had made a request to the French Ministry of Culture for the tiles to be returned. “These tiles were being exhibited in the ‘Arts of Islam’ section of the Louvre Museum in France. They have recently been removed, most likely due to complaints,” he added.

“The restoration of five tombs here was finished in 2009. It was revealed that these tiles were imitations during the restoration work, as you can easily see the logo ‘Made in France, Sevres’ written behind them. When you look at the difference between the two tiles on the right and the left, you can see the beauty of the original ones. The colors of the others have faded and lost their gloss because they are imitations, even though they have been there for only 100 years. The original ones, which are 400 years old, look brand new,” he said.

Cengiz also said the two panels are made up of 60 tiles and the fake ones were an exact copy of the original. “It is not too difficult to copy them, but as years pass by, the difference becomes evident. Not only did Dorigny smuggle this panel, he probably stole many other tiles from Istanbul museums where he had done restorations in those years.”

Now that was a cheeky one!

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Plots against Turkey

I don’t know what sort of coverage it got in your part of the world. I did find a piece or two in the UK’s Guardian, and on the BBC, linked to a lot of “related” pieces about Turkey’s “Islamic dictator” imprisoning poor innocents merely because they tried to have him ousted by a military coup last July. Both articles make judicious use of words like “allegedly” and “reportedly”, but there doesn’t seem to be much doubt about the facts.

erdoğan foeTurkey had sent 40 soldiers to participate in a NATO training exercise in Norway. Well, even military exercises need an enemy, and apparently the NATO organisers in their wisdom chose to use the name of Turkey’s much-maligned President Erdoğan, alongside a picture of the revered founder of Turkey’s republic.

Understandably, the Turkish government was not amused and withdrew its participants from the exercise. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg promptly issued an apology, followed by a statement by Norway’s minister of defence expressing his “concerns about the incident”. So, it seems pretty clear that the facts are essentially as reported.

Stoltenberg’s statement claimed the incident was the result of an “individual’s actions” – a Norwegian civil contractor seconded by Norway, and not a NATO employee – and did not reflect the views of the alliance.

Turkey, it seems, is not to be so easily appeased. The country’s EU Minister asked, with some justification, “Is there no chain of command? Does he [the civilian contracted person] not have a commander?” A government spokesman, addressing a press conference, said “We welcome the apologies issued. We welcome the removal of those responsible from office and the launching of an investigation. But we don’t see these incidents as solely extending to individuals. It’s not possible to explain these incidents merely in terms of individual responsibility,”

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Reza Zarrab in custody in the USA

Meanwhile, a curious court case is proceeding slowly in the United States. An Iranian-Turkish businessman, Reza Zarrab, was arrested in the US last year “on charges that he conspired to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars in financial transactions for the Iranian government and other entities to evade U.S. sanctions.”

Whatever we may think about the rest of the world being expected to support corporate America in its vendetta against uncooperative foreign leaders, it struck many people as strange that Mr Zarrab would voluntary enter the USA knowing that he would probably be arrested.

An opinion piece in Turkey’s English language Hürriyet Daily News voiced these concerns, suggesting CIA involvement:

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What’s changed since 1974?

“It was never convincing that Zarrab, known worldwide for breaching the U.S.’s Iran sanctions and getting arrested in Turkey in the Dec. 17- 25, 2013 corruption and bribery operations, came to the U.S. to take his child on a trip. 

His arrival in the U.S. was thought to be the result of a negotiation. It is claimed that he negotiated to become a confessor in return for a permission that will allow him to keep his assets outside Turkey and continue commercial activity.

If he becomes a confessor, the story will widen more and a new indictment will be written.

‘It smells fishy,’ President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had said about it.

The writer, Abdulkadir Selvi, goes on to say, “The U.S, after failing to overthrow Erdoğan through FETÖ on Dec. 17 – 25, 2013, stepped into the issue with the Zarrab case.”

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bekir Bozdağ said the other day, “We make no secret of it: This is a political case and does not have a legal basis. It is a plot against Turkey. The prosecutors have been openly imposing pressure on the accused. . . [Zarrab] is in a sense taken hostage,” Bozdağ said, claiming that Zarrab is “under pressure from prosecutors to become a confessor and to make accusations against the Republic of Turkey.”

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Bringing democracy to the developing world

Another writer in Hürriyet, Barçın Yinanç, no slavish supporter of the government, made some apt observations about negative portrayals of Turkey and its government in foreign media. In a piece entitled “Who is losing Turkey? She wrote:

“Turkey lives in a troubled neighborhood and the Western world has often had problematic relations with its neighbors.

There has been a bad guy in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad. No one was supposed to cooperate with him and Turkey was once asked to follow suit.

There was also a bad guy in Iraq, Saddam Hussein. Sanctions were applied against his regime and Turkey was asked to abide by those sanctions.

In Iran, there has been a bad regime ever since the Islamic Revolution. Tehran has been continuously under sanctions, which Turkey has been under pressure to abide by.

There has also been a bad guy in Russia, the Kremlin. Sanctions have been introduced and Turkey has been required to follow them.

People sometimes forget that economically thriving nations trade with their neighbors. Some also forget that while the EU wanted Turkey to abide by the sanctions it imposed on countries to its east, north and south, it did not exactly have its arms wide open when Turkey turned to Europe.

Currently, when a foreign observer looks at Turkey, they see an Islamist leader distancing Turkey away from the transatlantic alliance. But the same observer may forget that it was that same leader who once undertook the most sweeping democratic reforms Turkey has ever seen. They may also forget that when Ankara knocked on the EU’s door in the 2000s, Germany’s Angela Merkel and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy effectively closed the door in its face. It also suited Europe’s interest to keep Turkey at arm’s length, hiding behind the Greek Cypriot administration which has been blocking accession talks.

This has all been forgotten. No one in Europe is questioning who caused the EU to lose Turkey. Why should they?”

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New election coming up in Germany? Wasn’t the September result satisfactory? German voters should think again!

US ‘concerned about quality of democracy in Turkey’

The headline was in our local English language daily, so I checked it online just to be sure. Well, as usual, there’s a context. The words were spoken at a US Dept of State press conference on Thursday. In fact the spokesman was doing his best to be diplomatic in the face of questioning clearly aimed at getting him to come out and criticise the state of democracy in Turkey. So, credit where credit’s due – he didn’t.

And well he might not! Whatever pious voices the US reporters might raise against Turkey, it’s pretty clear that they would be better advised to deal with the blows against democracy being struck by their own government at home and abroad.

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Thanks to a CIA-backed coup in 1952 to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister

For example:

“An executive at the Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank on April 13 pleaded not guilty to involvement in a multi-year scheme to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran.


“Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager at Halkbank, entered his plea through his lawyer at a hearing in Manhattan federal court.

“U.S. prosecutors accused Atilla of conspiring with wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal transactions through U.S. banks on behalf of Iran’s government and other entities in Iran.”

Well, if these Turkish guys were actually trying to evade US sanctions against Iran (and I’m not saying they were), they were undoubtedly doing it for the benefit of their own country and not just Iran. Turkey had been suffering economically for more than 30 years by loyally supporting the US government’s sanctions against Iran. These sanctions were imposed after a grass-roots Islamic revolution in 1979 overthrew the US-puppet Shah who had been misgoverning the country for 27 years on behalf of his western masters. Who’s wrong here?

If you guys are really so keen on democracy, can you please tell us exactly how such interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation fits into your plan for democratising the universe? And how are things progressing in Afghanistan?

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And $2 million for each bang

“The United States on Thursday dropped “the mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat, on an ISIS tunnel and cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. The bomb, officially called the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), was dropped from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said, according to the Associated Press. The target was near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.

“President Donald Trump said Thursday the bombing was a “very successful mission,” according to Reuters, and he touted the mission as evidence of a stronger foreign policy under his administration. It was not immediately clear how much damage the bomb did, how many militants were killed, or whether any civilians were killed.

“The GBU-43 is a GPS-guided weapon that weighs an enormous 21,600 pounds (9.5 tonnes), according to an article from the Eglin Air Force Base. Each one costs $16 million, according to military information website Deagel. During testing in the early 2000s, it created a mushroom cloud that could be seen from 30 km away, according to the Air Force story.

“The U.S. military says it has 20 MOAB bombs and has spent about $314 million producing them, according to CNBC.

“While not all details from Thursday’s blast have been made public, the bomb is very powerful. “What it does is basically suck out all of the oxygen and lights the air on fire,” Bill Roggio, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Air Force Times. “It’s a way to get into areas where conventional bombs can’t reach.” (Source: Time)

Another article in Time informed me that Turkey is one of five countries where ISIS gets many of its foreign recruits:

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Britain and France’s secret plan for post-WWI Middle East – and where did Kurdistan fit in?

“Turkey has its own fraught relationship with an ethnic minority agitating for independence. The Kurds are an ethnic group that number between 20 million and 40 million who straddle the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. Denied their own state when the borders of modern Turkey were established following World War I, they are now the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Kurdish fighters have spent decades fighting the Turkish government to carve out an independent state for themselves, and some have resorted to terrorism; over the past three decades, more than 40,000 people have been killed in clashes between Turks and Kurds.

“Complicating matters is that Kurds in Syria are one of the most effective forces fighting both Assad and ISIS. Their success could create an independent Kurdish state inside Syria, which might encourage a larger share of Turkish Kurds to take arms with the same goal. So one of the greatest terrorist threats against Turkey is also a threat to ISIS.

“At the same time, roughly 2,100 Turks have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Since 2015, more than 400 people have been killed in terrorist attacks throughout the country. In other words, Turkey’s terrorism problem is only becoming more complicated.”

And made a whole lot more complicated by US interference in regional affairs. For a start, it wasn’t just Turkey that stood in the way of a Kurdish state. It was the victorious allies, Britain and France who drew the borders of Iraq and Syria for their own selfish reasons at the end of World War I. And if they’d had their way, the Turks would have been an even larger stateless group! Further, there is no doubt that most of the Kurdish people in Turkey do not support PKK separatist terrorism. They are getting on with the business of making a living, and a better life for their kids in the cities of Turkey – with the assistance of the present government. And the process is not helped by the US government supporting Kurdish revolutionary separatists in Syria in the so-called fight against ISIS. Yankee go home! Just let the locals get on with sorting out their own problems!

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Well, I don’t get to vote in the referendum, but if I did . . .

Dear Americans, you may think you have the best of intentions, but . . .

“Misdirected coalition strike kills 18 partner forces in Syria

“A coalition air strike accidentally killed 18 members of a U.S.-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) near a key town in northern Syria, the U.S.-led coalition said on April 13.”

Who needs enemies when you’ve got a friend like the USA?

Iran MPs introduce US compensation bill

I’m reblogging this from ‘Finding Truth in an Illusory World’ – And you have to admit, they’ve got a point . . .

Finding Truth In an Illusory World

A view of Iran’s Majlis in session. ©Mehr

Iran’s lawmakers introduce an urgent bill, demanding compensation from the US for “the damages which it has inflicted” on the country since 1953. 

The MPs, irked by recent moves in the US for appropriation of Iran’s frozen assets, presented the bill Monday with a single urgency status, meaning it will be discussed immediately in parliament.

“In order to redeem the rights of the Iranian nation, the Administration is obliged to take necessary legal measures on receiving compensations and damages from the American government in proportion to its role in the following cases,” the draft bill said, listing the cases in 11 entries.

On top of the list, the bill demands restitution from the US over loss of lives and property damage resulting from the CIA-led 1953 coup which toppled the government of Mohammad Mosaddeq and restored the shah as an…

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Human Rights, Democracy and Islam in Turkey and the Middle East

The longer I live in Turkey the more I come to understand the incredible diversity of this allegedly homogeneous country. One of the first statistics a visitor learns is that Turkey’s population is ninety-nine percent Muslim. One of the most quoted sayings of the nation’s founder and first President MK Ataturk is the one that goes: ‘How happy is the one who says I am a Turk!’
One face of Islam in Turkey
The official homogeneity, however, masks on-the-ground reality. A superficial indicator of this is the clothing worn by women in Turkey. The wearing of some kind of headscarf is traditional in this part of the world, and you will meet every variation, from the black burka covering all but the eyes, to the brightly coloured silk Armine fashion accessory complementing designer jeans and stylish make-up. Young ladies in the latter category are quite likely to be seen strolling the streets arm-in-arm with a bare-headed mini-skirted female friend, or publicly embracing a male one (probably without a miniskirt). Those women enveloped in black from head to toe are anathema to the secular fashionistas of Nişantaşı and Baghdad Ave, many of whom nonetheless fast during the holy month of Ramazan.
On a deeper level, it is estimated that ten to twenty percent of Turkey’s population belongs to the Alevi sect, whose brand of Islam stems from the Shi’ites, one of the two main branches of Islam. Origins of the split date from the early days when the Prophet Mohammed died without making it clear who should take over his leadership role. Turkey’s Muslims are predominantly Sunni, but the Alevi group, while maintaining a distinct identity, seems to have little in common with the fundamentalist Shi’ites who hold sway in Iran, or even the Alawi dictatorship of beleaguered Syrian president, Bashar al Assad. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many, though by no means all Alevis are ethnic Kurds, another twenty percent demographic who supported the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, but have resisted cultural and linguistic assimilation.
Apart from these major subsets, the boundaries of the republic contain several other ethnic, linguistic and religious groups: the Laz of the Black Sea region, Arab speakers in the southeast, descendants of Circassian refugees from the Caucasus region. Communities of Armenians and Eastern Orthodox are to be found, their churches and cemeteries occupying prominent sites, especially in Istanbul. Jews remain, still performing rites in the Ladino dialect their ancestors brought from Spain in the 15th century. There is a sprinkling of Catholic and Protestant churches catering, one assumes, to small local congregations, with a little proselytising on the side – and one or two evangelical Christian sects clearly carry out missionary activities.
As a result of the foregoing, there are two conflicting forces at work in modern Turkey. One is the homogenising assimilating process set in motion of necessity by the republican founders back in the 1920s when armed struggle alone would save the land from division, partition and annihilation by the victorious allies after World War One. That struggle could only be initiated by creating a national identity with common roots of history, religion, language and culture, whose owners’ sacred duty was to defend the land on which they stood. Creating and sustaining this identity required a certain amount of myth-making, propaganda and suppression of dissent.
The other force, steadily gaining strength, is one acknowledging the diversity of Turkey’s population, and seeking recognition and equal rights for all citizens. Tension between these two forces has been causing conflict such as the so-called ‘Gezi Park’ protests in the early summer. Perhaps surprisingly, far from indicating a failure of democracy in Turkey, this tension is entirely healthy. The democratisation process implemented by Turkey’s government over the past ten years has been slowly granting acceptance and equality to groups previously marginalised. Ironically, this reforming government is the one accused by some citizens of harbouring an ‘Islamist’ agenda – while the protesters are the conservatives supporting military enforcement of exclusive, so-called secular Kemalist values.
On location in Mardin, SE Turkey
I try to keep a finger on what’s going on in the world of Turkish soap operas. It’s a losing struggle, since there seem to be dozens of them, and they generally run for two years at most. Many of them are obsessed with intrigues in the lives of the rich and famous, showcasing palatial houses in the stratosphere of Istanbul’s top-end residential market. While channel-surfing the other day, however, I did come across one that provided a refreshing alternative to the usual fare. ‘Adını Kalbime Yazdım’, (I’ve Written Your Name in My Heart), moved, in the episode I watched, between that Istanbul world of wealth and privilege, and the southeastern city of Mardin near the Syrian border, where the architecture is distinctly Arabic and many of the locals speak Turkish as a second language. The main man, Ömer, a tribal leader, is evidently making a life for himself in the western metropolis, and is engaged to a fashionable young city girl. His mother, however, back in Mardin, has taken it on herself to promise her number one son to the daughter of a rival clan chief, in an attempt to patch up the blood feud that has been seething for years. Our guy speeds back to his hometown to sort things out, but has clearly lost touch with Mardin realities. Rejecting the local girl after agreement has been reached is an unforgivable affront to the honour of both families. His own brother feels obliged to cleanse the sin in the time-honoured tradition – with a bullet.
Recently there was a conference in the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya: An International Symposium on Children At Risk and In Need of Protection. A press release announced that one in three new brides in Turkey is under eighteen on her wedding day, and that thirty-five percent of these girls are actually ‘second wives’ – understood locally to mean a girl taken by a man in an unofficial ‘religious’ ceremony when he feels he needs a little more excitement than his first wife is providing.
The point I want to make here is that there is more to Turkey than what is common among the secular elite of Istanbul who move from fashionable Etiler, Nişantaşı or Baghdad Avenue to the ski slopes of Uludağ and the beach resorts of Bodrum and Antalya and back, with trips abroad for variety. Undoubtedly the gnomes of Brussels who oversee the European Union are well aware of this, which perhaps explains their reluctance to see Turkey’s eighty million people gain free access to their civilised Christian club. It is certainly a better reason than their stated objections to the Cyprus problem, abuse of human rights and police violence against citizens.
As suggested above, a major irony of the Middle East these days (and for our purposes here let’s include Turkey by reason of its Muslim identity) is that so-called ‘Islamist’ political parties are often the ones championing human rights, participatory democracy and national sovereignty. ‘Secular’ leaders, in contrast, are more likely to be reactionary, authoritarian and subject to undue influence by foreign powers. This creates difficulties in the minds of ordinary citizens in Western democracies, who are accustomed to associating religion, especially the Muslim religion, with intolerance and backwardness.
Take Iran as an example. Persia has been a land of high civilisation and culture since the dawn of history. This continued until the 18th century when the Great Powers of Europe, especially Britain and Russia, began playing their expansionist games. The games turned to frenzy with the discovery and rise to prominence of oil as the energy to power the 20th century. Anglo-petroleum interests moved in, the Middle East was occupied and divided into ‘spheres of interest’ and ‘mandates’ after the First World War, and a gentleman by the name of Reza Khan emerged from village obscurity and ascended to the throne of Persia with a little help from the Brits. Shah Riza himself apparently offended his erstwhile allies by insisting on Iran’s remaining neutral during the Second World War, and was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, the latter we must assume being more amenable to British Imperial interests. Fifty years passed with exploitation of the country’s oil wealth by foreign interests aided and abetted by the local elite who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary Persian.
Finally, locals, in 1951, managed to elect a more sympathetic and effective Prime Minister who promptly nationalised the oil industry and encouraged the departure of Mohammed-Reza Shah. The new dawn didn’t last long, however. The British government, keen to protect its own interests but lacking former imperial might, persuaded the new US President Dwight D Eisenhower to get involved. The ensuing CIA-sponsored coup d’etat ousted PM Mossadeq and reinstated the Shah, who restored the status quo and ruled with an iron fist of oppression for twenty-six years until the Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini overturned the puppet monarchy in 1979. Well, I’m not extolling that gentleman’s virtues or holding modern Iran up as a model of democratic freedom – but you might want to ask, who is responsible?
Similar case studies can be offered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States government supported and armed the Afghan Taliban fighters in their struggle against Russian invasion in the 1980s, then left the country to sort itself out after the Soviets had withdrawn. Saddam Hussein too was initially a useful US ally back then when he sent his military against the demon Iran. Unfortunately, the enemy of my enemy may quickly cease to be my friend, and become my enemy too. Sad to say, the US government seems still not to have learned this lesson. Instead of addressing the root causes of frustration and anger among Middle Eastern populations, President Obama’s administration is continuing a policy of unilateral aggression, using its unmanned drones and SEAL commandos to invade the sovereign territory of other states and take out people considered hostile to its interests regardless of collateral casualties and damage to property.
Three examples. In early October, according to an article in Time, the CIA and FBI working with US military forces captured Abu Anas al-Liby, an alleged Al Qaeda leader in Tripoli, Libya. A few weeks later, in apparent retaliation for government complicity, the Libyan Prime Minister was kidnapped at gunpoint by local militia apparently working with ministerial personnel. I was talking to two exchange students from Libya the other day. They were keen to talk and their English was remarkably good. I couldn’t resist asking how things are in their country these days. ‘Much better’, said one. ‘Nowadays everyone has a gun. In the old days it was just the police and the soldiers.’
Around the same time as the action in Tripoli, a contingent of SEALs (what a nice innocuous name for a murderous organisation) entered Somalia and inflicted casualties while failing in their objective of capturing or eliminating a leader of another terrorist group, Al Shabab. Just the other day a US drone strike was reported to have killed a Taliban leader in Pakistan, along with anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity at the time.
Successive US administrations supported the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for 29 years until he was overthrown by popular demand in 2011. His major appeal in the West was support for Israel, not something Egypt had been noted for in the past. Subsequent elections produced a government with Islamic connections (not altogether surprising in a country whose population is ninety percent Muslim). A military coup in July this year ousted the new democratically elected government and is bringing its leader, Mohammed Morsi, to trial. The US government was conspicuous in its refusal to acknowledge the event as a coup, but more recently has been obliged to take punitive economic measures against the military regime in the face of mounting international criticism of police and military brutality.
A new report by Amnesty International has accused the Egyptian regime of persecuting and rejecting refugees from the ongoing civil war in Syria. Of course it is a major problem for any country to deal with flows of penniless displaced persons from a neighbouring state, but these people are Muslims and fellow Arabs. In contrast Turkey, often the target of criticism by the Amnesty International people, has so far allowed around half a million fleeing Syrians to take refuge within its borders and is doing its best to provide for them. Fortunately the government of Turkey has managed so far to keep the country from descending into the sad state of its Arab neighbours. Anti-government protesters these days seem largely content with pressing the emergency stop button on the new rail link joining European and Asian Istanbul that passes through a chunnel beneath the Bosporus.
I wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, look to a blond Hollywood movie starlet for guidance on political matters, but I was interested to see an article about Blake Lively in our local newspaper last weekend. The Turkish journalist had apparently caught up with her in Paris, and they were burbling on about the usual film star stuff – how the poor girl’s biggest problem in life is trying not to eat chocolate so that she won’t lose her figure. Before finishing, however, the interviewer couldn’t resist seeking Ms Lively’s opinion about democracy in Turkey and police abuse of human rights. I don’t know anything about politics, she said, but I really want to go and see Turkey for myself. The young lady went up considerably in my estimation. Perhaps she could invite that sensitive novelist Paul Auster along when she comes.

Feeling Sorry for Israel and Iran

The Prime Minister of Israel has officially apologised to his Turkish counterpart. It’s big news in Turkey. Israel doesn’t say sorry. They do stuff that, if any other country did it, would be a virtual declaration of war, or at least a major international incident – then they brazen it out and get away with it. So this must be a first.
In case you missed it, the incidentthat elicited an apology was the killing, by Israeli military personnel, of nine Turkish citizens on board a Turkish civilian ship, the Mavi Marmara, in May 2010. The Israeli action wasn’t entirely unprovoked, it must be admitted. The Mavi Marmara was carrying food and other necessities of life to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip suffering under an Israeli blockade. The Israeli government gave the Turkish vessel what they considered fair warning, then boarded with armed soldiers, and in the ensuing struggle, nine Turks were killed.
Well, it’s a complex issue, to be sure. As far as the Israelis were concerned, they were justified in using force to repel foreign nationals from interfering in an internal security matter. From the Turkish point of view, they were bringing humanitarian aid to people suffering from Israeli oppression in what most of the international community considers illegal incursion into, and occupation of another people’s sovereign territory. The result was a three-year freeze of diplomatic relations between two relatively democratic, Western-friendly states in a region where those two qualities are not so widespread.
Nevertheless, the Israelis didn’t want to apologise, you can be ninety-nine percent sure of that. Not just because of national pride and reluctance to lose face, but because they more than likely still believe they did the right thing. It’s no coincidence that the apology followed closely on the heels of US President Obama’s visit to Israel and talks with PM Netanyahu.  And here, I fear, is the danger for Turkey.
Israel gets away with its aggressive, arrogant behaviour on the world stage because its government believes that the US will back them when the chips are down. Some of this US support is undoubtedly due to residual sympathy for what happened to Jewish people in the Second World War, and some to a continued belief by US Bible Belters that the fate of Israel and the Holy Places are somehow bound up with the last trumpet, the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Rapture and the Day of Judgment. US Presidents play along with this, of course, but of far greater importance are American strategic interests, particularly with regard to a continuing supply of oil and the need for an excuse to send in the military when this supply is threatened.
So, why, we should be asking ourselves, is President Obama suddenly so interested in the hurt feelings of Turkey, that he steps into a seemingly minor local dispute and puts the Israelis in an embarrassing position that they will certainly resent? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that everything has a price. As we learnt from ‘The Godfather’, when a favour is called back, you do it. I just hope, for Turkey’s long-term welfare, the price is not one they will regret having to pay.
I saw recently the results of a Gallup poll showing that ninety percent of Americans place Iran at the top of their list of countries they view with disfavour – ahead of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. Even North Korea, which claims to have missiles aimed directly at US targets, received a better rating. Well, no doubt those Americans have their reasons, and it’s a fact that Iran (or Persia, as it was formerly known in the West), was a thorn in the side of Western empires millennia before Christopher Columbus was a gleam in his father’s eye. It is also probably true that Iranians, at least some of them, have contributed to their unfavourable rating by US citizens. Nevertheless, they are next-door neighbours of Turkey, and hence of mine. The Turkish language, Turkish literature, art and music owe a debt of gratitude to the ancient culture of Iran, and most Turkish people recognise this. So I would like to take a quick look at some positives, in the interests of natural justice.
Iran is indisputably an ancient land, home to some of the very earliest human civilisations. The oldest cities have been dated to the 5th millennium BCE, and people there developed the art of writing around the same time as the Egyptians and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. By the 8th century BCE, the Medes had established an empire that was a power in the region, and Zoroastrianism had emerged as a forerunner of the great monotheistic religions, all of which have their roots in the Middle East.
The Persian Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE, and these were the guys who caused so much trouble for the Greek city-states. Our modern marathon race is said to have originated when a messenger ran back to Athens to announce his side’s victory in a decisive battle. If the Greeks had lost that one, we Westerners might have a more intimate knowledge of Persian/Iranian culture. The Persians are also credited with being the first to establish a professional army and civil service, both of which concepts seem to have retained their popularity down to our own times. Perhaps the brass hats in the Pentagon should show some gratitude.
There was a relatively brief interlude (of a century or so) when history’s ultimate megalomaniac, Alexander, passed through on his self-appointed task to conquer the world before his 30th birthday. His Hellenic successors held on until the Parthians regained local ascendancy around 250 BCE, giving endless trouble to the Romans, and establishing a limit to their eastward expansion that has pretty much survived to the present day. Visitors to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna will be impressed by the vast Parthian Monument, originally set up in the Aegean city of Ephesus to commemorate one of the rare Roman victories over their eastern neighbours.
Parthians gave way to Sassanids, but the fighting continued even after the Romans converted to the Christian religion of peace. All in all, the Roman-Persian Wars went on for over seven hundred years, and it has been suggested that the Muslim Arab conquests of the 7th century CE were facilitated by the fact that both sides had fought themselves to the point of exhaustion – a lesson there perhaps for modern-day empires.
Iran’s strategic location between East and West has made it a major target for invasion and conquest throughout history. After the Arabs, came Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and Tamerlane in the 14th. Each time, however, the strength of native Iranian culture allowed its people either to shrug off or to absorb the conquerors. Most persistent of the invaders were the Turkic tribes who began their incursions in the 10th century. At first employed as slave warriors, they slowly assumed positions of power, while at the same time adopting much of Iranian culture. One major outcome was the Seljuk Turkish Empire that ruled Persia and Asia Minor/Anatolia into the 12thcentury. These were the people whose westward march threatened the existence of the Roman/Greek/Byzantine Empire, and prompted Western Christendom to launch its Crusading armies eastward.
The Golden Age of Persian culture coincided with this rise, morphing into a distinctive Turko-Persian identity which produced a great flowering of art, music, philosophy, architecture, science and literature. Much of the culture and knowledge that ended Europe’s Dark Age, and fuelled the incipient Renaissance can be said to have originated in the cross-cultural contact with contemporary Muslim society. The reason is that here was where the knowledge of Indian, Hellenistic and earlier Persian thinkers was brought together and developed.
In medicine, the Academy of Gondishapur housed the first training hospital where medical treatment and knowledge were systematised. In part, this institution owed its fame to an influx of scholars from Edessa in the Byzantine Empire after the Christian Emperor expelled them for their unorthodox beliefs. Muhammed ibn Zakariya Razi (Rhazes) was a pioneer of paediatrics and ophthalmology around 1000 CE. Shortly after, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote his “Canon of Medicine” which was still being used as a textbook in some European universities into the 17th century.
In mathematics, Abu Abdallah Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (Algoritmi) is credited with introducing the decimal place value system to the West, and our word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic title of his book on quadratic equations. Al-Kharaji has been called the father of algebraic calculus, and Omar Khayyam, better known in the West for his poetry, also did pioneering work in geometry and algebra. Speaking of poetry, in 2002, Time magazine published an article informing its readers that the 13thcentury Persian mystic Jalaluddin Rumi (Mevlana) was the most popular poet in America. The game of chess, with much of its vocabulary, came to us via Iran. Our word ‘rook’ for ‘castle’ comes from the Persian word for the castling movement. ‘Pawn’ is a direct borrowing, as are ‘check’, the word ‘chess’ itself from ‘Shah’ (king), and ‘mate’. And just to confirm that European prejudice against its Eastern neighbours is not a new phenomenon, the Georgia Tech Paper Museum informs us that the introduction of that very useful material was impeded for several centuries by Papal Decree, on the grounds that it was ‘a manifestation of Moslem culture’.
The Safavid era began in Iran around 1500, and its peak of power coincided with that of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. This could be another reason for Western Europe to be grateful to the Iranians. Had it not been for the distracting influence of their wars with the Ottomans, the gates of Vienna might not have stopped Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors from further territorial gains – and who know where they might have finished up?
One of Turkey’s main economic disadvantages is its surprising lack of fossil fuel resources, given the wealth in that respect of its Middle Eastern and Central Asian neighbours. On the other hand, it could equally be argued that absence of such petroleum riches has saved Turkey from the outside interference and manipulation that has plagued its ‘more fortunate’ regional brethren. Iran, with proven resources ranking it second in the world for natural gas, and fourth for petroleum, has been a target for foreign powers since the mid-19th century: first Russia and Great Britain, and more recently, the United States.
An earlier edition of Time, January 7, 1952, featured another Iranian on its cover – Mohammed Mossadegh. Democratically elected by a majority of his people, and holding hopes for leading his country into the modern world of liberty and justice for all, MM made the mistake of trying to secure a more equitable share of Iran’s mineral wealth for its own people. In nationalising the nation’s petroleum industry, he incurred the wrath of the British government. Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded newly elected US President Eisenhower to instruct the CIA to promote a coup deposing Mossadegh and reinstating Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as ‘Western friendly’ Shah. Twenty-six years of friendship and cooperation with the West, at the expense of looking after the folks back home, led to growing internal opposition, culminating in the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the currently ongoing troublesome rule of the mullahs.
If any of the foregoing surprises you, you may like to share it with friends who are keen to start another war in the Middle East. In the words of George Santayana, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Reset your Dials – the Middle East in your wildest dreams!

Imagine a Middle East where a democratic secular republic of Iran cooperated with America to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq; where Israel and Palestine resolved to accept each other’s existence and agreed on territorial boundaries; where Saudi Arabian rulers worked out a way to govern their people and relate to the outside world without the support of the US arms industry.
A refreshing look at old problems
You may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one. Stephen Kinzer, author, academic and sometime foreign correspondent with the New York Timesand the Boston Globe is with me on this – or rather, I’m with him. Kinzer’s recent publication ‘Reset’ proposes these and other fabulous possibilities in an impressively researched, cogently argued, extremely readable book subtitled ‘Iran, Turkey and America’s Future’.
The essence of Kinzer’s thesis is that, for various historical reasons, the United States is locked into two relationships in the Middle East whose continued relevance is at best questionable, and which are poisoning the diplomatic climate in the region, rendering futile all attempts to achieve long term peace and stability. He argues that America’s continued support for the dysfunctional Saudi royalty, and its commitment to backing the Israelis, right or wrong, have in fact helped to create the world-wide axis of evil and terror it so wants to destroy, and actively worked against all moves to pacify and democratize the region. Kinzer goes on to propose that the best and most logical allies for the United States in those troubled lands are Turkey and, in defiance of current logic, Iran.
‘The old triangle – actually two bilateral relationships, the United States with Israel and the United States with Saudi Arabia – served Washington’s interests during the Cold War. It has not, however, produced a stable Middle East. On the contrary, the region is torn by violence, terror, hatred and war. Yet, for economic as well as strategic reasons, the United States must remain engaged there. Its dilemma can be simply stated: America wants to stabilize the Middle East, but its policies are having the opposite effect. What new policies could America adopt to replace those that have failed?
Here is one answer. First, build an ever-closer partnership with Turkey and, in the future, with a democratic Iran. Second, reshape relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia in ways that will serve their long-term interests and those of the United States – even if they protest.’
One factor often lacking in discussions about the problems associated with radical Islam is perspective. In order to move on from the seeming impasse in which we find ourselves, there is a need for some historical context and a sense of where we actually want to be, eventually. This perspective is what Stephen Kinzer provides in an accessibly slim volume of 227 pages (excluding notes, bibliography and index).
The book’s first chapter looks at Iran (or Persia) in the early years of the 20th century. According to Kinzer, the country was taking its first steps to becoming a constitutional monarchy with a representative parliament. Why this did not eventuate he attributes to the interference of, first Russia, and later, Great Britain, inspired by our old friend Winston Churchill. And not coincidentally, to the fact that Iran was ‘sitting atop an ocean of oil.’ So, first Russia stepped in, in 1911, to dissolve the popularly elected parliament. After their own revolution, when Russians became more concerned with their internal problems, it was the British, thirsty for that liquid gold, who engineered a coup resulting in the installing of a puppet prime minister, later to become Shah Reza Pahlavi. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was the turn of America to instigate an upheaval which ousted the democratically chosen government of Mohammed Mossadegh and installed Shah Reza’s son on the throne.
Twenty-five years of increasingly repressive rule by this pseudo-royalty sowed the seeds of extremist revolution, the fertilizer provided by a US whose economy required oil in vast quantities, and customers for its arms industry. The 1979 hostage crisis that terminated the employment of President Jimmy Carter, and brought to power the Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, was, in Kinzer’s view, a predictable outcome of continued foreign interference in Iranian/Persian affairs.
Turkey’s comparative advantage was, perhaps ironically, its lack of oil. When nationalists reacted against the threat of post-World War One partition, ousted the victorious allies and their lackey Greek invaders, overthrew the puppet government of the last Ottoman sultan and established the modern secular Republic of Turkey in 1923, the European powers were embarrassed and somewhat put out, but not inclined to force the issue merely to save face.
Perhaps the most interesting pages of Kinzer’s chapters on Turkey are those where he analyses the achievements of the current AK Party government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 
Something truly historic happened in Turkey during the first decade of the new [21st] century’,he says. ‘It was not simply that the country made its decisive breakthrough to democracy; that was certain to happen sooner or later. More remarkable was the fact that for the first time in modern history, a country was led toward democracy by a political party with roots in Islam.’
‘The success of Erdoğan and his AKP,’ he continues, ‘does not represent the triumph of Islamist politics in Turkey, but precisely the opposite: its death. Democracy has become Turkey’s only alternative. Even pious Muslims recognize, accept, and celebrate this.’
Having made a case for the adoption of Turkey and Iran as its new partners in the Middle East, Kinzer then turns to the matter of why the US should revisit and revise its historically-rooted and anachronistic relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Somewhat fortunately for the credibility of his case in this area, the author appears to have impeccable Jewish credentials, dedicating the book to his grandparents who, we are informed, ended their days in 1945 amidst the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He traces the origin of the modern state of Israel to the intercession of Harry Truman’s army buddy and best friend Eddie Jacobson, who apparently successfully twanged the Presidential heartstrings to gain his indispensable support for the project.
It was Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D Roosevelt who initiated the US’s special relationship with the Saudi royal family. In another touch of irony, the Saudis were totally opposed to the foundation of an Israeli state in Palestine – but American pragmatism carried the day, establishing friendships with two implacably opposed foes. These friendships were of particular benefit to the US during the Cold War years, with the Sauds providing unlimited funding and the Israelis their talents in covert operations, to implement strategic policies in far-flung parts of the world requiring action without too obvious direct American involvement.
Again, however, Kinzer argues that the continuation of these friendships in their present form no longer serves US interests in the Middle East. On the contrary, he suggests that US support of Israel right or wrong is the single most influential factor working against the achievement of lasting peace in the region. In his final chapter, he makes the provocative statement that: 
‘Israel and Iran are in similar positions. They are the two Middle East countries most mistrusted by their neighbours, and their governments are detested by millions around the world.’
He concludes with a powerful message: ‘In today’s rapidly changing Middle East,  . . . realities include growing Iranian power, intensifying Israeli intransigence, continuing Saudi support for anti-American terror, and the likelihood that democratic governments in Arab countries will not be reflexively pro-American. Unless the United States accepts and deals with these realities, rather than trying to wish them away or pretending they don’t exist, it risks a serious erosion of its ability to shape events in the world’s most turbulent region.’
My advice to you? Buy this book and read it!
Reset – Iran, Turkey and America’s Future, Stephen Kinzer (St Martins Griffin, 2011)