Thoughts on Transparency and Corruption – and who’s telling the story

I want to preface what follows with a clear statement that I love my country. New Zealand is the land of my birth, the land where my children grew up, and I am always proud to acknowledge it as my homeland. I also love my adopted country, Turkey, for other reasons entirely. However, in neither case does that love blind me to the fact that both countries have their weaknesses and problems.

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Martial law in Paris? Over one guy with a machete?

One thing I find difficult to understand, though, is how those two countries are depicted in international media. Turkey is unrelentingly portrayed as a land torn by internal divisions, corruption and violence. New Zealand, on the other hand, despite much evidence to the contrary, still manages to retain a reputation for squeaky cleanliness in nature and government, a South Sea paradise of equality and opportunity.

Well, let’s start with Turkey. An article in Time Magazine in January trumpeted, A Relentless Cycle of Terror Threatens to Tear Turkey Apart”. “The bloodshed,” we read, “has become endemic over the past year and a half, as Kurdish separatist militants and Islamic State jihadists have slaughtered hundreds, and an abortive military coup attempt left more than 200 people dead and sparked a wave of repression by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”

Another source maintained that “martial law” is in force in Turkey, and the country is under threat of “military intervention” by NATO.

The recently released Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Turkey 75th out of 176 countries, equal with Bulgaria, Kuwait and Tunisia, behind the Solomon Islands and Burkina Faso, but marginally ahead of Brazil, China and India. On that list, New Zealand is ranked 2nd in the world for “perceived” lack of corruption (more on that later); the United States is 18th, and Estonia, 22nd. Well, I don’t want to single out Estonia for unfair attention, but I can’t help observing that, according to the CIA World Factbook, that tiny Baltic state is a growing producer of synthetic drugs; increasingly important transshipment zone for cannabis, cocaine, opiates, and synthetic drugs since joining the European Union and the Schengen Accord; potential money laundering related to organized crime and drug trafficking is a concern, as is possible use of the gambling sector to launder funds; major use of opiates and ecstasy.”

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From Freedom House. Apparently the green countries are free

An organization calling itself Freedom House has also just released a report entitled Freedom in the World 2017. Ranking all countries from 100 (Blissfully free) to 0 (Miserably enslaved), New Zealand again scores at the top end (98). The USA registers a creditable 89, while Turkey’s rating of 38 places it in the seventh group out of ten, in descending order.

OK, I’m not going to spend a lot of time here defending Turkey. Merely, I will observe that, if your intentions are bad, you can blacken pretty much anyone’s name. Paris, I understand, remains on “a high state of terrorist alert” fifteen months after 130 people were killed (slaughtered?) in a series of attacks by ISIL operatives. The state of alert continues and was justified, apparently, when a guy with a machete attempted to “storm” the Louvre Museum, and was shot by police before he could actually harm anyone. Turkey’s state of alert, on the other hand, is labelled “martial law”, and its government is accused of carrying out a “wave of repression”, despite having narrowly avoided overthrow by a military coup in July that left hundreds of civilians dead. I’m not making light of the tragedy in Paris, but come on, people!

When I first came to Istanbul in 1995, platoons of soldiers jogging around the streets carrying automatic weapons were a common feature of urban life. Martial law, high state of alert or whatever, I haven’t seen such sights here for years.

What about New Zealand, then? Well, despite scare-mongering implications by senior government spokespersons, the last hint of terrorism,” according to a recent Bloomberg article, “came a generation ago, when French spies bombed a Greenpeace campaigning ship docked in Auckland harbor in 1985.The focus of that article was New Zealand’s emergence as a popular bolthole for the mega wealthy.” The reason, they suggest, is the country’s location about as distant as you can get from normal terrorist targets without actually leaving planet Earth.

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NZ’s former Prime Minister dining with China’s richest man

 

Maybe those Bloomberg people are right – though if the world is indeed “going to hell in a handbasket”, as Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom reckons, the greed of those “mega wealthy” parasites would be one of the main reasons. But New Zealand may hold an additional attraction besides its isolation and natural beauty. The notorious Panama Papers, leaked to the world’s media in April 2016, brought to light documents hacked from the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca. Among the revelations:

  • Details from the Panama Papers show how a stream of foreign cash became a torrent flooding into New Zealand trusts in order to avoid tax offshore.
  • Tens of thousands of Panama Papers documents reveal how New Zealand, Niue, The Cook Islands and Samoa have become prime destinations for the rich to hide their financial secrets.
  • Wealthy Latin Americans are using secretive, tax-free New Zealand shelf companies and trusts to help channel funds around the world.
  • Mossack Fonseca actively promoted New Zealand as a good place to do business due to its tax-free status, high levels of confidentiality and legal security.
  • The number of foreign trusts in New Zealand has surged to almost 10,700 this year from less than 2,000 ten years ago, according to Inland Revenue figures.
  • At the centre of the New Zealand operation is Roger Thompson, a former Inland Revenue employee. His accountancy firm – Bentleys, in the heart of Auckland’s business district – is the New Zealand agent for Mossack Fonseca.

Well, I don’t know about Mexican or other Latin American tycoons, but I do know that a controversy has arisen recently over the granting of New Zealand citizenship to “technology billionaire and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel”. The story broke when it was learned that Thiel had bought a 193-hectare waterfront estate on Lake Wanaka, near Queenstown – playground for the wealthy in NZ’s South Island. Apparently Mr Thiel was made a citizen at a private ceremony at the New Zealand consulate in Santa Monica, USA, in August 2011. It seems he failed to meet the usual requirements for citizenship, even admitting he had no intention of living in the country, but allegedly donated $NZ1 million to the relief effort after the devastating 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, and got fast-tracked.

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Countries said to be implicated in the Panama papers in red. What colour is Turkey?

It’s a worthy cause, of course, and you can’t criticise the guy for that – but there does seem to have been a certain amount of shady stuff surrounding the rebuild of NZ’s third largest city. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) was established in 2011 to oversee reconstruction, but seems to have been plagued by suggestions of mismanagement until it was disestablished in April 2016, with the city still far from recovered. Panel members for instance, were reportedly being paid $1,000 a day for their services, and staff numbers at one stage ballooned to 357. I don’t know if there’s any connection to Peter Thiel’s generous donation, but three former high-level CERA employees are currently under investigation for having abused their positions as public servants to carry out lucrative private property deals.

Another interesting foreign national awarded NZ citizenship under highly questionable circumstances is a gentleman known variously as Yong Ming Yan, Liu Yang, William Yan and Bill Liu. Despite warnings from the Department of Internal Affairs, evidence that the guy was using fraudulent documents, the vast sums he loses gambling in Auckland’s Skycity casino and his Number 5 ranking on the Chinese Government’s list of most-wanted criminals, the NZ Government is in no hurry to hand him over, and he is said to have recently cut a secret deal with the NZ police after $40 million of his assets had been frozen on suspicion of money-laundering – the charge he is wanted for in China.

In view of the above, you may be surprised to learn that Peter Thiel’s name does not appear on National Business Review’s Rich List for New Zealand. Nor is there a single Chinese name, in spite of the fact that Wang, Lee, Chen and Liu have overtaken Smith as the top four surnames in Auckland. The Neo-con National Government frequently reassures local citizens that the remarkable influx of immigrants from China is totally unrelated to the explosion of prices that has seen Auckland become the 20th most expensive city in the world to buy a house, with an average selling price of $911,800. According to that source, you can buy cheaper in Berlin, Madrid or Dubai!

Those people compiling the Corruptions Perceptions Index made some interesting observations in their report, one of which was “This year’s results highlight the connection between corruption and inequality, which feed off each other to create a vicious circle between corruption, unequal distribution of power in society, and unequal distribution of wealth.” Well, no surprises there, but in the light of that, let’s consider a recent UNICEF report stating that “As many as 28 per cent of New Zealand children – about 295,000 – currently live in poverty.” An article in the New Zealand Herald quoted the mayor of a region in the North Island as saying, “subcultures of poverty” persisted in the area despite years of central Government programmes.

“Our failure to deal with entrenched poverty means we are turning our young people into unskilled dependants and, in some cases, drug addicts, gang members and criminals,” he said.

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Auckland, with the population of Philadelphia, PA, and Phoenix, Arizona

In the mean time, guys like Yong Ming Yan, or whatever his real name is, can steal money from China (at least $129 million, they claim), launder it in New Zealand, lose $300 million in Auckland’s Skycity casino without jumping off the harbour bridge – and be rewarded with citizenship. What’s next? A knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday honours? For sure the Skycity owners will be pretty happy with the guy who made such a generous contribution to their $1 billion revenue last year. I can’t see the obvious benefits to New Zealand, though, given that those owners apparently live in Australia, and most of the profits go offshore.

All of which led me to ask, who is compiling the statistics and writing those reports about freedom and corruption in the world? So I checked out Freedom House. According to its own website:

Freedom House was established in 1941 in New York City . . . with the quiet encouragement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to encourage popular support for American involvement in World War II at a time when isolationist sentiments were running high in the United States.

Having been created in response to the threat of one great totalitarian evil, Nazism, Freedom House took up the struggle against the other great twentieth century totalitarian threat, Communism, after the end of World War II. The organization’s leadership rightly believed that the spread of democracy was the best weapon against totalitarian ideologies. Freedom House embraced as its mission the expansion of freedom around the world and the strengthening of human rights and civil liberties here at home. As a result, Freedom House strongly endorsed the post-war Atlantic Alliance, as well as such key policies and institutions as the Marshall Plan and NATO.”

Wikipedia provides further insights. I didn’t check out all the board members, but four names caught my eye: Kenneth Adelman, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Donald Rumsfield and Paul Wolfowitz. Mr Adelman was a long-term member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, a “lifelong neo-con activist” who was a big supporter of the US destruction of Iraq, and outspoken proponent of the discredited claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Brzezinski, clearly of good Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock, is known, among other achievements, for cosying up to Communist China, overseeing the transition of Iran from an important US ally to a major terrorist threat, and arming the Taliban in Afghanistan to oppose the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld was US Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford, and again under George Dubya Bush. He was a major organiser of US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and supporter of using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on unconvicted prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Wolfowitz is another neo-conservative, former president of the World Bank and once considered by the George Dubya administration as possible head of the CIA.

FREEDOM House? Phooey to them, say I! What value would you place on any report of theirs?

As a conclusion that may or may not be relevant to the present discussion, I read reports of an interview with President Donald Trump the other day. Apparently he had appeared on the Fox News channel where the interviewer was giving him a hard time about his refusal to criticise Russia’s Vladimir Putin, demanding to know how he could lend support to “a killer”. Trump’s quoted response?

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That’s Him saying it, up there on The Mount

“There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

I have to tell you, the big DT went up considerably in my estimation. The USA has had a few presidents in recent years making political capital out of their Christian faith. This, however, is the first time I have heard one echo the words of that religion’s eponymous founder quoted in Matthew 7:5.

“You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Christians slain in execution-style killing.

article-ohio-0422At least eight people were killed in “execution-style” shootings in southern Ohio on Friday, authorities said. As many as four young children were found alive at multiple scenes of the shooting, officials added.

“It was a mother, her former husband, their grown children and some grandchildren, too. They all used to attend our church,” said Phil Fulton, pastor of the nearby Union Hill Community Church.

In response to the killings, Washington has announced plans for a military invasion of Ohio. President Obama says, “No civilised country can tolerate this outrage. We will be doing whatever is necessary to bring the perpetrators to justice.” The President has not ruled out the possibility of targeted drone strikes on a trailer park in Pike County.

Postscript on the Yeldeğirmeni Synagogue

Thanks to Marjorie Searl for a translation of the Hebrew inscription on the Hemdat Israel Synagogue.

“Thanks to crowdsourcing and my friend Miriam… The top two lines are quotes from the Hebrew Bible:

DSCF0078 (1)The top line is Isaiah 56:7 “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  Second line is Psalm 118:19 “Open for me the gates of righteousness. I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” (Translations courtesy of Bible Hub).

The third line says “This building was finished at the end of the month of rachamim” (which could refer to the month of Elul).

The month of Elul in the Hebrew calendar comes right before the Jewish High Holidays; therefore there is much preparation for the repentance involved with those observances. The Hebrew word “rachamim,” the last word in the third line reading from right to left, means mercy…the month of Elul is often referred to as the month of rachamim, or mercy, as the prayers and observances relate to the asking for God’s mercy as we repent and ask forgiveness.

So, it suggests that the synagogue was completed just before the Jewish New Year and High Holidays, which makes sense, as it would be very important to have the first observance in the new synagogue at the time of these important celebrations. It must have been an incredibly festive way to begin the New Year of 1898. Elul is in August/September, depending on the variations of the lunar calendar. Rosh Hashanah  (it means “the head of the year) opens the Jewish New Year and High Holiday observance typically in September; so no doubt the building was done by early September 1898.

So, there you have it! Thank goodness for friends and Facebook! This was fun.”

Given the current state of relations in the Middle East, it’s a little sad to see how closely related the Hebrew and Arabic languages are. I noted in the previous post that the Hebrew letters for ‘Hemdat’ are believed to have been a subtle way of paying thanks to the Ottoman Sultan Abdül Hamid II. The Arabic word for ‘mercy’, ‘rahim’, is also used in Turkish, and the month of September is ‘Eylül’.

Urban Renewal in Istanbul – Tilting at windmills

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Former St Euphemia School and Eglise N.D. du Rosaire

Dilek and I went to a concert of classical music last night. The setting was a small but beautifully restored Roman Catholic church in the Istanbul district of Rasimpaşa. There was a chamber orchestra and a talented young pianist, Nilüfer Kıyıcılardan, playing a programme of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.

We arrived twenty minutes early and were fortunate to find two of the last unclaimed seats – somewhat surprising, given that the venue is not on any well-beaten social track, and the event had received little publicity. I had stumbled upon it accidentally during the week while researching for this post.

These days Istanbul resembles what I imagine New York City to have been during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a vast construction site. Tunnels are driving under, and bridges over the Bosporus and the Gulf of Izmit; subterranean Metro lines burrow in all directions beneath the city; vast commercial and residential projects rise to the winter sky; hectares of run-down inner city blocks are giving way to new up-market apartments; and domed monumental mosques springing up to occupy landmark sites; all presided over by multitudes of arachnoid construction cranes.

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‘1453’ – a new conquest of Istanbul by megalomaniac developers

Not everyone is happy, of course. I wrote a piece some years ago on a conflict between local residents and guests at an art gallery opening that made international news at the time. Many of us prefer shopping in local traditional small businesses to the homogeneity of climate-controlled malls; and have questions about the wisdom of allowing the national economy to be dominated by a bloated and parasitic financial sector. Local residents whose families may have lived in a neighbourhood for generations are resentful of being pushed out by the new urban yuppie class – some of the latter even mourn the loss of traditional colour that inevitably accompanies such development. Lovers of the atmospheric decay that characterised old Istanbul in recent memory have issues with way restoration is carried out on world heritage buildings. And then there are the megalomaniac property developers who seem to ride roughshod with impunity over zoning and town-planning regulations.

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Abdülhamit I’s windmills

Me? I’m ambivalent, I guess. I’m appalled when I look out a window on our university campus and see the abomination of the Ağaoğlu ‘1453’ development blighting what was once a forested landscape. On the other hand, I love the Marmaray Metro, and feel sorry for those who refuse to ride it for fear that the waters of the Bosporus will pour in upon them while their train is half way through. I’m a fatalist when it comes to such matters. But I want to tell you about my recent discovery – the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood of Kadıköy.

One thing I learned is that the neighbourhood goes by two names. Until recently it was known by its official one, Rasimpaşa, after a small mosque dedicated to a relatively minor Ottoman official who served as mayor of Istanbul for a couple of months in 1878. Tradition says that Rasim’s loving wife, Ikbal Hanim, had the mosque built on the site of an earlier ruin. Be that as it may, more picturesque, and arguably more significant is the district’s earlier history.

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Italian Valpreda Apartment Building

Tourist brochures about Istanbul often mention that Khalkedon (Kadıköy) was originally a larger city than Byzantium/Constantinople across the water. The name is translated as ‘City of the Blind’ in tribute, apparently, to the failure of its inhabitants to recognise the obvious superiority of the other site. Dating from 675 BCE, its defensive walls are believed to have extended as far as Rasimpaşa.

The Asian city’s importance waned after the foundation of Constantinople as capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Following its conquest by the Ottomans, its environs became a popular location for the city’s elite to build summer mansions on the banks of the Haydarpaşa Stream that once flowed there. There were also barracks and a training ground for imperial cavalry and infantry. The Marmaray Metro line currently terminates at a station in front of the modern Tepe Nautilus shopping mall. The station is called Ayrılık Çeşmesi, and the eponymous fountain was the gathering point for Ottoman armies departing on campaigns to the east, and caravans of pilgrims setting out for Mecca. As an interesting aside, the fountain is said to have been commissioned by Kızlarağası Gazanfer Ağa – whose title refers to his responsibility for the ladies of the imperial harem. Nice work if you can get it! In the late 18th century, Sultan Abdülhamit I had several windmills erected to supply the needs of the military and local residents – and from the Turkish word for windmill (yel değirmeni) comes the name that is supplanting the memory of that short-lived city mayor.

Synogogue

5659 in the Jewish calendar = 1898 C.E.

From the mid-19th century Rasimpaşa began to take on a more residential character. The present pattern of streets was laid out, and Istanbul’s first post office opened there. The city had always been prone to disastrous fires, and after a particularly bad one that devastated the Kuzguncuk district, Jewish families moved in and established Istanbul’s first apartment buildings. The Hemdat Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest surviving in Istanbul, entered service in 1899 after Sultan Abdülhamit II stepped in personally to moderate in a violent quarrel between the Jews and the Orthodox and Armenian communities. It seems Christians objected to the construction of a synagogue in the district. It is said that the Jewish community named the synagogue in a way that recognised their gratitude to the sultan for his assistance – the Hebrew consonants for ‘Hemdat’ can also be read as ‘Hamid’. Anyway, in the interests of natural justice, the Orthodox lot were allowed to erect their own place of worship, the church of Ayia Yeorgios, a few years later in 1906. Both buildings are still standing, though their congregations have been sadly depleted over the years.

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Simits with a touch of history

Development became more rapid in the early 20th century with the building of the Haydarpaşa train station as a key link on the Berlin-Baghdad railway line. Italian stonemasons came to work on the project, as well as German architects, engineers and builders. The edifice that currently serves as Orhangazi Primary School was also built around this time to provide education for the children of the German professionals. Among the more noteworthy apartment blocks from this time are the five-storey Italian (Valpreda), Demirciyan and Kehribarcı buildings.

Underlining the multicultural character of the district, and the tolerant attitude of the Muslim Ottoman government, Roman Catholics even managed to get a big foot in the door. A gaggle of nuns calling themselves the Oblates[1] of the Assumption established a school in the name of St Euphemia in 1895. RC education continued here until some kind of dispute took place with the Republican government in 1934. As a result, the nuns departed and the school was taken over by the Turkish Ministry of Education, eventually assuming its present role as Kemal Ataturk Anatolian High School. Next door to the school is the small (now deconsecrated) church dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Sacred Rosary, where Dilek and I were privileged to hear last night’s delightful concert.

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Mural-İst street art

A recent article in the Kadikoy Life magazine contains an interesting quote by a former resident of the district:

“The bakers, sweets and helva-sellers were Turkish; the grocers and restaurateurs, Greek; the greengrocers and chemists, Jewish; the butchers, Armenian, and the dairymen, Bulgarian. People from every religion and ethnic background lived happily together. Our neighbours to the right were Greek, the ones on the left were Turks; directly opposite were Armenians, next to them another Greek family, and on the far side, they were Jewish. Neighbourly relations were excellent; we all respected each other’s special days.”

Sadly, the tide of history brought cataclysmic events on to the world stage that destroyed the harmony of those halcyon days – waves of violent nationalism, the slaughter of the First World War, the Greek invasion of Anatolia, and the Turkish War of Liberation. The world would never be the same, and Istanbul suffered as much as anywhere.

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Cem and İnci brewing coffee for connoisseurs

I was motivated to explore the neighbourhood after visiting a café recently, run by the daughter of a friend. Trendy cafés are sprouting there like truffles in a Piedmont autumn, and Kamarad is one of the latest. İnci and Cem are catering to the true coffee connoisseur, importing beans from various sources in Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia) and South America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Columbia), roasting and grinding them on site, and offering delicious brews produced by the method of your choice: the familiar espresso machine and French press, or more esoteric techniques, chemex and V60. They are also supplying beans to other businesses nearby.

One of the more striking features of the new Kadıköy is the proliferation of enormous surrealistic outdoor murals that confront you unexpectedly as you stroll around the narrow back streets. Kadıköy Municipal Council has sponsored an annual street art festival, Mural-İst, for the last four years. Seven local and nine foreign artists have turned their talents to the enlivening of the neighbourhood, with impressive results.

The old days will never return, of course, but the new/old district of Yeldeğirmeni may be showing the way to a better future.

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[1] Oblates, it seems, are one step down in the holy orders, following less stringent rules than is usual for monastic orders.

US women not voting for Hillary Clinton to burn in Hell

Criticism of Turkey’s government in United States media often begin with the words ‘Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government . . .’

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78 year-old religious nut appeals to young women of America

So what are we to make of the report that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking at a rally in support of Hillary Clinton’s nomination, threatened young American women with the fires of Hell if they failed to support that woman’s candidacy for President? Ms Albright’s actual words, apparently, were ‘Just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’

Frankly, I don’t care personally who becomes President of the USA in November this year – although I wouldn’t be surprised if God decided to punish them for their Godless hypocrisy by giving them Mrs Clinton or Donald Trump.

What I find especially outrageous here, however, is a top-level Democrat invoking fundamentalist Christian theology for political purposes. Though I shouldn’t really be surprised. They all do it.

It is possible that some grass-roots AK Party supporters in Turkey have similar beliefs about what will happen to citizens who don’t support their hero Tayyip Erdoğan – but the difference is, you would never hear a cabinet minister or senior politician express such a view.

Still, Ms Albright possibly has better credentials than I do for knowing the mind of the Almighty. Her parents were originally Jews who fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution, converting to Roman Catholicism in 1941, perhaps disappointed that Jehovah hadn’t provided better protection. Madeleine herself subsequently transferred her loyalties to the Episcopalian church (the US version of the Church of England), again, possibly because of Papal ambivalence to the plight of European Jews. I guess you have to admire her persistence in searching for spiritual truth – but her certainty about hellfire and damnation might suggest her real sympathies lie closer to the Southern Baptists.

Left-leaning Democrats may be a little uncomfortable with Ms Albright’s financial portfolio. Wikipedia reports that she ‘is a co-investor with Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild and George Soros, in a $350 million investment vehicle called Helios Towers Africa, which intends to buy or build thousands of mobile phone towers in Africa.’ They might also remember that she is on record as having expressed a total lack of sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who died as a result of US bombing and economic sanctions.

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God save America – but I suspect He’s tired of trying

So anyway, we shouldn’t be surprised by her support for Mrs Clinton, the only First Lady to have been subpoenaed to testify before a Federal Grand Jury, during an investigation into her and Bill’s shady financial dealings. As a Senator, Hillary also supported US military action in Afghanistan in 2001, and voted in favour of George Dubya’s Iraq invasion in 2002. Demonstrating her political versatility, and probably her true political colours, she also supported the $700 billion bailout of US banks after the 2008 financial crisis.

The investigation into Madame Hillary’s use of personal email accounts when conducting official business while serving as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State is continuing – and probably it will find there is no proof that the good lady had any bad intentions.

But God is watching you, Mrs Clinton – and I really think Jesus may leave you behind when He raptures the rest of us.

Mosque Fire not a Hate Crime – Yeah, sure!

Arson, but not a hate crime.

mosque-torchedWith Europe and America in a state of near-panic over possible New Year attacks – and ready to blame just about every act of violence on Islamic terrorists, the arson attack on an Islamic religious centre in Houston, Texas, was probably just a couple of naughty school boys playing with matches.

Officials Say No Evidence Houston Mosque Fire Was Hate Crime

But the fire remains suspicious

Federal officials say there’s no evidence that a recent fire at a Houston mosque was a hate crime.

Officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told KHOU 11 News that there’s no evidence that the two-alarm fire is part of a hate crime. Houston Fire Department investigators say the cause of the fire does not appear to be an accident.

Firefighters responded to the fire on Christmas Day. As TIME previously reported, the fire looks suspicious since the fire had multiple points of origin, and arson is a possibility. Other businesses besides the mosque were damaged. No injuries were reported.

Investigators are continuing to work around the clock, KHOU reports.

Source: Time Magazine

Şeb-i Arus: A Death and a Wedding – Bringing people together

I had to work last Friday afternoon. I wasn’t 100 per cent happy, but I was doing a favour for a young colleague who wanted to swap her afternoon classes for mine in the morning. The reason? She was heading to Konya for the weekend.

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42 – More than just a number

I’ve had occasion to write about Konya before. First and foremost, number plates on the cars of its citizens are prefixed with its administrative number, 42. The mystical significance of that number is strengthened by the city’s history as the home and last resting place of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi philosopher also known as Mevlana or simply Rumi.

Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Khorasan, in present day Afghanistan, but his family moved to Anatolia in 1228 on the invitation of the Seljuk Emperor, Alaeddin Keykübad – the one mentioned in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’. Undoubtedly the Seljuks recorded dates using the Islamic lunar calendar, but it has been determined that Rumi passed away on 17 December 1273. Accordingly, a two-week festival is held every year in Konya to mark the event, known as Şeb-i Arus in Turkey.

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Konya television

The phrase Şeb-i Arus is an interesting mix of Persian and Arabic words meaning ‘Wedding Night’. These two languages bear a similar relationship to modern Turkish as Latin and ancient Greek do to modern English: they were the languages of religion, science, medicine, literature and the arts, and scholarship in general. The founders of the Republic of Turkey, aiming to make a clean break with their Ottoman past, attempted to ‘return’ to a pure Turkish, employing a Latin alphabet. The latter reform was successful (though not everyone was happy) but the former was doomed to failure from the start.

But why ‘Wedding Night’ you may ask. The reason is that, according to the Sufi philosophy, the true life of the spirit begins after the death of the physical body – so that material ‘death’ is in fact a transition to a higher plane of existence whereby the human soul is ‘wedded’ to the ultimate reality.

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Grieve not! The thorn in your foot brings news of the rose you were seeking.

Well, not all of us are able to dismiss so lightly the apparent reality of life on Earth. Veil of illusion it may be, but the world of friends, family, study, work, marriage, children, food and shelter, sickness and health, demands our attention – and we ignore its demands at our peril. So what’s a person to do?

Sufism (Tasavvuf in Turkish) is not a sect of Islam – it has been called the inner, mystical dimension of that religion. Its appeal to non-Muslims is its rejection of the dogma associated with orthodox religions. According to the Mevlana website Rumi’s doctrine ‘advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him all religions were more or less truth.’ . . [Like India’s Mahatma Gandhi, he] looked with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike.

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Sema ceremony

Orthodox Sunni Muslims represent the majority in Turkey, and Sufism is a largely Anatolian phenomenon. Its followers regard it as the purest form of Islam, but most of its sects were outlawed after the foundation of the Republic because they were perceived as politically reactionary. The Mevlevi followers of Rumi, however, were permitted to continue as a kind of living cultural treasure because of their emphasis on the spiritual importance of music, poetry and dance. Interestingly, these are also features of Alevi worship – whose adherents represent a substantial twenty per cent minority in modern Turkey.

Alevism is a heterodox belief system which seems to defy simple definition. Like the Alawites across the border in Syria and elsewhere, they trace their origins back to the disputed question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammed on his death. They differ from the Alawites, however, in that some of their practices and traditions seem to stem from older Turkish folk beliefs. In this they appear to have something in common with Sufism, though there is no officially recognised connection.

ney

Ney musician in Persian culture

The most obvious identifying feature of Mevlevi worship is Sema – the characteristic ‘whirling’ of devotees accompanied by a chorus of chanting, and the eerie, breathy music of the ney. The dancers wear tall brown felt headgear and white robes that swirl outwards as they spin with one hand turned down to the earth, and the other upwards towards the heavens.

The dance represents a mystical journey of the spirit towards truth and perfection, leaving the ego behind. The dancer returns from this spiritual journey ‘as one who has reached maturity and greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.’ You might think the world could do with more of that!

The ney is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It is a kind of flute with a recorded history of nearly 5,000 years. It is identified symbolically with the life force, the spirit breathed into earthly creatures by their source and creator (click to hear the sound).

For two weeks every year, a festival is held in Konya,  location of a striking green-tiled tomb housing Mevlana Rumi’s mortal remains. Thousands of visitors, from all over Turkey and further afield, congregate for festivities culminating in the ‘Wedding Night’ on 17 December. This coming Thursday will mark the 742nd anniversary of his death – and Rumi’s words still serve as inspiration for people of all faiths.

opening doors

If every door opened immediately, hope, patience and desire would have no meaning

∞ “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

∞ “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”

∞ “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”

∞ “You were born with potential.

You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness.

You were born with wings.

You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.

You have wings.

Learn to use them and fly.” 

Tören

Istanbul concert, December 2015

∞ “I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.

I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.

I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.

With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.

Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.

Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.

I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.

Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.”