Minorities and Trump

Via the comments at David Thompson’s place, I bring you this televised discussion from Australia’s ABC featuring our favourite Laurie Penny. Naturally, she kicks things off by pandering to whatever oppressed minorities she thinks are within earshot…

I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on. I’m really hoping I’m going to say this right! The Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respect to their elders past, present and future.

…before addressing the global issues of the day by talking mostly about herself. So far, so Laurie, but this isn’t really what I want to write about.

What’s more interesting is this statement made by one of the other panelists by the name of Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, an American who is the founder and editor of MuslimGirl, an online magazine for Muslim women:

I think the problem is that people are voting for Trump in the first place. You know, I think THAT’S the problem that we have to address here, not the way that we choose to respond to that. If anything, we should make it so that there’s zero tolerance for those kind of attitudes to exist within our society. There’s no room for that type of intolerance. I mean, look at what happened, right? We started giving Trump air time in the media and giving him an opportunity to present his racist ideologies as a position on a policy platform.

It resulted in him actually getting elected. And now it resulted in white supremacist rallies in the streets, Neo-Nazis going like this again. You know, we really just regressed several generations backward. All this hard work for us to get to this point to make it unacceptable to be racist? Now it’s out in the open again.

Naturally, nobody challenged her on this, with the host preferring to lob soft questions at the panelists, who were all in agreement with one another.

Leaving aside the childish, cartoonish portrayal of Trump, his campaign, and his supporters that contributed to his being elected in the first place, Al-Khatahtbeh is saying that nobody who disagrees with her should be allowed to run for office and present their policies. Sure, it’s dressed up as anti-racism but the definition of racism is now so broad it basically means anyone who isn’t a Democrat or acting like one.

With the election of Obama, the political classes and their lackeys thought the battle was won and their politics would prevail forever. They believed they’d silenced any opposing voices and they had the run of the place. Some may even have equated the silence for satisfaction, but most would be content just to keep the other side silent. As I have said many times, Trump’s election was a warning shot across the bows of the political class that there is no such consensus on the future of American politics and they’d better start listening to people. Having thought the other side had surrendered and laid down their arms, Trump’s election has shaken the likes of Al-Khatahtbeh to the core. This is why they’re lashing out with unhinged statements like the one above.

As I am fond of saying, Trump is a symptom, not a cause. And as I have argued recently, Americans are rather fortunate that the symptom came in the form of an elderly billionaire whose worst habit is shooting his mouth off. It could have been very much worse. What Al-Khatahtbeh and her ilk don’t realise is that it was precisely the shutting down of rational political discourse and putting topics such as immigration and Islam out of bounds for debate that prompted millions to vote for Trump. He said things that no-one else would, and it propelled him into the White House. If the political classes and lackeys like Al-Khatahtbeh succeed in their efforts to silence Americans, they will likely respond by voting in an absolute bastard who will ensure their side prevails in future – using exactly the same methods and laws that Al-Khatahtbeh’s lot used on them.

I’m not about to compare Donald Trump with Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan, but I still think it’s worth seeing how the latter came to power. Put simply, he had the numbers. While the Metropolitan chattering classes dismissed his supporters as uneducated peasants or religious fanatics, he slowly built a movement which catapulted him to almost unlimited power. His arguments didn’t need to be good, because he positioned himself as a man of the people, a leader of those who the elites had ignored and silenced for decades. Sure he preyed on ignorance, but which politician doesn’t? Clinton? Obama? Puh-lease.

Erdoğan’s biggest weapon was the establishment itself: they had neglected millions of rural-dwellers, they were dismissive of their concerns, and they did seem to be running things to benefit themselves in a way which could be argued (and was argued) was contradictory to the character and beliefs of the Turkish people. They also used the judiciary for political purposes: how do you think those suspected of Communist leanings fared in Turkey during the Cold War? It makes it an awful lot easier for the new guy to chuck his opponents in jail if his predecessors have been doing the same thing for years. It becomes a matter of degree, not form.

Again, I’m not endorsing Erdoğan’s policies or comparing him to Trump, I’m merely pointing out how he rose to power, i.e. by pointing to the failings of the established order, using their own techniques against them, and – crucially – having the numbers on his side. Anyone who doesn’t think a nasty bastard could take a similar route to power in the USA is woefully complacent, and people like Al-Khatahtbeh are borderline delusional. From Wikipedia:

Islam is the third largest faith in the United States, after Christianity and Judaism, representing 0.9% of the population.

That’s a rounding error. If I held such a minority status somewhere, I’m not sure I’d be on national television saying the majority should be banned from speaking their minds. I have an uncomfortable feeling that historians may come to view Trump as one of the most benign presidents of the 21st century. As I said, they’re lucky it’s him.

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Four Stories for a Saturday

Four completely unrelated stories caught my attention today.

The first:

Michelle Obama has launched a fierce defence of the healthy eating initiatives she championed as first lady.

In thinly-veiled criticism of the policies of the new administration, Mrs Obama told the audience: “This is where you really have to look at motives, you know.

“You have to stop and think, why don’t you want our kids to have good food at school? What is wrong with you? And why is that a partisan issue? Why would that be political? What is going on?”

You know, perhaps American parents don’t want to be told what to feed their children, adopting the rather old-fashioned view that maybe they are best placed to decide? And perhaps they don’t like being lectured by a woman whose sole reason for anyone knowing her name is that she happened to be the wife of a president whose policies were soundly rejected at the last election. Would it have been too much to ask that she maintain a dignified silence once her husband left office?

While in the White House, Mrs Obama championed the “Let’s Move” campaign, which encourages exercise and healthy eating among young people.

She being uniquely positioned to decide what constitutes healthy eating for millions of people, of course.

The second:

At least 20 people have died after a tourist bus fell from a cliff near the southern Turkey seaside resort of Marmaris.

Another 11 were injured when the driver lost control of the minibus and ploughed through a crash barrier.

Local media said no foreign tourists were among the passengers.

About 40 people were on board, according to Amric Cicek, governor of Mugla province, who suggested the brakes may have stopped working.

But the mayor of Marmaris, Ali Acar, told Turkish newspaper Hurriyet: “I think that the accident was a result of driver error.”

This is a reminder that, for all of Turkey’s recent economic growth and the emergence of a decent airline, its roads remain dangerous places. The government really ought to do something about this, if it can find time.

The third:

Prime Minister of Canada and internet darling Justin Trudeau has shown the rest of the world’s leaders how to do publicity once again – by bringing his three-year-old to the office.

Of course, it’s not the first time the 45-year-old internet-savvy politician has caught global attention.

The liberal politician has been applauded by his supporters for supporting Syrian refugees, marching at a gay pride parade, and openly declaring himself a feminist.

Naturally, the BBC fails to realise that these antics are precisely why much of the world think him a laughing stock.

“So precious … I’m old enough to remember seeing photos released of you and your dad [former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau] when you were little,” one Facebook commenter volunteered.

Would that be the one where he’s being held by family hero Fidel Castro?

If only we were able to get the view on Trudeau from Cuban Facebook commenters.

The fourth:

A Mexican businesswoman who headed a group of 600 families searching for their disappeared relatives has been killed.

Miriam Rodríguez Martínez was shot in her home in the town of San Fernando in Tamaulipas state.

She was known for successfully investigating the kidnap and murder of her daughter by a local drug cartel, the Zetas.

The information she gave the police ensured the gang members were jailed.

A brave, brave woman indeed.

The group she established was part of a wider trend which mushroomed after the October 2014 disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in the southwestern state of Guerrero.

Frustrated by a lack of government help, groups of families began their own searches for people who had disappeared in their areas, taking courses in forensic anthropology, archaeology, law, buying caving equipment and becoming experts in identifying graves and bones.

There are now at least 13 of these groups across the country.

One of the points overlooked by those who oppose Trump’s immigration policies is that the current practice of allowing Mexicans to move to the USA and remit monies back home is that it drastically reduces the pressure on the ruling elites to sort the place out. The USA acts as the safety valve for Mexican governmental fecklessness, and short of an incentive to do anything other than keep themselves wealthy and protected, the country is rapidly becoming a failed state. The fact that relatives of murdered citizens have had to form their own forensic teams because the police can’t or won’t do the job shows just how bad things have got. When the Mexican government started squawking about the wall, Trump should have slapped their president around the face with a strong right hand (or perhaps got Mattis to do it) and put these feckless parasites firmly in their place. Although there is the argument that American drug laws is what has created this situation, but if that’s the case then let’s hear the Mexicans make it.

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The US to arm the Kurds

From the BBC:

US President Donald Trump has approved supplying weapons to Kurdish forces fighting so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria, the Pentagon says.

Well, why not? They seem to be the only bunch out there that don’t completely hate us. If we’re going to insist on giving people weapons, might as well be the Kurds.

The US was “keenly aware” of Turkey’s concerns about such a move, she said.

Turkey views the Kurdish rebels as terrorists and wants to stop them taking more territory in Syria.

Turkey? Presumably they mean the nation whose president recently said:

“If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets.”

And whose interior minister said:

“If you want, we could open the way for 15,000 refugees that we don’t send each month and blow the mind of Europe”

And the same Turkey whose pro-government newspapers say things like this:

President Erdoğan is totally right to compare the situation to a struggle between the cross and the crescent. And so is Minister Çavuşoğlu arguing that holy wars will soon begin in Europe. The refusal by the West to accept the equality of Muslims and Muslim nations is the sign of a clash of civilizations.

If you have decided to clench your fists, you are getting ready for a fight; if you hit, you will be hit back.

President Erdoğan and other government officials are raising their voices since Western governments have aggrieved Turks and Muslims.

Turks are warning one last time. They are asking: “Are you aware that you are playing with fire? What on earth is going on? Are you insane?” The rest is up to the Western governments.

Turkey has chosen sides, nailing its colours firmly to the mast. And now the US is arming its enemies.

Pentagon sources told the BBC that the equipment would include ammunition, small arms, machine guns, heavy machine guns, construction equipment such as bulldozers and armoured vehicles.

And if the threats keep up, maybe a MANPAD or two. Over to you, President Erdoğan.

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Erdoğan Tackles the Major Issues

Fresh off the back of his referendum victory and becoming the next Ottoman Sultan, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gets to work:

The Turkish government has sacked almost 4,000 more public officials in what appears to be the latest purge related to a failed coup last July.

They include more than 1,000 justice ministry workers, a similar number of army staff and more than 100 air force pilots, officials said.

Which comes as no surprise. This does, though:

In a separate decree, Turkey banned TV dating shows – a move previously mooted by the government.

I have it on good authority that nobody who has ever watched a Turkish TV dating show could possibly object to this on any grounds whatsoever. But what is ironic is that the bulk of the audience for these sort of shows would have most likely voted Yes in the recent referendum. The UK equivalent would be chavs voting Labour thus handing them victory, and then finding the incoming government wants to ban Jeremy Kyle.

I wonder how long before online dating sites are banned, too?

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Turkey and the Armenian Genocide

Yesterday I noticed there was a lot of chatter on the internet about the Armenian genocide which took place in 1915. Denial of the Armenian genocide is a criminal offence in France, and I’m not about to get myself chucked in jail, deported, or ceremoniously guillotined in front of the offices of Turkish Airlines by doing any such thing. And the same goes for the comments: when the blade is about to be dropped, my bleatings that “It was my commenters!” will fall only on the deaf ears of the man about to cut the rope, so behave you lot. (Especially you, TNA!) Besides, regardless of the law I am woefully ill-informed to comment on the matter of what occurred, when, and how.

What I want to say is that the issue has come down to a solitary word – genocide. Armenia and a good few other nations want Turkey to acknowledge that genocide took place, whereas the Turks themselves take issue pretty much only with the use of this particular word. The problem is, even moderate Turks aren’t much in the mood to concede on this point, it’s not just the raving, ultra-nationalist fans of Erdoğan who are being stubborn. From what I understand, the issue holds such significance that any politician willing to concede on this particular word would be committing political suicide: Turkey has staked its national pride on it, and it’s not going to budge.

Part of the problem is there isn’t really a solution. In the case of other seemingly intractable issues (Northern Ireland, Crimea, etc.) there is always a compromise involving power sharing, land swaps, etc. as well as formal apologies and acknowledgements. On the issue of the Armenian genocide and the use of that particular word there is not much room to compromise. No acknowledgement from Turkey that does not include the word “genocide” will be accepted, and Turkey won’t acquiesce to using the term. There is no more room to meet in the middle.

Often these things are solved with the passage of time. I am reliably told that the animosity between Greeks and Turks has lessened considerably as the older generations died out and the younger ones weren’t sure what all the fuss was about. But a hundred years on and the Armenian genocide isn’t going away, in part because Armenia defines itself so much on this issue and they have a powerful lobbying ability (I’m not saying these are bad things, I’m simply pointing out facts). The Armenians aren’t going to drop the subject, and the Turks aren’t going to concede.

Perhaps in a few more generations Turks will have evolved politically and socially to the point where they no longer consider this a trench worth fighting to death in, but the way things are moving with Erdoğan I expect things to get worse before they get better. Either way, it’s not going to be resolved any time soon.

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The Referendum in Turkey

So Turkish citizens at home and abroad have decided they want a presidential system of government rather than a parliamentary one. This makes them more like France than Britain. So far so meh.

The change has been pushed by the incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who spent eleven years as prime minister. The change has been sold on the basis that Turkey is facing various threats – terrorism, separatists Kurds, refugees, a civil war next door – and without these changes things will only get worse. The campaign for change was run not merely on the basis that an executive president will be able to better manage these issues, but that Erdoğan was uniquely placed to deal with them personally. The result was not so much a reflection of Turkey’s desire to be ruled by a president as much as a desire to be ruled by Erdoğan himself.

I say this because the result surprised me. Erdoğan has always polled around the 51-52% mark and because of this many people believed the same split would occur in this referendum. But referenda are not elections. Elections are between two or more candidates and one must make a choice, often while holding one’s nose. A referendum usually has nothing to do with the individuals involved, and a fine example of this was Brexit: nobody wanted Nigel Farage as a Prime Minister and UKIP did not poll particularly well in General Elections. But people still voted to leave anyway, because the issue of EU membership was detached from ordinary party politics and the individuals who represent them. Initially I thought this might be the same in Turkey, only to be proven quite wrong when the results came out. It is looking obvious that the constitutional changes being voted on were inextricably linked to Erdoğan himself.

There’s nothing new here, and the number of parallels that can be drawn between Erdoğan and others is long. The most obvious is with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. He managed to sidestep presidential term limits in 2008 by moving to prime minister, taking his powers with him and installing a puppet in the form of Dmitry Medvedev as president, before the two swapped positions again in 2012. Since at least 2007, Putin has drummed up fears of Russia facing terrible threats, mainly in the form of alleged Western plots to encircle and then dismember Russia (possibly massacring all its people in the process), that he is uniquely placed to deal with. Putin has positioned himself such that Russia is Putin and vice versa, and without him the entire nation will be at the mercy of nefarious foreigners who (for some reason that is never quite explained) hate Russia and Russians. This sort of rhetoric plays well in Russia, and Putin is genuinely popular as a result (although how much, in the absence of a free press and a decent opposition, is open to question). Russians have always been ready to buy into the idea that foreigners want them destroyed and throughout their history they have been happy to be ruled by an authoritarian strongman and adopt a siege mentality, eating raw potatoes and shivering in the dark in defiance of their enemies who, if we’re honest, barely know they exist.

Erdoğan seems to be adopting a similar approach. He has ramped up the rhetoric against the West, promoting himself as the natural leader of the Islamic world and determined to make Turkey a force to be reckoned with. While Putin fancies himself as the next Catherine the Great, Erdoğan wants to be seen as the next Ataturk (or possibly an Ottoman Sultan). In other words, he’s a man in search of  a legacy, and I’ve written about this before:

So what of Putin’s legacy? If Russia hangs onto Crimea, which it probably will, it might warrant a note in a history book somewhere (offered as much prominence as Khrushchev’s transfer of the peninsula in 1954, which few knew about until recently). But it’s hardly the stuff to warrant a mention alongside Katherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible. As I said at the beginning of this post, the modern-day politician (of which Putin is one, no matter how much he wishes he belonged to another era) just doesn’t think big enough to create a proper legacy. In the grand scheme of things, the annexation of Crimea is mere fiddling, and expensively at that.

Like his predecessors, Putin found even with seemingly unlimited political power, plenty of popular support, and no opposition that Russia was fiendishly difficult to change. It has not become the great power that he wanted, feared and respected by all. Addressing the issues of corruption, collapsing demographics, alcoholism, an economy dependent on oil and gas exports, and a largely conscripted military have all proven to be beyond Putin’s capabilities and probably anyone else’s as well. With the exception of the Crimean land grab, very little has changed in Russia since 2008 that is not directly attributable to the waxing and waning of the global economy and the oil price. There is a lot of inertia in a nation and they are often resistant to change (ask the French): Putin has proven that it takes a lot more than an authoritarian strongman with plenty of angry rhetoric to take a country in a new direction in the twenty-first century.

I suspect Erdoğan will find much the same thing. Indeed, I’d say his job is only just beginning. He’s put himself forward as the man who will solve the twin issues of Kurdish separatism and jihadist terrorism single-handedly and the nation has given their approval for him to do so. Well, good luck with that. All eyes on you, old chap. And unlike Putin he doesn’t have anywhere near the popular support that his Russian counterpart enjoys: his referendum scraped through 51% to 49% and the three largest cities voted No. If he isn’t delivering results soon he might find himself somewhat under siege himself. Sure, he can crack more heads and throw more people in jail and increase the hyperbole against the West and the half of the country that don’t support him, but that will only make his job more difficult. And he also faces the challenge of keeping Turkey’s economy growing while all this is going on. I suspect foreign investors are already nervous of putting money into a place where an all-powerful president is now railing against the EU and banging the Islamist drum ever-louder. Like Putin, much of his popularity will depend on how much he can keep ordinary Turks convinced their lives are getting better under his rule, and that for most people means jobs and money. It is true that much of Turkey is shit-poor and this will not be a difficult feat to pull off, but Turkey has no real history of hunkering down for a lengthy siege against imaginary outside enemies bent on their destruction and taking the lifestyle hit that this entails. By contrast, one would be forgiven for thinking Russians have to adopt this pose in order to feel fully alive.

My guess is not much will change in Turkey. Sure, opposition politicians will find their heads cracked and journalists will be chucked in jail and the state institutions will become thoroughly corrupted. But it’s not like this wasn’t happening before. What sort of freedom of expression did Communists or Islamists enjoy under the old regime? Not that I like either group, but there’s not been a fundamental shift here, merely the targets of the police batons have changed. The more Erdoğan tries to build his “legacy”, the more he will get bogged down in intractable problems that lie deep within Turkish society and he will begin to make a serious of blunders which, thanks to his lofty new position, will have his name all over them. Erdoğan doesn’t even have the luxury of being a new face that can expect a honeymoon period of a few years. As I said before:

There are limits to what people can do in office, and that is often driven by time. A two-term president in the US is usually in charge of a very tired administration in the final couple of years, regardless of how good they’ve been beforehand. Even New Labour’s supporters were glad to see the back of Tony Blair after 10 years as Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street a tired shadow of the vibrant woman who had entered almost 12 years previously; and despite the economic boom and rise in living standards Australia enjoyed under 11 years of John Howard, the population felt they were in need of a change when they kicked him out. The optimum period in office for a leader in a modern democracy is approximately 7-8 years, after which their administration is plagued by various scandals, stumbling policies, tired rhetoric, and a population that has gotten tired of seeing the same damned face on the TV every night and could use a change. Even the Soviet leaders eventually departed, unable to fulfill any more promises or bring about change in the way they could when they first took over. With the exception of Stalin, few missed them.

Personally, I think he’s got a mountain to climb, one of his own making. If his current politics are anything to go by, he’ll do extremely well not to destroy the economy and usher in a lengthy period of stagnation and decline making him a figure in the vein of Hosni Mubarak. His idea that Turkey can adopt a belligerent attitude to the EU, US, as well as its regional neighbours such as Iran and Russia are delusional: a combination of any of those could make life extremely difficult for him, and if they really wanted to they could crush him pretty quickly. A mischievous foreign power could start arming the Kurds, for example, something nobody has been willing to do – yet. God knows what thoughts run through Trump’s head on any given day, but Turkey’s membership of Nato – even assuming the alliance survives – is becoming ever-more questionable, and if the country lurches towards Islamism some senator might find a bill to cease supplying Turkey with weapons to be a vote winner. Who will Erdoğan buy his equipment from then? Russia? China?

There is a chance Erdoğan turns Turkey into the next Venezuela or Iran, but frankly, who cares? Since the end of the Cold War Turkey’s strategic importance has dwindled, and other than the refugee issue (which can easily be solved if politicians so desire) the future of the West is not in any way dependent on Turkey. Sure, it’s a bit shit for the 49% who didn’t want this but it’s up to them to get themselves out of this mess. One of the big mistakes I think people are making, including a lot of Turks themselves, is believing Erdoğan’s support is made up exclusively of backward, conservative, uneducated peasants in the centre of the country. We heard the same remarks levelled at Leave voters after Brexit and Trump voters after the US presidential election. I suppose it is comforting to say that all of those who are educated, intelligent, and have been exposed to international systems all voted No in the Turkish referendum, but I have a hard time believing that 49% of the oh-so-clever part of the population lost to the 51% who are farmers who can’t read or write. The truth is that, like Trump and Leave voters, there will be plenty of Turks who are smart, educated, and well-travelled who – for various reasons – support Erdoğan. The Turks who voted No might want to find out who those people are and understand those reasons before throwing their toys out of the pram.

For me, the real danger lies in what I’ve written about before:

I hope I’m wrong about this, but Erdoğan may well have made the mistake moderate left wingers made time and time again: they purged the opposition of right-wingers but failed to notice the hardcore Communists sneaking up on their left flank, and by the time they realised the danger they were being stood against a brick wall facing a machine gun. In his hurry to neuter his political opponents and boost his support, Erdoğan may have done away with the very people he now needs to tackle extremism within Turkey and allowed extremists elements to infiltrate those institutions on which the survival of the Republic depends.

By far the biggest problem facing Turkey in the wake of this referendum is not Erdoğan but the one who succeeds him. It might be that, if people are fed up with him and want things to go back to how they were, all of these changes will be undone by the next guy who will reinstate the parliamentary system. That is the best thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is extremists think Erdoğan has not gone far enough in turning Turkey into an Islamist basket-case and get rid of him, and a headcase takes over with all these shiny new powers to play with. Then you’ll start seeing even Yes voters tossed in jail (or worse) by the thousand and they’ll learn a harsh lesson about the limits of presidential power. They’d not be the first ones.

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Praying for War

Via Bardon in the comments, I find this article by a Turkish writer to be a good example of what happens when people start to believe their own bullshit.

Under the heading “Turkey’s last warning to the West before it’s too late” we get this:

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday that the new ban on headscarves in the workplace by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would commence a struggle between the cross and the crescent.

Also speaking on Thursday, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu predicted that holy wars would soon begin in Europe.

Employers are now entitled to ban their staff from wearing visible religious symbols. You may say that it is not just for Muslims, but it is certainly intolerable for them. It is a direct attack on Muslim women wearing hijabs at work.

Can someone show me the difference between the ECJ’s ban on headscarves and new U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban, please?

President Erdoğan is totally right to compare the situation to a struggle between the cross and the crescent. And so is Minister Çavuşoğlu arguing that holy wars will soon begin in Europe. The refusal by the West to accept the equality of Muslims and Muslim nations is the sign of a clash of civilizations.

If you have decided to clench your fists, you are getting ready for a fight; if you hit, you will be hit back.

President Erdoğan and other government officials are raising their voices since Western governments have aggrieved Turks and Muslims.

Turks are warning one last time. They are asking: “Are you aware that you are playing with fire? What on earth is going on? Are you insane?” The rest is up to the Western governments.

To summarise: Western governments must do as us Turks and Muslims want or we will get violent and a bloody, religious war will ensue. But this is just a warning, not a threat. Uh-huh.

Here’s something for the author to consider: if things keep going the way they are, it may not be long before it is those very politicians to whom her countrymen are issuing “warnings” that are all that stand between Muslims and the general population in the war they appear to crave. I wonder how long she and her ilk expects to last should such a war begin and those politicians are out of the picture? Personally, I’d give her a matter of hours.

I might have said this before, but I think Muslims are making an enormous mistake, one that our current crop of leaders are facilitating and for which they will bear an enormous responsibility in future, in believing that the entire Western population has been cowed. Given the behaviour of the government in each country and a good chunk of their citizens I can see why they may think this, but I nevertheless believe it is a rather dangerous assumption to make. They may ought to read some history books and brush up on the fanatical violence we were willing to inflict on each other just a short time ago, and the fact that when push came to shove the Americans were prepared to obliterate two Japanese cities and sleep well that night. Much is made these days about how civilised we all are and how the EU is a guarantor of peace, and I daresay some people believe it. But I don’t see sixty or seventy years as being particularly long in a historical context, and certainly not long enough to have completely pacified an entire continent. Yugoslavia used to be a holiday destination for Brits wanting a beach and sunshine; a few years later we had the Siege of Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

I’m of the opinion that Europe and America still contain enough people who are, deep down, as fanatically violent as their forebears and this is kept in check only by a complex political and economic system which has been arrived at precisely to avoid any more bloodshed. However, two generations have now passed and people have gotten complacent, thinking this happy state of affairs is destined to be permanent, as if it were some sort of historical inevitability. What we are now seeing is outsiders kicking at the pillars of that political system and being encouraged to do so by hubristic insiders who don’t understand quite how delicate it is and what those pillars are made of. When those pillars have fallen in the past they did so rather unexpectedly, often at a time when people thought that peaceful times were here to stay. What were people saying about “the war to end all wars”? Didn’t quite work out like that, did it?

I’ve read about The Bloody Angle, Chancellorsville, Verdun, The Somme, Stalingrad, and Dresden. Not much love lost there, and everyone looked vaguely alike. I’ve also read about Auschwitz and the Gulags, and the Confederate POW camp at Andersonville: again, this was done by one set of people to another who spoke the same language, ate the same food, and listened to the same music. I’ve read about the Provisional IRA and their policy of kneecappings, and accounts of what happened when Russia’s OMON went into Grozny after artillery flattened it. None of what took place needed a translator. I’ve read about what the British, French, Belgians, Portuguese, Spanish, and Americans were prepared to do to people who were brown or yellow and didn’t sound much like them, and it is grisly stuff. When it comes to barbaric savagery, us Westerners have a pretty impressive record and much of it is within living memory.

But hey, perhaps the West has gone soft. Perhaps the current crop of politicians really are representative of their populations and everyone will sit idly by and do nothing as strange foreigners turn up in large numbers and unleash a holy war over issues such as wearing the hijab. All I’m saying is that are running one hell of a fucking risk. Perhaps they ought to tone down the “warnings” and think this through a bit.

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Security or Protectionism?

New flying rules are afoot:

The US has announced a ban on large electronic devices from cabin baggage on passenger flights from eight Muslim-majority countries.

Bombs could be hidden in laptops, tablets, cameras, DVD players and electronic games, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.

Well yes, they could be. Which is generally why everyone has to go through that pantomime of taking out all electronic items and scanning them separately. Or doesn’t this actually work?

The nine airlines affected are Royal Jordanian, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways.

The cynic in me thinks this is less about security and more about hobbling Middle East airlines which are cheaper, cleaner, better, and have nicer staff than airlines operating out of the US.

The UK is due to announce shortly a similar ban on certain flights.

Which is good news for British Airways, no doubt.

[A]viation security experts were alarmed by an incident in Somalia last year when the insurgent group al-Shabaab smuggled an explosive-filled laptop on a flight out of Mogadishu, blowing a hole in the side of the plane.

Somalia. On Daallo Airlines, whoever the hell they are. But this might be a concern:

A suspected suicide bomber on a Daallo Airlines flight was originally meant to be aboard a Turkish Airlines plane, Reuters cited Daallo’s CEO Mohamed Yassin as saying. A separate report claimed the blast had come from explosives hidden inside a laptop.
The majority of the passengers on the bombed Airbus A321 flight were scheduled to fly with Turkish Airlines, but were redirected after the Turkish carrier cancelled the flight due to bad weather.

I’m a bit concerned about Turkish Airlines. They have done an impressive job of becoming a very good, high-profile airline offering flights practically everywhere through an airport which I’ve been told is excellent…but at the same time, as I wrote here, Turkey’s state security services might have been severely compromised. If so, their national airline makes for a ripe target indeed. I sincerely hope this is not the case because, regardless of what I think about Turkish politics right now, plane bombings is something we really need to see eradicated.

The problem is, aircraft security has been so badly handled what with so many senseless, arbitrary rules applied inconsistently across airports and jurisdictions and the ubiquitous security theatre seemingly designed to make passengers docile and compliant rather than safe, trust in the authorities is pretty low these days.

Jamil al-Qsous, a former Jordanian aviation security official, told the Associated Press news agency that the ban meant “one less headache” for security agencies.

And for the passengers? Who cares about them? Presumably they will be invited to fly with a different airline, an American one, onto which they can bring their electronic devices. Yeah, it’s all about security.

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A Rare Case of Uzbek-Kyrgyz Cooperation

I see the police in Turkey have caught the man they believe carried out the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve. He appears to have spent the interim period at a bare-knuckle boxing gym:

Abdulkadir Masharipov is believed to have mounted the assault on the Reina club which left 39 people dead.

The Uzbek national is said to have been caught in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district.

Uzbek, you say? So not an Uighur, then? Didn’t think so.

There had been fears that the gunman had managed to escape Turkey, perhaps to territory held by so-called Islamic State, which said it was behind the attack.

I must say, this surprises me a lot. One of the features of al-Qa’eda and ISIS-driven gun attacks and bombings is that the perpetrators treat it as a suicide mission and don’t make much of an attempt to escape. The Charlie Hebdo gunmen fled initially but fought to the death when cornered in a warehouse; the Bataclan attackers died at the scene; the Nice lorry driver was shot to death in the cab. The policeman who murdered the Russian ambassador in Ankara didn’t seem much interested in getting away either. The inability to capture these people alive after an attack is what makes ISIS-inspired terrorists so dangerous because, as the Western films taught us, dead men can’t talk.

The guy who drove the lorry into the Christmas market in Berlin on 19th December broke the trend by fleeing Germany to Italy via France, and only got shot and killed when policemen in Milan asked him his identity during a random stop in Milan. Where he was headed is anyone’s guess. And now you have this Uzbek fleeing the scene of the crime and attempting to lie low instead of remaining in the club and making the victim count as high as possible until his ammunition runs out or the police kill him. You’d have thought that if he was intending to escape he’d have got the hell out of Istanbul and over the border into Syria somehow, but he seems to have stuck around. This might be because the Turkish security forces are so efficient they sealed off the entire city and closed the borders so tight nobody could slip through, but I’m a little skeptical of that.

My theory is this: ISIS are finding it more difficult to recruit suicidal fanatics and are having to use slightly less fanatical people who are happy to carry out an atrocity but not so keen on committing suicide in the process. The Arab-speaking world has at this point a lengthening history of supplying suicide attackers, but Uzbeks aren’t generally known for it. Ethnic Uzbeks fought in Afghanistan, switching loyalty between various sides under the leadership of Abdul Rashid Dostum, but in a manner more akin to tribal self-interest than the religious fanaticism shown by the mujaheddin and later the Taliban.

There are certainly religious fanatics in Uzbekistan however, but their numbers and capabilities are often exaggerated either by westerners through ignorance or locals for political convenience. Following 9/11 the president of Uzbekistan, the late Islam Karimov, established his pro-Western credentials with the United States by allowing them to use the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in the south of the country to attack targets in Afghanistan. He also promised to root out extremist elements in Uzbekistan which pleased the US, only he used this as cover to crack down on his domestic political opponents who had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, earning his government a reputation as a serial abuser of human. Eventually the complaints got so bad the relations between the two countries soured.

My guess would be that ISIS has successfully recruited a few thousand Uzbeks to their cause but their levels of fanaticism and commitment are questionable, at least in comparison to their Arabic comrades.

Police reportedly found the suspect along with his four year-old son at the home of a Kyrgyz friend in the city. Turkish media say that his friend was also detained, along with three women.

This surprises me as well. Despite being close neighbours and sharing an insanely complicated border which completely (and deliberately, thanks to Stalin) dissects ethnic groupings, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are widely different peoples. The main difference is that Uzbeks are Turkic people who are settled, meaning they live in towns and villages. The Kyrgyz, like the Kazakhs, are traditionally nomadic and more akin to Mongolians. From my own experience and readings, Uzbeks tend to be more aggressive and take their religion a little more seriously. You rarely hear of Kazakhs or Kyrgyz throwing their lot in with al-Qa’eda or ISIS, although no doubt some do. My guess would be they’d number in the low thousands at most, if that.

Despite their common Soviet history, the Uzbeks are hardly natural allies with the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. In September 2015 I attended an Uzbek wedding near Shymkent in Kazakhstan, close to the border with Uzbekistan. The town of Shymkent is 14% Uzbek, and the village where the wedding took place was pretty much 100% Uzbek. I noticed that there were a few ethnic Russians at the wedding but no Kazakhs; and I happened to be in the venue of a Kazakh wedding the day before and didn’t see any Uzbeks (after a while you can tell them apart by looking at them; of course the locals can do this from a mile away). I asked my friend, who was the one getting married, if there is much mixing between Uzbeks and Kazakhs and he said there wasn’t. You occasionally see some mixing with the Russians and sometimes the Korean minorities, but not between Uzbeks and Kazakhs. I’ve not been to the Ferghana Valley region where Uzbekistan borders  Kyrgyzstan, but I would guess much the same thing applies there.

Ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz came to a head in 2010 when the two groups clashed in the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, leading to around a thousand people being killed and over a hundred thousand displaced during the fighting and the aftermath. In short, the Istanbul gunman hiding out at the home of his mate appears to be a rare case of Uzbek-Kyrgyz cooperation rather something to be expected.

One would hope that now the Turkish authorities have captured him alive we’ll find out some answers as to who he was working for and his motivations. I doubt they’ll get much useful information out of him regarding ISIS as a whole, if it was indeed they who put him up to it. They’d have known he wasn’t keen on dying at the scene and as such wouldn’t have given him any information that wasn’t pertinent to the job in hand, and as an Uzbek of questionable commitment he would unlikely be included in high-level meetings. I don’t know what methods the Turks use to extract information from foreigners who have murdered 39 people in Istanbul nightclubs, but I suspect he’ll spill whatever he has and then some. Whoever is in charge of the translating might want to spend the day brushing up on Uzbek phrases such as “Please take these crocodile clips off my bollocks!”

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Picking Sides

In an effort to understand what is happening in the Middle East, I recalled the introduction to Part III of this excellent book: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe.

The Second World War was never merely a conflict over territory. It was also a war of race and ethnicity. Some of the defining events of the war had nothing to do with winning and maintaining physical ground, but with imposing one’s own ethnic stamp on ground already held.

The problem for those pursuing this racial war was that it was not always easy to define a person’s race or ethnicity, particularly in eastern Europe where different communities were often inextricably intermingled. Jews who happened to have blond hair and blue eyes could slip through the net because they did not fit the Nazis’ preconceived racial stereotype. Gypsies could and did disguise themselves as members of other ethnic groups just by changing their clothes and their behaviour –as did Slovaks in Hungary, Bosniaks in Serbia, Romanians in Ukraine, and so on. The most common way of identifying one’s ethnic friends or enemies –the language they spoke –was not always an accurate guide either. Those who had grown up in mixed communities spoke several languages, and could switch between one and the next depending on whom they were speaking to –a skill that would save many lives during the darkest days of the war and its aftermath. In an effort to categorize the population of Europe, the Nazis insisted on issuing everyone with identity cards, coloured according to ethnicity. They created vast bureaucracies to classify entire populations by race.

Those who did not have their ethnicity chosen for them had to make the decision for themselves. This was not always easy. Many people had multiple options, either because they had mixed-race parents or grandparents or because they saw no contradiction in being simultaneously, say, Polish by birth, Lithuanian by nationality and German by ethnicity. When forced to make a choice, their decision was often naively random at best, perhaps inspired by a parent, a spouse, or even a friend. The more calculating chose an identity according to what benefits it might offer. Claiming German ethnicity, for example, could confer exemption from labour round-ups and eligibility for special rations and tax breaks. On the other hand, it could also mean liability for military conscription: the decision sometimes boiled down to whether the Russian front was preferable to a slave-labour camp. The choices that people made regarding their ethnicity would have implications far beyond the end of the war.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European attitudes. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they wanted to or not. And, in communities that had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem –indeed, it elevated it to the problem –that needed solving.

In previous years, Arab nationalism was the big thing.  Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan defined themselves firstly by their nationality and only perhaps as a secondary concern did they bring ethnicity or religious affiliation into play (with the exception being they were absolutely opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel).  Nasser’s Egypt didn’t promote itself on the basis of religion or ethnicity, but as a regional power allied to the Soviet Union.  Colonel Gaddafi spent years trying to set up and lead some sort of African Union grounded in nationalism and anti-colonialism, not a common religion or ethnicity.  I am told in Syria people were Syrians first and Muslims and Christians second.  Despite his growing a beard and waving the Koran around once he’d been captured, Saddam Hussein ran a largely secular regime based on nationalism and (in theory) socialism via the Ba’ath party, which they shared with Syria.  These countries were based on political doctrines, not on religious or ethnic ones.

That’s not to say that Christians didn’t face discrimination in Egypt, the majority Shia were not oppressed in Iraq by the minority Sunnis, and the Kurds didn’t get gassed by Saddam Hussein.  And one must also look at Saudi Arabia – a nation whose foundations are religious – and the Lebanese Civil War which saw all the different religions and sects fighting one another.  My point is not that one’s religion or ethnicity didn’t matter at all, but that they were considered of secondary importance to the political entity that was the nation state (or, more accurately, the guy in charge).  Provided you were prepared to pledge your loyalty to the political regime, you stood a good chance of being left alone.  Saddam Hussein didn’t gas the Kurds because he objected to their religious beliefs, he did so because they were not sufficiently loyal and didn’t want to live under his rule.  One must remember that Tariq Aziz, a long-serving minister in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was Catholic.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian fighting that followed, and then the Arab Spring, all of that has gone out of the window.  The Muslim Brotherhood popped up in Egypt and promptly won an election; jihadists ran rampage in Libya once Gaddafil was removed; ISIS tore through Iraq and Syria, ethnically cleansing any territory they captured as they fought a religious war for control of the Levant.  The two regional superpowers – Saudi Arabi and Iran – are fighting a proxy war in Yemen and fuelling the conflicts elsewhere with money and weapons as each backs their own religious brethren.  No longer are Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Libyans allowed to state they are nationalists first and foremost and want only what’s best for the country: they must pick a side and in a lot of cases fight for that side.  Within a relatively short time ethnicity and religion has become the determining factor in one’s identity across swathes of the Middle East, taking over from nationality.

Perhaps more worrying is the degree to which this might be happening in Turkey.  The Kurds always had a rough time of it, and Armenians would probably have a few rather blunt words to say were any to read this (and justifiably so), but under Ataturk’s secular republic people were Turks first and committed to a Turkish identity and Turkish nationalism – be they Muslim or Christian, conservative, moderate, or secular.  Sure, some of the more conservative Turks might have gotten a bit hot under the collar over pretty girls wandering the beaches at Izmir in pink bikinis, just as the educated, Westernised Turks in Istanbul thought the rural folk in the north and east were ignorant, backward, and best ignored.  Whatever one’s affiliation or religious fervor, everyone was a Turk and the country came first.

The election of Recep Erdoğan has changed all that.  By running on an Islamist platform, he has driven a wedge between the more conservative Muslims and the secularists, non-Muslims, and the rest.  Now it is starting to matter whether you are secular or Islamist, moderate or conservative.  Last evening a friend showed me a photo that had been posted on Turkish social media a few days ago, before yesterday’s bomb in Izmir.  It was of a Turkish woman in her 20s in a headscarf suggesting that the city – which has a reputation as a centre of secularism and having a Westernised population – be attacked because it is full of infidels.  The number of people approving her remarks was well over a hundred.  This would have been unheard of a generation ago, Turks wanting other Turks killed and maimed over religious differences and being prepared to say so in public.

We have already seen what happened in Europe when people who had never wanted labels were forced to wear one and fight each other.  We are currently seeing what happens in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere when choosing a side becomes compulsory.  I really hope that Turkey avoids this fate, but it is heading in that direction.

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