A few months back, I was dining with a friend at an Armenian restaurant in Beirut, and at the end of the meal he gracefully sidestepped the Turkish question by ordering a “Byzantine” coffee. The waiter laughed grimly. “Aside from coffee and waterpipes,” asked my friend, “what did the Turks leave us? They were here for 500 years, and they didn’t even leave us their language. We speak Arabic, French, and English. No one speaks Turkish. Their most important political institutions were baksheesh and the khazouk.”
Baksheesh is bribery, and the khazouk is a spike driven through its victim’s rectum, which the Ottomans used to terrify locals and deter potential insurgents. The Ottomans were hated here and throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East, not only by the regional minorities (Christians, Jews, Shia, etc.) but also by their Sunni Arab coreligionists. All felt the heavy yoke of the Sublime Porte.
In the last few weeks, however, half a millennium’s worth of history has been conveniently forgotten, perhaps even forgiven, as Turkey has emerged as a regional power and the guarantor of Arab interests—against Israel, to be sure, but more importantly against Iran.
In truth, the wheels were in motion long before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government sponsored the Mavi Marmara’s cruise to Gaza, which left nine activists dead after they challenged an Israeli boarding party. Erdogan’s winter 2009 performance at Davos, when he confronted Israeli president Shimon Peres in the wake of the Gaza offensive, made the Turkish Islamist a regional celebrity. And while the Arab masses were thrilled to hear Israel denounced by a Muslim leader—and an ally of the Jewish state no less—the more important work was taking place behind the scenes. After Davos, high-level political sources in Beirut let on that there’d been a meeting in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak. “The Egyptians are very happy with Erdogan,” said one. “The Turks are trying to take the Palestinian file out of the hands of the Iranians and give it back to the Arabs.”
It’s not yet clear whether Ankara really means to restore the Arabs to their pride of place by handing over a Hamas scrubbed of Iranian influence, or, as is more likely, the Turks simply want to use the Palestinian cause to enhance its own regional credentials, as Tehran has been doing for the last three decades. But the Turkish gambit has induced a lot of willful self-delusion in the Arab states—and amnesia.
Long before Arab nationalism identified Israel and the United States (and before that the European powers) as the enemy, it was the Ottomans who were called to account for everything that was wrong in the Arabic-speaking regions. The Ottomans certainly encouraged Middle East sectarianism: playing up confessional differences, empowering some sects while weakening others, and balancing minorities against each other. Arab nationalism was inspired by Turkish nationalism, but it was a doctrine that asserted Arab independence from the Ottomans. There were no longer Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawi, etc., only Arabs, unified as one against the outsiders, the colonizers.
The Arab states that had been most directly oppressed by the Sublime Porte—and so those most divided along sectarian lines—were determined to illuminate the evils of Ottoman occupation. No Arab state was more anti-Turkish than Baathist Syria. The Syrian television serials that commonly promote the blood libel and feature other anti-Semitic caricatures at one time also cast Ottomans as villains. Indeed, Damascus went where even Washington fears to tread, producing serials that mention the Armenian genocide. And Syrian anti-Turkish sentiment wasn’t only about past affronts. Just as Damascus demands that Israel return the Golan Heights, there is a significant land dispute at the center of Syrian-Turkish relations. In 1939, the Turks conquered what is today known as Hatay province, but the Syrians call Iskenderun or Alexandretta, and which Damascus long claimed was occupied land. In 2005, the Syrians quietly relinquished their claims and thus opened a new chapter in the history of their two countries—which included a 1998 conflict in which Turkey was poised to invade its Arab neighbor until Hafez al-Assad handed over Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Today, Hafez’s son Bashar likes to speak of Turkey and Syria’s shared history, explaining that “Arab and Turkish blood is one blood across history”—a phrase that unintentionally resonates with historical pathos. Syrians after all are often disparagingly called Tamerlane’s bastards, a reference to the trail of destruction and sexual violence that the Turkic conqueror left in his wake. Presumably, today’s Turks are of a much kinder disposition, and Damascus has both an Iranian ally and a government in Ankara that is wooing it—or at least this is how the Syrians are playing it publicly.
Erdogan’s invitation to Hezbollah’s secretary general to visit Ankara certainly reinforces the fear that what we’re watching is the formation of a united resistance front, with Turkey signing on to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance. But this may well turn out, eventually anyway, to be a revival of the historic rivalry between the Turks and the Persians. The problem is not just that their competition is likely to further radicalize the political culture of an already volatile region, but that subsidiary actors will be forced to prove their bona fides as well. It will drag in the Jordanians. And what about the Egyptians, who are on the verge of a very delicate succession issue as the 83-year-old Mubarak’s days are numbered and no one knows if his son Gamal will indeed be able to replace him?
Syria is about the only player whose actions can be gamed with any accuracy. The country right now considers itself Hamas’s interlocutor, which is precisely the role that Erdogan auditioned for with the cruise of the Mavi Marmara. Should Europe, or at some point the United States, accept Turkish mediation, it will knock Syria down a peg, which will then feel obligated to assert itself. Perhaps the best way to understand Syria’s recent shipment of Scuds to Hezbollah is as a reminder to everyone that attention must be paid to Damascus as well as Tehran, that when it comes to Hezbollah, Assad also has a vote in war or peace with Israel. Turkish-Iranian competition will entail accelerated Syrian activity on two of Israel’s borders.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Iran’s neighbors across the water, see the recent events in starker terms. Ankara’s shot across Tehran’s bow is a good thing, period. As Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, Saudi columnist for the London-based pan-Arab news-paper Asharq al-Awsat writes:
"Erdogan, who wanted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, broke the Iranian blockade on the Arabs instead. .  .  . [T]he most that Ankara could benefit from by raising the Palestinian flag would be by advancing its political status, [which] does not contract or marginalize Arab interests, unlike the Iranian goal which directly undermines the Arab position."
If some Saudi officials are concerned that Erdogan’s play is a bit radical and wish, according to Asharq al-Awsat editor in chief Tariq Homayed, “Hamas would follow Turkey, and not vice versa,” in the end it all comes down to sectarianism. Turkey is Sunni, Iran is Shia, and despite the Ottoman Empire’s long history of oppressing their imperial subjects, the Arabs prefer anything to the prospect of Persian hegemony. If it means casting their lot with the progeny of those who enslaved them for centuries—well there is great comfort in custom.
If in a sense the Middle East is returning to its historical divisions—an Ottoman (Turkish) and Safavid (Iranian) rivalry where Israel stands in for the Western powers—especially with Washington’s diminishing profile in the region—it is worth lamenting how the Arabs wasted their moment of independence. What started with the birth of the Arab state system moved quickly to wars between those states and within them, and then the empty rhetoric of Nasser, despotism, mass murder, and a unifying hatred of Israel, all culminating in the suicidal obscurantism of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, whom the Arab masses, characteristically, regard as heroes. The “Arab century,” that period during which the Arabs had their own destiny in their hands, was brief, lasting roughly a decade from 1956-67. A harsher, and perhaps more accurate, assessment suggests that it was even shorter than that: After all, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War shows that Nasser’s success at Suez was due not to anything he did, but to an American president’s ordering the French, British, and Israelis to stand down.
In reality, the Arab century was ours. For more than 65 years, the United States was the power underwriting the Arabs, and if not always the most sincere benefactor, we nonetheless protected them from more dangerous forces and their even more dangerous fantasies. What we won from the region is what the Turks now want as well: the wealth, influence, and power that is consequent on hegemony in the energy-rich Middle East. Ankara will serve as an inter-mediary between their Arab charges and a stingy Europe that up till now has turned its back on Turkey. But what do the Turks have to offer the Arabs that they hadn’t already impressed upon the region when they left it to its own devices almost a century ago? The Americans brought schools and hospitals to the Middle East, and, after 9/11, democracy, too, at last—or perhaps, too late. It’s not the Arab vacuum that Ankara is rushing to fill, but our own.
Lee Smith is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday).
The grim news from Kyrgyzstan continues to roll in. Hundreds and possibly thousands are dead; up to 400,000, half the Uzbek population in Krygyzstan, have been driven from their homes; like so many millions of victims of ethnic violence before them, they are frightened, terrified, suddenly destitute, separated from loved ones whose fates they do not know, and living in improvised camps. Women have been raped, children mutilated, homes burned and neighbor has turned on neighbor in an orgy of violence.
It is, in other words, another day on Planet Earth. The international community is wringing its hands from a great distance; nearby countries and local warlords are scheming to make the most of the situation; evidence accumulates that dark political forces may have planned the massacre in cold blood.
Modern history is littered with tragedies like this, many much larger and even more violent than the horror in Osh, the city in southern Kyrgyzstan where the worst of the violence took place. Each act of violence, each rape, each murder, each act of pillage and arson is an incomprehensible horror, but the last two centuries have been piled high with atrocities — like the skulls of their victims that the Mongols once heaped into ghastly pyramids outside the cities they sacked. Darfur, Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnia, the gassing of the Iraqi Kurds: and that is only taking us back to the Clinton administration. The ethnic and ethnically-tinged religious massacres and ‘cleansings’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and the Middle East alone are too numerous to list.
We still do not know much about the events in Kyrgyzstan, but from what we can see this looks like a typical modern horror story. The decay of a vast and multilingual empire leads to vicious ethnic conflicts as national groups attempt to build states: the old German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman Empires dissolved into the same kind of murder, chaos and ethnic cleansing that we have seen in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. There is probably much more to come in central Asia, and Africa, where the collapse of the old colonial empires has covered the continent with weak multiethnic states which may have decades of murder and war in the future.
So far, globally, the replacement of the old empires with nation-states has been responsible for tens of millions of deaths and created tens of millions more refugees. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the consequences (the 400,000 refugees created this week in Kyrgyzstan are roughly half of the total Palestinian refugees created in the Israeli War of Independence); so is the ‘frozen conflict’ in Cyprus and the genocidal wars and ethnic cleansing between Greeks and Turks earlier in the twentieth century. The Holocaust, the expulsion of more than ten million Germans from their ancestral homes in central and eastern Europe after World War II, repeated massacres of the Kurds, Armenians and other ethnic minorities in the Middle East: all these are related to the violence that exploded in Osh in the last few days.
Americans, eternally optimistic and sheltered from the worst of these storms by our own relatively happy history, tend to think that these conflicts rise out of failures to modernize — the failure of ‘backward’ people to get with the program of capitalist development, free trade and liberal political ideals. Actually, outbreaks of vicious ethnic violence that verges on or crosses over into genocide is more a sign that modernization is taking place.
In most pre-modern societies, the role of the state is small. Peasants live on the land, speaking one language. The landlords who rule them often speak another; the merchants and guildspeople of the towns often have still other languages and religious customs. Like Greeks, Armenians and Jews in pre-Nasser Alexandria, like Germans and Poles and Jews in Lithuania, like the throngs of groups represented in imperial capitals like Vienna and Constantinople, these ‘foreign’ groups have important economic roles to play and live, usually fairly peacefully, side-by-side. In the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of what we think of today as the Middle East plus the Balkans, the many ethnic minorities were organized under the ‘millet’ system, with each group under its own communal laws overseen by its own officials and religious authorities. It was a little bit like the caste system in India: people with different languages, customs and hereditary economic roles lived side by side in societies that in many ways were unjust and hierarchical, but in others reflected long established and generally accepted patterns of co-existence.
With modernization, that old system doesn’t work. The modernization of agriculture drives peasants off the land: machines reduce the need for manual labor in farming and large landholders find it more efficient to farm on a large scale with modern equipment than to rent their land out to large numbers of inefficient tenant farmers at low rents. The displaced peasants flood into the cities, upsetting the old ethnic and economic balances there. The government also becomes more important in daily life. Seemingly lesser national decision are, in fact, terribly important and complicated: For example, if public schools are established, what language(s) will they use? The choice of language for basic instruction not only determines whose kids get the best grades and the best start in life; it determines which groups get jobs as public school teachers. If the schools in Bohemia teach in German, the Czechs are marginalized. Similarly, integration into the global economic system was hardly the sole reason the Kagame government chose to make English the official language of Rwanda, dropping French.
Ditto the civil service. What languages are bureaucrats expected to use in their official dealings? This isn’t just about civil service jobs. It’s about which ethnic groups will have sympathetic ears in government, whose relatives will make decisions about where government investments are made, who gets the contracts and so forth.
As modern commercial life spreads, the old system of every community living under its own laws also breaks down. Person A might be Kyrgyz and person B might be Uzbek; whose laws and customs will be used to settle disputes between them, and which ethnic group will produce the judges who administer the laws?
Unfortunately for the peace of the world, intellectuals tend to care deeply about these issues. It is the Czech intellectuals who want to drive the German-speakers out of the civil service jobs, teaching positions and other learned professions. But nationalism doesn’t feel to nationalists like a selfish passion in most of these cases. The passionate nationalist demanding ‘justice’ for fellow group members is also and often primarily thinking of the poor displaced farmers, exploited and oppressed by ‘foreign’ landlords in the country, and wretchedly exploited in the city. Nationalism is an idealistic program of uplifting the poor — that just happens to create large economic and political opportunities for intellectuals who espouse it.
Each quarrel, each pogrom, each murderous outbreak of ethnic violence is unique, but most of them seem to be rooted in patterns like these. It can happen where the groups share a religious background — as between Muslim Uzbecks and Kyrgyrs; it is often even more bitter and intense when the groups have different religions — as between Orthodox Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks, or Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.
Over the last couple of centuries, this process of rising in-group loyalty and ethnic conflict and displacement (often called ‘national awakening’) has been spreading around the world. Today we see it in Central Asia and in many places in Africa (where it is often called ‘tribalism’). There is much more of it to come. The violence may even grow: the internet allows the rapid development and dissemination of intense group cultures based on paranoiac readings of the ‘Other’, and modern weapons and means of communication allows violent movements to grow and act more quickly than in former times, and to use more destructive weapons when they do. The Hutu massacre of Rwandan Tutsis was a kind of intermediate phenomenon: radio allowed the genocidaires to act quickly, but lacking better weapons they were thrown back on machetes.
The tragedy of modern life seems to lie in the fact that we cannot live with nationalism and we cannot live without it. The deep loyalties and affinities we fell towards those who speak our language and share our customs and our historical memories provides much of the social capital that allows modern society to develop and grow. On the other hand, the conflicts between national and ethnic groups must be overcome if we are to have any hope of peace. In the twentieth century, communism stood for the idea of a world society that domesticated and suppressed ethnicity in the interests of a single cosmopolitan order. Fascism stood for the idea of the unlimited assertion of the power and dignity of particular national groups. Neither worked very well, but the moral problem that gave birth to both visions of the world is still with us, still unsolved.
The ethnic conflicts now ripping through the old Soviet empire (think Georgia, Chechnya and the Caucasus, Central Asia) and its neighbors like Afghanistan have caused more than one war since 1990 and their destructive course still has a ways to run. The rapes, the murders, the pillage continues; the refugees turn to the ‘world community’ for help. Fortunately, after centuries of escalating slaughters, we have gotten a little better at the relief part. The Uzbek refugees are likely to get more help, and get it faster than the Armenians, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews, Greeks, Germans, Palestinians, Kurds, Poles and so many others who have suffered this kind of fate in the not so distant past.
Islamism, which is markedly different from the way most practicing Muslims in Kurdistan understand the faith, as something spiritual rather than political, has never been a friend of the Kurds. Despite its noisy claims of universality and rejection of national boundaries, Islamism is sectarian through and through. In fact, its actions and programs are intended to put non-Arabs under the political and cultural hegemony of Arabs. Historically, Islamism has been just another name for Arab imperialism. To conceal that, Islamism has been relentless in insisting in its usual totalitarian fashion that its program comes straight from Allah.
This is how most people in Kurdistan view Islamism. There, clerics like Al-Jazeera Television’s wordmonger-in-chief Yusuf Qaradawi or Muslim Brotherhood’s point man in Europe Tariq Ramadan carry no weight. In Kurdistan, a person trading in dogma and medieval irrationality, as these men do, is not considered a person worth listening to. But outside Kurdistan, especially in the heart of Western democracies, as Paul Berman points out in this valuable new book, these are the very people a great many intellectuals embrace as moderate, mainstream, even authentic.
Using their own words and a rich body of scholarship, Berman shows that in fact these Islamists and the Islamism they champion are not moderate or mainstream or authentic at all. This is not a point that political culture in Kurdistan is unaware of. But the culture is not sufficiently informed about Berman’s larger point: How a great many Western intellectuals, having lost faith in their culture’s values of secularism and human rights, have decided that Enlightenment is no better than Islamism, and that therefore the likes of Qaradawi and Ramadan deserve to be taken as seriously as say Voltaire—not only that but that they need to be supported and their enemies, especially Muslim dissidents, attacked as misguided self-hating individuals that mistakenly believe Western culture to be superior to Islamist culture.
This is an important point for the people of Kurdistan to be aware of, important because the Western enablers of Islamism refuse to distinguish between Islamism and the faith; what’s more, they portray Islamism as mainstream rather than as the fringe it has always been and they portray all opposition to Islamism as an attack on Islam. As a consequence, today there is more willingness to criticize Islamism in Kurdistan and in Arab and Muslim countries than in the West. These days, if you happen to be a Muslim dissident living in the West, chances are you will be viewed by the mainstream media and the intellectual establishment as a traitor: traitor to your religion, traitor to your culture, and traitor to your past. And if you speak your mind freely and bravely, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali frequently does, you will be called a bomb thrower, a fanatic, a Muslim hater.
Berman’s larger point matters for another reason: Projects like regime change in Iraq and the struggle of the Kurds for cultural and political rights get largely defined these days by Islamists and their Western intellectual backers; these have much easier access to the media and public spaces than anyone from Kurdistan or liberated Iraq. You may recall how tirelessly the two groups worked in tandem to protect and legitimize Saddam’s brutal occupation of Iraq and prevent its liberation. Even today when an Islamist like Tariq Ramadan, a man with no ties whatsoever to Iraq, declares in London and New York that the removal of tyranny in Baghdad was illegal, he gets rousing applause, as if the geopolitical makeup of the world has been simply a legalistic affair rather than the product of conquest, political machinations, luck, among various other things. By contrast, those who have legitimate ties to Iraq and Kurdistan but do not subscribe to this lazy piece of nonsense and have a counter story to tell, find themselves ignored. The implication of Berman’s book for Kurdistan is that its story in the West cannot be told because the intellectual market these days favors Islamism over secularism, the dogma of multiculturalism over honest discussion.
Berman devotes a fair amount of space to dismantling Tariq Ramadan. A great many intellectuals in the West have come to accept Ramadan as a moderate Muslim, not because Tariq Ramadan is moderate but because he uses the kind of vocabulary that the dogma of multiculturalism favors: pluralism, tolerance, cultural identity, sensitivity. As Berman points out, Ramadan is essentially applauded for promoting Muslim totalitarianism using the language of multiculturalism.
Through an exhaustive analysis of his writing, ancient Islamic texts, the writings of his grandfather, Hasan al-Bana, whom Ramadan tries to portray for the West as a democrat, and writings of a great many scholars, Berman shows that Ramadan’s project is in fact no different from his grandfather’s: the establishment of a global Islamist caliphate based on Salafi ideology. This is also an important point for the people of Kurdistan to bear in mind.
Dr. Sabah A. Salih is Professor of English at Bloomsburg University, USA.