Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Archive for May 2012

All aboard in Syria

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We have seen the term “civil war” slowly gain more currency in reference to the deteriorating Syrian uprising—how about “proxy war?”

Syrian army being aided by Iranian forces
Saeed Kamali Dehghan; The Guardian; May 28th, 2012

A senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has admitted that Iranian forces are operating in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Ismail Gha’ani, the deputy head of Iran’s Quds force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards tasked with overseas operations, said in an interview with the semi-official Isna news agency: “If the Islamic republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would have happened on a much larger scale.”

“This is the first time that an IRGC senior officer has admitted that the Quds force is operating in Syria,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East expert.

Read more.

Written by M. James

May 28, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Posted in News, Politics

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“Islam is the solution”

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From Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s 1959 book, Islam in Modern History (p. 164):

…the new Islamic upsurge is a force not to solve problems but to intoxicate those who cannot longer abide the failure to solve them.

Written by M. James

May 28, 2012 at 4:08 am

Pamuk and Ataman on Turkish identity

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In Orhan Pamuk’s 2002 novel, Snow, there is an enigmatic Islamist character named “Blue.” At one point in the story, Blue is attempting to publish a statement in a German newspaper—a statement appealing to the “West” for aid in resisting a small coup in Anatolia.

Ka, the main character, records one of Blue’s pronouncements:

Will the West, which takes democracy, its great invention, more seriously than the word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars? [He stopped here to make a grand gesture.] Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom, and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate them like monkeys? Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them? I have something to say to all the other nations that the West has left behind: Brothers, you are not alone.

Though Blue is primarily attempting to detract from “the West” by pointing out its inconsistencies, he unwittingly reveals his own inconsistencies by denigrating Western values with an appeal to Western values. His pride makes the situation even more ironic.

What Pamuk seems to be saying is that even when rebellious, Turks can find themselves working within Western parameters. Contemporary artist Kutluğ Ataman seems to agree (here):

Ataman said he always longed to return to Turkey, but he was skeptical of the art he sees in Istanbul: “A great majority of the work consists of imitations of Western gestures. Their reference is New York and London.”

Ataman doesn’t think Turkish artists have confronted the real source of their material, the thing they have to offer the world. He referred to an infamous recent incident, when a mob of Turkish men attacked gallery-hoppers who’d spilled onto the streets drinking alcohol in their fashionable clothes. The galleries were gentrifying the neighborhood, and the community, many Turks later told reporters, felt encroached upon and left out. To many other Turks, however, the attackers were religious types angered by the liberal lifestyle they’d been forced to witness: uncovered women, gay men, art, alcohol. In the center of Istanbul, Turkey’s two worlds came face to face, in a microcosmic dance of the confrontation happening all over the world: the West and the East, the rich and the poor, the comfortable and the angry.

Ataman regards such a confrontation as a brush with the “real Turkey.” “When I look at artists’ practice in Europe, I am not inspired,” he said. “If the artists here can engage with Turkey, they will be ahead of the rest of the world. Because the world is this. This desert.”

Written by M. James

May 25, 2012 at 7:43 am

Posted in Culture, Religion, Turkey

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Hizmet: “Important Clarifications Concerning Current Debates”

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At the suggestion of a reader, here is a statement from the Gülenist “Journalists and Writers Foundation” (the folks who organize the Abant Platform) on “current debates in Turkey.” It is concise, and highlights what appears to be the matter of greatest contention about the Hizmet (Gülen) movement—is it really apolitical?

Their response:

Hizmet, as a civil society movement, operates with a strictly civic character. It is not an organor an affiliate of a government program, political party or agenda. Likewise, this civil movement is not an opponent of any political party.

But here is another critical point: As in any other social movement, some participants in the Hizmet movement may act contrary to the movement’s core value of civic volunteerism. However, these mistakes cannot be attributed to Hizmet.

Establishing this, the statement goes on to address more “concrete matters”:

  •   What are Hizmet’s expectationsof politicians and political parties?
  •   What is the nature of the relationship between Hizmet and the Justice and Development Party(AKP) government?
  •   Does Hizmet have “people” within the state?
  •   Is there a crisis between the movement and the AK Party?
  •   What is the response of Hizmet to its alleged manipulation of ongoing judicial and bureaucratic processes?
  •   What is Hizmet’s position regarding freedom of the press?

Read more.

Written by M. James

May 21, 2012 at 7:35 am

Posted in Politics, Religion, Turkey

Tagged with , , , ,

One year of 28east

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May 17th, 2012

One year ago today, on May 17th, 2011, I fashioned my first post, which focused on the Syrian crisis in the context of the Arab Spring—still a rapidly evolving news event at the time. After publishing it, I composed an appropriately vague “about” page, with the intention of allowing the blog to take its own shape in light of personal interests and world events as they developed. Such were my thoughts at the time:

With any luck, I’ll be able to look back on my first few blog posts and think, “What an idiot I was.”

Struggling to understand the complexities of politics, war, religion, economics, and culture in the Middle East of history and today—with a focus on the modern Republic of Turkey.

Now, with the benefit of a year in hindsight, I cannot say that my thoughts or my purpose have substantively changed. In fact, the vagueness of the initial project has—as my scant readership has no doubt noticed—been borne out most faithfully by the scatterbrained, irregular nature of the blog.

But despite breaking a good many of what are considered “cardinal rules” of blogging—e.g., I do not always “write what I know,” I certainly haven’t found a “niche,” and I don’t always post regularly—I refuse to be apologetic. The blog primarily developed as a means and an encouragement to “read with a pen,” and to that end, it has been instructive and worthwhile.

That is not to say, however, that I do not wish to improve my readability, the quality of my analysis, or my posting habits (though finding a “niche” can wait), and with that in mind, I have some excuses for the past and implications for the future.

The 28th meridian east.

The first thing that I should address is that I have neglected to answer the most basic question of new readers: Why “28east?” My answer is that while this blog seeks to investigate what defines “East” and “West,” I know full well that this investigation has no conclusion. So instead of taking up a semantic debate or defining the cardinal directions, I have focused the discussion primarily around my topic of interest, the Republic of Turkey, which is notable for bridging Europe and Asia—west and east—in more than a purely geographical sense. The symbolic location of this “bridge” is European Istanbul and the Bosphorus, dividing the continents and located at approximately the 28th meridian east, 28° east of Greenwich.

But despite what may otherwise seem a claim to geographic specificity (perhaps this is why I never explained the name), this blog is interested in a broader understanding of Turkey’s place in the world. Which leads to the second thing that I should address: Analysis that is lacking in broad scope. I acknowledge that, for the most part, I have analyzed minutiae more readily (and capably) than broad themes. Similarly, I am not always able to relate smaller ideas together, and often leave loose ends. I blame this on two factors that I am (slowly) attempting to address: (1) limited historical knowledge and (2) limited cultural and linguistic adeptness. Though the first will merely(?) take books, time, and effort, the second will require much more on-the-ground experience in Turkey.

Turkish coffee. Not as good as it sounds.

Fortunately, the latter is something that I hope to be able to address in the upcoming year. Compared with prior experiences, I should have ample opportunity to engage in Turkish language and culture in the near future, and I intend to actually start using the blog’s “Culture” category. It is my opinion, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, that this will represent a slight shift in the blog. As I have suggested, I think this will be a necessary step toward culturally aware; and thereby broader, better analysis. My readers are welcome to disagree. If nothing else, some readers may appreciate a few more colorful elements to oppose my not-so-popular economic analysis.

But in keeping with the original project, I would like to emphasize that I am making no promises. The next year of the blog will, for all practical purposes, serve the same function as the last—and neither sanity nor clarity, nor regularity, are guaranteed. This is merely an outlet, and a motivation, for thought. The reader is welcome to engage in, and improve on, this thought.

If thought is too ambitious a goal—which it very well may be—then I hope that my readers have gained, and will continue to gain, some knowledge, perspective, or at the very least, amusement. Cheers.

M. James

Written by M. James

May 17, 2012 at 5:45 am

Posted in Turkey

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Not the drones you’re looking for

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When I picked up the Wall Street Journal today, I was uninspired—and uninterested—by the headline on Turkey. It came as no surprise that “Turkey’s Attack on Civilians [was] Tied to [a] U.S. Military Drone,” which suggests that U.S. intelligence led (indirectly?) to the death of 35 Kurdish smugglers several months ago.

MQ-1 Predator UAV

That the U.S. is cooperating with, or profiting from informing, the Turkish military should be assumed, especially within the context of NATO. Though the WSJ article does not address this specifically (except to say that the U.S.’s role has never been “reported” before), it raises what the article refers to as an “outstanding question”: “How far do we entrust allies with our deadly drone technology?”

The question initially seemed absurd to ask without a real understanding of the strategic alliance between the U.S. and Turkey, especially as it relates to Kurdish separatism, but it prompted, for me, another question: How far can Turkey trust the U.S. and its deadly drone technology?

Though I do not mean to foist any nefarious intent on either party—this story reads like a true error—it prompts us to wonder if the Turks are, as Ralph Peters cleanly divides it in “Constant Conflict,” “information masters” or “information victims” (regulars will know that I have mentioned this article before).

Writing in 1997, Peters predicts:

One of the defining bifurcations of the future will be the conflict between information masters and information victims.

So we have to wonder: Is one automatically an “information master” by virtue of receiving information from an information master?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M. James

May 16, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Posted in News, Politics, Turkey

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Who is Fethullah Gülen?

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Countless websites sing the praises of Fethullah Gülen. Some of them take out ads.

I have, of late, begun to realize the absurdity of authoring a blog on Turkish politics, religion, and culture without significant attention (save an ominous reference) to what I will call the “Gülen movement” (sometimes called the Hizmet [service] movement).

From what I understand, Gülenism—a questionably apolitical movement within the Sufi strand of Islam—is the paradigmatic expression of Anatolian Islam. Though it has a distinctly Turkish pedigree, with roots in the late Ottoman Nur (Light) movement of Said Nursî (1878–1960), it by no means limits itself geographically. The movement has become notable more recently for its support of non-religious as well as religious education through an international school system, and an overarching attitude of tolerance—especially toward other religions.

Gülen (en.fgulen.com)

Muhammad Fethullah Gülen, after whom the movement is named, is an adequately interesting character to lead what has become a globally significant phenomenon. Born in 1941 near Erzurum, Gülen seems to have been a largely self-taught scholar, knowledgeable in subjects ranging from Qur’anic exegesis to Western existentialism. After a long preaching career in Turkey, which was met with great success since the ’80s (when Islam was seen by the state as a tool to fight socialism), Gülen eventually fled to Pennsylvania, of all places, in 1999. The overt reason for his flight was a legitimate fear of arrest for challenging the “secular nature” of the state.

He currently resides somewhere in the Poconos (in a “compound,” as some call it), issuing statements through an enormous, sophisticated (and easily recognizable) network of media outlets. Here is how a recent NYT article describes Fethullah Gülen:

… a charismatic preacher who leads one of the most influential Islamic movements in the world, with millions of followers and schools in 140 countries. He has long advocated tolerance, peace and interfaith dialogue, drawing on the traditions of Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam generally viewed as being moderate.

But this is where the concerns spring up. With a network of media outlets, millions of dedicated followers, a vast associated system of private schools, and the simple fact that most people have never heard of the movement, the Gülenists—to those who have heard of them—face some well-deserved suspicion.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M. James

May 16, 2012 at 2:48 am