Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Why Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Love Affair with the Ottoman Empire Should Worry The World — Alan Mikhail

5 Sep
Selim I

By Alan Mikhail September 3, 2020 7:00 AM EDT Mikhail is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Yale University. His new book is GOD’S SHADOW: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co.)

At the end of August, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated the Islamic New Year with aplomb. Fresh off his conversion of the monumental Haghia Sophia to a mosque, he converted another former Byzantine church, the fourth-century Chora church, one of Istanbul’s oldest Byzantine structures. The day after that he announced the largest ever natural gas depository in the Black Sea. This followed another recent discovery of natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Both of these areas are hotly contested zones of international competition between the powers around these seas. Later that week he welcomed a delegation of Hamas to Ankara, where he expressed support for Palestinians in the wake of the recent announcement of an agreement between Israel and the UAE.

All of these moves project Erdogan’s vision of Islamist strength into the world. Standing up for Islam at home goes hand in hand with securing natural resources and imposing Turkey’s power abroad. It also goes hand in hand with domestic repression. The Islamic New Year saw Erdogan further tighten his grip on social media freedom and consider pulling Turkey out of what is known, now farcically, as the 2011 Istanbul Convention, a treaty of the Council of Europe that commits countries to protecting women from domestic violence. Democratic peoples in Turkey, the Middle East, and around the world should worry.

Much has been written about Erdogan’s attempts to “resurrect” the Ottoman Empire or to style himself a sultan. There is truth here. But to understand Erdogan’s political agenda and horizon we must be specific about which Ottoman sultan Erdogan strives to be. It is the empire’s ninth sultan, Selim I.

Selim died 500 years ago in 1520. It was during his lifetime that the Ottoman Empire grew from a strong regional power to a gargantuan global empire. For Erdogan, this sultan from half a millennium ago serves his contemporary needs. Selim in many ways functions as Erdogan’s Andrew Jackson, a figure from the past of symbolic use in the present. Selim offers a template for Turkey to become a global political and economic power, with influence from Washington to Beijing, crushing foreign and domestic challengers alike. He helps Erdogan too to make his case for Islam as a cultural and political reservoir of strength, a vital component of the glories of the Ottoman past, which he seeks to emulate in contemporary Turkey against the dominant elite secularism that has reigned since its founding.

We should be wary of Erdogan’s embrace of Selim’s exclusionary vision of Turkish political power. It represents a historical example of strongman politics that led to regional wars, the attempted annihilation of religious minorities, and the monopolization of global economic resources. In addition to his attempts to monopolize natural gas reserves around Turkey, today this takes the form of Erdogan’s foreign military ventures in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. At home, he has gone after Turkey’s Shiite community, Kurds, intellectuals, Christians, journalists, women, and leftists. Erdogan cultivates his own Sunni religiosity to position Islam at the center of Turkey’s domestic agenda, with the church conversions the most potent recent symbols of this. Erdogan’s represents a political logic of zero-sum competition that pits Turkey against Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the region and over claims of global Islamic leadership.

Erdogan likes Selim because he made Turkish global political power possible. From 1517 through the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire maintained the geographic shape Selim won for it, dominating the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. In 1517, the Ottomans defeated their major rival in the region, the Mamluk Empire based in Cairo, capturing all of its territory in the Middle East and North Africa. This more than doubled the empire’s size. This explosion of the Ottoman Empire into the Middle East turned it into the region’s foremost military and political power and one of the world’s largest states. The Ottomans now controlled the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean and thus dominated the globe’s most important trade routes overland between Europe and Asia and by sea through the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The Turkish Republic inherited much of that power after the empire’s demise and the republic’s rise in 1923.

While every modern Turkish ruler has distanced himself from the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and Islam, to attempt to project a more “western,” “secular,” and “modern” face for the republic, Erdogan is the first who has actively embraced the Ottoman past and the empire’s Islamic heritage. Here too Selim proves key to Erdogan’s image of his rule. Selim’s defeat of the Mamluks made the Ottoman Empire a majority Muslim state for the first time in its history, after over two hundred years of being a state whose population was mostly Greek Orthodox. [my emphasis] With this victory, Selim became the first Ottoman sultan to rule Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, thus earning the title of caliph and cementing the empire’s global Islamic credentials. If Selim was the first Ottoman to be both sultan and caliph, Erdogan is the first republican leader to profess to possessing both titles.

Like President Donald Trump’s purposeful deployment of the symbols of Andrew Jackson—prominently displaying his portrait in the Oval Office and defending his statues—Erdogan has trafficked publicly and specifically in the symbolic politics of Selim in Turkey. His most striking act was to name the recently constructed third bridge over the famous Bosphorus Strait after Selim. Erdogan has also lavished enormous resources on Selim’s tomb and other memorials to his rule. After winning a 2017 constitutional referendum that greatly expanded his powers—a process marred by irregularities—Erdogan made his first public appearance at Selim’s tomb. Staged as a kind of pilgrimage, there Erdogan returned to the long-dead sovereign his kaftan and turban that had been stolen years before. This far-from-subtle first act after winning a referendum that gave him near-limitless power made clear who Erdogan’s role model is.

Erdogan and his Islamist party colleagues regularly describe themselves as the “grandchildren” of the Ottomans. In this very pointed genealogy, Erdogan purposefully skips a generation—that of Turkey’s republican fathers since 1923—to leapfrog back in time to when the Ottomans ruled the globe with their particular brand of Turkish Sunni politics, to Selim’s day when wars and domestic repression led to wealth and territorial power. Recreating a political program akin to Selim’s is a dangerous prospect for Turkey and the Middle East and indeed the world. To make Turkey Ottoman again requires the kind of violence, censorship, and vitriol that Erdogan has indeed shown himself ready to use. The universal lesson here is that calls for returns to perceived greatness, whether in Turkey or in United States, selectively embrace controversial historical figures, mangle their history, and elevate hatred and division.

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NYT: Armenian Genocide — “For too long, Turkey bullied America into silence. Not anymore.” — Samantha Power

30 Oct

Not 100% sure how I feel about this; see “Screamers: Genocide: what is it and why do we need the term?.  I voice my major apprehensions there.

But “bully” is such an apt term for the Turkish Republic and the Turkish body politic (“thug” also comes to mind), that I think anything that puts Turkey in its place is a positive development.

29Power-sub-superJumboCredit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Power’s money quotes:

Although Turkish officials may see the vote as retaliation for Turkey’s recent forced displacement of Syrian Kurds, that operation — as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping human rights crackdown in Turkey and his purchase (over American and NATO protests) of a Russian air defense system — simply reduced the impact of Turkish blackmail.

……..

First, as a baseline rule, for the sake of overall American credibility and for that of our diplomats, Washington officials must be empowered to tell the truth.

Over many years, because of the fear of alienating Turkey, diplomats have been told to avoid mentioning the well-documented genocide. In 2005, when John Evans, the American ambassador to Armenia, said that “the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was recalled and forced into early retirement. Stating the truth was seen as an act of subordination.

When I became ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, I worried that I would be asked about the Armenian genocide and that when I affirmed the historical facts, I could cause a diplomatic rupture.

Second, when bullies feel their tactics are working, they generally bully more — a lesson worth bearing in mind in responding to threats from China and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government devotes millions of dollars annually to lobbying American officials and lawmakers: more than $12 million during the Obama administration, and almost as much during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Turkish officials have threatened to respond to genocide recognition by suspending lucrative financial ties with American companies, reducing security cooperation and even preventing resupply of our troops in Iraq.

On Friday, the Turkish ambassador warned that passage of the “biased” House resolution would “poison” American-Turkish relations, and implied that it would jeopardize Turkish investment in the United States which provides jobs for a “considerable number of American citizens.”

It is easy to understand why any commander in chief would be leery of damaging ties with Turkey, an important ally in a turbulent neighborhood. But Turkey has far more to lose than the United States in the relationship. The United States helped build up Turkey’s military, brought it into NATO and led the coalition that defeated the Islamic State, which carried out dozens of attacks on Turkish soil. Over the past five years, American companies have invested some $20 billion in Turkey.

If Mr. Erdogan turns further away from a relationship that has been immensely beneficial for Turkey in favor of deepening ties with Russia or China, it will not be because the House voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. It will be because his own repressive tactics are coming to resemble those of the Russian and Chinese leaders. [my emphases]

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Guardian: Dubai deaths

3 Oct

Literally the Inferno.

Those horrid countries are literally the Inferno.

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Best summary of Lebanon, Saudi, Hariri, bin Salman, Hezbollah, débâcle danger

12 Nov

Lebanon was stunned on Nov. 4 when its prime minister, Saad Hariri, speaking from Saudi Arabia, delivered a halting resignation speech. Mr. Hariri said he left Beirut because he feared assassination. He placed the blame for his long-distance resignation on Iran and its main ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

In the days since, Saudi Arabia has accused Hezbollah of plotting against the kingdom and ordered Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon. Threats from top Saudi officials are causing new turmoil in a tiny country with complicated sectarian politics, failed power-sharing arrangements and a long history of foreign meddling.

Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Lebanon has largely avoided the conflicts sweeping the Middle East. Even the war that is raging in Syria, Lebanon’s much larger neighbor, has generally left the country unscathed. That calm is now threatened as the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies set their sights on Hezbollah and its patron, Iran.

Why would Saudi leaders risk a new conflagration? They see a way to make common cause with Washington by targeting Hezbollah, one of Iran’s most effective allies. President Trump has consistently singled out Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other groups that Washington considers terrorist organizations.

But Saudi Arabia is already overstretched. Its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen drags on, and the diplomatic dispute with Qatar remains in a stalemate, too. If Saudi leaders think they can score an easy victory in Lebanon against Hezbollah, it will be another misjudgment that adds to a dangerous and combustible moment in the Middle East

Hezbollah was part of Lebanon’s national unity government formed in late 2016 with Mr. Hariri as the prime minister. Iran and Saudi Arabia — which views itself as the protector of Lebanon’s Sunni community — blessed the power-sharing agreement.

Photo

Lebanon was stunned when Prime Minister Saad Hariri, speaking from Saudi Arabia, announced his resignation. Credit Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Hezbollah agreed to the deal because it wanted to avoid conflict in Lebanon and to direct its energy toward the Syrian war, where it fights alongside the government of President Bashar al-Assad. As a leader with strong ties to both the Sunni Arab states and the West, Mr. Hariri provided Hezbollah with political cover as it continued to dominate Lebanon.

The militia’s important role in the fighting in Syria has made it more powerful than ever. But Mr. Hariri’s resignation exposes Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government to harsher United States sanctions, a potential war with Israel or even an economic blockade led by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies, similar to the one imposed on Qatar.

Hezbollah, which was founded in the 1980s during a civil war and an Israeli invasion, is now the country’s dominant political and military force. It is unrealistic of Saudi leaders and the Trump administration to expect that it can be supplanted by a popular Lebanese groundswell against it or removed by a foreign military force without causing catastrophic damage to Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, King Salman, and his son and designated heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are pursuing a far more aggressive foreign policy than previous Saudi rulers. They have been bolstered in this by Mr. Trump’s support for the kingdom in its conflict with Iran. Now that Iran’s ally, Mr. Assad, has essentially won the civil war in Syria, Saudi Arabia is looking to contain Iranian influence elsewhere. Lebanon is a tempting target.

The Saudis have also been emboldened by their recent outreach to Shiite factions in Iraq, especially the nationalist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who visited the kingdom in July and met with Prince Mohammed. The Saudis are hoping to cultivate Mr. Sadr and other Shiite leaders who can be a counterweight to Iranian influence in Iraq, especially ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

But the Saudis won’t be able to find a Sadr in Lebanon, a political figure who can offer a serious alternative to Hezbollah and Iranian influence in the Shiite community.

Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, Hezbollah has entrenched itself in the largely Shiite areas of southern Beirut and southern Lebanon. With Iranian support, it opened schools and hospitals, provided business loans and fielded candidates for parliamentary elections. It also extended its military capability, deploying thousands of missiles along the border with Israel.

In February 2005, Rafik Hariri, a billionaire construction tycoon and Lebanon’s former prime minister, was assassinated in a bombing in Beirut. His death deprived Lebanon of its most prominent Sunni leader — and Saudi Arabia lost its most important Lebanese ally. After Mr. Hariri’s death, his son Saad took over his father’s Saudi-based construction empire and the Sunni political mantle in Lebanon.

In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah fought a monthlong war with Israel, which ended in a draw and increased the militia’s popularity across the Muslim world. But by early 2011, Hezbollah’s standing began to wane after a United Nations tribunal indicted several of its members for Mr. Hariri’s assassination.

If Mr. Hariri’s killing was a first salvo of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, subsequent battles also did not go Riyadh’s way.

In May 2008, Hezbollah broke a post-civil-war vow not to turn its weapons against other Lebanese factions. At the time, Lebanon was mired in a political stalemate between a United States- and Saudi-backed government — which included Sunni, Christian and Druze parties — and Hezbollah and its allies.

Hezbollah was infuriated by a government decision that outlawed its underground fiber-optic communication network, which was critical to its success during its 2006 war with Israel. Hezbollah’s leaders sent hundreds of fighters into largely Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut. They overpowered Sunni militiamen and seized the offices and media outlets of political rivals, including Mr. Hariri.

Hezbollah’s success so alarmed the Sunni Arab states that Saudi Arabia toyed with the idea of sending an Arab military force to intervene in Lebanon. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister at the time, asked a visiting American diplomat whether the United States and NATO could provide equipment, logistics and “naval and air cover” to assist such an army, according to a classified American diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks. Prince Faisal warned Washington that Hezbollah’s actions would lead to an “Iranian takeover of all Lebanon.”

Years later, Saudi leaders organized a similar force to wage their war in Yemen, against Houthi rebels allied with Iran. A day after Mr. Hariri’s resignation, the front page of a Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper declared, “Hariri departs Hezbollah’s republic.” The subtext was clear: Without its most prominent Sunni leader, Lebanon is under Hezbollah’s full control — and it will be fair game in the latest battle with Iran.

Maybe it’s time to make the Hajj a metaphor

1 Oct

Hajj Stampede Near Mecca Leaves Over 700 Dead from the NY Times

Hajj

You know, like that Harvard valedictorian who spoke on how “jihad” was really a metaphor for an inner spiritual struggle, and not something that involves violence of any sort.  Or at least make Umrah the spiritual equivalent so that everybody doesn’t have to go at the same time.  We’re not talking about one man, peace be upon him, his clan and their followers.  We’re talking about a billion and a half people in the age of reasonably affordable — at least once in a lifetime — air travel.

I don’t mean to be (too) disrespectful, but I’ve never met anyone who has been on hajj and, after the preliminary caveats about how it was the most spiritually edifying moment of his life, did not go on to describe a totally abysmal experience.  But then again every one I know who has been on hajj has been Afghan or South Asian and were made to feel by the Saudis and other peninisular/gulf Arabs like they should be cleaning the toilets and not praying.

I don’t know.  Just an idea.  I know I wouldn’t be caught dead near Jerusalem at Easter or Christmas on either calendar.  Or maybe ever.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis closer than I thought

5 Aug

From The New York Times:As Syrian War Roils, Sectarian Unrest Seeps Into Turkey”

As Syria’s civil war degenerates into a bloody sectarian showdown between the government’s Alawite-dominated troops and the Sunni Muslim majority, tensions are increasing across the border between Turkey’s Alawite minority and the Sunni Muslim majority here.

Many Turkish Alawites, estimated at 15 million to 20 million strong and one of the biggest minorities in this country, seem to be solidly behind Syria’s embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey’s government, and many Sunnis, supports the Syrian rebels.

The Alawites fear the sectarian violence spilling across the border. Already, the sweltering, teeming refugee camps along the frontier are fast becoming caldrons of anti-Alawite feelings.

“If any come here, we’re going to kill them,” said Mehmed Aziz, 28, a Syrian refugee at a camp in Ceylanpinar, who drew a finger across his throat.

He and his friends are Sunnis, and they all howled in delight at the thought of exacting revenge against Alawites.

Many Alawites in Turkey, especially in eastern Turkey where Alawites tend to speak Arabic and are closely connected to Alawites in Syria, are suspicious of the bigger geopolitics, and foreign policy analysts say they may have a point. The Turkish government is led by an Islamist-rooted party that is slowly but clearly trying to bring more religion, particularly Sunni Islam, into the public sphere, eschewing decades of purposefully secular rule. Alawites here find it deeply unsettling, and a bit hypocritical, that Turkey has teamed up with Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the world, and Qatar, a religious monarchy, both Sunni, to bring democracy to Syria.

The Alawites point to the surge of foreign jihadists streaming into Turkey, en route to fight a holy war on Syria’s battlefields. Many jihadists are fixated on turning Syria, which under the Assad family’s rule has been one of the most secular countries in the Middle East, into a pure Islamist state.

More:

The Alawites here are worried they could become easy targets. Historically, they have been viewed with suspicion across the Middle East by mainstream Muslims and often scorned as infidels. The Alawite sect was born in the ninth century and braids together religious beliefs, including reincarnation, from different faiths.

Many Alawites do not ever go to a mosque; they tend to worship at home or in Alawite temples that have been denied the same state support in Turkey that Sunni mosques get. Many Alawite women do not veil their faces or even cover their heads. The towns they dominate in eastern Turkey, where young women sport tank tops and tight jeans, feel totally different than religious Sunni towns just a few hours away, where it can be difficult even to find a woman in public.

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