Camel greeting

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A Christmas Message - Origins of Christianity

A few years ago I was travelling through central and eastern Anatolia on a personal expedition to see some of the less accessible sights of Turkey: the Tomb of the Sufi mystic, Mevlana, in Konya; the statues of the ancients gods on the summit of Mt Nemrut; the sun setting on the waters of Lake Van; the snow-capped peak of Mt Ararat . . . and I spent a couple of days in the eastern city of Malatya. There weren’t many tourists around at the time, and I don’t look much like a Turk, so I attracted a certain amount of interest among the locals – especially when they found I could speak a bit of Turkish.

I was wandering around the bazaar, and one of the stallholders invited me to drink tea. I accepted, and soon a small crowd gathered, one of whom, it turned out, was a Hadji, a much-respected older gentleman who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and was clearly something of a theological authority. It was also soon clear that here was a rare opportunity to corner a Christian and interrogate him about the peculiarities of his religion. Muslims in Turkey are quite accepting of Christians and Jews, since we are all members of the same monotheistic family. Nevertheless, there are some perplexing issues. ‘What’s this business about Jesus being the son of God?’ ‘Can you just briefly explain that Holy Trinity thing?’ Well, I know my Turkish wasn’t so good at the time, so maybe I didn’t do total justice to my western Christian heritage. I certainly felt it was a little unfair that I should have been chosen as the spokesman and apologist for my religion and culture in that small group of hospitable but genuinely curious Turkish Muslims.

My old Sunday School - Takapuna, NZ
I was brought up in a good Christian family. I was sent off to Sunday school by church-going parents who contributed generously to the weekly collection, and even served on committees. I did my best to make sense of the stuff they used to tell us in Sunday School and Bible Class, until the age of about 12 or 13, when the questions seemed to demand more than the old superficial answers. I’d find myself mouthing the words of one of those creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene) and wondering if I was the only one harbouring secret doubts about all those affirmations that, one assumed, one was expected to believe if one was to call oneself a Christian:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Well, it’s a big ask, isn’t it! There’s some fairly demanding stuff in there, wouldn’t you say? ‘Son of God’, ‘Born of the Virgin Mary’, ‘resurrection of the body’ . . . It’s a challenge worthy of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, who trained herself to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Not easy without that kind of determination. In fact, only two of the four Gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, make that claim about the Holy Spirit’s paternity – and you can’t help feeling, as you read their words, that they have the ring of something written after the fact; which, of course, they were . . . at least 60 to 80 years after.

And what about Jesus himself? Did he believe his mother was a virgin? References to ‘my Father’ don’t count for much, because God was pretty much everybody’s father figure in those days. Jesus was more inclined to talk about the ‘son of man’, which is a rather more modest claim, and probably has pretty much the same meaning as ‘human being’.

So where do these so-called ‘creeds’ come from? Who concocted them? And who decided that accepting them holus bolus was the sine qua non of being a Christian? I remember one church minister, more adventurous and intellectually credible than most, making some attempt, from the pulpit, to reassure inquiring minds in his congregation that the words of the creed, seen in the correct light, were not as outrageous as they might at first appear. But in the end, the words are there, aren’t they?  You can’t really weasel your way around ‘descended into hell’ and ‘on the third day he rose again’, can you? And, of course, that’s exactly what the writers intended! But who were those writers?

I guess I’d put all such questions on to the mental back burner long before I came to Turkey. I came here to work, unlike some who come on a search for spiritual truth: the touchingly naïve Americans who, from time to time, embark on expeditions to Mt Ararat hoping to excavate the remains of Noah’s Ark; or others convinced that they are praying in the house once inhabited by the Virgin Mary. However, the very existence of such places brought those questions back to mind . . . and, surprisingly, provided unexpected answers to fundamental questions about Christianity, in a country whose population is reportedly 99% Muslim.

One thing you can’t escape from in Turkey is the reality of the early Christian church, and all those places and people: Peter, Paul, John, Mary, Ephesus, Antioch, Galatia . . . At the same time, you come to see also how much the development of Christianity was tied up with its acceptance as a state religion by the Roman Empire centred on Constantinople, and the political realities of that time and place. So, it’s an interesting paradox. On the one hand, you are confronted with the undeniable reality of people, places and events that gave birth to the Christian religion. On the other, you also see that much of the dogma of that religion, the articles of faith which one was expected to espouse as a true believer, were formulated and codified long after the founding events by committees of priests and politicians, for what might often have been pragmatic rather than spiritual reasons.

So let’s start with the real places and people. The Tigris and Euphrates are branches of the river that, according to Genesis, flowed out of the Garden of Eden – and both rise in eastern Anatolia. You’ll be unlikely to find remains of Noah’s Ark, but Mt Ararat can definitely be seen rising to 5185 metres near the border of Turkey and Iran. Head south and west and you will come to the city of Urfa, where you will find a queue of faithful Muslims waiting to enter a cave deemed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.

OK, that old stuff, you may say. But what about the New Testament, the actual Christian business? Well, keep heading west towards the Mediterranean coast and you will find yourself in Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, the base of St Paul’s missionary activities. You can visit the grotto-church of St Peter, in this city where Christians were, so the story goes, first actually called ‘Christians’. Somewhat more accessible to the tourist resorts of Aegean Turkey lies the town of Selçuk, a short drive or a middling walk from the site of Ephesus, one of the best-preserved cities of the ancient world. It was also the location of one of the Seven Churches of Revelation, all of which are to be found not far away in other parts of western Turkey. There is a widely accepted tradition that the apostle John, charged by the dying Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary, took her eventually to Ephesus, where they both drew their last breaths. Certain it is that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had a basilica church built there in the 6th century over what was believed to be John’s final resting place – not far from a restored house held by many to have been the last dwelling of Jesus’s mother, Mary.

I could go on, but you get the point. It was a long time ago, but these are real people, and real places we are talking about here. However, things start getting a little murky when you move from history and geography, into the realms of faith, theology and dogma. Certainly the new religion took off, for one reason and another, and began to be seen by the Romans, who controlled most of the Mediterranean world (and much of Europe) in those days, as a threat to their established way-of-life. The story of the violinist-Emperor Nero is well known – he is said to have passed blame for his own torching of the Imperial City on to the Christian community, which then justified an orgy of bloodthirsty torture and execution lasting from 64-68 CE. More open to debate is the theory that, far from terminating the new religion, Nero’s excesses of violent persecution actually aroused sympathy for the oppressed Christians, and gave the movement strength.

Persecution continued, however, until the reign of Constantine I. He it was who founded the city of Constantinople in 330 CE, and is called ‘the Great’ on account of being the first Christian Roman Emperor. Again, there is some debate about how he acquired his new faith, but clearly, by this point in history, being a Christian had become rather more socially acceptable. The special relationship of a man with his mother is proverbial in the Mediterranean world, and it is known that Constantine’s mother was a Christian. A grander, and rather more ‘imperial’ tale asserts that, on the eve of the battle against his rival Maxentius, to unite the Empire after a period of division, Constantine had a dream instructing him to display the symbolic letters of Christ on his soldiers’ shields. His troops won the battle, and the rest, as they say, is history.

From here began the majestic pageant of Christianity leading to its eventual cultural domination of the world – or its downward slide into politics and corruption, depending on your point of view. Clearly, once Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, there was a need for an orthodox position and a clearly delineated set of beliefs. The first problem that required solving was what to do about the bishops and other high-ranking churchmen who had not only recanted their faith during the years of persecution, but, in some cases, to save their own skins, had actually dobbed in members of their own congregations. Certain purists, known as ‘Donatists’, were, apparently, of the opinion that such turncoats should not be allowed back into the church now that the bad times were over. As we might imagine, however, there is advantage to an emperor in having high-ranking subordinates who can be relied on to toe the party line – and not only were the former apostates allowed back, but many of them returned to high office. Needless to say, there would have been unhappiness in some quarters with this decision.

Nevertheless, having established a coterie of bishops to lead his new institutionalised state church, Constantine called them together in the city of Nicaea in 325 CE. Nicaea, incidentally, still exists as Iznik in modern Turkey, and was the location of a major ceramics industry during Ottoman times. But not to digress, the Council of Nicaea was charged with laying down a code of beliefs for the Church, and in doing so, to alienate heretics who might threaten the state monopoly. The ‘heresy’ of Gnosticism had already been dealt with in the previous century; Gnosticism being a mystical religious philosophy predating Christianity, which tended to avoid the more literal-minded excesses of mainstream Christianity. Having got rid of this threat, it was really just a matter of haggling over details, though these details did cause some serious splitting of the one ‘holy catholic church’.

The Nicene gathering had to deal with the so-called ‘Arian’ heresy. Well, I have no intention of trying to explain this or any of the subsequent theories in a similar vein which these and later holy fathers debated at great length, and, in their infinite wisdom, handed down decisions on. Some of them concerned the perplexing doctrine of the Holy Trinity – in particular, what exactly was the nature of the three beings, Father, Son and Holy Ghost; and what were their relationships to each other, if, that is, they were actually separate at all, which they weren’t, or aren’t. As Spike Milligan used to say, ‘It’s all rather confusing, really!’

Now you might think, with me, that some matters are better left alone, as being beyond the powers of mere mortals to comprehend; and the details might safely be left to the individual understanding of willing believers. Not so, however. The all-knowing holy fathers apparently felt themselves quite capable of making pronouncements on such matters, and began the tradition of formulating creeds for the guidance of future generations. And the wording of these creeds, far from being broad enough to encompass a spectrum of individual beliefs, was, on the contrary, agonised over at great length, so as to specifically proscribe any deviation from the ’true path’, as determined by the aforesaid holy fathers.

Well, it’s a complex but interesting business. Clearly, the process I have touched on here did not end in 325 CE at Iznik. It continued at Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) in 451 CE, and at other councils throughout the days of the Byzantine Roman Empire. The situation was further complicated by the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054 CE, when Western and Eastern Christendom decided to go their separate ways; and again in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century – but we can leave those discussions for another day.

In summary, however, what I want to say is this: I feel a whole lot more comfortable about my Western religio-cultural heritage since coming to Turkey. I have a better understanding of the relationship between the world’s three great monotheistic religions. I have visited places which have added a sense of reality and objectivity to the traditions and culture which I absorbed with the air I breathed through my childhood and education. I have come to see that much of what bothered me, as an inquiring adolescent, about the Christian Church, is, to say the least, of questionable relevance to the philosophy and message of its eponymous founder. And if anything I have said makes you feel a little better in the coming weeks of the festive season, then I will feel my time has been well spent.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Symbolism of Ashure

This month I want to reward my loyal readers who waded through my 3000-word piece on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in October. I hereby present you with 499 words on the subject of defining Turkish society. In fact, if the Guinness people have a category for ‘Absurdly short answers to impossibly complex questions’, I think I stand a fair chance of getting a mention in the next edition. However, to mute the howls of protest from wise heads who may feel that 499 words are insufficient to do justice to such a subject, I wish to plead in my defence that 500 was the word limit imposed for entries to an essay competition entitled ‘Changing Turkey in a Changing World’. The question was:

Where do you locate Turkish society in the civilizational context? Is it Eastern? Islamic? Western? Post-western? Sui generis? Please explain why.

Ok, here we go . . .

A Melange of Cultures

Each year Muslims prepare a delicacy known as ashure in remembrance of Noah and his people, who survived the flood of God’s anger. Search for the recipe of this ancient dessert. You will find many experts willing to share their knowledge – but little agreement, other than that it has a large variety of ingredients. For this reason, ashure has been used as a symbol of multi-culturalism. Yet, in the end, it is just a dessert – one item in the culinary wealth that is Turkish cuisine. How much more difficult to define the peoples currently in possession of this land lying at the meeting point of Asia and Europe!

Excavations at Çatal Höyük, near the Turkish city of Konya, have revealed a site dating from 7500 BCE, the oldest centre of civilisation on earth. The modern name, Konya, derives from ancient Iconium, which was a city in the time of the Hittite empire, around 1500 BCE. It was an important city in the kingdom of the Phrygians, in the 8th Century BCE, later falling to the Persians, and again to Alexander the Great, before being assimilated into the Roman Empire. The Book of Acts records that St Paul preached a sermon there around 50 CE. Its Christian history ended in the 11th century when Konya became the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate, and Muslims still visit the tomb of the Sufi mystic, Mevlana, in this iconic Turkish city.

Plunge a spade into the ground anywhere in Turkey, and you will find traces of similar antiquity. Preparations for Istanbul’s year as ‘European City of Culture, 2010’ have been slowed by the city’s archaeological riches. Work on the Metro line has unearthed thousand year-old harbours and ships from Istanbul’s days as capital of the Byzantine Empire. In the last thirty years, its population has swelled from three million to more than fifteen million. Shopping centres comparable to any in Europe exist in proximity to shantytowns of migrants from the Anatolian heartland, where methods of agriculture have changed little in two millennia.

The European stereotype of a Turk is the image evoked by names such as Genghis Khan – squat, swarthy, muscular Mongolian horsemen, thundering in hordes out of the Asian steppe, raping, pillaging and burning – locating themselves on the lower rungs of a rational person’s ladder of civilisation. Yet even the physical characteristics of a Turk are hard to classify. Almost every shade and combination of skin, eye and hair colour will be met, and a striking range of body shapes and sizes, from Naim Süleymanoglu, the pocket Hercules weightlifter who measured 1.47 m and won three Olympic gold medals from 1988 to 1996, to Sultan Kösem, who, at 2.47 m, was recently recognised by the Guinness people as the world’s tallest living man.

One thing can be said with certainty: attempting to glibly define Turkey and its people, and to locate them on some arbitrary continuum of civilisation is risky. Your stereotypes may bounce back to confound you.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Benevolent Dictator? Thinking About MK Atatürk

At 9.05 am on 10 November life in Turkey will come to a halt. In every city, town and village throughout the country, sirens will sound, traffic will stop, work-places and schools will fall silent, and for one minute, most of the 70 million population will stand in mute respect for a president who died at that precise minute on that day 71 years earlier.

Now I want to ask you a question. Do you even know who the political leader of your country was in 1938? OK, then, a follow-up: can you think of a leader in the history of your country for whom the whole nation as one would stop and pay such respect (readers in North Korea excepted)?

Perhaps the thing that most strikes first-time visitors to Turkey is the ubiquitous presence of a dead politician. All of those aforementioned cities, towns and villages have prominent statues of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, on horseback, in top hat and tails, as a bas-relief, or a larger-than-life bust. Every school classroom, public building and office workplace has his photograph on the wall. At some stage, the cynical question pops into our minds, is the real religion of this country Islam, football or Ataturkism?

The religious aspect of the matter is accentuated by the inscription on some of the busts and statues. ‘Born 1881 . . . ‘ We Christians know all about that. We measure our calendar according to when Jesus Christ was born, and how old he is now. But most of us don’t take that very seriously these days. The difference is that Turks do! That man in the tinted photographs actually does live on, in their hearts! The leader of a one-party state who held the position of president for 18 years until he died in office; the self-appointed leader of a nationalist resistance movement, who established his own revolutionary government which then duly elected him president. We don’t have many precedents for that kind of thing in Western democracies. But scratch the surface of those democracies, and what do you find? . . .

My father never involved himself directly in politics, but he did his duty as a responsible citizen of a democracy for which he had served in the 2nd World War. He always turned out to vote, supported a political party, and took an interest in the affairs of the country, especially as regards economic policy. In our household we always followed the news media coverage of election night vote counting. When dinner parties were held, the conversation regularly turned to politics and world affairs. But we don’t idolise our politicians in New Zealand – not now, not then.

One topic of conversation I do remember among my father’s friends when they were sounding off about the ills of the nation and the unreliability of its leaders: ‘What we need,’ the refrain would go, ‘is a benevolent dictator.’ As far as I can understand, the reasons were these:
  1. The country is going to the dogs;
  2. You can’t trust our political leaders – they say one thing and do another; promise the earth and do nothing;
  3. Democracy is all fine and dandy, but it’s not a good system for making tough decisions;
  4. I, in fact, know what needs to be done, but I’m too busy and/or lazy to get involved in politics;
  5. The only way to really get things done is to have a dictatorship. However, you can’t always trust dictators to do the right thing, so . . .
. . . we need a benevolent dictator! QED.

Interestingly, the subject cropped up in a recent issue of ‘Time’ Magazine. A certain Joel Stein, in an essay entitled ‘Dictator of My Dreams’, pondered the question of whether ‘America might not be better off under a dictatorship.’ Now perhaps Mr Stein had his tongue in his cheek. Certainly he writes with self-effacing humour. Nevertheless, you feel you may detect a certain wistful longing in his penultimate sentence: ‘But in an age of overwhelming choice, some dictatorial direction would help.’

I’m sure you’ve heard the same idea. You’ll get a few hits if you ‘google’ the phrase, but most of them have to do with a business model. The only thing I came up with in a national context was Fredrick II, the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740-86. Well, he may have been a fine fellow, but, Prussia? And when you think about it, there wasn’t really much democracy to be found in the world in the 18th century, so dictatorship, as a political system, wasn’t such an unusual thing as it had become 150 years later.

So, there isn’t much competition for the title of ‘Benevolent Dictator’. Neither does there seem to be much agreement on what such a figure might look like if he or she did exist. Nor, in fact, in our age of pretty universal cynicism with respect to the trustworthiness of political leaders, is it easy to imagine even a ‘benevolent’ politician. We are far more inclined to be looking for ways to curb their influence than giving them the all-encompassing powers of a dictator.

Well, I’m going out on a limb, here, and I’m going to propose that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, is the one leader of a significant nation in the history of the world who may actually qualify for the title. And I know I’m going to cop it from both sides here. Most Turks will reject my use of the word ‘dictator’; Non-Turks will insist that a dictator is a dictator and adding the word ‘benevolent’ merely creates an oxymoronic nonsense. Nevertheless, I’m going to run with it.

Where to start? Probably the first thing we need to do is examine how Turks came to have this man as their political leader. And in addressing this question, we need to understand that, although it may in some senses be true that the modern republic of Turkey sprang from the ashes of the former Ottoman Empire, prior to 1923 there was no political entity corresponding to modern Turkey. Just as, prior to 1870, there was no political entity corresponding to the modern state of Italy, nor a Germany prior to 1871. The difference is that Germany and Italy resulted from the amalgamation of several smaller states and kingdoms; while Turkey was the heartland and rump of a disintegrated empire.

In previous articles I have looked at some of the processes and stages of this disintegration, so I don’t intend to repeat that here. It is enough to remember that, over a period of 100 years from approximately 1820, in spite of its leaders’ best efforts to hold it together, as a result of a series of wars within and without its borders, the Ottoman Empire reached the point, with the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, where it virtually signed its own death warrant.

There was no military coup where the rightful sultan of the empire was deposed and replaced by a victorious general. Nor, however, was there an election where a sovereign nation state chose a new leader to replace the old. In fact, under the aforementioned treaty, the Ottoman Sultan would have continued to head a nominal Ottoman Empire, since clearly this suited the aspirations of the main sponsors of the treaty, Britain and France. However, it would have been a seriously shrunken, emasculated empire, whose head-of-state would have remained merely as a puppet of the victorious Western powers.

When Mustafa Kemal left the occupied capital of the Ottoman state on 19 May 1919, with an authorisation from Vahdettin, Sultan Mehmet VI, as ‘Inspector of the 9th Army’, his official role was ambiguous, but no doubt, in his own mind, he knew what he had to do. And, according to his recent biographer, Andrew Mango, he knew that he was the man to do it.

For a start, the Ottomans, in spite of past military glories, had had a hard time of it during those previous hundred years. Victories had been few and far between, and a victorious commander was something to be welcomed and cherished. Mustafa Kemal, as the successful defender of the Allies' attempted Gallipoli invasion, was one such. We can say that he had the military credentials to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, it can’t have been easy to persuade his exhausted countrymen to gird up their loins for another struggle. There were others who believed in the need to fight – but few with the necessary vision and unshakeable self-confidence to inspire and unite the nationalist revival.

It is inevitable that legends will form around a successful national leader, and many are the tales told about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: from the watch in his breast pocket that miraculously warded off a shrapnel fragment at Gallipoli; the clock in his room in Dolmabahçe Palace ‘stopped’ at the moment of his death; to the mystical significance of the numbers 9 and 19 in his life. It is futile but nevertheless interesting to speculate about whether such leaders are born or made. Hagiograpic biographies imply that Mustafa Kemal was born to save his nation, which may, or may not be true. But undoubtedly, by the time the Greek army set foot in Izmir on 15 May 1919, he was pretty well convinced that his moment in history had arrived.

Revolutionary resistance grew around the charismatic leader and a Representative Committee was established in the central Anatolian town of Erzurum. By the time it was moved to Ankara in January 1920. Mustafa Kemal was its clear leader. By March of that year, he was in a strong enough position to declare that the Sultan’s government in Istanbul no longer represented the Turkish people, and the Revolutionary Committee was the only legal government. At the same time, he was smart enough to let other nations in the Islamic world understand that he was fighting for the Sultan (also the Muslim Caliph) who was being used as a puppet by the Allied forces. In the mean time he was negotiating with the newly formed Soviet Union for the supply of arms and munitions for the nationalist army.

It is not my purpose here to give a detailed description, nor even attempt to summarise the events of the Turkish War of Independence, which lasted from May 1919 to September 1922. It is sufficient for our purposes to note that the Greek Army was finally driven out of Anatolia. French and Italian forces also withdrew from the Marmara region as Mustafa Kemal led his troops north, leaving the British alone to prevent the liberation of Istanbul. The Turks rejected a British ultimatum to withdraw or face the consequences, and in the end, the British also chose to withdraw. As Mustafa Kemal is reputed to have predicted, ‘As they had come, so did they go.’ That is, pretty quietly and without a great deal of fuss.

Mustafa Kemal had been elected leader of the national struggle at Erzurum in July 1919 and president of the Grand National Assembly (we might call it the provisional republican government) in April 1920. In this capacity he swore allegiance to the Sultan and the Prophet – but there can be little doubt that his intention was to establish a republic and to institute reforms aimed at creating a secular state. And it seems equally clear that he recognised that in the short term, popular votes and democratic methods would not achieve these goals. During the course of the war with Greece, dissident elements on the Turkish side were silenced one way or another – unruly local commanders and over-zealous communist sympathisers among them. Now that victory had been won, and Mustafa Kemal was once again the hero, he was in a position to carry out his goals as architect of the rebuilding of his country.

But to return to this matter of the benevolent dictator. Clearly, as well as being highly controversial, it is a self-evident oxymoron. In the normal run of things, a dictator seizes power by military means, and retains it by some form of terror. And, as has been discussed above, while history abounds with dictators, no one has really made a strong case for any of them having benevolence as a salient characteristic. Now undoubtedly, Atatürk was a military man, who achieved much of his early fame through feats of arms. What sets him apart in this area is that his martial efforts were against the forces of alien powers invading his homeland. His own people gave him their whole-hearted support for this very reason – and, for the most part, appear to have given it willingly.

Furthermore, when his army had driven out the last of the invaders late in 1922, and he might have been justifiably intoxicated with success, he ignored more bellicose voices within his own new nation, and resisted the temptation to press on and try to reclaim former lost territories, contenting himself with defence of the Turkish heartland.

Be that as it may, it is also clear that the leader of the new Turkish Republic had powers which the leaders of modern democratic states can only dream of. For one thing, despite the occasional token election, he ruled as head of a one-party state to the end of his life. Opposition parties were briefly allowed (and hastily dissolved) in 1924, 1930 and again in 1934, but the first two-party election was not held until eight years after his death. Here, then, we can find the source of the decisive government for which our ‘Time’ journalist, Joel Stein, has been longing.

Sovereignty is a key concept in the Turkish republic, and it is clear that their first leader believed in it on three levels: for the Turkish nation, it was his unwavering goal. Turkey had narrowly escaped subjugation by the European imperial powers, largely thanks to his efforts. In terms of his leadership, it is equally clear that he saw himself as the saviour of his nation, justified in wielding sovereign power in order to realise his vision. And on a personal level, it is of undoubted significance that he insisted on retaining sovereignty over his private life. His one attempt at marriage lasted two years and ended in divorce. He might have used his virtually absolute power to establish a dynasty but he did not. He enjoyed the comforts of modern civilisation, but accepted financial accountability, and refrained from living in oriental opulence.

During the years following his victory in the War of Liberation, Atatürk[1] transformed his new nation:
  • In 1924, the Islamic Caliphate was abolished, and all members of the Ottoman dynasty were sent into exile. A national system of education was instituted marginalizing traditional Islamic schools. Religious courts were closed down, and the ban on alcohol was lifted;
  • Economic development of the impoverished nation was begun on a system of state monopoly;
  • In 1925, western-style clothing was required by law, with the passing of the famous ‘hat law’. Dervish lodges were closed down as hotbeds of religious reaction; and the wearing of veils and headscarves by women was discouraged; the status of women was further enhanced by legislation the following year;
  • A new penal code based on the Italian system was adopted, and in 1928, Islam ceased to be the official state religion. The Arabic alphabet used for Ottoman Turkish was replaced by a new Latin-based script; and the following year a committee was formed to begin purifying the Turkish language by eradicating and replacing words of Persian and Arabic origin;
  • German Jewish academics, displaced by the Nazis in the early 1930s, were welcomed into Turkey, and encouraged to assist in the westernisation of Turkish universities;
  • The use of Arabic in mosques was discouraged, and the call to prayer was required to be made in Turkish after 1933;
  • In 1934, Turks were required to adopt surnames, and traditional titles and ranks were abolished; the wearing of clerical dress outside of mosques and religious ceremonies was banned, and Sunday was made the day of rest in place of the traditional Muslim Friday.
There can be little doubt that this revolution in the way of life of the people could not have been achieved by a government bound by the need to cajole and appease voters. Turkey under Atatürk was a one-party state, and Atatürk was repeatedly re-elected to the role of president. Not a few dissenters and plotters against the president paid the ultimate penalty for their opposition and disloyalty. However, in Turkey, it was not the party which wielded the power, as in Soviet Russia, but the state. There was no uniformed para-military force suppressing opposition or terrorising the population. Mango says that, in his later years, ‘[Atatürk] behaved not like a modern dictator, but like a latter-day king, who had delegated government to his chief minister.’

When Atatürk died, on 10 November, 1938, his protégé, İsmet İnönü was unanimously elected to succeed him as president of the republic. There was a huge outpouring of national grief, and seventeen nations attended his state funeral, among them, those who had been most embarrassed by his success in founding the Turkish republic. We can be sure that the cultural revolution implemented by Atatürk had its opponents. The religious establishment was a big loser, and an older generation educated in the Ottoman language must have been shocked to see linguistic and literary links to the past severed so abruptly. Yet in spite of that, the ideals of Atatürk’s revolution live on in modern Turkey, and the country is a lone star of westward-leaning democratic secularism amongst its Islamic neighbour and brother states. Turks themselves, regardless of their political leanings, are in no doubt that, had it not been for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, their country would have virtually ceased to exist. Mango prefers the term ‘enlightened authoritarianism’ to describe Atatürk’s government – and Joel Stein would probably be equally happy with that. Whatever term is used, it is not easy to find an equivalent figure in the political history of any other nation. That is the reason for those pictures and statues adorning classroom walls and village squares all over Turkey – and the reason the country will halt its normal frenzied activity for a brief moment on Tuesday, 10 November. Few nations can claim a leader with the stature of Atatürk. Turkey was lucky to get him.

[1] Atatürk – Mustafa Kemal assumed this name after passing a law making surnames compulsory in 1934.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Liberation of Istanbul

In 2007 a Turkish graphic novel named ‘Son Osmanlı’ (The Last Ottoman) was turned into a film named for its hero, Yandım Ali. Released under the English title of ‘Knockout Ali’, the film made little impact elsewhere, despite achieving considerable popularity in its home country. Not so surprising, really. The Turkish film industry is one of the largest producers of films in Europe, but few of its oeuvres find much viewership beyond the borders of the home country.

A Turkish Robin Hood
Yandım Ali is a latter-day Robin Hood figure, roaming the streets of Istanbul/Constantinople immediately after the First World War. His city, however, is under occupation, with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men replaced by the British military. If you can find your way past the Turkish accents of local actors roped in to play the parts of British officers, you see a population chafing under the injustices and oppression of a foreign invader. Ali is the handsome tough guy whose national pride cannot tolerate the bullying arrogance of the occupying forces, but his puny opposition is doomed to failure without a good King Richard to give it focus. The Lionheart’s role is filled by a young Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal, about to embark on a momentous quest to liberate his people.

Well, you’re saying, I can see why that didn’t attract much interest outside Turkey (except maybe among ex-pat Turkish communities in Germany and elsewhere). It’s pretty clearly a hopelessly slanted, highly romanticised piece of anti-British propaganda. And of course, romanticised and slanted it is indeed. But sometimes it is good for us to see another slant on events we think we understand, in order to appreciate the slant that has influenced our own perspective. ‘O, wad some power,’ said Rabbie Burns, ‘the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us.’ Such insight is not always a comfortable thing, but ‘Yandim Ali’ begs a question or two that I’d like to investigate. Once again, a trip back in time is necessary . . .

The Istanbul of Yandım Ali was, of course, the capital city of the Ottomans, the ruling elite of an empire which had exerted a major influence on the domestic and foreign policies of European nations for more than 600 years. The empire was at its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, only finally being turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683. From then on its decline was gradual but inexorable, though its existence, albeit in an ailing capacity, continued to shape the policies of the Great Powers of Europe throughout the 19th century, up to and including the First World War. The workings of this influence were covered by the term, ‘The Eastern Question’, which can be summarised as: ‘When will the Ottoman Empire finally fall apart, and which of us (i.e. the European Great Powers) is going to get what when it does?’

Two great driving forces of events in the 19th century were Nationalism and Imperialism. Clearly these forces are, in essence, mutually contradictory. As the Great Powers of Europe expanded their empires, it goes without saying that they impinged more than a little on the sovereign rights of national groups within their expanding borders. It may be said that the one thing the leaders of the Great Powers agreed on was the need to suppress nationalist minorities. At the same time, however, they were not averse to employing the disruptive power of such minorities when to do so suited their own expansionist goals.

The later years of the Ottoman Empire provide several examples of this ambivalent approach to nationalist self-awareness. Contrary to the bad press they frequently receive on the subject, the Ottomans were remarkably tolerant of differences of language and religion within their borders. Of course, Islam was the official religion, and Ottoman Turkish the language of government. However, Orthodox Christians (as well as, incidentally, Armenians) and Jews were allowed to practise their religion and use their own languages and alphabets provided they paid their taxes. I would not be the first to suggest that it was this tolerance by the Ottomans of national differences within their empire that contributed to and hastened its disintegration.

However that may be, it is certainly true that the one area where the Great Powers of Europe were remarkably tolerant, even encouraging of the aspirations of nationalist minorities, was within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. In an earlier article I touched on the support given by Britain, France and Russia to the cause of Greek independence in the 1820s. In 1827, fleets of these three nations combined to defeat the Ottoman navy, paving the way for the foundation of the modern kingdom of Greece. Why ‘kingdom’ you may ask? Well, because it allowed the big brother nations to install someone from their own ranks, the 17 year-old Bavarian Prince Otto, who became King of the new ‘Greece’. Less than 30 years later, Britain and France were in league with those same Ottomans, smashing the Russians in the Crimea. What had changed? Pass on another 60 years and you’ll find Britain and France, back together with Russia again, intent on finishing off the Ottomans who were now supported by Germany! Make sense?

Let me give you a quick run-down. First, the Greeks. Well, they were Christians, weren’t they? Obviously being oppressed by those terrible Muslim Turks. Never mind that Greek Christians within the Ottoman Empire were allowed to speak their language, practise their religion, hold important positions and get rich. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, at least as far as Western Europeans were concerned, Greek Christianity was not the right sort. There was always a major danger that they would unite with (or be subjugated by) their Orthodox cousins, the Russians. Then there was the confusing business of what you actually mean when you say ‘Greek’. Philhellenes on the continent (see my previous article) had a hazy idea of Greek-ness as being an ancient, classical, pagan but nonetheless romantic birthplace of modern civilisation centred on Athens. Modern Greek nationalists, on the other hand, were more inclined to imagine a medieval Orthodox Christian empire centred on Constantinople.

So, if you were a British political leader in the 19th century, you might find it convenient to give moral, and even logistical support to the cause of Greek independence, since it would be useful to have a grateful puppet-state in the eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, you might also feel a little nervous of the southward-expanding Russians, who were encouraging, for their own ends, the nationalist aspirations of Christian minorities within the Ottoman borders. Especially since the Russian brand of Christianity had a lot more in common with those ‘oppressed’ brothers (and sisters).

Another complicating factor was the appearance on the stage of Europe, in the 1870s, of two ‘new’ powers with imperialist aspirations: Italy and Germany. Illustrating perfectly the dichotomy that existed in Europeans’ minds of the time with respect to imperialism and nationalism, these two emergent powers owed their existence to the nationalist dream of uniting people with a common linguistic, racial and cultural heritage. Having achieved this goal, however, they immediately entered into competition with the older powers in the field of empire building (and, hence, of course, in overriding the nationalistic ambitions of others).

It is also obvious that, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the importance of oil as a new source of energy, added to the strategic importance of the Suez Canal for access to India, the ‘jewel’ in the British Imperial crown, increased the tensions and power games in the Near (Middle) East. Western Europeans are not generally known for their love of Arabs, yet they were only too ready to lionise TE Lawrence as he championed Arab nationalism against the evil Ottomans.

Well, sorry for the digression – it’s not my aim to make a detailed examination of 19th century power politics. Just to give enough background to follow what I want to say about the aftermath of World War I as it affected the country we now know as Turkey.

The European summer of 1914 was ignited by the assassination of an Austrian archduke (whatever an arch-duke may be) with little other claim to fame. By the beginning of August, all the major powers of Europe were at each other’s throats, with the exception of the Ottomans who were understandably uncertain who, if anyone, they should support.

This situation was resolved for them in October largely owing, once again, to our old friend, Winston Churchill. The Ottoman navy had been a major client of British shipyards for some years, and had recently ordered two modern battleships, paid for by public subscription. Winston’s brainwave was, apparently, to ensure Ottoman neutrality by ‘requisitioning’ these battleships for the duration of the war, and paying a kind of rent for their use in the British navy. Germany seized the opportunity to present the Ottomans with two modern warships of their own, and immediately proceeded, after hoisting the Ottoman flag, to sail across the Black Sea and bombard one or two Russian ports and bases. Not much room left for diplomatic manoeuvring after that!

Well, it took four years, and a lot of death and destruction, but the upstart Germans were eventually brought to their knees, especially after the entry of the USA into the war in 1917 (once again, if you can believe the rumours, with some behind-the-scenes manipulation on the part of W.L.S. Churchill). Once it became obvious that they had backed the wrong horse, the Ottomans requested an armistice, which took place on October 30, 1918 on the Aegean Island of Lemnos. Perhaps they expected reasonable treatment from their former allies, especially since they hadn’t actually invaded anyone else’s territory – but they were to be disappointed. Within two weeks, British and French troops had occupied the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, and there they remained as an army of occupation for the next five years.

The two members of the Entente Cordiale then set about implementing plans long-held, to divide up the Ottoman Empire and erase it from the world map. The instrument used was the Treaty of Sevres, signed on 10 August 1920. Interestingly, neither the United States nor Russia was party to this treaty. Under its terms, the Ottoman government would continue to rule in name, but in reality as a political and financial puppet of the Allies (France and Britain). Ottoman ‘war criminals’ would be handed over to the Allies for trial and punishment. Most of the Near/Middle East, Palestine (there was no Israel in those days), Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were given as ‘mandates’ to Britain and France – and a mini-kingdom was established around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, one assumes, as a sop to Arab nationalism. France also laid claim to a large chunk of modern Turkey north of Syria, while the Italians were given most of Mediterranean Anatolia, including offshore islands. A new nation-state of Armenia was to be established, with its border extending to the Black Sea around the modern Turkish port of Trabzon.

There were a few bitter pills to swallow there, you’d have to think – but representatives of the Ottoman Government duly signed. Perhaps they truly believed there was no alternative. Enter ‘Yandım Ali’ and Richard the Lionheart! What precisely was the spark that ignited the tinder of Turkish nationalism is open to debate, but it’s hard to imagine your average Mehmet on the Karakoy omnibus being pleased to see his ‘Greek’ neighbours and fellow citizens dancing in the streets of Istanbul (Constantinople) and Izmir (Smyrna) as they welcomed the invading forces. It is said that the French general entered Istanbul mounted on a white horse, as his conquering Turkish predecessor, had done in 1453. Perhaps the last straw was the sight of an army from mainland Greece (backed by their big brothers, Britain and France) landing on the Turkish mainland from whence their ancestors had been expelled 466 years previously.

Whatever the final cause, certain it is that Turkish nationalism was stirred into life. A four-year struggle ensued, at the end of which the Greek invaders were again expelled, and the Italian, British and French governments decided to cut their losses and withdraw. The Treaty of Sevres lapsed for want of support and was replaced by a new Treaty, signed at Lausanne, Switzerland, recognising the existence of the new Republic of Turkey. On 6 October, thousands of Istanbul school children will have a holiday to celebrate getting their city back.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Actions and Reactions - The Emergence of Modern Turkey

A question on British history for those with an interest in the subject: What international event brought about the collapse of the victorious Liberal/Conservative coalition government after the First World War, the political demise of its heroic leader, David Lloyd George, and the exile to the political wilderness of that other great hero of British politics, Winston Churchill? Not to mention the emergence of Canada as an independent nation within the British Empire?

The Chanak Incident, I hear someone cry, – and you would be absolutely right! But for those of you with a more superficial interest in British history and politics, or a less persistent determination to learn about an event which receives scant attention in general histories or in biographies of those two gentlemen – let me give you a quick run-down . . .

These two English gentlemen, Churchill and Lloyd George (well, Lloyd George it seems was Welsh, with quite an enthusiasm for Welsh nationalism, at least when he first entered parliament), are not generally remembered with much fondness in Turkey. However, it is my contention that modern Turks should be more grateful, because, without them, it is possible that the modern Turkish Republic might never have come into being.

Of course, as with all historical events, specific dates are necessarily arbitrary, in the sense that every event has prior causes and subsequent repercussions. To understand what happened in September 1922, we need to flashback a little, to the declining years of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the once great empire had been declining for a century or two – held together during the 19th century largely by the conflicting ambitions of the European Great Powers, who were unanimous on one thing at least: none of them wanted any of the others to get anything out of the Ottoman collapse.

‘Sick’ though it might have been, the empire still occupied a strategic location. The Russians desperately wanted to control the Bosphorus Straits which would give them easy access to the Mediterranean. The British, on the other hand, were pretty determined not to let them. At the outbreak of World War I, while they were both looking the other way, a maverick Geman admiral named Wilhelm Souchon sailed his two warships into the Black sea, hoisted an Ottoman flag, and proceeded to bombard several Russian ports. This rather forced the Ottoman government’s hand. Suddenly, they found themselves at war, not only with the Russians, but also with the French and the British.

Now, I’m not writing a history of the First World War here – not even the Middle East theatres thereof, so bear with me if I skip few months, leaving aside all that bloody business on the Western Front, for example. The stalemate there did, however, bring Winston Churchill on the scene, with his grand ‘Gallipoli’ scheme to take the Ottomans out of the war and help organize Russia to attack the Germans from the other side.

Well, with hindsight, of course, we know the plan was a bit of a blunder – a lot of lives lost, a lot of discontent sown amongst hitherto loyal members of the British Empire, and a rather embarrassing withdrawal by Allied forces, whatever brave face we may try to put on it. But the point I want to make here is this – the Gallipoli Campaign (or the Çanakkale War, as the Turks call it) provided the opportunity for a young Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal, to make a name for himself as a successful strategist and commander of men. Churchill’s hare-brained scheme may not have done much for the Allied war effort, but it can be seen as an indispensable step on the rise to prominence of the eventual founder of the Turkish Republic. Good one, Winston!

Nevertheless, despite the efforts of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the Ottoman Empire, its government and people, found themselves on the losing side at the end of that Great War. Victory gave the Allied leaders the opportunity they had long sought to carve up the empire’s territories and distribute them among themselves. This carve-up, long planned by Britain and France, was given full expression in the Treaty of Sevres (10 August, 1920). The plan was to retain the Imperial government in Istanbul/Constantinople (to the chagrin, it may be added, of the Greeks, who refused to ratify the treaty) while giving control over the Imperial finances to the conquering Allies. Ottoman armed forces would be effectively emasculated and ‘war criminals’ would be brought to trial. Even the Anatolian heartland of Turkey would be divided up, with the southern coast and hinterland coming under Italian control, the south-east bordering Syria being ceded to France, and a referendum held to decide the fate of ‘Kurdistan’.

So dispirited was the Ottoman government, and its people so exhausted by years of continuous war that it is possible these provisions, humiliating as they were, might have been put into effect. However, there was one last item . . . the city of İzmir and its surrounding region, and the region of Thrace, north of the Sea of Marmara to within a stone’s throw of Istanbul, would be ceded to Greece – and to ensure this happened, the Greek army, encouraged and supplied by the Allies, occupied Izmir and began advancing into Anatolia.

Leaving the Greek army in Anatolia for a moment, I’d like to return to Mr Lloyd George. Our Dave apparently belonged to the Philhellene school of thought, a position popularized by the poet Lord Byron, and generally subscribed to by aristocrats who had had a love of all things classical beaten into them from an early age by the English public school system. During the 19th century, English philhellenes supported the cause of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, and even encouraged them in their megali idea-listic dream of recreating a Hellenic empire around the Aegean Sea.

Secure in the belief (misguided, as it turned out) that the might of the British and French was behind them, the Greeks plunged into Anatolia, intent on resurrecting their former Byzantine glory. Had they not been blinded by these visions of grandeur, it might have occurred to them that the philhellenist gentlemen had their illusions based on a more classical, pagan Atheno-centric ancient kind of Greekness. They would probably have had trouble getting their C of E heads around the Byzantine Orthodox Christian variety centred on Constantinople. Certainly, it’s a fairly safe bet that the Allied powers had no intention of letting the modern Greeks get their hands on the city of Byzantine dreams. We may imagine that they were more interested in putting an end, once and for all to Turkish power, and setting up a suitably grateful puppet state in the eastern Mediterranean.

Whatever the true case may be, it’s another reasonably safe bet that the event which finally fanned the spark of Turkish nationalism into flaming life, galvanised Mustafa Kemal Pasha into revolutionary action, and assisted his cause in raising an army, was this incursion into the ancestral Turkish Anatolian heartland by Greek invaders who had been finally defeated and sent packing four and a half centuries earlier.

It took a few years to get them out, of course. Mustafa Kemal escaped from Allied-occupied Istanbul, and the puppet government of the last Ottoman Emperor, in May 1919. During the next three years, he organised a resistance movement, established an alternative nationalist Turkish government, built an army, negotiated with foreign powers (notably the new Bolshevik Russia) to supply munitions, and fought a successful war of liberation, driving the Greek Army back to İzmir.

There is considerable debate about subsequent events in that city, but most accounts agree that, for whatever reason, Allied ships (mostly British) in Izmir harbour, refused to pick up Greek military and civilian refugees from the Turkish victory. Whatever the truth of it, the Turkish army then turned north towards Çanakkale, with the intention, no doubt, and not unreasonably, of liberating Istanbul. There was, however, a small garrison of French and British troops near Çanakkale, and the British cabinet (in particular, Messrs Churchill and Lloyd George), instructed their men to turn the Turks back – in fact, threatening them with the might of the British Empire should they not go quietly.

A tricky situation, you might say, for the fledgling Turkish nation to find itself in – but Mustafa Kemal Pasha apparently decided to call the British bluff, which at this point, turned out to be exactly that. The French Prime Minister pulled his troops out, the British parliament and public expressed outrage at the thought of entering another war so soon after the last one; and the Dominions of the British Empire (most notably Canada, but with the exception of ever-loyal New Zealand) declined to get involved.

The result was the complete withdrawal of occupying forces from Istanbul, the drawing up of a new treaty (at Lausanne, Switzerland) recognizing the emergent Republic of Turkey with rather more favourable boundaries, the political humiliation of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, and the collapse of the wartime British coalition government (one can imagine, amidst a crescendo of recriminations!).

Win and Dave, of course, resigned, Lloyd George, at least, never to return in any major capacity. Churchill, however, recognising his indispensability to the British people, quickly forsook the Liberal Party he had helped to destroy, and joined up with the Conservatives – and to the devil with political convictions and party loyalty. Before long he was back in full voice, demonstrating the diversity of his talents, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and as an advocate of the enlightened use of poison gas (some years ahead of Saddam Hussein) on rebellious Kurdish tribesmen, who were perhaps not 100% convinced that the British Empire had any right to be in their particular neck of the woods.

Anyway, as they say, that’s another story. I do think, however, that residents of modern Turkey should cast an appreciative nod in the direction of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George as they celebrate their Day of Victory on August 30th. The camel may not fully appreciate the nature of his predicament until the last straw is dropped on to his back.