Camel greeting

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Governing Turkey - listening to the experts

‘Türk demek, Turkçe demektir. Ne mutlu Türk’üm diyene!’

The words are written on a banner one of our neighbours has strung from the balcony of his house. To be fair, we are not in Istanbul. We’re at our summer retreat near Bodrum; the summer season hasn’t officially opened, few people are around, and I’m hopeful our ultra-nationalist neighbour will pack his banner away before the place starts to fill up.

The modern Republic of Turkey is a complex state – that is probably the main message I aim to convey through this blog; and the words on our neighbour’s banner provide a brief glimpse into this complexity. The second sentence is generally attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founding father. Faced with the need to unite a diverse people to fight for national survival in the aftermath of disastrous defeats and in the face of foreign invasion and occupation, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (as he was then) played the one card that had any hope of success – the trump card of national identity. “How happy,’ he announced, ‘is the one who says ‘I am a Türk!’”

At the time, it must have been a risky gambit. The 600-year Ottoman Empire was on its knees, its capital, Istanbul, under foreign occupation, and its remaining territories under sentence of partition. The Sultan and Caliph, nominal ruler of the Empire and leader of the world’s Muslims, was a virtual prisoner and puppet of the occupying forces. ‘Turkishness’ itself was not a quality to be especially proud of. The ruling class were Ottomans, their language a hybrid of Turkish, Persian and Arabic, written in an Arabic script intelligible only to an educated few. The royal family had for centuries been breeding with women selected from the upper classes of non-Muslim and non-Turkish neighbours. Talented individuals from non-Turkish, non-Muslim nations within the Empire (especially Greek, Armenian and Jewish) had filled key positions in the imperial economy. Actual ‘Turks’ were more likely to be soldiers or farmers.

Those soldiers, and a good number of the farmers, had been fighting and dying for an empire whose boundaries had been shrinking for a century or more. Why would they be happy? Why would their mothers, fathers, sisters and children be happy? That Atatürk managed to inspire and unite them for one more deadly struggle against enemies bent on their destruction goes a long way towards explaining why the people of Turkey hold him in such reverence. The second sentence on our neighbour’s banner expresses an aspect of national consciousness beyond the mere lexical meaning of the words themselves.

The first sentence is a little more problematic, and I haven’t heard that they were ever spoken by Atatürk himself. The word ‘Türk’ can be rendered in English as ‘a Turk’ or ‘Turkish’ in the sense of national identity. ‘Türkçe’ means ‘the Turkish language’. The writer wants to say, I think, that the Turkish language is the soul of the Turkish nation. He or she may even be implying that native speakers of other languages can not be considered Turkish. If that is the case, it is rather unfortunate. There has been a good deal of house construction and renovation going on in Bodrum and Turkey recently. Many of the contractors and probably most of the workers are Kurdish. They are undoubtedly citizens of Turkey, but the majority of them would have, of necessity, learned the Turkish language after starting school. Until recently they were denied the right to speak their language and even to give their children Kurdish names. The fact that Turkey’s current government has relaxed these prohibitions and opened up discussion on the Kurdish issue is, ironically, one of the factors arousing anger amongst political opposition groups.

Another irony, perhaps, is the reason that those Kurdish people remained in the Republic when others left – they were Muslims. After Turkey’s War of Independence ended in 1922 with the defeat of the invading Greek army and the evacuation of occupying British troops from Istanbul, there was a major exchange of populations in which hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims were uprooted from their homes and sent, Muslims to Anatolia and Christians to the Greek state across the water. The result was that, however secular Atatürk’s intentions, his new Republic was overwhelmingly Muslim in demographic composition.

This religious-versus-secular contradiction is not the only paradox inherent in the new entity that was Turkey. Emerging as it did from the ashes of the discredited Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey had an uneasy relationship with its immediate predecessor. On the one hand the military, architectural, artistic and culinary achievements of its illustrious golden age were matters of great pride. On the other, its slow decline had left its people with a sense of inferiority and in its final death throes there were undoubtedly shameful events. Restoring national pride was a key goal of the new administration, at the same time as there was recognition of the need to follow a modernising path already trod by Western nations.

In fact, ‘restoring’ pride is probably not the correct word to use when talking about Turkish nationalism. ‘Creating’ perhaps better addresses the problem faced by the Republic’s early leaders. In a sense it was necessary to retrospectively leapfrog the Muslim Ottomans, the Christian Byzantines and the pagan Romans and to create a heritage of pure Turkishness based on those warrior horsemen (and women) who had spread out of Central Asia in waves from time immemorial. It was necessary to idealise the pre-Islamic spirituality of shaman tribesmen (and women) and to divest the corrupted Ottoman language of its Persian and Arabic borrowings. Connections were made to ancient Anatolian civilisations such as the Hittites, and a new Latin-based alphabet facilitated widespread literacy at the same time as it separated modern Turkey from its more recent history.

Without a doubt there must have been elements in those early days that were strongly opposed to the goals and methods of Atatürk and his colleagues: the religious elite and the simply devout villager must have been alarmed at the processes of secularisation. Educated intelligentsia must have been furious that years spent studying the Ottoman language would be devalued. Well-heeled urbanites, especially in Istanbul, may have felt uncomfortable with the inclusive, at times almost socialistic rhetoric of the new leader. As years went by, some at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum may have felt aggrieved that the rhetoric was slow to produce the promised brave new world.

It would require a large book to examine all the disparate groups that make up the modern Republic of Turkey. European neighbours may fear that opening their EU door to Turkey would lead to a flood of immigration to their economic paradise. Since the foundation of the Republic, Turkey itself has been a magnet drawing refugees seeking a safe haven from strife and oppression; the most recent being almost a million impoverished Syrians. Governing this country is no easy task – and it would not be surprising if its own citizens harboured some uncertainties about the best direction for reaching a happy future.

As an example, I would like to cite the case of a high-profile, highly educated, financially comfortable, internationally recognised Turkish gentleman. Orhan Pamuk is an acclaimed novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. As I remember, when that award was made, the response in Pamuk’s homeland was somewhat muted. Lately, however, his star seems to have risen and in recent months he has been the subject of some media attention. Possibly the key to this is an interview published in several Turkish dailies on May 23 under a headline quoting Pamuk as saying it was “impossible for an honest person not to criticise the [Turkish] government.”  

Well, I have some history of criticising governments myself – but I find myself almost feeling sorry for Mr Tayyip Erdoğan and his team. These days the blame for pretty much everything is laid at their feet, and it seems to add weight to the criticism when it comes from someone with celebrity status. Last year it was a motley crew of actors and actresses from Hollywood and the UK. I’m not exactly sure why people assume that, because someone has achieved success in sport, pop singing, piano playing or movie acting, their opinions on national and international affairs must be worth publicising. Occasionally one or two do decide to put their credibility on the line by entering politics – footballer Hakan Şükür in Turkey and actress Glenda Jackson in England come to mind – and they would probably admit that doing is somewhat more difficult than talking.

Nevertheless, Mr Pamuk talks; in this instance, apparently, in Lyon, France while attending an international forum on “The Novel”. No doubt the French media are fond of Mr Pamuk, given that they have been trying to pin a charge of genocide on the Turkish people for years. Pamuk got himself in a spot of bother in 2005 after giving an interview where he was quoted as saying that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.” His version of the story makes much of the fact that he was charged with “public denigration of Turkish identity” and had to flee the country. He tends to play down the details that the interview was with a newspaper in Switzerland (this country?); that the prosecution was brought by an ultra-nationalist lawyer who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in the ‘Ergenekon’ military coup conspiracy trial; and that Pamuk himself received little more than a judicial slap on the wrist. One might compare the fates of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange who are still trying to escape the clutches of the US justice system for telling the truth on a number of issues with serious implications for world peace.

The latest club for belabouring the government in Turkey is the deaths of 301 miners in a coal-mining accident two weeks ago. Certainly such events are unacceptable in a country with aspirations to rank among the world’s developed nations. Certainly the tragedy highlights problems with workers’ rights, workplace safety and collective bargaining in Turkey. On the other hand, those miners were working in dreadful conditions 400 metres underground for subsistence wages to extract coal, most of which is burned to produce electricity. In my opinion, some of those critics piously blaming the government for the Soma mine tragedy would do well to examine their personal carbon footprint before casting the first stone.

I don’t wish to single out Mr Pamuk for unfair criticism, but it does seem to me that he represents a section of Turkish society that is a little out of touch with the reality of life for the majority of his countrymen and women. In February this year, The New York Times published an article entitled “Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.” I don’t know where Mr Pamuk lives these days – the interview was apparently conducted mostly in the artsy Cihangir neighbourhood of Istanbul where the writer has recently opened a ’museum’ based on the fictional events in his novel “The Museum of Innocence”. I’m curious because the article neglects to mention that Pamuk is Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at New York’s Columbia University, and I’m wondering whether he commutes from Istanbul to carry out his teaching responsibilities.

Apart from gentrified Cihangir, Pamuk’s Istanbul also includes the plush old-money district of Nişantaşı, and the leafy Bosporus campus of Robert College where tuition will cost you an arm and a leg, even if your child manages to pass the entrance exam. The NY Times article asserts that Pamuk’s “work is as grounded in [Istanbul] as Dickens’ was in London”, while admitting later that (very unlike Dickens) “Most of Mr Pamuk’s characters are members of the secular elite”. To be fair, there may have been some difficult times for the Pamuk family, since young Orhan’s father apparently “frittered away much of his fortune through a series of bad investments”. However, he was still able to provide his son with a car and money for weekly visits to bookshops where he would “fill the trunk with books”. The bookshops were near the campus of Istanbul University where Pamuk was a student in the 1970s. At that time left wing protesters were being shot, imprisoned, tortured and disappeared in events leading up to and following two military coups. Pamuk, by his own admission, “while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers . . . spent most of his time reading at home in Nişantaşı.”

Well, you can’t blame the guy for that, even if it does imply a splash of pinkish armchair socialism. What surprised me more was reading that little Orhan’s first experience of foreign travel was a summer in Geneva with his father at the age of seven – and that he didn’t leave Istanbul again until he was 30. I feel sure the interviewer must have made an error in transcribing his notes here – but if not, I cannot comprehend how a Turkish citizen of such narrow geographical experience could claim to have any understanding of his country and its people.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the other hand, knew his people intimately. Another reason for his almost mythical status in Turkey is that, when the bullets and shrapnel were flying on that crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair/Conk Bayırı in 1915, he was leading his lads from the front rather than sitting at home reading.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Turkey’s Mining Disaster 2014 – and keeping up with the Joneses

Families of Turkish coal miners in Soma
The words of an old song have been running through my head for the last few days. Maybe you remember the Bee Gees. I guess they had a little something for everyone, since their musical career spanned five decades. The song I’m remembering, though, was their first major hit, released in 1967. It’s a fictional monologue by a coal-miner trapped underground, showing a picture of his wife to his mate while they wait and hope for rescuers to arrive:

In the event of something happening to me,
there is something I would like you all to see.
It's just a photograph of someone that I knew.

Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?
Do you know what it's like on the outside?
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr Jones.

I keep straining my ears to hear a sound.
Maybe someone is digging underground,
or have they given up and all gone home to bed,
thinking those who once existed must be dead.

Despite the song’s title, Wikipedia assures me there was no mining disaster in New York in 1941 – though there apparently was one in Pennsylvania that year, and there had been one in New York State two years earlier. The Bee Gees were perhaps inspired by a tragic accident in the Welsh coal-mining town of Aberfan. In 1966, 144 people including 116 children were killed when a mountain of debris from the mine collapsed, burying a village primary school under 40,000 cubic metres of rock and shale. Very definitely, however, a mining disaster has taken place in Turkey in the town of Soma, Manisa, where almost 800 miners were underground when an explosion occurred. So far 300 have been confirmed killed – with that death toll likely to rise.

Unlike the Bee Gees’ miners, who had some hope of survival, so long as rescuers arrived before their pocket of air was exhausted, the Turkish miners were mostly doomed from the beginning. Some of them were working 420 metres below ground when the explosion occurred. The horror of what happened down there in a hell of pitch blackness, burning coal and an atmosphere of deadly poisonous methane gas can scarcely be imagined by those of us for whom an electricity outage above ground is a scary experience.

The other aspect of the tragedy, of course, is the shocking bereavement for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Soma townspeople who have, at one blow, lost husbands, fathers, sons, neighbours, friends and workmates. What makes it worse is that miners and union representatives had apparently been expressing concerns about safety in the mine for some time – with little response from company management.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly cancelled a trip to Albania to visit the stricken town and express his sympathy. He also apparently urged people to refrain from using the tragedy as a political football. Some hope! Already there have been demonstrations across the country, adding fuel to the fire of political unrest that has been growing against the government for the past year, with some protesters adding ‘murderer’ to the list of accusations they are levelling against Mr Erdoğan.

How fair is it to blame the AK Party government for the disaster in Soma? First of all, it must be accepted that the Soma mine is operated by a private company, not the Turkish state. On the other hand, say opponents, that is the heart of the problem – the privatization of former state activities results in the application of bottom-line accounting and principles of short-term profit such that worker safety and conditions of employment figure very low on a list of management priorities.

Well, I have no personal experience of coal mining, thank God, but I have been working in the private education sector in this country for some years, and I have seen how owners and managers of educational institutions treat teachers. With no union or professional organisation to represent their interests, teachers often work in a state of fear, knowing that their employment can be terminated without redress, and that any comments they make about pay or working conditions can be a reason for termination. If employers can treat university-educated professionals in this way, it is easy to imagine that the lot of a coal-miner will be little removed from servitude. Clearly, whatever social and economic gains have been made in Turkey in the first years of the 21st century, there is a crying need for improvement in workplace conditions, and the right of employees to collective bargaining is fundamental to this.

To be fair, however, these problems are not confined to Turkey. In 2010, 29 coal miners died in a similar tragedy in New Zealand, again in a mine operated by a private company. A Royal Commission found that government oversight of safety regulations had been inadequate and that company management had been aware of dangers such as high levels of methane gas. As a result, the company was ordered to pay compensation to the bereaved families, but it was unable to do so, since it went bankrupt. The CEO was absolved of blame on the grounds of insufficient evidence. I would have thought that, in these days of grossly overpaid CEOs, one of the few justifications for their obscene pay-packets would be strict liability in such circumstances – but who am I?

Anyway, I thought it was a little unfair that reports in NZ news media on the Soma disaster concluded with the words, ‘Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.’ There is a website called the Coal Mining History Resource Centre which publishes a list of recent fatal mining disasters. According to CMHRC, apart from the New Zealand explosions, three of the worst in the past ten years occurred in the United States.

The fact is that coal mining is an extremely nasty business that few would willingly undertake if they had alternative means of making a living for themselves and their families. According to CMHRC, at the peak of coal mining in the United Kingdom, between 1900 and 1950, there were 84,331 injuries and deaths in mine accidents. In the same period in the United States, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the US Dept of Labour, there were 452 accidents in coalmines involving injury and death. It is, of course, technologically possible these days to make conditions underground safer. Reports in the Turkish media are saying that there are safe-room installations available for miners to take refuge in in the event of high gas levels or explosions – but they are so expensive that mining companies do not consider them economically feasible.

Open-cast coal mine in Alabama, USA
I recently came across the fascinating story of a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania called Centralia. Apparently, back in 1962, a fire started in an exposed vein of anthracite coal which then began to burn underground. All attempts to extinguish the fire proved unsuccessful and the town eventually had to be abandoned because of noxious gases emerging at the surface. Reports say that the fire could burn for another two hundred and fifty years before the 12 km coal seam is exhausted. In the mean time, the ghost town of Centralia has been erased from maps, and roads that used to pass through it have been diverted.

Now, I understand, when regulations are passed obliging companies to spend money on health and safety, they either close their mines, or do what seems to be the norm in developed countries – revert to open-cast or strip mining. The method here is to use massive digging machines to excavate down to the seam and load the coal on to trucks without the need for a large labour force of subterranean workers. Admittedly this process does create a significant amount of environmental damage – but as yet governments are less responsive to that cost. In the case of the New Zealand Pike River mine, however, the fact that coal extraction was taking place in a national park means that strip mining has so far not been approved.

One report I read about the current issue said that Turkey meets 40% of its current electricity needs from coal-burning plants. I’m sure the government recognises that this is undesirable, and in fact, they are planning to build at least two nuclear power plants to reduce dependence on coal and imported natural gas. Nuclear energy itself, of course, has its down side, as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima have shown us. So what’s the government of a developing economy to do when its industrial base is expanding and its middle class is growing and demanding higher living standards (read ‘energy consumption’)? Out of curiosity I checked how the US and the UK meet their electricity needs and the results were surprising, to me at least:

In the US, the largest source of electricity is coal-burning plants (37%), followed by natural gas (30%) and nuclear energy (19%). In the UK, natural gas (40.4%) nudges out coal (32.3%) as the major source, with nuclear power supplying 17.6%. According to Wikipedia, coal-fired power plants are still far and away the largest provider of electricity in the world. So what’s the answer? If you really feel sorry for those coal miners, reduce your electricity consumption – but be aware that those guys will then need alternative means of employment.

Clearly this whole business is not merely a problem that Turkey alone is facing. In developed and developing countries alike, the pressure is on to privatise activities that were once considered the primary responsibility of the state, from education and health, to public transport, telecommunications and energy supply. I will readily admit that some of these services are more effectively and efficiently supplied by private sector owners and managers. I well remember, for example, how long we used to wait for a telephone connection in days gone by. On the other hand, I question whether private enterprise can provide satisfactory health and education to the majority when its first responsibility is always to its shareholders, and turning a profit is inevitably the number one priority. Short-term employment contracts, out-sourcing of functions formerly carried out in-house (such as cleaning and catering), as well as the tendency to look for cheaper labour in countries with lower standards of living and less stringent labour protection laws, have created a global environment where concern for human dignity and rights are given scant attention.

I really would like to think that things are getting better, but I have serious doubts. I recently had reason to look up statistics on car ownership around the world. As you would expect, the USA ranks pretty high, though its rate of 80% puts it in 3rd place behind billionaire playgrounds San Marino and Monaco. New Zealand and Australia also feature pretty well up the list, with 71 and 72%. Northern Europe, again as we might expect, is less dependent on the private car. Denmark, for example, where the bicycle is a lifestyle choice, has a 48% rate of car ownership. City-dwelling Turks, suffering for hours in the gridlock of Istanbul traffic, will perhaps be surprised to learn that their nation’s rate is a mere twenty percent. If Turks and the Chinese (current ownership rate 10%) approach even the proportion of cars owned by Danes, never mind Americans, what hope is there for planet Earth?

So I say to my Turkish neighbours (and American and New Zealand friends across the oceans could set an example here) – if you really care for those coal miners, get yourself a bicycle and an Akbil[1], start using the Metro and the Metrobus, and give serious thought to reducing the size of your carbon footprint.

[1] Intelligent ticket – usable on most forms of public transport in Istanbul

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Syrian Refugees in Turkey – Only Muslims after all

In September 2012 Angelina Jolie visited Turkey in her capacity as United Nations Special Envoy for Refugees. At that time the civil war in Syria had been going on for eighteen months, and there were approximately 80,000 men, women and children who had fled across the border to escape the violence. Ms Jolie and the UN High Commissioner António Guterres expressed high praise for the twelve well-organised camps set up by the Turkish Government to house the displaced Syrians. At the same time, they also urged other UN member states to recognise the need to provide tangible assistance to neighbouring countries like Turkey that were directly affected by the influx of destitute refugees.

Syrian refugee family in Istanbul 2014
That was then – this is now. There are currently 224,000 Syrians in those camps near Turkey’s southeastern border. The UN estimates that to be less than one third of the 700,000 they believe are in the country. The Turkish Government puts the number higher, at around 900,000. Whichever is correct, it is evident that those government camps, however, well-organised, are no longer able to cope with the vast numbers fleeing the war – and hundreds of thousands of homeless, jobless Syrians have now made their way to the larger cities in search of work and accommodation.

Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been in Jordan meeting with Mr Guterres and other regional foreign ministers. According to an article in Hürriyet Daily News, ‘the U.N. refugee chief criticized the international community for “not contributing enough” to solve the issue’.

“Let me be very clear, there has been very little support. There must be massive support from the international community at the level of government budgets and development projects related to education, health, water and infrastructure,” he said. He stressed that the problem of refugees was not only the responsibility of regional countries, but of “all countries in the world.”

“To share the responsibility that has fallen upon the neighboring countries, every country should open its doors to Syrian refugees,” Guterres added.’

For his part, Mr Davutoğlu suggested that what was really needed was international aid to protect Syrian citizens in their own country. While Turkey maintains an open border policy and does not turn refugees away, the huge numbers are placing great stress on the economy, and there is a danger that resentment against them will grow and lead to undesirable outcomes.

This influx of refugees, however, is by no means just a recent phenomenon. The first major wave of immigration was large numbers of Sephardic Jews fleeing from religious persecution in Spain at the end of the 15th century. The so-called ‘reconquest’ of the Iberian Peninsula involved the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews whose families had lived there for centuries. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jewish settlers into his empire, reputedly saying “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched us”. By the 19th century, the Ottoman city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki in Greece) was home to the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Many of them relocated to Istanbul after the Greek occupation, and later to the new state of Israel. There are still, however, many synagogues to be found in Istanbul, their congregations worshipping in the archaic Spanish dialect known as Ladino.

It is generally agreed that the Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman around the middle of the 16th century, although it continued to extend its territorial reach until the armies of Mehmet IV were notoriously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683.

From that time, the seemingly invincible Ottomans began losing battles and ground to, in particular, the rising and expanding powers of Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia. Habsburg expansion occurred primarily in the Balkan region, much of which had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. For the Russians, a major goal was annexing territories that would give them access to warm water ports on the Black Sea and ultimately the Mediterranean. These territories, Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus, while not directly under Ottoman control, were inhabited predominantly by Muslims and definitely within their sphere of influence.

As Habsburg and Russian forces seized control of these regions, vast numbers of Muslims were killed or uprooted. It has been estimated that between five and seven million refugees flooded into the shrinking Ottoman Empire between 1783 and 1913. More than half of these were Crimean Tatars and Circassians displaced by the Russian southward advance. Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration in the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, in an article entitled Refugees, Exiles, and other Forced Migrants in the Late Ottoman Empire, suggests that an understanding of historical context is essential in the study of refugees. She argues that  ‘by and large the circumstances, experiences, and influences of refugees and exiles in modern history are ignored’. Her article focuses on ‘the forced migration of millions of largely Muslim refugees and exiles from the contested borderland between the Ottoman Empire and Tzarist Russia’. In particular, Professor Chatty examines the plight of the Circassians, hundreds of thousands of whom sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after Russian conquest of the Caucasus was completed in 1864.

In March 1821, encouraged by Lord Byron and other romantically poetical, classically indoctrinated English aristocrats, ‘Christians’ on the ‘Greek’ peninsula began a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Certainly there were decidedly unromantic atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict, but the end result was that Muslims, whose families had lived there for centuries, and others perceived as Ottoman sympathisers (eg Albanians and Jews) were pretty much exterminated on that side of the Aegean Sea. Those who managed to escape sought refuge on the opposite coast.

This is the context in which we need to the view the later sufferings of Armenians and Orthodox Christians in the early years of the 20th century. Ottoman Muslims (who had long coexisted with Christian minorities within their own borders) had learned that defeat by ‘Christian’ powers would quickly result in extermination or expulsion of Muslims from the conquered lands. They had also learned that a tactic of those powers was to incite Christian minorities to rebel, then claim the right to ‘defend their co-religionists’ from reprisals.

A sad result of Britain’s encouragement of the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 was the event known to Greeks as ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’, when, after their defeat in 1922, more than a million Orthodox Christians were forced to relocate to Greece, their places taken by almost half a million Muslims sent the other way. Other refugee flows to Turkey occurred as a result of state-sponsored terrorism in Bulgaria and Romania from the 1940s to the 1980s when Muslims were forced to change their Turkish-Arabic names. It is estimated that 230,000 Muslim refugees and immigrants sought refuge in Turkey from the Balkans between 1934 and 1945, and 35,000 from Yugoslavia from 1954 to 1956. In 1989 a further 320,000 Bulgarian Muslims fled to Turkey and perhaps 20,000 from Bosnia.

In the end, of course, these events are all in the past, and to be fair, some Bulgarian Muslims were able to return to their former homes after the collapse of the Communist regime. In general, however, the developing economy of Turkey (and before it, the struggling Ottoman Empire) has been obliged to deal with huge inflows of impoverished refugees displaced by events occurring beyond their boundaries and control. In large part, they have done this without complaint and with little assistance from wealthier nations. Now, it seems, they are doing it once more.

Again, to be scrupulously fair, the British Government agreed in February to take five hundred of ‘the most traumatised Syrian refugees’. The decision came, however, only after stiff and protracted resistance to UN pleas for support. Even New Zealand has offered to accept 100, which, on a per head of population basis, is about three times more generous. Still, when you set it against the numbers flooding into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (without getting into a comparison of per capita GDP) both look like token gestures.

I too feel sorry for those two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, but I can’t help feeling that anger in Western nations seems disproportionate when compared with their lukewarm response to the unfolding human tragedy in Syria. And I can’t help wondering whether, had those Nigerian girls been Muslim instead of Christian, the cries for action would have been quite so strident and widespread.