Monday, August 31, 2015


What started out in the middle years of the prophet Muhammad's life as tazaqqa, a glorious philosophy of ethical humanity, became transformed in his later years into the religion of Islam, focused on the Ka'aba in Mecca, but metamorphosed into the dream of absolute world conquest, the establishment of a universal Caliphate that requires the whole of humanity to accept Shari'a law or face death - Sura 9, "at-Tawbah" or "The Repentance" is the key reference if you want to look this up.

When we speak of "moderate Moslems" today, and when British Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly advocates for Islam as "a religion of peace", he is really speaking of tazaqqa, whose roots lie in Judeo-Christianity, and which shares the same core principles of justice, mercy and compassion, of altruistic concern for widows and orphans, the poor and needy, as those religions do. 

By contrast Radical Islam, as manifested in the likes of al-Qaida, Boko Haram, ISL and al-Shabab, reflects the conquest years of Muhammad’s life, the years of ethnic cleansing in Yatrib (Medina), of wars across the Hejab to expand his empire; and then the centuries of continuing conquest afterwards, when the first Caliphs took Islam all the way to China in the east, as far as the gates of Vienna in northern Europe, across the Russias, and into southern France and southern Italy. This is what the Crusades were all about; not simply the attempt to ensure the Holy Land for Christianity, but to prevent the Moslems from conquering all of Christendom. The western half was secured; the eastern half, Byzantine Christianity whose centre was in Constantinople, was lost, and Constantinople found itself rendered in Arabic pronunciation as Istanbul, a Sunni Sultanate at first, then a Caliphate founded by Oghuz Turks under the leadership of Mehmed II. By 1453 the conquest was complete, and what ruled the Moslem-Arab world for the next four hundred and sixty-ones years became known as the Ottoman Empire, which at its height controlled most of south-eastern Europe, western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. The Turk, in Shakespearian parlance, and the two names are effectively interchangeable. Ottoman, incidentally, is a European mispronunciation of Osman, the founding-father of the Oghuz people.

As described in my entry on Tunisia (and in my novel "The Persian Fire", scheduled for publication very soon), the Arab-Moslem world from Baghdad to Cordoba was an extraordinary civilisation, probably the most advanced civilisation the world had ever known, developing mathematics into sophisticated architecture and engineering, developing medical knowledge that was half a millennium ahead of Europe, and applying the Hippocratic Oath in a manner that would put to shame the opponents of "socialised medicine" in contemporary America; advances in astrology and cosmology too, a literature that is among the finest in the world; much more. What the Moslem-Arabs knew by, let us say, 1453, was not even permitted to be known in Europe for another hundred and fifty years, and the great library at Cordoba, which held half a million books, was equal in size to all the private and public libraries in Europe combined, but first you had to multiply all of them by fifty. But then it came to an end, fell into an epoch of decadence and stagnation and ignorance and poverty and loss of identity and brutality; and I did not write "let us say, 1453" by chance, because it was precisely the arrival of the Ottoman Empire that caused, and precisely the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War that rejuvenated, the Moslem-Arab world, and initiated the Moslem-Arab renaissance that we are witnessing in so many different forms today. The Ottoman Empire was, in brief, an absolute disaster for the Moslem-Arab world.

It was the Allies who finished off the Ottomans in the First World War, but actually it was already ripe for diseisement, and collapsing internally before that war broke out; the new constitution of 1876 gave Turkey a Parliament, and the Committee of Union and Progress, known later as the Young Turks, would probably have brought it to an end had war not broken out, or Turkey joined the Allies against Germany, instead of the other way around. They had already staged one rebellion, which they called a revolution though it wasn't really, in 1908; it brought about a second and improved constitution and enabled multiple political parties, but it did not yet bring to an end the absolute Sultanate.

After the war, the key figure was Kemal Ataturk, who ruled until 1938, and most importantly for the current state of politics, enshrined secularism in Turkey as an unchallengeable absolute, with the army behind him if it was necessary to remove governments that wanted to pull the country back into established Islam. Ataturk's position remained the country’s position, constitutionally and in popular opinion, until 2002, when the Islamist Justice and Development Party won a landslide election victory, bringing Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Prime Minister's office, and then, in 2014, to the Presidency. Now Turkey has a problem, and it is struggling to resolve it. The constitution does not permit a return to formal Islam, and the opposition has repeatedly challenged the right of the AKP even to exist as a political party, let alone to be the party of government, because of its commitment to established Islam. The courts, which the AKP control, have thus far not upheld these challenges, and the government has accused the army of supporting the opposition in plotting a coup to overthrow it, arresting so many senior officers that the chief-of-staff felt obliged to resign in protest. What is clear is that Erdogan favours the Ottoman way of doing things, and what at the end of the twentieth century was a country moving ever closer to meeting the conditions of entry into the EU, is now a country pulled back behind the Kiswah – the Moslem equivalent of the Iron Curtain; the Kiswah is the cloth that covers the Ka'aba in Mecca. This is why the Turks are so reluctant to join the coalition against ISL – Erdogan fears the growing power of the Kurds, has imperial aspirations to reclaim Syria as part of Turkey, and does not want to be on the side of anyone who supports Israel. The West does not seem to understand Erdogan any more than it understands Putin or the ayatollahs in Iran – in all three cases because western education teaches from the perspective of western education, to acculturate western loyalists and patriots. You have to look through its own lens to understand who and what makes a people's identity. A revival of the Ottoman Empire under Erdogan may be good for Erdogan, but it will be another disaster for everybody else. And Erdogan is currently trying to change the constitution, to allow him to become President-for-life.

Marks for: 1 (the number of Turks - novelist Orhan Pamuk - who have won a Nobel Prize in any field)

Marks against: self-evidently 1453

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
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The Argaman Press

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