Friday, October 10, 2014

What's the beef with Turkey?

You'd think that a country that has a war literally on its doorstep might be doing something about it, but Turkey's seeming inaction over ISIS, Syria and Iraq is ominous.

As I write, IS are continuing their assaults on Kobane (or Ayn Al-Arab), refugees continue to pour over the border, Turkish Kurds are being prevented from crossing into Syria to help protect the city, and tens of people have been killed in protests in cities right across the country. Meanwhile, Turkey's Foreign Minister, in talks with the new head of NATO, has said that it is 'unrealistic' that Turkey should lead a ground assault, while demanding that his country be allowed to set up a buffer zone and no-fly zone inside the Syrian border.

So what's happening? Why has one of the world's largest standing armies not done anything so far except move its tanks to the border?

There are several explanations, some less charitable than others.

Let's start with the most benign interpretation. Turkey has been a vociferous opponent of Bashar Al-Assad's murderous regime over the past three years, and any attempt at involvement against ISIS will only bolster his rule. Also, as a NATO country, if it engages in Syria, it runs the risk of getting involved with a larger enemy: Russia, which is Syria's ally. Just to point out, in case it's been forgotten, that Vladimr Putin now has a highly effective Black Sea presence in Crimea, thanks to his annexation of the peninsula earlier this year. Turko-Russian wars, in the past, have not gone very well for the Turks. Not for the first time, Turkey is caught in a bit of a bind.

Extraopolating from this, what would happen if Turkey attacks ISIS? This may provoke a direct, large assault on Turkish soil. Now, this would admittedly be unlikely, as well as suicidal: As I said above, Turkey's military is enormous, well-funded, and far more of a threat than the Iraqi Army. However, an assault on any NATO member constitutes an attack on all members, leading to full engagement - and once again, we come back round to the risk of full-on war with Russia as a by product.

Moving on to a less generous interpretation, astonishing as it may seem, ISIS and Turkey, or rather the ruling AKP, and bonded by their religious outlook. The majority of Turks are Sunni Muslims, as opposed to the Syrian regime being Alawite muslim, and the Iraqi government's Shia majority. That's not to say the AKP (necessarily) share the off-the-loonbar-spectrum views of their ISIS co-religionists, but they have certainly demonstrated sympathy for them in the past. There are accounts of ISIS fighters being treated in hospitals, covert Jihadi training camps near the border and the tendency for authorities to turn a blind eye as people come and go from one country to the other. They also seem to be consistently supplying more and better weaponry to ISIS than any other resistance group. In April, I witnessed what was, as I later realised in retrospect, a large demonstration in support of ISIS, in the very heart of Istanbul.

The harshest interpretation is that Turkey is playing a murderous game of Silly Buggers with everyone concerned, in particular with the Kurds. Ankara has made no secret about its antipathy towards a de facto Kurdistan on its borders, while at the same time doling out the odd concession on language rights within the country. Quite simply, they are working along the lines of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', and they will be perfectly happy to see the destruction of the Peshmerga throughout Syria and Iraq. The government's propaganda machine is currently in full flow, claiming that Turkish Kurds are sacking government buildings and damaging infrastructure throughout the southeast, hence the reason why the police and Jandarma are being so heavy handed. Looking at social media, one can see that feelings are running very high. Many Turks associate the Kurds solely with the PKK (the Kurdish Workers' Party), and blame them for the brutal civil war of the 80s and 90s. In addition, the PKK are seen as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the US, meaning that they would be seen as a 'legitimate' target in the event of Ankara ordering the tanks to roll over the border.

I cannot help but feel that this is an incredibly dangerous game to  be playing. The Kurds are, in effect, guarding the Turkish state, and are paying for it in blood from both sides. And history shows, time and again, that every state that has existed in the Anatolian Plateau ignores the people on its southeastern flank at its peril.

At the same time, I have a little sympathy with Ankara's plight. It faces a genuine threat to its territorial integrity, albeit one that is to some degree of its own making. At the same time, other NATO members are really not making life easy for them. The best bet, at present, would be to ensure an effective flow of weapons, training and tactical support to the Kurds. However, to do so would fly in the face of years of political antagonism, and the AKP would be wary of doing anything to reduce their share of the popular vote. Yes, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is quite happy to let blood flow rather than risk the anger of the electorate.

Unfortunately, whatever they try to do, the Turks are being pulled into the black hole of war by the sheer gravity of events, and that should concern us all greatly.

And who, ultimately, is to blame? Probably those behind an agreement made just after the first world war, one that has caused unforeseen and untold damage in the region since. But that's something to be described another time.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Loving the Alien.

So, here, I think, is the culmination of many of the past few weeks' posts. Perhaps you should start by watching this video, where Reza Aslan, a professor of religion and author of Zealot:The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, rips apart some spectacularly poor journalism and the lazy, cheap comedy of Bill Maher. On the other hand, perhaps you'd like to wait until the end of this post. Either way, I recommend watching it.
There are fewer things in life more depressing to hear than lazy generalisations, especially from people who should know better. It's a vice which I have been guilty of in the past and one which I try to remain entirely on guard against. I rarely, if ever, take things on face value (again, see my posts on advertising regarding this), and I will question, probe, doubt and ask for evidence. So when I watch and hear some of the vile nonsense decked out as fact when it is little more than opinion, as it is in the video above, it brings me to the edge of despair. There's an old adage, well-beloved of demagogues everywhere: A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.

And right now, everywhere I look, I see lies sprinting hither and yon.

Another image comes to mind: a great circle of people, standing in the half light, whispering something to the person in front, he message becoming increasingly distorted as it goes around this infinitely large circle until it is little more than the meaningless sussuration of bees, meaningless yet freighted with the meaning that each whisperer within the circle confers upon it.

Some of you who read this will, I know, be saying 'Well, religion is a lie itself - are you going to defend that?' Others among you may be thinking 'Well, yes, [insert religion here] is a backward/barbaric/[insert any negative adjective of choice] worldview'.  Some of you may want to remonstrate - 'Let me tell you, I've read/seen/researched [insert subject here] and I find that it is [insert suitable epithets here]'.

So I ask you: What do you know?

Not what you think you know, but what do you actually, solidly, concretely KNOW?
Not what someone in a newspaper, or on TV, or in a magazine, or on Facebook or Twitter says they know, what do YOU know?

I know my own answer to this. More importantly, I hope that I am honest enough with myself to be able to accept the limits of my own little knowledge and accept the darkened seas of non-knowledge that lap the shores of my thought.

If now you are asking what my answer is, I refer you back to my question above.

Seeing as I have put this post in the context of the current soi-disant Clash of Civilisations, let me bring in a few examples, although I will fare badly against Mr Aslan's succinct summation of things. If you're a Christian, or possibly a 'Christian', or if you just happen to come from the 'West', and like a mince pie and a singsong at Christmas, or an Easter egg at, er, Easter, I want you to think of three or four things you associate with Islam.

Off you go, now. Don't censor your thoughts.


Odds on at least one thing on your list was pejorative. But why? What do you actually know?
OK, another question - what are the tenets of Islam, and what are the traditions of cultures that happen to have Islam as part of their culture?
In fact, there are only 5 things you need do to be a Muslim -
State that you believe that there is only one God (and Allah - Al-Ilah - literally translates as 'God' in the Judeo-Christian sense);
Pray five times a day (way down on the requirements of some of the more bampot versions of Christianity);
Give to charity (via a tax called Zakat - similiar to Tithes);
Fast during Ramadan;
Go on pilgrimage if you are healthy and wealthy enough to do so.
 - And that is that. Not a beard, a burqa, a niqab, a tesbih, or an aversion to booze in sight (although I know that there will be muslims who will disagree strongly with that statement). Follow the five pillars of Islam, and that's it - you are a Muslim.
Now, what kind of Muslim you are - that's a different matter entirely, and as Mr Aslan says, religion is essentially what people bring to it. And if what they bring is shadows and fear, then that religion, or that culture, or that political system, or that civilisation, will be one of shadows and fear.
Now, just to give a bit of balance to affairs, another question: What are the tenets of Christianity?
Well, just two really - That Jesus is God and the son of God, and Love Thy Neighbour. That's it. No hellfire, no Ten Commandments, definitely no Leviticus, and not a sign of Sandals and tofu bicycles.

Yet how many nominally Christian people, or perhaps I should say those who protest their faith a little too loudly, do you know whose grasp on faith is, shall we say, a trifle wobbly at best?
Tony Blair, for example. Or George W Bush.
Or....well, the list is compendious.

Moving the spotlight away from faith for a moment, we can see that this tendency to fall into the habit or relying on cliche is pervasive. It's there when people start blaming immigrants for a loss of housing, or jobs, or benefits; It's there in the way President Putin calls the Ukrainian Government 'fascists'; It's there when gays and lesbians are attacked,imprisoned and murdered in Nigeria and other countries where there are laws banning certain sexualities; It's there when someone says 'All [insert group of choice] are...'; It's there, even, when we come to believe of ourselves that we are useless, or worthless, or less than good because someone else has bullied us.

How do we not do this? How do we love or understand what we do not know? How do we respond to the easy whisper in the ear, that hasping sound so full of doubt? How do we love the alien?

By reading, by questioning, by doubting all - by looking, first, to know what is in ourselves, because, I think, we have to first love the alien within us before we love the alien without.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Enemy mine.

Once again, we find the UK taking military action in the Middle East, following the overwhelming vote in Parliament approving intervention. Once again, politicians have warily circled the issue, probed it, questioned it, some more avid for action than others, some urging utmost caution. Once again, we are presented an image of some demonic force that is a threat to our very existence, and of a situation that is very black and white, rather than the hideous grey smear of truth that it really is. The Middle East is on the verge of complete meltdown, and the reality is that no one really knows what to do, whose side they should be on, and in fact whether they should do anything anyway.

At least IS presents a good old Solid Target, even if they are being oversold as the Enemy du notre jours. They are, through the combination of serendipity and the Iraqi Army's complete lack of discipline in action, an extremely well-armed, tech-savvy, gang of murdering, smuggling, misanthropic, heretical brigands, not a state, and definitely not a Caliphate. But they're not the only group of people out there busy being misanthropic and beheading people. If our beef was just with that, then we should, by rights, be bombing Saudi Arabia, Iran, in fact pretty much everywhere in the region. Some argue that we should leave the whole place alone, and argue that this is really a war between which version of Islam should dominate - that this is the Semitic equivalent of the religious wars that convulsed all of Europe from the late Middle Ages onwards.  I think there is some merit in this argument, but one intrinsic flaw - who would you be happier doing business with when it comes to buying oil? The Saudis may be ultra-conservative Sunni muslims who'd chop off a hand at the drop of a head, but at least they're OUR ultra-conservative hand-chopping Sunni muslims.

Who is the enemy?

Ask an Israeli soldier: He'll say Hamas, or Iran, or possibly everyone outside Israel's immediate borders.
Ask President Erdogan of Turkey: He'll point the finger of blame at the whole world.
Ask an IS fighter, born and bred in the East End: He'll shout that it's all the Kaffirs.
Ask an American: He or she might explain it's the A-rabs.

Let's get closer to home. Who's the enemy?

Ask the SNP: it's the elite in Westminster.
Ask Nigel Farage: the same (especially considering they ruined the first day of his conference).
Ask the Conservatives: It's Labour.
Ask Labour: It's the Conservatives.

Huddle in even closer. Who's the enemy?
The guy who cut you up in his car this morning?
The boss?
That person who looked at you in a funny way in the supermarket, possibly because you had eleven items in your basket when you were in the 'Ten items or less' queue?
The person who wrote the sign for the aforementioned 'Ten items or less' queue, when it should be 'fewer', not less?

Where does the enemy begin?

Look in the mirror, and there it is.

The enemy, such as it is, begins where we are not - it is the Other, the thing that embodies, personifies, all the things that we believe we are not. The enemy is often just a projection of our own shadows, and the more intensely we are averse to our perceived opponent, the more intense they are in 'opposition' to us - and, in return, we are their shadows, too. So Israel and Hamas are each others' throats, and will remain so in perpetuity while their struggles persist; ISIS are the Shadow of the West, welling up through the sand because of the  mistakes and poor decisions that have plagued the entire region since at least the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the First World War; and indeed, wherever you look, sectarianism, religious intolerance and plain  old bigotry appear again and again wherever people are too scared to look into the mirror of their fears.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. Whatever we may think of other people, they are still people, not baby-chomping, kitten-stabbing ogres, just as the face you look at in the mirror each morning is still you. It is being afraid that can make monsters of us, and just knowing that makes it easier not to be ruled by fear. The enemy does not have to start at the mirror, or across the road, or over the border, and this should be remembered, even in the hardest of times.