A View over
By Israel Shamir
heavy loaded cargo boats, passenger liners, cruise ships
and plentiful ferries packed with tourists steam by the
Maiden Tower rising from the black rock amid lucid
waters; they gingerly make their way past the
mountain-like mosques on the mainland into the Bosporus,
this huge God-made river running between the Med and the
Black Sea. The City, one of the greatest Capitals of Man
of all time, has straddled Europe and Asia since the
days of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who established
this New Rome. It was the biggest city on earth a
millennium ago, and it is still vast. Fifteen million
people live in the City, twenty million visit it
annually. Its greatness explains a strange vision of the
heretic Russian historian
Anatol Fomenko who claimed that Jerusalem, Rome,
Babylon, Moscow and London are but misplaced images of
this city, the original Empire.
Despite its size and history, the
city is alert and vibrant in a peaceful, even demure
way. It does not feel crowded – apart from the hotspots.
The streets are clean, the greenery is neatly trimmed,
the ugly street flea markets of recent years are gone;
old buildings have been given a facelift, crumbling
palaces have been repaired at no cost spared. The
Bosporus has been cleaned up too, and sewage no longer
flows into it – for the first time ever. Modern freeways
encircle and cross its suburbs but do not intrude into
the historical precincts.
The former seat of the Caliphate and
home to an Islamist government, the City found a good
balance between faith and modernity. Sufi schools are
plentiful and learned men discuss theology, comparing
Aquinas and Palamas with Ibn Arabi and Ibn Tufail.
Muezzins’ harmonious calls to prayer do not disturb café
customers sipping their drinks. Girls are free to wear
headscarves or miniskirts and they do exercise both
More importantly, the government does
not subscribe to unrestricted market economics and has
thereby avoided the neoliberal excesses of its
neighbours. There are many municipally-owned cafés,
especially in the parks, where prices are quite
affordable, even in the luxurious old imperial palaces,
where no entrance fees are charged. They do not serve
alcohol, and attract families with children. Downtown,
the rents are kept low to allow bookshops to survive and
flourish. The global squeeze is as apparent in Turkey as
everywhere else, but here poor people receive tangible
subsidies in kind, while the salaried classes are given
generous loans to tide them over. Prices are kept under
control, avoiding rapid increases; conspicuous
consumption is discouraged. The rich are rich, and the
poor are poor, but rich are not ostentatious and the
poor are not desperate.
People are modest, helpful and
inoffensive;- a far cry from the Turkey of the
Midnight Express. They are rather honest and
straightforward, and do not make a show of themselves.
They are not very artistic, and their cuisine is
comparable to the British one. If it is not a great
compliment, it was not meant to be: they were Empire
builders, and such nations usually are no great
gourmands. The French ate too well, and their women were
too appealing for their empire to last.
Istanbul is not the only oasis of
prosperity in the country, as is often the case with
capital cities outside of Europe. Now I have travelled
the breadth of Turkey and all over I’ve witnessed the
modernisation of the last ten years. Roads are smooth,
houses are in good repair, markets are full, people are
well-dressed, the cities are neither drab nor garish but
quite up-to-date. This is a great achievement of the
moderate Islamist government led by Prime Minister
Turkey is no longer the basket case
it was in 1960s and 1970s. I’ve met a few Turkish
immigrants in Germany, who said that their fathers made
a hasty decision when they left home for Europe forty
years ago. They would like to go back to Turkey, though
it would not be easy to find work and to reconnect to a
new environment, for they were reared in Western Europe.
Anyway, there is no mass emigration out of Turkey; the
nightmare of millions of Turks moving to Europe has
dissipated. They would rather stay at home, for the
Turks are very proud of their own country.
Erdogan is popular with the people.
He is a real charismatic, people tell me. He defeated
his adversaries, and his position at the helm is
undisputed. And for good reasons: Turkey is doing
nicely, thank you. The country prospers, incomes have
doubled, and the GNP tripled (a very remarkable one
trillion euro GNP is within reach). The Erdogan
government can really congratulate itself on the fine
job they’ve done in Turkey.
The Turks have overcome the huge
trauma of the Transfer, as the mass deportations and
expulsions of 1920s are called. Though the Greeks of the
City weren’t expelled, almost all other Christian
communities of Turkey were sent to Greece, while the
Muslims of Greece were deported to Turkey: a violent and
painful divorce of two closely knit communities. As in
many a divorce, the separated partners – the clever wife
and the strong husband - spent years adjusting to their
The Greeks suffered the most. They
were spread all over the Empire and occupied central
positions. Some Turkish historians prefer to call the
Ottoman rule “The Turko-Greek Empire”. The Greeks were
Great Viziers of the Empire; they ruled and managed
the Med from Alexandria to Damascus to Istanbul; they
traded and wrote poems in the days of the Second Rome
just as they did under the sceptre of First Rome.
Suddenly, they were corralled into a small and parochial
Greece where they hardly could find their place. The
Kavafy strongly felt that little Athens could never
substitute for the loss of the great seaboard cities.
Today’s Greek crisis can’t be understood without this
bit of history.
The Turks suffered as well.
Traditionally, they had served in the military and
worked the soil; without the Greeks, trades and crafts
declined, militarisation went unchecked, food shortages
were common, life was drab and brutish, as if their
culture had sailed overseas with the Greeks. Only now,
many years later, the Turks have managed to recover, and
recover they did.
Erdogan’s government is good to the
Christian communities. The previous Kemalist governments
of the Turkish Republic were viciously anti-Christian,
even more than they were nationalistic and anti-Islamic.
They deported even Caramanli Turks, for they were
Christians. They forbade the remaining churches to be
repaired; the priests could not be brought from abroad.
Now, church properties are being restored, funds
returned, priests are allowed to come, stay and acquire
The Islamist government allowed the
Greeks and Armenians who had left the country after the
riots and pogroms of 1950s to come back, reclaim their
property and settle again in Turkey. Previously
unimaginable, an idea of a union with Greece began to be
The Turks are not the only suitors of
the beautiful Hellas: the Russians also would like to
take her, their sister-in-Christ, ditched by the West,
into the embrace of their Eurasian Union. So declared
Sergey Glaziev, the coordinator of the union (including
now Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan) at the recent Rhodes
Forum, a top-crème gathering of Russians, Asians and
dissident Westerners. The offers are not mutually
exclusive: one can imagine their ménage-a-trois, a new
Byzantine Empire Resurrected. The moderately Muslim and
Turkic Kazakhstan is an old friend to Turkey, so such an
alliance is plausible. Another turn of the screw by Frau
Merkel, and it is may happen.
In Greece, re-evaluation of the
Empire is also going on. There are voices calling for
the reassessment of the past, for recognition of the
advantages to both sides, and for proceeding cautiously.
Dimitri Kitsikis is one such voice, and I’ve heard
more of them while visiting Athens. The interaction is
not limited to practicalities, either. Last Sunday, I
went to a modest Greek Church in a suburb of Istanbul,
and there I met a young Greek priest, a recent arrival
from Greece who had already mastered Turkish, and even
more surprisingly, I met a few ethnic Turks who had
embraced Orthodox Christianity and were attending the
service. The participants benevolently and indulgently
smiled while they recited the Lord’s Prayer in Turkish.
And all these wonderful achievements
they intend to destroy, squander and let go down the
drain. I refer to the Turkish government’s plotting
against Syria. It would be bad enough if they were to
send their legions to Damascus. It would be wrong but
comprehensible, for Damascus and Aleppo are as much
parts of their past for Turks, as Kiev and Riga are for
Russians, or Vienna and Tirol are for Germans. But what
they are doing instead is much worse.
The Turks are about to replay the
Afghan scenario as it was played by Pakistan: they bring
together from all over the Muslim world the most
fanatical militants, supply them with arms, and
infiltrate them over the Syrian border under their
reports that the jihadists of Al-Qaeda and
the Taliban were flown from
North Waziristan in Pakistan to the Turkish border with
Syria, for instance on a Turkish Air Airbus flight No.
709 on September 10, under auspices of the Turkish
intelligence agency, via the Karachi-Istanbul flight
93 militants were originally from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,
Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and included a group of
Arabs residing in Waziristan. This report could not be
independently checked, but there are many reports of
foreign jihadists who made their way to Syria via
This is exactly what Pakistan did
under the US guidance in 1980s. Then, Afghanistan had a
secular government, women worked as teachers,
universities were full, factories were being built, and
opium was unheard of; Pakistan was in a good shape, too.
A few years later, Afghanistan imploded in civil war
(under the guise of “fighting the godless communists”),
and Pakistan followed it to perdition. After undoing
Afghanistan, the warriors began to terrorise their
Pakistani host. Now Pakistan is one of the most
miserable countries in the world. It was eaten up by the
disease they nourished and exported, by mindless
This ideological disease is akin to
biological warfare. You may hope your neighbours will be
infected with the pest you have delivered, but you may
be sure your population will eventually get it, too. For
this reason nobody has tried biological warfare on a
large scale. It is suicidal. And that is the equivalent
of what the Turkish government is doing now. They bring
jihadists to Syria, but it is only a question of time
when the jihadists will turn on Turkey.
I respect the Islamic feelings of the
Turks. I see them in the mosques; I know their Sufi
orders and their mass appeal. So many Turks gather in
Konya, where they venerate the memory of the great Sufi
poet Rumi, who is loved from California to Teheran. The
Islamic government was a real success in Turkey. So why
do they now want to follow Pakistan’s way to perdition?
An essay written by Ahmet Davutoglu,
Foreign Minister and chief promoter of Turkish
intervention in Syria, answers this question. He wrote
it as a university student, over 20 years ago, and an
acquaintance who studied with him, remembers it well. We
can and we should make a deal with Satan if necessary,
the young Davutoglu had written.
In his view, Sunni Islam of the type practiced in the
Empire under Sultan Selim the Grim and his successors
(that postulates an unbridgeable schism between the
Creator and Creation) is not just the only true faith;
it is an iron-clad guarantee of good results. A state
guided by it can’t do wrong. Even evil deeds by such a
state will be turned by the Almighty into good results.
For this reason, he wrote, the Empire managed to survive
and rule for 600 years.
That’s why, wrote the young Davutoglu, Islamist Turkey
may build alliances with powerful partners, and it
is irrelevant whether these powers are bad or good. This
means, that we may even make a Faustian pact with the
devil himself, for we shall triumph by our beliefs and
with the Almighty’s help. America is a Satan for
Davutoglu, as it is for many Muslims, but armed with his
dubious philosophy, he is prepared to join with Satan
for the further glory of Turkey.
Could this very unorthodox reading of Islam be
influenced by his contacts with
Yezidis, whose attitude to Devil is at best
ambiguous, or, more probably, with the Dönmeh, followers
of Sabbatai Zevi who believed that everything is
permitted, and a sin is the best way to salvation?
People of more orthodox beliefs know that whoever deals
with Satan will eventually come to grief, for no spoon
is long enough to sup with him.
Then came the moment when his dubious theology was
transformed into dubious policy. The US asked him to
bring militants to Syria, and so he did.
My Turkish friends stressed that Erdogan personally does
not subscribe to these theological beliefs, but is
guided by practical considerations. The question of an
alliance with the US and NATO caused a rift between
Erdogan and his erstwhile teacher Necmettin Erbakan.
Erbakan was against it; Erdogan considered it as a
given. Erdogan carried a day; a majority of Erbakan’s
followers went with Erdogan, formed the reformist AK
Party, came to power ten years ago and have been
generally successful. The minority formed the hardline
(or even ‘revolutionary Islamist’) Saadet Party, which
was not successful at the polls, though it retains a
Unexpectedly for an outsider, it is the hardline Saadet
Party that strongly objects to the Syrian adventure of
Erdogan and Davutoglu. Though the intervention in Syria
is often described as “Islamic help to slaughtered
Muslims”, the Saadet leaders perceive it as an American
plot against Syria and Turkey. The Saadet led strong
demonstrations against the intervention.
Perhaps this is the right time for
Prime Minister Erdogan to listen to his old comrades,
disavow the devil-supping policy regarding Syria, and to
stop the war machine before it destroys all of the
achievements he can so rightly be proud of. The dream of
bringing Syria into a closer union with Turkey still can
be realised, but not through unleashing the dogs of war.
Israel Shamir has sent it from
Istanbul. His email is
English Language editing by Ken
Freeland and Al Kitt.