Canada Slim and the Borders

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 11 November 2017

As one travels around the world a person discovers that there are arbitrary lines drawn across landscapes and charts and maps that define what is Here and what is to be considered There, and there are arbitrary lines drawn between classes and positions in our everyday societies.

Mankind has done this lineal division with matters large and small for millennia, whether it has been defining the limits of a landowner´s property demarcated by some creek or stone fence to the determination of a border being a river or a mountain range or some parallel of latitude or longitude that is only visible on a political map or geographer´s globe.

Mankind has even extended such boundaries upon the oceans beyond our shorelines and in the skies above our heads.

And soldiers and civilians have died to defend these lines in the sand.

This definition of what is ours versus what is not ours determines where we live, where we work, where we fish and hunt, and where we sail and fly.

And those with power determine the location of those without it, and they determine the extent of what territory they shall possess and dominate.

Those that call themselves our governments consider the land upon which we reside theirs to do with as they see fit, taking it from us if they so desire.

Taxes are considered rent for the privilege of being allowed to live upon the territory.

And what the government giveth, it can surely taketh away.

All that a person possesses can be taken away if justification warrants it, regardless of the justification´s validity.

In turn, we expect our governments to provide for our needs or at least enable us to have the illusion of taking care of our own needs.

We as humans think of ourselves as superior to the animal kingdom, yet what we mark as our territories is differently assessed by the instincts of the beasts and birds.

A bird does not care if a wall divides one human settlement from another.

It simply flies where it will.

A bear does not care if it was you who planted cabbages in a piece of ground claiming the cabbage patch as your own, for when it is hungry it sees no boundaries between your piece of civilization and the wild.

Polar Bear - Alaska (cropped).jpg

So we will kill those who take without asking, be they beast or fellow human beings.

Those with power will, if they can, take what they will, regardless of your needs or wishes in the matter.

This may cause some to defend what they regard as theirs and who believe that they and they alone have the right to this.

Such is how war began and, though modern times may be couched in different mannerisms of speech and behaviour, this is how wars begin and continue.

Where a country draws the line between what belongs to it and what belongs to others has been the source of much of what defines its history and its heritage.

The lines we define, define us.

The separation, for example, of Canada from the United States makes the almost insignificant Detroit River that separates Windsor, Ontario, Canada, from Detroit, Michigan, USA, a river of great importance that not only defines territory, but, in the minds of both Americans and Canadians, this wee stream also separates American culture from Canadian culture.

Do the trout that navigate the polluted waters know or care at what point in the river mankind has decided what is American and what is Canadian?

This definition of what is each country´s territory versus what is not, has created odd borders that make little sense but for various reasons continue in the fashion that they do, resulting in strange segregated territories such as enclaves and exclaves, no man´s land and disputed territories.

Ordinary places become extraordinary in No Man´s Land.

Such in-between places remind us how dependent we are on borders: that somehow our sense of order and certainty would be lost without them.

I don´t have an easy relationship with borders, geographical or psychological.

I have been searched, prodded, poked, delayed, detained, denied, again and again and again, for having the temerity, the colossal nerve, to cross a few feet, mere metres of land.

I have been devalued, disrespected and discredited when I have suggested that the freedom of self expression must not be limited to whatever limits others have determined it must be.

What right do I have to determine what my place in society is?

Who the hell do I think I am?

Borders are bureaucratic faultlines, imperious and unwelcoming.

Their existence is a hostile act of exclusion.

Borders are far more than lines of exclusion – their profusion reflects the varied nature of people´s political and cultural choices.

By the restriction of free movement, by the refusal of self expression, we are denied a world of choices and possibilities.

Borders often make no sense, except to the ones that have defined the borders.

An enclave is a territory, or a part of a territory, that is entirely surrounded by the territory of one other state.

Territorial waters have the same sovereign attributes as land, and enclaves may therefore exist within territorial waters.

File:Flag of the Vatican City.svg

Above: Flag of the Vatican City

So, for example, Vatican City and San Marino could be considered enclaves.

Flag of San Marino

Above: The flag of San Marino

An exclave is a portion of a state or territory geographically separated from the main part by surrounding alien territory (of one or more states).

So, for example, the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, just off the coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland, are an exclave.

Location of Saint Pierre and Miquelon

For simplicity´s sake, an enclave is closer to its national territory than an exclave is.

Geographically speaking, there are 22 bits of Belgium scattered in odd profusion within the Netherlands and eight bits of the Netherlands scattered within Belgium.

These hodge-podge areas are called Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog.

Travel to Asia.

Along the India-Bangladesh frontier there are over 200 enclaves of either Bangladeshi territory surrounded by India or Indian territory surrounded by Bangladesh.

The Hindi name for these enclaves is chitmahals (paper palaces).

To further make a silly situation an act of pure folly, Upan Chowki Bhaini, at 53 square metres one of the smallest enclaves in the world, is an enclave inside another enclave, what geographers call a counter-enclave.

Above: The India – Bangladesh border. Indian territory is pink, Bangladeshi territory is blue.

Switzerland and its neighbours are also not immune from such complexity.

File:Flag of Switzerland (Pantone).svg

I just need to follow the Rhine River from my home in Landschlacht towards the town of Schaffhausen to find the closest enclave, Büsingen am Hochrhein, a German town completely surrounded by Switzerland.

Location of Büsingen in detail.svg

Or I can travel south into Canton Ticino and find myself in the town of Campione d´Italia, Italian territory surrounded by Switzerland.

(I have visited both.)

To add further confusion, as an example, the Canadian Embassy in Bern is not on Swiss territory but is Canadian.

Vertical triband (red, white, red) with a red maple leaf in the centre

US military bases are American territory regardless of where they happen to be, so to visit the United States Naval Base in Guantanomo, Cuba, I would need permission from the US not Cuba even though it is located there.

Seal of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.svg

Embassies, consulates and military bases are considered extraterritorial property of the countries that maintain them.

This can also be extended to memorials, such as the Vimy Memorial in France is Canadian territory, the land underneath the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Runnymede, England, is American territory, or the Suvorov Memorial near Göschenen, Switzerland isn´t Swiss but Russian.

Bildergebnis für suvorov monument switzerland

Where the borders of a territory should be has been a subject of controversy and conflict for millennia.

Historically speaking, our trip to Como, Italy, this past summer could have been a trip to Como, Switzerland….

 

Como, Italy, 2 August 2017

In 2010, a motion in Switzerland´s Parliament by members of the nationalist Swiss People´s Party (SVP) requested the admission of adjacent territories to the Swiss Confederation: the German state of Baden-Württemberg (Population: 10 Million); the Austrian state of Vorarlberg (Population: 360,000); the Italian provinces of Bolzano, Como, Varese and Aosta (Population: 500,000; 580,000; 860,000; 125,000) and the French departments of Savoie, Haut Savoie, Ain, Jura and Alsace (Population: 405,000, 705,000; 405,000; 570,000; 250,000).

Bildergebnis für proposal for a greater switzerland by the swiss people’s party

The motion proposed to offer these territories the “Swiss model of sovereignty” as an alternative to a “creeping accession” of Switzerland to the “centralist” European Union.

Now, at first glance this proposal might appear ridiculous, but we need to consider a number of things before we outrightly dismiss this notion.

There are a number of territories within the European Union member states who wish to leave the EU in view of the ongoing European debt crisis.

Switzerland, with some exceptions, has generally formed its federation through alliance with neighbouring cantons who broke away from countries that had formerly dominated them, voted to join the Confederation and through agreements between the Confederation and the dominant nations, these territories became Swiss.

When Ticino chose to become part of the Swiss Confederation in 1798, the people of Campione d´Italia chose to remain part of the Italian province of Lombardy.

Map of Switzerland, location of Ticino highlighted

Above: Ticino (multicoloured), in Switzerland

In 1848, during the wars of Italian reunification, Campione petitioned Switzerland for annexation, but this was rejected due to the Swiss desire to maintain neutrality (a stance the Swiss have maintained since 1815).

Campione has remained Italian territory ever since.

In 1918 after the First World War, a referendum was held in Büsingen in which 96% of voters chose to become part of Switzerland.

However it never happened as Switzerland could not offer anything suitable that Germany desired.

Büsingen remains German.

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Above: The flag of Germany

In a 1919 referendum, 81% of the people of Vorarlberg voted to join Switzerland, but the effort failed because of the ambivalent position of the Swiss government and the opposition of the Allied powers.

In 1967, the German enclave of Verenahof, consisting of just three houses and fewer than a dozen people became part of Switzerland (Canton Schaffhausen) in exchange for an equal amount of Swiss territory ceded over to Germany.

Above: Today, Verenahof is nothing more than a street name.

A poll by ORF Radio in 2008 reported that half the population of Vorarlberg would be in favour of joining Switzerland.

ORF logo.svg

The 2010 Greater Switzerland Motion was widely seen as anti-EU rheotric rather than a serious proposal.

In a following statement, the Swiss Federal Council (the executive heads of government and state in Switzerland) recommended the motion´s rejection, describing the motion as a “provocation”.

The Council argued that adoption of this motion would be considered an unfriendly act by the countries surrounding Switzerland, and that it would also be at odds with international law, which in the government´s view did not provide for a right to secession except in exceptional circumstances.

(This latter argument is the crux of the problem between Spain and Catalonia at present.)

Senyera

Above: The flag of Catalonia

(See Canada Slim and the Birth of a Nation of this blog for discussion of the Catalonian desire for independence from Spain.)

Understandably, the topic attracted the attention of the European media.

The media went on to report a high level of apparent popular support for joining Switzerland in the proposed territories.

In Como, an online poll in June 2010 by the La Provincia di Como newspapers found 74% of the 2,500 respondents in favour of accession to Switzerland, which the local regionalist party Lega Lombarda has long been advocating.

Another online poll by the south German Südkurier newspaper found that almost 70% of respondents replied “Yes, the Swiss are closer to us in outlook.” to a question whether the state of Baden-Württemberg should join Switzerland.

The Südkurier noted that seldom had a topic generated so much activity by its readership.

The Lombard eco-nationalist party Domá Nunch proposed an integration between Switzerland and the Italian-border area of Insubria (the former Duchy of Milano) in order to join into a new confederation.

In Sardinia, the Associazione Sardegna Canton Maritimo was formed in April 2014 with the aim of advocating Sardinia´s secession from Italy and becoming a maritime canton of Switzerland.

Die Welt in June 2014, based on an OECD study, published an article arguing that southern Germany is more similar to Switzerland than to northern or eastern Germany.

(My wife would agree with this assessment.

We have lived in both southern and northern Germany before relocating to the Swiss Canton of Thurgau.

Map of Switzerland, location of Thurgau highlighted

Above: Thurgau (multicoloured) in Switzerland

As a Canadian I did not feel the differences as keenly as she, a south German, did.

She feels more at home in Canton Thurgau in northern Switzerland than she did when we lived in the state of Niedersachsen in northern Germany)

In the wake of the Die Welt article, there were once again reports of high levels of support for accession to Switzerland in southern Germany.

Schwäbische Zeitung reported that 86% of respondents in an online survey expressed approval for accession.

Also in 2014, there were reports of a movement in Südtirol / Trentino-Alto Adige proposing annexation by Switzerland.

The 6th Global Forum Südtirol, held that year in Bolzen / Bolzano, was dedicated to the question.

As alien residents of Switzerland travelling in Italy, seeking to discover what makes Italy Italia, we are feeling rather conflicted, for we have directly experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of living in the Swiss Confederation.

To be fair to those in favour of accession into Switzerland, I understand the attractiveness of the idea, for Switzerland is unique in that its Cantons enjoy a large amount of autonomy as individual parts of an allied federation than do German states or Italian provinces do as part of their federal systems.

Otherwise Switzerland would not have remained a united confederation considering how it is comprised of Swiss German speakers, French speakers, Italian speakers and Rumansch speakers.

Though the languages of Switzerland are not quite as equally respected or universally spoken as they should be, still one retains the feeling that one can speak French and still be Swiss or speak Italian and still be Swiss, despite Swiss German dominating the nation.

So Ticino is Swiss though the Ticinese speak Italian.

Romandie, the French name for the French-speaking Cantons of Switzerland (Suisse), is Swiss though they speak French.

(For a discussion of the languages of Switzerland, please see Sympathy for the dialect of this blog.)

Perhaps the Province of Como might be better off joining the Swiss Confederation than remaining in the Italian Republic, but I have to ask….

It is clear there are certainly gains to this proposal, but what would be lost?

Do the residents of Büsingen, surrounded by Switzerland, feel German?

Do the residents of Campione, surrounded by Switzerland, feel Italian?

Can a person feel a nationality?

I grew up as an Anglophone Canadian in Francophone Québec.

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Above: The flag of Québec

Should my allegiance be for the province that raised me or for the country where English is geographically dominant?

By moving to Switzerland, have I become less Canadian?

Would Como be less Italian if it joined Switzerland?

The attraction for us as Swiss residents in visiting Como is that it isn´t Switzerland.

In Switzerland we live by Swiss expectations.

We travel outside Switzerland because we need places that allow our thoughts and feelings to roam unimpeded by Swiss expectations.

We don´t live in Italy, so, as long as we don´t violate Italian laws, we are free to express ourselves as individually as we wish, for we know we aren´t Italian nor necessarily wish to be Italian.

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Above: The flag of Italy

Which poses other questions….

Does living in Switzerland make me Swiss?

Does not living in Canada make me less Canadian?

Or is Switzerland too set in its ways to acknowledge those not born in Switzerland as being Swiss?

Am I too set in my ways to be anything else but Canadian in spite of where I may live?

There is an illusionary idea that life outside our borders must be different because it is outside our borders, thus we create for ourselves the desire for a world that is not totally known or understood, that has the capacity to surprise us, disregarding a common humanity that shouldn´t require borders to organise itself.

My fear is that if a place like Como sweeps away its Italian past than the world may be deprived of what makes Como Italian.

Above: The lakefront of Como

Or is identity determined more by regional culture as opposed to federal territory?

Would the Comaschi become less Comaschi if Como left Italy?

Are nations only bordered divisions?

Are they linguistic collectives?

Or are they something more?

Would life be better for Como if it joined Switzerland?

Imagine how different history might have been had Como already been part of Switzerland.

We wandered the streets of Como thinking how Italian everything was.

But is Como Italian or something unique of itself?

Is New York City American?

Clockwise, from top: Midtown Manhattan, Times Square, the Unisphere in Queens, the Brooklyn Bridge, Lower Manhattan with One World Trade Center, Central Park, the headquarters of the United Nations, and the Statue of Liberty

Is London English?

London montage. Clicking on an image in the picture causes the browser to load the appropriate article.

Is Landschlacht Swiss?

We wandered, much walking in very hot and humid conditions, to the Educational Silk Museum of Como, which manages to simultaneously be exhaustive and incomprehensible.

The Museum is “dedicated to the production of silk….the one industry that has held the centre of this historic city in a productive embrace since the 1800s”.

The visitor sees all stages of silk production: silkworm rearing, reeling (the unwinding of silk coccoons into threads), silk throwing (the twisting of the silk to make it more amenable to design), weaving (the design pattern), measurement and testing, dyeing (colour application to the design), printing and finishing.

Those of a technical bent might enjoy the various mechanisms on display, as might those deeply into the mechanics of fashion production, but the Museum lacks a universal appeal.

It took us an hour of hard walking to reach the Museum.

We were finished our tour of the Museum in 15 minutes.

It remains, despite its best efforts, a local industrial Museum.

The Museum is too focused on what makes it Comaschi rather than what is universally appealing to everyone.

We are told that the mulberry tree – the silkworm diet – can be found widespread among the foothills of the Alps.

Above: Mulberry Tree, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

We are informed that after diseases devastated Italian silkworm breeding in the 1800s silkworm eggs were needed to be imported once again from Asian countries (Japan, in particular), and carefully selected to guarantee resistance to disease.

Above: Silkworm egg, Micrographica, 1665

We are reassured that silkworm production is now quite scientific and that today´s producing countries (China, India, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam) are able to rear silkworms all year round.

But what is lacking is an explanation of what makes Como silk production unique and an exploration of the fascinating history of silk production.

As long ago as Roman times the West has coveted silk from the East.

For centuries, the first great trade route, from out of the heart of China into the mountains of central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran into Kurdish Turkey to the shores of the Mediterranean, has brought silk from the Orient to Europe.

The Great Silk Road, stretching over 7,000 miles, requiring many months of hard travelling, crossing many borders, has always been a journey of great adventure, filled with drama and spectacle, whether it has been accomplished by bus or donkey cart, train or plane, jeep or camel.

The visitor, if afforded glimpses of what makes silk production so universal, could then be led to the understanding of what makes silk production so special an endeavour.

The Museum could stand as a testament to the glory of Como silk production if it were made clearer as to what makes Como silk production so unique besides just having been done in Como.

The Museum could be a perfect testimony of the wisdom of the adage “Think globally. Act locally.”, if it somehow would show both the diversity of silk production origins along with the uniqueness of producing it in Como.

The Museum could transcend borders while highlighting what makes Como special.

It does not.

Instead the visitor is left with a collection of machinery to decipher and extract, with difficulty, some sort of personal meaning.

Perhaps this is what I am feeling when I consider Como.

I don´t want Como to become just one part of a collection of Cantons.

Neither do I want its uniqueness to go unappreciated by the rest of Italy.

But rather I think that the Italian government needs to remind its varied regions of how appreciated their regional differences are while reminding those regions that Italy would not be truly a united Italy without this variety.

(This failure to do just what I have described is the seed of further conflict that will arise between Spain and its reluctant province of Catalonia.)

Borders divide people, but wisely used, borders could also tie places and people together in a common humanity.

I like dreaming.

File:The Earth seen from Apollo 17.jpg

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us about the World / Museo didattico della Seta, Guide to the Educational Silk Museum of Como / Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road

(For another perspective on borders, please see Borderline Obsessive of this blog.)

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Behind the veil: Islam(ophobia) for dummies

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 1 March 2017

There are moments when the well runs dry, the fire is out, the spirit extinguished.

Moments when I look at this blank screen and ask myself:

What should I write about?

Regular readers of my blog (both of them?!) patiently wait for some blog series to continue and/or conclude – That Which Survives (Brussels/Brontes), The sick man of Europe and the sons of Karbala (Turkish/Kurdish relations), The Underestimated (Switzerland) – but I seek to find opportunities when writing upon these themes seems appropo for the current time and events of the moment.

On a regular basis, I buy daily newspapers and weekly newsmagazines in the hopes that they will generate ideas of themes to discuss, but these media must somehow move me to react strongly to provoke words and thoughts out of me.

This morning I was uninspired.

Completely.

Though President Trump (two words I never thought I’d see together / two words that just seem wrong together) and his first speech to Congress yesterday seemed to be all anyone could talk about – what did he say? what did he not say? what did it all mean? – I honestly could not decide what I could say in this blog that hadn’t already been said by professionals more cleverer than I.

Coat of arms or logo

I had worked hard on my last blog post Bleeding Beautiful, trying to bring to the reader a semblance of connectiveness to the shooting of an Indian IT specialist in Kansas, a sense of place and time to the incident and a sensory sensitivity to help the reader relate his/her own life to the incident.

From left: Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who died; Alok Madasani, who was injured; and Ian Grillot, also injured

From left: Srinivas Kuchibhotia, who died; Alok Madasani, who was injured; Ian Grillot, also injured

So my mind felt it had to take a step back and meditate for a time before finding, yet again, the passion and the patience it takes to weave words into worthwhile reading.

Then a visit to Konstanz generated three sources of inspiration: We Are The Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama, a back-ordered copy of Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, and the latest edition of Foreign Affairs.

Then I knew what I wanted to share with you, my gentle readers…

America has become afraid.

Flag of the United States

9/11 was a wake-up call…

Americans could be attacked, not only in fields foreign or upon exotic embassies or military machines, but in US streets, in US fields, fury visited from the skies and visited from within.

Not even the Second World War, with its millions of lives destroyed, had shown Americans attacked on the soil of the continental United States, if one does not include war with neighbours or amongst brothers.

But the images of passenger jets striking the Twin Towers was so shocking, so powerful, that even Presidents on tour could only sit stunned with disbelief, trying to grasp the surrealness of such an unreal situation.

It has been established that credit has been taken by and blame leveled at al Qaeda, who killed 3,000 people on that day –  innocent men, women and children from the US and other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody.

Flag of Jihad.svg

Above: Black standard of al Qaeda

al Qaeda chose to murder, claim credit for the bloodshed and state their determination to kill on a massive scale.

Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda, or Boko Borom, or ISIS/ISIL/Daesh to lay down their arms.

Many Muslims protest against and publicly condemn the twisted fantasies of extremists who commit acts of terrorism.

Others say that these types are not true Muslims.

“Those people have nothing to do with Islam.” is the refrain.

And no one seems to see the irony that, of all the non-Western religions, Islam stands closest to the West, both geographically and ideologically.

Despite Christian, Jew and Muslim all descending from the family of Abraham religiously and Greek thought philosophically, Islam remains the most difficult religion for the West to understand.

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 March 2017

“No part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us than that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam.”

(Meg Greenfield, Newsweek, 26 March 1979)

Proximity is no guarantee of concord, of harmony.

More homicides occur within families than anywhere else.

Common borders have given rise to border disputes.

Raids lead to counterraids and escalate into vendettas, blood feuds and war.

There have been times and places Christians, Muslims and Jews have all lived together harmoniously, but for a good part of the last fifteen hundred years, Islam and the West have been at war.

People seldom have, and often do not want, a fair picture of their enemies.

It is easier to misunderstand while remaining faithful to our deepest values, but we need to discover through dialogue, observation and thought that there doesn’t have to be conflict between Islam and the rest of the world.

“As a student of history, I know civilisation’s debt to Islam.

It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.

It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.

Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires, timeless poetry and cherished music, elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.

Throughout history, Islam has demonstrated, through words and deeds, the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

Islam has always been a part of America’s story.

The first nation to recognise the United States was Morocco.

Flag of Morocco

Above: The flag of Morocco

In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, President John Adams wrote:

Official Presidential portrait of John Adams (by John Trumbull, circa 1792).jpg

Above: John Adams (1735 – 1826)(2nd US President: 1735 – 1826)

“The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

And since America was founded, Muslims have enriched the United States…

partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.”

Obama standing with his arms folded and smiling

Barack Obama (born 1961)(44th US President: 2009 – 2017)

(Barack Obama, “A New Beginning”, Cairo, Egypt, 4 June 2009)

“Although I loathe what terrorists do, I realise that, according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims.

Islam demands only that a believer affirm that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger.

Violent jihadists certainly believe this.

That is why major religious institutions in the Islamic world have rightly refused to label them as non-Muslims, even while condemning their actions…

…Even if their readings of Islamic Scripture seem warped and out of date, they have gained traction…

…As the extremists’ ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink.

And as it has shrunk, it has become quieter and quieter, until only the extremists seem to speak and act in the name of Islam.”

Above: United Arab Emirates Ambassador to Russia Omar Saif Ghobash (born 1971, Ambassador since 2009)(on the left) with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (on the right)

(Omar Saif Ghobash, “Advice for Young Muslims”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017)

“The very name of Islam means “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God”.

This makes Islam – together with Buddhism, from budh (awakening) – one of the two religions that is named after the attribute it seeks to cultivate.

In Islam’s case, life’s total surrender to God.

Successfully surrendering one’s life to God requires an understanding of what it is God wants.

Until the 20th century, Islam was called Muhammadism by the West, which to Muslims is not only inaccurate but offensive.

It is inaccurate, Muslims say, because Muhammad didn’t create Islam.

God did.

Muhammad was merely God’s mouthpiece.

The title of Muhammadism is offensive, because it conveys the impression that Islam focuses on a man rather than on God.

To name Christianity after Christ is appropriate, for Christians believe that Christ was/is God.

To call Islam Muhammadism is like calling Christianity St. Paulism.

Islam begins not with Muhammad in 6th century Arabia, but with God.

In the beginning God…

Islam calls God Allah by joining the definite article al (the) with Ilah (God)- literally Allah means the God, not a god, for there is only one.

The blend of admiration, respect and affection that Muslims feel for Muhammad is impressive.

They see him as a man who experienced life in exceptional range – shepherd, merchant, hermit, exile, soldier, lawmaker, prophet, priest, king, mystic, husband, father, widower – but they never mistake Muhammad for the earthly centre of their faith.

That place is reserved for the scripture of Islam, the Koran.

The word al-qur’an in Arabic means the recitation.

As discomfitting as it is for Christians to contemplate, the Koran is perhaps the most recited, the most read, book in the world.

The Koran is the world’s most memorised book and possibly the book that exerts the most influence on those who read it.

Muslims tend to read the Koran literally.

In almost exactly the way Christians consider Jesus to have been the human incarnation of God, Muslims consider the Koran to be the human recitation of God.

If Christ is God incarnate, the Koran is God inlibriate.”

Huston Smith.jpg

Above: Huston Smith (1919 – 2016)

(Huston Smith, The World’s Religions)

In my personal library here in Landschlacht I have a number of books on the topic of religion, including the scriptures of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

I have different versions of the Christian Bible and I also possess books that examine morality from secular and atheistic points of view.

But I am neither a practioner of, nor scholar of, religion.

Rather I seek to understand the power of religion upon so many people on this planet, in a humble quest to seek out a kernel of commonality and truth that might, in time, unite us in ways the conflict of faiths cannot.

The Koran, even in English translation, is not an easy read.

It is not the kind of book one can read in bed on a rainy day.

Nothing but a sense of duty could carry an agnostic Canadian through the Koran.

Flag of Canada

“The European will peruse with impatience its endless incoherant rhapsody of fable and precept and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust and is sometimes lost in the clouds.”

Edward Emily Gibbon.jpg

Above: Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794)

(Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

“The language in which the Koran was proclaimed, Arabic, is the key.

Muhammed asked his people:

“Do you ask for a greater miracle than this, O unbelieving people, than to have your language chosen as the language of that incomparable Book, one piece of which puts all your golden poetry to shame?” “

(Huston Smith, The World’s Religions)

“No people in the world are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs.

Hardly any language seems capable of exercising over the minds of its users such irresistable influence as Arabic.”

(Philip Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History)

“Crowds in Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad can be stirred to the highest emotional pitch by statements that, when translated, seem lifeless and banal.

The rhythm, the melody, the rhyme of Arabic produces a powerful hypnotic effect.

The power of the Koran lies not only in the literal meaning of its words, but in the sound of the language in which it is recited.

Translation cannot convey the emotion, the fervor, the mystery that the Koran holds in its original Arabic.

This is why, in sharp contrast to Christians, who have translated their Bible into every script known to man, Muslims prefer to teach others the language in which they believe Allah spoke finally with incomparable force and directness.

The language of Islam remains a matter of sharp controversy.

Orthodox Muslims feel that the ritual use of the Koran must be in Arabic, but there are many who believe that those who do not know Arabic should read the Koran in translation.

A paper Quran opened halfwise on top of a brown cloth

Language is not the only barrier the Koran presents to outsiders, for its content is unlike other religious texts.

The Koran is not explicitly metaphysical like the Upanishads, not grounded in drama like the Hindu epics, nor historical narrative like Hebrew scriptures.

Unlike the Gospels of the New Testament or within the chapters of the Bhagavid-Gita, God is not revealed in human form within the Koran.

The overwhelming message of the Koran is to proclaim the unity, omnipotence, omniscience and mercy of God and the total dependence of human life upon God.

The Koran is essentially naked doctrine –  doctrine stripped of chronological order, doctrine stripped of epic character or drama, doctrine stripped of commentary and allusion.

In the Koran God speaks in the first person, describing Himself and making known His laws, directly to mankind through the words and the sounds of this holy book.”

(Huston Smith, The World’s Religions)

“The Qur’an does not document what it is other than itself.

It is not about the truth.

It is the truth.”

(Kenneth Cragg, Readings in the Qur’an)

“Islam does not apologise for itself, try to explain itself or attempt to seduce others into its fold by altering its form.

And for the non-Islamic outsider, it is this nonconformity, this inflexibility, that makes compassion and comprehension of Islam so very difficult.

Certainly it seems that the message of the Koran proclaiming the unity, omnipotence, omniscience and glory of Allah is uncompromising, but outsiders miss and misinterpret that Islam is more than the recognition of the majesty of Allah, Islam is the mercy of Allah manifested as Peace.

The Koran, 4/5 of the length of the New Testament, divided into 114 chapters (surahs), cites Allah’s compassion and mercy 192 times and Allah’s wrath and vengence only 17 times.

Is this Koranic description of Allah as “the Holy, the Peaceful, the Faithful, the Guardian over His servants, the Shelterer of the orphan, the Guide of the erring, the Deliverer from every affliction, the Friend of the bereaved, the Consoler of the afflicted” anything else but loving?

“In His hand is good, and He is the generous Lord, the Gracious, the Hearer, the Near-at-Hand, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Very-forgiving, whose love for man is more tender than that of the mother bird for her young.” “

(Huston Smith, The World’s Religions)

Is this the Allah of jihadists?

“We need to speak out, but it is not enough to declare in public that Islam is not violent or radical or angry, that Islam is a religion of peace.

We need to take responsibility for the Islam of peace.

We need to demonstrate how it is expressed in our lives and the lives of those in our community.”

(Omar Saif Ghobash, “Advice for Young Muslims”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017)

“The use of force is one aspect of Islam that is often misunderstood and maligned by non-Muslims.

The Koran does not counsel turning the other cheek or pacifism.

It teaches forgiveness and the return of good for evil when the circumstances warrant it.

Muhammad left many traditions regarding the decent conduct of war.

Agreements are to be honoured and treachery avoided.

The wounded are not to be mutilated, nor the dead disfigured.

Women, children and the old are to be spared, as are orchards, crops and sacred objects.

The important question is the definition of a righteous war.

According to the Koran, a righteous war must either be defensive or to right a wrong.

The agressive and unrelenting hostility of Islam’s enemies forced Muhammad to seize the sword in self-defence, or, together with his entire community and his faith, be wiped from the face of the Earth.

That other religious teachers succumbed under force and became martyrs was to Muhammad no reason that he should do the same.

Having seized the sword in self-defence Muhammad held onto it to the end.

This much Muslims acknowledge.

Above: The Umayyad Empire at its greatest extent

But Muslims insist that while Islam has at times spread by the sword, Islam has mostly spread by persuasion and example.

“Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (Koran, al-Baqarah 256)

“To everyone have we given a law and a way.

And if God had pleased, he would have made all mankind one people of one religion.

But He has done otherwise, that He might try you in that which He has severally given to you.

Therefore press forward in good works.

Unto God shall you return and He will tell you that concerning which you disagree.” (Koran, al-Ma’ida 48)

“Will you then force men to believe when belief can come only from God?” (Muhammed quoted by Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam)

How well Muslims have lived up to Muhammad’s principles of toleration is a question of history that is far too complex to admit of a simple, objective and definitive answer.

Objective historians are of one mind in their verdict that, to put the matter minimally, Islam’s record on the use of force is no darker than that of Christianity.

Every religion at some stages in its career has been used by its professed adherents to mask aggression.

Islam is no exception.

Muslims deny that Islam’s record of intolerance and agression is greater than that of the other major religions.

Muslims deny that Western histories are fair to Islam in their accounts of its use of force.

Muslims deny that the blots in their record should be charged against their religion whose presiding ideal Muslims affirm in their standard greeting:

As-salamu ‘alaykum. (Peace be upon you)”

(Huston Smith, The World’s Religions)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 1 March 2017

“Two attacks on Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia last week have resulted in an outpouring of more than $136,000 in donations from thousands of Muslims and others, who have pledged to financially support Jewish institutions if there are further attacks.

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Jewish organisations have reported a sharp increase in harassment.

The Jewish Community Center Association of North America, which represents Jewish community centres, said 21 Jewish institutions, including eight schools, had received bomb threats on Monday alone.

Jewish Community Center logo.png

Two Muslim activists, Linday Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, asked Muslims to donate $20,000 in a crowdfunding effort to repair hundreds of Jewish headstones that were toppled nead St. Louis last week.

That goal was reached in three hours.

El-Messidi said on Monday that the money raised would most likely be enough to repair the graves near St. Louis and in Philadelphia, where about 100 headstones were toppled on Sunday.

Any extra money will be held in a fund to help after attacks on Jewish institutions in the future, which could mean removing a spray-painted swastika or repairing the widespread damage seen in the graveyards.

About 1/3 of the donations have come from non-Muslims, but El-Messidi said it was especially important for Muslims to support Jews as they deal with anti-Semitic attacks.

“I hope our Muslim community, just as we did last week with St. Louis, will continue to stand with our Jewish cousins to fight this type of hatred and bigotry.”, El-Messidi said.

Barbara Perle, 66, of Los Angeles said on Monday that several of her family members were buried in the vandalised Chesel Shel Emeth Cemetery near St. Louis.

In her eyes, an attack on one gravestone in a Jewish cemetery was an attack on them all.

Perle said she had reached out to thank El-Messidi and that she had “come to understand more about our shared humanity.”

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

(Daniel Victor, “Muslims pledge aid to Jewish institutions“, New York Times, 1 March 2017)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 3 March 2017

I am not saying that Muslims should accept blame for what terrorists do.

I am saying that we can take responsibility by demanding a different understanding of Islam.

We can make clear to Muslims and non-Muslims, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary.

We need to act in ways that make clear how we understand Islam and its operation in our lives.

I believe we owe that to all the innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have suffered at the hands of our coreligionists in their misguided extremism.

Taking that sort of responsibility is hard, especially when many people outside the Muslim world have become committed Islamophobes, fearing and hating Muslims, sometimes with the encouragement of political leaders.

When you feel unjustly singled out and attacked, it is not easy to look at your beliefs and think them through.”

(Omar Saif Ghobash, “Advice for Young Muslims”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017)

“For Muslims, life has basically two obligations.

The first is gratitude for the life that has been received.

The Arabic word “infidel” is closer in meaning towards “one who lacks thankfulness” than one who disbelieves.

The more gratitude one feels, the more natural it feels to let the blessings of life to flow through one’s life and on to others, for hoard these blessings to only ourselves is as unnatural as trying to dam a waterfall.

The second obligation lies within the name of the religion itself.

“Islam” means “surrender”, not in the sense of miltiary defeat, but rather in the context of a wholehearted giving of oneself – to a cause, to friendship, to love.

Islam is, in other words, commitment.

The five pillars of this commitment to the straight path are:

  1. Confession of faith: The affirmation “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet.” said correctly, slowly, thoughtfully, aloud, with full understanding and with heartfelt conviction.

2. Constant prayer:  To give thanks for life’s existence, to keep life in perspective, routinely done five times a day when possible, publicly when possible, kneeling and facing towards Mecca

Masjid al-Haram and the center of Mecca

3. Charity: Those who have much should help lift the burden of those who are less fortunate.

4.  The observance of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month:

Welcome Ramadhan.jpg

From the first moment of dawn to the setting of the sun, neither food nor drink nor smoke passes the Muslim’s lips.

After sundown, these may be consumed in moderation.

Why?

Fasting makes one think.

Fasting teaches self-discipline.

Fasting underscores one’s dependence on God, reminding one of a person’s fraility.

Fasting sensitizes compassion: Those who have fasted for 29 days tend to be more sympathetic to those who are hungry.

5. Pilgrimage: Once during his/her lifetime every Muslim who is physically and economically in a position to do so is expected to journey to Mecca.

The basic purpose of the pilgrimage is to heighten the pilgrim’s devotion to God.

The conditions of the pilgrimage are a reminder of human equality.

Upon reaching Mecca, pilgrims remove their normal attire, which carries marks of social status, and don two simple sheet-like garments.

Distinctions of rank and hierarchy are removed.

Prince and pauper stand before God in their undivided humanity.

A pilgrimage brings together people from various countries, demonstrating that they share a loyalty that transcends nations and ethnic groupings.

Pilgrims pick up information about other lands and peoples and return to their homes with better understanding of one another.”

(Huston Smith, The World’s Religions)

“You will inevitably come across Muslims who shake their heads at the state of affairs in the Islamic world and mutter:

“If only people were proper Muslims, then none of this would be happening.”

Some Muslims will say this when criticising official corruption in Muslim countries and when pointing out the alleged spread of immorality.

Some Muslims say this when promoting various forms of Islamic rule.

“Islam is the solution.”

It’s a brilliant slogan.

Lots of people believe in it.

The slogan is a shorthand for the argument that all the most glorious achievements in Islamic history – the conquests, the empires, the knowledge production, the wealth – occurred under some system of religious rule.

Therefore, if we want to revive this past glory in the modern era, we must reimpose such a system.

This argument holds that if a little Islam is good, then more Islam must be even better.

And if more Islam is better, then complete Islam must be best.

The most influential proponent of that position today is ISIS, with its unbridled enthusiasm for an all-encompassing religious caliphate.

Black Standard[1]

Above: Black standard of ISIS

It can be difficult to argue against that position without seeming to dispute the nature of Islam’s origins: the Prophet Muhammad was not only a religious leader but a political leader as well.

And this argument rests on the inexorable logic of extreme faith:

If Muslims declare that they are acting in Allah’s name, and if Muslims impose the laws of Islam, and if Muslims ensure the correct mental state of the Muslim population living in a chosen territory, then Allah will intervene to solve all our problems.

The genius of this argument is that any difficulties or failures can be attributed to the people’s lack of faith and piety.

Leaders need not fault themselves or their policies.

Citizens need not question their values or customs.

But piety will take us only so far.

Relying entirely on God to provide for us, to solve our problems, to feed and educate and clothe our children, is to take God for granted.

The only way we can improve the lot of the Muslim world is by doing what people elsewhere have done, and what Muslims in earlier eras did, in order to succeed:

Educate ourselves and work hard and engage with life’s difficult questions rather than retreat into religious obscurantism (intentional obscurity and vagueness).

Today, some Muslims demand that all Muslims accept only ideas that are Muslim in origin – namely, ideas that appear in the Koran, the early dictionaries of the Arabic language, the sayings of the Prophet, and the biographies of the Prophet and his Companions.

Meanwhile, Muslims must reject foreign ideas such as democracy, they maintain.

Confronted with more liberal views, which present discussion, debate and consensus building as ancient Islamic traditions, they contend that democracy is a sin against Allah’s power, against His will and against His sovereignty.

Some extremists are even willing to kill in defense of that position.

But do such people even know what democracy is?

Another “foreign” practice that causes a great deal of concern to Muslims is the mixing of the sexes.

Some Muslim-majority countries mandate the separation of the sexes in schools, universities and the workplace.

Authorities in these countries present such rules as being “truly Islamic” and argue that they solve the problem of illicit relationships outside marriage.

Perhaps that’s true.

But research and study of such issues – which is often forbidden – might show that no such effect exists.

And even if rigorous sex separation has some benefits, what are the costs?

Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte: Schwimmlektionen sind obligatorisch

Above: Aziz Osmanoglu, father of two daughters with Sehabat Kocabas, recently lost a decision in Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights over whether sending his daughters to a mixed gender swimming pool was a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights respecting religious practices.

European Court of Human Rights logo.svg

(The court decided that in the interest of integration that his daughters were required to take swimming lessons in mixed gender groups, but they were permitted to wear burkinis (full body swimsuits).

Above: Islamic modest swimwear, known as a urqini or burkini

Basel Canton, the Islamic family’s residence, will fine parents CHF 1,400 should they not send their children to swimming pools for religious reasons.)

Could it be that rigorous sex separation leads to psychological confusion and turmoil for men and women alike?

Could it lead to an inability to understand members of the opposite sex when one is finally allowed to interact with thwm?

Governments in much of the Muslim world have no satisfactory answers to those questions, because they often don’t bother to ask.

Conservative readings of Islamic texts…the strict traditionalist view…presents women as fundamentally passive creatures whom men must protect from the ravages of the world.

That belief is sometimes self-fulfilling.

In many Muslim communities, men insist that women are unable to face the big, wild world, all the while depriving women of the basic rights and skills they would need in order to do so.

Other traditionalists base their position on women on a different argument:

If women were mobile and independent and working with men who were not family members, then they might develop illicit romantic or even sexual relationships.

Of course, that is a possibility.

But such relationships also develop when a woman lives in a home where she is given little love and self-respect.

The traditionalist position is based, ultimately, on a desire to control women.

But women do not need to be controlled.

They need to be trusted and respected.

Treating women as inferior is not a religious duty.

It is a practice of patriarchal societies.

Within the Islamic tradition, there are many models of how Muslim women can live and be true to their faith.

There is no hard-and-fast rule requiring women to wear the hijab (the traditional veil that covers the head and hair) or a burqa or a niqab which cover far more.

Woman wearing a niqab with baby

Islam calls on women to be modest in appearance, but veiling is actually a pre-Islamic tradition.

The limits placed on women in conservative Muslim societies (mandatory veiling, rules limiting their mobility, restrictions on work and education), have their roots not in Islamic doctrine but rather in men’s fear that they will not be able to control women – and their fear that women, if left uncontrolled, will overtake men by being more disciplined, more focused, more hard-working.

The Prophet spoke about the ummah – the Muslim community – but the concept of the ummah has allowed self-appointed religious authorites to speak in the name of all Muslims without ever asking the rest of Muslims what they think.

The idea of an ummah also makes it easier for extremists to depict Islam – and all of the world’s Muslims – as standing in opposition to the West, or to capitalism or to the cause de jour.

In that conception of the Muslim world, the individual’s voice comes second to the group’s voice.

(Omar Saif Ghobash, “Advice for Young Muslims”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 4 March 2017

People have been trained over the years to put community ahead of individuality.

Dialogue and public debate about what it means to be an individual in the world would allow us to think more clearly about personal responsibility, ethical choices, and the respect and dignity that attaches to people rather than to families, tribes or sects.

Dialogue and public debate might lead us to stop insisting solely on our responsibilities to the group and start considering our responsibilities to ourselves and to others, whom we might come to see not as members of groups but rather as individuals regardless of our backgrounds.

We might begin to more deeply acknowledge the outrageous amount of people killed in the Muslim world in civil wars and in terrorist attacks carried out not by outsiders but by other Muslims.

We might memorialize these people not as a group but as individuals with names and faces and life stories – not to deify the dead but rather to recognize our responsibility to preserve their honour and dignity, and the honour and dignity of those who survive them.

The idea of the individual might help us improve how we discuss politics, economics and security.

If we start looking at ourselves as individuals first and foremost, perhaps we will build better societies.

Take hold of your fate and take hold of your life in the here and now, recognizing that there is no need to return to a glorious past in order to build a glorious future.

Our personal, individual interests might not align with those of the patriarch, the family, the tribe, the community or the state, but the embrace of each person’s individuality will lead to a rebalancing in the world in favour of more compassion, more understanding and more empathy.

If you accept the individual diversity of those inside your own faith, you are more likely to do the same for those of other faiths as well.

We can and should live in harmony with the diversity of humanity that exists outside of our faith, but we will struggle to do so until we truly embrace ourselves as individuals.

(Omar Saif Ghobash, “Advice for Young Muslims”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017)

It is said that we fear what we do not understand.

To conquer fear, we must first try and understand that which we are afraid of.

Only then will peace be unto you.

The sorrow of Batman

Istanbul, Turkey, 10 September 2016

In Istanbul, extraordinary experiences are found around every corner.

See caption

Here, dervishes whirl, müezzins call from minarets and people move between continents multiple times a day.

Bosphorus Bridge.jpg

Istanbul is home to millenia-old monuments and cutting edge art galleries – sometimes on the same block.

It is an utterly beguiling city full of sumptous palaces, domes and minarets, cobblestone streets and old wooden houses, squalid concrete apartment blocks and graceful Art Nouveau apartments, international fashion shops cheek and jowl next to bazaars and beggars, street vendors and stray dogs and wild cats, the beauty of the Bosphorus and the promising spell of the Orient.

Dolmabahçe Palace.JPG

Vast labyrinths of narrow covered passageways and wide boulevards lined with superb fin-de-siecle architecture, the breathtaking interior of the Blue Mosque, the smells and sounds of the markets, tiny boats vying with huge tankers for a piece of the waterfront, street hustlers and people bum-to-bum striving to navigate alleyway and passage…

Sultan Ahmed Mosque.jpg

This is the Istanbul I fell in love with, the Istanbul that remains with me as poignant as one´s memories of former intimates.

Grand-Bazaar Shop.jpg

Istanbul attracts millions of tourists every year but as well it draws into itself many who have come in search of work, of a new life, for a chance to thrive here where fortune is denied elsewhere.

It is my last day in Istanbul and my heart feels as sad as the inevitable farewell that must be said to a loved one leaving whose return is uncertain.

I am in the Sultanahmet district where tourists congregate and the locals bend over backwards to accommodate to their every whim no matter how unreasonable these whims might be.

This is a neighbourhood where one stands beneath magnificent domes or inside opulent palaces, where history is experienced by all one´s senses, where one can explore the watery damp depths of the Basilica Cistern then surrender to the steam of a hamam.

Wander through the produce markets, then join the locals in smoking nargiles, drinking tea and playing backgammon.

Backgammon lg.png

I stand outside the Metropolis Hostel, on a quiet side street awaiting my shuttle bus to the airport and talk quietly to one of the co-owners of this very friendly, very comfortable, very clean, home away from home.

He is a Kurd and he talks about his life in Istanbul and what transpired to lead him to this city so very distant from his home in Batman in faraway southeastern Turkey.

A view of city center in Batman.

Above: City centre, Batman, Turkey

I have no political feelings towards either the Kurds or the Turks, except sadness that neither side sees a possibility of peace and cooperation with one another.

He speaks of battlefields where Kurd has fought ISIS warrior and Turk has bombed Kurd despite their common enemy.

AQMI Flag asymmetric.svg

He speaks of devastation and death, of friends and family forever affected by loss and injury.

There are no words of comfort I can give him, for I am an ignorant foreigner, on a mini-visit to Istanbul before attending a friend´s wedding in Antalya the very next day.

He speaks of how the Syrian civil war has driven many Syrians into Turkey competing for the same jobs as those already resident here.

Syrian Civil War map.svg

Above: Map of the Syrian Civil War

He tells me of how bombings and attacks of ISIS upon Turkey and Kurd upon Turk and Turk upon Kurd have drastically reduced tourism in Istanbul to a third of what it once was.

I leave Istanbul and this Kurd with much of his pain unspoken and distract myself with the Antalya events that await me.

But it is nonetheless an uneasy departure filled with helplessness and sadness.

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 23 January 2017

I often wish I were a wiser man, more knowledgeable in the ways of politics and psychology.

I find myself uncertain of whether I should hate those who have caused  indescribable sorrow, for the Turks I have met both within and outside Turkey have always been friendly towards me, as have the few Kurds I have met as well.

I am rational enough to know that those who murder in the name of Allah are not true followers of Muhammed or Islam, so the gullible who have followed the infidels of ISIS have done so either out of ignorance or hope that those governments that failed them will be supplanted by a new order, albeit a dark order, that offers some sort of security through fear and intimidation.

"Allah" in Arabic calligraphy

I refuse to hate all the individuals caught up in forces unleashed by those that wield power without compassion, but instead find fault with those who claim to serve their fellow man yet use their fellow man for power, gain and profit.

Now, it is a fair question for any reader to ask:

Why should I care?

And why the history lessons?

We are all human beings, a few saints and monsters amongst us, but most of us are decent basic human beings in the pursuit of happiness.

I think we tend to forget this.

We are all so focused on what makes us different and in our fear use these differences to do unspeakable acts towards one another.

But I firmly believe that there is more that connects us than divides us.

We are bound by love and compassion, by conscience and will, by strength and weakness, by morality and mortality.

In looking at the complexities and tragedies of the ongoing saga of Turkey, or any other part of the world for that matter, I hope to understand the mindsets of both sides of this conflict and hope, in my own humble and naive fashion, to offer a possible idea that might help.

We are all interconnected and what happens in faraway places eventually find its way –  by sometimes subtle, sometimes powerful means – to our own doorsteps.

I explore history, because by trying to understand what leads people to where they are now, why they think and act the way they do, helps to comprehend who they are and, perhaps, as well, avoid some of the mistakes people make in this ongoing, neverending process of life and time.

In part 1 of this blog post I wrote of events in Kurdish / Turkish history – from ancient times until the Sixties – including the 9 January bombing in Izmir –  that compelled me to discuss the problems that plague a country I love.

Prior to the Sixties, the record shows again and again brutal violence towards and suppression of the Kurdish people by the Turks, responded to by armed Kurdish rebellion when it appeared that all attempts at negotiation were impossible:

“Thousands of Kurds, including women and children, were slain.

Others, mostly children, were thrown into the Euphrates, while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to provinces in central Anatolia.

It is now stated that the Kurdish question no longer exists in Turkey.” (British Council, 1938)

In Part One, we examined the Kurdish perspective.

But what has led the Turkish people, especially its governments, to respond to the Kurds in the manner in which they have?

Why has President Recep Erdogan reacted to events both domestic and international in the manner that he has?

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan June 2015.jpg

To understand His Excellency, to understand the Turkish point-of-view, (not always the same) we need to travel back in time once more:

27 May 1960:

A coup d’ état is staged by a group of 38 young Turkish military officers.

It is a time of socio-political turmoil and economic hardship as US aid from the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan is running out.

Prime Minister Adnan Menderes plans a visit to Moscow in the hope of establishing alternative lines of credit.

Above: Adnan Menderes (1899 – 1961), 9th Prime Minister of Turkey (1950 – 1960)

Colonel Alparslan Türkes orchestrates the plot and declares the coup over radio to announce “the end of one period in Turkish history and usher in a new one.”

Türkeş (cropped).jpg

Above: Alparslan Turkes (1917 – 1997)

The Great Turkish Nation:

Starting at 3 am on 27 May, the Turkish armed forces have taken over administration throughout the entire country.

This operation, thanks to the close cooperation of all our citizens and security forces, has succeeded without loss of life.

Until further notice, a curfew has been imposed, exmept only to members of the armed forces.

We request our citizens to facilitate the duty of our armed forces and assist in reestablishing the nationally desired democratic regime.”

In a press conference held on the following day, General Cemal Gürsel emphasizes that the “purpose and the aim of the coup is to bring the country with all speed to a fair, clean and solid democracy.”

Above: Cemal Gursel (1895 – 1966), 4th President of Turkey (1960 – 1966)

I want to transfer power and the administration of the nation to the free choice of the people.”

The coup removes a democratically elected government while expressing the intent to install a democratically elected government.

235 generals and more than 3,000 commissioned officers are forced to retire.

More than 500 judges and 1,400 university faculty members lose their jobs.

The chief of the General Staff, the President, the Prime Minister and other members of the administration are arrested.

General Gürsel is appointed provisional head of state, Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense.

Minister of the Interior Namik Gedik commits suicide while he is detained in the Turkish Military Academy.

President Celal Bayar, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and several other members of the administration are put on trial before a court appointed by the ruling junta on the island of Yassuda in the Sea of Marmara.

The politicians are charged with high treason, misuse of public funds and abrogation of the Turkish constitution.

16 September 1961:

Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, Minister of Foreign Affairs Fatin Rüstü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan are executed on Imrali Island.

Imrali location.jpg

(Imrali Island Prison is known as the place where American Billy Hayes was incarcerated later telling his story in Midnight Express and where PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has been imprisoned since 1999.)

Original poster for Midnight Express, 1978.jpg

Above: Poster of the film adaptation (1978)

A month later, administrative authority is returned to civilians.

In the first free election after the coup, Süleyman Demirel is elected in 1965.

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Above: Suleyman Demirel (1924 – 2015), 9th President of Turkey (1993 – 2000)

As the 1960s wear on, violence and instability plague Turkey.

Economic recession sparks a wave of social unrest marked by student demonstrations, labour strikes and political assassinations.

On the left, worker and student movements are formed.

On the right, Islamist and militant nationalist groups counter them.

The Revolutionary Youth Federation of Turkey (DEV-GENC) is founded in 1965 and it will inspire various other organisations, including Devrimci Yol, the Revolutionary Workers and Peasants Party of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers´ Party.

DEV-GENC members set US Ambassador Robert Komer´s car on fire in 1969 while he is visiting an Ankara campus, participate in the protests against the US 6th Fleet anchoring in Turkey from June 1967 to February 1969, and also play an active role in the workers´ actions on 15 – 16 June 1970.

Lyndon Johnson and Robert Komer.jpg

Above: Robert Komer (1922 – 2000) (left) in meeting with US President Lyndon Johnson

CIA agent Aldrich Ames is able to unveil the identity of a large number of members.

Above: Aldrich Ames (b. 1941), CIA – KGB double agent, presently incarcerated in Allenwood Penitentiary

The Grey Wolves, a Turkish nationalist paramilitary youth organisation, often described by its critics as an ultra-nationalist or neo-fascist death squad, are responsible for matching and surpassing the left´s violent activities, engaging in urban guerilla warfare with left-wing activists and militants.

Grey Wolves logo.png

On the political front, Prime Minister Demirel´s center-right Justice Party government is experiencing trouble.

Various factions within the Party defect to form groups of their own, gradually reducing the Party´s parliamentary majority and bringing the legislative process to a halt.

By January 1971, Turkey is in a state of chaos.

Universities have ceased to function.

Students rob banks and kidnap US servicemen and attack American targets.

University professors critical of the government have their homes bombed by neo-fascist militants.

Factories are on strike and many workdays are lost.

The Islamist movement becomes more aggressive and openly rejects Atatürk and Kemalism, thus infuriating the armed forces.

The government, weakened by defections, seems paralysed, powerless to curb campus and street violence and unable to pass any serious legislation on social and financial reform.

12 March 1971:

The Chief of the General Staff Memduh Tagmac hands the Prime Minister a Memorandum – an ultimatum by the armed forces – demanding “the formation, within the context of democratic principles, of a strong and credible government, which will neutralise the current anarchical situation and which, inspired by Atatürk´s views, will implement the reformist laws envisaged by the constitution”, putting an end to the “anarchy, fratricidal strife, and social and economic unrest.”

If the demands are not met, the army would “exercise its constitutional duty” and take over power itself.

Demeril resigns after a three-hour meeting with his cabinet.

The coup doesn´t surprise most Turks, but what direction will the coup take the country?

Who is in charge?

The “restoration of law and order” is given priority.

The left is to be suppressed in an attempt to curb trade union militancy and the demands for higher wages and better working conditions.

The public prosecutor opens a case against the Workers’ Party of Turkey for carrying out Communist propaganda and supporting Kurdish separatism.

All youth organisations affliated with DEV-GENC are to be closed, as they are blamed for the left-wing youth violence and university and urban unrest plaguing the country.

Police searches in offices of teachers’ unions and university clubs are carried out.

Such actions encourage the right who target provincial teachers and Workers’ Party supporters.

The commanders who have seized power are reluctant to exercise it directly, so the regime rests on an unstable balance of power between civilian politicians and the military.

It is neither a normal elected government nor an outright military dictatorship which can entirely ignore parliamentary opposition.

In April, a new wave of terror begins, carried out by the Turkish People’s Liberation Army, in the form of kidnappings and bank robberies.

27 April 1971:

Martial law is declared in 11 of Turkey´s 67 provinces, especially in major urban areas and Kurdish regions.

Youth organisations are banned, union meetings are prohibited, leftists publications are forbidden, and strikes are declared illegal.

After the Israeli consul is abducted on 17 May, hundreds of students, young academics, writers, trade unionists and Workers’ Party activists as well as people with liberal-progressive sympathies are detained and tortured.

The consul is shot four days later.

For the next two years, repression continues, with martial law renewed every two months.

Constitutional reforms repeal the essential liberal fragments of the constitution.

The National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) uses the Ziverbey Villa as a torture centre, employing physical and psychological coercion.

Interrogations, directed by CIA-trained specialists, result in hundreds of deaths or permanent injuries.

Among their victims is journalist Ugur Mumcu, arrested shortly after the coup, later writes that his torturers informed him that not even the President could touch them.

Ugur Mumcu Cumhuriyet 24cu01.jpg

Above: Journalist Ugur Mumcu (1942 – 1993), assassinated 24 January 1993 in a car bomb outside his Ankara home (Cumhuriyet, 24 January 2003)

By the summer of 1973, the military-backed regime has achieved most of its political aims.

The constitution has been amended so as to strengthen the state against civil society.

Special courts are in place to deal with all forms of dissent quickly and ruthlessly.

Universities, their autonomy ended, have been made to curb the radicalism of students and faculty.

Radio, TV and newspapers are curtailed.

The National Security Council is much more powerful.

In October 1973 Bülent Ecevit wins the election and the problems that plagued the pre-coup government return.

Bülent Ecevit-Davos 2000 cropped.jpg

Above: Mustafa Bulent Ecevit (1925 – 2006), 16th Prime Minister of Turkey (1974, 1977, 1978 – 1979, 1999 – 2002)

As the 1970s progress, the economy deteriorates, violence by the Grey Wolves escalates and intensifies, and left-wing groups as well commit acts aimed at causing chaos and demoralisation.

In 1975 Suleyman Demeril succeeds Ecevit as Prime Minister.

Demeril´s Justice Party forms a coalition with the Nationalist Front, the Islamist National Salvation Party and the Nationalist Movement Party.

There is no clear winner in the elections of 1977.

Demeril continues the coalition.

Ecevit returns to power in 1978, but Demeril regains it the following year.

By the end of the Seventies, Turkey is in turmoil, with unsolved economic and social problems, facing strike actions and political paralysis.

Since 1969, the proportional representational system has made it difficult to find any parliamentary majority.

Politicians are unable to combat the growing violence in the country.

The overall death toll of the Seventies is estimated at 5,000, with nearly ten assassinations per day.

16 March 1977, Istanbul

The University of Istanbul is attacked with a bomb and gunfire.

7 die, 41 injured.

1 May 1977, Istanbul

Labour Day has been celebrated in Istanbul since 1912.

500,000 people gather on Taksim Square.

Shots are heard coming from the building of the water supply company Sular Idaresi and the Marmara Hotel (in 1977, the tallest building in Istanbul).

Security forces intervene with armoured vehicles making much noise with their sirens and explosives.

They hose the crowd with pressurized water.

Many casualities are caused by the panic that this intervention creates.

42 people killed, 220 injured, most crushed.

None of the perpetrators are caught or brought to justice.

The CIA is suspected of involvement.

9 October 1978, Ankara

7 university students, members of the Turkish Workers’ Party, are assassinated by ultra-nationalists.

Ankara University Logo.png

27 November 1978, Diyarbakir

The left-wing organisation is mostly made up of students led by Abdullah Ocalan in Ankara and focused on helping the large oppressed Kurdish population in southeast Turkey.

The violence of the times, especially the attacks on the University of Istanbul, the Taksim Square massacre and the assassinations in Ankara, compel the group, meeting here inside a teahouse, to adopt the name Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a Marxist ideology to counter violence with violence.

Flag of Kurdistan Workers' Party.svg

19 – 26 December 1978, Kahramanmaras

Kahramanmaras is a city in the Mediterranean region of southern Turkey close to the Syrian border.

Above: The minaret of the Grand Mosque of Kahramanmaras

Kahramanmaras lies on a plain at the foot of Ahir Mountain and is best known for its production of salep (a flour made from dried orchids) and its distinctive ice cream.

It all starts with a noise bomb thrown into a cinema popular with right-wingers.

Rumours spread that left-wingers had thrown the bomb.

So, the next day a bomb is thrown into a coffee shop frequently visited by left-wingers.

The following evening known left-winger teachers Haci Colak and Mustafa Yuzbasioglu are killed on their way home.

While a crowd of over 5,000 people prepares for Colak’s and Yuzbasioglu’s funeral, right-wing groups stir up emotions saying that the Communists are going to bomb the mosque and massacre many Muslims.

On 23 December, things turn ugly.

Crowds storm the quarters where left-wingers live, destroying houses and shops.

The offices of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, the Teachers’ Association of Turkey, the Association of Police Officers and the Republican People’s Party are destroyed.

Over 100 people are killed and more than 200 houses and 100 shops destroyed.

“They started in the morning, burning all the houses, and continued into the afternoon.

A child was burned in a boiler.

They sacked everything.

We were in the water in the cellar, above us were wooden boards.

The boards were burning and falling on top of us.

My house was reduced to ashes.

We were with 8 people in the cellar.

They did not see us and left.” (Meryem Polat, one of the victims)

Martial law was declared across Turkey the following day.

Court cases, opened at military courts, lasted until 1991.

A total of 804 defendants, mostly right-wingers, were put on trial.

The courts passed 29 death penalties and sentenced 328 people to prison.

11 September 1979

General Kenan Evren orders a hand-written report on whether a coup is in order or the government merely needs a stern warning.

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Above: Kenan Evren (1917 – 2015), 7th President of Turkey (1980 – 1989)

21 December 1979

The War Academy generals convene to decide a course of action.

The pretext for a coup is to put to an end the social conflicts plaguing the country as well as the political instability.

12 September 1980

The Turkish economy is on the verge of collapse with triple digit inflation, large scale unemployment and a chronic foreign trade deficit.

The National Security Council, headed by Evren, declares a coup d’etat, extending martial law throughout the country, abolishing the government and Parliament, suspending the Constitution and banning all political parties and trade unions.

The Council invokes the Kemalist tradition of state secularism and in national unity, presenting themselves as opposed to communism, facism, separatism and religious sectarianism.

The Council aims to unite Turkey with the global economy and give companies the ability to market products and services worldwide.

“A feeling of hope is evident among international bankers that Turkey’s military coup may have opened the way to greater political stability as an essential prerequisite for the revitalisation of the Turkish economy.” (International Banking Review, October 1980)

During 1980 – 1983, the foreign exchange rate was allowed to float freely, foreign investment encouraged, land reform projects promoted, export vigourously driven and wages frozen.

The Council rounded up members of both the right and left for trial by military tribunals.

  • 650,000 people were under arrest.
  • 1,683,000 people were blacklisted.
  • 230,000 people were tried in 210,000 lawsuits.
  • 7,000 people were recommended for the death penalty.
  • 517 persons were sentenced to death.
  • 50 of those given the death penalty were executed (26 political prisoners, 23 criminal offenders and 1 ASALA militant).
  • The files of 259 people, which had been recommended for the death penalty, were sent to the National Assembly.
  • 71,000 people were tried by articles 141, 142 and 163 of Turkish Penal Code.
  • 98,404 people were tried on charges of being members of a leftist, a rightist, a nationalist, a conservative, etc. organization.
  • 388,000 people were denied a passport.
  • 30,000 people were dismissed from their firms because they were suspects.
  • 14,000 people had their citizenship revoked.
  • 30,000 people went abroad as political refugees.
  • 300 people died in a suspicious manner.
  • 171 people died by reason of torture.
  • 937 films were banned because they were found objectionable.
  • 23,677 associations had their activities stopped.
  • 3,854 teachers, 120 lecturers and 47 judges were dismissed.
  • 400 journalists were recommended a total of 4,000 years imprisonment.
  • Journalists were sentenced 3,315 years and 6 months imprisonment.
  • 31 journalists went to jail.
  • 300 journalists were attacked.
  • 3 journalists were shot dead.
  • 300 days in which newspapers were not published.
  • 13 major newspapers brought to trial
  • 39 tonnes of newspapers and magazines destroyed
  • 299 people lost their lives in prison.

The Council begins a program of forced assimilation of its Kurdish population.

The words “Kurds”, “Kurdistan” or “Kurdish” are officially banned.

The Kurdish language is prohibited in both public and private life.

People who speak, publish or sing in Kurdish are arrested and imprisoned.

(Even now in 2017, Kurds are still not allowed to get a primary education in their mother tongue and still don´t have a right to self-determination.

Above: Kurdish boys in Diyarbakir

Even now, there is ongoing discrimination against Kurds in Turkish society.)

The Council pushes the PKK to another stage…

PKK members have been executed, imprisoned and forced to flee to Syria (including Abdullah Ocalan).

10 November 1980, Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg Cathedral Exterior - Diliff.jpg

Above: Strasbourg Cathedral

The Turkish Consulate is bombed causing significant material damage but no injuries.

In a telephone call to the office of Agence France Presse, a spokesman said the blast was a joint operation and marked the start of a “fruitful collaboration” between the ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) and the PKK.

(Armenia has been officially independent since 1991.)

After the Council’s approval of the new Turkish Constitution in June 1982, General Evren organizes nationwide general elections, to be held on 6 November 1983.

This results in the one-party government of Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party.

Turgut Özal cropped.jpg

Above: Turgat Özal (1927 – 1993), 8th President of Turkey (1989 – 1993)

The Özal government empowers the police force with intelligence capabilites.

Beginning in 1984, the PKK initiates a guerilla offensive with a series of attacks on Turkish military and police targets.

Since 1984, 37,000 people have been killed.

The three coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980 revolutionized modern Turkey.

So, His Excellency Recep Erdogan´s instinct to (over)react to the 2016 attempted coup becomes somewhat understandable, for soldiers can overthrow governments.

(More about this later…)

Yesterday, Turkey´s Parliament in Ankara adopted a package of 18 amendments placing all executive powers in His Excellency’s hands.

His Excellency believes he has learned from these coups and his administration has revved up nationalist rheotric to justify a mounting crackdown against the Kurds, socialists and the press.

I believe His Excellency is mistaken.

Violence creates violence.

Rebellion incites suppression and suppression incites rebellion.

Revolution encourages revolution.

There is much that I see about Turkey that saddens me.

Like anyone not resident in Turkey I am limited to what I receive second-hand so I try to find as many sources of information as I can and hope through the complexity to find and share as unbiased and complete a picture as I can.

I am left with a few questions I will try and address in the third part of this essay on Turkey and the Kurds:

Is change possible without bloodshed?

How can change without bloodshed be realisable?

Surprisingly, hope will begin with the Özal government…

(To be continued…)

Flag of Turkey

Sources: The Economist, 21 – 27 January 2017 / Wikipedia / Andrew Finkel, Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know

 

 

 

 

 

Questions of self-determination

It has been an interesting past 24 hours…

Last night after completing my shift at Starbucks, I was spontaneously invited for a quick impromptu supper at my co-worker’s apartment.

Augustin was a warm and welcoming host.

I was fed well and drank well and the conversation was very interesting.

We, of course, discussed issues of great import…

Travel, women, politics, women, work, women…

You get the idea.

Talk turned more serious as alcohol entered the bloodstream.

We talked about our homelands, inevitably comparing them to our new home of Switzerland.

He talked about his homeland of Algeria, about how difficult it was to be a Berber in northern Africa, how dictatorial and discriminatory the present Algerian administration is, how he can never go home again because of his politics being objectionable to the powers that be.

Berbers cannot teach their language and are discouraged to speak or write their language.

Algerians are schooled in Arabic and the colonial language, French.

Berbers are unwelcome in their own traditional lands.

They struggle for employment opportunities and are denied basic rights and services other Algerians take for granted.

North African Berbers and northern Spain-southern France Basques, the Kurdish in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Muslims in Macedonia and Christians in the Sudan all suffer under regimes that enforce their discriminatory policies, even in some cases, past and present, mass genocide.

What Nazis did to Jews was not a new type of behavior in history nor is it an old type of behavior either.

Berbers and Basques long for their own land, as do the Kurdish.

Some groups seek not a revolution against the princes and powers ruling them but only want to be left alone to speak their own language, follow their own customs, practice their own religion.

But those in power either to show their force or claim resources in all lands under their sway tend not to be the “live and let live” type.

On the home front, a horse of a different color but the same theme of self-determination…

The wife and I are frustrated with one another.

She is not happy that I choose to go to Geneva, even though She will be away in Zurich 4 out of 7 days.

Teaching work in St. Gallen and Thurgau Counties has been for me over the past two years an exercise in futility at best and a lost cause at worst.

Back in May, I visited Geneva and was positively received by a few schools I interviewed.

But going away to Geneva means risk.

I might fail and uselessly spend my savings on this risky endeavor without seeing the return on investment I am hoping for.

But being independent, achieving a sense of self-reliance, is worth the risk, though it threatens the status quo, though it shakes the roots of the rules and routines previously in place.

I long for more parity and equality with my wife rather than being dependent upon her.

On the train from St. Gallen to Geneva, I met a wonderfully warm and welcoming woman from Eritrea, waiting tables in the restaurant wagon.

Her country is now in its 24th year of independence from neighboring Ethiopia.

Eritrea suffered religious and ethnic persecution under Ethiopian hands.

Though it still struggles for self-reliance, it prefers the struggle rather than being dominated.

East Timor was almost erased in massive genocide by conquering Indonesia.

Today they are proud and independent countries.

So, what should determine a person’s / a place’s right to declare independence?

In my home province, argument has raged for decades, (Some would argue, centuries.) about Quebec’s right to its own sovereignty.

I think before the Quiet Revolution of the 60s and 70s, the French Canadian in Quebec had legitimate grievances against the Anglo of Canada.

Though the British conquered Canada from the French in the 18th century, the French Canadian far outnumbered the invading English.

To prevent insurrection but to maintain control, the French Canadian was allowed to keep his civil law, his Catholicism and his language, but was not allowed to determine his own destiny or wield any real power over decisions that affected him, like conscription.

And this linguistic apartheid continued even as late as the year of my birth, 1965.

A French Canadian living in the world’s 2nd largest French-speaking metropolis, Montreal, would not be served in a store if he did not speak English.

After the Revolution, English Canadians resident in Quebec began to realize that payback is a bitch.

Children living in Quebec cannot attend an English school unless their parents did so before.

One can have any language on any sign in Quebec as long as the dominant language is French.

But English is strictly forbidden.

Even the department store Eaton’s had to drop the apostrophe from their name to satisfy the tongue troopers of the language police.

Every election separatist parties once again cry for more freedom for the Franco while simultaneously suppressing the freedoms of the Anglo still remaining in Quebec.

Should they have it?

My answer: could they truly survive independently surrounded by an Anglo North America on its borders?

Or are they actually stronger as a group within the Canadian framework?

Should the Berbers have their own homeland?

Should the Kurdish have a Kurdistan?

Or is harmony possible in the existing frameworks?

Should a husband be allowed to work away in a far-off city and struggle?

Or is it necessary for him to remain at home unfulfilled?

Difficult questions all.

We roll the dice.

We take our chances.