Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Forest, the Axe and the Trees

This image was sighted in one of the social media networks, an admonition about Israel's very existence as the root of all evil in the Middle East:

Photo: A prediction of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Unfortunately his prediction seems to have come true.

Something to ponder over...


It was accompanied by a somewhat nostalgic longing for "more responsible" powers to be in charge of the Middle East. A power like the long defunct Ottoman Empire.

The poster is a highly intelligent, thoroughly educated person. Which gives one pause to ponder what can have they been thinking about?

A few points:

I. Quoted from wikipedia:

"The Hamidian massacres (Armenian: Համիդյան ջարդեր), also referred to as the Armenian Massacres of 1894–1896[1] and Great Massacres,[1] refer to massacres of Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1890s, with estimates of the dead ranging from 80,000 to 300,000,[2] including at least 50,000 orphaned children.[3] The massacres are named after Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who, in his efforts to reinforce the territorial integrity of the embattled Ottoman Empire, reasserted Pan-Islamism as a state ideology.[4] Although the massacres were aimed mainly at the Armenians, they turned into indiscriminate anti-Christian pogroms in some cases, such as in Diyarbekir Vilayet where some 25,000 Assyrians were killed (see also Assyrian genocide)"

Considering the record of this Sultan it becomes something of a puzzle as to why anyone at all would like to quote his views about bloodshed after the removal of the Ottoman power from the Middle East.

II. The nostalgia for fascist like systems as exemplified in the Ottoman empire's system of rule is by no means a marginal or dismissible as one person's eccentricity. Here is a quote from by Slavoj Zizek, a much admired philosopher very popular in academic circles:

  "Regarding Islam, we should look at history. In fact, I think it is very interesting in this regard to look at ex-Yugoslavia. Why was Sarajevo and Bosnia the place of violent conflict? Because it was ethnically the most mixed republic of ex-Yugoslavia. Why? Because it was Muslim-dominated, and historically they were definitely the most tolerant. We Slovenes, on the other hand, and the Croats, both Catholics, threw them out several hundred years ago.

This proves that there is nothing inherently intolerant about Islam. We must rather ask why this terrorist aspect of Islam arises now. The tension between tolerance and fundamentalist violence is within a civilization."

The "prediction" by the venerable Sultan reminded me of this particular scintillating insight.

I was thinking that if we take into consideration what we know about Islamic regulations concerning minorities, this observation that "historically [Muslin rulers] were definitely the most tolerant" makes some sense.

There was not an ongoing state of perpetual agitation and attrition of minorities and therefore violent confrontations and pogroms were relatively less common than in Christendom. Which led to a perception of social  harmony. But what kind of harmony and at what cost?

Minority members knew who they were, in relation to the dominant majority, that they were legally bound by a set of laws and rules which dictated to them every nuance of their obligations, conduct and rights relative to the Muslim owners of the land. When your own inferiority is inscribed into law, and when you know that any breach of it may entail painful judgements, and maybe death, you are not likely to walk with your head held high when you pass your Muslim neighbour in the street. Nor are you likely to pursue justice in court when your Muslim partner cheated you, since by law, your testimony counted for half the value of your adversary's. When a system is slated against you, legally, you adjust your ways and expectations and forgive a multitude of insults, slurs and crimes committed against you. It is an excellently efficient way to maintain the "tolerance" of a bellicose majority.

Hugh Fitzgerald explains how the kind of tolerance, suggested by the oft repeated Koranic injunction: "There is no compulsion in religion" really worked:

"... the observable behavior of Muslims over 1350 years. What have Muslims done, when they have conquered, by force or otherwise, non-Muslim lands and peoples? They offer three possibilities: death, conversion, and, at least to those who can be classified as ahl al-kitab or "people of the book," permanent status as dhimmis, with a host of political, economic, and social disabilities which together added up to lives of humiliation, degradation, and physical insecurity, at times relieved -- but only at times -- by the occasional mollitude of a particular Muslim ruler. A slim reed on which to base one's happiness. And so, over time, many non-Muslims, in order to avoid this condition of degradation, humiliation, and physical insecurity, converted to Islam. "

My father grew up in Turkey, a secular Muslim country. Turkey is known for its tolerance towards Jews and Christians. Over the years he visited his native land many times. Turkish Jews speak Ladino amongst themselves. When he was out in the street walking with his brother, he was admonished to speak only in Turkish, and in a low voice, so as not to attract attention to his "Jewish" accent.

He was shocked when I told him about a friend of mine, a Turk, who had converted to Judaism. "We used to have good relations with the Muslim neighbours" he told me "they always respected my father and showed us great hospitality. But this is unheard of. It would never have been tolerated".

Jewish Turkish woman I recently met told me that as she was growing up, her parents had forced her to speak only Turkish at home, so that their Ladino-Jewish accent would not expose them as Jews in school.

These anecdotes, such as they are, only re-enforce my understanding of what constituted the livable reality of that "most tolerant" Muslim rule that Zizek admires in the quote above. Fear, intimidation, violence to your identity, when your private sphere is porous and totally dependant on the whims of a religiously volatile majority.

III.  How come this Sultanic prediction was not recalled to public edification before the the current war in Gaza? I mean, 170,000+ dead Arabs in Syria do not count as "bloodshed"?

What can one conclude from such a selective "told you so" ?

Perhaps it is appropriate at this juncture to invoke the Turkish proverb:

 "When the axe entered the forest, the trees said to each other: The handle is one of us".

Enough said.


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