Monthly Archives: June 2010

The righteous anger of Turkey

I’ve written before on how Turkey’s engagement with its Middle Eastern neighbours does not signal some huge, paradigm-shifting ‘turn east’. Turkey has been reaching out towards countries like Syria for a while now for reasons that are less ideological than pragmatic – economic benefits, shared foreign policy aims, in short the reasons that any state tries to build good international networks. To view Turkey’s ‘choice’ between East and West as dichotomous and mutually exclusive is an unhelpful hangover from the clash of civilisations theory. Turkey is an ascendant power, capitalising on this ascendancy by forging links and building its presence in the region.

Yet, post- flotilla attack, the accusations levelled at Turkey have grown stronger. It’s now an ‘Islamist state’, a supporter of Hamas, an enemy of Israel, part of the menacing Muslim ‘other’. Its reaction to the flotilla killings amounts to calling for jihad, according to Joshua Teitelbaum. Well, not quite.

Whatever your views on the justice/injustice of Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara, it is a fact that eight of its citizens were killed. Erdogan’s response is hardly the ‘bellicose exhortations’ Teitelbaum claims –  and to compare it to Turkey’s response to the recent sinking of the South Korean ship is absurd. Turkey’s citizens are murdered and Erdogan’s response is entirely justified. Teitelbaum tries to twist the Turkish leader’s language, claiming that his criticism of Israel’s actions amounts to ‘warmongering’. If you want warmongering, look to the country that recently asked the US for more bombs and a doubling of its weapons cache – Israel. US military aid to Israel now amounts to $800m worth. To turn this around, to make Turkey the aggressor and the provocator, is a huge misrepresentation of the truth. So is calling this reponse a ‘call to jihad’ – Turkey has consistently been a friend to Israel in the region, despite a history of Israeli snubs and rejections. Erdogan felt ‘personally betrayed’ when Israel invaded Gaza only a few days after Turkey hosted Israel-Syria talks; how must he feel now, when his citizens and countrymen have died?

Why is it, furthermore, that whenever a country such as Turkey tries to assert itself on the foreign policy scene it’s automatically viewed as a direct challenge to the US-led Western hegemony? Is it not possible that it’s just, well, trying to assert itself? Teitelbaum claims that Turkey is trying to ‘lead the Muslim world once more’ and is promoting a ‘clash of civilisations’. This is just total balls. Turkey’s foreign policy is, again, far more complex than this, and it’s analysis like this that promotes the clash of civilisations theory by refusing to admit that it is possible for Turkey to engage with its Muslim neighbours and, shock!, still be friendly towards the West. The diplomatic rise of Turkey – hosting talks between Israel and Syria, striking the nuclear deal with Iran and Brazil – is not just them trying to ‘be’ America or, alternatively, trying to establish some kind of neo-Ottoman caliphate by leading a monolithic Muslim bloc. This kind of reductionism is not just intellectually lazy and dishonest, it’s incredibly damaging as well. The West needs to acknowledge Turkey’s right to form its own foreign policy and, occasionally, to take initative where the West has failed.


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Riding the sanctions train to nowhere

The UN Security Council is probably going to vote tomorrow on Iran sanctions, according to Laura Rozen – and so it begins again. Renewed sanctions are a continuation of a failed policy, implemented to make it look as though the US and its allies are doing something, anything!, to counter the Iranian ‘menace’ while ignoring more difficult yet ultimately more lasting solutions. It’s a policy of sticking your head in the sand.

Sanctions haven’t worked. They’re not strict enough to really hurt Iran – the limits on arms deals with Iran, for instance, are ‘voluntary’, which I like – and they’re not going to get any stricter this time around, particularly given China’s interests in the country. China has been the main obstacle to the Obama administration’s campaign for sanctions, reportedly getting concessions from the US and making such modifications as refusing to let the sanctions name individual banks as part of their commercial restrictions on Iran. All this makes sense given the web of political and economic links that tie China and Iran together – the oil trade and Chinese investment in Iranian business being the two key points here. A new sanctions resolution will put strain on that relationship and on China’s relationship with emerging powers like Brazil, for whom renewed sanctions amount to a kick in the teeth following the recently concluded fuel swap agreement with Iran, roundly rejected by the US. A great analysis of China’s calculations on the Iran issue can be found here.

Iran has found a way to live with sanctions, changing up its ships so that they are given new ‘identities’ and thus continuing with trade despite restrictions; it is well known that a lot of this passes across the Persian Gulf and through Gulf states like Dubai. Shunned by the west, it has forged links elsewhere. But the US presses on regardless, with even the Obama administration seeming to acknowledge the lack of value of sanctions: adminstration officials say that sanctions are about ‘unity’, about demonstrating a common front against Iran, suggesting that their actual value in changing Iranian behaviour is minimal.

The idea of ‘unity’, of a common front united against a country, is attractive for those who wish to demonise Iran, to make it a warmongering rogue state who will only listen to threats. Tehran has, however, shown little inclination to listen to those threats. Uniting against a country creates an ‘us and them’ which further isolates it but also legitimates its government; sanctions in Iran have become a convenient ‘rallying point’ for Ahmedinejad’s government. The political gain to be had from continuing its nuclear program despite the world’s opprobrium is greater than the slight economic loss that sanctions entail.

Recently, Turkey and Brazil broke from this sterile ‘unity’, striking a deal that was remarkably similar to one proposed by the US a little earlier – but when they announced their achievement they were met with the international-relations equivalent of a blank stare. This turnaround by the Obama administration shows its lack of commitment to finding a meaningful cure for the Iranian nuclear blues; instead, they carry on with sanctions, sending a tough message that will have absolutely zero effect, and in the meantime scuppering Brazil and Turkey’s deal. ‘Punishing’ Iran in this way may feel tough, but it looks foolish.

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Helen Thomas and the unchallengeable narrative

Helen Thomas’ recent comments that Jews in Palestine should go back where they came from (‘Poland and Germany’) were irresponsibly framed and worded, and the overtones of anti-Semitism are hard to ignore. But the reaction has bee disproportionate and obscures the real point she was trying to make.

Dan Kennedy in CiF writes that Thomas’ ‘anti-Israel bias’ has been known for some time. This is the classic problem with expressing criticism of Israel – criticism of Israel is equated automatically with ‘bias’, a serious charge. Thomas has long been critical of Israel’s actions, but this does not necessarily mean she is biased, just holds opinions which differ from the Israel-right-or-wrong media narrative which dominates much of the US press. This should be obvious, but unfortunately the muffling of opinion on Israel continues in a climate of accusation and recrimination where pejorative words like ‘bias’ are used beyond their true meaning to describe any opinion that does not follow this narrative. Kennedy’s examples of recent ‘challenges’ to this narrative are laughable (Hitchens? Really? And, with a few exceptions, Haaretz’s coverage of the flotilla attack hasn’t presented a notable challenge either).

The way in which Thomas expressed this opinion struck many as repulsive. True, it was a violent remark, and to justify it by saying it is similar to Zionist rhetoric calling for Palestinians to be expelled and distributed round various Arab countries is slightly disingenuous – to sink to such level of discourse doesn’t help anything, as obviously neither solution is practical or foreseeable. But it feeds into a debate which needs to take place on the nature of the Israeli state, a debate which so often is stifled by assumptions and ‘truths’ which no-one dares challenge. The view that the Jews should not be in Palestine is not just the preserve of anti-Semites; as Jack Ross writes, some notable Jewish thinkers have criticised the concept of Israel as a concession to the genocidal movement that drove them from their homes in Europe. Whatever you think of such views, the kneejerk response to Thomas’ statement obscures a valid argument. (To be fair, so does Thomas’ statement.)

Finally, not only has Thomas taken a very speedy retirement, but she has lost several speaking engagements and apparently the person who cowrote her last book has announced he will not work with her again. This, as Roy Greenslade writes, is disproportionate. It’s an example of how dissenting voices are marginalised and the dominant narrative is perpetuated. Thomas is not a ‘batty’ woman who goes around ‘badgering’ politicians (a couple of the more distasteful words used on her in the media recently) – she is someone with strong views who recently went over the top in her expression of them. This does not merit her total exclusion from discourse. How many right-wing commentators in the US could we force to take ‘retirement’ if the Thomas principle applied to them? The cable channels would be suddenly, mercifully, silent.

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You can call me uncle

Having returned from the land of Oyster cards, solicitous parents and copious cheese, Champollion St. is ripe n’ ready for a return to full service. First project is a ground-breaking survey of Cambridge’s shisha purveyors, all conveniently located next to each other in the town’s ‘ethnic quarter’, which will form your complete guide to getting that authentic Oriental* experience within a CB2 postcode.

Secondly, I am issuing an open call for contributions from those who feel they can enhance the CS brand beyond its already dizzying heights of renown. Anything related to the Middle East, however loosely, is welcome.

And finally, in less than two weeks I will be embarking upon a rihla of my very own, taking in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iran. This will be documented in blog form (whether in the style of Ibn Battuta or not is yet to be confirmed, although as that will require mastery of the hijra calendar it’s looking unlikely) subject to internet and time restrictions. As apparently CS itself is sometimes inaccessible in Syria, these restrictions may prove difficult at times, but not insurmountable.

Here ends this public service announcement.

* that’s irony dripping on you

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London calling

(from 3arabawy)

I’m going home for a while to see my family, sort out visas, sleep a lot, so I won’t be posting over the next few days unless Mubarak goes to the big Sharm in the sky or something like that. Hopefully will go to the Gaza demonstration in Central London tomorrow and take some pictures. I’ll leave you with a musical representation of how I felt when I stepped out of the exam hall yesterday…

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Syria’s vibrant democracy

CS’s Damascus correspondent writes:

I was playing football on campus
> at the university and on the way out we passed a demonstration of
> maybe 1000 with a 1000 more round the edges of the main square on
> campus. I was surprised at the vibrant student activism movement -
> organising flags and banners as well as a tannoy. Not something you'd
> expect in Syria.
> But when we tried to leave campus, a line of plain clothes police were
> stopping everyone, telling them to go back and join the protest. The
> buildings were being emptied and people directed to the square to join
> in. This was no spontaneous expression of rage but a stunt for the
> papers tomorrow morning.
> My British friend Muhammed whipped out the confused foreigner card and
> we managed to get out. But it reminded me of the reality of the
> situation here in Syria.

Contrast this with the Syrian state media report:

‘Students of Damascus University staged on Tuesday a sit-in in Damascus University’s campus to condemn the savage crime committed by Israel against the Freedom Flotilla and to show support for the besieged Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.’

(Thanks SR!)

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Flotilla fallout and Shura shenanigans

Flotilla protest in Sweden (from esocialists)

Turkish activists return to hero’s welcome

Dead activists include one US citizen

Palestinians resist Israel’s efforts to deliver flotilla aid

Obama’s ‘thundering silence’

The grey power behind Free Gaza

Swedish dockers block Israeli ships and goods (in French)

Hanin Zo’by, Arab MP, comes under attack in Knesset

Egypt dancing around the issue of women judges

Flotilla attack: echoes from history

British activist’s account of Israeli attack

Great post from the Arabist on Shoura elections and failure of Egyptian opposition

NDP dominate Shoura, MB lose out

Muslim Brotherhood to back ElBaradei

The growth of alliances between Latin America and the Middle East

What’s the right way to board a hostile ship? Well, not that way…

No.1 destination in Turkmenistan. Seriously, this is incredible!

Iran pardons political prisoners ahead of protests

The decline of both Fatah and Hamas

That’s all for today, I’ve finished my exams and it’s time for a drink. Ma’isalaamah…

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