Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Brothers Karamazov

Two nights ago, I finished The Brothers Karamazov. I attempted it once before, in 2003, but gave up after 300 pages or so. The new translation by Pevera and Volokhonsky certainly helps. I suppose the work is just about everything it has been made out to be. Magnificent. I suspect I will be referring back to my underlinings from here on out--trying to get a grasp on it. The following is a favorite passage, from the teachings of Elder Zosima:

Young man, do not forget to pray. Each time you pray, if you do so sincerely, there will be the flash of a new feeling in it, and a new thought as well, one you did not know before, which will give you fresh courage; and you will understand that prayer is education. Remember also: every day and whenever you can, repeat within yourself: "Lord, have mercy upon all who come before you today." For every hour and every moment thousands of people leave their life on this earth, and their souls come before the Lord--and so many of them part with the earth in isolation, unknown to anyone, in sadness and sorrow that no one will mourn for them, or even know whether they had lived or not. And so, perhaps from the other end of the earth, your prayer for his repose will rise up to the Lord, though you did not know him at all, nor he you. How moving it is for his soul, coming in fear before the Lord, to feel at that moment that someone is praying for him, too, that there is still a human being on earth who loves him. And God, too, will look upon you both with more mercy, for if even you so pitied him, how much more will he who is infinitely more merciful and loving than you are. And he will forgive him for your sake.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Keep an Eye on Turkey (continued)

Protesters in Istanbul marched Wednesday with placards reading “Let’s defend living together,” after the killing of three evangelicals in the east.

This is sad news, indeed. Three evangelical Christians associated with a publishing house in eastern Turkey were found murdered, after being bound and tortured. The publishing firm printed Bibles and religious material. I have to believe that the perpetrators of this heinous crime--as well as the assassination in recent months of an Armenian writer and Roman Catholic priest last year--are radical fringe elements in Turkish society; representative of neither Turkish secularism or Islamism. I will be interested to gauge the extent of public and official revulsion/repudiation of the crime.

Mustafa Akyol, here, asks some hard questions of his fellow Turks and their "Christophobia." He concludes:

As a more short-term solution to Christophobia, we Turks need to begin to stand against it more vigorously. Our all-mighty state shows no lack of determination in punishing insults (and sometimes even criticisms!) against “Turkishness” and its perceived sacred pillars. It should also start punishing those who spread hatred against the Christian — or Jewish, Armenian, Kurdish, etc. — citizens. That hatred not only ends in horrible bloodsheds, but also puts shame on us Turks more effectively than any insult could do.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Assorted Quotes

"It's as if Jimmy Swaggert had come into hundreds of billions of dollars and taken over the church..."

unnamed Arab official explaining to Michael Hirsch how the Arab elite view the Saudis, their money and their Wahabbism, found here.

"They honesty think that if we're nice to everybody they'll be nice to us. But I've studied history."

Camille Paglia to Rod Dreher on the de-Christianized West, an empowered Islam and her fellow Democrats' complacent response to same, found here.

“No Mullah Left Behind.”

Thomas L. Friedman on President Bush’s refusal to do anything meaningful after 9/11 to reduce our gasoline usage and dependence on Persian Gulf oil, found here.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Keep An Eye on Turkey

Visitors to this blog may notice that I have an inordinate concern with Turkey. Despite many frustrations, I do have a genuine fondness for the place. Turkey is unique and not particularly representative of any place other than itself, much less the Islamic world. Western culture intersects with that of Islam in Turkey more so than anywhere else in the Middle East. The resulting dynamics are fascinating, and Turkey's journey holds clues for the evolving relationship between East and West.

First the bad news, here. The Turkish nationalism and xenophobia that colors all discourse concerning the Armenian "issue" continues apace. I have commented on all this before here, here, here, here, and here. The New York Times reports on an interesting recent development at the U.N. A scheduled exhibit on the Rwandan genocide at the U.N. has been blocked by Turkey. Apparently one sentence on one of the panels makes a passing reference to the mass murder of the Armenians. Because of this, Turkey applied pressure to squelch the exhibit. The offending sentence is as follows:
“Following World War I, during which one million Armenians were murdered in Turkey, Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin urged the League of Nations to recognize crimes of barbarity as international crimes.” The exhibit’s organizer agreed to drop the phrase “in Turkey,” but U.N. leadership, with their backbones of mush, caved in anyway. The Times wisely observes that "It’s odd that Turkey’s leaders have not figured out by now that every time they try to censor discussion of the Armenian genocide, they only bring wider attention to the subject and link today’s democratic Turkey with the now distant crime." Exactly so. Robert Fisk, longtime Beruit correspondent for The Independent, and author of The Great War for Civilization (with it's long chapter on the Armenian genocide), spoke to this last October, here.

Now for the good news, here, where 300,000 demonstrators fill the streets of Ankara. Why? To protest the creeping Islamization of Turkey. “We don’t want to become another Iran, another Afghanistan,” said Hanife Sahin, a retired nurse, stooping under the red tent formed by a Turkish flag that ran like a river over the crowd. The remarkable thing about the protest was that it was not inspired by any dramatic move by the Turkish government. Rather, it was triggered by a general unease about Islamic trends in the country; seemingly little things such as new religion textbooks in the schools, postal employees taking off on Fridays, more women wearing head scarves, etc. A gaggle of high school girls ticked off the reasons they did not want the party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to take the presidency. More women are wearing head scarves, said Ecem Karanfil, a 17-year-old in a T-shirt and jeans. “We want to feel comfortable dressing the way we want,” she said.


A small thing had caught Ms. Sahin’s attention. A government official had recently suggested increasing the number of letters in the Turkish alphabet to 32 to allow the language to better accommodate Arabic sounds. “I’ve done pretty well with 29 so far,” she said, smiling.

Good coverage and photos of the rally can also be found, here.

Despite some headlines suggesting otherwise, Turkey is a long way from abandoning its 84-year path of secularization.

Surprisingly, a similiar demonstration took place in Pakistan, of all places. Here.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Greater Kurdistan

The Kurds finally seem to be having their day in history. The whole Kurdish question finds a sympathetic audience in the US. Americans are just naturally disposed to support most any nationalistic struggle for self-determination. And with the country desperate for any semblance of good news out of Iraq, the Kurds seems to be the only contenders.

Kurdish independence was briefly considered at the Conference of Versailles. But they never really had a chance. Despite the encouragement of T. E. Lawrence, the Kurdish hopes were crushed under the onslaught of British and French colonial aspirations. So, the Kurds had to settle for long years as the step-children of a cobbled-together Iraq. Muslim, though neither Arab, Turk or Persian, the Kurds comprise perhaps the largest ethnicity without their own country.

Since the First Gulf War, they have become largely self-governing, and today, while technically still a part of the Iraqi Federation, they are independent in everything but name. A controversial (but not in doubt) plebiscite scheduled for November will move the oil-rich and once-again Kurdish city of Kirkuk back under Kurdish control. After that, Kurdistan will exit Iraq whenever the time is right for them. While the front of the house is collapsing in flames, no one will blame the Kurds for fleeing out the back door. And there is no one to stop them from doing so--neither Iraqi nor American troops are capable of preventing it.

If it were only that simple, no one would be terribly concerned about a Kurdistan emerging from the wreckage of Iraq. But it is not that simple. Millions of Kurds are dispersed not only across northern Iraq, but in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. Behind the dream of an independent Kurdistan is the corollary that one day all Kurds will be united under one flag.

In fact, PKK guerrillas (or terrorists) have battled Turkish forces in that country off and on for 3 decades now. In recent years, the Turkish army has, by and large, subdued rebel activity. And not only that, the government has sought to address the long-standing grievances of the residents of southeastern Turkey, Kurdish or otherwise. Billions of dollars have been invested in economic development. The results are not hard to see. Cities such as Urfa and Mardin are booming, and the countryside around there is blossoming before your eyes. Admittedly, this progress has not yet penetrated the far reaches of the region, adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet, much of the pent-up discontent has been diffused.

But with Iraqi Kurdistan a near fait-accompli, PKK activity is picking up again. And Turkey is alarmed, as would be expected. The already heavy Turkish military presence in the region is being beefed up. From my observation and contacts, I believe the Turkish government, the Turkish military and the Turkish people are resolved to disallow a resurgence of the PKK. Nor will they tolerate Kurds across the border in Iraq providing a safe haven.

That is why I went to eastern Turkey last year. On something of a sabbatical, I was seeking the relics of ancient Christianity in the region--primarily the Suriani Orthodox churches and monasteries around Midyat and the few remaining Armenian church ruins left in the region from Van to Kars. I surmised that if I did not go at that time, the Kurdish troubles could re-ignite, cutting off all travel in the area for years to come.

I did not come away with particularly sympathetic feelings for the plight of the Kurds in Turkey; for though a minority, they seemed eager to persecute those minorities underneath them. The situation of the remaining Suriani Christians in the Mardin province has stabilized, and some may even be returning in small numbers. This is primarily for two reasons: Turkey's desire to present a clean human rights record in its EU bid, and considerable monetary support from the successful Suriani diaspora in Europe and Canada. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, the Suriani were almost swept from the region. While the Turkish government looked the other way, it was the Kurds who invaded Christian villages and appropriated their homes, fields and orchards. It was the Kurds who intimated the Christians and killed those who refused to leave. It was the Kurds who took over the ages-old Christian shops, homes and mansions in Midyat and other cities.

One particularly poignant experience was at the Church of St. Demetrius, east of Midyat. This had been a sizable Christian community until the 1990s. The local Kurds ran off the entire Christian population of the village. The town is now nearly deserted, save for some turkeys and a handful of Kurdish families. Only Fr. Yacob and a Suriani Orthodox nun remained in the compound around the 5th-century Church of St. Demetrius. We could not communicate by language--he knew no English and I knew no Turkish or Aramaic. But as I was leaving, I made the sign of the cross, in the Orthodox manner. As his eyes conveyed understanding, he nodded and slowly, sadly and knowingly returned the sign.

Likewise, the isolated Suriani Church of the Virgin Mary in the center of teeming, swarming, volatile old Kurdish Diyarbakir seems particularly precarious for the 3 remaining families holding out there. Nor were the Kurds particularly good neighbors to the former Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire, being more than willing accomplices to the horrors of 1915-1918. So, all in all, I take a jaundiced view when I read or hear of those waxing eloquent about the glories that will be Kurdistan.

I observed a good bit of the heavy Turkish military presence in the east. Dogubayezit and Kars seemed almost like armed encampments. We attempted to visit the 9th century Armenian cathedral at Mrens, which rivals the great Cathedral of Ani. Though clearly visible from the highway, it was in a "restricted zone." Large areas of the east are off-limits, supposedly for fear of PKK rebels. I wondered whether it was just an excuse to keep up an extensive military presence near the Armenian border, as well as making the border a de-facto no-mans-land. First we appealed directly to the governor of Kars province. After first giving permission, he politely decided "no." Then we went to the army. No again. Then to the police. No once more. Finally, we appealed to the gendarmes. They refused as well. They did give us permission to visit the ruins of another Armenian church that I'm sure they thought we would never try to locate, as it was so inaccessible. (Little did they know. Ha!) Anyway, they warned us that we were on our own and that they could offer no protection from the PKK.

Now things seem to be really heating up. In a February interview only recently released, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned Turkey that if they interfered in the issue of Kirkuk, then the Kurds of Iraq would interfere in Diyarbakir. Continuing, he stated "If we are denied our right to settle down and live freely, I swear by God that we will not allow others to live in security or stability." When asked about the PKK, he replied "Frankly speaking, we support their rights."

Of course, Turkey did not take these taunts lying down. Prime Minister Erdogan shot back with an angry retort. And a leader of the Turkish military has called for a military operation into northern Iraq to rout approximately 4,000 guerrillas holed-up there. So, we will see.

Interestingly, even an oil-rich, but land-locked independent Kurdistan is hardly viable without the goodwill and acquiescence of Turkey. Turkey, not any of Kurdistan's other neighbors, would be the dominant party in the exportation of Kurdistan's oil riches, viable transportation by air in and out of the country, and in outside economic investment. For what its worth, it seems to me that Turkey might need to get used to the idea of a rump Kurdistan. But the Kurds, for their own good, better give up any idea of pushing their borders northward.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Pascha 2007

For Pascha this year, most members of our mission church visited at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas. It was, without question, an incredible experience. Rod Dreher, a member there, describes it much better than I can, here.

Friday, April 06, 2007




(from the Church of St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Arbanassi, Bulgaria, 16th-C)

Akdamar (Ahtamar) Update

Last August, I posted my thoughts on Akdamar (Ahtamar) Island, site of a 9th-century Armenian church in now far-eastern Turkey, here. Ahtamar seems to be a flash-point for usually volatile Turkish-Armenian relations.

Mustafa Akyol reports on recent developments on the island, here.

The restoration of the church is now complete, and with great fanfare, has been reopened (minus the cross on the dome) as a museum. Akyol, a Turkish writer, rightly argues that the structure is a church, not a museum, and that Turkey should be confident enough to allow it to be used once more for what it was intended to be.

Amen, and amen.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Time to Dust Off Huntington Again

I'm a big admirer of Samuel Huntington and his seminal work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996). I read it when it was first released, and have revisited it a couple of times since. His thesis has been often misunderstood and abused. The catch-phrase of "clash of civilizations" has been much over-used and ill-used. Yet his arguments are standing the test of time, and he appears ever more prescient amidst our continuing foreign policy debacles. In my view, no one sets it out quite like Huntington. In 1993, before the publication of this book, he wrote:

History has not ended. The world is not one. Civilizations unite and divide humankind. The forces making for clashes between civilizations can be contained only if they are recognized.... What ultimately counts for people is not political ideology or economic interest. Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for. And that is why the clash of civilizations is replacing the Cold War as the central phenomenon of global politics, and why a civilizational paradigm provides, better than any alternative, a useful starting point for understanding and coping with the changes going on in the world.

Whether you agree with him or not, an informed citizen should be familiar with Huntington. So, my question is this: Have you re-read Huntington lately?

Rod Dreher has. In a recent article in the Dallas Morning News (01 April 2007) entitled "Not everyone is longing to be an American," (here), Dreher takes another look at Huntington. A few excerpts, to-wit:

Now that dreams of building a neoliberal Arab Utopia are dying in the back alleys of Baghdad, Mr. Huntington's sobering wisdom deserves a serious second look.

Mr. Huntington's thesis has been widely misinterpreted as a theoretical basis justifying a Western crusade against Islam. That's entirely false....Far from being an incitement to conflict, his book warns the West to avoid needlessly provoking war by failing to grasp the critical importance of cultural difference.

The most important factor shaping the post-Cold War world is cultural identity. The idea of universal values is "a distinctive product of Western civilization" and not shared by other civilizations.

The West is also dazzled by its own pre-eminent power and fails to notice its slow but steady decline relative to other world civilizations.

Isn't it true, though, that as the world becomes more technologically modernized and economically connected, other nations will become more like the liberal democratic West? No. Societies worldwide are modernizing without Westernizing.

In the Muslim world, the Islamist resurgence that we in the West would like to think of as a fringe political movement is actually, says Mr. Huntington, a broad and dynamic phenomenon. It is futile to expect liberal democracy to emerge in the Islamic world, because it is a Western concept antithetical to core Islamic values, such as the inseparability of religion from the civil sphere, collectivism and the privileged status of Muslims within a social plurality.

The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture through the world.

Dreher concludes that Americans have a particularly hard time accepting this because (1) "it violates the deeply held belief that inside every human being is an American, waiting to come out" and (2) "it seems to imply that reconciliation across civilizations is impossible." Our presuppositions of American exceptionalism run deep and wide with us.

But as Huntington notes, "our values might be universally true, but they aren't universally shared." Check out Dreher's article, and by all means (re)read Huntington.

Clash of Trivializations

The following is from the editorial page of the Dallas Morning News for Monday, 2 April 2007. The position is well-stated, and one that needs to be repeated time and again. The link can be found here, though I have copied the article in its entirety.

Clash of Trivializations

On his radio program Le Show, satirist Harry Shearer airs a feature called "News Outside the Bubble," in which he comments on important stories underplayed in the U.S. news media. The idea is that Americans live in a hermetically sealed zone that keeps relevant information from crossing our minds and informing our judgment.

Last week's editions of Time demonstrated why it's the newsweekly of choice for the Bubble Nation. In its three international versions, Time's cover centerpieced a report on the Taliban roaring back in Afghanistan.

On its American cover? "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School."

Are the news media dumbing Americans down or merely giving people what they want? Either way, the public remains ill informed and insufficiently curious about the world beyond our borders. America's painful experience in Iraq should teach us how little we truly understood about the complexities of that nation and its culture before our invasion.

Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has controversially warned his countrymen that we risk exacerbating a "clash of civilizations" by failing to grasp the fundamental differences among cultures and instead assuming the rest of the world is like us.

In this context, it's easy to see why Americans might be puzzled, even offended, by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah last week calling the U.S. occupation of Iraq "illegitimate." Aren't the Saudis our allies? And why in the past two weeks did Pakistan, which gets billions in U.S. aid each year, strengthen Gen. Pervez Musharraf's dictatorial powers?

These allied governments might be behaving badly. But it's also possible that they're acting in America's best interest. Maintaining stability in oil-rich Saudi Arabia and nuclear-armed Pakistan – and keeping anti-Western Islamic forces out of power there – is extremely important to U.S. interests.

Americans, idealistic by nature, must appreciate that there's considerably more gray in the world than black and white. A more realistic Middle East policy would seek to understand the differences not only between Islamic and Western civilizations, but also among the nations within the Islamosphere – and to work with those differences to strengthen America's hand.

But first, we have to burst our bubble.

“But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals. But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by Him shall glory; for the mouths of liars will be stopped.” - Bridegroom Service of Holy Week, Psalm 63