In an age when there is so much concern about political correctness, tolerance, minority rights and the public good, it is essential to remember that the smallest minority in the world is the individual.

The individual has no group lobbying for him, no party representing him. Movements, parties, churches, sports teams, associations, and all other "group-think" entities are, by definition, "collectivist". They unite people around common values and goals, not individual ones. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of them. In fact, they are an expression of "individual" choices.

Still, there is the danger that these "individual" choices made in a "group-think" environment will trump what is the essence of political freedom - the ability of the individual to live his life relatively free of unnecessary constraint. This was clearly in the forefront of the American founders' minds when they used the language "...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are all explicitly "individual" matters not societal ones. The purpose of law, the meaning of freedom is the protection of individual rights. This is not to say that "social justice" is an invalid concept, but the subjection of the minority to the majority is, and always will be, tyranny.
 
 
The article I wrote on Monday about Erdoğan's AKP government has drawn quite a bit of fire, especially on Twitter. Don't get me wrong; there was plenty of positive feedback as well. But, I was shocked at how some people viewed this article as a "hit piece" against Erdoğan. One person even asked how much I was paid to write this "hate-filled, malicious piece." Unfortunately, people tend to characterize "telling the truth" as hate speech whenever they disagree. Remember what Orwell said. "In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."

The other knee-jerk reaction has been for people to label me a "neocon" or an ultra right-winger. This is hilarious. Hürriyet, one of Turkey's biggest newspapers, fell into this same error. The political views attributed to neocons are diametrically opposed to my own. Of course, Hürriyet may have simply been attempting to distance the newspaper from the views I presented all the while making it available for their readers. In that case, I understand their tactic.

Then, there is the tried and true, "He's a Jew," line of attack. In their world, being a Jew is essentially a crime; it makes one less than human. On this point too I must disappoint them as I have not a drop of David's blood in my veins.

What I simply want to point out is that all of us should judge people based on their actions and their opinions, and we should be sure we have the facts before we start making the judgments.
 
 
DALLAS December 7, 2012 – Seventy-one years ago today, America’s Pacific fleet was attacked by the Japanese Imperial Army at Pearl Harbor. Described by FDR as the “day of infamy,” this marked the beginning of a brutal chapter in the history of not only America, but all of the nations plunged into the Pacific blood bath. December 7th is also the release date of a new book by Dr. Mary Jane Hodges Vance entitled Mary of the Angels, the saga of a Spanish family and biography of her mother Maria de los Angeles Josefa Gabina Gamero y Cucullu.

The story opens in Spain. It is 1836 and the country is being ripped apart by civil war between Loyalists and Rebels. Don José Maria Gamero makes a critical decision to take his wife and only son José M. Gamero away from the violence of his homeland and start a new life in the Philippines. It was, of course, impossible for him to know that his flight from war in Spain would put his grandchildren and great grandchildren in the middle of the Pacific theater of WWII almost a century later.

José M. Gamero grows up in the Philippines and eventually marries a beautiful Spanish girl, the first of four marriages which result in twenty children. The rigors of childbirth and difficult conditions of life in the 19th century provide ample room for the Angel of Death to perform his duties.  The family's strong Catholic faith is passed down through the generations and helps them makes sense of these regular visits from the Angel of Death.

Maria de los Angeles chronicles the family’s adventures and misfortunes, providing unique insight into the lives of Spanish colonists in the Philippines and the hazards of living in a foreign land. It is a story of faith, which also meant excommunication when one of the Gamero daughters falls for a Russian Jew. Lorenzo is disowned for being seduced by and marrying a native girl. Salud falls for a predatory German. 

It is the journey of a family over four generations. The tale of how a colonial Spanish family became embittered towards America due to the Spanish American War and the annexation of the Philippines, but later fell in love with this same country when rescued from Japanese occupation.

The story relates how the Angel of Death visited the islands in the flu epidemic of 1918 and the family’s self-imposed quarantine. With the death of Maria's father Don José Gamero when she was only three, the upper middle-class family gradually begins to suffer economically. All of the children contribute to the family coffers as they grew old enough to work.

Maria de los Angeles gives the reader anecdotal glimpses of a world of mestizos, nationalism and religious fervor. She meets a young gringo from Quinlan Texas, an entrepreneur named Jesse Hodges, and even though he is sixteen years her senior, he eventually succeeds in capturing her heart.

Maria chronicles the ups and downs of life, its reversals, its joys and its sorrows, all against a backdrop of the Church, which plays such a central role in their lives.

The Great Depression and a series of failed ventures and broken promises put the family in dire financial straits, struggling just to survive, but this is exactly the skill set they will need to endure the horror of the Japanese occupation lurking just around the corner.  

With tensions in the Pacific rising, Jesse and Mary Hodges allow their oldest son Bobby to join the Navy. His letter of acceptance arrives six weeks before the Japanese invasion. On December 7, 1941, Bobby bids farewell to his family and goes with a friend to begin serving in the Navy. Later they receive word that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. The invasion of the Philippines begins on December 8th and except for a Christmas letter from Bobby received on December 19th, they never hear from their son again.

Maria's poignant first-hand retelling of the occupation is a sobering reminder to us all that forces of evil haunt this world. The desperation and fear that swept the island when American forces abandoned it to the Japanese is palpable. It is a touching personal narrative about what it meant to live under an occupying army.

Everyone was constantly subject to search, beating, seizure of property and nearly arbitrary capital punishment for the smallest infractions. One of their neighbors, a neutral Swiss citizen, was tied to a telephone pole, bayoneted and left to bleed to death because a shortwave radio was found in his home. All of the Americans in the area, including her husband, were interred at Santo Thomas, where there were thirteen toilets and twelve showers for 1200 men. This number would eventually swell to 5,000. 

Walter D. Edmunds characterized the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, saying, "In the Philippines the personnel of our armed forces almost without exception failed to assess accurately the weight, speed, and efficiency of the Japanese Air Force." The result was a humanitarian disaster, crushing defeat of the unprepared American forces and the infamous Bataan Death March.

Mary of the Angels is a tale of survival, a steady stream of reverses and the indomitable human spirit in the face of hardship. The story is moving reminder that the difference between what someone will eat and what they will not eat is about 72 hours. Mealworms in the flour are viewed as a protein supplement. Iguana is added to the grill list. Mary Jane, Maria's daughter, stands in line at the slaughterhouse every day for the offal the Japanese don’t want - intestines, brains, tongue, congealed blood and other organs.

Life is fragile, fleeting, prone to fly away like a butterfly. Women watch as the Japanese shoot their husbands and sons in front of the trenches that will become their graves and were dug with their own hands.

Hunger eventually trumps fear as people loot and rob just to stay alive. The campaign of terror is everywhere around them. Comfort women are forced to provide sexual favors to Japanese soldiers on the street in broad daylight. Those who become pregnant have their bellies ripped open and are allowed to die.

It is no wonder that prayer pervades the entire book. Prayers offered for the strength to survive the Japanese occupation, prayers that they will survive the liberation, prayers for their father in the concentration camp, prayers that sickness will not leave the children orphaned. In the end, the prayers are for America, the country Don José Gamero had despised.

When the American forces return under General MacArthur, the battle for Manila is brutal and the Japanese resistance is fierce. Much of the city is destroyed. For months, their home is strafed by fighters and bombs explode all around. They survive in a homemade bunker.

For two years, Maria and her children are not allowed into the St. Thomas internment camp. They do not know whether their father is alive or dead.

Mary of the Angels tells a story America needs to remember. A story that shows how determination, love and faith can overcome any obstacle.

The book is also a testimony to how technology is changing personal family chronicles. With on-demand publishing, any person with the perseverance and dedication of Dr. Mary Jane Hodges Vance can pass their family legacy down to grandchildren yet unborn.

The book includes scanned images of marriage certificates, letters, newspaper clippings, obituaries, etc., reinforcing the ‘ring of truth’ which pervades the story.

With the exception of Bobby, the oldest son enlisted in the Navy, the entire family survives the Japanese occupation, and anyone who reads the book can see beyond a shadow of a doubt that, true to her name, Mary really did have angels watching over her.

Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.

 
 
DALLAS November 14, 2012 – Today, a speech by a graying old man in the House of Representatives heralded the end of an era. It was quintessential Paul, long on liberty and short on government, hence the nickname “Dr. No”.

It is a fitting title that he bears with honor for the simple reason that it's not the sort of title one earns by compromising on principle or the constitution. Ron Paul believed that a vote for almost any law put before the House was a vote against freedom, so his vote was generally “No.” Quietly, with conviction, he bucked the two-party system his entire life.

His conviction was that law, especially federal law, is the greatest threat to our liberty. It would be hard to argue otherwise.

After all, law is either restraint or compulsion. It restricts freedom and an overabundance of law is, by definition, the erosion of liberty. What's worse is a situation where the law is “for sale” in the form of legislators and government officials. It is the death of the long revered principle known as “the rule of law” reducing this vital principle to meaningless language buried in legal texts. That is where we find ourselves today.

According to Dr. Paul, “The federal register is now 75,000 pages long and the tax code has 72,000 pages, and expands every year.  When will the people start shouting, “enough is enough,” and demand Congress cease and desist.”

Indeed, when new laws and regulations are passed at the frightening rate of thousands per year and old laws are scrapped because another party has come to power, how can anyone seriously talk about the “rule of law” if the rules are always changing?

His speech today made it clear that we live by the golden rule of tyranny - the man with the gold makes the rules.

“This neglect [of liberty and free markets] ushered in an age of redistribution of wealth by government kowtowing to any and all special interests, except for those who just wanted to be left alone. That is why today money in politics far surpasses money currently going into research and development and productive entrepreneurial efforts.”

Simply put government has become a trough to slop the pigs with while the “farmer” politicians milk the populace of the fruits of their productive pursuits.

Dr. Paul called for an intellectual awakening. “If it’s not accepted that big government, fiat money, ignoring liberty, central economic planning, welfarism and warfarism caused our crisis, we can expect a continuous and dangerous march toward corporatism and even fascism with even more loss of our liberties.”

Dr. Paul said that the crisis we face cannot be solved if we do not understand the underlying causes. Those in power will continue to violate moral principle, taking from one group and giving to themselves and their friends, and they will do so legally, by passing laws.

On the floor of the House, Dr. Paul asked his fellow members a long list of questions about the laws they had passed. He was clearly highlighting the compromised nature of American legislators. Here is a very short version of the list:

  • Why does the federal government restrict the drinking of raw milk?
  • Why are Americans not allowed to use gold and silver as legal tender as mandated by the Constitution?
  • Why can’t Americans decide which type of light bulbs they can buy?
  • Why is the TSA permitted to abuse the rights of any American travelling by air?
  • Why did the big banks, the large corporations and foreign banks and foreign central banks get bailed out in 2008 and the middle class lost their jobs and their homes?
  • Why is there so little concern for the Executive Order that gives the President authority to establish a kill list, including American citizens, of those targeted for assassination?

One of the fundamental themes in Dr. Paul's final address was the use of force. He said, “The immoral use of force is the source of man’s political problems. Sadly, many religious groups, secular organizations, and psychopathic authoritarians endorse government-initiated force to change the world. Even when the desired goals are well-intentioned – or especially when well-intentioned – the results are dismal.”

It may be government force used to invade foreign countries, or regulate economic activity (e.g. the massive US tax code, legal tender laws or business regulations), or constrain personal liberty and habits. He said that only a criminal mind could imagine it was permissible to enter someone else’s house and tell them how to behave, what they can eat, drink and smoke, or how to spend the fruits of their labor.

It must have taken some courage to make this address to a “House-full” of legislators guilty of these very same infractions, exhibiting tendencies to the very same "criminal mind set."

He reminded the House of Representatives that government does not have a monopoly on the use of force. Even though there is now an “army of armed bureaucrats” in the TSA, CIA, FBI, Fish and Wildlife, FEMA, IRS, Corp of Engineers, etc., the fact that citizens are “guilty until proven innocent in the unconstitutional administrative courts” and the government’s arbitrary and immoral use of force will eventually be used as a justification for individuals to do the same.

He noted that government overreach will eventually result in violent pushback not all that different from the conflict experienced in the Revolutionary War against England. The amazing number of people signing petitions of secession after the election seems to indicate the US might be approaching a “civility cliff”.

Paul ended his speech by placing the blame right where it belongs - on us, the people. "Our Constitution, which was intended to limit government power and abuse, has failed. The Founders warned that a free society depends on a virtuous and moral people. The current crisis reflects that their concerns were justified.”

According to Paul, the current crisis is, in a nutshell, a crisis of morality, for we have become a nation that winks at sin, whether it is theft (through taxation), or gluttony (consumption that outpaces our production). He referred to the impending collapse of the US economy due to excessive debt, an entitlement philosophy and eroding civil liberties.

His tone was not optimistic. In a thinly-veiled reference to one of the primary debates when he was booed for suggesting that the US treat other countries with dignity, not violate their sovereignty, and avoid the use of sanctions, he said, "A society that boos or ridicules the Golden Rule is not a moral society.” 

At one point, he also said, “I never believed that the world or our country could be made more free by politicians, if the people had no desire for freedom.” This was an indictment of the "sheeple" mentality that has caused the current state of affairs.

Yet, he held out hope that the new generation would reject authoritarianism and embrace freedom. He said that homeschooling and the internet would be crucial tools in overcoming the deceptive federal government's monopoly on education and information, that productivity and creativity were the basis of personal satisfaction and that peace was the path to prosperity.

Dr. Paul's tireless defense of liberty in the halls of the American empire has come to an end, and today his concern was that the Republic itself was in danger. Today, freedom lost its outspoken and courageous ally in the House of Representatives. Today is, in a very real sense, the end of an era. What the next one will look like depends entirely on whether or not Americans heed the warnings he issued today. The only way to prevent the rise of more authoritarian and bellicose government overreach is to #withdrawconsent and put more men of principle in Washington D.C.


 
 
September 13, 2012 – On the 11th anniversary of September 11th, violent Muslim protests swept over the US Embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi leaving 4 dead, including the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Americans are outraged at these attacks on US sovereignty, attacks that could be viewed as an act of war. Indeed, two navy destroyers are currently being deployed off the coast of Libya.

The attacks were allegedly sparked by negative portrayals of the prophet Mohammed in a film by Sam Bacile. Yet, every thinking person knows that this is nothing more than an excuse for violence. There are hundreds of publications, videos, films, books and blogs in the West that could be taken as an "insult to the prophet", especially given the relatively thin-skin that evolution has apparently selected for in North Africa and the Middle East.

The “insult to the prophet” justification for Muslim violence is beginning to sound a little hollow especially when it is regularly trotted out any time a radical group decides to resort to violence. In fact, the very notion that Allah is so jealous of the prophet's reputation and so impotent at defending it Himself that he is dependent upon mob justice is hardly a flattering portrayal of the ‘Lord of the Worlds’.

It is difficult to imagine there being a strong theological foundation for such a position. Yet the Joint Chiefs Chairman has apparently made an appeal to a Florida pastor asking him to withdraw support for the film. We can, of course, be thankful that this pastor was not put in front of a firing squad or thrown into a dungeon, which is what would have certainly happened in many Muslim countries.

The fact that a senior US military official is making these overtures of appeasement is disturbing, especially when the lastest intelligence is that the attacks were coordinated and carried out by individuals with military training and hardware, hardly your garden-variety mob and more proof that the “insulting the prophet” claims are merely meant to provide cover.

Back to the attacks... These acts of violence should come as no surprise to anyone. But our capacity to be surprised by the obvious is one of the truly baffling things about human nature. So, let’s recap and see if we can make sense of the latest developments in the Muslim world.

The unrest that began in Tunisia in December 18, 2010 and spread throughout the Middle East was eventually dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’, which to the informed observer is a complete misnomer, a sign that ignorance is bliss, hope springs eternal and optimisim can be a psychological disorder indicating a serious disconnect with reality.

Spring? Who thinks up this stuff? If one means the blooming of bigoted Islamic fascism, then maybe, just maybe, ‘spring’ is a fitting description. However, those with experience in the Middle East always knew that the 'Arab Spring', this movement to plant ‘democracy’ in the poisonous soil of the Middle East, would yield a harvest of religious radicalism and further violence.

The reason is simple and can be illustrated with the open elections held in Palestine at the urging of the US in 2006. This democratic process to validate the “will of the people” brought to power the political wing of one of the world’s most radical terrorist groups – Hamas. This immediately led to armed conflict, resulting in the division of the Paletinian territory into the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas and the West Bank controlled by Fatah.

Would it be a truism to say that a fervently religious population guided by an ideology that explicitly marries religion and politics will elect officials who have similar values? Probably so, but it clearly bears repeating. Democracy is no panacea to the ills of Muslim societies. It does, however, guarantee that the Islamic values held by the majority will play a larger role in politics.

Fast forward from 2006 to December 2010 and the start of the Arab spring that received direct and indirect support from America. First, the admittedly corrupt, but pro-Western president of Tunisia was deposed and eventually replaced with the Islamist Ennahda Party. Islamic Fundamentalists 1 – Middle East Tolerance 0.

Later, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarek, a staunch US ally in the face of domestic opposition, a leader who honored a peace treaty with Israel, negotiated peacefires with Hamas and kept Muslim fundamentalists from gaining political power in his own country was thrown under the bus.

The result? The ‘relatively’ secular regime of the most influential Arab country in the world was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood in ‘democratic elections,’ resulting in more fundamentalist government, more persecution of non-Muslim minorities, and the storming of the US Embassy this past Tuesday. Islamic Fundamentalists 2 – Middle East Tolerance 0.

Then, just last year, the US and NATO encouraged and assisted a popular uprising in Libya aimed at overthrowing that murderous tyrant and dictator Muammer Gaddafi. The Libyan dictator had a troubled history with the West due to issues such as the Lockerbie and Berlin bombings, his demands for greater revenues from Libyan oil, intense opposition to the state of Israel and a laundry list of other sordid and sundry crimes.

Yet, he was no friend of fundamentalist terror groups either. He is reported to have personally presided over executions of members of the Islamic extremist group Hizb-ut Tahrir. Religion was for Gaddafi a political tool not an ideology.

In 2003, however, after the downfall of Iraq, he renounced his WMD program and began full cooperation with international inspectors. Yet, his sins caught up with him, and the tryant had to go to make room for democracy. It is not yet clear, but if the murder of the US ambassador on Tuesday is any indication, the Islamic Fundamentalists are advancing on an unprotected goal and likely to score again.

If the secular “Butcher of Damascus” Hafez al-Assad is brought down in the months to come, the next Syrian government will also be a fundamentalist Sunni government as the Free Syrian Army has already proven itself to be just as violent but more “pious” than its oppponent.

If there is a common thread here, it is that the US has overtly supported the overthrow of all these admittedly corrupt but also non-fundamentalist regimes while equally corrupt but overtly religious governments like those in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which also faced popular dissent as a result of the Arab Spring, were spared any negative coverage and the uprising were quietly and resolutely suppressed without receiving US support.

Apparently, the US policy of supporting democracy only applies to dictators that are non-religious like Gaddafi, Saddam, Mubarek, and Assad, but not to the House of Saud and Bahrain.  

On Tuesday, the US reaped the first fruits of the ‘Arab Spring’ in the form of death and mayhem.  Let’s all hope that this ‘Arab Spring’ doesn't transform the Middle East into a Muslim Brotherhood fraternity house of such religious intolerance and fanaticism that we one day long for men like Saddam and Gaddafi.



 
 
Students of the New Testament know it best as Asia Minor, Paul's destination on his first missionary journeys to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. The names of the Roman provinces through which Paul traveled preaching and teaching are still read every week in Sunday Schools across America.

The ancient names for the modern state of Turkey - Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, Phrygia, etc. are not all that unfamiliar to American believers.

Paul's preaching attracted converts but never failed to draw fierce opposition from the local population. On more than one occasion the natives, who might have been Greeks, Phrygians, Romans, Lycians, or any mixture of Assyrians, Hittites and Persians, tried to kill him and his companions for introducing to the Empire an unknown god, a new teaching of peace and love.

This has never been a popular message with Empire (think Darth Vader), but it eventually prevailed and all of Anatolia embraced the gospel. In fact, several of Paul's epistles were addressed to Anatolian congregations and all of the seven churches of Revelation are found in modern-day Turkey.

Now, two thousand years later, things have come full circle and those bearing Christ’s message of peace in Turkey find themselves facing opposition very similar to that encountered by the early apostles. In fact, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom claims that state persecution has become so serious that the very survival of Christian communities in Turkey is at stake.

The report released last week reclassified Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).   
This article is Part II of a series on religious freedom in Turkey. The first article introduced the USCIRF report, touching on troubling issues related to its politicization and Turkey’s state control of religion.  

Even though the commission recommended Turkey be put in the same category as offenders like Saudi Arabia, the USCIRF report listed a number of positive developments in the country. Numerous articles have been written in the West about how Prime Minister Erdogan's "mildly Islamist" government heralds a changing of the tide and will knock Turkey out of NATO’s orbit and lead to more radical Islamic policies. Yet, the facts tell a slightly different story.

1) Erdogan has promised to replace the current constitution implemented by the military in 1982. This is particularly significant since much of the institutionalized “persecution” of religious groups in Turkey is connected with its peculiar view of secularism, which essentially makes the state the final arbiter in all religious affairs.

His opponents rightly understand this as an attempt to unshackle religion, thereby giving Islamists a greater voice. But, in all fairness, religious freedom cannot be guaranteed otherwise. Practically all religious minorities have welcomed the idea of a new constitution, proof that there is an urgent need.

2) In 2008, the Foundations Law was amended to facilitate the operations of religious foundations. Soon after it went into effect, 1,400 applications were received asking for the return of religious properties seized during the Republican era by the government. Over the next three years, 200 properties were, in fact, returned.

In 2011, Erdogan also passed an executive order that made it possible to obtain compensation for properties that had been previously seized by the state and could not be returned. Both of these steps are significant.

3) The Associations Law passed in 2004 and amended in 2007 makes it possible for all religious organizations to hold religious services and determine their own religious curriculum. This too was progress made by Erdogan’s government, yet one cannot help but wonder why it took “modern”, “democratic” Turkey so long to provide some legal underpinning for such a basic right.

Celebration of victory regarding this important civil liberty could be premature, for associations may not own property and their status may be revoked by local governors.

4) Erdogan’s AKP government has also granted unprecedented permission for minority religious services as well as building and restoration projects (e.g. the Armenian Akdamar church and Sümela Orthodox Monastery), indicating a new era of openness. The government has even been severely criticized by nationalists for its “leniency” with minority religious groups.

5) Although anti-Semitism has spread throughout the Middle East like a malignant tumor and Erdogan’s unprecedented popularity with Arabs is due almost entirely to his pro-Palestinian positions and criticisms of Israel, Jews in Turkey continue to enjoy rights seldom given to them in other Muslim countries.

In fact, Prime Minister Erdogan once called Turkey Israel’s most important friend in the region, and said that anti-Semitism was a “crime against humanity,” statements one can hardly imagine coming from most Arab states. Furthermore, on January 29, 2012, Turkey became the first majority Muslim country to broadcast the 9-hour documentary Shoah on state television to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day!

This is only a summary of the AKP’s progress regarding religious freedom, progress unparalleled in the history of the Republic of Turkey, progress which has been affirmed by every religious minority in the country, and progress the USCIRF report dismisses as ad hoc.

Why are these impressive reforms being dismissed? Why is the AKP not being congratulated in the West for taking steps to promote religious freedom that no other government in the history of Turkey has been able to achieve?

It’s a simple question with a simple answer hidden in a phrase used several times in the report – ad hoc.

In other words, the commission believes that none of these efforts address the institutionalized injustice that places onerous restrictions on religious freedom in Turkey. All of these reforms could be reversed tomorrow because no real protections have been afforded these communities.

At the end of the report, the commissioners offered this jarring explanation for their surprising recommendation to have Turkey downgraded from the “Watch” list to a Country of Particular Concern:

“After past genocide, and other violence, and current, suffocating legal restrictions, Turkey's Christian communities are barely hanging on.

Every year that passes without substantial religious reform places these minorities in greater peril and helps seal their fate. In the Arab Spring, Turkey holds itself out to be an Islamist model. But it is no model for religious freedom. We have waited for ten years for the AKP to make a real difference in the Christians’ fate. We can no longer sit by and just “Watch.”

Let’s look at the restrictions faced by Christians, Jews and religious minorities in Turkey.

Restrictions related to property. Since its founding, the Republic of Turkey has seized thousands of properties such as schools, businesses, hospitals, orphanages and cemeteries from religious minority congregations. The government’s right to confiscate such property is still in effect, putting the ownership of any religious minority in jeopardy and insuring “submission” to the powers that be.

Turkey does not recognize the corporate legal status of any religious minority. Instead, it has drafted a byzantine labyrinth of laws to control property ownership, transfer and operations. It not only restricts the flow of funds from a congregation in one part of the country to sister congregations in another part of the country, but only Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities may refer to their buildings as churches or synagogues. All other groups are merely “cultural centers” or “community centers.”

One of the most striking examples of the state’s draconian control is the Turkish government's confiscation of the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery, which served as the headquarters of the Syriac Church from 1160 to 1932. This seizure was realized with a ruling from the Turkish Supreme Court overturning the ruling of a lower court and granting a significant portion of the property to the Treasury.

Restrictions on Training Clergy The only center for Greek Orthodox theological education, the Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeli, has been closed since 1971. As a result, there is no way for the church to train new leaders in Turkey. Of course, the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has shrunk from approximately 100,000 to 4,000 since the 1955 pogrom executed to force Greeks out of the country.

The government has indicated a willingness to reopen the seminary, but maybe that is only because the congregation has dwindled to the point that its extinction is all but certain. Whatever the case, 41 years later, the seminary remains closed and there is disagreement over the school's official status.

Other religious minorities are in the same boat. The country's largest non-Muslim religious minority, the Armenian Orthodox church, also has no seminary for theological education and currently has only 26 priests serving population of approximately 65,000.

Religious Education Religious education is constitutionally mandated in Turkish primary and secondary schools and the curriculum is determined by the Ministry of Education’s Department of Religious Instruction. Although non-Muslim children are not, by law, forced to attend, some schools have refused to allow the exemption.

Moreover, the curriculum’s description of minority beliefs is biased, factually incorrect and encourages societal discrimination because of the insulting language employed. For example, Christian missionaries are referred to as criminals and children are taught that the Bible has been changed.

The only minority schools allowed by law are for communities covered by the Lausanne Treaty – the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish minorities. But regulations make is difficult for minority children to register even in these schools and there are no schools for minorities such as Catholics, Protestants, Alevis, Syriacs or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In short, the policies of the Turkish government seem to be designed to ensure that the influence and growth of minority religions is strictly controlled, even over their own children. The purpose of these policies seems obvious: to force assimilation and thwart diversity.

The accuracy of the Commission on International Religious Freedom was confirmed by a conversation with Turkish pastor Ibrahim Deveci. Here are the highlights of that interview:

“It is a difficult place for a Christian to live. It's hard to find a job, get married or even express my views in public. It is difficult to work in certain organizations or obtain a security clearance.

“It is really hard for children. In Diyarbakır, one child was pressured to repeat the Islamic confession of faith and when he refused, he was slapped by the teacher. From that time forward, the other children treated him as an enemy.

“Sometimes, people are afraid of persecution so they don’t change the religion on their ID cards and are forced to take the mandatory religion (Sunni) classes.

“The biggest threat we face is the threat to our lives. There have been more martyrs during the last few years than at any other time in modern history. Two Catholic priests have been killed and three brothers in Malatya.”

When asked how Christianity was perceived in Turkey, he said, “I'm afraid we are viewed very negatively and it has gotten steadily worse over the last 18 years.”

In response to a question about whether the AKP was turning Turkey away from the West and towards the world of Islam, Mr. Deveci said, “I don’t get that involved in politics. But, this government (AKP) is clearly more strategic and more determined to spread Islam. Ironically, it was more difficult under previous governments. This is the easiest time in modern history for the Turkish church. We don't know what will happen in future, but we seem to have more freedom now.

“This is because we are a very small minority - around 4000 believers. So they don't take us seriously. Yet, at the same time, we are viewed as a threat. It seems that some rights have been given back due to the EU. Some foundations are being returned to ethnic minorities, some churches are being repaired and restored. It is good but inadequate. A little make-up on a few churches is not enough. Christians need to be recognized as legitimate citizens of the State.” 

Mr. Deveci clearly feels like Christians in Turkey are viewed as turncoats or traitors.

When the conversation turned to the fact that 20% of Turkey was Christian when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and yet today Christians make up a mere 0.1% of the population, Mr Deveci said:

“There are many reasons for this. Essentially, it is an ‘evaporation’ policy, an anihilation policy. Most Christians have immigrated to other countries to escape persecution. The AKP thinks the new generation is a bit luke-warm when it comes to Islam. They want to see a religious revival. I will be happy with my country when I see that Christians are granted the same rights as Muslims.

“There was and is an effort to unify the nation in terms of both language and religion. They say, ‘Every Turk is born a Muslim.’ Actually there is incredible diversity here, but people have not been free to express this. Turkey has suffered greatly due to the loss of cultural diversity.

“They talk about tolerance. Yes, there is tolerance – that is, until Christians become a bit more informed and start sharing their faith. That's where tolerance ends.”

Mr. Deveci’s perspective certainly seems to corroborate the 2012 US International Religious Freedom Report. In fact, anyone who knows anything about Turkey has known about the severe restrictions on religious freedom for years.

Consider the following US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks regarding an anti-missionary sermon sent to every mosque in the country by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, proof that American officials have long been aware of Turkey’s infractions.

“Turks tend to be profoundly hypocritical on issues relating to Islam and Christianity. Hypersensitive to any perceived Western slights or misconceptions about Islam, they routinely spread misinformation about Christianity and sow fear about missionaries. Gormez, like other pious Turks, considers conversion to Islam a natural progression, but is deeply resentful of Muslims who convert to Christianity. It is important to remember that this insidiously anti-Christian sermon was prepared not by a private Islamic group but by one of the largest branches of the GOT (Government of Turkey) bureaucracy.”

However, NATO membership and a strategic partnership with the US have their advantages, one of the most important of which is special treatment when it comes to violations of basic human rights.

Maybe this report signals an end to these days of privilege and the beginning of genuine pressure on Turkey to change. Unfortunately, even if it does come, it will be too little and too late for the thousands of religious minorities who have immigrated or been absorbed. As the commission stated so well, it is time for America to stop being a bystander when it comes to the violation of individual civil liberties.

Being a "strategic partner" must not be a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.  

 
 
The sign reads - End tyranny - free the headcovering...

For those who take the time to examine Turkey's relationship with the West, it can be confusing. Like lots of relationships today, ‘it's complicated.’

Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2012 report, which among other things, designated Turkey a “Country of Particular Concern.” This puts it in the same category as such tyrannical regimes as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. It is hard to imagine anything that would have insulted Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sensibilities more.

To be lumped in with Wahhabi-led Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Oh, the injustice! For indeed Turkey is far freer, far more modern, far more tolerant than those countries. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its displeasure by saying,

“No impartial observer could take seriously the allegations in this report, which             intentionally turns a blind eye to the advances and the political will that has          constituted the basis for reforms. This report is null and void for us.”

Apparently, not all of the Commission members thought it was the right decision either. Four of the nine commissioners wrote dissenting opinions.

Does Turkey deserve to be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC)? Anyone who reads the facts of the report would have to agree it does.  The problem is that putting Turkey in the same category as Sudan or Pakistan is patently unfair. The solution? A new category that would suit regimes like Saudi Arabia. We could call this new designation Hypocritical Extremist Loathers of Liberty (HELL).

Is this new category likely to be created? No. The reason is simple. Politics and pandering. Case in point – again Saudi Arabia.

This is the same country that refuses to acknowledge diversity of any kind when it comes to religion and prohibits any non-Muslim worship; yet, it was not even classified as a Country of Particular Concern until 2004, fully six years after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 became law.  The worst violator on the planet managed to keep its name off the list for six years! This taints the objective value of the report considerably.

Ratings like this should be based on objective criteria and the facts on the ground not politics. Yet, after this year’s report was released, it came to light that Don Argue, one of the five commissioners who recommended the CPC classification for Turkey, tried to change his mind at the last minute. The reason for his sudden change of heart? A visit from Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.

This unacceptable State Department intrusion into the affairs of an “independent commission” apparently occurred after one of the commissioners informed State about the results of the deliberations. This news was not well received, but it was too late to change the designation because business and debate had already been concluded in accordance with the commission’s duly accepted procedural timetable.

The Obama administration has, like the Bush administration, maintained close ties with the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan, an outspoken Muslim whose religious values have wide appeal in the Middle East. But the administration's last-minute attempt to keep its NATO ally from being embarrassed left it with egg on its face. It is a veritable scandal.

Back to the report. A casual reader of this detailed description of obstacles to religious freedom in Turkey will be surprised to find the following assertion (emphasis my own):

“The state’s strict control of religion in the public sphere significantly restricts religious freedom, especially for non-Muslim religious minority communities – including the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Jewish community – as well as for the majority Sunni Muslim community and the country’s largest minority, the Alevis.”

Apparently, there is no religious group in Turkey that isn’t persecuted! And strangely enough there is some truth to this. I say “some” truth because, well, it’s complicated, which is why restricted religious freedom even for the majority Sunni Muslims is, for Americans, counter-intuitive.

First of all, the Republic of Turkey is a secular state as defined by its 1923 constitution, a fact reiterated in the 1982 constitution. What outsiders don’t understand is that “secularism” is the state religion; a fact our readers will see shortly.

Second, the openly Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Erdoğan has ruled the country since 2002, sparking a wide-ranging debate about how Turkey was moving out of the West’s orbit and towards an axis that displayed more solidarity with the Muslim world.

Thirdly, according to government statistics, Turkey is 99.8% Muslim (Alevis are included here). If this figure is adjusted for “atheist” or “agnostic” Muslims, then the number is probably more like 95%. Ninety-five percent is still an overwhelming majority by any definition, so how is the religious freedom of Muslims restricted in a majority Muslim population?  

It is at this point that Americans find themselves in a realm that defies description by all modern paradigms. To illustrate this, consider that 1) until 2007 the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs determined the content of all Friday sermons.

Imagining a United States of America where Southern Baptist preachers and TV evangelists utilize outlines they receive from Washington bureaucrats to provide weekly spiritual nourishment for their flocks is almost as hard as imagining a US Department of Religious Affairs in the first place.

2) The salaries of all the Sunni Muslim clerics in the country are paid by the government and mosques are generally built by the state, not individual congregations, a fact that is extremely unpopular with tax payers such as atheists, Alevis, and other minority religious groups who do not benefit from this state largesse.

When the French courageously passed a law banning the burqa, it was hotly contested in the West as an infringement of Muslim rights and only a decade of the fear and tension arising from the War on Terror actually gave the ban any chance at all. So, my American friends are always shocked to learn that, until very recently, 3) women in Turkey were not allowed to attend any university classes or work in government buildings if they wore a head-covering.  

Though restrictions on the freedom of religious expression have improved for Sunnis in the last five years, the report still finds this "progress" unacceptable:

“The government officially does not permit the individual or communal practice of Islam   outside of government-regulated institutions. The majority Sunni Muslim community is       under the control of the Diyanet, or Presidency of Religious Affairs, which reports directly to the Prime Minister.”

Anyone can see that such restrictions on religious expression are antithetical to a free society. The Turkish state controls religion even if there has been some relaxing of this control since the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002. The military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 were in part justified by referring to a "threat to the secular order", and pious Turkish Muslims have long complained of state persecution.

This sort of “government interference” in the affairs of religious communities is simply inconceivable in America. The Turkish tradition of exercising state control over religious leaders is not, however, new. It was common practice in the Ottoman Empire, but in the Republic of Turkey, secularism was a deceptively innocent term that served as a disguise for the social engineering the survivors of WWI felt was necessary for Turkey to survive as a nation.

It did not mean freedom of religion in the sense that the state is neutral. The state is anything but neutral. After all, the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is the defacto doctrine of the state and freedom of religion is not the primary concern. Control is. (The third part in this series entitled "The Backside of Empire” will address this issue in detail).

To be fair, some modern Turkish secularists have insisted that without such state control, the majority Muslim population would naturally revert to a governmental system based on sharia law and that the only way to ensure the “secular” country envisioned by the great reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is to keep a tight rein on the expression of religious zeal in order to counteract the various religious groups that still want to restore the Caliphate and sharia law.

This approach could be described as ensuring not “freedom of religion” but “freedom from religion” as there is no compulsion about matters of faith in Turkey. The freedom guaranteed is essentially the freedom to not practice their faith. The importance of this freedom cannot be overlooked in a region where countries like Saudi Arabia actually have “religious police” to ensure that the population is ‘walking the straight and narrow’.

In summary, it’s complicated…

In our next post, we will look at state control over minority religious groups – the real reason for the new rating given by the USCIRF.

This is part one in a series on “Understanding Freedom in Turkey”

 
 
 
I want to thank The High Tide and the Turn for the interview. It was a lot of fun but then I do love intelligent discussion about writing, politics, religion and the direction of our society. The first part was published here. And the second part is available here.


 
 
The life of a writer is not a glamorous one. He or she generally labors in isolation - gathering relevant facts, rewriting, developing the tedious details of plot and character, rewriting some more, preparing chapter synopses, poring over editor comments, and did I mention rewriting?

For a good book, the process often takes years, that is years without reward and or fruit, except for that intensely personal satisfaction derived from the completion of each chapter.

What crowns the finished product is the appreciation of the book's readers. In that respect, I have been amply rewarded. Hardly a day goes by that I don't receive an email or personal message from someone who has read the book and was challenged.

Today's comments, however, were surprisingly long. 781 words long to be exact. And because they come from a Turkish reader written for an English language publication in Turkey, I was eager to share them with you.

Y.E. was also gracious enough to give me permission to do so. Thank you!

Review below.

Luke Montgomery’s “A Deceit to Die For”:

With all its intricacy and deceit, Turkish politics already reads like a page turner. It was about time someone created a skillful and intelligent page turner using Turkey and its politics as the base.  Luke Montgomery has done exactly that.

Montgomery’s well-researched book draws from the incredible but real affairs in Turkey:  The quiet suffering of the Turkish people during the last 10 years from the Orwellian policies of a regime with overt Islamic tendencies, one during which journalists are jailed for criticizing the government, the right to free speech is stifled by intimidating the public and where the government is the Big Brother who monitors private conversations and limits web access.   The Western World’s reaction has been to declare the ruling Islamic party an example of a new and convenient concept they coined “Moderate Islam”.   Meanwhile, the Turkish government has eliminated the internal checks and balances that are supposed to keep it under control so that it can reign without consequences:  The fictitious “Balyoz”  case eliminated the opposing Military echelon while another manufactured plot called “Ergenekon” implicated intellectuals critical of the regime.  

Meanwhile, the common Turk is aware of Imam Gulen who lives in PA, USA who owns Turkish media channels, whose network infiltrated bureaucracy.  Gulen operates hundreds of schools globally, including in the US via his organization and network.  

Luke Montgomery uses these very real ailments and parasites feeding off the Turkish nation as the  background in his newly released “A Deceit to Die For” which is available on Amazon.com and is being translated into Turkish.   Montgomery then weaves a compelling and modern human tale intertwined with a religious historic secret. The result is a page turner which engages and entertains while challenging the reader to conduct additional research on both the historical intrigue and the modern day politics of Turkey.   To a Turkish reader, it presents a uniting mosaic, joining the snapshots of real events in Turkish daily news.  To someone who may be less familiar with Turkey, it provides a framework for better understanding the parasites affecting Turkey today.   If I were planning a trip to Turkey this summer, this would be the one book I’d pick up.

A Deceit to Die For takes the reader on a whirlwind journey from the UK to the USA, from Egypt to Turkey over and over again.  The novel is based on the story of a document found in a collection of letters and books acquired by a UK professor which someone wants to keep a secret no matter what the cost.   The professor’s family in the US find themselves with the concealed document and confronted with an international organization on a quest to forever bury the 16th century secret this document reveals.  This dangerous organization does not hesitate to remove anything or anyone in their way, prompting the professor’s children to flee for their lives while trying to research the historic secret.  

The story unfolds a mystique that leaves the reader breathless.  The author offers clues revealing that the he is not only someone who loves Turkish culture but has also spent a long time in Istanbul.  This insight is skillfully scattered throughout the book as a treat to any enthusiast of Turkish culture, it is found buried in the intimate and very real slices of life from modern Istanbul such as the crowded backstreets of Beyoglu and Tunel, or the flavor of a kebap meal enjoyed by the characters with afternoon tea.

The plot rolls and the pace is fast, still the multitude of characters have been developed to a certain degree so that the reader can identify with them.  More importantly, there are no presumptions and stereotyping.  Judgments of good and evil are there but are not divided evenly based on nationality or religion.  Instead, the moral compasses of the main characters and their internal dilemmas are revealed to the reader, making “A Deceit to Die For’ a helpful instrument to better understand the mindset of the various interest groups in Turkish politics.

An aspect Luke Montgomery seems to have meticulously researched is the contemporary dynamics between government institutions and social classes.  He provides the level of observation and detail a native of Turkey would be intimate with, offering realistic snapshots and the private mindset of a suicide bomber, of Hizbullah terrorists and human traffickers, even of government sympathizers with veiled wives.  

If you are in Turkey, do not bother looking for the author’s web site www.lukemontgomery.net which is censored.  We hear a translation is underway and will be curious to see the government’s reaction to it.  So until the Turkish edition is printed, look for this book on Amazon.com.

 
 
It sounds a bit awkward in English - "freedom of thought". The more common expression is freedom of speech or freedom of expression. But, in Turkish, one of the ways to convey this same idea is "düşünce özgürlüğü", which, translated literally is "freedom of thought".

It always struck me as funny, and I would often joke with my Turkish friends that they had freedom to "think" anything, but not the freedom to "express" their thoughts. Sadly, many Turkish journalists are currently in jail for doing just that - expressing their thoughts.  It got me thinking though. Here in America, we are all very proud of our "freedoms", and the first Amendment to the Constitution enshrines our inalienable right to "freedom of expression"

This right is sacrosanct in our society. Americans exercise this right in all kinds of "offensive" ways. For example, by making jokes about sitting Presidents that would get you shot in some countries and land you in prison in others. In America, this has turned into a lucrative profession, e.g. John Stewart. We simply laugh at the joke and move on, maybe without even thinking how wonderful it is to live in country where one can ridicule their leaders.

Other people have "exercised" this right by burning the American flag, which has to be one of the most paradoxical demonstrations on the planet. "I protest the existence of this country which affords me the right to do what I'm doing right now!" (This person needs their head examined). However, I'm not against people burning the American flag for the simple reason that it makes it easier to identify the mentally incompetent...  Besides, freedom of expression is sacrosanct! It is an inviolable right of the individual! That is the American way, or so we say. It's a worn out topic. I want to go back to "freedom of thought"

You see, I'm not sure that "freedom of thought" is really possible in this country (or any other country for that matter). Why? Because the crucial ingredient for any healthy thought process is accurate factual information.

For example, if one wanted to weigh the merits of injecting children with a liquid containing live attenuated polio viruses versus dead (inactivated) viruses, reliable data input would be a crucial prerequisite to working those mental muscles. Imagine "thinking" about this problem without having any data. It wouldn't do much good. You have the freedom to think about it, but realize quickly that no benefit can be derived from the effort.

In the same way, citizens of this country need data, information, facts, in order to engage in productive thinking. I am not, of course, saying that productive mental activity happens automatically in the presence of "knowledge". Minds still have to be trained in the fine art of drawing appropriate conclusions, but without facts, no mind, no matter how astute, can render a true verdict.

So, I ask, do you feel like you have the "facts" necessary to make informed decisions? For me the answer is clearly, "No!"  For example, I want to know who is responsible for giving millions of dollars ear-marked for small business to gigantic corporations, how much money the Federal Reserve has given to foreign central banks and American banks, who redacted the statements released by Attorney General Eric Holder, who actually penned the healthcare bill that even Pelosi had not read, who decided to recognize the independence of Kosovo but not that of Ossetia, and jillions more besides.

You see without the right facts our thoughts aren't worth a damn, much less a penny.

Of course, this is why we have the "Freedom of Information Act". Does anyone think it has made government transparent, or that it has aided in preventing or even punishing corruption? I'd love to hear your thoughts.