The final presidential debate will almost certainly be more interesting than the mad scramble witnessed last week between Romney and Obama as they jousted for preeminence on the same ol’ tired US foreign policy positions. And no, that's not a typo. The last presidential debate will be between Libertarian Gary Johnson and Jill Stein from the Green Party on November 5th. Few will be watching and more’s the pity. As long as it doesn’t degenerate into a marijuana love-fest, any discussion there of foreign policy will almost certainly be more interesting than the one which took place last night since the “foreign policy” of both Romney and Obama seems to be significantly shaped by “jobs in America”, and “nation-building at home”.

First of all, domestic issues are, well, closer to home and should rightly be the focus of any leader's policy, which is why the first two debates were devoted to domestic policy. The polls must have told the candidates' handlers that Americans weren't that interested in foreign affairs or that America is the world and everyone else could roast in Hades because at every opportunity the two candidates turned the focus back to domestic policy.

President Obama said more than once that instead of more foreign military intervention we needed to be doing some "nation-building right here at home". This is, of course, exactly the thing Republicans have been complaining about all along. They don't like his architect, his blueprints or his contractors. Still, the comment no doubt resonated with the millions of Americans looking for work.  

Governor Romney would not be out-done. He too constantly brought up domestic issues throughout this foreign policy debate. If this had been 1992, his campaign slogan would have been, “It's the economy, stupid.”

But that jab is already, er, stained with Democratishness, so he was left with “I know how to get this country working again.”

President Obama was clearly bettered prepared for this debate than the previous two. Voters around the country agreed. President Obama was the clear winner in post-debate polls. One is tempted to wonder if four years of intelligence briefings might be an unfair advantage for any sitting president, but it is what it is.

And what it was was a race to claim the coveted “champion of freedom” titles up for grabs in this coliseum we call planet Earth.

Prince of Peace

Governor Romney’s began the night talking about the importance of peace as a cornerstone of foreign policy. He said, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” It sounded like the beginnings of a Republican paradigm shift. For a moment, he seemed wiser, his shoulders dropped, he looked older, frailer, with gray hair and a slight Texas accent. The apparition passed, and neocons breathed a sigh of relief as he promised to “kill the bad guys” and spend more money on the military.  

President Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 2009, seemed to feel like he was a shoo-in for this one as he hardly contested it. Besides, the American people love a winner, i.e. a fighter. Doves can’t scare up enough votes and he had the capture and elimination of Bin Laden in his ledger. It was not the time to go dovish.

What both candidates alluded to on more than one occasion was support for "democracy". Democracy? It was "democracy" that brought Hamas to power in Gaza, "democracy" that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. Democracy is such a buzzword we forget that it can also mean “mob rule”. Without a culture that understands basic human rights and the rule of law, democracy may be nothing more than popular dictatorship.

President Obama did touch on these issues briefly, but that was where the discussion should have centered. How does the US intend to support the oppressed peoples of the Middle East?

Governor Romney almost got there. “America has to stand on its principles,” he said. Informed observers might have wanted him and the President to explain how American principles allowed us to support regime change and the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya and Syria, all relatively secular, while remaining mysteriously silent about protests in other Arab countries, for example Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. These protests were eventually squashed with occupying Saudi forces.

Where was our commitment to freedom and democracy then?

King of the Mountain

If you missed the debate and are wondering which mountain, the answer is simple. Mount Zion. Both of the candidates were in a verbal shoving match desperate to knock their opponent off of “The Hill of Zion.” A tweet from Kathryn Delong said, “The winner of this debate is Israel.”

The atrocities of WWII have profoundly shaped the American psyche, so much so that support for Israel has become one of the few policies both parties fervently espouse. However, Israel is only safer if the Middle East is less radical. America's policies have clearly failed to achieve this, and this debate did not include a discussion about why.

The vitriolic rhetoric from Saudi and Egyptian mosques was never addressed, nor was Saudi funding of terrorist groups like Hamas, or foreign aid from the US to Israel’s enemies, or the deteriorating relationship between Israel and Turkey, or the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.   

Goliath-Slayer

What the American voter heard instead was, “We've got Israel's back.” It became clear as the debate went on what both candidates meant. It means America opposes a nuclear Iran.

Governor Romney tried to find an opening, an advantage on this issue and thereby clinch the “Goliath-slayer” title. On more than one occasion he said, “We are four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”

We are also four years closer to the next Ice Age and California dropping off into the ocean, neither of which sounds horrible to those of us who have just come out of another blistering Texas summer. But, like all dire predictions, such as global warming, Ice Ages, the disappearance of Hollywood, and the end of sugary drinks, reality often turns out to be far less scary than predicted.

Even if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, the US, Israel, and its allies have thousands and the Iranians know this. If mutually assured destruction (MAD) kept crazies like Khrushchev from using nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and still holds a tight rein on the Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan and the lunatic of Pyongyang, it might work with Iran too. That was not part of the debate. Why?

The Iran-is-four-years-closer-to-a-nuclear-weapon claim was simply posturing. Governor Romney made it clear that a military strike was the last option, that diplomacy had to be tried first and that the best course was “crippling sanctions,” which of course moved him down a notch in the running for the Prince of Peace title.

President Obama lost no time in pointing out that Governor Romney’s position on this and many other issues were essentially identical to those his administration had been following. Romney’s response was that he would have moved more quickly. Paraphrase - I’m the hare you’re the tortoise?

Both candidates vowed to end the Afghan war though the President clearly had the advantage and pressed it, referring to Romney's changing positions on both Iraq and Afghanistan. Fundamentally, however, their positions were, once again, the same.

The issue that was not brought up in the debate was how a tiny, relatively powerless group of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters had succeeded in drawing America, the world’s only super power, into the longest war in American history.

The answer is simple and has nothing to do with Afghanistan. It’s all about Iran. The world’s super power has been sitting on Iran's border for over ten years and for much of this time Iran was sandwiched between American forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s all about the Goliath-Slayer title and both sides want it!

Romney then advocated for more military spending and intimated that our military was in a historically vulnerable position (fewest number of ships in Navy since 1916, weakest Air Force since 1947). He clearly needs a new fact checker as this left him wide open for the most poignant moment of the evening.

President Obama said, “We also have fewer horse and bayonets.” Though lost on most neocons, the President was right. We are the Death Star on planet Earth. Everybody but the neocons seems to know this. Not only has Obama increased military spending every year, but he pointed out that the United States spends more than the next 10 largest military forces in the world combined. (Emphasis mostly his).

Swords into Plowshares

Though neither candidate would have used such dovish language, probably for fear of turning off Bible-toting voters (I love irony), there was an underlying theme in the debate. America needs to start producing something other than war. We need to structure an economy that puts Americans to work.

This is what most voters care about. Romney and the President know this. But it’s time for the leaders of the free world to implement this common sense strategy. It's time to end the pursuit of Empire, let the rest of the world take a bit more responsibility and start beating some of our swords into plowshares.


Read more: Swords or plowshares - the "domestic" foreign policy debate | Washington Times Communities
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Luke had the pleasure of an interview with Turkish news agency ANKA last week and it ran today in Milliyet. It is only available in Turkish but for those of you fortunate enough to speak this beautiful language, we invite you to enjoy the exchange here.


 
 
"Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all." Taken from the childhood tale of vanity known as Snow White, this well-known phrase rolls off the tongue so marvelously.

Hubris and envy are certainly not some secret Achilles heel of the human race. In fact, they are maladies from which we all suffer. We all desire to be worshiped. Some say "liked" or "loved" but the fact is we want to be adored as smart, beautiful, funny, compassionate, bohemian or whatever.

The story of Snow White is above all a tale of vanity and jealous desire, our corrupted lust for the destruction of those better than us, especially when we realize we cannot rise to their level. So, when the Queen finds she's no longer the most beautiful, she tries to kill Snow White and thus regain the crown.

I know how the Queen feels, especially as an author, because, like the Queen, an author is "in the public eye." It is very gratifying to hear someone say that they've enjoyed something I've penned, that my writing has made them see things in a different light, or that a particular scene gave them an adrenaline rush.

The truth is I love to read reviews both public and private which stroke my ego. Who doesn't? We all want to look at ourselves and see something beautiful, something worthwhile, something good.

The mirror we most often judge ourselves by is not the one on the bathroom wall, but the people who reflect back to us what they see.

The feedback we get from others can have a profound impact on our own self-perception. It is also extremely important because we may have huge blind spots and others can help point those out. But, the "mirrors" around us, i.e. the friends, colleagues and family members we interact with may not always be as "faithful" as our bathroom mirror.

Allow me to illustrate with a trite example. I remember someone saying a couple of years ago, "I'd never want to work for you." It was said offhandedly in the context of running a company and without any explanation. I'm not sure how it was intended, but it felt liked I'd just been slapped in the face. What's strange is that the person making the comment has never seen any of my interaction with my colleagues nor does he know anything about how I run the business. Yet, still it stung.

In fact, the statement made such an impact on me that I often reflected on how he had formed this opinion. Yes, I am a "driver", someone who has high expectations from others and myself. I don't accept excuses and demand results. I'm sure this is the part of my personality that prompted his comment. Add to this the fact that all of my conversation about the business was related to my frustration with the problems I faced and it is easy to see how he formed such an opinion.

Of course, people who have worked with me for over a decade would clearly disagree with his assessment and do it based on a better understanding of who I am. I take some solace in that, but the statement still stung, not because it was necessarily a reflection of who I am, but of who I am perceived to be. And sadly that is sometimes more important to us.

One of the ironies of the human experience is that very few people actually know each other well enough to understand their fellow man on anything but a superficial level. My point is that much of the criticism we receive will come from people with this same superficial understanding of who we are, and so should not be taken too seriously.

The mirror in the story of Snow White could not lie. Not only did it reflect the Queen's physical appearance faithfully, but it answered her questions honestly. It is my hope that you are affirmed by the people you meet, but more importantly that you strive to be a faithful "mirror" to others. If we want to be the sort of friend who reflects back a true image, we will have to take the time to truly understand them.
 
 
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.  

 
 
As all of my friends know, I love language and revel in the beauty of great literature and poetry. I can read Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse twice a year and never tire of the rousing call to battle (see below).

But as a fluent Turkish speaker, one of my greatest frustrations is communicating the beauty of the Turkish language with my English-speaking friends. And one of the greatest repositories of beautiful Turkish can be found in Turkish proverbs.

One of my favorites is "Dinsizin hakkından imansız gelir." With only four words, it is both pithy and powerful.

A literal translation is so painfully inadequate that I hate to even give it, but in the interest of full disclosure and to demonstrate the linguistic disconnect, here goes...

"The faithless overcome the irreligious."

Of course, this literal rendering falls abysmally short of communicating anything at all in English. A paraphrased version might be "those who are irreverent and cruel can only be overcome by someone who equals them in their disregard for faith (virtue)."  The problem is obvious. The beautiful brevity that makes the proverb so attractive is gone.

The other day I decided I had to find a more dynamic translation of this proverb and came up with the following.

"It takes a reprobate to bring the Devil to heel." 

I probably love this proverb so much because of some primitive Rambo-type psyche, but it just seems to make sense. Chesterton's call to arms seems to communicate a similar idea. It sometimes takes brute force to overcome evil.

I would love to hear any suggestions for a similar dynamic rendering in English or any semantic equivalent proverb in English. In the meantime, enjoy the following excerpt from the Ballad of the White Horse...

"Brothers at arms," said Alfred,
"On this side lies the foe;
Are slavery and starvation flowers,
That you should pluck them so?

"For whether is it better
To be prodded with Danish poles,
Having hewn a chamber in a ditch,
And hounded like a howling witch,
Or smoked to death in holes?

"Or that before the red cock crow
All we, a thousand strong,
Go down the dark road to God's house,
Singing a Wessex song?

"To sweat a slave to a race of slaves,
To drink up infamy?
No, brothers, by your leave,
I think Death is a better ale to drink,
And by all the stars of Christ that sink,
The Danes shall drink with me.

"To grow old cowed in a conquered land,
With the sun itself discrowned,
To see trees crouch and cattle slink--
Death is a better ale to drink,
And by high Death on the fell brink
That flagon shall go round.

"Though dead are all the paladins
Whom glory had in ken,
Though all your thunder-sworded thanes
With proud hearts died among the Danes,
While a man remains, great war remains:
Now is a war of men.

...

"And now two blasts, the hunting sign,
Because we turn to bay;
But I will not blow the three blasts,
Till we be lost or they.

"And now I blow the hunting sign,
Charge some by rule and rod;
But when I blow the battle sign,
Charge all and go to God."

Wild stared the Danes at the double ways
Where they loitered, all at large,
As that dark line for the last time
Doubled the knee to charge--

And caught their weapons clumsily,
And marvelled how and why--
In such degree, by rule and rod,
The people of the peace of God
Went roaring down to die.


 
 
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 fairy tale continues... Yesterday, I received the a link to an audio recording in which a section of the Gospel of Barnabas, page 97 it claims, is read by a computer reader. The sound is eerie, the images Orwellian, the message clear. "The church has duped the world by hiding the truth about Mohammed." The Vimeo account belongs to wawin fauzani and the whole video is only 2.24 minutes long.

The permanence of a lie and the fragility of the truth are indeed amazing. The truth seems to fall out of favor at the slightest hint of scandal while a lie can brazenly continue to exist and assert its relevance in the face of overwhelming proof that it is false.

Take this article I found today on the "Arab news" website by someone who calls himself Dr. Afnan Hussein Fatani. The reason I say "who calls himself..." is because it is hard to believe anyone with even a modicum of training in research, and I assume someone with a PhD has more than a 'modicum', could string together such an incredible list of lies, misrepresentations and twisted facts.

The article contains so many fallacies it is impossible to debunk them all here in a short blog post, which is, of course, the whole point of the Turkish proverb. "Sling the mud. Even if it doesn't stick the stain will remain." The point is to create doubt.

1) The author begins by correcting an error he made in a previous article which was pointed out by a reader. The error? He had given the date of the Gospel of Barnabas as the 2nd century BC. That's right. A gospel containing the message of Jesus before Jesus was born! 

He claims to have made this error inadvertently, that it was a "copy-paste" error. Fair enough. We're all human. But then he proves his lack of breadth on the topic by saying further down, "The Gospel of Barnabas and the Dead Sea Scrolls have often been associated and confused since they do have something in common apart from the overlapping of dates." What? Whatever...

It gets worse.

He goes on to say, "The Gospel of Barnabas is believed by many historians to be part of the collection of Dead Sea scrolls. According to early sources of the 1950s and early 60s before the 1967 Israeli invasion of Palestine when the Archeological museum was overrun and all the publication of scrolls were blocked, a copy of the Barnabas Bible was discovered by Bedouin shepherds in the Qumran caves along with 30 other scrolls which included handwritten gospels, religious writings, as well as lengthy accounts of buried treasures such as the famous Copper Scrolls."

The drivel continues.

"Unfortunately, this historic discovery of the Barnabas Gospel among the Qumran scrolls cannot be fully collaborated today since direct access to the scrolls, most of which has still not been published, is limited to members of the International Team of Scroll Editors who currently work under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)."

I knew it. I knew it. The Jews are behind this evil plot. They are behind everything!

But why is it only a Saudi Arabian with no access to the Dead Sea Scrolls is the only person on the planet claiming that the Gospel of Barnabas is among them? Does make one wonder...

2) The author does get some things right though. For example, he knows that a list of banned books dating back to the 5th century does include a work called the "Gospel of Barnabas" but then he blows it by making the following claim.

"Iranaeus, an Early Church Father (130-200), quoted extensively from it."

Now, the problem with this statement is simple and unfortunate for him. It isn't true. There are no quotations from the supposed Gospel of Barnabas preserved anywhere, and that is too bad. Many researchers like myself would love to see one. This spurious piece of "information" is wishful fabrication based on the introduction to the 15th century Gospel of Barnabas, which merely refers to Iranaeus.

3) The following paragraph is so torturous I hardly know where to begin. One would have to write 1000 words to enumerate and debunk all of the mistakes here.  I'll be brief.

"As many historians have pointed out, the gospel of Barnabas was accepted as a Canonical Gospel in the churches of Alexandria up until 325 A.D. when hundreds of original Gospels in Hebrew script were destroyed by the Nicene Council under the auspices of the Pagan Emperor Constantine. An Edict was issued that any one in possession of these Gospels would be put to death. Fortunately, the Pope secured a copy of the Barnabas Gospel in 383 A.D. and kept it in his private library. This Italian manuscript passed through different hands till it reached Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1713. It now rests in Hofbibliothek in Vienna. Another copy of the Barnabas Gospel was discovered in 478 A.D. when the remains of Barnabas were discovered and a copy written by his own hand was found placed upon his breast.."

a. The gospel of Barnabas was never in a canonical list
b. There is no record of hundreds of Hebrew scripts being destroyed by the Nicene Council, which as convened to discuss the nature of Jesus not the cannon. Besides, the scripts would have been in Aramaic :-) (a fact he referenced earlier but forgot in his rush to judgment).
c. A manuscript written in 383 AD couldn't be in Italian. The language didn't even exist yet.
d. The supposed "remains of Barnabas" are based on legend and a priests "dream" and even then the Gospel found on his breast is the Gospel of Matthew, not the Gospel of Barnabas.

I thought mind-altering drugs were forbidden in Saudi Arabia... What is this guy smoking?

Then, I got to thinking about it and realized they must be mandatory. The entire population is fed a steady diet of the most dangerous drug of all - 'ideology' blended with unadulterated 'bigotry' and 'willful ignorance'.

Societies are shaped by their beliefs, "faith" is shaped by "revelation", and so the king who forges a nation must rely heavily on the "forgerers of Scripture".
 
 
  Great News! A Deceit to Die For made Amazon's Top 100 Bestseller List this week.