Concerns of the ummah

Some faiths are global. Nation states must come to terms with this.

In the first part of Peter Taylor's fascinating new BBC 2 series, Generation Jihad, we heard, time and again, young British Muslims voicing their concern and outrage over attacks on Palestine and the military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'm sure that at least some viewers were thinking: why should Britons, UK passport-holders, people born and brought up here, feel quite so strongly about what happens in countries thousands of miles away?

Why should they feel that the death and destruction visited upon Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis are also attacks on them? Shouldn't they be British, and espouse "British" values, first and foremost?

I can quite see why this is hard to understand for secularists, used to -- and insistent upon -- the church-state divide that characterises most European nations, and which continues in the supranational institution of the EU. I can also see why it is hard to understand for many Protestants, especially those belonging to churches that specifically describe themselves as being national sects -- the Church of England, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, etc.

What they fail to see, because it is not emphasised with the same force in their belief systems, whether religious or not, is the truly universal nature of other faiths, membership of which binds their adherents from different countries and continents together in a way that secular nationalism and Protestantism do not.

As the Islamic scholar and former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put it in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in 2004:

What the west needs to learn about the Muslim world . . . is that Muslims see themselves as a collective ummah. Unlike [with] western individualism, Muslims have a strong sense of fraternity as a community of believers.

This means empathy. This is why Muslims who are not affected by poverty or who have nothing to do with Palestine feel so strongly about this issue. This is why without addressing and identifying the root causes of terrorism the war against terror will not succeed.

You can find the full text here (and I would advise anyone interested in learning about a less confrontational view of Islam to do so. Badawi was a weak and ineffectual PM, but very wise when it came to how religion and modernity can coexist).

It could also be added that awareness of the ummah has been enormously heightened in the past few decades, not least by the mass spread of all forms of communication.

This is why, for instance, as the US senator Christopher Bond points out in his new book, The Next Front: South-east Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam, Muslims in the southern Philippines can watch Israel's attacks on Gaza and Lebanon and feel affected, and angered, in a way they did not in the years before even the poorest households had access to a television set. And there, this knowledge of the suffering of fellow Muslims has had the unfortunate consequence of allowing some to turn a long and legitimate struggle for autonomy within, if not outright independence from, a Philippine nation, into part of a wider religious war.

It is no use railing against this sense of connectedness. It is simply there. For me, brought up in one of the other global faiths, Roman Catholicism, it is far from alien.

Even though I lapsed a long time ago, I still feel a connection with Catholics around the world, and have always known that I could walk into a Catholic cathedral in any country and feel at home. Culturally, it is part of my DNA. It is also why, when politicians such as Ruth Kelly are criticised essentially for being religious -- her links to Opus Dei were regarded as being particularly suspect -- I can't help feeling at least a twinge of sympathy.

For those who demand that UK-born Muslims, or Catholic ministers like Kelly, sign up to a secular interpretation of Britishness and consign their embarrassing beliefs to some hidden place where they need not intrude into the political sphere are asking the impossible.

Nearly everyone agrees that human rights are universal. Well, some faiths are truly global, too, and have existed and will continue to exist while nations and empires rise and fall. Denying this is useless. Understanding this, and allowing for this, would be better.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue