Signing off from The Staggers

After 18 months of blogging, I’m still convinced religion must be better understood.

After just under 18 months, this will be my last post on The Staggers, in a series that began as the "God Blog" but which then ranged beyond religion into world affairs – two subjects which in many countries are so intertwined that they cannot be regarded as separate areas of discussion – and the occasional foray into British domestic politics.

I think it would be fair to say that, as often as not, my thoughts irritated or even enraged many commenters, leading some to suggest that they should not have appeared on the website of a magazine with such a distinguished left-wing history. This stemmed at least in part from two views with which I would disagree.

First, that the New Statesman should always take a strongly atheist and avowedly secular stance. I pointed out the connection between religion and radicalism in my introductory column, "Age of Homo Religiosus", which I still believe rebuts this point. By way of example, I will merely reproduce the words Keir Hardie wrote in 1910:

I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.

If that was good enough for him . . .

The other argument I have tried to make – although I have been made very aware of the limits of my powers of persuasion in this regard – is that religion is an overwhelming fact in the world. Whatever certain readers may think, my aim has never been to advance the case for any religion, let alone proselytise, but instead to suggest that we would all benefit from understanding it rather than reducing it to extreme and backward-looking versions which we naturally find repugnant. This only serves the interests of fundamentalists of any or no faith.

Certainty is what makes me suspicious, whether it be an unquestioning belief in the current conclusions of sciences that are – as they should be – constantly changing as new discoveries are made, or in dogmas that do not allow for different circumstances and times, remaining stuck in the fabrics of societies that vanished centuries ago. I would include in this also certainties about the desirability of imposing our form of liberal democracy in countries with other histories and sets of values.

Any universalism always starts from a particular standpoint, and when it comes to how we think societies should order themselves the western standpoint is not unique; it also strikes me as arrogant to suggest that it is uniquely right. Those who maintain that the only justifiable left-wing position is to do just that may not realise how much that smacks of neo-colonialism in the many countries that have had quite enough of being told what to do by European and American powers. To me, it seems more naturally left-wing not to subject them to lectures and threats, but to regard and treat them as equals free to determine their own futures.

Second, and less importantly, there has been some objection to my occasional columns in support of Liberal politics. I have always thought of British Liberalism as being on the left – just look up Lloyd eorge's speeches against the privileges of the aristocracy, for instance – and that radical Liberals had much reason to be furious about the actions of the last Labour government.

Who betrayed the left during those 13 years? Not Liberals (who opposed the Iraq war, etc). Tribalism may trump principle in practice, but not, I would hope, in the pages of the New Statesman, which I believe should feel like home for Liberals just as much as it does for Labour, Green and all sorts of open-minded thinkers.

All of which brings me to thank the NS for having me as an online columnist for the last 18 months. The magazine's tolerance for divergent opinions is a tribute to its range and intelligence – and to its readers, however much they may have disagreed with me.

And on the subject of readers, my thanks to, too, to the regular commenters. I will mention just two: Daniele, who frequently took me to task, but from a consistent and coherent standpoint (and one that I respect more than Daniele perhaps imagines), and most especially to Lou, who was often a very welcome voice of support – precisely because he was the only one!

I will still be writing essays and book reviews for the magazine. Perhaps we will meet again in the comments section when future articles appear. Until then, as the Roman poet wrote, "Ave atque vale."

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