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In this week's magazine | Is Christianity doomed in the Middle East?

A first look at this week's magazine.

23-29 January 2015 issue
Is Christianity doomed in the Middle East?

 

Cover story: “Paradise lost” 
Gerard Russell argues that Islamic extremism, civil war, violence and economics are driving Christians from the Middle East.

 

Plus


Matthew Engel on the art of political betting.

John Simpson on the upcoming Nigerian elections and Boko Haram.

The Diary this week comes from the French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, who writes on life after the Paris attacks.

The Politics ColumnGeorge Eaton argues that clear differences exist between Labour and the Tories – despite the claim that they are “the same”

 

Paradise lost: Christianity in the Middle East

Gerard Russell considers the forces behind the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, outlining the extent of that decline over the past 30 years:

In 1987, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.4 million. Since then, the country’s population has doubled but its Christian community has declined to 400,000. Many of these people are now internally displaced because of IS, a Sunni Muslim militant movement that drove them from their homes in August 2014 in its effort to establish an Islamic “caliphate”. The former Christian inhabitants of Mosul and the surrounding towns are now refugees in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region nearby, protected from the summer heat and winter snow only by UN-provided tents erected in local churchyards.

Russell recalls his years working in the Arab world as a diplomat in an attempt to discover the route of the religious shifts in the region, exploring financial, political and social causes, including what the Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf calls the “intense religiosity of the urban migrant”:

. . . who sees religion as a way to protect himself and his family from the temptations of urban life. The rise in religiosity in the Muslim world has coincided with mass migration to the cities. It has also coincided with globalisation, which has undermined indigenous Arab cultures, leaving religion as the sole clear criterion of identity and the focus of national pride. Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover how many of IS’s supporters had previously appeared to be thoroughly westernised: this is perhaps the very reason they feel such a passionate need to recapture their sense of being separate and different.

Russell ends on a note of sadness at the thought of Christianity being wiped out of the Middle East entirely, as it would:

. . . lose a part of the heritage and history that all its people, Muslim or Christian, have in common. For the Christian communities have preserved parts of their nations’ heritage: Aramaic in Iraq, pharaonic hymns in Egypt. Their diversity (there are innumerable sects) reflects the region’s history, each sect tracing its origin to the political developments of one era or another. The schools that Christians run in the Middle East, open to Muslims, have educated generations of Arabs.

 

The art of the political wager

Matthew Engel writes that the only certainty about the 2015 election is that it will break all previous betting records. He traces the history of betting through the ages, noting that “the propensity to wager is an innate part of the human condition”:

Men were betting on political outcomes when sport was not organised or regular enough to offer an alternative. Stephen Alford, in his new biography, Edward VI, says that as the boy-king lay dying in 1553, merchants in Antwerp were betting on the disputed succession. In 1743, when George II made the nostalgic and quixotic decision to lead his own troops into battle against the French at Dettingen, it was said to be 4/1 in the London coffee shops against the silly fool getting himself killed. He survived.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a sturdy betting market on presidential elections among Wall Street traders that was well regarded for its accuracy in predicting the result. There was similar activity in the City of London and West End clubs – and with UK bookmakers, whose odds until 1961 were legally available only to the minority able to bet on credit. In the US, bookmaking got itself associated with the Mob and became ever more taboo. In Britain, it was legalised and democratised.

Engel examines the appeal of political betting as an event that is both widely publicised and impossible to predetermine with absolute certainty:

. . . The bookmakers still pursue this kind of business, from customised novelty (will a newborn son play cricket for England?) to reality TV (who will be next to be evicted from Big Brother?), with an eye focused far more on the headline than the bottom line. But no sane bookmaker now accepts serious money on this stuff, or indeed anything where there is a risk of insider trading (this includes betting on the next archbishop of Canterbury). On a general election, however, there is both huge interest and a level playing field: the PM hardly knows more than the rest of us. So it’s a win double for the bookies: acres of column inches and big turnover, too.

He concludes with his fond memories of his own successful political wagers and with excitement for May 2015:

My own moment of glory came in 1990, when I divined that Michael Heseltine would indeed topple Margaret Thatcher but then get punished by being deprived of the prize himself; therefore I knew – just knew – that the answer to the question simply had to be John Major, at 10/1. And I kept betting until Hills told me to get knotted.

I am relishing the 2015 election first and foremost because I care about my country and want it to be run by politicians who share my vision of its future; second, because, for a journalist, it will be fascinating to write about; and third, because I hope that I might just have another moment of blinding insight to match the one I had 25 years ago. Which may be lucrative in a medium-sized way – and gloriously satisfying.

 

Notebook: Nigeria’s election is near, so why is no one asking the candidates how they would Bring Back Our Girls?

Ahead of the Nigerian elections, John Simpson asks why seemingly nothing is being done to rescue the schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram:

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t seem to have heard the slogan “Bring Back Our Girls” much recently. Last April, if you recall, it was everywhere. Michelle Obama, wearing an appropriately solemn face, held up a placard bearing those words. The CNN news anchor Christiane Amanpour thrust a similar placard into the hands of a startled David Cameron live on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show and he obediently said he agreed. A variety of C-listers queued up to join a campaign that looked wholesome and was surely liable to succeed.

But absolutely nothing happened. Now, as the presidential election in Nigeria draws near, the kidnapped schoolgirls from the north-eastern town of Chibok scarcely get a mention, not even in Nigeria. Maybe it’s understandable, because it doesn’t look as though they will ever be released. Abubakar Shekau, the wild-eyed leader of Boko Haram, the ferocious group that captured them, dished them out to his fighters as sex slaves and many are now said to be pregnant. The great majority of the girls, being Christians, have been forcibly converted to Islam. A few have managed to escape but unknown hundreds of girls from other towns in Nigeria’s north-east have since been kidnapped as well.

He explores the country’s struggle with Boko Haram over the past year and asks why not only the major presidential candidates but western political figures, too, are silent about the missing schoolgirls:

In this vast, seething, tumultuous country of 174 million, people have plenty of other things to worry about than the fate of a few hundred girls. So do Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari. That, in its way, is understandable.

But what about all those worthy people such as Michelle Obama, who were so worked up about the fate of the girls only a few months ago? Should they meekly let them pass out of the world’s consciousness quite so easily?

 

The Diary: Sylvie Bermann, the French ambassador to the UK, on life after the Paris attacks

The Diary this week comes from the French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, who looks back on the Paris attacks:

The new year began with unthinkable horror. On Wednesday 7 January, two brothers armed with Kalashnikovs stormed into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. In the two nightmare days that followed, a policewoman was shot dead at work and four hostages were killed at a kosher supermarket. France was in shock. France mourned its dead.

These attacks were cowardly, barbaric acts of violence. They have been condemned around the world. They have also sparked uplifting displays of solidarity between people of different faiths and nationalities, culminating on Sunday 11 January when four million people marched together on the streets of France. Difficulties lie ahead, but the unity we’ve seen in the wake of the Paris attacks is our most powerful weapon in dealing with them.

Bermann also looks to the future, and the possibility for France to move beyond this month’s atrocities:

Amid the sadness, 2015 is also a year for hope. One of our biggest focuses will be achieving a global agreement on climate change at the UN climate conference taking place in Paris at the end of the year. Last November’s agreement between China and the US on carbon cuts was an encouraging step on the road to Paris 2015. This is a major moment for our planet and for the whole of humanity, and it’s an opportunity we mustn’t waste. Let’s make sure this year ends on a more positive note than it began!

 

The Politics Column: George Eaton writes that despite the cries of “They’re all the same!” there are clear differences between Labour and the Tories

The NS political editor, George Eaton, argues that although Ukip, the SNP and the Green Party seem convinced that “the problem with  Labour and the Conservatives is how alike they are”, the differences between them today are vast:

Around 2006 and 2007, the ideological terrain on which Labour and the Tories fought was microscopically small . . . [But] it was the crash that brought this era to a close. By ending the illusion of permanent growth, it resurrected the distributional questions rendered irrelevant by the boom. As a result of the shrinking economy, it was no longer possible for Labour and the Conservatives to pledge to avoid both tax rises and spending cuts: choices had to be made.

The two parties have made different ones ever since.

Eaton considers these notable differences and the dangers of ignoring them:

With so few switching between the big two, Labour and the Tories are locked in comparable struggles to squeeze their smaller opponents. But just as the causes of their rise are not short-term, so the solutions will not be either. As one Scottish Labour MP told me in the case of the SNP: “Our biggest opponent is time.” The danger is that an inconclusive election result, produced by a voting system incapable of reflecting individual preferences, only widens the gulf between Westminster and the rest.

 

Plus

Helen Lewis interviews Alex Garland, the writer and director of Ex Machina.

David Reynolds on the return of big history.

Michael Brooks: could ketamine stop suicides?

The Webb Trust Essay: the 2014 winner, Adam Ludlow, asks how business can reduce poverty.

Philip Maughan explores E M Forster’s “unfilmable” work.

Robert Webb on the posthumously published memoir by Kate Gross.

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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