From the Comments: Ottoman autocracy, Turkish liberty

Jacques, if you want to look at a libertarian/classical liberal case for the Ottoman Empire you should look at Islam without Extremes (Norton 2013) by Mustafa Akyol. I can’t claim to have got round to reading it myself, but I have seen Akyol’s summaries of his argumnents.

The power of Akyol’s argument in term of Turkey’s political scene has been somewhat undermined by his support for the AKP governemnt until after the Gezi Park protests. He is very critical of the AKP now, but as he was previously known as an AKP apologist (and enthusiast for Intelligent Design theory) it’s doubtful how much of an asset he is to Turkey’s rather small pro-liberty scene.

In any case I do not endorse myself straight on Ottomanist libertarianism and there are reasons it does not have much of a hold in Turkey’s pro-liberty scene though there are a few who think like this. The problems are endless and complex because the Ottoman system lasted from the 14th to 20th centuries and you can’t really talk about the same system, or at least few historians think you can. The millet system is a term applied late in Ottoman history, while the system was at its peak in terms of the size of the empire, along with it general prestige in the world, in the sixteenth century. Of course at that time, it could be said to have established some version of some liberty with order as good as many Christian states, and to me more power ful than any. I don’t think even at its height though you could say the Ottoman empire had more liberty than the most law governed and tolerant places in ‘Christendom’ and certainly while European thinkers respect the Ottoman system at its height it very much looked like an example of strong orderly monarchy, not decentralised liberty.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system obliged Balkan Christian families to send one son away at a very early age to be brought up as Muslim convert soldier-bureaucrat slave of the Sultan. The Janissary system, a very privileged kind of slavery and forced conversion, but that is what it was. The Sultan employed black eunuch slaves, transported from Africa, again a privileged position but not really an example of liberty.

Jumping forward, the Ottoman system started to imitate the west in some respects from the late eighteenth century, following military defeats to Russia. The biggest act of ‘reform’ was the violent repression/massacre of the Janissaries which formed a whole class of soldiers, bureaucrats and Istanbul firemen who were also market traders on the side, blocking the Sultan’s ideas of reform, including the formation of a more modern military.

Jumping forward again, the Ottoman sultan most revered by Turkey’s current Ottomanists on the whole, Abdulhamit II, suspended the national assembly, pursued a program of bureaucratic-military-technical centralisation, which included the early massacres of Armenians to which you refer. In the end he was overthrown as a ruker (not as holder of the title of Sultan) by westernising reformers (Committee of Union and Progress/Young Turks) who ended up continuing a centralising reform process which alienated people outside the Muslim Ottoman elite and the Anaotlian heartlands of the Empire. Jumping back to the period between the suppression of the Janissaries and Abdulhamit II’s rule, the Greek Independence movement was resisted with staggering levels of violence and cruelty (the Greek insurgents were not always fastidious in their methods either, it must be also be said). By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman system of relative tolerance towards non-Muslims on a communal rights basis was looking less impressive compared with a growing European tendency towards tolerance based on individual rights.

The ‘millet system’ at its peak provided a way Muslims, Christians and Jews could live together, but mostly as separate communities able to continue communal traditions, within a hierarchy in which Muslims had the real power. As with looking to models of liberty in ‘feudal’, medieval Europe, we may see some liberty benefits in the elements of localism and communal autonomy under a monarchy, but in both cases we are not talking about a system of individual rights or free interaction, we are talking about individuals constrained by communal traditions and hierarchies, along with the hierarchies between communities. If we value individual rights under common legal rights then this is not a model for us, even if we can see some lessons.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system blocked the spread of printing, one of the major elements of modern liberty. The reasons for the block combine the power of religious conservatism and the guild interests of manuscript copyists which seems to me to sum up the problems of even peak time Ottomanism for liberty. It was a system based on an assemblage of local, communal and guild privileges finding change difficult except through dramatic acts of autocratic rulers. The transition from Empire to French-modeled republic, but less liberal than the France of the time, in the 20s and 30s under Atatürk was itself the last great example of this and was a product of the difficulties the Ottoman system had with peaceful consensual change, even if it did have a few good moments on that score (e.g. the 1840 Tanzimat reforms).

Finally the Ottoman system was condemned by its own failure to defend itself, the last Sultan could only give into the victorious powers of World War One, while the republican-nationalists, who emerged from the most educated sections of the Ottoman elite, were able to mobilse a successful military struggle (the Independence War) even without control of the state apparatus. A system which can’t win a war is not a successful system, regardless of how sad the importance of war in human history is.

Arguments now about reviving the Ottoman Empire are surely self-evidently hypothetical only for anyone who does not take Erdoğan’s more bombastic statements seriously. In what way would the Middle East resolve anything by rule from Istanbul, particularly as part of a centralised state ruled by Erdoğan? If the question is should the Ottoman Empire have been prolonged at the end of World War One, the Ottoman government of the war undermined that possibility by massacres of Arabs, along with the leaders Faisal gave to Arab nationalists, aided by devious British and French policy.

The Ottoman Empire was in the Balkans before it was in the Middle East. Ottoman sultans used the title Kaiser-i rum (Emperor of Rome) after the Fall of Constantinople before they adopted the title of Caliph (leader of the faithful) after the later conquest of the Hezaz (i.e. the region containing Mecca and Medina). There is nothing natural or inevitable about a Turkey leaning predominantly towards the Middle East and nothing inherently desirable about Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Damascus, etc coming under the dominance of Turks; there is nothing obviously healing for Arab Shiite Muslims in living under a Sunni Caliph in a palace on the Bosphorus, not now and not in 1919.

Ottomanist libertarianism makes most sense for those inclined to paleolibertarianism based on dispersal of power between homogenous traditionalist localised communities. I don’t see it has so much to offer to other kinds of libertarian. If we think about more modern liberal forms, there was some interest in Britsh style liberalism (already at that time in transition from classical liberalism to left liberalism) amongst the last Ottomans, most notably Prince Sabahattin, but this was a minority within a weakened elite, discredited by collaboration with British occupation at the end of World War One, which never had anything like a politics capable of mobilising the elite (very influenced by French republicanism politically and intellectually by the sociological expression of French republicanism in the work of Emile Durkheim), never mind the population as a whole.

(Yes Brandon I should be posting this kind of thing, in refined and revised form, but I really don’t have time to do this properly at present, believe me I really am in extreme crisis mode with writing/editing deadlines), after a particularly busy semester, believe me I will be posting when I can, and I should be able to manage within the next few months, sorry I can’t say any more than that, but it is the reality.)

This is from Barry Stocker, responding to Jacques’ musings on the Ottoman Empire and libertarian arguments that are sometimes in favor of it. The rest of the thread is pretty good too, though Dr Delacroix has yet to respond…

The Coup in Turkey

I am based in Turkey and have been at the edge of some dramatic events. Before I was in Turkey, I was in the Turkish sector of Cyprus (officially designating itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but only recognised as such by Turkey), where I followed the Postmodern or Indirect Coup of 28th February 1997 when military representatives on the National Security Council were able to force the collapse of a coalition government under an Islamist Prime Minister. Later that year I relocated to Istanbul where I experienced sporadic terrorism from Kurdish separatists and Jihadists. In June of this year I landed at the Atatürk airport just after an ISIS suicide attack. In a more gradual way I saw the disappearance of a Turkish political system under the guardianship of Jacobin laicist army generals, known as Kemalists after the first President of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk.

The changes in Turkey came about through a de facto alliance between a party with Islamist roots, the AKP (JDP, Justice and Development Party) and the followers of Fetullah Gülen. Gülen was himself a product of Nurcu Islam, which developed in the early years of the Republic before World War Two as a reaction against the state-led secularisation of Turkey. Gülen was a not very well educated preacher who operated in the context of a fragment of the Nurcu movement, which is not as a whole connected with him. Given the enormous tension between laic Kemalists and the religiously observant population, there was room for a movement devoted to developing conservative Muslim power in civil society and the state.

The Gülenists were preceded in this by the Nakşibendi community, which targeted the state bureaucracy and had followers in politics, notably Türgüt Özal, Prime Minister and then President in the 1980s. Secretive and manipulative politics has been a feature of Turkish and Ottoman politics for a long time. The power of the Janissary elite military and bureacratic corps during the Ottoman period was tied to a religious community, the Bektaşis, creating a parallel system to the legal power of the Sultan until they were violently crushed in the late eighteenth century.

The Committee of Union and Progress, which came to power with military support in the last phase of Ottoman history, developed into a conspiratorial organisation rather than a parliamentary political parry, and a secret arm of it was at the centre of the destruction of Anatolian Armenians in 1915. Secretive groups of Unionists provided a power base for Kemal Atatürk when he revolted against the restored power of the Sultanate and its subservience to the partition/occupation of what is now Turkey after World War One.

The idea of a secret part of the state was maybe not so strong during the early years of the Republic when a one-party system (though in principle the republic was under popular sovereignty) under the dominance of Kemal Atatürk and then İsmet İnönü maybe made it less necessary. Nevertheless, the conditions were established for a revived politics of manipulation behind the scenes. Unfortunately, İnönü’s decision to join the west after World War Two played a part in this. The reorientation resulted in free elections in 1950, with a change in government, and Turkish membership of NATO in 1952.

As in some other countries, the Gladio units played a role in dark political activities. These were the units established to engage in resistance in the event of a Soviet invasion. They had a secretive army within an army aspect and were inevitably a magnet for the most fiercely anti-communist officers, including Alparslan Türkeş, who played an important role in the 1960 Coup. Türkeş was expelled from the coup government, which found him too radical, but he founded the extreme right party in Turkey, Nationalist Action, which is comparatively moderate now, but was heavily involved in political destabilisation and terrorism along with the most anti-communist parts of the state.

What came later was infiltration of the state by Nakşibendis and then Gülenists. Their activity was rather overshadowed by the darker activities of the army and its extreme right allies, often also connected with the Mafia. This network is often known in Turkey as the Deep State. It tended to favour a secular democratic system in terms of formalities, but with concessions to religious conservatism along with an anything goes attitude to covert war against communists and then more importantly Marxist Kurdish autonomists, as well as very limited tolerance for the Left. The hard right element of the army with a base in Gladio was not the whole story. There were far left army officers, particularly up to 1971 and a general staff that tended to be in the middle, though the middle tended to move further right from 1960 to 1980, and then became unwilling to launch anymore violent coups after the 1980 military council stepped down in 198. The general staff itself became increasingly concerned about infiltration by Islamists, including Gülenists.

As it turns out the army’s fear was more than justified. The country liberalised, from a very illiberal base, in the late 1990s, and while the army to some degree went along with that, it launched a peaceful ‘post-modern’ coup in 1997 against the Islamists and was left with the image of the pillar of anti-democracy and anti-liberalism in Turkey. This is an important part of the background to the AKP ‘moderate’ Islamist/conservative democrat electoral victory of 2002 along with the economic crisis of 2001, which along with the 1997 coup left the secular parties very fragmented. The AKP gained a lot of liberal and libertarian support (a very small proportion of Turkey though) and more general reformist support from those who believed it would be a vehicle for reducing the military role in politics and for generally less nationalist-statist politics.

The AKP had very few supporters in place in the military, in the state bureaucracy, or in senior positions in education. The Fetullah Gülen campaign to turn his supporters into the dominant force in Turkey meant they had people in these positions, partly through infiltration of state institutions and partly through founding private educational institutions. This was just one part of the Gülen empire, which include major media groups, banks, and industrial companies in Turkey, and in many countries outside Turkey including the USA. Gülen himself moved to the USA to avoid prosecution by the Kemalist old guard before AKP came to power, claiming to have no links with the economic and educational empire of his supporters which is clearly less than honest of him.

The Gülenists expected a large role in the AKP government and served them most spectacularly in purging the armed forces after an attempted website coup in 2007. In that year the armed forces, unwilling to launch an outright coup, hoped to influence public opinion and the political process by placing a message on its website proclaiming the army’s guardian role in relation to secularism. This turned into the final political defeat of the army’s Kemalist guardian-tutelary role. The AKP won a general election and a referendum to change the method of electing the President. This triumph of civil electoral politics was, however, undermined by the trials of supposed armed coup plotters in the armed forces. Such trials gave the impression of completing the civilian dominance over the army, but were themselves rigged using weak and outright faked evidence. The judges and prosecutors were from the Gülen movement and were creating space for their own people to take the high offices in the armed forces.

The AKP began a campaign against the Gülenists after making its own illiberal core attitude very clear in 2013 in its highly intolerant and authoritarian reaction to the Gezi protest movement. It was increasingly clear to the (even then) most enthusiastic of liberal fellow travellers with the AKP that it was Islamo-nationalist and statist at its core, reducing democracy to the unlimited will of the party elected to government. The Gülenists and the AKP now found the state was not big enough for both of them and the Gülenists decided to use conspiratorial methods against the AKP. Audio files and video tapes of AKP figures and associates, which had evidently been kept in reserve and which suggested widespread corruption were released. Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan (then Prime Minister and now President) and the AKP government succeeded in sacking, retiring and transferring  enough Gülenist police officers, prosecutors and judges to stop this evidence coming to court. They then declared the Gülenists to be a parallel state and a terrorist group, entering into a process of purging the state of Gülenists and seizing their assets in the media, educational and other sectors. The coup conspiracy convictions against army officers, and others, were overturned and it became widely accepted that Gülenists had rigged the trials.

On 15th July this year, I was at a small party on a terrace in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul, overlooking one of the Bosphorus bridges, though by quite a large distance. We could see traffic interrupted on the bridge and news began filtering through of a confrontation between police and army units in what was described as an anti-terrorist operation gone wrong, but was beginning to sound like the beginning of a coup. It turned out that a coup had started and for a brief part of the night it appeared that the old Kemalist-Guardian army had come back to dispose of a government that was elected but increasingly authoritarian. Any welcome in the party where I was, of secular anti-AKP Turks and foreigners was strongly outweighed by a fear that a coup regime would be authoritarian, would create new problems, and the AKP or something like it, if not worse, would be in power for ten or twenty years by way of reaction. This turned out to be the mood of anti-AKP and anti-Erdoğan Turkey. It also became increasingly reported and accepted across the political spectrum that though the putschists had adopted Kemalist language, they were for the most part Gülenists rising up before a purge of the army in a last grasp at domination of the Turkish state.

Since then a purge has unfolded against the Gülenists in state and society, covering the universities (the sector where I work), which has already led to the sacking and arrests of about 60 ooo, including constitutional court judges, army generals and university rectors. The number will certainly at least double before the purge and the current state of emergency is over. Such sweeping action is understandable up to a point given the violent actions of 15th July, and the accumulating evidence over the years of Gülenist infiltration to create a Gülenist-controlled state and society, but clearly the potential exists for massive and systematic individual injustice with abuses of state power affecting over enemies of the state, real and imagined. Some of the language President Erdoğan has used since the coup has been highly polarising and vengeful, demanding submission to state power; some of his rhetoric has been more conciliatory, recognising that all political parties opposed the coup and that deputies across the spectrum sheltered together in the basement of the National Assembly fearing for their lives. I cannot say I am hopeful that the post-coup atmosphere will be beneficial to liberty, but we should hope for and work for the best in Turkey, while being vigilant in working against further declines of liberty.

One thing is for sure: republican politics will not come from the army now and Turkish republicanism must renew itself through engagement and re-engagement with the whole history of republican thought, which is at the origin of classical liberal and libertarian thought. In theoretical and philosophical terms, which is where I work, the discussions of republicanism and liberty going back to Hannah Arendt in the last century, along with the revived study of MachiavellianRenaissanceEarly Modern Republicanism and the way the classical liberals were dealing with the republican legacy of ancient Greece, ancient Rome and medieval city-states are particularly apposite given that Turkish politics, avowedly Kemalist or not, deals so much in a republican language of shared sovereignty and popular mastery.

The Nice Massacre

Following the massacre in Nice yesterday, I am hearing comments on radio that, together, would have one believe that it could not happen here, that it’s somehow the fault of the French themselves. I think that’s a dangerous dream.

Americans have to get past the Irma la Douce fantasy about France that many still shelter in their hearts. The French do not wile away their days at sidewalk cafes terraces brimming with insouciance. (That means a “devil-may care” attitude.) France is an industrial society pretty much like the US though without most of the inventiveness. Its economic policies for the past twenty years have been stinky. The causes of the French stagnation would sound familiar to any Bernie Sanders supporter. The current government of the Socialist Party differs from the Obama administration in matters of degree only. The same la-la-la Land dream occupies the minds of most of the French Left as of most American liberals. If anything, the French tend to be more realistic because they have had more experience of its failures.

It’s not the case that France has had an open borders policy as I have heard say on conservative radio today. Nevertheless, for historical reasons, France probably has many more Muslims proportionately than the US has. “Probably” because no one knows who is really a Muslim; no one really knows who is really a Catholic. The only thing that’s more or less known is the number of Muslims names. There are many. Most are French citizens by birth.

The current French Minister of Labor has a Muslim name. People with Muslim names are present throughout all levels of French society. They are in banking, in entertainment. The most popular French citizens probably have Muslims names; they are in sports. By and large, such people are well integrated within a mostly religiously indifferent French society. That is, as well as can be done within an economically stagnant society with a permanent unemployment rate of 10%, 20% for the young. How much discrimination there is against people with Muslim names is anyone’s guess. The fact is that immigrants with Muslim names keep trying hard to move to France. Not many try to move to Egypt or even to Saudi Arabia, for example, where the fate of immigrants may be even worse.

This large population with Muslim names is seen from the US as providing a bottomless pool of jihadist recruits. That’s true but it should also be an asset in combating violent jihadism. Thousands of French police personnel have Muslim names. (The police officer murdered outside Charlie Hebdo was one such.) Hundreds if not thousands of police and other security personnel are fluent in diverse dialects of Arabic. This is more, of course, than can be said of their American counterparts.

The French intelligence services have earned the respect of their allies. The country was not caught sleeping after the Bataclan slaughter. It had been under a state of emergency lightly suspending some personal rights. The state of emergency was slated to be removed in the coming days. Perhaps, someone did not want it to stop although it’s hard to believe given how light it was.

As I write on July 15th, there has been no claim by any Islamist organization. The only thing known is that the driver of the truck, the murder weapon, was a person of Tunisian origin who was probably a French citizen. That’s not enough to prove a link to Islamist terrorist organizations. The man was known to the police as a petty criminal (a familiar story). Note that a petty criminal is one who is not very successful, one at the bottom of the criminal pecking order. He was also undergoing a difficult divorce. I speculate that jihadist organizations provide people of Muslim origin undergoing personal difficulties a high-sounding excuse for venting their anger on the innocent many.

If there was indeed an involvement of ISIS or Al Qaida, no reason for the attack on civilians need to be found. They hate Westerners, irrespective of what Westerners actually do. The fact that France has been publicly involved in fighting Islamist terrorism in two theaters – in Iraq next to the US and in Mali may have made it a priority target for jihadists.

With this group assassination the lack of scruples of violent jihadists is confirmed again. Given the number of victims, the circumstance and the location of the crime, there is a 100% certainty that some of the victims have Muslim names. (By the way, the best video of the event was supplied by an Egyptian tourist.) I wonder if this is going to prompt Muslim organizations everywhere, including in the US, to do more than passively deplore the crime. I wonder if this is going to lead to request for energetic surveillance measures involving the breeding marshes of violent jhadists, which are not Lutheran seminaries or Buddhist monasteries. I ask because, under Obama, in this country, we are paralyzed by political correctness as if avoiding bruising the feelings of some was well worth a few hundred blown up civilians here and there.

Mohammad Iqbal’s writings on Islam and on the partition of India

That is the topic of a paper of mine that has just been published in the Journal of Punjab Studies. Here is the abstract:

Iqbal was a poet, religious philosopher, political activists, and supporter of autonomy to Muslim majority provinces in British India, but cannot be regarded as the ‘main’ architect of Pakistan. His basic concern was over the falling status of Muslims of India during British rule and ways to arrest the situation. His speech in 1930 at Allahabad session of the All India Muslim League is being always cited as his support to Pakistan, but later on he never made his position very clear over the issue of partition of British India. Yet his contribution to the formation of Pakistan cannot be entirely ruled out because he was speaking out the minds of the Muslim minorities who, by 1920s, not not only raised the demand, but started whispering about having a separate socio-political space. He was a towering figure of Islamic modernism, a great poet and also a religious philosopher, whose thinking still has considerable significance. His writings are still being read and researched in India and Pakistan.

The link to the whole paper can be found here [pdf].

Syrian Refugees and Security

The president made another one of his inane, easy-to-ignore speeches a couple of days after the massacre in Paris. This man never misses a chance. He demonstrated again his preference for dogma over reality. He also accused Republicans who oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees of being afraid of “three year olds.” This helped me in coming out of my indecision in connection with this issue. I take it seriously.

The House passed a resolution today making it difficult to bring Syrians or Iraqis to the US. Mark my word, this is not the last we hear of this issue. Many Syrians, some Iraqis, actually need a humane place to live away from barrel bombs and chemical warfare. Also, I believe that we cannot allow terrorism to turn us, as a people, into someone else. We are a compassionate people which, by and large, have given haven to refugees from everywhere. (Notwithstanding a shameful loss of nerve in the 1930s with respect to Jewish refugees from Germany.) We can’t let a small bunch of flea-ridden savages in the Middle East change this. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, I listen carefully when the highest security officials in the land tell us that they cannot (NOT) vet every refugee. Do I think that some ISIS terrorists might mingle with refugees with massacre on their minds. No, I don’t think they might; I am sure they will. Why wouldn’t they?

However, the president reminded us that all refugees do not present equal potential danger. It’s true that three-year olds are never terrorists on their own. So, I would take in three-year old refugees and their mothers, of course. And based on the same probabilistic principle, I would let in children up to seven or even eight years of age and their mothers. After that age, all bets are off, I think, because of numerous videos about child soldiers, some of whom are not even nine. But I would take in an unlimited numbers of small children and their mothers. They would constitute an economic burden but I believe we can live with it. I would also let in all Christians and all Yazidis (pagans) of both sexes and of all ages because their collective suffering at the hands of ISIS make them a zero % risk for terrorism in the US. It’s not religious discrimination, it’s risk preference. Everyone does it all the time. That’s what I do when I ride in my pickup truck but never on a motorcycle, fly on commercial airliners but not on light planes piloted by a doctor.

Yes, you read me right. I would admit zero, no men of military age. Two reasons, one not mentioned by any media, to my knowledge. The first, obvious reason, is that terrorists mingling with Syrian refugees would almost certainly be youngish men. Although old men are a possibility, it has not happened yet, I believe. (Correct me if I am wrong.) Women can easily be terrorists too, of course, but it has not happened much with that particular breed of terrorists before it happened in Paris recently. I suspect the Islamist terrorists contempt for women is such that they don’t want them to deserve Paradise by committing jihadist crimes. Of course, the fact that nearly all the Syrian refugee women I see on television wear the hijab (head veil) does not help erase my suspicions. I am trying like hell to be compassionate against my common sense. I am trying to remember that nearly all of those refugees are unfortunates. I am keeping in mind that nearly all of them would have liked to emigrate to the US even before any civil war in Syria. (I will probably talk about the meaning of the hijab in another installment.)

The second good reason to exclude from American territory male Syrian passport carriers of military age is that they are of military age, precisely. At a time when there is more and more talk of French and, even of American boots on the ground, I would like to hear the sound of more Syrian boots on the ground. They should be fighting to reconquer their country from both ISIS savages and the butcher Assad. Incoming Syrian males under fifty-five should be given the choice of enrolling in a Western-backed Syrian Freedom Legion, or to stay in whatever slummy refugee camps where they are indefinitely with no option of settling in America. I would gladly pay for the costs involved forever in preference to risking the lives of American children in America.

Maybe it’s just me but I would be very receptive to requests for military training, for military aid, and for arms coming from such a Legion. The past reluctance of the Obama administration in this respect would be criminal if it were not primarily stupid. I would easily volunteer $1,000 to this good cause. I estimate that it would all amount to 750 000 000 000 for the country at large (750 billion dollars). It should be enough to equip and army of 500,000, it seems to me. We have spent much more in the past with much less of a a justification.

My Muslim friends – a dwindling number these days because many can’t face the harsh truth – and my friends with Muslim names who may or may not be real Muslims urge me to remember that Europeans and Americans, or Christians (think Nigeria) are not the only ones to die at the hand of violent jihadists. I am glad to repeat what I say often: Violent jihadists everywhere have slaughtered many more Muslims that they have killed of any other category of  people. And, as I have said on FB recently, there is nothing special about the massacres in Paris. (More Russian tourists died only a week or so before.) I am glad though that the atrocities taking place in much beloved Paris broke the complacency of many in the West (but not of President Obama). And, as I have pointed out before ISIS revealed itself superbly in this case by attacking specifically places where people were having fun and where many of those people were bound to have Muslim names (“apostates”).

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Introducing… Jesus and Mo
  2. On private property and the commons
  3. Why Merkel’s Kindness to Asylum Seekers Could Reflect a German Soft Spot for Islam
  4. Why I find the Mthwakazi monarchy restoration unjustified
  5. September (a song about me)
  6. From the Far Right to the Far Left
  7. Beyond Neoliberalism (book review)

Muslim Refugees in Perspective

In a companion essay, “Hypocrisy!,” I pointed out that there was a good fit of preferences between the current crop of refugees from Syria and from Iraq and the countries one would reasonably expect to be giving them asylum. Muslim countries, with a small number of brave exceptions don’t want them and the refugees – almost all Muslims -don’t want to go there anyway.

As you would expect because many people go through life on automatic, liberals, libertarians and Muslims join tongues to blame the United States for the current exodus. Sure thing, the US intervened in Iraq against the bloodthirsty tyrant Hussein after he violated several hundred times the cease-fire that put an end to the First Gulf War. (Note for those younger people who learned their history in public schools: In the First Gulf War, the US had led a coalition of about 50 countries – not including Israel – to roll back Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. Yes, he started it. It’s the cease-fire to that first war that Hussein violated.) It’s not difficult to make the case that the US under Bush did a piss-poor job of re-organizing the Iraq it conquered after two weeks plus a sandstorm. It’s even easier to wonder why the Obama administration would just quit the country without attempting to leave a defense force behind (as in Korea, for example). Both the invasion and the failure to conclude its aftermath can reasonably be said to have caused major instability in Iraq and thereby, a flow of refugees from that country. (Personally, I still miss Saddam Hussein. He was a sweetie in his own way although much misunderstood.) But most of the current refugees seem to be from Syria. It’s also possible to argue that the US is responsible for the horrors there too. This time, it’s because it did not intervene into its home-grown civil war until recently. Worse, the US General-in-Chief declared a red line and ignored it when it was crossed with the gassing of civilians.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to blame on the West, on America, the flow of emigrants from such countries as Eritrea, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, even Senegal where there has not been any Western intervention. (Senegal obtained its independence in 1960, seamlessly, without a struggle with France, the colonial power.) Meanwhile Boko Haram (“Books are Forbidden”) in Nigeria is burning villages, kidnapping girls, raping and then, forcing them to become living bombs. What those countries have in common, of course, the peaceful ones that can’t provide for most of their population, and the others that are living hells is this: Coca Cola is sold in all of them, of course. Coca Cola is there everywhere, without exception; the Unites States’ malevolence yet again!

Conservative commentators on radio and on Facebook observe darkly that many or most of the migrants from the Middle East are of “military age,” perhaps portending a repeat of the many Muslim invasions of Europe ending only in the seventeenth century. Several comments are in order though I can’t make them in an orderly fashion.

First, a question lest I be accused of ignoring the issue: Will ISIS and other extremist Islamist groups use the exodus of Syrians and Iraqis to place undercover agents and terrorists in Europe. To ask the question is to answer it: Of course they will. Why wouldn’t they? It’s cheap and it’s easy.

Next: Many of the migrants are young men because, historically, everywhere, the first migrants are always young men. Second, they are of “military age” as some conservative observers pronounce breathlessly. Sure thing; many are fleeing the draft, precisely, a draft for a murderous war on in which they don’t believe. (A war many times more murderous than the Iraq war has been for Americans.) There is a third possibility that does not contradict the others and that casts a different light on the plausibility of these new migrants, these refugees being absorbed into European societies.

Many of the new migrants may be simply seizing the opportunity to flee from life in an Islamic society. (No, I don’t mean “Islamist.”) Here is the key: Islam maintains minimalist metrics about who is or isn’t a Muslim. By and large, if you were born in a Muslim family; if you are a male who was circumcised as a small child; if you don’t adopt another religion (at some risk to your life. See below) then, you are automatically a Muslim. No affirmative action is required, no behavior prescribed although some is proscribed: no alcohol, fasting in the day time and no daytime sex either – would I make this up? – for one month out of the year. With such lax standards, it would be amazing if many nominal Muslims were not lukewarm, or indifferent, or downright free thinkers.

With access to the Internet, the famed serenity of Islam may be indistinguishable from boredom. And the vaunted moral sternness of Islam may begin to seem like unbearable oppression: Ten lashes for a single beer (NOT in most Muslim countries, in some, it’s a simple fine)? Marriage to an indifferent-looking cousin without a chance to smell the flowers first. No rap, or little rap and in mental handcuffs. (I dislike rap myself; not the point.) And then, there is the shame even for individuals who are only reasonably educated: the shame of living in a less civilized part of the world with death as the penalty for conversion (not in all Muslim countries, perhaps rarely applied), the death penalty also for witches (uncommon, true, but happened recently in Saudi Arabia, and nowhere in the West, recently), death by stoning for adulterous women (not often applied but really calms amorous ardors); incidentally: adulterous = any sex outside of marriage, except in the Islamic Republic of Iran where two-week temporary “marriages” are encouraged. Remember also the grotesque sexual mutilation of little girls practiced on a vast scale in the Muslim world (only in some of it, SOME, and also practiced outside of it. And it’s NOT an Islamic practice; it just happens there a lot). And when young Muslim men in Yemen, in Somalia, and yes, in Syria and Iraq as well, hear that the unemployment rate among Muslim youths in France is as high as 30%, they think they are dreaming; they suspect a cheap propaganda trick: only 30%?

Just think about it. There are no doubt millions of Muslim youths who would do well in one of our colleges, who would get good grades, who would fit right in the coffee shop; the girls would even flirt with some of them. Many or most have some access to the wider world through the Internet and through movies. Some are rationalists not very different from your neighbor’s kids; some are much better rationalists than your neighbor’s kids if you live in Santa Cruz, California, for example (as I do). How much the meanness and the superstitions around such youths must lead to self-contempt and even to self-hatred when they realize that their own society is a lot like Europe was six hundred years ago? (To be fair, Europeans burned many more people alive, including thousands of witches, mostly older widows who owned some property, another story. It was then though. We have not done this for a long time.) There are many who would stay put otherwise for whom the sudden practical unlivability of their society pushes them over the rim, I would think.

There is a reason why I construct this frankly hypothetical view. If you dropped me in any French city, within an hour, I would be sitting with people with a Muslim first name and last name who would say this to me, “Why me, live where I – or my parents – are coming from? Are you out of your mind? Why would I want to live under the restrictions, sometimes under the gross oppression of a Muslim society? Don’t be stupid, I am French, I am a European, I am a Westerner.” (Incidentally, there is a remarkable autobiographical book in English describing the travails of a young Algerian’s multiple efforts to leave home for good. It’s called: Donkey Heart, Monkey Mind. It’s by Djaffar Chetouane.)

What about the Germans who have publicly promised to take in 800,000 refugees? (And who will probably seduce and bully other European countries to absorb an equal number between them, I would guess.) There are two ways to look at this, both valid.

First, everyone else has forgotten but the Germans themselves that in 1945 and 1946, there were millions of Germans on the roads of Europe, expelled from various countries, some in which they had lived for centuries, trudging on foot to a homeland they have never seen. Ordinary Germans have not forgotten the misery nor the giant successful efforts a ruined German deployed to give them roof and board, and work. More recently, when the hapless communist Democratic Republic of Germany collapsed from the inside in 1990, tens of thousands of “Osties” made their way to the West where they were generously accommodated too. “Been there,” many Germans think, “We did it under much worse circumstances. We can do it again.” Yes, the Germans have more compassion on refugee issues than other nations of Europe. Also, they know more, from the inside, about brutal dictatorships than do most other Europeans.

Second, as has been observed by many (I was scooped; I thought of it first!), there is Germany’s low fertility rate of 1.39 per woman. A low fertility rate has both proximate and long run consequences. In the long run, it means that you disappear as a people. In the shorter term – if and only if you have sturdy economy – it means that jobs go unfilled. This must be especially galling to Germans who have reasons to think that in every other way, almost alone among Europeans (almost), they have their act together. The Germans need bodies, preferably young bodies, now. And, they need children to pay tomorrow for the fairly generous benefits of the next retirees. Germans have good reasons to think favorably of mostly young men flooding into their country all reared up at no cost to them and ready to work. In addition, I garner from different press commentaries that many of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees are a different breed from the usual economic migrants. They seem more urban and better educated. (Many know English or French, some both.) It’s a cynical thing to say but this impression of middle-classness is re-inforced by the fact that they are able to pay the horrendous ransoms human traffickers extort from them.

Although Angela Merkel may have used the low German fertility rate argument as an afterthought, perhaps as a political way to make ordinary Germans amenable to the promise of accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees, it must have resonated among many Germans who can’t find employees or who are well aware of Germany’s demographic decline. Germany is not much worse off than other European countries in terms of fertility, incidentally. Italy is also at 1.39, Belgium at 1.55. None of the European countries pass the bar of 2.00 in the 2013 Eurostat. It’s generally accepted that the true replacement rate is 2.2 or 2.3 per woman, absent a catastrophe such as war or famine. Europe is disappearing before our eyes. Other European countries are less aware of their demographic decline because their economies are in bad shape and unemployment dominates every other issue in their collective narrative. As usual, Germany is ahead of the curve. (No, I am not stupidly, reflexively pro-German. Read my essay “the Best Meal and the Worst Meal Ever,” on this blog.)

Although immigration is almost always a net economic plus according to serious studies, it often carries a full load of negative social consequences. In this case, as I already mentioned, there is the near-certainty that Islamist terrorists will join the flood of good immigrants. But then, Germany will have hundreds of thousands of competent informants. (I believe the adage that good police work means having plenty of good informants.) I see a bad sign in the fact that many, most of the female refugees shown on TV wear the hijab, the head covering. It’s not required by Islam; it used to be uncommon in the major Muslim countries. The hijab directs you to a certain kind of retrograde Islam. It’s the kind of Islam where women must cover their hair in public lest they excite the lust of men and thus distract them from thinking of God. The hijab directs you to a culture where women in general are closer to the devil, where girls are poorly educated or not educated at all, where religious law is also civil law and it mandates that a woman’s testimony in court is worth only half a man’s testimony. A simple rule of thumb: If half an immigrant population must stay home, and it’s charged with rearing the next generation, it’s difficult for the whole immigrant group to assimilate or even to adapt. (Yes, I know, the parlous conditions for women I describe does not all, ALL, prevail in all Muslim countries.)

Second, it remains to be seen whether Germany will avoid again the curse for the second generation that is well demonstrated in France, next door. There, millions of immigrants mostly from North Africa, most of rural origin arrived with their sleeves turned up, ready to work, appreciative of the possibility of advancing themselves, of offering their children a better life than they could ever have back home. Their children, raised in France, end up sharing the sense of gloom common to most French young people but with a painful twist. They suffer additional disabilities, because of racism and because of Islamophobia to an extent, but also because they cannot but be incompletely socialized by their often illiterate immigrant parents. The young themselves don’t quite measure how much of a handicap reaching adulthood without benefit of a name, of family connections, of good adult examples constitute to succeeding in any society. (I do. You should read my book: I Used to Be French….) They only know they are getting the short end of the stick. Of course, the more stagnant the host society, the worse the handicap. Many of the children of appreciative immigrants accordingly become disaffected with the society where they live without really understanding why. This disaffection takes the form of drug abuse, of banditry, small and big, sometimes, seldom actually, of adherence to extremist creeds, for some, it’s of all three in turn. (The Charlie Hebdo terrorists, for example). The Germans have been there before however. They absorbed millions of Turks without experiencing much of this kind of mass alienation. Notably, in this case, they were stingy with citizenship and generous with employment opportunities, the reverse of the French formula.

We will see. Past the current immediate human suffering of the mass migration I am optimistic that Germany will keep its word and that other countries will be shamed into following the Germans. Our easy sense of doom often comes from a general human inability to contemplate the alternative. A mass of Syrians and some Iraqis of military age flood Europe. They may be viewed as a threat or you may think of them as so many fighters ISIS won’t force into its ranks or murder, of millions of children who will not grow up to be fanatics.

I am not losing track of the possibility that three dozen additional warplanes in the Middle East would do more to solve the present refugee crisis than all the European bumbling to absorb refugees.

Note: I did not say a thing about the US and Mexican immigrants, legal or illegal.