Worth a gander

  1. good update on the mayhem in the Middle East
  2. as good as that update is, though: Iraq, Saudi Arabia to reopen border crossings after 27 years
  3. great read on Russia’s Far East and Russia’s travel writing genre
  4. in Russia, Lutheranism (Protestantism) is considered a “traditional” religion (h/t NEO)
  5. how social is reason?

BC’s weekend reads

The Ottoman Empire and Libertarianism

Every so often libertarians ask, in a speculative mode, whether the re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire would not be a formula for peace in the troubled Middle East. The question is interesting on several counts, one of which is that the regions affected by the Islamic State today, Arab and Kurdish alike, plus all of southern Iraq, plus Kuwait, plus Jordan and Palestine (including the current Israel), plus, more loosely, all of the Arabian Peninsula, were more or less under Ottoman/Turkish control until the end of World War One.

Libertarians allude to the “millet” system under which many different ethnic or national groups co-habitated peacefully for several centuries. Those are pretty much the same groups that have been eviscerating one another for several years and pretty much every time a strong and dictatorial leader does not clamp down on them. There is one large fault in this happy vision: the attempted genocide of the Armenians begun under full Ottoman power in 1895 and nearly completed as the empire was falling apart during World War One.

The millet system of governance should be of interest to libertarians who generally wish for less government, less expensive government, more responsive government and, especially, less intrusive government. Under the millet system, at least when it was fully functional, the Ottoman governor of say, the province of the empire that now encompasses Lebanon and Western Syria would summon yearly the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. He would address him as follows:

“Your Eminence is well I trust, and his family, and I hope that his sons are brave a wise. I am happy to hear that Almighty God has blessed Your Eminence with many grandchildren. And I am told your community is thriving. Now, based on the figures your office gave me and based on my own information, I think that the Greek Orthodox community must deliver to our master the Sultan, one hundred pounds of gold and three hundred fit young men of military age this year. Agreed? Thank you for your visit and may you and your community, Your Eminence, continue to prosper under the benign, enlightened and fair rule of our great sultan.”

Then, the governor would ask over the main Ayatollah of the Shiite Muslims and deliver himself of a similar oration. And so on.

But I must pause for a confession. The quote marks around the above monologue are metaphorical. I am not reproducing a real monologue. Something like the monologue above must have been delivered thousands of times but I must admit I was not present to hear any of them. (On the other hand, I spent time in Turkey on vacation ten years ago and I regularly drink coffee with Turks. And, I like Turks in general.)

Again, the millet system is a good historical example of extreme decentralization and of minimally intrusive government. It was also very inexpensive to administer. It had little permanent bureaucracy to speak of that could grow upon itself and reproduce itself endlessly thus forever shrinking the area of individual autonomy. At the same time as the comparable Hapsburg Empire was developing a large bureaucracy, at the time when territorially much smaller France was perfecting the art of centralized bureaucracy, at the time when the small Kingdom of Prussia was developing the very model of modern bureaucracy that was to become a model for the whole world, the millet system endured in the Ottoman Empire. In general, the Ottoman government was small and it seemed to be treading lightly on the land, you might say. It sounded a little like a sort of libertarian dream.

But, wait a minute, I need to complete significantly the imaginary monologue of the Ottoman governor above. On parting, the governor would have probably added: “Enjoy life and enrich yourselves. Everything will be fine unless I hear too much about you. If I do, bad things will happen to your community.” Or, he did not even need to utter the words. Everyone knew about the bad things that would happen if disorder arose. Some of these bad things were community leaders’ heads on a spike in village centers.

The Ottoman Empire that relied on the light, non-invasive, decentralized millet system was also famous for the fierceness of its repression. And this haven of diversity disintegrated swiftly throughout the 19th century with a speed that must give pause.

The unraveling of the Ottoman Empire began around 1805 when the large and important Egyptian subdivision gained all but nominal independence through an armed revolt and even waged successful war on the Empire. During the rest of the 19th century, the areas of the Empire now comprising Greece, Bulgaria and Romania decisively seceded. In the meantime, much of the rest of the officially defined Empire drifted away, such as Libya and Tunisia. Later, during World War One, the British (Lawrence) and the French did not have much trouble talking the remaining Arab areas of the empire into open rebellion. And yes, there was an attempted massive genocide of Armenians, in two phases. The first phase was under full Ottoman power in the 1890s; the second, much larger step occurred during the waning days of Ottoman rule starting in 1915.

Now, one can argue – and historians routinely do – that the spectacular disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was due to external pressures from the rising, fast industrializing European powers. Yet, the fact that national (ethnic) entities took up every opportunity to leave the Empire does not speak well of the effectiveness of Ottoman administration. The fact that they sometimes did it a a cost of great bloodshed, the Greeks in particular, does not strengthen the idea of contentment of the administered. The fact is that the subject people of the Ottoman Empire including the many governed through the millet system described above seem to have left as soon as the opportunity arose.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire poses a conceptual problem: Did it fall apart in spite of the admirable millet system of government or because of it? Was internal peace maintained in the Empire for a long time because of the virtues of the millet system or because of the ever-present threat of a large and fierce army facing a divided and unarmed populace?

Was the Ottoman Empire taken apart from within, and also from without, because the administrative principles behind the millet system impeded the supply of the means of self-preservation?

Beyond this lies an even graver question for anyone with libertarian aspirations: Do systems of administration that share the main features of the millet system, decentralization, low cost, and low-level invasiveness contain the seeds of their own destruction? Does administrative lightness actually nurture violent intervention from above and/or from outside?

I don’t know the answers to these serious questions. I think libertarians of all feathers don’t discuss these and related issues nearly enough. I suspect libertarian circles harbor their own form of political correctness that paralyzes such essential inquiries. I do what I can. I know it’s not much.

Jews in the West and Jews in the Middle East

Has there ever been a Holocaust in the Middle East?

Pogroms were an annual affair in Russia, and we all know how much Christian Spain loved its Jews. The Holocaust was horrific.

I also realize that anti-Semitism is rampant in the Middle East. Some of this is because of Israel, and some may be because some imams interpret the Koran to be anti-Semitic, but there’s never been any kind of mass murder committed by Muslims against Jews in the Middle East on the scale that has occurred in the West.

Is this because the West was industrialized and therefore had better access to technology with which to kill large amounts of people? Is it because the structure of states in the West made it easier to run roughshod over the liberties of minorities? These are the only two explanations that I can think of that make any sense. The second of the two possibilities seems like an especially weak option, given the amount of carnage post-colonial states have managed to produce (though, in a paradox, it is often minorities that do the killing and oppressing in these post-colonial states, rather than majorities; maybe this helps to explain why there has never been a Holocaust in the Middle East…).

The first possibility is reasonable enough, but since most of the states in the Middle East that are rich enough to “test” this hypothesis have expelled the Jews from their territories, it’s virtually impossible to know.

I am simplifying things here, I realize. I want to give this much more thought (and I have been), but I think that, given the toxic climate in the public sphere concerning Islam, it’s important to point out the obvious.

From the Comments: Military intervention, democracy, and stability

Longtime reader (and excellent blogger in his own right) Tam has an interesting response to Chhay Lin’s thoughts on the Paris terrorist attacks:

It is an interesting read indeed but there are two or even more sides to every story. What we are also noting is that many of these groups that hate Western interventionist policies also hate their own people for being different in one way or the other. However, I agree that the misplaced perception of democracy as the superior form of governance overlooks the essential internal historical and socio-political factors behind the politics of the different countries that have become victims of Western ‘sanctification’ processes fronted by bombs after daring to opt not to embrace democracy. Libya and Iraq were stable before Western intervention.

Tam’s point strikes at the heart of the difference between military interventionists and non-interventionists, I think. Libya and Iraq were indeed stable, but not everybody was free. In Iraq, Shias, Kurds, liberals, and religious Sunnis were all brutally suppressed, and this oppression stood in stark contrast to the freedoms that secularists, women, union members, some socialists, and the politically apathetic enjoyed. The sociopolitical dynamics in Libya were the same, though with different local actors.

This reality is something that both sides of the interventionist debate recognize, though the interventionist side seems to place much more faith in government when it comes to “doing something.” Jacques and Edwin, for example, have both argued that bombing ambiguous factions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya would contribute to the freedoms of the oppressed factions in those countries. Looking back on the debate makes it clear that they weren’t wrong, but look at what those freedoms have produced. Those freedoms have come at the expense of the freedoms of the factions that the dictators were protecting.

What this situation shows me is that the states of the post-colonial world are unviable. Stability comes at too steep a price (dictatorship), and democracy’s unpredictability only leads to predictably violent results in the post-colonial world.

This impasse, which I cannot be the only one in the world who recognizes, has led me to take a hard glance at two specific peace processes in the Western world: The diplomatic efforts of Europeans after the Napoleonic Wars (“Concert of Europe”) and the founding of the American republic, which is, in my mind, the most successful endeavor in the history of international relations. Neither of these efforts led to the complete abolition of war, but both have helped to maintain a relatively peaceful co-existence between large numbers of factions for long periods of time.

The Concert of Europe bought time for factions in the region to solidify their legitimacy at home, culminating in both the creation of Germany and Italy in the late nineteenth century and the infamous overseas imperial  domains of France, the UK, and the Netherlands (among a few others). While this peace process brought about prosperity for Western Europe, it was not inclusive and it still adhered to the Westphalian notion of state sovereignty. What state sovereignty means is that each state, in the context of international affairs, has a right to do whatever it pleases within the confines of its own borders (such as massacre hundreds of thousands of people in the name of stability). The Concert of Europe was also the precursor to the post-1945 peace process that created the state system that we all live with today, though I would argue that there are some elements that could be republican, such as the IMF and World Bank, provided some changes in mindset.

Aside from the problems produced by the notion of state sovereignty, the states of the post-colonial world today suffer from an issue of legitimacy, both from domestic populations and from foreign ones. Domestically, all of the factions that stability-inducing dictatorships oppress do not buy in to the argument that the states purporting to govern them are legitimate. In foreign affairs, many factions do not believe that these post-colonial states are legitimate either. Hence the calls for bombing campaigns, proxy wars, or outright invasions and occupations of states like Iraq and Libya by states like the US or France (even if these invasions come at the expense of domestic and international rule of law).

This situation, where post-colonial states claim to have sovereignty within an international state system but where domestic and international factions ignore such claims, is where we’re at today. It’s the status quo, and while it worked relatively well in a small part of the world for about hundred years or so, it’s obviously failing today.

Enter the founding of the American republic. Unlike the Concert of Europe, self-determination à la breaking away from the UK was a guiding principle of the federal system, rather than state sovereignty. Like the Concert of Europe, the statesmen who crafted the American republic were concerned about invasion, hegemony, and all of the other bad stuff that happens in the international arena. So they set up an inclusive, republican system of states rather than attempt to balance power off on each other, like they did in Europe. The republican, or federal, system tied each state up into the affairs of the other states, whereas the balance of power system contributed to the formation of rival blocs within the system. This is why Europe switched from trying to maintain yet another balancing act to building an actual confederation (though one that is far too complex than it has to be) after World War II.

From a strictly war and peace view, the republican state system has led to one war so far (dating from 1789). From the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, to today, the balance of power state system has led to numerous wars.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was based on self-determination, and his foreign policy was a disaster. This is true, though I would argue that Wilson was simply confused about what self-determination actually implied. For Wilson, recognizing the self-determination of various groups within empires would lead to state sovereignty for these groups, and that this state sovereignty would then be protected by the institutions trying to maintain a balance of power. Wilson never entertained the notion of republicanism when it came to recognizing the self-determination of peoples living in empires, he simply thought empires were undemocratic. Thus, he was actually a proponent of state sovereignty rather than self-determination.

What I am not arguing for here is a Concert of Europe-type effort for Middle Eastern actors. I think it would be a disaster, largely because regional efforts at peace-building (rather than, say, trade agreements) are useless in today’s globalized world. The Middle East needs the West, and vice-versa. Peace will only be achieved if self-determination is embraced (by not only large swathes of Mideast factions, but Western ones as well) and the new polities can be incorporated into existing republican-esque institutions. This way, more factions have a voice, and bad actors can be more easily isolated. I am not necessarily arguing that the US or EU should welcome burgeoning Mideast states into their federations, but policymakers and statesmen from these countries should at least start thinking about how to encourage and embrace the notion of a Middle East that looks a lot like our own republican world and less like the one we gave them following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.

Stability is overrated, especially if the notion of creative destruction is taken into account.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Criminalization of Curiosity
  2. Britain needs Christianity – just ask Alan Partridge
  3. Libertarians have nowhere to turn
  4. In light of ongoing events in Poland, this October piece by Dr Stocker here at NOL is worth reading again
  5. The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

Hypocrisy!

Yes, I am alive, thank you for asking.

I have been away from this blog for two reasons. First, the little boy who hated the end of summer and going back to school is still alive and well inside the old man. I combat the corresponding end of summer melancholy by trying to cram outdoors activities into my life until the days become too short. Second, my hands hurt enough to keep me away from the keyboard most of the time. I am considering switching to one of the voice recognition softwares such as Dragon. I am not too worried about accuracy. Mostly, I don’t want to have to junk my old Samsung because of space requirements or some other software feature I don’t even know exists. I listen to advice from my betters (practically everybody in this case). Ideally – ideally – I would like a program that does more than one language.

I had much trouble writing the essay below because the topic of mass migrations has so many ramifications and because it touches so many different sensitive subjects. In a way, it’s just too rich a topic. And, the more I waited, the more complicated the situation became on the ground. Please, bear with me.

Like most or many people, I have observed with grief in my heart the fast-rolling disaster of the migrants crisis in Europe. I have several reactions, not all compatible with one another.

As I wrote, on about 9/5/15 Hungary was unaccountably preventing thousands of migrants from leaving its territory. This is strange because most of them don’t want to stay in Hungary; they want to go to Germany and to Sweden. Besides, Hungary, which is relatively poor, has a fairly big anti-immigrant political party, lots of voters who want as few immigrants inside as possible. A major Hungarian politician even declared that Hungary does not want any Muslim refugees because of its history of strife with the Ottoman Empire. Something does not add up: If you don’t want them, let them go elsewhere, even give them a lift! Later (09/14/15) Hungary built a fence to keep migrants out. Smart move!

What is confusing is that the current crisis is only in part new. We have heard for years, we have seen pictures of people drowning trying to reach the Italian island Lampedusa for a long time now. Three hundred and fifty drowned there in one 2103 day alone. This first European Union territory is only day-excursion distance from Tunisia. Several years ago, I saw pictures of hundreds of black Africans acting in concert to swamp the wall of Spanish enclaves in North Africa. The two enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are also, practically, part of the European Union. I could tell from their appearance that the fence climbers were not Syrian families but sub-Saharan Africans. Some were from Senegal, a poor but peaceful and orderly country. So, there have always been illegal emigrants to Europe motivated by the search for better economic opportunity, people who left their countries not out of desperation but drawn by hope. This first category of migrants resembles closely immigrants from Mexico, for example, who daily come into the US illegally.

So, it seems to me that there are right now two main categories of migrants (would-be immigrants) that are intermixed on the ground and on the sea and that the American press is not doing a good job of separating them, conceptually. I am possibly getting a clearer picture by superimposing on one another American and French language reports. The new migrants, a recent category – are going to Europe because they feel that they literally have no place to live. They are properly refugees; they seek refuge in an absolute sense. This is the case, no doubt, with many Syrians. Their area of origin has been destroyed by the Assad government, much of the rest of their country is aflame or under the brutal tyranny of the so-called Islamic Caliphate. The livable areas are shrinking fast. Many belong to the wrong sect and are suspected of being natural enemies irrespective of their actions or inaction. They are not welcome in the shrinking areas of livability within their country or they are unable to reach them. From interviews in both English and French and from the quality of their clothes, I deduce that a large percentage of these new migrants are solidly middle-class, well educated, with defined skills. I mean “middle-class” by my standards, not middle-class by some other, lower exotic standards. The impression is strong and clear with respects to Syrians, less so for Iraqis.

Many Syrian migrants are young men who are simply trying to escape the draft in a murderous on-going war. (The fact that they are young and male has implications for the receiving countries that I hope to consider in a related essay, following.) But migrations are always complicated. Once the path is opened by the desperate refugees just described, once bridges are built, simple economic migrants of the old style who would not have thought of moving will join the exodus. Things will not sort themselves out soon. It will become increasingly difficult to separate real refugees from traditional, conventional economic migrants. Both target principally Western countries.

The new migrants from Syria, but also from Iraq, calculate, probably correctly, that their neighbors have reached the point where they can’t or won’t take them in. Lebanon and Jordan are groaning under a disproportionate demographic burden. Two out of eight residents of Lebanon today are recent Syrian refugees. The situation is more nebulous in Jordan but the figure there appears to be about one in ten. (Think of 32 million recent refugees in the US.) Many citizens of these countries of asylum think without being able to say it aloud that the fragile political ethnic-religious equilibrium of their countries is compromised forever. Turkey says it has taken in two million Syrians. It’s not that impressive given its population of 77 million. There is a possibility it’s not just the total number of refugees that gives Turkey cold feet but the prospect that those refugees will include many Kurds from Syria whose very presence will cause more unrest among the long rebellious Turkish Kurds.

The other neighbors of Syria and Iraq, its Arab neighbors, specifically, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, seem to have given away a lot of money but they show no sign of opening their doors. It’s astonishing when you think of the ease and safety with which refugees could reach there as compared to their perilous journey to Western Europe. It’s even more interesting that there seems (seems) to be no great clamor from refugees to be admitted into these prosperous countries anyway. It appears that there is a consensus among Muslim Arabs: Muslim Arab refugees are not welcome in most Muslim Arab countries and they don’t want to go there anyway. Interesting! The new migrants, the real refugees believe, probably correctly too, that refugee camps in the Middle East lead nowhere, that they are still going to be there in twenty years. And, why not? Some Palestinian refugee camps are now reaching age seventy. Iraqis are in the same situation. Afghans who are the right kind of Muslim (Sunni) but who don’t speak Arabic don’t even try to go there. Instead, like everyone else, like Syrians and Iraqis, they head for Germany and Sweden because most of them are fluent in German or in Swedish or both. (Just a bitter joke.)

It’s not clear what the other neighbor, Iran, is doing. I am guessing it’s taking in Afghans in the east, same as it has done for twenty years. A country with a population size similar to that of Turkey – and of Germany, by the way – 78 million, appears to have opened its doors to no (zero) Syrian refugees. There are Iraqis living there but it’s always been so; it’s not a humanitarian response to the current crisis.

No one is asking why India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, with over 600 million Muslims between them, have not offered asylum to 10,000 Middle East refugees, or even to 5,000. No one even dare think the thought that China, Japan, and, of course Russia, have done nothing. The Pope has drawn attention loudly and clearly to the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. The Vatican is an independent sovereign state with the legal capability to issue visas. I have been there: There are many underused buildings and extensive gardens suitable for a tent city. The Vatican city-state already possesses all the requisite municipal services. Yet, to-date, the Vatican has taken in zero refugees although its head of state, the Pope, has urged Catholic families and parishes everywhere to open their door. Like fish, organizations rot from the head.

Notably, so far, the US has announced that it will take only 10,000 Syrians. (But in the past twenty years, the US absorbed about 70% of all defined as refugees by the UN who did find asylum. We have credibility money in the bank, so to speak.) As I write, no country of Latin America – with its surprisingly large minority of Arab descendants who enjoy much influence – has made any significant offer. Perhaps, the countries of the Western Hemisphere are too far removed from the scene of the main disaster to be prompt. We will find out in the next few days.

It’s now obvious that compassion, simple humanity is disproportionately lodged in the West, that is, in Christian and in formerly Christian societies. Not all such societies are helping but the bulk of those now helping concretely right now, except for Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey (see above) are such countries.

The refugees themselves know this, and are stalwartly heading for Western European countries – that have experienced mediocre economic growth for many years – in preference to non-European countries routinely growing at more than 6% for years. So, China and India are not taking them in which is fine because they don’t want to go there anyway. Japan has not even begun to think about it. The refugees have not asked anything from Japan. It might just as well be on another planet. Again: Refugees are trying desperately to find room in Western societies that are not even doing very well themselves, Greece, of course, but also Italy, and Spain, and France, with its rate of economic growth that may well reach 0.6 % this year, the French hope fervently. (Incidentally, it was a pleasure seeing the French Socialist government, that paragon of solidarité shamed into giving a hand by a German conservative politician. It had not lifed a finger until then. Sorry if you missed it.)

What politically correct opinion in the West does not want to say too loud is also obvious: most, almost all of the migrants are Muslims. To admit this obvious fact forces you to ask what happened. The migrant crisis is a dramatic manifestation of the widespread institutional, economic and moral failure of Muslim societies. In fact, voices of conscience in the Arab world have been more forthcoming in their remarks than have Western commentators. (And no, I am not using “Muslim” and “Arab” interchangeably. Don’t insult me, please. There may also be non-Arab Muslim voices denouncing Muslim passivity toward the crisis that I have missed. I welcome responsible additions to this essay.)

Muslim societies with one big exception (Indonesia) and several small ones (Senegal, Mauritania, etc.) have been generous in their provision of war, massacres, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities. They have mostly failed to provide work for their young. Those that don’t sit on a cushion of hydrocarbons rarely display economic growth surpassing their demographic growth. The resource rich states are well, dependent, on factors which they cannot control, on capricious facts that discourage both collective and individual planning. Only a handful, literally a handful, of Muslim countries has been able to sustain anything resembling a democracy, any form of democracy, even using the term loosely. With the exception of Indonesia again, the most stable, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, but also Algeria, are old fashioned despotic states. When it comes to charity, the care of those more unfortunate, assistance to brethren in distress, the Muslim world is a straightforward disaster although such care and such assistance are explicit moral obligations under Islam. Muslim societies are failures on most counts. Important fractions of their populations are on a perilous march seeking a new life in the Crusaders’ heartland.

The shame, the hypocrisy!

I know, I know, it must all be America’s fault. I will have to write a part two to this essay.