Category Archives: News Media

Event Horizons: Turkey’s Military Coups and Varied Trajectories of History

Journalists know that to understand current events, we must put them in context.  The trick is identifying which context is most relevant.  Friday’s failed coup in Turkey was widely reported with a surprisingly standardized context, a canonical list of military coups in the modern Turkish republic since 1960.  While that is surely an important part of the story, there are longer and shorter trajectories of history that are relevant to understanding recent events, even within the specific category of Turkish military coups.

News reports of the coup have been consistently careful to mention the long history of military coups in the modern Republic of Turkey.  The canonical coups, in which the military ousted the civilian government for a variety of reasons and held power for a varying length of time before allowing new elections to be held, occurred in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.  (One article oddly replaced 1997 with 1993, but it is not clear whether that was simply a typo or in fact a reference to the covert coup which some people allege occurred during that year.)  The fact that the first three happened at intervals of a decade was noted, as well as the nearly two decades since the “postmodern coup” (as it is sometimes called) of 1997.  With these coups as a baseline, explanations for the failure of this weekend’s coup attempt illuminate its divergences from previous military interventions in politics.

All of that is well and good, and certainly has its place.  But it is not the only historical trajectory that matters.  This is middling level context, consisting of events within the living memory of most members of society, but Turkey has both a longer and a shorter history of military interventions of politics.

A number of articles initially remarked with surprise on the junior ranks of the apparent leaders of this military coup.  (The enlarging circle of arrests has now included several top military leaders, but that is a revision of the initial story, and it is not clear whether the shift is due to better [unrevealed] evidence or the political goals of the victorious president.)  But this was not the first coup attempted by junior military officers.  In 1908 the Young Turk Revolution forced the Ottoman sultan to reinstate the constitution (which he had been studiously ignoring for thirty years), call together a parliament, and rule as a figurehead, and most of the military personnel in that coup were junior officers who belonged to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).  One of those junior officers was a young man named Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), who in 1916 as a lieutenant colonel was the real hero of the battle of Gallipoli.  Mustafa Kemal, a young general by 1919, led the Turkish forces in the Turkish War of Independence to establish today’s Republic of Turkey in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.  He personally led the new Republic as its first president until his death in 1938, and his political program (“Kemalism”) defined the state for most of the twentieth century.  The Turkish military today sees itself as the last defender of Kemalism in Turkey, and they certainly remember the role that junior military officers can play in military coups.  (It also helps plausible deniability not to have the top brass most deeply involved.)  While no one alive today remembers the Young Turk Revolution, and very few remember Atatürk, military leaders know military history, and this may be a longer-term context in which the coup’s leaders understood their actions.

On the other hand, there is also a much more immediate and indeed personal historical context, which will have an especially strong impact on the fallout of this weekend’s failure.  I have not seen any news reports take serious stock of the increasing conflict between the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, and the military.  Erdoğan was himself banned from politics by the military for a period of five years following the 1997 “postmodern coup.” In 2002 his new conservative Justice and Development Party (known by the Turkish acronym AKP) was voted into power, and Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003.  In 2007, as the ruling AKP nominated its presidential candidate Abdullah Gül for the upcoming election, the Turkish military said on its website that the country’s foundational secularism was under threat, presumably because Gül’s wife wears a hijab, unlike previous presidents’ wives.  Yet unlike the 1997 memorandum, in this case the army’s intervention failed: Gül was eventually elected anyway, although it took several attempts.  The military’s power was clearly weaker in 2007, and by the time of the Sledgehammer trials in 2011, the AKP seemed to have successfully brought the military to heel.  The government likewise used the Ergenekon trials to target military opposition.  Irregularities in evidence and procedure, and the split between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, led to the convictions being overturned in the past sixteen months, but they are clearly part of a general trend of escalating conflict between Erdoğan’s government and the Turkish armed forces.  This shorter term trajectory of conflict between the military and Erdoğan personally will have a strong impact on the government’s response to the failed coup attempt.  Erdoğan even called the coup “a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”

Found: The Birmingham Qur’an (N=1)

It is six weeks since the news first broke of a fragmentary Qur’an manuscript whose radiocarbon dating (95% accuracy) is between 568 and 645.  Early reports declared how much the discovery supported traditional Muslim accounts of the origins of the Qur’an, but this week the news media went abuzz with claims that the Qur’an may in fact predate Muhammad and debunk Islam’s account of its own origins.  (N. B.: The article was first published in the Times of London, but linking to paywalls is unhelpful.)  Some scholars (such as Georgetown Prof. Jonathan Brown) have now published critiques of the counter-claims, and the buzz continues apace.

Before we get too carried away, it’s important to remember that this is a single manuscript.  Statisticians derisively refer to the conclusions which can be reached when the number of data points N = 1.  Such a datum is not “statistically significant.”  While statistical significance is not the only measure of historical evidence (and indeed, most ancient and early medieval history does not achieve statistical significance), it does suggest that we might usefully remember the limits of what we are looking at here. Continue reading

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading

Lost: What’s in a Name?

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that they have shortened their name to simply “the Islamic State,” Western media have had difficulty knowing what to call them, especially because they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  But this name-change is not simply an attempt at re-branding: the terrorist group also prohibits anyone under their governance from calling them by the common Arabic abbreviation Da’ash (داعش, for الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام).  The penalty for using the proscribed, but common colloquial, acronym is 80 lashes.  What’s going on here? Continue reading

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

The Scurrilous Precision of Dates

Dates are reassuring.  They allow one to pin an event to a particular time and give the illusion of order and comprehension.  But sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they simply don’t apply.  Despite historians’ reputation for date obsession, this historian sometimes find they obscure more than they clarify.

While reading around on the new Syrian Orthodox patriarch-elect, I came across a repeated assertion that his particular branch of Middle Eastern Christianity was founded in 452 (e.g. here).  What happened in 452?  Well, plenty of things happened of course, but I cannot think of any significant event relevant to the future development of the Syrian Orthodox branch of Christianity.  The Council of Chalcedon, which was rejected by the Syrian Orthodox, met in 451, and so the source of this date seems to have simply added one to the date of the council.  This is a bad way to date an event.  If one wished to date the founding of the Syrian Orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon, why not upon the completion of the council in November of 451?  Or why not years later, perhaps in 457?

But even more important than the arbitrary nature of the choice of “the following year” is the problem that this is not how many religious groups develop.  If you ask the Syrian Orthodox, their church was founded by Christ and the apostles.  But that can’t be right, some will say, since Christ and the apostles founded “our” church (or at least the variety of Christianity we know better, whether Catholicism or Protestantism), and since the Syrian Orthodox are not that, their history must be shorter.  It always amazes me when even people who pride themselves on rejecting Christian theology adopt such a necessarily theological interpretation of the past.

Like Shi’a Islam, Syrian Orthodox Christianity was not founded in a moment of time by some particular individual.  Rather what was one group with a range of different ideas and opinions before the council in 451 experienced mitosis slowly (over the course of about two centuries), and around about the rise of Islam had clearly divided into two distinct groups.  Speaking both sociologically and ideologically, there was a lot of continuity between each of the latter groups and what went before.  Differences developed within the two sides as they coalesced into distinct camps, and it became progressively more difficult to avoid being one or the other, although as late as the 520s the poet-bishop Jacob of Serug did not find it profitable to address these contested issues.  It was only from the 530s that separate clergy were being ordained for the two groups, and only from the 550s that a complete parallel ecclesiastical hierarchy was created.  And since members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy tend to be pickier about such issues than laypeople, we do not have any very clear idea when the laity considered these groups to be distinct Christian sects.  In any event, the process of religious divergence is almost always messy.  The emergence of the Khariji groups and the various extremist ghulat testify to the same messy divergence within Islam, and even the formation of Islam as a different sort of monotheism from Judaism and Christianity was not a smooth course.  But I do not think historians need be in the business of legitimating one set of heirs over another.

The process of religious divergence is complicated, but in both the Syrian Orthodox case and the early Islamic case the religion is misunderstood if it is characterized as something new.  Both groups took great pains to assert (outsiders would say fabricate) their continuity with what went before.  To characterize the Syrian Orthodox as a johnny-come-lately Christian sect disagrees with their own understanding, and makes it more difficult for the scholar to understand their viewpoint.  Even Islam, with its insistence upon Muhammad as the prophet of God (rasul Allah), taught equally that he was the latest and the last (the “Seal”) of the prophets, teaching what earlier prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had (allegedly) taught.  Traditional Muslim doctrine is that Islam was not a new religion, but the restoration of the original monotheism which had been corrupted by Jews and Christians in recent centuries.

This emphasis on continuity puts historians of religion in something of a bind.  Not all claims to continuity are true.  It is difficult to see how the Syrian Orthodox Church was founded by Christ and yet he was also a prophet of Islam.  On the other hand, for historians to insist on the differences and divergences makes it difficult to understand how members of those groups reasoned and understood themselves.  And yet to speak of these groups sensibly, historians must adopt distinct terminologies and determine when to apply those terminologies or the earlier labels.

In order to resolve these tensions, historians need to practice switching contexts, seeing the world (as much as possible) through the eyes of various historical actors and holding in abeyance the reflexive evaluation of an assertion as true or false (which is not to say that there isn’t a truth value to these assertions, just that our own evaluation may get in the way of our understanding those who evaluate the assertion differently).  But it is also necessary to adopt a more nuanced vocabulary regarding the origin and development of religious groups: instead of insisting that every group was “founded” at some point in time, it is necessary to recognize complex and drawn out processes of mitosis which result in two (or more) groups, while both claim continuity with what went before.  In other words, we must adopt the language of divergence.

(This is true not exclusively of religious groups; ethnic groups also experience mitosis, and new labels are adopted to replace old ones.  In the fourteenth century, the famous Muslim world traveler Ibn Battuta would have been offended if you had called him an Arab; in his travelogue, “Arabs” were country bumpkins and bandits, and had nothing to do with his sophisticated urban self.)

Some may feel that such an approach is too complex.  After all, a journalist is a busy professional who does not have time to describe the entire complex process by which two religious groups diverged, yet readers may wish some orientation to where this group fits in the grander scheme of things.  I have sympathy with this complaint, although as a professional historian I have an obligation to plea for people to slow down and add nuance.  Nevertheless, it is surely possible to do much better than a scurrilously precise date.  The statement that his church “developed out of a fifth-century schism” is no longer-winded than the phrase “was founded in 452 after a schism” as used in the ABC article cited above.  (The article’s statement that the schism was “with the bulk of the world’s Christians” is also questionable, but that’s an issue for another venue.)  There are sufficiently concise ways to speak of the divergences of religious groups without sacrificing accuracy.

Louis Sako on Middle Eastern Christians

A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon.  Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country.  In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law.  It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.

Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading.  In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself.  An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.  When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East?  The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century.  There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula).  Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.

One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war.  When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000).  A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt.  When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto.  The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.

And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East.  Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam.  On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists.  After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police.  That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law.  But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.

What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society.  They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society.  Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past.  And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous.  (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.)  I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.