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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Tayyip Erdogan’s Cave of Wonders

February 28th, 2013 - 6:12 pm

Prince Metternich, the architect of the Holy Alliance against France, is supposed to have said after hearing news of the death of his arch-rival, the devious French diplomat Talleyrand, “I wonder what he meant by that?” Metternich (if he really said it) mean it as a joke. The State Department will ask what Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meant by his outburst yesterday that Zionism is “a crime against humanity.”

Erdogan, after all, has “bonds of trust” with Barack Obama. Last year Obama told Fareed Zakaria of Time magazine that the “friendships and the bonds of trust” that he forged with Erdogan (whom he named among five foreign leaders) is “precisely, or is a big part of, what has allowed us to execute effective diplomacy.” What could the president’s friend have meant by that? Erdogan said exactly what he believes. The Turkish leader is a holdover from the enchanted world of rural Anatolia, in which Jewish conspiracies swirl in the night air along with jinn and witches. That is not an exaggeration, but an objective report, as I will explain below. No-one should be surprised. Lunatics have run better countries than Turkey in living memory.

I wrote in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too):

There is bizarre edge to Tayyip Erdogan. He is given to lurid, sometimes bloodthirsty outbursts. During a February 2008 visit to Germany, Turkey’s most important European trading partner, Erdogan scandalized his hosts when he told an audience of 20,000 Turks that assimilation into German culture was “a crime against humanity.” Germany, after all, knows a thing or two about crimes against humanity. German opinion was outraged, and Turkey’s chances for membership in the European Community—a pillar of Turkish diplomacy for a generation—fell to negligible. Erdogan ignored the uproar, and told the Turkish Parliament upon his return to Ankara, “I repeat… assimilation is a crime against humanity . . . . We can think differently from (Chancellor Angela) Merkel about this, but that is my opinion.” The German attitude towards its Turkish minority has swung from multicultural outreach to pessimism about their future in German society. In October 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a gathering of her political party that Germany’s attempt to create a multicultural society has “utterly failed.” As press reports paraphrased her remarks, “Allowing people of different cultural backgrounds to live side by side without integrating has not worked in a country that is home to some four million Muslims.”

We obtain some insight into Erdogan’s warped view of the world by considering the leading ideologue of Turkish Islamism, Fethullah Gulen. I profiled him in a September 2010 Asia Times essay. He presides over a business empire worth tens of billions of dollars and a system of Islamist schools that stretches from Central Asia to charter schools in the United States. The Gulen organization took control of Turkey by infiltrating its security services in a patient march through the institutions over the past two decades. Gulen’s pan-Turkic mysticism views Turkey as the center of a new caliphate uniting the Muslim world. He preaches a “Turkish renaissance” with a modern spin “to ensure that religion and science go together and that science penetrates not only individual lives, but also social life.”

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All who love the Free World heard with sadness today’s news of the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, whose physical infirmity caused him to step down from the chair of St. Peter. As the shepherd of the founding institution of the West, Benedict personally embodied its best traditions. He is one of the last men living to have assimilated the fullness of European culture, a member of the “heroic generation” of Catholic theologians that included Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

We will remember many acts of intellectual courage from this pope. One in particular comes to mind today, namely his speech at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006. In the face of great controversy, Benedict cited the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologue: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” And he added:

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God,” he says, “is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” . . .The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. . . . The editor [of the Greek text from which Benedict is quoting], Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-­evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that ­nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice ­idolatry.

Benedict’s commitment to theological truth as he understood it at the expense of political correctness is unique among today’s religious leaders.

Jewish communities in particular have reason for sadness at Benedict’s abdication. He is a true friend of the Jewish people. As Israeli journalist Assaf Sagiv wrote in the Autumn 2009 issue of the quarterly journal Azure on the occasion of the Pope’s May 2009 visit to Israel:

Benedict XVI—the former Joseph Ratzinger—is actually one of the best friends the Jewish people has ever had in Vatican City. On the eve of the pope’s visit, Aviad Kleinberg, a scholar of Christian history and a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, attempted to remind his readers of this. Ratzinger, he explained, “was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope’s moves…. John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.”

I wrote at the time on the website of the religious magazine First Things where I was then an editor:

Benedict’s unprecedented efforts to draw near to Judaism as a religion were summarized by the Bonn University theologian Karl-Heinz Menke, who argues that His Holiness is the first pope since St. Peter to read the whole of the Gospels as a Jewish work. From a theological standpoint, the Jewish people have had no better friend in the Vatican since the founding of Christianity.

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The liberal establishment has finally taken note of the elephant in the Muslim parlor, namely the closing of the Muslim womb. A year after the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt reported the precipitous fall in Muslim fertility in a widely commented paper, and seven years after I reported the trend and its strategic implications at Asia Times, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reports wide-eyed on Eberstadt’s findings:

The Arab world may be experiencing a youth bulge now, fueling popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. But as Eberstadt notes, what’s ahead over the next generation will probably be declines in the number of working-age adults and rapidly aging populations. The Arab countries are now struggling with what Eberstadt calls their “youthquake.” But the coming dilemma, he notes, is “how these societies will meet the needs of their graying populations on relatively low income levels.”

Why does Ignatius suddenly find this important? Perhaps the frustration of the establishment’s hopes for the Arab world in the form of state failure in Syria and Egypt and Libya (and perhaps also Tunisia) has provoked an interest in deeper causes. Both the liberal establishment as well as the Republican mainstream embraced the Arab Spring, but now recoil in horror from the consequences.

The evidence has been there for years in the United Nations database. In September 2006 I warned that the Muslim world was heading towards a demographic catastrophe.

By 2050, elderly dependents will comprise nearly a third of the population of some Muslim nations, notably Iran — converging on America’s dependency ratio at mid-century. But it is one thing to face such a problem with America’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $40,000, and quite another to face it with Iran’s per capita GDP of $7,000 — especially given that Iran will stop exporting oil before the population crisis hits. The industrial nations face the prospective failure of their pension systems. But what will happen to countries that have no pension system, where traditional society assumes the care of the aged and infirm? In these cases it is traditional society that will break down, horribly and irretrievably so.

My 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) assembled evidence that the decline of Islam as a religion explained collapsing fertility, just as the decline of Catholicism explained collapsing fertility in lands once blessed by large families — Spain, Italy, Poland, Ireland, and Quebec. Iran’s total fertility rate plunged to an estimated 1.6% in 2010, barely above Europe’s rate of 1.5 children per female. In 1979, when the Islamists took power in Iran, the average woman bore seven children. Nothing like this sudden snapping shut of the national womb has ever happened before in all of history. And the rest of the Muslim world is headed in the same direction.

“Something really big is under way — and practically no one has noticed it, even in the Arab world,” Ignatius quotes an e-mail from Eberstadt, one of the best conservative economists working today. But I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that “practically no one has noticed it.” On the contrary, Islamist leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been shouting from the rooftops about the trend for the past five years, as my book reports. Excluding the independence-hungry Kurdish minority, Turkey’s fertility rate is probably around 1.5 children per female, about the same as Iran’s, and a guarantee of national decline.

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Update: Egypt’s Daily News reported Feb. 10 that Egypt is cutting its bread ration to three small pita loaves per person, Supply Minister Bassem Auda announced at a press conference:

 “Three loaves per person is not enough,” a middle-aged woman who preferred to remain anonymous said. “I can be content with three loaves; I have diabetes, yet my children each eat at least five loaves per day.”

Managing a family which consists of seven members, the woman said she pays 150 piastres per day, the worth of 30 loaves of bread. “A co-worker in the hospital I work in eats around ten loaves per day,” the woman said.

“Three loaves of bread would’ve been enough back in the day when the loaf was large and well-baked,” said Ahmed Al-Gazzar, a middle-aged street vendor. “Now what they sell us isn’t bread; it’s more like biscuits. I eat over six loaves per day and remain hungry.”

Al-Gazzar said that his two children eat around eight loaves of bread per day. “The stomach is never thankful,” Al-Gazzar said, citing a popular expression. “If they determine bread rations, people will go mad! They want to share even our food? Are we animals so that they determine our food rations?”

Update: CAIRO, Feb 10 (Reuters) – A run on Egypt’s pound has left foreign currency in short supply and driven some dealers into the streets in search of people with U.S. dollars to sell, spawning a new black market.

“Even Islamists have to eat,” I wrote under the headline “Food and Failed Arab States” in February 2011. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government takes a different view, the Washington Post reported yesterday. The trouble, the government says, is that Egyptians are eating too much. In a separate report, the government proposed to cut back its bread subsidy to three hand-sized loaves of pita bread per person per day, about 400 calories’ worth. A state that can’t feed its people is a failed state, and that’s why the Egyptian state is at the brink of collapse, as Egypt’s defense minister warned last week.

According to the Post report, the government is telling Egyptians (almost half of whom live on less than $2 a day) to eat less. You can’t make this sort of thing up. Egypt lost another $1.4 billion in foreign exchange reserves in January, and probably is flat broke after figuring in arrears to oil and food suppliers, and it imports half its food, so something had to give. In response, Egypt’s Islamist government is emulating North Korea’s approach to food shortages:

Egypt’s government is recommending that Egyptians avoid overeating in order to cope with rising food prices and chronic household shortages, according to local media reports.

“The government has acknowledged across-the-board food price inflation on a range of commodities in a new report. … In the report, the government also advises citizens not to over-eat,” Egyptian journalist Issandr el Amrani writes in the Cairo-based Arabist blog, citing local media.

According to our translation, the story from Elwatan News says: “The report also gave dietary instructions to citizens, including…that it’s up to the individual to learn what to eat and why malnutrition can develop from a lack of food or overeating, and why a balanced diet is commensurate with the real needs of people, depending on their age, weight, and level of physical activity.”

Amid reports of Egypt’s ongoing political violence, it’s a reminder that the country is also dealing with an incredibly weak economy that its new leaders have struggled to rehabilitate.

Tourism, once a pillar of Egypt’s GDP, has dried up, and there is little foreign investment. Egypt’s unemployment rate is projected to hit 14 percent this year, up from about 9 percent in 2010, and the United States is questioning whether to cut the $1.5 billion in aid it sends to Egypt each year.

“The [Egyptian] government subsidizes fuel and foodstuffs — things it can’t afford — but it also can’t afford to unwind those subsidies politically, so it is really in a very serious situation,” Middle East expert Steven A. Cook told the Council on Foreign Relations recently.

The economic struggles mean most Egyptian households don’t have enough money to buy clothing, food and shelter, according to a fall 2012 survey by the Egyptian Food Observatory. As the site Rebel Economy reported:

“Of the 1680 households surveyed in September 2012, 86 percent said their income was insufficient for covering total monthly needs including for food, clothes and shelter, up from 74 percent in June 2012.”

To cope, Egyptians are reportedly buying cheaper food items, reducing their food intake and buying food on credit.

The Egyptian government has tried to subsidize certain staples, such as everyday bread loves. But accounting mechanisms are shoddy, Rebel Economy writes, so people end up stocking up on the subsidized bread, leading to further shortages.

Reports like this highlight the reality of most Egyptians’ shoestring existence, especially as the Egyptian government is trying to find ways to end subsidies to save money.

“The subsidy issue has to be tackled in this fiscal year,” Amr Adly, Economic and Social Justice director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said in November, according to the Egypt Independent. “The government is facing this paradox, even though the poor [are] not benefiting the most from the subsidies, but it’s them who will be hurt with their removal.”

The Egyptian Gazette reported February 5:

Significantly, the 2011 uprising was underpinned by the purely Egyptian slogan: “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” In short, ‘bread’ means a lot for the majority of Egyptians. To have it is to live.

Therefore, the Government sent shockwaves across the nation when, days before the second anniversary of the revolt, one of the Cabinet ministers disclosed a plan to offer every Egyptian just three loaves of the baladi (round) bread every day at the state-subsidised price. 

The people who want to get more bread will have to buy the staple commodity at the market value, which is five times higher than the subsidised price per loaf. 

The controversial rationing is part of an ambitious plan to phase out state subsidies on certain commodities, so as to reduce an unsustainable budget deficit. It is also believed to be part of a package of austerity measures that Egypt has to adopt before getting a $ 4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. 

The bloody civil disturbances that rocked Egypt during the past ten days were food riots as much as anything else.

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