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Archive for November, 2010

I got incensed by Jack Straw’s interview with the Today programme’s Sara Montague this morning and fired off the following letter.

Dear Sara,

I caught the back end of your interview with Jack Straw about Cyprus and Turkish EU membership this morning.

Straw does not understand the Greek position (neither Greek Greek nor Greek  Cypriot). How could he? He does not know that part of the world, does not speak the languages and has a very Anglo-centric view of things.

I would just like to get a few things off my chest about this whole issue.

First, you have to understand that, while “modern” Greece is territorially and in many other ways insignificant, Greek influence, that is, the influence of what today’s Greeks call Hellenism, was the decisive cultural influence in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea from classical times until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 and in many important ways continued so until the First World War and, in the case of Alexandria, even the Second World War. The first Greek colony in the Black Sea, near modern Constanta, was founded in 600BC; my Greek ex-wife’s mother, still alive, was born in Constanta in the 1920s – i.e. they were still there! And they were Christians, of course.

The Muslim Turks overran what had been their patch for already 2000 years and oppressed and humiliated them continuously, even though they continued to play a crucial role in the economy and administration of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks were nomadic warriors in culture and looked down their noses at trade, industry and civil service. The whole of the Asia Minor littoral is packed with mementoes of both the ancient and Byzantine Greek presence, as is the National Archaeological museum in Ankara. Any idiot can see that this stuff is Greek, yet the Turks refer to it as one of the Ancient Anatolian Civilisations; they cannot bring themselves to utter the word Greek, when in effect the entire history of what is now Turkey was Greek until 1450. And the basis of Turkish oppression was essentially religious: the Greeks, like the peoples of the Balkans whom they also ruled and oppressed for the same five centuries, were Christians and oppressed for this reason.

In the Russian campaigns around the Danube in the mid-19th century in the run-up to the Crimean war, the Sultan roused his troops to battle fury by calling for jihad.

Of course religion is an issue in this whole business. The Turks are Muslims. The Christian Greeks, Serbs, Croatians, Romanians, Bulgarians, lived under oppressive Muslim rule for a very long time and had their noses rubbed in it continuously. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, only became part of Greece in 1913. These hurts are recent, within living memory even. Even in my lifetime (and I have been in and out of Greece since 1958; I speak Greek and Turkish), elderly Greek peasants would greet you with the words, “Good day, Christian.”

The post-WWI settlement dealt with most of the territorial question as far as Turkey and Greece were concerned, with the forced exchange of populations etc. Cyprus was not dealt with because it had been ceded to England in a special deal with the Sultan in 1870. The final Cyprus settlement came with independence in 1960 with a constitution that shared power between the Greeks and the minority Turkish population, a solution that was probably doomed from the start and would never have been agreed if Cyprus had not been in effect a British colony, for the simple and important reason that Cyprus is, was, and always had been a Greek island in the only sense that matters. The whole of the Greek world feels that, knows that. Yes, there were Turks living there but they were the conqueror, newcomers. Pretending that the Turks have any claim on Cyprus is like telling the Irish that really Ireland is English and Protestant because the English ruled it for a long time.

No one mentions it any more, but in this post-WWI settlement Turkey kept the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, both of them as Greek as could be (had been from Homer’s time). And what happened to the Greek population that remained on them? (And what, I wonder, does Straw have to say about our insistence on hanging on to the Falklands?)

Turkey is not the wronged party. It has continued to violate Greek air space and engage in other provocative acts for decades. And, of course, in 1974 it invaded Cyprus, doing yet again exactly what Greeks had come to expect Turkey to do: use violence against them.

Straw simply does not understand the underlying strength of feeling about Turkey. One might wish it were not the case, but it is  – and with more than a little justification.

And then there is the question of what sort of a beast contemporary Turkey itself is. I have some sympathy for Turkey. There is undoubtedly a large population, especially urban and young, who in appearance, manners and aspiration are indistinguishable from the youngsters of Europe. At the same time there is clearly a powerful resurgence of Muslim feeling. Even in Istanbul, especially in certain boroughs, you see thousands of black-veiled women – something you did not see forty or fifty years ago. It is true that you also see young women very colourfully and fashionably veiled but sporting a glimpse of belly button and smoking narghiles and cigarettes in public tea houses. There are those that say, quite probably rightly, that agreeing to cover up is a small price to pay for having dad let you out on the town where you can meet the boyfriend, light up and all the rest of it. Contemporary Turkey is a difficult place to read for an outsider. But there are plenty of modern, open-minded, free-thinking Turks who are very suspicious of the Erdogan government and its long-term intentions where religion is concerned.

Straw concluded his interview by saying that Turkey was a growing economic and industrial power and we would ignore it at our cost. Straw has obviously spent most of his life in ministerial cars and in others ways removed from life on the street. Antalya, Istanbul, Izmir, may look modern and emerging. Has he been to Van, Erzurum, Kayseri, Kars? Or the semi-troglodytic villages of the remote hinterland?

Being a journalist and expressing controversial views is still a dangerous business in Turkey, not to mention belonging to a non-mainstream Sunni branch of Islam. Corruption is rife, I don’t mean on the English or French scale, but on the Greek scale: in fact, it is the system, the way of life. Transactions of all kinds go through on the basis of who you know and what you pay. Much of Turkish life, and not just commercial activities, is controlled by a handful of family oligarchies.

Germany has a large immigrant Turkish population, whose differentness (there are always tales of honour killings) already causes problems. How sensible would it be to extend the free movement of labour arrangements of the EU to 70-odd million Turks, many of them ill-educated, poor…and Muslim?

I have sympathy for the Turks. Like us, they are an ancient imperial power fallen on hard times and having a hard time finding a new furrow to plough. I think they are in many ways a far fitter partner for the EU than the Arab neighbours whom they once ruled and rather despise, but… And it is a very big BUT. The EU is not a charity. It needs to strengthen its identity, not dilute it further. But Jack Straw, I suppose, is a Free Trader, a commerçant in the classic English manner: what is in it for us, how much richer are we going to  be? We don’t want any truck with those windy foreign abstractions: union, identity? Bah, humbug!

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