You don’t need to have a PhD in Ottoman studies to grasp the fact that what’s happening in Turkey is a reflection of what is occurring through so much of the world: a cultural tension between a religious concept of society and a secularist one.
As the best commentator on Turkish affairs, the historian Professor Norman Stone, has explained, the Turkish military commanders are resentful of the expansion of “religiously minded obscurantism that pushes their daughters into silly shapeless clothes and stops them from having a beer”. While President Erdogan, who comes from a humble background, “wants to raise a new pious generation” – and to encourage Turkish women to have more children.
Thus the army which mounted the abortive weekend coup represents modernising secularism; while the elected, constitutional political leader represents a traditionally religious notion of society.
Turkey has nearly a million people, of which 96.5 per cent are now Islamic.
A small minority – just over three per cent – have either no religion, or adhere to an unnamed faith. And an even tinier minority now – 0.3 per cent – are Christian.
It is very evident even to a casual visitor to Turkey that the influence of Islam has greatly increased in recent years. To visit a Christian church in Istanbul is a lonely little exercise: finding a picturesque back alley where a couple of brave Italian priests are still maintaining the faith which had such historical links with Turkey, from St Paul’s journeys to associations with Our Lady. The Greek Orthodox have been all but banished.
Everyone I know who visits Turkey likes the people, especially in the coastal areas and villages. But the challenge of balancing a religious tradition with modern secularism, and tolerance, is surely especially acute for the Republic of Turkey.
It’s interesting, in retrospect, to examine the influences on your life. And when it comes to defence policy – while I have been influenced by the thoughtful arguments against the horror of nuclear weapons advanced by Bruce Kent, the former priest and peace campaigner – I think that I have probably been influenced, a little more, by Rudyard Kipling’s warning in his ferocious poem The Gods of the Copybook Headings.
In this long ode, Kipling demonstrates how we pursue all kinds of high-flown ideas on the presumption that human nature changes, but the fearsome “gods of the copybook headings” (whoever they are) return with terror and slaughter.
This is the verse that warns against disarmament:
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”
Fauzia Azeem, better known as Qandeel Baloch, was a 26-year-old Pakistani blogger who posted somewhat saucy, but not, by internet standards, offensive photographs of herself on Facebook. Her brother, Waseem Azeem, has now admitted to strangling her in an “honour killing”.
“Honour killings” in the Indian subcontinent took place when a woman was deemed to have behaved immodestly or immorally. To its credit, the British Empire put a stop to such savage homicides when the Raj ruled India (just as it put a stop to “suttee”, when widows were expected to throw themselves on their dead husband’s funeral pyre).
It is my theory, garnered from reading Christian missionary archives, that the British Empire was often an enlightened influence for women.
Fabio Paolo Barbieri recounts an anecdote (via Facebook) which illustrates this. The British general who had to enforce the edict of banning suttee (probably Sir Charles Napier) was angrily approached by certain Indians who insisted that that was their custom. He answered: “We too have a custom. When a man burns a woman to death, we build a scaffold and hang him on it. You follow your custom. And we will follow ours.”
It does, perhaps, also illustrate that hanging a person convicted for murder was also pretty fierce. But British law did stop suttee and honour killings, and we must wish to heaven that some force would halt the latter practice now.
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