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The Origin and Essence of “Palestine” and “Palestinians” as political entities (A)

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“Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people are not mentioned in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah (Hadīth and Sīrah), or in the entire Islamic Scriptures, or all along Islamic history. This is the most important fact to understand the political issues today. If any, “Palestine” and “Palestinians” are not only new invention of the 20th century, but the origin of the names is not Islamic or Jewish or other local Middle Eastern source, but a British one, a name taken from the Roman period.

Moreover, if the name “Palestine” has any linguistic relation to the Roman name “Palaestina” that meant to erase the Jewish name, Eretz-Yisrael, the Land of Israel, after it was conquered, there is nothing whatsoever concerning the name “Palestinians” as a nation, politically, socially, or etymologically.

To add to this scientific truth and reality, Jerusalem is also not mentioned in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah (Hadīth and Sīrah). After it was conquered by the Muslims in 638, it was called by the Muslim invaders “The City of the Temple House” (Madinat Bayt al-Maqdis). Bayt al-Maqdis is translated in Hebrew, the Jewish Beit Ha-Miqdash.

To end the religious-historical-political debate, this territory is called in the Qur’an “The Land of the Children of Israel” (Ard Banī-Isra’īl); “The Blessed Land” of the Children of Israel (al-Ard al-Mubārakah); “The Holy Land” of the Children of Israel (al-Ard al-Muqadasah). No “Palestine” or “Palestinians”, but the Children of Israel.

From Islamic perspective, Allah has assigned the Holy Land to the Children of Israel until the day of Judgement (Sûrat al-Mā’idah, 5:21). “we made the people who were deemed weak to inherit the eastern lands and the western ones which we had blessed; and the good word of your Lord was fulfilled in the Children of Israel” (Sûrat al-A’rāf, 7:137). “And we said unto the Children of Israel: dwell in the land of promise; but when the promise of the Hereafter cometh, we shall bring you as a crowd gathered out of various nations” (Sûrat Banī Isrā’īl, 17:104). “We made the Children of Israel the inheritors of the Land (Sûrat al-Shû’arā’, 26:59).

By that, the religious argumentation is over for good. There is no “Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people, but the Land of Israel alone. As for the historical side, it is also short and clear: the territory called “Palestine” is a new political invention of the beginning of the 20th century; and the name “Palestinians” is the name of a people beginning to identify themselves from the second half of the 20th century.

“Palestine” had no special geographic entity or political role whatsoever in the history of the region, and the “Palestinians” had no specific sociopolitical or cultural identity, but only after the creation of the State of Israel. “Palestine” has never been a territorial-cultural unit in history, let alone a political one, with its people as one recognized entity, struggling for independence among other political entities in the region.

There is nothing at all, in the entire Islamic literature or poetry, archaeological or scientific, from the 7th century to the 20th century that mention whatsoever “Palestine” and “Palestinians”. Indeed, this is a new creation of the 20th century. Moreover, had the British called the territory not “Palestine” but “Jupiter”, would we be hearing today of a Jupiterian people fighting to liberate their Jupiterian territory?

To set the scientific undoubted truth: this has nothing to do with the question whether there is a “Palestinian” people today. Contrary to the “Palestinians”, who refute and deny any connection of the Jews to their land, the “Land of Israel,” it has to be said: today there is a Palestinian people, a new and invented one, but still it exists. But, it is a new creation of the 20th century, and “Palestinianism” as a national identity, is the creation of the middle of the 20th century.

So far for “Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people. From here we can debate the relevant issues honestly and correctly, without the bias of false propaganda. King David captured Jerusalem and made it a political and religious center for the Jews. His son Solomon bureaucratized the Jewish state and inaugurated the First Temple. Since the dynasty of David and Solomon, and after the destruction of the Second Jewish House by the Romans in year 70, this territory, the Land of Israel, was conquered and ruled by many empires in history, and still, except of the Crusaders’ “kingdom of Jerusalem,” there has never been an independent political entity with its unique nation living and residing in the territory of the Land of Israel.

To make it even clearer: since the Islamic occupation of the Land of Israel in 634 and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there was never an Arab or Islamic independent rule or political regime in this territory. It was ruled independently in the first Jewish Kingdom, the Second Jewish Kingdom, and the State of Israel. This is a historical fact no one can deny scientifically.    

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the best Islamic and Middle East researcher, has made a comprehensive review of the issue, in which we can discern the following aspects. The word Palestine comes from Philistine, originally denoting the southern coastal region. In Hebrew that area was known as Pleshet, a Hebrew word. In the New English Bible, the Latin name Palaestina is replaced by Philistia in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the word Palestine does not occur at all.

The Babylonian conquest of the Land of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, culminated in destruction of the First Temple. The Roman conquest of the Land of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, culminated in destruction of the Second Temple. At first, the Romans called the country “Provincia Judaea”. But after crushing the Bar-Kokhba rebellion in the year 135, the Romans changed the name to “Provincia Syria Palaestina”, part of its policy of divide-and-rule, with the intention of uprooting any memory of Jewish existence. In about 400 CE, Palestine was split into two provinces known as “Palaestina Prima” and “Palaestina Secunda”. Later, in 425 CE, “Palaestina Tertia” was added. The new Roman name for Jerusalem was “Aelia Capitolina”. The Jews continued to consider it as the Land of Israel and “The Promised Land”.

After the Arabs had conquered the country, Palaestina Prima became Jund Filastin, the military district of Filastin (the Arabic adaptation of the Roman name), administered from Ramla; Palaestina Secunda including Western Galilee, became Jund al-Urdun (Jordan military district), was administered from Tiberias. The Arab division of the country, like the Roman, was not vertical between east and west, but horizontal, with Filastin in the south and Urdun in the north.

During the Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, the country was treated merely as part of Syria (bilad al-Sham). For the Crusaders, the area was called “The Holy Land” or the “Kingdom of Jerusalem”. The end of Crusader rule in Jerusalem came in 1187, when Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi) drove them out. After the Islamic re-conquest of the country, the term Filastin did not come back into use. The parts of the country were named after major cities (Jerusalem, Gaza, Nablus, and Nazareth). In various places, the area was sometimes called al-Quds Sahel, Jerusalem coast.

During the Ottoman Empire the Land of Israel was divided into three districts as administrative units (Sanjaks): Gaza, Jerusalem, and Nablus, with their provincial capital in Damascus. The country was known as “Southern Syria” (Suriyah al-Janubiyah). More specifically, the area from Safed to Jerusalem was part of the Vilayet (province) of Beirut. Indeed, Ottoman rule further emphasized the absence of any socio-cultural or political identity of the country in Arab and Islamic thought. For the population of the area, the territory had never meant more than an administrative sub-district, and had been forgotten even in the limited sense.

What was the social-political reality of the Land of Israel up to the end of the 19th century? Most documents and Christian travelers who visited the country described it as a land in decay. The common adjectives were “desolate” and “neglected”. “So abandoned that even the imagination cannot give it the splendor of life.” “The emptiness of a silent world.” The economy was primitive, the transportation wretched, and the roads dangerous. Jaffa and Haifa were described as “frozen, wretched life”.

According to all the demographic estimates, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were about 300,000 persons, most of them a mixed multitude of recently arrived migrants. Arab Muslims were the majority of the population carried on a semi-nomadic way of life, and lived in the mountains of the Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. The Christians were concentrated in the holy cities, in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The Jews lived mainly in Jerusalem, where they were a majority of the population, as well as in Hebron, and the Galilee cities of Safed and Tiberias .

Until the end of the First World War, Palestine was divided into several districts belonging administratively to Syria, and the inhabitants considered themselves part of Syria, broadly defined. British rule from late 1917, made “Palestine” the name of the formal political entity. Neither Jews nor Arabs consented to the name, however the Jews accepted it formally together with the name the Land of Israel, whereas the Arabs saw themselves as part of Syria and rejected it.

The best account of the period is still Porath’s analysis. The idea of a British mandate for a Jewish National Home stimulated the counter-notion of Palestine’s unity with Syria, with Damascus as its capital. This trend is attested by the recommendation of the King-Crane Commission that, “The unity of Syria be preserved, in accordance with the petition of the great majority of the people of Syria.” King and Crane recommended that Palestine be included in Syria.

From the beginning, the British were engaged on three separate political tracks. This multi-faceted policy bore crucial influence on the future of the Middle East. It began with official correspondence, ten letters written, starting in July 1915, between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sherif Hussein of Mecca, whom the British made spokesman of the Arabs.

According to Clayton, the British Director of Military Intelligence, Britain only wanted to keep the friendship and active assistance of the various Arab chieftains. McMahon never had it in mind to set up an Arab state, since the conditions throughout Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Syria did not allow such a scheme to be put into practice. To Storrs, the Oriental Secretary, the Hashemite demands were impossible, and Hussein’s borders were in fact tragi-comic. Moreover, Hussein had received no mandate whatsoever from his Arab counterparts, and the whole issue was premature and out of context.

All British officials maintained that McMahon had specifically excluded all the areas west of the district of Damascus, what they call Palestine. According to Lloyd George, McMahon was very convinced that the exclusion of Palestine was well understood by Sherif Hussein. Colonel Vickery, an expert Arabist, stated that he could affirm most definitely that Hussein’s demands were centered only on Syria. Hussein stated quite emphatically that he did not concern himself with Palestine at all, and he had no desires there. This was Clayton’s impression too.

The second British political track was the secret talks with France and Tsarist Russia, resulting in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, concerning the post-war division of the Middle East under European control and their respective spheres of influence. The region was to be divided into zones of direct and indirect British and French rule, while “Palestine,” the brown zone on the map, was to be internationally administered.

The third British political track was the Balfour Declaration, a letter from the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, declaring that “His majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

Much has been written about this commitment and its consequences. Essentially, the arguments are divided into four: a) strategic self-interest. The Jewish entity would be friendly to British interests in the region; b) self-deception: the Jewish people wielded enormous economic and political power that would help usher the US into the First World War, and would stop the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; c) religious idealism: the British Protestants believed it was the duty of Christianity to help the Jews return to Palestine, as a precondition for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; d) admiration of the British leadership for Judaism and Zionism as conformed to the principles of national self-determination and the right of a nation to rule on a nation-state.

The British government was never consistent in its interpretation of the Declaration, and did not speak with one single voice. Yet, all agreed that President Wilson’s wartime Fourteen Points support the principles of self-determination, and the rights of small nations to independence, including the Jews.

Nevertheless, the Declaration was not published hastily or frivolously; nor was it formulated out of ignorance of the facts, in the words of Lord Amery, one of its authors. It is a striking fact that four drafts were drawn up, starting in July 1917, before the Declaration was published. Talks and discussions about the various approaches towards Palestine had already begun in Britain in 1915.

The following aspects are important for understanding the matter:

First, this was a step taken with deliberation, which the British government decided upon cautiously. It was an inseparable part of its policy. The government received the consent of all the major parties in Britain, and the decision was enthusiastically supported by policy-makers, particularly the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and the foreign minister, Lord Balfour, admirers of Zionism and the advancement of Jewish interests in the Land of Israel.

Second, it suited the perceptions of British military men and statesmen who viewed the Jewish National Home in the Land of Israel as a basis for loyal manpower, a barrier to the French expansion southwards, from Syria and Lebanon, and an alternate base for the British presence in Egypt for defending the Suez Canal.

Third, Britain’s Principal Allies, the United States, France, Russia, and Italy, knew the contents of the Declaration before it was made public.

Fourth, inclusion of the Declaration in the Mandate over Palestine that Britain received gave it the force of law and a recognized international status.

Fifth, the Declaration had an attraction for public opinion in Britain and the United States, and it suited the spirit of the times that sympathized with national movements for attaining self-determination.

The goal of the British government was defined by the Foreign Office: to establish a state in its natural and historic boundaries, that constant immigration and economic development would make into a Jewish state. From Britain’s viewpoint, the greatest and oldest historical wrong done to the Jews was coming to an end.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

The Arabs argued that the Balfour Declaration was merely a statement of sympathy for the Zionist movement, however, this was not the issue. The historical context was worked out in the Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation which was signed on 3 January 1919 by Amir Faisal – ”the leader of the Arab uprising”, according to the King-Crane Commission, “the representative of the Arab national movement”, according to the British – and by Chaim Weizmann, representing the Zionist movement. The aim was defined as collaboration in developing the Arab state and a Jewish Palestine:

Relations…shall be controlled by the most cordial good will and understanding (art. 1)…the definite boundaries between the Arab state and Palestine shall be determined (art. 2)…carrying into effect the British Government Declaration of the 2nd November 1917 (art. 3)…all necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine in large scale” (art 4).

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

In his famous exchange of letters of March 3-5, 1919, with Felix Frankfurter, Amir Faisal recognized that there was no distinguishable Palestinian nationhood, and declared “There is room in Syria for both of us.” However, Arab pressures on Amir Faisal showed their success in an interview in the Jewish Chronicle of October 3, 1919. He explained his views about the meaning of his agreement with Weizmann as follows: From the Arab viewpoint, Palestine is merely a district, and the objective was to set up an Arab state including Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Arabs could not retreat from this position. The Jews are members of the Mosaic faith and are not a nationality. Moreover, the possible immigration of Jews is up to 1,500 per year. This territory would be a sub-district of the Arab kingdom under his kingship, in which the Jews would enjoy cultural rights. However, Jewish sovereignty is utterly rejected.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

With the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, Amir Faisal presented a memorandum describing the demands and proposals of the Arab national movement. His proposals were rejected, but subsequent to the tension that developed between Britain and France, the president of the United States, Wilson, proposed sending an investigating commission to examine the attitudes of the inhabitants as to a desirable government. This commission, which in the end had only two members, American representatives, King and Crane, presented its recommendations in August 1919 in a detailed report: Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine) should be considered a single political unit, headed by Amir Faisal, and it should be guided by a mandatory power, but not by France. The commission proposed changing Zionist plan and preventing the turning of Palestine into a Jewish state. However, this report was filed away by the American administration.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

Meanwhile, the mandate principle was accepted in June 1919, in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. In April 1920, at a session of the San-Remo Conference, it was agreed to grant the mandate over Syria and Lebanon to France, and the mandates over Palestine and Iraq to Britain. Included in the mandate was the Balfour Declaration as a document obliging political action. Thereby the Balfour declaration took on international validity.

The mandate was approved by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, but it entered into effect only a year later, when the Churchill White Paper was included in it. Winston Churchill was the Colonial Secretary. His White Paper stipulated that the National Home provisions of the Mandate were not applicable to Trans-Jordan to the east. Thus, the Churchill White Paper cut away a major part of Palestine (35,468 square miles out of 46,339) in order to set up the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, known at that time as Trans-Jordan.

Still, there was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

In the remaining years until the conclusion of British rule in 1948, the Jewish and Arab inhabitants lived in a country officially named “Palestine” in English, “Filastin” in Arabic, and “Palestina (E.I.)” in Hebrew, the initials E.I. standing for Eretz-Israel.

Therefore, in opposition to the Arab claims that Britain was characterized by blatantly inconsistent policy, by a zig-zag policy, there are ample proofs there was precisely a high degree of consistency in its policy, though there were disputes between policy-making officials in London and policy executing officials on the ground. Moreover, Kedourie is right in his brilliant study of in the Anglo-Arab labyrinth, saying that if there was a fraud, and if manipulations were performed, it was precisely the Arabs, masters at negotiating, who tried to change the circumstances of political history in order to dictate other political frameworks, so as to make reality turn in their favor.

If one closely examines British policy from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to the MacDonald White Paper in 1939, he will note a drastic shift of British policy towards the Arab positions. Yet, it was not enough for the Arabs demanding an extreme pro-Arab policy, since they demanded all of the territory, out of total rejection to Israel, as they do today. Still, there was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

So much for “Palestine”, but what about the “Palestinians”? Who are the “Palestinians”? The population now called “Palestinians” were a mixture of many peoples roaming and migrating around the region, from and through Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Arabia and even Sudan. The Syrian and Egyptian accents of Arabic are very conspicuous among the Arab population.

During the Ottoman period, the Arabs living in the country were known particularly by their religious affiliation. They did not regard themselves – nor were they regarded by others – as “Palestinians”.

All reliable history books clearly prove that the non-Jewish population of “Palestine” grew steadily by many groups from around countries after the Jewish-Zionist flourishing economy and its enterprises. The 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, in volume 20, under the entry “Palestine,” provides a detailed information on the inhabitants, roughly estimates to be 650,000. They are composed of a large number of elements, differing widely in ethnological affinities, language and religion. There are no less than 20 foreign ethnicities other than the small native fellahin and the Jews and Christians living in the cities: Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Arabian, Nawar, Turkic, Armenian, Greek, Italian, Turkoman, Kurd, Bosnian, Circassian, Sudanese, Algerian, and others. It mentions that this complexity makes it no easy task to dwell on the ethnology of “Palestine.”

Therefore, if there were Palestinians and a Palestinian state existed, when was it founded and by whom? What were its borders? What were its capital and major cities? What was its language and its national emblem and currency? Who were its leaders, what were their interactions with other leaders, and where they are written in accords of the history of the region? There is nothing of the sort, and all are imagined and fabricated.

Indeed, the people called “Palestinians” are anything but generic Arabs collected from all over the regional countries. If they really have a genuine ethnic identity entitled for self-determination, why did they never try to become independent until the establishment of the State of Israel, and mainly the 1967 Arab defeat? The “Palestinians” have only one motivation: the destruction of Israel as a state and as a nation.

The first years of the Mandate saw their stubborn struggle to be part of Syria, to have a Syrian identity. The Arabs in the country began to use the name “Palestinian” only on account of the Zionist successes. Their identification as Palestinians came only after the establishment of the State of Israel, and it was purely crystallized after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.

As late as 1945, the famous Arab historian Philip Hitti appeared before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and vehemently claimed that there were no Palestinian people, and that no “Palestine” had existed in history. This was also the official position of the Palestinian Arab representatives. They stated that “Palestine” was part of Syria in the geographic sense, and its inhabitants belonged to the Syrian branch of the Arab family of peoples.

This was also the position of the Arab representatives who appeared before the UN General Assembly in 1947. They asserted that Palestine was part of Greater Syria, and that the Palestinians did not constitute an entity separate and distinct from the Syrians. The striking phenomenon that emerges here is the reference to the Arab population as Arabs, not Palestinians. All the international decisions spoke of Arabs. The refugees too were referred to in the 1950s and 1960s as Arabs. Even Security Council Resolution 242 spoke only of Arab refugees, not of “Palestinians”.

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Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions

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A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors.

The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye, Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states.

In a country that ranks only second to China as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, Ihlas Holding media would not be pushing a pan-Turkic, Islam-laced Turkish regional policy without tacit government approval at the very least.

The media group’s push reflects Turkish efforts to capitalize on the fact that Turkey’s latest geopolitical triumph with Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed victory is already producing tangible results. The military victory has positioned Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey, as an alternative transportation route westwards that would allow Central Asian nations to bypass corridors dominated by either Russia or Iran.

Turkmenistan, recognizing the changing geopolitical map, rushed in January to end a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan and agree on the joint exploitation of Caspian Sea oil deposits. The agreement came on the heels of a deal in December for the purchase from ENI Turkmenistan of up to 40,000 tonnes of petroleum a month by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

The agreement could boost the completion of a Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline (TPC) that would feed into the recently operational Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), bypass Russia and Iran, and supply Greece and Bulgaria via the former Soviet republic.

Last month, Azerbaijan agreed with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to develop the Lapis Lazuli transport corridor that would link the war-ravaged country to Turkey. At about the same time, Kazakhstan began exporting copper cathodes to Turkey via Azerbaijan in a first step intended to capitalize on the Caucasian nation’s position as a transit hub.

Azerbaijan and Turkey’s newly found advantage has rung alarm bells among Russian and Iranian analysts with close ties to their respective governments even though the TGRT broadcast may have been primarily intended to whip up nationalist fervour at home and test regional responses.

Russian and Iranian politicians and analysts appeared to take the broadcast in that vein. Nonetheless, they were quick to note that Friedman’s projection includes Russia’s soft underbelly in the northern Caucasus as well as Crimea while Iranians took stock of the fact that the Turkish sphere of influence would border on Iran to the north, south and west.

Turkey and Ukraine have in recent months agreed to cooperate in the development of technologies with military applications related to engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, robotics, space, and satellites. Turkey has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to Crimean Tartars, and criticized Russian support for Ukrainian rebels.

Most Russian commentators sought to downplay the significance of the map, leaving Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house to warn that “if they (the Turks) want to test the strength of the Russian spirit and our weapons, let them try.”

With Iran excluded from TGRT and Stratfor’s projection of Turkey’s emerging sphere of influence, Iranian officials and analysts have largely not responded to the revival of the map.

Yet, Iran’s actions on the ground suggest that the Islamic republic has long anticipated Turkish moves even though it was caught off guard by last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war.

For one, Iran has in the past year sought to bolster its military presence in the Caspian Sea and forge close naval ties with the basin’s other littoral states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Viewed from Tehran, TGRT’s broadcasting of the Stratfor map was the latest in a series of provocative Turkish moves.

They include Mr. Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist poem while attending a military parade in Azerbaijan that calls for reuniting two Iranian ethnic Azeri provinces with the former Soviet republic and publication by state-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service of a map on Instagram, depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran.

The Instagram posting came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran.

While senior Iranian officials talked down the Turkish provocations, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments were.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you on the night of the coup, you would have had a fate like that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ protesters chanted in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The protesters were responding to Mr. Erdogan’s poem recital and referring to the failed military coup against him in 2016 as well as the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.

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Notes on Turkish Politics (5): The Need for a Vibrant Civil Society

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This is the last piece of my “Turkish politics” article series. In this piece, I will try to address the role of civil society in Turkish political life and democracy in a brief way.

The role of civil society is very important in shaping the democratic institutions and processes in a polity. Turkish political culture has long been characterized by having a weak civil society and strong state mechanism. As noted in my earlier piece titled “Notes On Turkish Politics (I): Strong State Tradition”Turkey has a “strong state tradition” as first stressed by distinguished Turkish academic Metin Heper. The non-state units and grass-roots movements have been weak in Turkish political life due to a number of reasons which also lead to democratic erosion.

Civil society is related with autonomous social units and organizations like voluntary associations, private companies, private associations etc. These social units or organizations that make up civil society are based on the principle of recognition of basic human and civil rights. It is known that civil society is seen as one of the basic social bases of  liberal democracy.

The historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. The military, the high bureaucracy and some academics along with some particular media actors used to show a certain amount of distrust towards the society until the multi-party politics.

In the post-1980 period, a revival of civil society was witnessed. Turkey went through important changes in the 1980s as the free market economy policies were accepted. One of the most important consequences of this change was the development of the systems of communication and information and this development empowered civil society actors as well. Turgut Özal has been one of the influential political elites paving the way for the strengthening of Turkish civil society. Özal challenged Kemalist state tradition to some degree. As an extension of Özal’s liberal policies, a free market economy was formed and legal obstacles to political freedom were also removed by abolishing Articles 141, 142, and 163 of the 1982 Constitution, which prohibited the free expression of thought (Çaha, 2001).

The 1990s witnessed a military intervention and this “post-modern” coup narrowed the arena for civil society associations and certain identities like that of Islamic identity were vilified by the state elites.

In the early years of the AK Party rule (up until 2010 referendum) Turkey saw positive developments in terms of democratization and this played a positive role for civil society as well. However, in the last years, Turkish civil society has begun to weaken once again. A recent example of this is Turkey’s NGO bill that was introduced in late 2020. In a news article published by Duvar English, the warnings of Human Right Watch were addressed. According to HRW, the bill introduces “annual inspections of nongovernmental groups, which will severely affect their activities since the inspections frequently last months and reduce the group’s capacity to operate. It introduces severe fines if the Interior Ministry deems a group’s online fundraising unlawful.”

In one of my articles titled “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?” published in 2011, I wrote the following about the relationship between civil society and political culture for Turkish context:

“The Turkish case indicates that the advancement of civil society is closely related to the function of and the role of state. The governance of state in accordance with the rule of law and its neutrality is necessary for the advancement of a competitive social environment where social groups can freely compete. Also, it is important to note that there is almost a direct relationship between civil society and democracy.”

Turkey needs a vibrant civil society to have a working democracy and of course civil society is only one piece of the prerequisites for democracy!

Cited resources

  • Burak Begüm, 2011, “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?”  19264 (dergipark.org.tr) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)
  • Çaha Ömer, 2001, “The Inevitable Coexistence of Civil Society and Liberalism: The Case of Turkey”, Journal of Economic and Social Research 3, 2.
  • Duvar English, (Dec. 24, 2020), “Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW” Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW (duvarenglish.com) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)

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The Influence of Persian Racism on Status of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran

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Language is the carrier of the people’s culture and is one of the fundamental national identity elements.  Therefore, the culture and identity of the nation can strengthen by the powerful and widespread language. Reinforcing the language needs official and systematic support. Otherwise, in the age of informational technology and communication, the languages spoken by a small group of people may disappear under the influence of powerful languages and cultures widely used by influential ethnics and nations worldwide. Indeed, the fade or thrive of native languages depends on the government, socio-economic development, and cultural context. Deliberately, racist states fulfill the assimilation policy to decay the other native languages to reinforce imposed language. They mobilize all their resources to implement this policy by resorting to military and security forces. Iran is a diverse society with several ethnicities, languages, and cultures. In order to Persianization of the other non-Persian people like Turk, Arab, Kurd, Baloch, Lor, Persian-centered government performs the racist politics against them across the country. Turk ethnicity is the largest ethnic group in Iran that has been subjected to Persian racism and internal colonization since 1925.

There are no accurate statistics about the number of Turkish ethnicity members in Iran because the authoritarian racist Iranian state has not allowed independent censuses, and statistics are mostly based on estimates. According to the Ethnologue, more than 38 percent of Iran’s population are Turks, mainly Azerbaijani Turks who live in the northwest of Iran, and that region is known as South Azerbaijan. Since 1925, with the beginning of the Pahlavi regime, people with Turkish identity and other non-Persian ethnic groups have been deprived of primary rights like education to the mother language. This racist process has aimed to indicate and impose the language, history, culture, and identity of the Persian ethnic group as the only authentic and superior for all Iranians. Since establishing the Pahlavi regime in Iran, assimilation and alienation of Turkish ethnic groups have been continuing, and widespread protests for racist policies have not succeeded, and Turk activists’ peaceful actions have not sustained the Iranian regime from its inhumane racist behavior. Turks do not have any right to promote their culture and language. Turkish children must educate in Farsi, and all official correspondences have to be in the inflicted language. Since the formation of the Pahlavi monarchy, approximately the name of more than 500 areas like village, city, river, lake, and forest has been changed from Turkish to Persian terms. Furthermore, depriving Turk children of learning and education in their mother language is one of the main reasons for high illiteracy rates, the decline in academic performance, and a sense of humiliation of those children compared with Persian children. That racist ideology has accompanied most scholars, academicians, writers, journalists, poets, thinkers, teachers, and intellectuals’ support, and it has reached the Persian society sphere. They humiliate Turks in their writing, interviews, newspapers, and particularly in state media. For example, they analogized the Turkish people to cockroaches with feeding on toilets in the state-run Iran newspaper in May 2006 that sparked extensive protests in various Turkish cities, especially Tehran; dozens of protestors were killed and injured, hundreds of demonstrators detained and sentenced to long prison terms. Consequently, the policies that have been implemented against the Turks in Iran since the commencing of Pahlavi monarchy have been a linguistic and identity genocide for the benefit of strengthening the Persian language culture and identity. Because in their thought, Turkish language, culture, and identity are significant threats to the existence and expansion of the Persian language and culture and could jeopardize the territorial integrity.

Simultaneously, with linguistic assimilation and identity alienation policies, Persian-oriented colonial plans against the Turks have been plotted after the Raza Khan coup. Based on colonial policies, every year the bulk of the country’s budget flowed to the Persian regions to create prosperity and establish manufacturing companies and industrial centers. For instance, the comparison of Ardakan located on the desert in central Iran and Varzegan surrounded with copper and gold mines and forest represents that Ardakan is provided with many factories, but Varzegan is deprived. Overall, most Persian regions are in a good situation regarding welfare amenities, prosperity, and workplaces compared with non-Persian areas. Besides, the Turkish regions’ colonialization causes severe desperation and migration of Azerbaijani Turks to the Persian regions who confront with humiliation by racist society with a high level of supremacy. Under such conditions, they become more assimilated into the Persian language and culture and alienated from their original identity. Indeed, economic colonialization, assimilation, and alienation policies are positively correlated in Iran and reinforce each other against non-Persian ethnic groups.

Despite the repression atmosphere and oppressive politics of governing apparatuses in Iran, South Azerbaijan National Movement activists continue their peaceful struggle against the racist Iranian government’s colonial policies. In contrast, the Islamic Republic security forces raid demonstrations and activists’ homes, detain them, and sentence them to long prison terms by holding arbitrary trials on baseless and false accusations like “Propaganda against the regime”, “acting against national security” and separatism.  For instance, Abbas Lesani is a famous Azerbaijani activist who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for his legal activities such as demanding education in the mother language at schools by the Ardabil appeal court. The supreme court of Iran rejected his objection and upheld the appeal court decision. Therefore, Azerbaijani Turk activists’ initial demands are establishing the schools in the Turkish language and ending the economic discrimination, which has hindered the equitable development of the Turkish-populated areas in Iran.

     Although the linguistic assimilation, alienation, and systematic racist activities of the government to eradicate the language, culture, and identity of the Turkish society in Iran have caused the Persianization of different generations during the last century, with the awakening and spontaneity of Turks, Turkish language and culture are a critical requirement to retrieve their ethnic identity. Moreover, their national values, beliefs, culture, and identity are embedded within the language. For this reason, education in the mother tongue can play vital role for the extrication of the Turks from the bondage of Persian colonialism. Also, it can neutralize the adverse effects of racist policies against these oppressed people. However, denial, repression, and government oppression have led to an increase in identity-seeking in the Turkic-speaking regions, especially in South Azerbaijan, and it intensifies exponentially over time. The Director-General of the Civil and Personal Status Registration office recently talked to the media that 40 percent of the people names in East Azerbaijan province are in Turkish. Despite official restrictions, it demonstrates that activities to revive the Turkish language, culture, and identity continue between Azerbaijani Turks and other tribes with Turkish identity throughout Iran. On the other hand, the Iranian government’s racist policies against the Turks have intensified ethnic divisions and divergence among the Turks, and the denial policy and repression cause a gradual reduction in their desire for territorial belonging to Iran.

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