Views From Kennewick

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Middle East and Islam Dominate U.S. Public Life

It's about as official as can be: in the words of an Associated Press end-of-year story, "Events in the Mideast shaped much of how we [Americans] viewed 2006."

As voted by AP members, only one of the top 10 news stories of 2006 (#5, Congressional scandals) had nothing to do with the Middle East. Five of them were entirely Middle Eastern or Muslim in content (#1 Iraq; #6 Saddam Hussein convicted and executed, #7 the still-unnamed Lebanon war during the summer, #9 the London airliner plot, #10 the disaster in Darfur). Four of them were in substantial part Middle Eastern or Muslim (#2 the U.S. elections, #3 nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran, #4 illegal immigration, #7 Donald Rumsfeld resigns as secretary of defense).

Comments: (1) This domination of the news is not a sudden thing but has been building over decades; though less dramatic the case, I recall the Middle East having an outsized media presence when I entered the field in 1969 - and that was before several Arab-Israeli wars, the 1973-74 oil crisis the Iranian revolution, the Kuwait war, and other mega-events.

(2) This prominence does not mean that the Middle East and Muslims are more important than other regions and peoples, but that they are more in ferment. Little breaking news came out of the Soviet Union in its time or China today, but endless twists and turns take place in - and are reported prominently from - Gaza or Iraq. (December 31, 2006)

Islamists in the Hospital Ward

A number of incidents are showing the deep incompatibility of radical Islam with modern medicine. Here are a trio to get this blog going, with more examples to be listed, in reverse chronological order, as they occur:

A typical anti-bacterial gel found in UK hospitals.

Muslim visitors refuse anti-bacterial gel: British hospitals offer dispensers with anti-bacterial gel outside wards so that visitors can be sure not to bring in such infections as MRSA and PVL. But the gel contains alcohol, prompting some Muslims to refuse to use the hand cleansers on religious grounds. A National Health Service employee, Theresa Poupa told in December 2006 of her experience visiting a sick relative at the London Chest Hospital:

I could not believe it - the signs are large enough and clear enough but they just took no notice and walked straight onto the ward. I was there almost every day for three weeks and I saw it repeated dozens and dozens of times. When I raised the matter with the nursing staff they just shrugged and said that Muslims were refusing to use the gel because it contained alcohol. They said they couldn't force visitors to use the gel and I understand that - but I was astonished that anyone who didn't wash their hands was allowed onto a ward. I know the dangers that bugs like MRSA can cause. They kill hundreds of patients a year.

Male refused treatment by female doctors: A 17-year-old male shepherd from Konya, Turkey, referred to only as "A.G.," arrived at the Konya Testing Hospital complaining of swollen testicles. He was sent to get ultrasound tests, but two headscarved (i.e., Islamist) female radiology doctors refused him service. Not receiving proper attention, A.G. later had one of his testicles removed by operation. The case has provoked much attention. The hospital's head of urology, Celal Tutuncu, portrayed the case as very "black and white," and said that action would be taken. Members of the opposition CHP party raised the case in parliament in December 2006. A CHP lawyer, Atilla Kart, noted that "This is the destruction wrought by religious references spilling over into public administration."

Male relatives preventing female patients from being treated by male doctors: So rampant is the problem in France of Muslim husbands preventing their wives and other female relatives from being treated by male doctors (for example, women in labor have not had epidurals because the anesthetist was a man) that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin reportedly planned in February 2004 to propose legislation to stop this from happening (how he plans to do this is not explained). (December 29, 2006)

Mosque in Cordoba, Church in Damascus

Spain's Islamic Board wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI to be allowed to pray in Cordoba Cathedral, on the grounds that the building was originally a mosque before being transformed into a church in the thirteenth century. "What we wanted was not to take over that holy place," reads the Islamic Board's letter, "but to create in it, together with you and other faiths, an ecumenical space unique in the world which would have been of great significance in bringing peace to humanity."

The Islamic Board took this initiative after senior Catholic clergy announced they "did not recommend" this step and indeed declared themselves unprepared to permit the cathedral's shared use with any other faith. On an operational level, security guards in the cathedral are said often to prevent Muslims from praying inside the medieval mosque that surrounds its church structure.

The Islamic Board's general secretary, Mansur Escudero, complained that some in the Church feel threatened by Spain's growing Muslim population. "There are reactionary elements within the Catholic Church, and when they hear about the construction of a mosque, or Muslim teachings in state schools, or about veils, they see it as a sign we are growing and they oppose it."

Comment: The Muslim demand is all very reasonable - but only if Muslims permit reciprocal rights to Christians. For example, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is built over a Byzantine church and to this day contains a shrine said to contain the head of John the Baptist; Christians should be granted leave to pray there. Or the grandest church of Byzantium, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, for centuries a mosque and now a museum - it too should be made available for Christian services. The Vatican has made reciprocity the cornerstone of its relations with Muslims, and this looks like a simple place to start implementing that policy.

St John's Shrine, which is inside the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus.

(December 26, 2006)

Is the Hatay Problem Solved?

Ever since the French government ceded the Alexandretta province of Syria to Turkey in 1939, its control by Ankara has been a sore, obstructing the two countries' relations and at times exacerbating crises between them, most recently in 1998.

Hatay, a province of Turkey since 1939. Alexandretta (or Iskanderun) is its capital.

It therefore came as a bombshell to read yesterday an article by Yoav Stern, "Turkey singing a new tune," in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that the 66-year-old problem has been solved, and all the more so as the news comes bye-the-bye in an article about Turkish-Israeli relations.

The question asked by Channel 2's analyst for Arab affairs, Ehud Ya'ari, brought a satisfied smile to the face of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom at the joint press conference held last Tuesday in Jerusalem with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Ya'ari asked the most interesting question at the press conference, which touched on the territorial conflict between Syria and Turkey. "Can Syria's recognition last month of full Turkish sovereignty over the Hatay province be seen as a precedent for the case of the Golan Heights?" Ya'ari asked.

Everyone waited suspense fully for an answer from Gul, who immediately perceived a trap. He answered with diplomatic finesse, without batting an eyelid: "The two cases are not similar, there is no territorial disagreement between Turkey and Syria, and in the second case, the United Nations determined that the territory is occupied."

The question illustrates the way in which Turkey's relations with Syria resemble Israeli-Syrian relations. On the territorial level, there is a long-standing conflict between the two countries, which was finally resolved last month, away from the eyes of the media. The conflict involved a region known as the Hatay province in Turkey and Alexandretta in Syria. Conquered in 1938 by the Turkish army, the Turks view it as an inseparable part of their country. The Syrians view it as a part of their homeland that was torn away with the consent of the French during the Mandate period, before the Syrians achieved independence. The Syrians point to the Arab residents of the region to bolster their claim.

Ever since Syrian independence in 1946, the area has been a source of constant tension. Until last month. Turkey and Syria spent a year and a half preparing a free-trade agreement between the two countries. Two Syrian prime ministers and the president - Mohammed Mustafa Mero, Naji al-Otari and Bashar Assad - visited Ankara. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a return visit last month and finally signed an agreement in Damascus.

Even more surprisingly, this Ha'aretz article was cited today as a source of information on the agreement by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, implying that the Turkish press knew nothing of this major accord, apparently signed on December 22.

Looking back on the coverage of that summit meeting, one finds just hints of such a deal. Here is Burak Akinci's account for Agence France-Presse, dated December 22 and titled "Turkey, Syria sign free-trade accord amid warming ties on Erdogan visit."

Former foes Turkey and Syria signed a free-trade accord and said they had agreed to put their differences behind them during a visit Wednesday by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, at the start of a two-day mission, and his Syrian counterpart Mohammed Naji Otri signed the deal, which had been under negotiation for several years. .

A Turkish diplomatic source said Damascus lifted its reservations to signing the trade deal "after a certain accord" was reached on Turkey's sovereignty in the southern province of Hatay, formerly Alexandretta, on which Syria had claims.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian president Bashshar al-Asad, getting along.

This all very elusive. Two questions come to mind: (1) How can such a major development not be reported on? One imagines that the Syrian regime is not exactly eager to have the news reported on, while the Turk leadership is willing to keep quiet about its victory, if that is the price it must pay. (2) Where exactly do things stand on Hatay? Has Bashar Assad given up Syrian claims in perpetuity, or something lesser? Has the claim been removed from schoolbooks, government maps, political rhetoric, and so on?

Comment: If the Syrians really have abandoned this claim, it was foreshadowed already four years ago. Here is Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara, quoted in an Agence France-Presse report from February 5, 2001 (not online):

Asked about Damascus' claims over the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which is often shown as Syrian territory on Syrian maps, Shara said that "maybe several years" were needed to settle the problem. "Issues that seem sensitive today, could be easily resolved in the future when the bilateral climate reaches a level at which they will not pose difficulties," the Syrian minister said. "It is wrong to give priorities to such issues now becuase this could harm cooperation in other fields ... In the end they will be resolved, but we should not push more than we have to."

(January 10, 2005)

Jan. 24, 2005 update: Ehud Ya'ari, cited above, has fleshed out the picture in his Jerusalem Report column dated today, "Syrian Overture" (not online):

For years I've made it a rule to read every article that political columnist Rosanna Boumunsef writes in An-Nahar, Lebanon's most important daily. She knows what she's talking about and writes with precision.

So too with her column of December 28, following the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Syria. She quotes Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, who of late has become the most vocal spokesman for opponents of Syrian rule in his country: "Syria has gotten over its Alexandretta complex," Jumblatt asserted, "and agreed to having Europe on its border." In other words, Syria has given up its 65-year-old claim to the sanjak (province) of Alexandretta (Iskanderun) on the Mediterranean coast, realizing that with Turkey due to join the European Union, there is no chance whatsoever of returning the province to Arab rule.

Alexandretta was given up by Syria's mandatory ruler, France, in 1939 and annexed by Turkey, which renamed the province Hatay. Turkish settlement in the region totally changed the demographic balance, reducing the relative size of the Arab minority. A year ago Syrian leader Bashar al-Asad visited Ankara for the first time, and he carefully avoided saying a word about the contested territory. Since then there's been a rapid rapprochement between the two countries, which as recently as 1998 were on the verge of war because of Syria's support for the Kurdish rebellion led by the PKK. Recently, when Erdogan visited Damascus in turn, an agreement was signed on jointly building a dam on the Orontes River on the border between Alexandretta and Syria - putting an official seal on Syria's acceptance of the loss of the sanjak.

Boumunsef quotes Asad as saying in private conversations with several of his guests that he is proud of his success at establishing warm ties with Turkey "despite the sharp territorial dispute." Asad added that "in this framework, Syria can reach peace with Israel as well." What did he mean by that? It's not clear, but Boumunsef cautiously asks, "Is the meaning of these statements that flexibility is possible in dealing with other issues, similar to his pragmatic approach to Alexandretta?"

That is: Could it be that one day Syria will deal with the Golan Heights as it is now dealing with Alexandretta?

Let's stress: Syria has not signed on to any concession concerning Alexandretta. In principle, it maintains its claim to sovereignty there. But one official commentator, Imad Shu'eibi, head of the Center for Strategic Studies in Damascus, has made clear that in fact it's been decided to "put off for coming generations" the dream of Syrian Alexandretta, and to not let the dispute prevent cooperation in other areas.

The Syrians have a very hard time explaining in public their surrender to the Turks. They are also signaling that the Golan is different. Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara has even made a point of correcting the impression that Asad is ready for negotiations "without preconditions," and has explained that insisting on a return to the June 4, 1967 lines is not a "condition" but a "legitimate necessity."

But one cannot avoid concluding from the Alexandretta business that Syria does not regard its borders as eternally sacred. And not only has it accepted the loss of Alexandretta, but in a border agreement signed last month with Jordan, Damascus adopted another principle: Demography can result in border corrections. Syria got Jordan's assent to annexing land along the Yarmuk River where Syrian peasants settled after the Syrian invasion of Jordan in Black September, 1970, and in exchange gave up land to Jordan in other areas.

Asad's pragmatic flexibility on borders may indicate that wider strategic concerns are getting preference over the old slogans about holding on to "every grain of sand" and the oaths never to forget "usurped" land. So there is reason to see whether the young president is willing to consider cautiously a change in Syria's stance toward Israel without demanding that withdrawal from the Golan be the first, immediate, topic on the agenda.

Ya'ari then goes on the consider the implications of the the Hatay recognition for the Golan Heights and Israel.

May 28, 2005 update: In a news item on a Syrian missile that malfunctioned and exploded in southern Hatay, Agence France-Presse gives a little background on Hatay: Syria and Turkey, it writes, "share a long border, and Hatay, which is claimed by Syria, is at its western end." Reiterating this point, AFP notes that, "Despite the improved ties between the two countries, two sticking points remain: the waters of the Euphrates River, which has its source in Turkey, and the status of Hatay."

Comment: Either Agence France-Presse has forgotten its own reporting (see its December 22, 2004 coverage from Damascus, quoted above) or the Syrians still are claiming Hatay. Which is it?

Dec. 22, 2006 update: Two years after the signing of this accord, the Syrian tourism ministry still shows a map that claims Hatay as an integral part of the Syrian Arab Republic.

Map on the Syrian Ministry of Tourism website. (This identical map appears whether one uses the English, French, or Arabic versions of the website.)

Comment: Is Damascus playing the same game with Ankara that the Arabs do all the time with Jerusalem, that is, sign an agreement and then ignore it?


  • That newsreport about the Turkish doctors is a fabrication, it never happened.
    It was refuted by the patient involved, by the falsely accused female doctors who have made hundreds of testicle ultrasounds, and who did not wear a headscarfs, and by most other newspapers.
    Even hurriyet in the end had to retract it.

    The owner of hurriyet, billionaire Aydin Dogan, wants to influence the april 2007 Turkish presidential elections.

    I do not know about your other reports, but as you have one blatant lie, probable the other stuff you mentioned are also fabrications.

    By Blogger Kahraman, at 2:02 PM  

  • kahraman,

    What's your source please?

    By Blogger KennewickMusing, at 7:23 PM  

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