Logistics update

Re: the previous post, I’ve just been reminded how quickly things change. The Central Asianist podcast in question is about a year old, and a lot seems to have happened since then. With a view to making sense of all this, here are some articles detailing what’s been going on in the world of Central Asian logistics over the last year:

December 13, 2015


The so-called Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project aims to export up to 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year through the approximately 1,800-kilometer pipeline.

Experts say TAPI presents an opportunity for regional cooperation at an unprecedented scale linking the economies of the four countries together and enhanced energy trading between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

India will pay up $250-million in transit fees to Pakistan which will pay the same amount in transit fees to Afghanistan.

The project is considered a key opportunity to help ease growing energy deficits in India and Pakistan. Officials in Turkmenistan expect gas link will be fully operational by the end of 2019.

Pakistani officials say they expect to receive gas via TAPI in 2019.
But ensuring security of the proposed pipeline remains a major challenge as it would pass through insurgency-hit parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.


24 August, 2016


Citing Nicolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., LaFranchi explains what lies at the root of Russia’s success in Syria.

“Russia has been able to reassert itself in the region partly because it set out limited goals — something the US might consider taking a cue from,” the US journalist writes, adding that these limited goals “are part of a much broader vision for Russia’s presence in the Middle East.”

Indeed, while Turkey is a key element of Russia’s Turkish Stream pipeline project, aimed at delivering natural gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine, Iran plays an important role for both North-South International Transport Corridor (ITC) and the China-led One Belt One Road (New Silk Road) initiative championed by Russia.

Remarkably, online media outlet PolitRussia.com noted recently that Middle Eastern stability is of ultimate importance for Moscow in the context of bold infrastructural projects kicked off by Russia and other major Eurasian powers in the continent.


14 October, 2016


Turkmenistan has borrowed $700 million from the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) to finance the construction of a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India

The $10 billion TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) pipeline, originating at the giant Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan would carry 33 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas a year.

Turkmenistan will use the 15-year IDB loan to finance construction work and equipment purchases, the country’s state news agency said.


3 January, 2017


Turkmenistan has limited natural gas supplies to Iran since Jan. 1 over unpaid past deliveries, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, a day after Iran said supplies through a cross-border pipeline had been cut off.

The ministry said Ashgabat, which exports to Iran about 9 billion cubic metres of gas a year, made the move after trying unsuccessfully to collect debts from the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) since 2013. It did not disclose the amount owed.

However, Iran’s National Gas Company (NIGC) condemned the move by Turkmenistan as a violation of a bilateral accord.

“Cutting the gas flow is an obvious violation of the deal … Referring the dispute to international arbitration is on Iran’s agenda,” it said in a statement published on the Iranian Oil Ministry’s website SHANA.


5 January, 2017


Backed by the US, TAPI was conceptualised in 1995. However, the project failed to take off due to geopolitical tensions among the member-countries.

Additionally, Taliban insurgents, who control vast swathes of territory in Afghanistan, threatened to disrupt the project.

In recent years, though, the project gained some traction, largely owing to the Obama administration’s Afghanistan redevelopment programme.

It also obtained funding support of $700 million from the Islamic Development Bank last November.

Trump’s stance on TAPI will be a “deciding factor” for the project, official sources told BusinessLine. It seems that the Indian government will adopt a wait-and-watch approach, according to an official.

The official said that since the project has security concerns, the decision to resume talks on obtaining the Turkmenistan gas from Pakistan rests on the new Army chief. The Army’s official position is crucial, given the security implications.

However, during the recent ‘Heart of Asia’ conference, during a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, India had asked Afghanistan to explore the option of routing the Turkmenistan gas from Afghanistan via Iran’s Chabahar Port, effectively bypassing Pakistan, said another official, who refused to be identified.


26 January, 2017


Tehran said in December that Turkmenistan had threatened to stop gas exports because of arrears in payments, which amounted to about $1.8 billion and dated back more than a decade. Iran wanted to refer the issue to arbitration.

Iran has its own major gas fields in the south of the country but has imported gas from Turkmenistan since 1997 for distribution in its northern provinces, especially during the winter.

Turkmenistan in turn faces a foreign currency shortage after Russia, once a major buyer of its gas, halted purchases last year, leaving China as its biggest customer.


18 May, 2017


An stakeholders conference on the subject INSTC-Express Corridor from India to Russia was held at Foreign Service Institute on May 18, 2017 at 1100 hours. The attendees at FSI were members of diplomatic community, freight forwarders, media, representatives of various ministries, officers and staff of Foreign Training Institute. Online attendees included members of Indian Embassy in Eurasian region, ICWA and members of business community.

The opening remarks were delivered by Joint Secretary Shri G V Srinivas (Eurasia) of MEA and by Mr Alexey Pogonin, Counsellor (Political) of the Russian Embassy in New Delhi. The keynote speakers were Shri Shankar Shinde from Federation of Freight Forwarder’s Association of India (FFFAI) and Shri Balachandran, Shri Behuria and Amb Stobdan from IDSA (Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses). The discussion centred around possible routes of INSTC, its popularization, development and optimal utilisation of Chabahar port to complement INSTC and to provide connectivity to Central Asia, modalities of and impediments to multi-modal transport, way ahead, Indian decision to join TIR Convention and advantages of moving beyond to e-TIR etc.

This was followed by a presentation from Kalinga Motors Sports Club (KMSC), Bhubaneswar on a proposed motor rally between India and Russia as part of 70th anniversary celebrations of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Russia. Kalinga Motors agreed to put up the details of motor rally shortly on its website.


23 May, 2017


The latest bit of regional glad-handing came this week when Mirziyoyev visited his Turkmen counterpart along the Caspian coast… As Fergana News noted, “Uzbekistan intends to participate in the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline,” adding that Mirziyoyev “said that he ‘voiced a proposal’ about the participation of the Uzbek side in the TAPI project.”

Everything from Indian-Pakistani relations to security in Afghanistan continue to beleaguer TAPI’s prospects. And now, as The Diplomat’s Paolo Sorbello recently noted, Turkmenistan’s own gas industry is on its heels, tossing that many more questions at TAPI’s feasibility.

Mirziyoyev’s pronouncement shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand; if nothing else, there’s no harm in nodding toward improving regional relations. But Tashkent’s participation is not the silver bullet TAPI needs — even if it could bring a few more photo-ops along the way.


1 June, 2017


Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting Russia at a time when Delhi-Moscow relationship appears to have taken a dip. Modi faces two-pronged challenge. First, to strengthen the confidence India and Russia have enjoyed as strategic partners for decades. Second, take measures to bring Moscow out of the worrisome China-Pakistan-Russia triangle, more so after the start of Beijing’s imperialistic ‘One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project.

Much before the launch of China’s OBOR, India, Russia and Iran had signed an agreement to establish the INSTC in September 2000. It entered into force on May 16, 2002 following ratification by the three countries. Later, 11 other countries joined the project. They are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria (observer status), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey and Ukraine.

INSTC is a 7200-km-long proposed multi-modal (ship, rail and road) transportation system connecting Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea via Iran to Russia and North Europe. If complete, the INSTC would allow faster movement of goods from India to these countries.

According to ‘Russia & India Report’, the INSTC project was first proposed at the start of 21st century, when the three countries– India, Iran and Russia — discussed the possibility of reviving the ancient transport route.

The report says that “the main ITC route begins in the ports on the west coast of India (particularly Mumbai), passes along the sea to the Iranian ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas, and from there by land to Iran’s Caspian Sea coast and beyond – or across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan, or overland to Central Asia or the Caucasus to Russia and northern Europe.”

Here are some important features of INSTC:

INSTC will provide India speedy access to central Asia, Europe, and Eurasia.

The route of INSTC passes through Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, which can later be linked to Terhran’s Chabahar Port, where India has set up some major infrastructure projects.

INSTC will help connect India with five central Asian countries and also to the Eurasian nations, helping in improving India’s trade with countries like Kazakhstan, Turmenistan and Uzbekistan.

INSTC can aslo be aligned with Trans-Afghan rail line being developed by India, Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

Seventeen years have passed since the start of the project but it is yet to be started. While the scale of China’s OBOR is bigger than INSTC, the latter, coupled with the proposed Asia-Africa sea corridor by India and Japan, would help New Delhi present an effective counter to China’s OBOR.

Reports say that India is also exploring the possibility of developing a 700-km rail line between Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat in Afghanistan. This will help link central Asia with Chabahar. It is believed that India aims to use Chabahar port in Iran in the same way as China wants to use Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is just 72 km east of the Iranian port. Considering the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics in the world, India needs to take steps for the faster completion of the ambitious INSTC project.


20 June, 2017


The proposed 7,200 km long international corridor INSTC will support the growth of Indian exports by reducing transport cost by USD 2,500 per 15 tonnes of cargo, a study has claimed. International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is a multi-mode network of sea, rail, and road route for moving freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe and Central Asia. As per a study conducted by the Federation of Freight Forwarders’ Associations in India (FFFAI), moving cargo over the INSTC will be 30 per cent cheaper and 40 per cent shorter than the current traditional route. The traditional Suez Canal route takes 45-60 days whereas the INSTC would take 25-30 days. The INSTC is likely to increase trade connectivity between major cities of Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Anzali. According to Subhasis Ghosh, Director of Maritime World Services, the progress on cargo movement on INSTC would be discussed on September 16, 2017 on the final day of the three- day Maritime Nation India 2017 Tradeshow which commences in Mumbai on September 14, 2017.

The INSTC International Conference -2017 is being conducted by the Federation of Freight Forwarders’ Associations in India (FFFAI) and is supported by the Ministry of Commerce.
Ghosh said INSTC could be viewed as an alternative to the Suez Canal route, which takes longer and is more expensive for Indian cargo destined for trade with Eurasian countries. Ghosh said the INSTC, on its implementation, would also boost bilateral trade between Russia and India. The successful activation of the corridor will help connect India to Russia within 16-21 days at competitive freight rates leading to development of trade on the INSTC. At present, one has to either use Rotterdam port or land route via China to reach Russia and Central Asia. These are long, expensive and time-consuming.

The plan is to move goods from Jawaharlal Nehru and Kandla ports on India’s west coast to Bandar Abbas (Iran) by sea. From Bandar Abbas, the goods will be transported to Bandar-e-Anzali (Iranian port on Caspian Sea) by road and from there to Astrakhan (a Caspian port in Russia) by sea. The goods would then be transported into Russian Federation and Europe by Russian railways. India and Russia have fixed a target of USD30 billion trade volume to be achieved by 2025. Presently, bilateral trade between both nations is extremely low and it was just $9.51 billion.
If India partners with Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), it will further boost and expand its economic, trade and investment opportunities in more countries in this region.


30 July, 2017


As of next week, the Islamic Republic will no longer need to import natural gas from Turkmenistan, Iranian lawmaker Assadollah Qarehkhani said.

According to a Farsi report by ICANA, a new pipeline is to become operational in northern Iran in the coming days, which would obviate the need for imports of natural gas from Turkmenistan.

The 175-km pipeline, which measures up to environmental standards, will meet the need for natural gas in north of the country, said Qarehkhani, who sits on the Parliament’s Energy Commission.

With the pipeline coming on line, he said, there will be no drop in the pressure of the supplied natural gas anymore.

The MP then touched upon a lawsuit filed by Iran with the International Court of Justice against Turkmenistan for its breach of commitment, and said the country will demand damages from Ashgabat.

“Turkmenistan has pulled out of the agreement unilaterally without any justifiable excuse and has illogical demands from Iran,” he said.

In its lawsuit, he added, Iran has also called on the court to get Turkmenistan to reduce the price of its natural gas exports.

“Turkmenistan put Iran in a bind by increasing the price of natural gas in 2007 when Iran had no other alternative for the gas imports; hence, Turkmenistan should pay fines for its breach of obligations,” said the legislator.

“If Iran’s demands related to natural gas imports from Turkmenistan are met and the two countries reach a compromise on natural gas imports, we can import natural gas from Turkmenistan, and, instead, export Iran’s natural gas to western neighbours via swap deals,” said the lawmaker.


14 August, 2017


India and Turkmenistan on Monday discussed ways to establish a transport transit corridor between Iran, Oman and Turkmenistan.

Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Shipping, met Rashid Meredov, Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister of Turkmenistan, on Monday.

The two sides discussed India’s joining the Ashgabat Agreement that envisages establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor between Iran, Oman and Turkmenistan, said an official source. They also discussed ways to expand and deepen bilateral cooperation.

In 2016, the Indian government decided to accede to the Ashgabat Agreement, a move that would enable the country to utilise this existing transport and transit corridor to facilitate trade and commercial interaction with the Eurasian region. India would become party to the agreement after consent from the founding members.

Further, this move would also be in synch with India’s efforts to implement the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) for enhanced connectivity. INSTC-Express Corridor is a transport link between India and Russia.


15 August, 2017


India will host the next steering committee meeting of the proposed 1,814 kilometre-long Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

“I strongly believe in this project, and this is the position of Turkmenistan,” Mr. Merodov said at a small interaction.

Officials told The Hindu that the pipeline, that had its ground-breaking ceremony in December 2015, has seen flagging interest since then for a number of reasons. India’s effort is to tap Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh gasfields, which are the fourth largest in the world.

The move is also an effort by the government to stave off any Chinese interest in the project, given that Turkmenistan is a close partner of China in its Belt and Road initiative across Central Asia, and Beijing is the largest buyer of its gas. Even the Galkynysh gas basin is being developed under a loan from the Chinese Development Bank (CDB).

Responding to Indian sovereignty concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Mr. Meredov said Turkmenistan was “open to all economic cooperation, which is how all such projects should be seen. India is and will be one of the most important countries for Turkmenistan.”


20 September, 2017


India and Turkmenistan will explore the possibility of expanding the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) by linking it to the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail link.

This was decided at the the 13 th meeting of the India-Kazakhstan Inter-Governmental Commission (IGC).


24 October, 2017


The Rasht-Astara line connecting Iran and Azerbaijan is almost complete and operations may commence early next year. The connection is the missing link on the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a 7,200 kilometer-long freight route connecting India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia via ship, rail and road.

The Astara-Astara line links the two cities of the same name via ten kilometer of rail, of which eight kilometers lie in Azerbaijan and two in Iran. The construction of the section in Azerbaijan is already complete, while the Iranian stretch nears completion, deputy director general for international affairs at the National Republic of Iran Railways (RAI) Mozhgan A. Kordbacheh recently said.

The railway, with a total cost of 51 million Euros includes the construction of a bridge over the Astarachay River and four terminals for the handling of containers, oil, grain and general cargo. It was expected to become operative in January this year, but due to several delays the current expected launch date is in February 2018.

The Astara-Rasht is the longest section on the line, with 164-kilometers of railway connecting the Iranian cities. Currently, 162 kilometer has already been completed, Kordbacheh said. RAI is actively negotiating with foreign partners about the financing scheme of the project, totalling a cost of 425 million Euros. In the coming weeks, talks in this regard are held in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.

The Rasht-Qazvin section comprises of 163 kilometers of railway, of which 95 per cent has been completed. The remaining construction work is expected to be completed by the end of 2017, Kordbacheh revealed.

The Astara-Qazvin line forms an integral part of the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), as it will reduce journey times between Mumbai and Moscou from forty to fourteen days. Test runs have already been carried out, while a dry run was conducted a few months ago. It is anticipated that in the future ten million tonnes of freight will be transported within the network.

Apart from constructing the missing link, parties involved aim to apply competitive tariffs in order to support growth on the corridor. Moreover, up-to-date transport services and simplified customs clearance of cargoes must be realised, the Iranian and Azerbaijani rail companies agreed at a recent meeting. The main objective of the INSTC is to provide an alternative to the traditional routes carried out by sea through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. A south-west offshoot is also under consideration, connecting Iran, Azerbaijan, the Black Sea and Europe.

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The Iran deal and TAPI

A genuinely brief one:

The other day I listened to a Central Asianist podcast episode, recorded when the ‘Iran deal’ was about to be signed. This was when Obama was still President, and long before Trump would call it the worst deal in history.

One implication of the deal was that it would turn Iran into a prospective trading partner with Turkmenistan, who are sitting on a huge amount of natural gas. If a Turkmenistan-Iran gas route was worked out, it would directly threaten a gas route the US has been pushing for years: TAPI. This is a gas pipeline that goes Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India.

Iran threatens TAPI because Turkmenistan doesn’t actually have enough gas to export in both directions.

So it might be worth checking up on TAPI and considering whether (behind the scenes) this has some influence on Trump’s comments. Bear in mind the EU would be the ultimate recipient of gas pumped down to Iran, and EU spokespeople have made clear they don’t want Trump screwing up the Iran deal.

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Quick thoughts on the ‘Goodhardtian novel’

Just putting down some quick synapse-connections prompted by Joe Kennedy’s great article on trends in what he calls the ‘Goodhardtian’ English novel. These are novels with a foregrounded commitment to the particularities of neglected parts of the country, a kind of literary ‘authentocracy’ (a term he’s used elsewhere) that makes a point of distinguishing itself from cappucino-sipping metropolitan liberalism, while implicitly addressing itself to (and accusing) the metropolitan liberal readership. In all the examples Joe discusses, this is attempted by appealing to the mythic, to the supposed national ‘deep time’, and a mystical connection to the soil. As he’s mentioned on Twitter, this is related to the recent ‘folk horror’ revival, which I’ve been following intently and grappling with politically.

Brief thoughts:

The Loney has a slightly different theme in that it doesn’t purport to speak for a given ‘particularity’, and the volkish magic isn’t accompanied by rapturous hymns to the local landscape. It follows a group of devout Catholics from ‘that London’, who head to a shrine on the Lancashire coast with their new priest. There they encounter the usual muttering local pagans. The locals’ murky ways are first signalled to the reader by dead birds hanging on a fence at the edge of a field, and later a scorched effigy with an animal skull that the narrator (a sensitive, inquisitive child) stumbles across in the woods. Later, we see their magic up close, and it’s a strange kind of anticlimax.

The party of Catholics are holed up inside (if I remember correctly, there’s a storm raging outside) when there’s a knock at the door, and the locals barge their way in and insist on performing a Mummers play. Having performed, someone who’s present discovers that they’ve been cured of some affliction. But the magical efficacy of their performance was, in a way, too particular to be credible. The mythic/visionary/’eerie’ has the most power when it’s sufficiently vague and ahistorical, when it appeals to universals like thunder storms, human sacrifice and animal skulls, the raw stuff of shamanism (at least as we tend to imagine ‘shamanism’ in the West, as abstractly universal). And also when it leaves enough unsaid for the reader to be haunted by the unknown and unknowable. When Mummers plays are seen from sufficient distance, it’s easy to see something eerie and pre-Christian about them. The obby oss, the green man, etc. They’re believably tied up with nature magic, which is available to those with a deep enough of a tie to the sod and soil, but which has to be experienced in a holistic irrational way and can’t be verbalised or reduced to particular articles of faith. You need ritual and the experience of a totalising revelation to approach the ‘meaning’ of this stuff. When the locals perform their play in The Loney, though, we get the full script. It comes across as mundane and historically specific, with references to the Crusades and the Christian devil. If the character of the Turk is included to make a point about the vilification of the Other that comes with mystical localism, this point isn’t really developed or emphasised thematically. And unless the depicted overlap of nature worship and Satanism is intended as a particularly obscure point about the divergence between Catholic and Protestant views of the world, it doesn’t really make sense. The Mummers play itself straddles Christianity and folk practise, and alongside the book’s other treatments of faith, doubt and ritual, perhaps it’s meant to indicate that as long as Christian branding sits on top of more ‘vital’ traditional rituals (of the occult blood’n’soil variety or of social practices that are anchored in fellow-feeling and openness to the world) it still has some power. But the play doesn’t seem well suited to make this point. Again, it’s too specific and historically contingent for any point about the Christian overwriting of untouched pagan ritual to really hit home, particularly since it doesn’t sit comfortably alongside what else we learn about the pagans’ rituals. We have the dead animals and scorched effigies with animal skulls, and later we have the liminal house that appears and disappears beyond banks of fog and coastal tides, where – it’s implied – a baby is sacrificed in order to give a little boy the ability to speak. The latter ritual comes wrapped up in the trappings of cosmic horror that you might find in an H P Lovecraft story. But then we read that the locals have been arrested for their grisly sacrifices. So the house where the sacrifice occurred was real, and inhabits the world in the same way everything else does, never mind the heavily emphasised themes of vagueness and doubt, hammered home by the way the story is bracketed as an uncertain memory, and the house on the hill is bracketed by fog and tides. Their cosmic crime is discoverable by a local police department. Perhaps the author intended all this to be frustrating, for the story to go in and out of focus and straddle the everyday and the Gothic, the Christian and the pagan. But, reading it, I wasn’t left with the impression that all the world is shades of grey, of doubt and fog. I came away with the impression that the author had presented a set of incommensurables and airbrushed the gaps between them, rather than identifying and working through their true connection, in a way that would be revealing or even just meaningful to the reader. Novels don’t need to spell out a hypothesis, which is one of the virtues of the medium. But if they don’t, they still need to fit together and work as a whole. Reading a book is then like a pagan ritual, whereby you absorb a larger and more abstract type of truth or vision by going through the experience (of reading the book). But for the ritual to work, and for the reader to perceive the greater meaning, there has to actually be a greater meaning for them to perceive. I almost feel bad for saying this about the book, since it’s well written and many of the characters and their relationships are well realised and sensitively written. But I think the book was fundamentally compromised by a failure in its world-building, and the substitution of a genuine vision of how its elements relate for ellipsis and a symbolism of fog and ambiguity.

I’ve failed miserably at putting down ‘a few quick thoughts’, and I’m not sure I’ve really explained myself. Another point I wanted to make was about the role of human sacrifice, and how The Wicker Man portrayed a society in locked off feudal harmony, Lord Summerisle in perfect class harmony with the local workers through their common (pagan) traditions – but for this to be achievable, the fact they must live on an island and perform human sacrifices, killing outsiders. I also had some other shit to say about how the folk revival was a reaction against American cultural hegemony and the recent ‘folk horror’ revival doesn’t seem to quiet stem from the same source, but I’ll have to develop these thoughts another time…

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General spiel, and The Unintended Reformation

I’m trying to be less precious about publishing stuff on here, bearing in mind the tens of thousands of words of I’ve written and left to moulder on my hard drive. In that spirit, I may as well put a few things down about a book I’m currently reading: The Unintended Reformation by Brad Stephan Gregory.

Brad is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, and the book’s basic premise is that debates in Christian theology from the time of the Reformation (i.e. five hundred years ago) continue to inform many of the problems and peculiarities of life in ‘the West’ today. We can’t understand the latter, he argues, without understanding the former.

Generally, I’d consider this an incredibly boring and unconvincing premise, and I’d rather be reading something about the CIA or Nazi gold, but a few things convinced me to give this book a go.

  1. I’ve managed to convince myself I can’t write authoritatively about the Linkin Park album Hybrid Theory without understanding the Reformation. This Linkin Park project is out of control. It’s already prompted me to read a 700 page book about the genocide of Native Americans in California and submit a Freedom of Information Access request to the FBI about an Arizona construction boss who I suspect of profiteering from the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. I’m aware this is ridiculous but I’m genuinely convinced it all fits together (and I’m enjoying myself). The bottom line is I want to understand the USA from its earliest foundations, and to do this it seems I have to go back to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when (the Protestant) William of Orange deposed (the Catholic) King James II. To get a grasp on that, I will be reading Lord Churchill’s Coup by Stephen Saunders Webb. But before that I have to go back to the Reformation and the original Catholic/Protestant schism. Perhaps it won’t stop there. I will not rest until I uncover the beating heart of the USA, and only then can I write about Hybrid Theory.
  2.  A while ago I read a very interesting book called Against the Modern World, by Mark Sedgwick. It’s the first intellectual history of a diverse but coherent group of writers known as Traditionalists, who can count among their fans the erstwhile Trump advisor and Breitbart ogre Steve Bannon, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, a few schools of Sufi Islam and the cryptofascist thinktank-hopper Aleksandr Dugin. It’s an intellectual undercurrent that pops up in some unlikely places, and ever since reading the book I’ve been on the look out. In the last couple of years I became aware of a few people on Twitter who described themselves as ‘Trad Catholics’. Some of them would frequently chat and joke around with Marxists, but I found the rest their output incomprehensible. At one point I directly asked one of them how or whether their ‘Trad Cath’ thing relates to the thinkers in Against the Modern World, who seem to be gaining popularity on the Alt-Right. They replied with some theological shit I didn’t understand, but one of them wrote somewhere that The Unintended Reformation was the most well-expressed articulation of their approach. So another reason is I’m just curious what the fuck these people are talking about, and whether their ironic liturgical jargon is obscuring some sinister politics.
  3. I still don’t really know what Protestants and Catholics disagree about. My offensive inner shorthand is that Protestantism is Christian-style atheism and Catholicism is incense, guilt and a borderline-pagan bureaucracy riven with secrets. I don’t really have a dog in the fight – I’m baptised Catholic but halachically Jewish and grew up with default-Protestant schooling and occasional visits to some happy-clappy evangelical church to fit in with our neighbours at Christmas and Easter. I wear a St Christopher necklace but I do it with such unthinking superstition it may as well be a rabbit’s foot, and apparently St Christopher was stripped of his sainthood anyway. More important than all that, I don’t care because the Protestant/Catholic split has had absolutely zero tangible impact on my life, which is a privilege and can’t be said of everyone in the UK. Although I’m of the opinion that ‘religious conflicts’ tend to be political more than theological, it would be good to understand the legacy of a split that’s still quivering through Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland.

On to the book.

As I mentioned above, Brad’s contention is that issues persist in the present that we can trace to the Reformation, and to understand what’s particular about the present we have to see this continuity, and how things didn’t need to end up like this.

The first chapter addresses the prevalent modern notion that science is incompatible with Christian faith. He traces this back to John Duns Scotus, a 13th Century theologian who suggested that God does share one characteristic with the rest of creation: being. An earlier Christian thinker, Thomas Aquinas, had suggested that God is the act of “to be“, rather than a thing among other things. Scotus didn’t mean to cause trouble, but Brad argues that this view of God as ‘existing’ in the same way other things in the universe ‘exist’ would cause all manner of trouble in years to come.

Another idea that Brad suggests we keep an eye on is Occam’s Razor, the principle established by a Franciscan friar called William of Occam. To paraphrase: the simplest explanation, with the least postulates and conditions, is the one that should be selected when trying to establish the truth.

Brad argues that in ‘traditional Christian metaphysics’, it is the absolutely non-spatial otherness of God that allows Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine, and for the bread and wine of the Eucharist to be both bread and wine and the flesh and blood of Christ. If divinity existed in the same way other objects exist, inhabiting existence in the same manner, this could not be the case. There wouldn’t be ‘room’ for the wine to be both blood and wine, or for Jesus to be fully human as well as divine.

The way I picture this distinction is that existence is a 2D grid with a finite area. You and I and everything that ‘exists’ can be found on this plane. Jesus Christ likewise occupied a finite space on this plane. The ‘traditional’ view (as I understand it) is that his divinity wasn’t an attribute that could be applied to him on this 2D plane, but instead was a unique vector in a wholly new dimension, like a point rising up in 3D. By allowing that God shares ‘being’ with everything else in creation, Scotus opened the door to saying that God exists on the 2D plane, and denying the possibility of 3D eruptions (Jesus both fully human and fully divine, wine both literally wine and the blood of Christ), of divinity expressing itself in the world in a way nothing else is ever expressed. This view of God as sharing a common attribute of being with other things, of existing on the same plane, is what Brad terms ‘univocity‘, or a ‘univocal‘ metaphysics.

When the Reformation kicked into gear and spread in the 1520s, this was a central disagreement between the Catholics and breakaway Protestants, who subscribed to the univocal view that was first described by Scotus. In the face of this challenge, Catholic thinkers doubled down on an Aristotelian philosophy, thus associating Catholicism with a school of physics that would grow less and less tenable as scientific discoveries challenged its precepts.

Because of these fundamental disputes, religious claims were increasingly bracketed out of discussions about the natural world and its laws. Brad:

New institutions, too, such as the Royal Society of London, were dedicated to the Baconian investigation of “matters of fact” about the natural world in ways that could transcend the interminable fruitlessness of theological controversy.’ [p.48]

With the exception of Pascal, the European philosophers of the 17th Century all subscribed to a ‘univocal’ metaphysics, which led them to talk about God as something that reason can be applied to. But the fact they all produced subtly (and sometimes radically) different accounts demonstrated that reason led down different roads. According to Brad, God’s self-revelatory actions in history – the exceptional 3D eruptions – are so important precisely because of the limits to reason and the inability of 2D beings to rationally grasp a wholly foreign dimension.

The great power of Newtonian physics was that it could explain the world irrespective of how God relates to it. Science thus became separable from religious truth claims. However, Brad argues that the ‘traditional’ Christian metaphysics was left untouched, unchallenged, since science can only compete with God if one holds the ‘univocal’ view that God and the laws of physics exist in the world in the same way, i.e. that you can plot them on the same plane. And so the ‘traditional’ view could persist implicitly, in the unchanged Catholic liturgy and the believer’s quiet faith in transubstantiation.

Brad argues that the ‘univocal’ view paved the way for commercial acquisitiveness and exploitation, and the world became ‘so much raw material awaiting the imprint of human desires‘. His reasoning seems to be that if existence is no longer ‘the Catholic theatre of God’s grace‘, and God is no longer given to 3D eruptions but instead exists in some way as the totality of the 2D plane (somehow both omni-present and omni-absent?), then nature and the things within creation lose some of their specialness, their potential for a focused divine effervescence.


At this point, I started to detect a bit of ‘tone’ in the writing. Brad seems to really hate the affable empiricist David Hume, who proposed that our ideas about the natural world and its laws are derived from perception. The following is my summary of Hume’s argument from memory of reading him years ago, rather than what’s in The Unintended Reformation: you see one object hit another, and the other object moves. At first, these events seem separate. If you see it happen again and again, without exception, you observe a ‘constant conjunction’ between A hitting B, and B then moving. From this repeated observation, the mind introduces a ‘necessary connection’, namely that object A is causing object B to move by hitting it. The so-called ‘problem of induction’ is that for us to be justified in making the assumption that this is a necessary law of nature, it must be the case that the future will resemble the past. But our only grounds for saying this are that it always has, in retrospect, which is only relevant if, again, the future will resemble the past.

Back to Brad:

Standing squarely in the univocal metaphysical tradition and yet apparently oblivious of the tendentiousness of his beliefs, Hume did not base his argument against miracles on a careful, critical, case-by-case evaluation of the evidentiary testimony pertaining to discrete, alleged miracles. That was how the evaluation of purported miracles in canonisation proceedings was being conducted at the time in Rome, in accord with the best medical science of the day… Hume, by contrast, dogmatically rejected all alleged miracles based on his own beliefs.’ [p.61]


The philosophical belief that natural laws are necessarily exceptionless is not empirically verifiable in our own or any conceivable configuration of human knowledge, because verification would require the observation of all natural events in all times and places.’ [p.63]

This seems to be intended as Brad’s great “Gotcha!” moment, but it’s an odd charge to level at Hume, who fundamentally distinguished between ‘constant conjunction’ and ‘necessary connection’, the latter being a trick of the mind that’s based on an unprovable premise. Either Brad’s referring to writing by Hume that contradicts this fundamental part of his own philosophy, which I’m unaware of or don’t remember, or he’s attacking a straw man and his argument slides into irritation at Hume’s apparent lack of interest in how the Catholic Church applied ‘the best medical science of the day‘ in its assessment of weeping statues.

Anyway, I’ve now written 2,000 words so it’s probably time to wrap this up. Brad moves on to a writer called Schleiermacher, who I didn’t previously know about. Schleirmacher grounded religion in feeling, rather than reason. The danger of this is that all it takes for the world to become disenchanted is for you to stop feeling it, or indeed to start feeling something else entirely, such as the ‘will to power’ and Dionysian amorality described by Friedrich Nietzsche. Moving forward to Darwin, Brad makes the point that the principle of evolution is, again, only incompatible with Christianity if you subscribe to a ‘univocal’ view of existence. If not, what’s to say that God doesn’t drive the micro-mechanisms of genetic mutation? To make such claim requires a postulate that science alone can’t provide.

This is Brad’s central, concluding point, and it seems a reasonable one. Divinity cannot be disproven by science if, by definition, it sits outside the observable realm to which the scientific method can be applied. He concedes that there are decent reasons for disenchantment, such as wars and genocides, human perversity and destruction of the natural world. But science, necessarily, is incapable of disproving the God of ‘traditional’ Catholic metaphysics. All there can be is doubt.

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“It’s like I’m paranoid”: a history of Hybrid Theory (Part 1)



Thundering west from the City of Angels, Route 101 becomes the Ventura Freeway. As it passes through a valley north of the Santa Monica mountains, a city opens up on the passenger side: Agoura Hills. It’s rugged California terrain, the Freeway carving a route between state parks and arid mountain trails, real estate sprouting off to the side like flowers off a vine. The area took its name from an eccentric local settler, Pierre Agourre, who’d left his native Basque country to live the life of a Spanish cattle rancher in the early 1870s. When the Freeway opened in 1960 the region was ripe for development, and tracts of housing were built to provide a peaceful suburban setting for families keen to escape LA. The racial unrest of the Watts Riots in 1965 only fuelled this exodus, and permissive county supervisors oversaw the development of a million acres of California soil into single-family units across the region. As described by Mike Davis in City of Quartz, this first wave of homeowners had ‘a powerful interest in trying to pull up the gangplanks to prevent further urbanization and loss of rural amenities’. Indeed, the county’s failure to limit further development prompted the residents of Agoura Hills to vote their scrubland suburb into cityhood, which they did in the early 80s. Boundaries were drawn, and the gangplanks lifted.

This locus of scrubland real estate was the birthplace of Hybrid Theory.

Laurel Canyon sits 25 miles back east, down Route 101. It’s developed a mythic gravity ever since it became the heart of America’s counter-culture scene in the early 60s. In a short space of time it was home to the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, the Doors, Frank Zappa, Arthur Lee, and Buffalo Springfield. They crashed and jammed in each other’s cabins, sharing drugs and runaway teens and plotting their aural assaults on the LA club scene from their porches. In a colourful counter-history titled Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, the writer David McGowan alleged that the scene was a CIA ‘psychological operation’, designed to derail the anti-war movement with directionless hippy grooves. Even if we don’t detect the dreaded hand of the secret state in this rare and wonderful confluence of talent and creativity, questions linger. What were the forces that brought these people to live and create in a certain time and place? And furthermore, what brought them into our consciousness? I’ve asked the same of Linkin Park, and the answer I’m offering here is a paranoid history, but one that I think shines a light on their real significance.


In 1968 the world was rocked by a series of protests. Youths and students raised in the shadow of nuclear annihilation had woken up to the notion that it needn’t be this way. Orthodox society was increasingly seen as a stifling, patriarchal prison, with exploitation and pointless violence stamping on the species like a jackboot. If Britain’s failed assault on Suez in 1956 lit up the weaknesses of Empire like a flare, the violence of the USSR when crushing the Hungarian uprising left many people questioning the communist alternative. Violent men and their grinding machines, their rifles and classifications – these had led the West through two world wars and into Auschwitz. So, if people couldn’t overthrow the machine by becoming machines themselves, they’d have to wage their war at the level of culture.

Despite the generosities of post-war social democracy, class distinctions didn’t disappear, and much of the hippy lifestyle was only accessible to members of the upper and middle class. Nonetheless, a ‘counter-culture’ emerged, and people from every walk of life were exposed to its radical messages. The ‘counter-culture’ encompassed experimentation with drugs, hostility to conformism, and a permissive approach to sexual relations that was enabled by the mass availability of the contraceptive pill in ’63. As well as this, a turn against the psychic oppressions of organised religion saw many young Westerners embracing Eastern religion and ‘spirituality’, celebrating Third World cultures in a way that many would now deem problematic, but which stemmed from a sense that the world was more than the older generation would have them believe.

Wheels were turning. Martin Luther King Jr intoned his dream of racial equality, and student protesters opposing the Vietnam War inserted flowers into gun barrels bristling outwards from the Pentagon. And these changes weren’t confined to the white-bread West. For every Jean-Paul Sartre in France there was a Franz Fanon in Martinique, and the latter writer’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) was an instant classic. In Brazil, the Tropicalia movement rebelled against the US-backed military junta with anarchic psychedelia and their theory of antropofagia – cannibalising invasive cultures, creating hybrid identities that threatened the status quo. They pinned their hopes on the cultural forms and behaviours they hoped would flip a collective switch in the global mind and bring about change. The stakes were high, and well expressed by Theodor Roszak in The Making of a Counter-Culture (1970):

It the resistance of the counter culture fails, I think there will be nothing in store for us but what anti-utopians like Huxley and Orwell have forecast – though I have no doubt these dismal despotisms will be far more stable and effective than their prophets have foreseen. For they will be equipped with techniques of inner-manipulation as unobtrusively fine as gossamer. Above all, the capacity of our emerging technocratic paradise to denature the imagination by appearing to itself the whole meaning of Reason, Reality, Progress, and Knowledge will render it impossible for men to give any name to their bothersomely unfulfilled potentialities but that of madness. And for such madness, humanitarian therapies will be generously provided.

“Nonsense!” I scoff, spluttering a dust-cloud of half-crunched fluoxetine.

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The Turkish Question – part 1

The Legend of Kawa

Every year on March 21st, the Kurds of the world unite to celebrate Newroz. It’s a festival with ancient roots across the Middle East, celebrating the coming spring and the promise of renewal. For the people of Kurdistan, though, it means something more. It’s tied to their foundation myth – the ancient revolt of the Medes against the Assyrian tyrant Dehak. As origin stories go, it’s pretty grisly. The Medes were forced to surrender their children to feed a pair of serpents, which the evil spirit Ahriman had wrapped around the shoulders of the king. One day, the blacksmith Kawa was ordered to kill his daughter and give up her brain. But instead of killing her he killed a sheep, and he sent the animal’s brain in place of hers. Under cover of darkness he led her up to the Zagros Mountains, far from Dehak’s clutches. Word of his deception spread, and the rest of his fellow subjects did the same. They offered up the brains of sheep and their children escaped to the hills, where they learnt to be self-sufficient, strong and free. Finally the blacksmith led an army to storm the castle, and he cut off the tyrant’s head. The people lit enormous fires and danced in celebration, banishing the darkness from the land.

Origin myths can be powerful things. The Kurdish people trace their heritage back to the blacksmith Kawa and the Medes. They still light fires and dance in circles, celebrating a freedom that they hope to re-attain. And year after year, in southeast Turkey, militias armed by the Turkish state arrive in tanks and military jeeps and break up the celebrations. The BBC reported this year that there was “little mood to celebrate” the festival in the city of Diyarbakir, where an all-out war between the army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been raging since the autumn. Government spokesmen boast of the number of “terrorists” they’ve killed, and locals mourn the relatives whose corpses they’re too scared to collect for fear of getting shot by the army’s snipers. There’s a sinister circular logic at play: any Kurds remaining in this war zone are thought to be terrorists, so everyone killed by the army is a “terrorist” by definition. According to the Kurdish press, it’s not that they’ve lost the appetite to celebrate the festival – it’s more that the celebration’s been suppressed with bullets and bombs.

We Need to Talk about Turkey

In the early ‘90s, the gangly Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff made an interesting documentary about the region. You can watch a short but illuminating section of it here (courtesy of Adam Curtis’ colourful blog on the topic). We see him visit the heart of PKK-held territory in northern Iraq. He mugs for the camera, sits in on a group self-criticism session, and generally vibes with the cheerful, comradely Kurds. But then he crosses over into Turkey and visits Diyarbakir, where he’s followed by state police wherever he goes. As Kurdish women gather in back-streets to celebrate the festival, he captures footage of armoured vehicles roaring onto the scene to break it up. Armed militiamen charge at a crowd of women and children, firing their guns in the air. It’s been almost 25 years, but not much has changed.

Now more than ever, Turkey is poised at the heart of our foreign policy. The wars in Iraq and Syria, the ‘migrant crisis’, our energy dependency on Russia, even Brexit – you can’t address these topics without stumbling into the Turkish President Erdogan’s house of smoke and mirrors, scratching around for the truth. But a curious omerta has attached itself to the topic of Turkey in Parliament and much of the mainstream press, particularly regarding ‘the Kurdish Question’. In January, a Guardian opinion piece by the liberal hawk Nick Cohen managed to castigate Jeremy Corbyn and “the Left” for failing to support the Kurdish cause. If you word-search the article for a mention of Turkey or Erdogan – or even for the Tories, who are actually responsible for our foreign policy and who’ve brusquely dismissed all criticism of the Erdogan regime – you’ll come away disappointed.

This article, by a well-regarded and high-profile member of the British commentariat, was published on the same day the Independent described the worst flare-up in Turkish-Kurdish tensions in 20 years, as the death-toll climbed in Diyarbakir and the Turkish government vowed to “cleanse” the region of Kurdish fighters. A few days later, the reporter Yvo Fitzherbert wrote from Cizre that “As urban centres have been transformed into war zones, thousands have fled as they have become legitimate targets in the eyes of the military.” The disparity is noteworthy in part because it illustrates the extent to which Cohen’s become an Establishment hatchet-man hack and a compromised journalist, but mainly because it seems like a neat example of what the anthropologist Michael Taussig terms the ‘public secret’, or ‘that which is generally known but cannot be spoken’. These secrets are socially important – they oil the cogs of our institutions, which couldn’t function without them. To ‘deface’ such a secret, to publicly acknowledge what we otherwise know not to know, is a violent act. But if facts are sacred, we’re doing something valuable by bringing them back to the fore, and re-enchanting them.

Our EU representatives have just approved a payment of six billion Euros to Turkey over the next two years, with Britain contributing £500 million. The minutes of a private meeting between President Erdogan and some senior EU officials were recently leaked. Even if faked by the Russian secret service, as some have speculated, they provide a neat summation of the power dynamics at play. Erdogan is shopping for two things: money (to deal with refugees, at least ostensibly), and EU membership. When he asks for 3 billion Euros per year, and he’s only offered half, he replies like a gangster. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time”, he tells them, “and we can put the refugees on buses”. President Erdogan, with the offer they can’t refuse. Lo and behold, the EU found the money.

The refugee situation goes some way to explaining our rulers’ abiding deference to Turkey, and their handling of the awkward question of war in its southeast corner. At the very least, it tells us that our liberal interventions are carefully chosen. The British state doesn’t break up every fight – it isn’t stupid. It breaks up the fights it thinks it can get away with and benefit from, and its army of paid-up opinionistas moralise its choices after the fact, like a dry-cleaning service. But Turkey is more than a holding cell for the wretched of the earth, the people displaced by war and want, who scratch at the walls of Europe. It’s a gatekeeper and a power in its own right, and the power it wields depends on territory claimed by a troublesome bunch – the people of Kurdistan.

The conflict goes deep, to the heart of what it means to be a state, or a sovereign people, and the final meaning of ‘democracy’ is challenged by every faction. It plays out in the arid pages of quarterly reports and risk assessments, in national and corporate legal documents, as well as in the theories of anarchists and crypto-religious militants. It also plays out at the intersections of two sets of lines on a map: the lines of national borders, and those of pipelines. Caught in a grid of competing ideas and interests, real human beings are killing each other. It’s a human decency not just to notice it’s happening, but also to do our best to understand why. Many of the secrets of the modern world and how it works are defaced when we stop and look at a map, and ask what’s going on in southeast Turkey.

A word on ethno-religious conflicts 

Last year I got lost in Berlin with my girlfriend, looking for a club in the Mitte district. We stopped to talk to a pair of drunk guys, hoping for directions. Sadly, they weren’t much use. They’d come to Berlin for a conference, and they wanted to make the most of their final night, to paint the town red. They asked where we were from, and as soon as my girlfriend answered “Bucharest”, they got excited.

“Ah, Romania!” one of them said. “Vlad Tepes! If it wasn’t for him, we’d all be Turks. We’d be saying Allahu akbar instead of going to clubs and having fun.”

I was a little surprised that a prince from the fifteenth-century was the first thing that sprang to mind when he thought of Romania. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy with a Christian paladin profile picture, an Anders Breivik type. They were friendly, apparently liberal and urban guys who worked for Rolls Royce. It was said as a joke, but it caught me a bit off-guard. From the chalky cliffs of the British Isles, it’s easy to forget that Turkey’s more than a holiday destination for much of the world. Its gravity can still be felt throughout continental Europe, the crescent-flagged enormity that years ago had threatened to swallow it whole.

As recently as the 1990s, in former Yugoslavia, thousands of innocent Bosnians were slaughtered for being ‘Turks’. In his book on the Bosnian genocide, the historian Michael Sells describes the rise of a poisonous doctrine called ‘Christoslavism’. According to the Serbian Orthodox nationalists who gave the ragtag paras their license to kill, Slavs are essentially Christian. It’s in their blood. By this logic, conversion to Islam amounts to renouncing not only one’s faith but also one’s Slavic identity, and thus becoming a ‘Turk’. This notion of ‘racial transformation by conversion’ was expressed in Bishop Petar Petrovic II’s 1857 play, The Mountain Wreath , in which ‘Slavic Muslims transform themselves into Christ-killers, the people held responsible for the Serbian Golgotha and the death of the Christ-Prince Lazar’. In this play, considered a dramatic and literary masterpiece in Serbia at the time of the Balkan conflict, ‘Orthodox priests and bishops make the clear proposition that the act of exterminating the Slavic Muslims, whom they called “Turkifiers”, was inherently sanctifying and purificatory’. The Serbian Golgotha they referred to was the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, when the Serbian leader Prince Lazar was killed by Ottoman soldiers. A mere six hundred years later, during the conflict in the ‘90s, somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people (depending on who you’re asking) were killed, many of them civilians. In the genocide at Srebrenica, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered at once.

The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “details are always melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble”. Some of this broad-brush spirit seems to have nested in the Transatlantic imaginary, lending our every global adventure a moral or mythic dimension. After supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and watching in despair as it all went wrong, Michael Ignatieff wrote that his mistake had been in “generalising and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea”. Instead, he should have recognised that “specifics matter more than generalities”. For an understanding of any given conflict to be accurate or useful, it should give an account of how the groups in question came to be in conflict, and the melancholy details of what’s at stake. History repeats itself when systems of behaviour and understanding go unacknowledged and unreformed. And in the case of ethnic conflict there’s plenty of history to draw on.

The Ottoman Phoenix
The Ottoman Empire was founded by the Oghuz tribe of Turks in 1299, in what’s now the northwest of Turkey, near the Sea of Marmara. It’s generally agreed that the Empire reached its peak in the 1500s, during the reign of Suleyman “the Magnificent”. Its subjects then were Arabs and Turks, Greeks and Armenians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians – a veritable rainbow – and its territory spread from southern Europe down through Mesopotamia, as far as the Persian Gulf. It lasted till the 1920s, when, depending on your perspective, the final nail in its coffin came with the Turkish War of Independence (1922), the dethroning of the final Ottoman sultan (also 1922), or the abolition of the caliphate (1924). By any account, at more than six hundred years, it had a good innings.

The reasons for the collapse of any empire are hard to pinpoint. Triumphalist Europeans suggest that it squared up to Western powers as best it could, and in the resulting war of ideas the Christian West won out. This idealist view of history is appealing to lab-dwelling types (your Dawkins, your Harris) for whom historically-grounded ways of life are equivalent to scientific hypotheses that sufficiently clinical probing can prove or disprove. As Mr Ignatieff found out, this kind of perspective leads down a dangerous road. When collective ways of life are seen as falsifiable propositions, and holy books are read as a kind of programming code that adherents never question or selectively apply, a politics of collective guilt is only a motion away. It might seem paradoxical that scientists are so quick to explain the material world in terms of “memes”, or what the embattled Boy’s Own foghorn Niall Ferguson dubs “killer apps”. And it might seem strange that if empires rise and fall on their merits, the colonies where Dawkins and Grayling grew up sipping tea in the native dusk have declared independence and gone their own way. But the blue planet turns in mysterious ways.

Certainly, by the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had grown unwieldy, loosening its grip on its far-flung territories. During this period, France, Russia, Italy, Britain and Germany had all begun to nibble away at its edges. “Their objective was to avoid the collapse of the Empire, while maintaining it in an inferior and weakened position,” argue al-Rodhan, Herd and Watanabe, in Critical Turning Points in the Middle East 1915-2015. “To achieve this objective, they not only interfered in the internal affairs of the Empire, but also began to conquer and occupy territory in the region.” In 1830, France began its occupation of Algeria. The British forcibly occupied Yemen in 1839, allowing them to protect their access to India. They also made formerly-Ottoman Egypt a protectorate in 1882, which gave them control of the Suez Canal as well as a steady supply of cotton for the mills back in good old Blighty. Ottoman territory, then, was being encircled.
In the 1860s, an angry ‘Young Ottoman’ called Ziya Pasha protested that “We have remained mere spectators while our commerce, our trades, and even our broken-down huts have been given to foreigners”. Europeans and their high-interest banks had been sprouting in Istanbul ever since the Ottomans signed a free-trade deal with Britain in 1838. Eager to compete with the wealthy upstarts of Western Europe, the sultan introduced a set of reforms called the Tanzimat . Though based in Quranic scripture, these reforms were designed to reorganise law and society in the shape of a country like France, and they proved disastrous. In the words of another Young Ottoman, Namik Kemal, these reforms seemed to mainly involve “the establishment of theatres, frequenting ballrooms, being liberal about the infidelities of one’s wife and using European toilets”. As Pankaj Mishra explains in his book From the Ruins of Empire, “So disruptive was the overall effect that in 1876 Sultan Abdulhamid would himself join the growing popular reaction against Westernisation, and turn to pan-Islamism as a bulwark against Western encroachments upon the Muslim world.” So much for Westernisation – maybe the ummah could come to the rescue.
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Against bombing Syria

I posted the following on Facebook on 27 November 2015, in a general act of aggression against my acquaintances' timelines.


Sorry for going all SJW on your timeline, dunno who I’m even talking to here, but there’s a limit to how much superficial journalism I can stomach without bleating about it somewhere, and I’m not seeing adequate coverage of some of these points. (Please just skip over the links if you want to be daring and take my word for any of this, I’ve just included them for reference.) I might have a few things upside down, but Parliament’s excitement at the prospect of bombing Syria “within days” seems completely short-sighted and misguided, and not just because it’s impossible to destroy an ideology of grievance by bombing fighters/civilians on another continent.

Passions are understandably high in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, but it’s still very unclear what further bombing would actually achieve. Cameron isn’t even grazing the problem as long as he refuses to confront Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia about the alternately tacit and brazen military and financial support for ISIS and the al-Nusra Front (aka Al Qaeda in Syria) that comes from within their borders, or to address the vast geopolitical schism brought about by two competing pipeline projects: Iran-Iraq-Syria vs Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey…


In either case, the pipelines would need to go through Syria. If the former project goes ahead, Iran would gain greater regional status and Russia would gain control over much of the oil supply to Western Europe. Since Assad provisionally approved this project in 2011, both countries have a clear interest in backing him, and that’s very unlikely to change.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the latter project for obvious reasons, and if Assad falls then his support for the rival project will be voided.

Meanwhile, the Turkish “deep state” is far more interested in fighting the Kurdish militias (and virtually waving through the bombing of their trade union and student supporters) than fighting the people the Kurds are fighting on the ground: ISIS. Beyond turning a blind eye to ISIS activities, evidence is mounting that they’re actively supporting them. Here’s a pretty comprehensive list of the Turkey/ISIS evidence up till now:

For a more interpretive view that fits this all together, I’d really encourage anyone interested in the conflict to read the following by Dr Nafeez Ahmed:

If you tend to believe that nations engage in wars on the basis of high-minded principle rather than geopolitical interest, you might be inclined to disagree with some of his causal explanations, but the evidence he compiles is pretty damning.

Dennis Skinner had the temerity to raise a few of these points in Parliament the other day, asking “Do you regard Turkey as a reliable ally in the battle against Isil [Isis]? When you consider that not only today that they’ve shot down a Russian jet – who are also trying to fight Isil – they’re buying oil from Isil in order to prop them up, they’re bombing the Kurds who are also fighting Isil.”

Phillip Hammond could only offer the cheap response “I see old habits die hard and you remain an apologist for Russian actions”, blandly reasserting that “Turkey is an important Nato ally” and refusing to address the substance of Skinner’s point.

But this isn’t Russian apologism. This important Nato ally’s deep state is providing essential support to the very group that our military would be bombing, as well as waging war on the very people fighting them on the ground: the Kurds.

You don’t need a rose-tinted view of Russia’s motives to take a dim view of the Turkish state in all this. Trying to understand the Turkey/Russia relationship takes us back to the question of fossil fuels. In December 2014, the following Russia-Turkey gas pipeline was approved:

The pipeline would allow Russia to supply gas to Europe via Turkey, and the agreement was recently undermined by the threat of a coalition government in Turkey:

The UK and USA do not want to rely on Russian gas, so they don’t want the deal to go ahead. Now, with the downing of the Russian jet, the deal is in even bigger danger:

Obama and Cameron have been predictably supportive of Turkey, Putin has responded by pointing out Turkey’s oil links with ISIS, and Erdogan has responded by saying this is outrageous slander and he should either prove it or shut up, while also arresting Turkish journalists who report on his government’s complicity:

The Russians almost certainly knew about the oil sales already, so why are they bringing it up now? They’re already suffering due to the drop in oil prices brought about by Saudi overproduction. Oil and gas account for 70% of Russia’s export incomes, and both of them are being threatened in this conflict – not least by ISIS undercutting already low market prices and making an estimated $3m a day by flogging it on the black market. Russia are economically suffering because of all of this, and shooting down one of their planes is like poking a cornered bear.

Given their innumerable incursions into Greek airspace, Turkey haven’t got a leg to stand on, but they’re our NATO allies and we need them on-side to undermine Russia’s control of the gas supply, so the UK government backs them. Again, this isn’t to say Russia are the good guys. It’s just to point out that none of this is really about right and wrong – everyone’s looking after their own interests while claiming moral superiority.
And what about regional big guns Saudi Arabia? Cameron’s cosy relationship with the Saudi elite is well established:

I can understand his dilemma. The “defence” industry is one of the UK’s last remaining powerhouses, and he doesn’t want to compromise business deals by asking the Saudis too many difficult questions. As long as they keep buying our missiles to continue bombing Yemen, we’ve got a happy customer, and Cameron doesn’t want to mess with this arrangement.

But this vested interest, and the siding with Turkey over Russia, isn’t consistent with the stated imperative that ISIS must be destroyed. It’s not the only example. Another domestic source of funds for ISIS has come from Kuwait:
… who we recently sold some fighter jets for a tidy sum of £5.8bn. I hesitate to use the term, but this seems to be a literal case of the military-industrial-complex directing UK diplomacy. I wonder if they’ve done the figures and established that going to war is actually *less* costly than exercising diplomacy and endangering arms sales.

Insisting on diplomacy rather than military intervention isn’t pie-in-the-sky commie philosophising, it’s the only practical way forward if the goal genuinely is to defeat ISIS. If you look at the UK’s current allegiances and the schism between the two pipeline projects above (with the UK implicitly following the USA in their support for the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey line), it’s hard to take this stated aim at face value.

It also seems to be the case that it’s not what the people of Syria prioritise. Statistics gathered by the Syrian Network for Human Rights demonstrate that over 90% (respectively) of all civilians, children, medics and media activists killed in the conflict have been killed by government forces. ISIS seem to be responsible for around 0.9% of civilians killed, by contrast (http://sn4hr.org/). This obviously isn’t to say that their crimes are any less horrific or worthy of our attention, our sense of loss and condemnation. But it does signal the extent to which ISIS are less of a regional priority than Assad, and bombing them while they continue to receive vital funding with the tacit approval of our allies, and while the borders between different rebel forces are so porous, and while courting a ‘moderate’ force of 70,000 whose constitution and moderation seems to exist principally in Cameron’s hopes and dreams, seems like the definition of futility.

I guess a reply to all this is that it’s not so much for the benefit of the region as protecting the UK itself. Part of the group’s perceived religious legitimacy (which has been comprehensively and categorically rejected by the world’s leading Islamic scholars (see http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/ , or
…despite what some guy called Graeme wrote in The Atlantic, which was refuted (again in The Atlantic) by an actual scholar of Islam here:
http://www.theatlantic.com/…/what-muslims-really-wa…/386156/ …)
….relates to its hold on territory, so the argument goes that disaffected UK citizens will stop pledging allegiance if they no longer hold that territory. Beyond that, they’ll no longer have the territory or resources to mastermind attacks on British soil.

This argument seems to confuse two points. One is the worrying flow of alienated youngsters who go and join them, and the other is the worrying sense that the UK itself will be attacked. Of course the two aren’t unrelated, but they are distinct. Yes, their loss of territory would delegitimise them and likely reduce the flow of volunteers. But the idea that domestic terrorists are incapable of planning and executing acts of terror unless the masterminds in Raqqa have a comfortable HQ is very weak. These things take a lot of planning, but the devil is in the local detail, and these attacks are almost always plotted and carried out by locals. This disturbing detail is unlikely to be positively affected by bombing foreign fighters, and the point remains that adding a few more bombers to an already comprehensively bombarded region isn’t *really* an effective way of undermining ISIS.

It’s bluster and symbolism, and claiming that it won’t affect the likelihood of an attack against the UK is laughable. If a single civilian death results from UK bombardment (which is almost certain to happen, and almost certain to go unreported even in the liberal newspapers sternly evoking Churchill and talking about Our Duty To Act), not only will it be a criminally avoidable tragedy in its own right but it will be a gift to ISIS recruiters, and an attack on the UK is just the sort of thing that encourages the UK military to act even more rashly and indiscriminately, which is of course what they want.

Again, I might have a few things wrong, but I just cannot see the benefit of UK involvement, beyond indulging various allies in the interest of recouping various morally dubious favours and munitions sales. I’m sure it’s improving Cameron’s approval rating after Paris, and the backstabbers in the PLP are already exploiting the issue to try and get rid of Corbyn, but they’re playing with people’s lives.
Obviously I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, but I don’t think they do either, and the factual points above should illustrate that it’s already a horrific mess of competing interests that military intervention from the UK is not going to benefit or resolve.

If you agree with any of the above, you’ve still got time to tell your MP before the vote in Parliament. There’s a template letter and an automated way of sending it at this webpage:

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