OF A CHURCH AND A MOSQUE

A court ruling in Turkey has apparently opened the way to reconvert Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum into an active mosque.

I think that’s a tragically bad decision, and here’s why.

The Ottoman Empire, from which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged the modern Turkish state as of the 1920s, had been for many centuries a model of religious conviviality between Muslims, Christians and Jews. When the waves of nationalism and ethnic hatred after the First World War killed that concept, and redesigned the entire Middle East, it was Ataturk’s wise decision to separate religion and politics.

No doubt the bitter experiences of large-scale ethnic cleansing perpetrated by all sides, with Greek ultra-nationalists playing a prominent part in trying to grab Turkish territories, inspired the idea.  If the past of mutual respect between religions was to be forgotten, then at least make the most prestigious monument of Istanbul’s multicultural past accessible to all without distinction of creed.

So Hagia Sophia became a museum. It’s said that even the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II, was so impressed with the space of the christian church, that he dismounted his horse and entered it on foot as a sign of respect. The Sultan and his successors interfered relatively little with the building to turn it into a mosque. They added the four minarets, but in the interior they didn’t destroy the Byzantine mosaics, only plastered and painted them over ( they were later recovered).

The case is of close interest to me, because living in Andalucia, I alway look upon the case of the grand mosque in Cordoba as an identical situation in reverse: that mosque was turned into a church after the Reconquista in the 15th century (remarkably close in time to the events in Istanbul). The christians mistreated the mosque much worse than the sultan had done with Hagia Sophia: they planted an arrogantly exuberant church in the middle of the perfect, sparse geometry of the arab architecture. To his credit, the emperor Charles V disapproved.

But in contrast with the wise decision of Ataturk, the Spanish catholic church, of course always protected by Franco and the political Right, continues to this day to use the building as a cathedral, and has repeatedly rejected the idea of it becoming a secular museum.

The Spanish church is thus staunchly hanging on to a symbol of the very intolerance president Erdogan is now returning to in Turkey if the reconversion of Hagia Sophia does indeed take place.

This is, simply, a backward decision.

Mr Erdogan relies politically on the half of his country that wants to undo the secular state created by Ataturk, one of the greatest politicians of the first half of the 20th Century. The president may himself be a devout muslim or not. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. With this decision, what he comes across as to me, is a shameless opportunist. Like Mr Trump, he’ s willing to deepen the divisions in his own country for his own political survival.

 

 

TOPPLING OFFENDING STATUES

Yes, bring down all the monuments to slavers, wherever in the world they are still standing! It may gain Mr Trump a few extra votes in the US South, but whoever is still waving a Confederate flag is long lost to humanity anyhow.

Now here comes a case I relate to personally, although for a variety of contradictory reasons: the Teddy Roosevelt monument at the entrance of New York’s Museum of Natural History.

Its location, facing one of the nicest sections of Central Park, is one of our most cherished neighborhoods of the Upper West Side. So many fond memories of Sunday strolls along Columbus Avenue- another name now under scrutiny.

I have always had issues with Teddy. He was one of the main perpetrators in the theft of Cuban independence from the Cuban people back in 1898. When the Spanish finally gave up and sailed away from Santiago, Teddy hoisted the US flag over the city. A betrayal with consequences to this day.

But Teddy is also the visionary who created the US national parks, which put him only a century or so ahead of the other dumbest and most offensive politician of the moment, Brazil’s Mr Bolsonaro, the Tropical Trump. Having seen the vast splendor of some of Teddy’s parks, I give him thanks and praise.

As for the statue itself: yes, its is offending that Teddy is grandly riding a horse, while the two figures flanking him, a Native American and a Black man, are on foot, clearly denoting an idea of racial hierarchy.

Or was it?

The statue’s intention, trying to view it in the context of its own times, was probably more paternalistic than outright racist.

But then something further occurred to me.

Apart from being paternalistic, isn’t the monument implying that the White man is posing with two interesting specimens, to put it crudely?

After all, this is a museum dedicated to just that.

That interpretation makes arguments for removal more cogent.

In Europe, opinions about offending monuments are more divided. Yes, many of those bronze characters were unredeemable offenders against universal human rights; but to erase them is also avoiding a debate about their misdeeds, as quite a few people in Europe are now arguing.

Our long years in the US and the Caribbean, almost all of our adult lifetimes, have made my family and myself lean over to the American point of view. Offensive, even by association? Topple! Or remove to a museum, with context.

Still, I may secretly miss Teddy; and even more the Native American on his right, standing for a stereotype, maybe, but still a grand and imposing figure commanding respect. The African American on his left is also a powerful presence, although he seems more eclipsed by the White horseman. The statue invites this kind of decoding.

The three races united in one monument may be a rarity even today; but as an illustration of continuing inequality- who’s on a horse of social standing and who isn’t- the statue is still, sadly, all too relevant.

 

 

 

MR POMPEO AND THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT: A TALE OF ARROGANCE AND STUPIDITY

We already know well to what lengths Mr Pompeo will go to please his master. In the process, he not only constantly makes a fool of himself, but he also further demeans the profession he’s supposed to represent at a high level.

Now his comments on the International Criminal Court. For someone as ignorant as Mr Pompeo manifestly is on the issue, a few reminders:

When the establishment of the ICC was being negotiated in the 1990s. the United States under president Clinton actively participated in the work. That was the professional and legitimate way to ensure that US interests would be taken into account.

The US was always wary that the ICC would be politicized, a reasonable concern. One of the ways US diplomacy tried to prevent this, was to give the UN Security Council a say over potential prosecutions. With a veto in the Security Council, the US could then prevent any trials from going against their interests.

It didn’t work out, because as sad practice in the Security Council illustrates, abuses of the veto right on sensitive matters are so frequent that they would have made the ICC a toothless tiger.

Nevertheless, as they had participated in good faith in the entire negotiation, Clinton diplomats signed the Rome Statute establishing the ICC at the end of 2000.

This little footnote already illustrates that diplomacy is a profession for professionals with experience, knowledge and arguments; none of which seem to be found in Mr Pompeo’s briefcase.

The tide turned with the Bush presidency.

As of 2001, the US boycotted further preparatory work on the ICC. In May 2002, it officially withdrew its signature of the Statute.

I remember this vividly, because the US ambassador in Brussels came to notify this very formally, while I was in charge of UN matters at the Belgian Foreign Ministry.

The reaction we conveyed to the ambassador was, of course, one of regret, and the hope that the door would not be closed to informal cooperation with the ICC. After all, the necessity of its existence was amply proven by the events of the 1990s. The end of the Cold War had also changed the nature of war, as we’re still living today, with unchecked militia’s and warlords committing horrendous war crimes.

While respecting diplomatic procedure when ending US participation, the Bush era diplomacy also began to act in bad faith.

The US now tried to conclude so called non-surrender agreements with individual states, preventing them from handing over US military personnel to the ICC for war crimes. This was done including with weak states recently become members of the European Union, sometimes with bribery. It went against the letter and the spirit of the Statute which the US had helped to reach, but of course that no longer mattered. In the meantime the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in progress or in preparation, and we all know how dirty they became.

But in any event. even at its worst, US diplomacy in those days still maintained at least a civilized vocabulary. Mr Pompeo’s description of the ICC as a kangaroo court is just his next step in slavish behavior. Imposing US sanctions on ICC staff as if they were the criminals, is just beneath contempt.

The ICC is far from perfect. Which tribunal established by humans to judge humans is? But amidst the horrors of unchecked warfare in Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Congo to name only the worst cases, its very existence is a step forward for humankind.

The US’s withdrawal from so many international agreements is a silent tragedy. It will very likely help to end the leading rôle of the country in international affairs.  It’s quite unnecessary to add vulgar comments to this, as Mr Pompeo sees fit to do.  I sympathize with the many professional and intelligent colleagues at the State Department who have to live through this disgraceful spectacle.

A simple thought to conclude: the best way not to be prosecuted for war crimes is– not to commit them.

 

 

 

ANOTHER COUNTRY

The title of James Baldwin’s 1962 novel often comes to my mind as summing up the collective feelings of alienation experienced by many African-Americans individually and Black communities collectively in the United States.

Speaking about the murder of Mr George Floyd by a White police officer in Minneapolis, Mr Joe Biden summed up all that the White House is denying: America never got over its original sin of racism.

To deny that there is a systemic problem is just ridiculous.

But apart from the underlying racism never healed since the end of slavery, here are a few extra thoughts:

The over-militarization of police forces throughout the United States always makes tensions worse, not better. No protesting civilian wants to be confronted with troop contingents equipped and behaving like an invading and occupying force.

Civilian policing in the US has been utterly perverted by the defense industries. Just like wars anywhere thrive on the arms trade, militarized police forces are a typical example of a solution creating its own problems. The manufacturing and sale of security equipment is a sideline to the indecent internal arms race in the US, and a billion-dollar industry in its own right, cleverly courting the police apparatus and public powers everywhere.

Your home insurance salesperson is helped by a few break-ins in your neighborhood. Likewise the sales of paramilitary gear to transform your cop on the beat into a video-game warrior are part of a vicious circle.

The next issue is training.  I find it unbelievable that with all the tools of HR management to which we subject any candidate for any job, it still appears impossible to avoid recruiting police officers with the wrong basic instincts. Not people getting carried away in the heat of passion– although policemen and women should possess adequate self-control– but persons capable of cold-blooded murder by minutes-long strangulation like Mr Derek Chauvin.

My last point is a very delicate one, but it has to be mentioned.

Where is Black leadership?

The worst vicious circle in all this will be the increased racism, with prejudices confirmed and reinforced by the burning and the looting.

Yet this is the real message: too many poor Americans and especially Black people are indeed living in another country, long left behind by politics, no longer inspired by civic leaders with standing and credibility. Street violence has always been the language of the powerless. And unavoidably, we descend into the realm of the worst instincts. The breaking and burning looter reacts to the killer instinct of the bad cop.

It will take time and a great deal of patience and intelligence to break those vicious circles, if that is at all possible.

And most of all, it absolutely requires a change of leadership at the top come November. Or else, there will forever be Another Country, always denied, long-suffering, but exploding in vicious instincts when senseless repression is carried too far once again.

 

 

 

 

 

CORONAVIRUS CONTEXT

In his book ‘1493’, published in 2011, Charles C. Mann explores the unexpected consequences of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. Mr. Mann’s thesis is that Columbus initiated the present-day globalization.

And not only in trade and investment.

As is well known, an exponential series of human catastrophes and diasporas resulted from the ‘discovery’ of the New World as the European explorers saw the Americas, ignorant as they were of its ancient cultures, or actively destroying them. A little further down the line, the transatlantic slave trade followed as arguably the most tragic side effect.

But those were the human aspects– the migrations, free or forced, of one species.

Mr Mann’s argument is that those migrations were only the most superficial phenomena in the vast array of consequences. Often more important in shaping today’s world were the migrations and transplants of plants and crops. From their American origins, the potato, the tomato, corn, peppers and many other species became universal staples. Sugarcane, a transplant in the opposite direction from Europe to the Americas, became directly responsible for the enslavement of thirteen millions of Africans over more than 300 years.

And yet, even those migrations and transplants are not the most significant.

We were shaped much more, writes Mr Mann, by the unintended migrations: of hosts of insects, bacteria and other micro-organisms that followed humans and domesticated animals to unfamiliar places, carrying diseases and plagues back and forth, dramatically changing composition of soils and aspects of landscapes.

This is an ongoing process, as we have come to realize these days. And as airplanes travel much faster and are more crowded than sailing ships, those migrations have also accelerated exponentially.

The thought is at once scary and sobering. In fact, nothing new is going on. It has been happening since… 1493.

Columbus is rightly made fun of these days for his naive convictions. But less than a generation after his first voyage, Spanish sailors did reach China from the west, via the Philippines; and as the Chinese empire greedily absorbed silver from the mines in Mexico and Peru, the earth-spanning circle of globalization involving and affecting three continents was indeed closed.

The Chinese virus is thus only one more aspect of those unintended diasporas. It’s too early to say if this virus will alter our behavior and our societies permanently, as have done others before it. Hopefully not.

It may also be a kind of writing on the wall for the future world order, that even the new diseases these days originate in China, like most everything we’re buying. From the days of Columbus till the end of the colonial era in the 1960s, all things bad and good came from the dominant Western powers.

No longer so.

The world is round, indeed; and the invisible migrations that shape us are reversible, placing the West now at the receiving end.

 

 

 

 

A DANGEROUS NON-EVENT

How is this for a nice paradox: there is no US presidential election campaign; and that non-campaign is entering a very dangerous phase.

In the handling of the pandemic, the Democrats are generally on the side of science, prudent governance and plain common sense. But that means standing for longer lockdowns and restrictions, with the economic and social side-effects.

And so it becomes possible for the Trump camp to paint the Democrats as a set of risk-averse sissies, or worse- while Mr Trump can once again pose as the champion of the common man, just by catering thoughtlessly to widespread and understandable frustrations.

It may work for him come November, especially as he’s assisted by Fox turned into the equivalent of Dr Goebbels’ propaganda machine. I realize that’s a heavy comparison but I stand by it.

The coordinated barrage of insults and disrespect aimed at the gallant and modest Dr. Fauci after the senate hearings on the pandemic, had right-wing journalism sink to new levels of infamy.

Here’s what I hope: that some of those folks at Fox have rebellious and independent-minded teenage daughters and sons, who may cringe at what their parents are lending their faces and their voices to, and will one day question them about it.

Come November, the election will also be a verdict on competence vs. hysteria.

Regrettably, I’m not sure of the outcome.

 

 

 

POMPEO

We should get a little tired of Trump-bashing: all it probably does is to build him up more (or again) in the eyes of his unconditional base.

When looking for the next best target, my choice is easy: Secretary of State Mr. Mike Pompeo.

Here’s what I have been observing.

Vice-president Pence has developed a look and body language, when on the podium with Mr. Trump and forced to witness his absurdities, that is as sphinx-like as possible. He is an intelligent man, no doubt. He has convictions, too. He is just biding his time. I hope his time never comes, but that’s not the point. He has found a way of handling himself to limit the damage to his persona.

Now look at Mr. Pompeo by contrast. The present chief diplomat of the United States gladly follows where Mr. Trump leads. His jovial physique may come across as a guarantee of common sense and the qualities of the regular guy.

But that’s not his mission as a prominent diplomat.

His buying into Mr Trump’s teenage vocabulary – Immense proofs of the origin of Covid 19 in a Chinese laboratory- diminishes him as a professional. The skills of diplomacy are often the art of evasiveness, but that’s not the same as being out of focus.

Diplomats are often the last resistance against political folly. How many times have I heard a politician declare when faced with a thorny question ‘Well, I’m not a diplomat and therefore…’. 

Yes, minister; but I am; and therefore I’ll give you the real picture in private, and will be non-committal in public. If not slavishly subscribing to one of your follies costs me my present job, so be it. The independence of ranking civil servants was invented to stop you from sending me out in the street with no income.

A chief diplomat turning into a kadavergehorsam puppet of a politician is very worrying to me. The German term means ‘obedient like a corpse’.

I’m thinking of previous Secretaries of State and how they handled themselves under similar circumstances. Another example that bothers me still: Henry Kissinger sticking to Richard Nixon’s side in the midst of the vicious anti-Semitic rantings of the president, recorded for posterity and now all too well known.

His obedience allowed him to be praised by some as the greatest diplomat of his era, which I find grossly overblown and even inadequate. The late Richard Holbrooke to me was a much greater professional. Next to Kissinger’s faux triumphs- ‘honorable peace’ in Vietnam, blind support for the torturers in Argentina- Mr Holbrooke found a way out of the worst of the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Kissinger sold his soul to the devil to bask in the praise. What did it do to him as a person and a human being? That he himself may be aware of the answer is written over his face as a bitter old man. Again, by contrast, I admire Robert McNamara who confessed to his Vietnam war crimes, because he realized that ultimately that would make him the better man.

Mr Pompeo is no real match for those personalities. His class is not in tune with his size. And whatever the future may reveal about the origin of the coronavirus, his publicly displayed uncritical attitude is just wrong and a dishonor to our profession.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ENTER MRS. CLINTON

Apart from a global crisis unprecedented for generations, we’re also living the strangest election campaign ever in the United States. It has become almost an afterthought, as so many more pressing issues are upon us.

Yet– much hangs in the balance in November. A return or not to civilized political discourse. Recuperating tattered and squandered ‘Western’ leadership and defense of values. Restoring the predominance of intelligence over cultivated moronism. Reasserting the simple fact that the world is round, not flat.

In comes Mrs. Clinton, now with declared support for Mr. Biden.

I must confess that the 2016 election left me with very mixed feelings about ‘Hillary’.

I had been a fan of the Clintons since I witnessed the euphoria of Bill’s election in 1992 in the company of Democrat activist friends in a vast, rowdy loft on West 16th Street in New York. I remained a supporter even through the bad times over the next eight years.

But regarding Hillary, I had my doubts from day one of her 2016 campaign. There was the self-assured attitude, often bordering on arrogance and a sense that the White House was due her as a birthright. The unwise way her campaign management countered Mr. T’s increasingly vulgar and aggressive populism. The neglect of states taken for granted.

Still, Mrs. Clinton carried the popular vote. That warrants a compliment to the US electorate, but is in my modest view a grave indictment of the electoral system.

We all know where it comes from, and why it is so Byzantine. But the question then becomes, if constitutional discussions dating back to the late eighteenth century are not up for a revision? If I let loose my subjective views, I don’t remain so diplomatic, and an undereducated teenager in me is shouting there is something fundamentally wrong with any system that allows a Mr. T. to be elected president of a democracy.

Whenever my entourage reminds me that Hillary in fact won the election, my answer is that no one was supposed to know the system better, and that you cannot claim to win a game of ping-pong by the rules of badminton.

In theory, Mrs. Clinton can bring 65 million votes or so to Mr. Biden. But will it work? She lost the presidency not once, but twice. May her endorsement therefore not backfire? At the end of the day, her second loss was mostly due to bad campaign management. That too, is amazing– for she had the example or Mr. Obama who successfully fought the most difficult uphill battle in US political history, to enter the White House as a Black man.

The number of votes Mrs.Clinton may still represent matters less than where they are, what states they may help to win. Mr Biden has been even closer to Mr. Obama, who now also has endorsed him. So he must have better campaigning experience at his disposal than was Hillary’s.

But the circumstances of the November vote may be very tricky, whatever the coronavirus situation may look like by then. This may affect voter turnout, and I fear that at lower turnout, it’s the extremes that may prevail.

The prospect of a reelection of Mr. T. is so depressing, even more after his handling of the health crisis, that I refuse to consider it, for it would do irreversible damage to my love and respect for the United States.

My best hope is that the US electorate as a whole, come November, justifies the compliment I give it for voting in a majority, albeit in vain, for Mrs. Clinton in 2016.

POLITICS IN TIMES OF THE PLAGUE

By a series of coincidences, my family and myself are sitting out the lockdown split up between New York and Spain. Fate has placed us in two of the most interesting locations of the crisis.

I would like to report that the political handling of the situation is better in Spain than in the United States. Alas, it is not.

When zapping between Spanish and US news, some relief comes from the fact that the Spanish Prime Minister is a good-looking young man, as opposed to…

But the feel-good factor ends there.

PM Sanchez oversees a fragile parliamentary majority of the Left. He came to power mostly thanks to the pathetic mismanagement of the Catalan separatist challenge by the Rightist Partido Popular.

But he is himself challenged from within, by powers in his coalition more to the left than the traditional socialists, and from the outside, where the neo-fascists of Vox, are constantly shooting him in the legs.

Add to that the Catalans. I hope there will one day be some human or divine justice making it clear what damage the separatists in Barcelona and a small majority in the rest of the region, will have inflicted on their country, Europe and the world.

Conforming to all bad expectations, they see the pandemic as yet another opportunity to affirm their exceptionalism. ‘We’re not Spanish, so to hell with solidarity!’. And this is the richest region of the country, where we know already now how bleak to many of the weakest and the poorest the aftermath of the virus will be.

As for Vox, the party that broke the post-Franco taboo on Extreme Right movements in Spain, it is now the third largest party in parliament, and will probably grow stronger with the confusion and the anger that are building up. Hand any fascist a murky pool, and he will fish well.

I have long come to the conclusion that really to understand politics, one has to look not at slogans or programs, but simply at human nature. Bottled up resentments become concentrated and turn to hatred. And we’re all bottled up today.

Like many other countries in Europe, Spain has always been a fractured society. Even the supposedly glorious king and emperor Charles V in the 16th century was often confined to Madrid by endless resistance against him and by civil wars in the provinces (it didn’t help that he didn’t speak Spanish).

It was the dream of the previous generation and my own, that a strong European Union, combined with decentralized governance handed to regions, would erase much bad history created by arrogant monarchs and faraway capitals. We may have been naïve. The EU is struggling to maintain its credibility in a strong wave of national egoisms of many of the Member States.

What plays out in the United States is not so different after all, with the fights over States’ rights as opposed to federal rules.

In both cases, what’s not on the horizon is political unity in challenging times, but instead far too much recourse to the simplistic methods of blaming and scapegoating outsiders and The Other. 

Human nature.

 

STRENGTH THROUGH UNITY…

When working in Haiti in 2005, I realized that that country’s national motto, L’Union Fait La Force, is the same as that of my native Belgium.

The ideal of Strength Through Unity, applied to two of the most fragmented societies on this planet, is good for a cynical smile.

Belgium has been busy since decades patching up its divisions with the most abstruse constitutional system ever, competing with the Ottoman Empire with its four simultaneous calendars to keep Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic Christians and Jews reconciled, even when they were all living on a different date and a different hour every day.

The idea that the present pandemic should unite us, is of course a noble one. How realistic it is remains to be seen. In Spain where I’m living and sitting out the lockdown, vicious politicking between regions and between the governing Left and the resurgent Right is almost as poisonous as the virus, and may be even more difficult to overcome when we get back to normal or have to invent a new normal.

Mr Trump’s way of looking for scapegoats has become a bad habit in many places. Even before he started blabbering about The Chinese Virus, literally every small Chinese shop and supermarket in my part of Spain had closed its doors, as a precaution against the foreseeable wave of racism. The fact that this happened simultaneously everywhere, of course encouraged conspiracy theories that every Chino was part of a vast, centralized network selling noodles and beer while spying on the nearby oil refinery, power plant or solar park….

Such small-scale resentments may become global. As a former diplomat of the European Union, I am deeply worried that the present crisis may reveal the EU as a fair-weather ship, now badly capsizing as crew and passengers panic, and make for the nearest lifeboat…. under a national flag.

It will be legitimate, if and when this storm is abating, to reconsider if we have given up too much of economic sovereignty. But it will be very difficult to save that discussion from being hijacked in the name of outrageous nationalism by the populists, the Far Right and the downright fascists now thriving among us.

The Dollar (or the Euro) in Times of the Plague is the nearest concern for many, as businesses close and salaries dry up. Spain had only partially recovered from the very harsh social shocks of the 2008 financial crisis. When the virus is over, we’ll wake up to a country in tatters for a great many citizens. In the United States, the extreme fragility of the Trump-years economic boom is laid bare: lots of low-level jobs with hand-to-mouth salaries, still no health care for many, ghettoes and neglected rural zones more vulnerable than ever.

But even in our European Union where so many more achievements of unity and cross-border solidarity were taken for granted only a few years ago, the fault  lines opened up by the unforgivable Brexit backstab, are becoming wider instead of shrinking under the influence of the crisis.

We can be sure that the days we are living through, will be described in future history books ( or rather, websites…). How we handle the outcome– more united as humans, or more divided both as individuals and as nations- will be on the heads of our grandchildren.