THE KHASHOGGI CASE

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Too late? At the very least, let’s have the facts

Murder in the Consulate– in Istanbul, at that. Agatha Christie? Call Hercule Poirot? No- this isn’t a joke. It’s real life drama, and potentially a gruesome horror story.

Dramatic events at diplomatic and consular missions are not all that unique- think hostage taking or asylum seeking. The occasional disgruntled visa applicant wielding a gun or a knife. Many a diplomat has lived it. But this case is in a different league altogether.

A few comments from the diplomatic point of view.

Diplomatic immunity, although not nearly as absolute as it used to be, theoretically is still strong when it comes to criminal law. Yet the Saudi consul general left Turkey in a hurry. Leaving a crime scene is never the best proof of innocence. Was His Excellency wary that the case was too dramatic for him to hide behind his status?

Two other possibilities: was he in on a plot, and was his hasty departure organized as part of it? The line in most of the international press is not just that he departed, but that he fled- as one does a crime scene. How did he manage to escape? At the very least, the authorities in Ankara could have called him in to ask for an explanation. That would be standard procedure, and fully consistent with diplomatic immunity.

But no. He left the country, presumably on a private jet. I know from experience that security checks when boarding private planes are a piece of cake next to what the ordinary traveler is routinely subject to. Also- the Turkish authorities my have preferred to look the other way as His Excellency slipped through, still hoping, in the early stages of the story, to avoid an embarrassment. That’s no longer possible.

There is another possible explanation. By leaving the country, if the consul general was not in on an alleged plot to assassinate Mr Khashoggi, he prevented the Saudi authorities from throwing him to Turkey and the world as the fall guy, as the expression goes in crime fiction.

If all the details being leaked to the press are authenticated- the beheading of Mr Khashoggi, followed by the dismemberment of his body- the full horror may come to light. What does it say about Saudi Arabia? Even without this case, the human rights record of the country is nothing but atrocious. Why would they stop at one more beheading? The princes in Riyadh may buy all the TV spots in the world to try and present themselves in a different light, but that can’t hide the medieval state of their State.

But there is another aspect. Mr Kashoggi was by no means the harshest critic of the princes nor the most vocal Saudi dissident. But he was living in the United States, and he was becoming worse than an enemy: an embarrassment, to powerful people who will rather resort to extremes than to lose face. Power corrupts- sure; but maybe even worse- it creates acute paranoia. Look at Mr Nixon. Was Mr Kashoggi a threat to the pretend reformers in the Kingdom? But how could they be so ill-advised as to think a case like this would not blow up in their faces? Mystery. How shielded from reality can the desert princes be?

All of this is speculation. Is Mr. Kashoggi indeed gone, and under what circumstances? What more will we find out? Will the United States and others cling to contracts and billions of petrodollars rather than to expose the true culprits, if the horror of the events is confirmed? In the short run, Davos in the Desert may fall through- but how long before money talks again, over any human rights concerns?

Let’s not be naive. Enemies of the Saudis in their own region are quick to blame Riyadh, but behind the glitter of their shopping malls and airports, museums and opera house and theme parks…, Gulf countries are not exactly human rights champions either- what with their vast schemes of migrant worker slavery, to name only that?

One last thought. Political assassinations have been a given, almost a routine, in all of human history. The Khashoggi case may be particularly atrocious, but in our hyper-civilized European Union we had three cases of investigative journalists murdered over the last year because they embarrassed the powerful.

The desert princes may be more cruel than others, and somewhat naively unaware of the risks of international indignation; but exceptions as to the principle of liquidating unfriendly journalists they are, alas, not. And in the end, I bet you- their money will talk loudest.

 

 

 

 

THANK YOU, MR STEVE BANNON

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Mr Bannon, onetime mentor of Mr Trump, had set his bloodshot eyes on a vast Trumpian-Bannonian movement in Europe- a transatlantic, supra-national coalition of fascists posing as nationalists-populists.

The facts on the terrain gave him high hopes. European neofascism is doing well, thank you.

In Poland, slightly redrawn swastika’s are parading the streets under police protection. In Hungary, the new crusader Mr Viktor Orban saw fit to thank the Golden Dawn movement in Greece- also marching, attacking migrants and vandalizing with gusto under their swastika-variant- for political support against the warnings of the European Commission. Some of the new kids on the extreme right block, members of Italy’s government, are only a step away from glorifying Mussolini.  I often wake up with a sigh of relief realizing that I’m living in Spain, where democracy is too recent, and Franco’s shadow still too present, to make neofascism acceptable or politically viable. For now. God knows for how much longer.

One would think that the mood elsewhere in Europe would be favorable for Mr Bannon’s ideas to flourish.

Yet, his initiative got him a black eye and a bloody nose. Even the extreme right said- hands off! None of your business! Mme Le Pen in France was only the latest to rub it in: Mr Bannon is not a EU citizen. This is not his place.

I think I’ll have few occasions to say Merci Mme Le Pen, but this is one. A diplomat is always grateful for an occasion to be polite to an enemy.

If the Trumpian logic of the super-sovereign nation-state is the norm, what business had his former mentor to put his fingers in the pie of EU politics? Oh yes, I get it: supranationalism, evil for the economy and the common man, is OK if it promotes the right kind of propaganda.

Mr Bannon’s ideas made even the European Far Right, not famous for deep reflection on any subject, stop and think. To promote extreme nationalism with a helping hand from across the Atlantic could backfire with the voters- certainly in France with its hate-love relationship with anything American. Unwittingly, Mr Bannon showed limit of the European Far Right. For that, I thank him sincerely.

How the neo-fascists might coalesce into a pan-European movement on their own wings remains to be seen. They are still an embarrassment to the center-right coalition in the European Parliament, but there will be European elections next year. Adding to its current ills, the EU leadership may be faced with a Parliament- if not a deciding one on most policy issues- seating those seeking the doom of the EU in favor of the nation-state. That they will be eating from Europe’s rich budgets while doing so may not trouble them.

The banners are still marching. While Spain is standing as unsafe ground for neo-fascists, Germany is sliding. Bavaria’s elections, in Hitler’s backyard, will be a crucial test this coming Sunday.

I hope not, but Mr Bannon may still have the last laugh. As a bystander,that is.

 

BREAK IT UP?

 

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The last years of my professional life as a diplomat- and some of the best- were dedicated to working for the European Union. This came after long years ( 1985- 2010) of close involvement with the United Nations. So it feels now, looking back, as if I always wanted to be a representative of something more, something larger than a nation-state.

One tends to seek logic in one’s past, even when many decisions, both personal and professional, are not that linear. More often than not, one decides on a career move by grasping an opportunity, using a connection, or following an intuition. Yet- after the fact my trajectory seems coherent.

In the years just before I started work for the European Union- 2012- the EU was at its zenith, or so it felt. The expansion to the East had consolidated the end of the Cold War in Europe. The scars from the unforgivable Balkan Wars in the 1990s were healing somewhat, with the EU in a competent nursing role. Internally, and in spite of a thousand years of past antagonisms, there seemed to be a community of values, even if the Europe of the Citizen was lagging far behind the one of the businesses, the lobbyists, the politicians and- not to forget- the Eurocrats, whose ranks I joined in September 2012. We had successfully introduced our common currency, the Euro- an operation full of potential pitfalls, not just for macro-economic reasons but just simply in terms of logistics. In 2012, when I became a Eurocrat, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. There was reason for pride.

But sobering shocks had started to occur by that time. The financial crisis of 2008 revealed the underlying weaknesses of the Eurozone. I had the privilege of observing that crisis from nearby, as I was working in New York and had good connections in Wall Street. Like many citizens of the world, I was scandalized by the way the downtown bankers created and later exploited the crisis; but looking at Europe at the same time, what was revealed was just as ugly: the cooked national budgets and statistics, the blatant incompetence of many politicians, the belief that Brussels could and would bail out every mala fide debtor government- and the pathetic waves of nationalism that swept over societies who would blame everyone but themselves for bad governance and lack of foresight.

Then came Brexit. Then came the ugly fascist movements in Poland and Hungary. The inability to do anything meaningful about Russia’s misbehavior in the Ukraine. The migrant-and-refugee crisis.

There was hope still. The Iran nuclear deal- too often presented in the United States as either an achievement or a blunder of US diplomacy alone- was reached by very active involvement of EU diplomacy- with a very personal part played by my two successive bosses, baroness Cathy Ashton and Mrs Federica Mogherini.

Then Mr Trump happened.

Against everything I had worked for over a lifetime, his loud nationalism said in essence about multilateral structures: Break it up! Long live the sovereign nation state to have a lively and colorful planet. 

Just a moment.

In Europe and elsewhere, we had that kind of world- for about fifteen hundred years from the fall of Rome to 1945. That world gave us, to name only a few, the Hundred years War, the Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War and, grand climaxes, 1914-18 and 1940-45. Hurrah!

The Balkan conflicts in the 1990s- sad memories for me also from a professional point of view- illustrated what a breakup can lead to in the real world. Hurrah again.

Will the European Union split eventually, along cultural or ethnic lines? I don’t know. I hope not, obviously- but history is not made of static situations, but of dynamic events. The adolescent democracies in Eastern Europe with their present ridiculous behavior may see the light again. Their behavior is, apart from dangerous, ridiculous- because they are spitting in the hand – of the European Commission- that’s feeding them and brought them out of their totalitarian nightmares. Do they really want to go back there? Well- I for one wouldn’t stop them- but then they should also stop using my tax Euros to finance their fascism.

A EU breakup would no doubt have dramatic consequences not just geopolitically but for the lives of hundreds of millions of citizens. If introducing the Euro was a masterpiece of efficient planning and seamless overnight execution, returning to the Mark, the Lira, the Franc, the Peseta and what more, would be incredibly messy. Unthinkable it is not. Nothing in world politics is- suffice it to look at the history of the past century, with a Chaplinesque caricature of a dictator shaking the world to the core.

Mr Trump’s America First slogans- and every other nation for itself !- seems to take a united US for granted. But is it, really? Already in his 1998 book An Empire Wilderness, the great travel writer- political journalist Robert Kaplan asked the question of long-term survival of a country as socially divided as is the US. The book is twenty years old, but I doubt if any of the social divides Mr Kaplan describes have improved.

I did a test. One of the most poignant chapters is about the utter dereliction and urban blight of East St Louis. I checked recent statistics: nothing seems to have changed, in spite of five presidential terms come and gone. East St Louis still has a poverty rate in the 30% range, and one of the worst violent crime statistics in the country.

Of course much of Mr Trump’s appeal is to the forgotten underclass described by Mr Kaplan. But what can he do about it ? Europe may have its fault lines, but the ones in the US are probably deeper, and more difficult to heal.

The recent elevation of Mr Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will probably not help to heal a divided US. Quite possibly his presence on the bench will do just the opposite, by speeding up the disenlightenment and pitting the have-nots and the know-nothings of the desolate areas explored by Mr Kaplan not just against East and West Coast elites, but against a thinking middle class in the middle, too.

I have no idea where the world is headed, except for the implosion of the solar system, a few billion years from now. In the meantime, what do we do with ourselves? Has globalization enforced by elites really made the planet taste- and colorless, as vehement nationalists like Mr Trump ( or at least his words, for what they are worth) want us to believe? Is globalization as such really to blame for East St Louis, and similar desolate areas I explored myself in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, forgotten parts of the Southwest… or is it the industrial disinvestment by US entrepreneurs like Mr Trump himself, pursuing their higher profits in low-wage zones overseas? Who has shot whom in the back? Has the European Commission really degenerated into the Central Committee of a new totalitarian superstate, Brexiteers, interfering with your pub and your cottage, and dumping an alien community on your neighborhood?

Relax, people. The kind of globalization inspiring nationalist fears exists, to be precise, in airports, shopping malls, corporate boardrooms and five-star hotels. It may mostly be made of plastic and glitter, but surely it’s not all bad. Airports, for one, are really crossroads of universal democracy- and certainly not only for the rich. And in their homes and towns and villages, around their tables and when dreaming in their beds, the citizens of the world are still themselves in breathtaking diversity. Yes, let’s celebrate that! But we need the overhead structure of common values and aspirations, too.

Economic globalization unavoidably has winners and losers. A better balance has obviously yet to be found. Breaking up international structures, and multilateral agreements and institutions- however imperfect they are- will not be the answer, that I know for sure. And not just because I spent most of my life working for them.

Let’s bet. Will Europe break up – as Mr Trump hopes? Will the US? Take nothing for granted- but least of all the blessings promised by nationalist slogans.

 

FADING RAINBOW: IS SEXUAL DIVERSITY UNDER ATTACK?

 

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DIVERSITY, SPACE, A SENSE OF OPENNESS AND ADVENTURE: PLEASE DON’T TAKE THAT AWAY

It may not affect many US citizens, at least not directly. The US State Department has apparently decreed that same-sex partners of foreign diplomats or United Nations staff will no longer be issued diplomatic visa unless they marry. Those not complying would have to leave the United States on short notice.

Even under more liberal administrations, this was never an easy issue. I had to discuss with the State Dept. for several years to solve the question for a colleague when I was Consul General of Belgium in New York in 2008-2012. State- at least its protocol department- offered alternative solutions, such as registering the partner as domestic help. This was perceived as an insult by the parties concerned, and I had to agree with them. Belgium, like other enlightened societies, has long accepted that stable de-facto relationships should be recognized even for diplomats posted abroad.

But Mr Trump’s- and Secretary Pompeo’s- America speeds up its reputation for shrinking enlightenment with an almost vicious pleasure. Of course this plays well with the Christian Far Right. Isn’t it hard enough for the fundamentalist Heartland to swallow same-sex marriage?- to have foreigners living in even greater sin without a signed and sealed document over their beds, especially in that new Babylon, the city of New York-where that paragon of sexual virtue, Mr Trump, was born and raised, and thrived.

As such, the new State Department instructions may not be spectacular. Let them get married, it’s a right now in the US. But there are a few more complicated angles. To begin with, by far not every country on this planet allows same-sex marriage. So diplomats under the new system may be at odds with their domestic legislation. Then there is the question of reciprocity: if the US enforces this rule against foreign diplomats, all US diplomats in similar situations overseas should rightly be put in the same situation. That’s only fair.

It took a decision of the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex unions in the United States. What will happen if Mr Kavanaugh or another far-right judge begins to question this? The risk is taken seriously by many activists in the US. It comes with the other potential far-right drifts from a bench that may not just become conservative, but outright reactionary.

Seen next to these other risks- more unchecked presidential powers, attacking women’s rights, shrinking social security, health care and organized labor, selling out elections even more to corporate lobbies- this is but the movement of a very small pawn in the game. Is it a test case? It feels like one to me, at least- because it betrays an underlying state of mind.

Coming a few days after the eviction of the Palestinian diplomats and the starving by the US of the UN’s Palestine aid branch, UNRWA, these are so many sad examples of non-diplomacy.  Mr Trump and his mindless minions are really destroying the international image of their country with gusto, all to please the Know-Nothings they depend upon for their political survival. But here’s a simple thought: in the long run, a country is not saved, nor kept Great, by ignorance. The glorification of it is a boomerang. It may fly in a wide sweep, but sooner or later it will hit the thrower in the face.

Meanwhile, Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination remains on hold for a few more days. Whatever the FBI comes up with or not, he has revealed enough partisan rancor and belligerence to warrant extreme caution if he makes it to the bench. I cannot say that I wish the man well. As a Supreme Court Judge, every move and every utterance of his should be monitored, and all the tendencies he seems to stand for- unless he reveals himself otherwise when draped in his robes- should be fought- as far as I’m concerned on the very steps of the Court, if necessary.

It may come across as arrogant to read these comments from a non-US citizen. It’s none of my business, is it? But like many people around the world, I have a personal stake in the US remaining a beacon of light- and even more so in the case of my family and myself, as we have spent some of the best years of our lives living, working, studying and playing in the United States, and loving it: the open-mindedness, the risk-taking, the wide spaces and the sense of adventure, liberty and fun.

My anger almost ends with a heartfelt plea: don’t disappoint us. Let this and all other rainbows be.

THE FORD-KAVANAUGH SENATE HEARINGS: NO MORE MR NICE GUY

 

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Congratulations!- and let’s have a few beers.

Our entire household spent yesterday watching the hearings. Having lived, worked and studied in the United States for long years, we feel very connected with- and concerned about- US politics. But of course we still view events like yesterday’s through European eyes.

To such eyes, the myth of the All-American Mr Nice Guy- perfect husband and father, steadfast churchgoer, popular neighbor and colleague, dedicated sportsman and community activist- often feels slightly suspect to begin with. What’s under the surface?

Are Europeans too cynical, or are Americans too naive? A bit of both probably.

Dr. Ford’s testimony was compelling, mostly factual, and clearly emotionally driven. The emotional edginess she shared with her opponent, and Mr Kavanaugh’s seemed as sincere as hers. But there is a difference: Dr. Ford clearly has carried the scars of an event all of her adult life, Judge Kavanaugh was distraught about the process he and his family are put through.

Dr. Ford was vindicated somewhat to the extent that no one in the chamber dared to call her an outright liar. But nevertheless- for Trump supporters all over the country, she is at risk to be presented forever as a hysterical woman with a never resolved teenage fixation on a handsome quarterback. Even in the poisonous atmosphere of a Senate hearing, there may be a bit of mercy- or calculation: like the Republicans fielding the extremely vague and ineffective prosecutor just because it was better to have a woman interrogate a woman and to avoid the image of a pack of men moving in on a fragile female victim. Elementary.

There are, of course, many unresolved questions about the alleged facts, but we’re fully back to the politics only. The Democrats’ delaying tactics backfired, even though the delay in laying the case before the Senate and the public may indeed have been due to Dr. Ford’s wish for discretion. That, of course, was a non-starter, and Mrs Feinstein, whom I admire and respect greatly, should have told her so from the start.

But there is enough blame to go around about the timing: the Republicans were just as desperate to get Mr Kavanaugh confirmed before November, as the Democrats were to delay his confirmation till after the mid-term elections.

Another fact that struck me, is the vast difference in personality and behavior between Republican and Democrat senators. Some of the Democrats I know personally, such as the ever wise, discreet but also fearless Mr Patrick Leahy whom I met repeatedly in Havana when he was playing a pivotal role in the US-Cuba reconciliation, one of many achievements of real politics and diplomacy undone by Mr Trump’s sheer stupidity and vindictiveness. Next to Mr Graham’s grandstanding on the Republican side, all the Democrats stood out with understatement and quiet professionalism. They deserve to be named: Mr Whitehouse, Mrs Klobuchar, Mrs Harris, Mrs Hirono, Mr Booker, Mr Blumenthal, Mr Coons.

The Republicans, led by Mr Lindsey Graham, have swallowed Mr Trump’s bullying to such an extent as to behave like his ever faithful minions- the notable exception being Sen. Flake, who has maintained his independence. The slavish attitude of his colleagues alone was a disgraceful spectacle, as it’s inspired by fear- and fear there was on the Republican side, ill disguised by Mr Graham’s contrived outburst (he was chuckling about it himself a few minutes later). He pulled his colleagues over the line, at the very moment when it became clear that they were afraid to call in the only potentially valuable witness- Mr Mark Judge- and when the Democrats caught Mr Kavanaugh in an outright lie: there is no sworn statement about the facts by Mr Judge in the file, only a brief letter signed by his lawyer. Mr Kavanaugh, as a highly experienced judge, must know the difference.

To European eyes, again, the Oscar for the slimiest performance goes to the final Republican intervening: Mr John Kennedy. His man-to-man, in the presence of God, look-me-in-the-eye-and-tell-me-the-truth approach was right out of a 1950s B-Western.  Does that really still work?

With the hearings behind us, and whatever the outcome of the process, here are a few simple facts to remember.

First, by accepting to be Mr Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Mr Kavanaugh also accepted to become an instrument of the president’s divisive and opportunistic policies. Everyone knows that Mr Trump holds no conservative or other values whatsoever. His forceful backing is, to my mind, about the worst moral recommendation imaginable.

Second, as to character– Mr Kavanaugh was clearly and understandably under great stress, but at times this revealed the belligerent, disrespectful and utterly spoiled teenager he must have been at the time of the alleged facts. If you pour a good quantity of beer on top of that, what could be the outcome? He seems to be Mr Nice Guy indeed with subordinates and equals, but does not stand to be contradicted by women and men who may be above him and may see through his self-proclaimed image. Sen. Hirono, referring tongue-in-cheek to temperament as an element of qualification, was right on point.

Third, and most importantly: Mr Kavanaugh, if / when on the bench of the Supreme Court, may do all he can to move the country to the far Right; but the more than fifty percent of the voters who preferred Mrs. Clinton over Mr Trump will simply not accept to live in a society where women’s rights are scaled back, where elections are sold out even more to corporate interests, where social security and health care will become even stingier, where sexual diversity is no longer recognized as a given, where immigration is again based on racial criteria as it was between the 1920s and the 1950s- the good old days of the cardboard cut-out, illusional America Mr Trump is peddling.

All Mr Kavanaugh will do, is to divide the country ever deeper between the educated and the know-nothings, between rich and poor, between black and white. Thank you, Mr Trump. Thank you, Mr Nice Guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER IN NEW YORK

 

hppics-ny-United Nations day
Millions of words have resounded under the dome on the left, capping the UN General Assembly Hall. A few worth remembering.

As a retired diplomat with a long track record with the United Nations, I always feel a pang of nostalgia when September comes and the General Assembly meets. Between 1985 and 2012, I was a regular participant.

It’s a curious mix of recollections: the start of the most beautiful season in New York confronted with the horrors of 9/11, the chaotic traffic in midtown Manhattan caused by the endless motorcades of visiting heads of state, the security around the UN compound- quite relaxed back in 1985 and gradually more invasive even for badge-holders, the lager or smaller groups of protesters confined behind police barricades on 47th street, and finally the humming atmosphere under the immense dome of the General Assembly hall, where one reconnects with colleagues from all over after the summer…

It’s a busy time for all diplomats who are hosting presidents and princes and ministers and countless hangers-on, from sometimes colorful parliamentarians to journalists out for scoops, such as a sneak preview of a speech. One runs around feeling important, at times irritated at this or that impossible request of a politician- but feeling very much that, for a few days at least, the UN is the centre of the planet, as originally intended, and one is part of it all.

Then the debates start- that is to say, the endless series of monologues from the green marble rostrum of the hall. Brazil always opens the series- a tradition since the founding of the UN in San Francisco in 1945. The US president, representing the host country, always gets the second slot. As they speak,  diplomats are still trying to swap places for a somewhat better slot for their own politician, so as to avoid having her or him face a mostly empty hall at 7 pm on the next Friday. Not good for one’s career-  so hand out day passes to family and friends to come and applaud.

It was my privilege to hear a few remarkable statements from that rostrum ( just a few, mind you, over a twenty-seven year period), and I have stood there myself, reporting as negotiator on Law of the Sea issues- speaking to a room not too empty, taking in the vast space, feeling for ten minutes or so to be standing at the very focal point of the universe- with an utterly boring statement, imposed by the necessities of consensus-building. I often say to myself now that I should have made better use of my ten minutes.

US presidential statements I have heard and seen live from all White House tenants from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.

Of course, yesterday I tuned in for Mr Trump’s second performance. His standing at the podium always brings a moment of terribly missing Mr. Obama. It’s not just the change from a young Black man to an old White man. Mr Trump read his prompters fairly well, although missing the rhythm of his delivery here and there when the last word of a sentence was at the prompter on the wrong side, or so it felt. He provoked some brief hilarity when claiming more achievements than any administration in US history- but he himself chuckled, knowing full well that he was talking BS.

As a long-time speechwriter for such occasions myself, I tend to dissect the texts. This one was two speeches in one, from different pens. The glorification of universal patriotism was clearly in contradiction with the oratory flourish about human achievements at the end: we know all too well what exaggerated patriotism leads to, and what it does to common humanity. Just watch the news every day.

After the two opening statements, the series quickly sinks in monotony. A few colorful statements may still follow, such as the ones from Muammar Khadafi and Hugo Chavez in their times, both silenced now. Is it just my impression, or are politicians everywhere more and more colorless? I will grant that Mr Trump’s one merit is that he brings some color indeed, and a few weeks ahead of the flamboyant color peak of the trees upstate.

One of the advantages of climbing the ladder of promotions as a UN diplomat, is that one may send a younger colleague to occupy the bench to take notes and to report on the highly relevant pronouncements, say, of the president of Zambalambia about the effects of polar climate change at the Equator, how nuclear disarmament will affect the fate of the national bird, on the proper place of women in society, and the achievements of his country’s literacy program.

Outside, the flags of all UN member states along First Avenue are being lowered at dusk- earlier already now, as the sun has long disappeared behind the midtown skyscrapers and is setting at Newark.

Back in the hotel suites, diplomats are reassuring their politician that his statement was, indeed, remarkable.

MULTICULTURALISM, SET IN STONE

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Yesterday my son and I visited the famous mosque of Cordoba. We live a few hours’ drive away, but it’s worth the time. The mosque is, together with the Alhambra in Granada, one of the most impressive remaining landmarks of Islamic culture in Spain.

I should correct myself immediately. The building is officially known as the mezquita-catedral. Built at the height of the Cordoba caliphate, between the 8th and the10th centuries, as of the taking of the city by the Christians in the 13th century, the building has been the cathedral of the bishop of the city.

The architectural interventions of the new lords tell a story that’s very interesting for all of us today. More about that a little further. But while exploring the building, I came upon a curious parallel. At the opposite end of Europe, in Istanbul, the opposite of the Cordoba story happened, a few centuries later. When sultan Mehmet took Constantinople (1453), he inherited, with the rest of the city, the most impressive Byzantine church, the Hagia Sophia. The church was turned into a mosque, of course.

How did the transformation happen in both cases?

In Istanbul, the Ottoman rulers covered the Byzantine mosaics of Hagia Sophia with a thick layer of plaster ( they would be partly rediscovered only centuries later). They added minarets to the building- but their interventions in the interior were rather limited. One of the reasons was apparently that the conquering sultan, in the arrogance of the moment, had entered the church on horseback, but was so impressed with the space and the atmosphere that he dismounted and showed respect.

The Christians in Cordoba became much more heavy-handed. The conversion of the mosque into a church started out rather modestly with the addition of chapels along the outside walls- but then the high renaissance and the baroque came along, with a rather tasteless display of architectural arrogance planted smack in the middle: a high dome with the unavoidable display of gold and colored marble, saints and martyrs and putti flying off in all directions far overhead, and a massive organ for the corresponding soundtrack. A shaft of bright light invaded the core of soft semi-darkness of the columned halls. The light, too, feels like a statement: away with your obscurantism!- as if Christian truth, in the times of the Inquisition at that, was any less shadowy.

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The mosque had been a a display of architectural understatement: letting pure space and faultless geometry speak – or rather whisper- for itself. The conquerors wouldn’t have that. They had to show a thing or two. But even emperor Charles V, when he inspected the result, called it a sad mistake and is quoted as saying you’ve turned something exceptional into something commonplace. And so it remains.

When one examines in detail some of the points where the moorish and the catholic architecture intersect, one sees almost moving details where the first interventions were more respectful. There are a few instances where both architectures blend gracefully and even harmoniously, where the double arches of the mosque and the gothic ogives of the early church coexist or even embrace, long before the Saint Superman invasion occurred,

catedral-altar-mayor

What does this tell us about multiculturalism today? Well for one thing- as has been the case for more than a millennium, the pendulum between East and West, between Christianity and Islam, between Cordoba and Istanbul, is still swinging over Europe. There is no escaping it. But it can be handled in different ways.

The first thing to note: both the Cordoba mosque and Hagia Sophia church are standing, in spite of the respective conquests. Their survival is already a miracle. So there was a measure of respect in both cases. The Ottomans maintained their conquered building as a mosque, but already in the 1930s, the – wisely agnostic- Turkish Republic made it a museum- no longer a place of worship. That’s a striking contrast with Cordoba, where the Catholic church is holding on to the building tooth and nail, and till relatively recently has been adding to the christian symbols rather than to reduce them, for even a bit of cultural or religious conviviality.  Some of the christian stuff on display is as kitschy as it gets. Being of catholic heritage, of course I recognize all of it- but next to the architectural grandeur of the original structure, it’s indeed, as Charles V himself said, quite sad.

Islam came much after Christianity, and the Cordoba alterations say out loud: we’ll show you whose truth is the strongest. It was preaching to the choir, though, as muslims had been expelled from the entire new kingdom of Spain. By contrast, Islam as a whole – even as a conquering religion- was more tolerant. Over five hundred years, the Ottoman Empire showed the best example of religious conviviality ever achieved. That’s why its carving up by the joint efforts of the British and the French after World War I has left us with such a bloody mess in the Middle East, a patchwork of artificial states and mutually murderous religions and sects.

Both the Spanish Church and the Vatican have repeatedly rejected any suggestion to allow muslims to pray in the cathedral. It’s all good and well to pretend that there is only one god- but in practice that has proven difficult to uphold. And if one considers how Christianity treated its own precursor religion- the Jewish faith- one has to agree that Islam scores better in terms of moral elegance, accepting even Jesus up to a point.

There have been a few half-violent incidents with fanatic muslims inside the Cordoba building as recently as 2010, but by and large the peace is kept and vigilance when we visited was hardly noticeable- probably done very professionally, undercover. There were only a few visitors or families of recognizable muslim culture. They were looking for the right background for their selfies, avoiding saints, crosses and martyrs. It’s still possible, a question of finding the right angle…

Of course I completely reject the idea that the church should be returned to muslim worship. I also feel it’s wrong stubbornly to maintain it as a cathedral. Like the Hagia Sophia at the other end of where the pendulum swings over Europe, it should simply be a museum: illustrating past achievements and mistakes alike, showing contrasts and fleeting moments of harmony. Welcoming all as guests and human beings, and please leave your god at the gate for an hour or so, if you can.

I know: such idealism stands little chance in today’s polarized Europe of teenage jihadists and populist crusaders, competing in ignorance. Maybe a few centuries from now.