I listened this morning to part of Mr. Trump’s press availability with the president of Italy. Parts of it were maddening. I’ll illustrate with just one:
“They’ve been fighting for a thousand years,” he said.
Now, I don’t expect any American president to be an expert on the history of the Near East, but this sort of sloppy populist nonsense serves only to obfuscate and mislead.
Who is the “they”?
The modern Republic of Turkey, for example, dates back to 1922. That’s less than a century ago. The Republic replaced the Ottoman Empire, which began essentially around AD 1300. That’s slightly more than 700 years ago. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople, which become Istanbul (Turkey’s largest city), in AD 1453. That’s just somewhat more than 500 years ago.
A thousand years ago, in AD 1019, the Macedonian dynasty ruled the Byzantine Empire, and (thus) the region, from Constantinople. They were Greek-speaking Christians. Specifically, in that year, the emperor was Βασίλειος Βʹ ὁ Βουλγαροκτόνος, Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer.”
Let’s look at Ankara, the capital of the Republic of Turkey. A thousand years ago, “Ancyra” was ruled by the Christian Byzantine Empire. Somewhere between AD 1073 and 1081, it fell into the hands of the Danishmendid Turks and then Seljuk Turks (two dynasties quite distinct from the Ottomans). By roughly 1081, though, it was back under Byzantine Christian control. But only briefly. For the next while, it changed hands back and forth between the Danishmendids and the Seljuks. For a period during the era of the Mongols, Ankara was independent. Then the Ottomans retook it. Then the Persianized Mongol Timur took it for a short time. Then the Ottomans got it back in 1403.
These are utterly distinct groups. There is no monolithic “they.”
Statements like Mr. Trump’s are merely expressions of blithely indifferent ignorance. They remind me of the casual comment, often made about the Arab-Israeli conflict, that, “oh well, they’ve been fighting each other since Abraham.” No! Not so! The Arab-Israeli conflict emerged specifically out of the clash of two modern rival nationalisms, Arab and Jewish (Zionist), that were competing for the same small territory. They don’t go back, in any significant way, into antiquity.
Ah, but there are much better things to talk about, even as regards the Middle East, than the current catastrophe that Mr. Trump has brought down upon the Kurds.
I was fascinated to read Elder Holland’s account of the early history of the effort to build BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Nobody was more centrally involved in that effort than Jeffrey Holland, who was the president of BYU at the time. I can’t, of course, confirm the intriguing Salt Lake City end of the story. But anybody familiar with the fractious factional politics of Israel will have little trouble imagining the Middle Eastern end. Anybody who knows the remarkable site on which it sits will have little problem when our acquisition of that stunning property is described as a “miracle.” And anyone who followed the bitter controversies that swirled about the building of the Center understands full well how amazing its eventual completion was.