Crusaders in the Holy Land: A Unique Civilization

The Crusades have long been a contentious topic, and over the years scholarship has largely fallen into two camps: those that view this enterprise as European aggression (Ur-colonialism) and those that view it as a response to relentless Muslim aggression. The former view tends to predominate, especially in popular culture, where films, television shows and novels favor the trendy explanation of the Levant falling victim to “European violence.” Given the wide reach of media, such simplistic views have become “settled history.” Various efforts are made to counter this ideological reading of the Crusades (and the Middle Ages in general), but with little effect. The mainstream narrative yet holds sway, and in the popular mind the Crusades are evidence of innate European belligerence unleashed upon the world. One of the major problems with this narrative approach is Presentism, which then poses the “East” and the “West” as two irreconcilable monoliths that can only but continually clash. Saner scholarship recognizes the silliness of such an approach and has slowly been trying to make a difference by showing that the medieval world was neither ignorant nor parochial, and in which violence was more controlled than in our own day. The most recent example of such scholarship is Helena P. Schrader’s latest book, The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilization, 1100-1300.

This eloquent book is a comprehensive narrative history of a unique Christian civilization in Palestine—the Crusader States. It is also a noble and honest effort to “set the record straight,” by presenting the entirety of the crusading effort as one of interaction, in which the East and the West met and fashioned a unique civilization. In the words of Schrader:

“While historians of past centuries portrayed the Latin Christians living in these states as a tiny, urban elite afraid to venture into the countryside out of fear of their subjects, there is a growing consensus among the scholars of the twenty-first century that the majority of the population was Christian, not Muslim, and that the degree of intermingling and tolerance between Latin and Orthodox Christians was much higher than had been assumed” (xxxiv).

Towards this end, the book seeks to be as meticulous and well-researched as possible, in which it aptly succeeds. It begins with a 24-page chronology that details the history of the Levant within the context of Christianity (which brought Catholics, commonly known as the “Franks” or “Latins,” into the region, who then established various principalities, or “Crusader States,” which were politically linked with each other and with Europe) and Islam (which eventually gave the Turks enduring dominance in the Holy Land).

The book is divided into two parts, wherewith the analysis moves from the larger to the particular. Thus, Part I, “A Short History of the Crusader States,” describes the process through which the Franks came to the Levant and set up religious, political, cultural and military structures which would ensure that the Holy Land would remain territory essential and important to the Christian faith. This meant the establishment of permanent settlements, or what later became known as the “Crusader States,” or “Outremer” (“Overseas”), as the people of that time called this settlement. Schrader carefully traces the course that needed to be followed to ensure success in this undertaking, and as such follows the rise and fall of the Crusader States, from 1099 (when Jerusalem came under Frankish rule) to 1291 when Acre fell and Frankish influence contracted and eventually disappeared from the region.

The importance of Part I is that it gives the reader a thorough understanding of the complexity of the Crusades in their entirety, while never neglecting the dynamics at play in the Muslim world, where Mongol, Turk and Egyptian rivalries held sway. It is truly commendable that Schrader offers an all-inclusive review of the forces in contention in the Levant over a two-hundred-year period. What emerges is the real picture of the Crusades—that they were a massive investment of effort, talent, money and most of all of faith which allowed for a unique civilization to emerge and flourish, becoming an envy of the world in so many ways.

It is the quality and quantity of this “Crusader” or “Frankish” civilization that Schrader turns to in Part II of her book, which is sub-titled, “A Description of the Crusader States.” Here, Schrader really comes into her own as she takes the reader on a captivating “journey” into the world of Outremer. Each chapter presents facts and analysis, so that a lot of the popular myths about the Crusades are laid to rest. For example, we learn that the population of the Levant was predominantly Christian and not Muslim, as widely and mistakenly assumed. Indeed, the Christian population of what is now known as the Middle East and even Central Asia was heavily Christian. It was only in the fourteenth century that the Christians of the East were methodically annihilated, and the area became what it is today—the final chapter of this annihilation was the Armenian Genocide (which occurred in two parts: 1890-1909 and 1915-1917). Of course, this topic lies outside the scope of Schrader’s book.

Next, Schrader examines the complex polity that emerged in Outremer, the concept of the “nation-state,” which of course had a direct influence on the life of the West in the centuries ahead, down to our own time, where the nation-state is the prime form of civilization. In other words, Outremer was a two-hundred-year long success story—it was hardly colonial “occupation.” The reason for this success, as Schrader shows, is the stability of the institutions that were rather quickly established, such as the very effective judiciary, in which the Muslim peasantry prospered (unlike Muslim peasantry in Islamic-run jurisdictions), as well as the establishment of churches and monasteries which allowed culture, learning and the Christian faith to flourish, especially the ease of pilgrimage (which led to the rise of Holy Land “tourism,” and all of the support industries that tourists need).

Diplomacy was another key component of the success of Outremer, whereby a balance of power was effectively achieved and maintained between the various rivals, namely, Mamluk Egypt, the debilitated Byzantine rule, the many fiefdoms of the Turks, and the Mongol Empire. It was the Crusader States who “micro-managed” this balancing act, so that trade between the East and the West flourished, despite the ambitions of particular rulers: “The willingness… to treat with the religious and strategic enemy on a short-term tactical basis meant that de facto peace reigned in the crusader states far more frequently than war” (193) , because “the Franks maintained sophisticated and largely effective diplomatic relations with all the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean” (196).

As Schrader also points out, the Levant was a backwater before the Crusaders came—but because the land was holy to Christianity, it saw a massive input that transformed the region into a going concern: “Investment into infrastructure revitalised the rural economy and enabled the expansion of trading networks. Existing cities grew, and ancient cities such as Caesarea and Ramla, which had gone to ruin, were revived. Indeed, entire new settlements and villages were built. The larger cities, such as Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli and Antioch, became booming urban centres with larger populations than the capitals of the West. Not until the mid-thirteenth century did Western European cities start to compete in size with the cities of the Latin East” (197).

As well, this investment returned strategic importance: “Most importantly, the Franks connected the traditional oriental trade routes with the growing, increasingly prosperous and luxury-hungry markets of Western Europe” (198). The reason for this flourishing trade was the building of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and water management. Trade agreements were struck and banking practices introduced, which then led to manufacturing. Sugar, textiles (especially silk, samite and siqlatin), soap, wine, olive oil, leather goods, glass were all manufactured in the Crusader States.

Given this revitalization program, agriculture returned to this land long considered barren, so that cities began to flourish, and a distinct Outremer culture emerged, such as icon painting, book production, shrines and holy places where the faithful came in droves to receive blessing in the land trodden by God Himself, as the famous 13th century Palestinalied (Song of Palestine) relates: “Ich bin komen an die stat,/ dâ got menischlîchen trat (I am come to the city where God trod as a man).” This spiritual “currency” lay at the heart of this region, a “currency” that could never be depleted. And here the work of charity was paramount, which saw the building of hospitals, caravanserais, inns, as well as monasteries, churches and many chapels by confraternities and monastic orders.

The cities themselves were well-planned, with effective sewage systems, baths and even flushing toilets. Trade supplied the many open-air and enclosed markets. There were orchards and gardens surrounding each city, with aqueducts, pools and fountains to supply water. It is important to note that many of these cities were not fortified—that is, they did not lie inside protective walls—cities such as Nazareth, Hebron, Nablus and Ramla. This detail is important—for it points to the fact that life was, in fact, very peaceful, which flies in the face of the usual and popular trope of Crusader brutality.

But this not to say that the military aspect was not important, for defense was necessary, given the endless ambitions of the rulers of the time (Mongol, Mamluk and Turk). Thus, Frankish Levant saw the emergence of unique castle styles, chief and most impressive of which was the concentric castle, the best examples of which is Krak de Chevaliers and Belvoir which overlooks the Jordan valley (“Belvoir” in Old French means, “Good view”).

Frankish architecture was unique also because it did not destroy what originally existed: “Beyond their sheer scale and number, one of the most striking features of these various projects was the degree to which the Franks sensitively and respectfully incorporated the remains of earlier buildings into their renovation projects. In sharp contrast to the prevailing view of crusaders as bigoted barbarians, when it came to architecture, the crusaders sought to preserve rather than destroy. This was true of Muslim structures as well as Christian ones” (233).

One of the greatest achievements of Outremer was its art and its literature, both little known and studied. There survives, for example, the exquisite Melisende Psalter, with its illustrations that perfectly combine Byzantine, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic and Latin elements to produce a style that is original to Outremer. And then there are the frescoes of the 12th century Church of St. Jeremiah at Abu-Ghosh (the biblical Emmaus), which are the finest expression of Crusader art (despite their Byzantine “look”), although they now survive in a much damaged condition.

This comprehensive book ends with the history of the Ibelin family who typify the kinds of people that came to Outremer and made it the splendorous civilization that it was: “…while the Ibelins were undoubtedly exceptionally successful, they were also in many ways typical. They embodied the overall experience, characteristics and ethos of the Franks in the Holy Land. They came from obscure, probably non-noble origins, and the dynasty’s founder can be classed as an ‘adventurer’ and ‘crusader’. They rapidly put down roots in the Near East, intermarrying with native Christian and Byzantine elites. They were hardened and cunning fighting men able to deploy arms and tactics unknown to the West and intellectuals who could win wars with words in the courts. They were multilingual, cosmopolitan and luxury-loving, as comfortable in baths as in battles” (267).

But why did this great civilization in the Holy Land end, after two hundred years of great success? The answers are as varied as the scholars who seek to give a response to this question. Schrader is accurate in her own conclusion—that Outremer was a victim of its own success. Because it was such a “shining city on the hill,” others fought to possess it. But more tragically, the bane of Frankish rule was the incessant in-fighting, where factions vied for power and where loyalty was circumscribed by personal ambition. As well, the latter rulers had divided loyalty—they were more interested in maintaining their holdings and influence in Europe than looking after what previous generations had built in the Holy Land. It is that old cycle of civilization—the generations that inherent wealth effectively waste it and lose it.

And the legacy of Outremer? This is how Schrader summarizes it: “… the crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law” (305).

For its scope, its depth and its variety of subject matter, this book truly succeeds as a work of exceptional narrative history. By glancing at the past, we may well learn something about the narrowness of our own age.


C.B. Forde confesses to being a closet history buff, that is whenever he can tear himself away from the demands of the little bit of land that he cultivates.


Featured: The Last Judgment, a fresco in the Church of St. Jeremiah (Emmaus), in Abu-Ghosh, Israel; painted in the latter parts of the 12th century.

The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades

Helena P. Schrader has just published a very important book that we encourage you to read. It is The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations, which counters common misconceptions and prevailing popular myths about the crusader states by demonstrating that religious tolerance rather than fanaticism, intellectual activity rather than warfare, and cultural exchange rather than bigotry characterized these unique societies. It is a fabulous and comprehensive history of the Latin East.

Helena Schrader holds a PhD in history from the University of Hamburg, which she earned with a ground-breaking biography of a leader of the German Resistance to Hitler. She served as an American diplomat in Europe and Africa, and since her retirement works as an independent scholar. Her areas of expertise are ancient Sparta, the Crusader States and the Second World War. She has also published six novels set in the Latin East. You can find out more at her website.

Please support Dr. Schrader’s valuable work by purchasing a copy of this unique book. To get you going, here is an excerpt.

Because of the ignorant or irresponsible misuse of the term “crusader” and “crusades” by politicians, journalists and Islamist terrorists, long-discredited theories from the last century about the crusades have been perpetuated with thoughtless references and careless comparisons. This shallow and sensationalist – not to mention intellectually lazy – commentary drowns out the voices of serious scholars. As a result, most of the public today believes that the crusades and the crusader states were characterised by bigotry, racism and brutality aimed at the oppression and destruction of the native peoples of the Near East.

Yet, the picture of the crusader states that scholars have meticulously pieced together based on contemporary chronicles, data mining and archaeology does not corroborate these popular assumptions. Instead, the historical record provides concrete evidence of Frankish tolerance, adaptability, peaceful co-existence and cooperation with the various peoples inhabiting the Middle East. For example, from the moment they arrived in Antioch, the crusaders preserved, cherished and expanded the Arab libraries they discovered. Rather than destroying mosques and synagogues, the crusaders either repurposed them or allowed them to continue to operate, preserving these architectural monuments for posterity. Furthermore, the crusaders allowed Jews, Samaritans and Muslims to build new houses of worship. They allowed these religious groups to live according to their laws and publicly celebrate their religious festivals without interference.

Likewise, from the First Crusade onwards, the Franks recognised and respected the Orthodox clergy, at times taking Orthodox priests for their confessors and consistently sponsoring the re-establishment and restoration of Orthodox churches and monasteries. As a result, Greek monasteries flourished and expanded, particularly around Jerusalem, in Antioch and Sinai.

The hospitals of one of the crusading orders, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, employed doctors of any religion. In the luxurious wards, patients of all religions were treated equally as “lords” by members of an order that viewed themselves as “serfs” of the poor.

The courts sought to ensure that anyone accused of a crime was judged by his peers following local custom rather than an alien legal code. Civil and criminal conflicts between members of different ethnic and religious groups were adjudicated in accordance with the law of the defendant.

Absent from the popular image of crusaders and the crusader states are the more than one hundred truces and the many alliances across religious borders. Likewise, the native Christians who worked as scribes, customs officials, merchants and manufacturers, both forming the administrative backbone of and contributing materially to the economic prosperity of the Holy Land have been erased from popular history by the simplistic popular picture of the crusader states. Invisible too are the Arabic and Syriac-speaking native Christian infantry and archers that made up the bulk of the Frankish armies, even though these fighting men saved the crusader states from destruction on multiple occasions.

The popular picture of the crusader states does not include the icon workshops, mass book production, or a society that rewarded knowledge of the law as assiduously as skill with the sword. Forgotten are the Muslims who sought refuge in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Mongol invasion of Syria and the Jews who immigrated to the Kingdom of Jerusalem because it was an oasis of tolerance in an anti-Semitic world. The historical reality of Templars hosting the Ayyubid princes in their Acre headquarters in 1244 and Frankish noblemen translating Arab poetry into French is obscured by Hollywood depictions of Templars shouting for Muslim and Jewish blood and Frankish noblemen slaughtering unarmed Muslims.

Yet, it is not only the need to correct common misconceptions that make the study of the crusader states rewarding. These kingdoms, sitting on the crossroads of civilizations, were established by newcomers from the West who were compelled to adapt rapidly to their new environment or face extinction. Not only did they adapt, but they evolved into a unique hybrid society that mixed European culture with Near Eastern traditions. This was not a matter of imitating—much less “stealing”—technology, art or ideas from more sophisticated neighbours. It was a matter of developing new and innovative products, forms and concepts. In doing so, the Franks of Outremer made significant contributions to the evolution of European society, stimulating advancement across a range of fields.

The most obvious innovations came in the field of warfare. From the adoption of surcoats to the construction of concentric castles, the confrontation between the armies of the Middle East and Western Europe led to significant military advances. The Franks pioneered Western use of mounted archers, evolved the fighting box (combined arms warfare), and in the military orders, rediscovered the value of professional and disciplined regular forces. They perfected the massed charge of heavy cavalry yet also effectively exploited light cavalry in reconnaissance and hit-and-run raids. Finally, they deployed archers behind shield walls to good effect, while Frankish crossbows represented cutting-edge technology. In his study of crusader warfare, Steve Tibble concludes that “warfare in the east was a crucible of innovation for European warfare.”

The architecture of the Franks was unique and not only regarding castles. Frankish domestic architecture combined such Western features as outward-oriented multistorey structures, high ceilings, large windows, loges and balconies with Arab and Byzantine artisanry, such as inlaid marble, glazed tiles, running fountains and intricate decoration. The result was gracious and sunlit structures that used local products such as glass windows, glazed tiles and polychrome marble. Frankish houses included fireplaces with hoods that reduced smoke accumulation (a Western feature) and sophisticated plumbing systems of cistern-fed ceramic pipes feeding into centrally-planned sewage systems (an Eastern feature).

As noted earlier, hospitals as institutions for healing the sick and injured evolved in the Holy Land in the crusader era, based on Byzantine and Arab precedents. Along with hospitals came advances in medicine and progress towards the professionalization of medical practitioners and the protection of patients from malpractice. The Frankish states provided a meeting place for physicians from various cultures, and Antioch became a centre for the study and development of medical theory.

International banking was another field significantly advanced by the Frankish presence in the Levant. The need for cash transfers over enormous distances fostered the evolution of letters of credit, cheques, currency exchange and other financial services previously unknown, at least not on such a scale.

Last but not least, the Franks contributed to constitutional law. Nowhere else in the medieval world was interest in and discussion of the concept of good governance, the rule-of-law and the monarch’s role carried to such heights of sophistication or conducted on as wide a scale as in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-thirteenth century. In no other kingdom did so many noblemen of a single era study and write about the law, let alone serve as advocates in the courts. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was also exceptional for the number of men of lower social standing who gained prominence through legal expertise. The inclusion of the commons in governing assemblies was equally innovative and progressive, albeit limited. Yet most important was the advocacy and defence of key constitutional concepts such as the monarchs’ subordination to the constitution and the right to due process. In defending these principles against the authoritarianism of Frederick II, the rebels of Outremer undoubtedly influenced the English parliamentary reformer, Simon de Montfort. They deserve credit for their steadfast opposition to tyranny.

The Frankish states of the Levant were not paradise. Even if not perpetually on the brink of collapse, they were vulnerable. They were subject to frequent small-scale attacks, periodic invasions and were ultimately destroyed by warfare. In the thirteenth century, they also suffered from absentee monarchs, political intrigue, and factional infighting. Yet, they were neither fragile constructs doomed to failure nor genocidal, apartheid regimes established by barbarians to oppress enlightened natives.

The evidence is overwhelming—preserved in stone and meticulously documented by Arab, Greek, Syrian and Jewish sources no less than in the Latin and French chronicles: The crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law. They brought forth a vivid, multicultural society in which tolerance outweighed bigotry. As such, the crusader states’ contribution to the evolution of European culture deserves more attention and appreciation as we struggle to integrate diverse cultures in our own time.


Featured: Knight, Westminster Psalter (BL Royal MS 2 A xxii f. 220); 13th century.

Iran: “Hijab Crisis,” Or Color Revolution?

In Iran, riots and mass protests continue for a third week. The Western globalist media wrote that this was caused by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was allegedly killed by the vice squad for not wearing a headscarf (in Iran, girls and women are required by law to cover their heads). However, according to official reports, she suffered a heart attack at the police station [vax status? Ed]. She was taken to the hospital, but could not be saved. The rest of the details are not known, because the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. In addition, a large number of fakes appeared on social networks and in foreign publications.

The incident with the girl occurred on September 16. By September 18, mass protests and riots began. A security officer was killed by a mob of unidentified people, and four young Iranians were also killed by protesters during the clashes. Clearly, the situation was deliberately escalating.

In the following days, the protests spread to a number of cities in Iran. Women were demonstratively tearing scarves from their heads. There were reports of weapons being seized. A video shared on social media showed rioters throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars and beating police officers. Footage has also emerged of the crowd chanting “Long Live Shah Pahlavi.” Such chants are surprising because the vast majority of Iranians today don’t remember the times of the Pahlavi dynasty (the Shah fled the country during the 1979 Islamic Revolution; and it was the repressive nature of the Shah’s regime that was the key to that Revolution’s success).

This scenario resembles the events in Libya which also began with a small incident and then developed into political actions (monarchist banners appeared immediately), and then civil war. Similar developments also took place in Iran, during the presidential elections, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for a second term.

After Mahsa Amini’s death, the “green movement” in Iran, by way of social networks, called for mobilization and mass protests. By September 22, it was known that 61 ambulances had been destroyed by vandals. By the second week, more than forty deaths were known. By the third week, the number of victims was close to a hundred.

Hijab Riots

Across Iran, ordinary women and public figures, including Iranian actresses, removed their headscarves in protest or cut their hair in public to show solidarity with the demonstrators. We do not have complete statistics on criminal and misdemeanor crimes in Iran. However, we can assume that there are the usual incidents, with the deaths of offenders, as well as cases of abuse of power by members of the executive branch. But in this case there is a deliberate promotion of the theme of “the victim and the bad officials.” In general, the Arab Spring in Tunisia began with a similar episode. In the case of Iran, it is also indicative that the protesters are not demanding to “get the culprits,” but are blaming the authorities in general; that is, their actions are directed against the Supreme Leader of Iran and the rahbar institution, which represents the spiritual authorities that are above secular bodies.

Leaving aside the emotional factor, as well as the socio-political turmoil in Iran (which is less than it was a year ago), one should pay attention to the geopolitical context and international relations. In Iran, the wave of protests began immediately after the SCO summit in Samarkand, where Iran was accepted as a full member of the organization.

In addition, Iran is currently working on adjusting a number of laws in accordance with the norms of the EAEU, in order to move from a free trade zone to full membership. Numerous agreements have been signed with Russia, including the supply of natural gas to Iran and the use of the country for transit to the neighboring Republic of Pakistan, which is also interested in Russian energy resources. Cooperation in infrastructure and military-technical cooperation is also being enhanced. The appearance of Iranian kamikaze drones by the Russian army conducting the operation in Ukraine has also changed the situation on the front in favor of Russia.

Let us note another interesting fact: Albania officially severed diplomatic relations with Iran. The reason given was a cyber attack that allegedly had been carried out by Iranian special services on the infrastructure of Albania. But, in fact, this is a double-edged case. There are training camps in Albanian territory of the terrorist organization, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, who advocate the overthrow of the Iranian government. In particular, they spread propaganda and conduct cyber operations against Iran. It is likely that retaliation by Iranian security forces, or hackers, against the Mojahedin Organization servers led to cascading effects that affected other elements of critical infrastructure. Microsoft was involved in the investigation of the cyber incident in Albania.

In addition, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is nearing resolution. Russia fully supports Tehran on this issue. The EU states are also interested in returning to the state of affairs before the imposition of new sanctions by the U.S. Only Washington is still stubborn, which is explained by the close ties between the U.S. and Israel. Normalization of relations has also been noted with Saudi Arabia, a longtime antagonist of Iran. Taken together, these factors indicate a significant strengthening of Iran in the region in recent times, despite continuing U.S. sanctions.

This raises the question—who benefits from a crisis or coup d’état in Iran?

Neighboring Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Iraq are hardly interested in a serious deterioration of the political climate in their neighboring country, because any unrest could spill over to them. But there are other actors who would benefit from any crisis in Iran.

First of all, Israel, Britain and the United States are not interested in increasing the role and status of Iran. Israel and the U.S. have been outspoken about the need to overthrow the “ayatollah regime” in Iran. For Israel, because of security and ties of Palestinian groups and the Lebanese Hezbollah to the Iranian government. The U.S., because of the idée fixe of establishing a Western liberal democracy.

We should add that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Representatives of this organization are constantly and groundlessly accused by Washington of planning and organizing unlawful acts and threatening U.S. interests.

Finally, the victim-heroine of the protests was a native of the Kurdish region of Iran, which adds both a regional and Kurdish factor to the story, since a number of Kurdish organizations have subversive activities against the Iranian government, from political propaganda to organizing attacks on border guards and security forces. Given the long-standing Israeli and U.S. ties with the Kurds of Iraq, as well as the ability to manipulate social networks, we can assume that those concerned would be unlikely to miss the chance to use the girl’s death to foment discontent and social unrest.

In addition, the level and experience of the intelligence services of the above states allows us to conclude that only these three countries can conduct an operation of this level in another state. Reliable sources in Iran report increased activity of Zionist and Western propaganda inside Iran. A chain reaction has begun. These events will obviously go down in history as another attempt at a color revolution.


Leonid Savin, is Editor-in-Chief of the Geopolitika.ru Analytical Center, General Director of the Cultural and Territorial Spaces Monitoring and Forecasting Foundation and Head of the International Eurasia Movement Administration. This article appears through the kind courtesy of the Oriental Review.

A Measure of Western Double Standards

Yemen is not Ukraine. But in both places, there is war, coupled with human suffering. But how do the politicians react? How does the media react? How do the people in Berlin, Paris, London, or even in Zurich react? Gods may do what cattle may not… Two people may do the same thing, but it is never identical.

Donald Trump explained the U.S.-Saudi relationship to his supporters with his trademark beer-table humor: “I said to King Salman, ‘King, we’re protecting you. You wouldn’t last two weeks without us. You should pay for your military.” Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia in 2017, where he performed a traditional saber dance with the princes after striking a deal to supply more than a hundred billion dollars’ worth of arms. Trump tweeted at the time, “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

By that time, the Saudi Air Force had been bombing Yemen day-after-day, for two years. The Gulf monarchy, at the head of a military alliance of Arab countries, has been waging a war against Yemen since 2015. According to Riyadh, the war’s goal was to end the uprising by the Iran-backed Huthi militia “Ansar Allah” and restore the fled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi to office. In reality, however, Saudi King Mohammed Bin Salman is concerned with far more than the constitution and legality in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia regards the small southern neighbor as its backyard, where it must maintain order for geostrategic reasons. Since the middle of the last century, the Saudis have intervened militarily in Yemen six times. In the most recent intervention, the U.S., Britain and France provided most of the support.

Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world even before the war. It produces gas and oil, but its reserves are estimated at only 0.2 percent of the world’s proven reserves. Yemen, however, lies on the strait of Bab-al-Mandab, a strategic bottleneck between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and four million barrels of oil pass through there every day. Free passage is essential for the Gulf monarchies. The West is thus pursuing its well-known “vital interests” in Yemen. A bipartisan study for the attention of the U.S. Congress late last year listed the reasons for the war. “International terrorist groups” were operating in Yemen, it said, and a failed state of Yemen would not only pose a threat to shipping, but would also allow Iran “to threaten the borders of Saudi Arabia.”

The insurgent Huthi militias have taken control of much of the country since 2014. Their leaders were trained in Iran at the Islamic University of Qom. They are fighting Hadi’s government, as well as the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi Wahabis, who are spreading fundamentalist Islam in Yemen. However, as is the case throughout the Middle East, it is not a matter of “religious wars” between Shiites and Sunnis, but of political power-struggles fought along ethnic-confessional lines.

The Huthis belong to the Hashemites, an elite of political leaders and religious scholars who claim direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Until the proclamation of the republic in 1962, this tribal nobility had held political power for centuries. Western governments say they are convinced that the Huthis are being supplied with missiles and combat drones by Iran, despite an arms embargo and naval blockade of Yemen’s coasts. Tehran categorically rejects any involvement in the military action in Yemen.

Yemen had long been a country divided in two: the north under Turkish Ottoman rule and the south under British colonial rule. In the 1960s, the “non-aligned” nationalism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser radiated across the Arab world, throwing oil on the conflagration of independence movements. In 1962, a Republic of Yemen triumphed in the north over the old, semi-feudal tribal society. In 1967, a “People’s Democratic Republic” was proclaimed in the south. The north was oriented toward the West, while the south became a bridgehead for the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a reunification took place—almost simultaneously with the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany-which, similar to Germany, resulted in the extensive economic takeover of socialist southern Yemen by the capitalist north.

Yemen, a country torn apart

At that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh had already been president of northern Yemen for twelve years, and no one suspected that he and his clan would hold on to power for another two decades. Since the uprisings against Ottoman and British colonial rule in the last century, Yemen was long a torn country where power struggles were fought with military force, and political alliances and fronts changed constantly. Violent uprisings, coups and assassinations were almost the normal way of changing the government throughout these years. The tribes and their culture, their forms of jurisprudence and conflict management still carry more weight than the state judiciary, police and administration.

For 33 years, Saleh managed to play the clans and interest groups off against each other and to buy loyalties. When the so-called “Arab Spring” reached Yemen in 2011, the balance of power managed by Saleh collapsed, and all attempts to establish a reform government and a peaceful transition, mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the UN, failed. That was the moment when the Huthis began their political and military offensive. They were able to capture the capital Sanaa within a short period of time in 2014 and are steadily advancing further south.

In Yemen, despite all the denials on both sides, the power struggle between the U.S. and the ayatollahs’ Iran is being fought in a proxy war. In this respect, the Saudi fighter jets and helicopters from the U.S. are nothing more and nothing less than the military tool of Western geostrategy. Saudi Arabia is waging a preemptive war that costs it $200 million a day to prevent the enemy Iran from coming near the Saudi border, through its influence over the Huthis. Doesn’t this kind of reasoning sound kind of familiar since February 24, 2022?

But no Yemeni flags have been spotted on balconies in London or Paris. No accounts of Saudi businessmen have been frozen in Zurich. No school classes are singing in the streets of Berlin to raise money for Yemen, and no parliamentarian has traveled to Yemen to express dismay in front of the ruins of the air strikes. The West is always ready to manage conflicts that can be blamed on the Russians or the Chinese with great indignation. When it comes to its own wars, it is less precise about its indignation.


Dr. Helmut Scheben has worked as a press agency reporter and correspondent for print media in Mexico and Central America. From 1986 he was editor of the weekly newspaper (WoZ) in Zurich, and from 1993 to 2012 he was an editor and reporter on Swiss television SRF, including 16 years on the Tagesschau. This articles appears courtesy of Globalbridge.

East-West, Rootless in Ruins: A Conversation with Yves Lepesqueur

Yves Lepesqueur has worked in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran. A columnist for L’Atelier du roman, he is the author of a monograph, Les anciennes fêtes de printemps à Homs [The Ancient Spring Festival at Homs]. He has just published, Pourquoi les Libanaises sont séduisantes [Why Lebanese Women are Attractive: Twentieth Century Near Eastern History Very Briefly Explained to My Children], a book in which he examines the history of the Middle East in the 20th century as well as his concerns about uprooting that is taking place in Europe. He is in conversation with Shathil Nawaf Taqa.


Shathil Nawaf Taqa (SNT): The Lebanese woman symbolizes in your eyes the essence of oriental civilization—a paradoxical mixture of sensuality and asceticism. This description is reminiscent of Kuchuk Hanem, the inspiring alma mater of Flaubert, a novelist whom you also quote in your text. Wasn’t the oriental woman, sensual and mysterious, an orientalist myth?

Yves Lepesqueur (YL): It is fashionable to put Orientalists on trial by reproaching them for going to the East with Western concerns. However, when we go towards something, it is always with our own concerns, our own needs and questionings. It is absurd to imagine the opposite. It is the same for Orientals who come to the West with their own preoccupations. Thus, when one speaks with certain “progressive” Arabs, one often has the impression that for them the history of Europe begins in the eighteenth century. They see European culture only in terms of the dissatisfaction that their own culture inspires. They do not do any better than the Orientalists, who, of course, went to the East carrying the doubts, admitted or not, that European civilization was beginning to inspire in them. How could it be otherwise? A look always comes from the one who looks—there is no objective look.

Yves Lepesqueur, Isfahan (D.R.).

The question of objectivity is therefore irrelevant. The question that arises is that of loyalty. Do we invent? Do we refuse to see? Or does what we claim to see really exist, even if we perceive it according to our own subjectivity? If one doubts that oriental sensuality really exists, let’s go and see! By the way, it is curious that Arabs, progressive or Islamist, are today reluctant to recognize all that their civilization owes to the poetic or aesthetic elaborations of desire and sensuality. They are too eager to resemble serious American or Scandinavian puritans. This reluctance is an aspect of self-shame—which shows that my starting point is not so anecdotal.

The insight that put me on the track of this book was this—that the common representation of the so-called Westernization of the Middle East is radically false. It is not always the Western-looking people, especially the women, who are “Westernized”—the Islamists are much more so.

The “Lebanese women” in my title is a generic term that designates a certain way of being a woman, which can be found in the Maghreb, Syria, Egypt, etc., but which is particularly present in Lebanon. We are told: “These young oriental women, who are not afraid to seduce, are westernized.” I don’t believe this at all.

Evgeny Grouzdev, Portrait of a Lebanese Girl in White (2015).

What struck me was that the Lebanese women I worked with every day were extremely archaic, in the sense that they had no idea of succeeding in social life by becoming an engineer, for example. In fact, they were more interested in being beautiful, having fun, finding a rich enough husband, having beautiful children and a beautiful house. This vision is neither modern nor feminist; it refers to a very traditional conception of the role of women (which does not shock me at all). There was no reason to suppose a contradiction between their rather free dress and these conceptions that their grandmothers already shared—their taste to seduce did not come from a “Western modernization” but from a perenniality of the Eastern culture.

SNT: Is it not the dream of a Lamartine or a Hugo who come to seek in the East this ancient thing which had disappeared in the West?

YL: If they came to look for it there rather than in puritanical America, it is undoubtedly because it is there that they had some chance of finding it! What they may have discovered in the East is the richness of a perception of the world where one is sensitive to all the joys of this existence, which is expressed by a taste for beauty, perfumes, refined foods, beautiful and shimmering clothes—all that seduces the senses and delights the heart (even in the Koran, the sacrificial victim, to be accepted by God, must be “of a luminous yellow color that makes those who see it joyful.” One reads this without stopping; in truth, one only thinks one is reading).

But the more one loves this world, the more one is sensitive to its fragility—it will cease; all this is only a surface; it is necessary to turn towards what does not perish; towards the immaterial. These two aspects, sensuality and asceticism, weave together an infinitely moving vision of the world, because the beauty of the world is there; but at the same time, it can never be grasped; it flees towards a beyond. To love the world and not be satisfied with it—is this not the very principle of the human condition? This is why I wrote: “As long as we intend to remain human, the East remains our homeland.”

SNT: You have made the genealogy of the two postcolonial ideological corpuses of the Eastern world: nationalism and Islamism, which, according to you, are similar in that they seek to remedy the same problem—self-shame. The latter construct themselves in opposition to their recent past and put in place an identity-software that refuses the complexity of the Eastern identity. How can one access this complexity when one is inferiorized or under siege?

YL: To live complexity is not easy. That is why the anemic contemporary man cannot live it anymore!

By writing that the Orientals have renounced it, I am not giving myself the mission of telling them what to do or what not to do! I am simply trying to describe what has been. There was indeed a real shame of self, a rejection of the past, of heritage and tradition. There was a desire to be as strong as the West and a way of defining oneself in relation to the West; under its gaze in a way, in relation to this envied adversary. When I lived in Iran, I often thought that between the most conservative supporters of the Khomeinist regime and Iranians with a foot in California there was a common thread. They both asked themselves the same question when they woke up in the morning: “What about the West? Are we worth it? What are we worth against it? “

In such a mental climate, one no longer exists in relation to oneself, but in relation to another who is stronger and whose strength humiliates. This leads to a rejection of one’s own culture, which is almost always disguised as an ostentatious exaltation of that culture, which one actually denies. This is the principle of nationalism—one refuses the culture as it is around us and transmitted by our parents. One refers to a kind of unchanging ante-historic—the Arabs of the Umayyad period, for the Islamists, the Muslims of the Prophet’s time. Since we don’t know what the Arabs of the time of the Prophet or the Umayyads were like, we project onto them everything that we ourselves are—so, “I am like them, a true Arab, a true Muslim.”

The real heritage is what is transmitted from generation to generation; not what comes to us without intermediary from a generation of 1500 years ago. The heritage is everything that has been transmitted and transformed by all the generations that link and separate this distant past and our present. It is a living continuity, which, being living, is constantly transformed, but without rupture. We have access to it only through the last, and the last but one, generation that preceded us; those of our parents and grandparents.

The disguised modernisms—nationalism or Islamism (which is only a variety of nationalism), deny the fathers and forefathers we really knew, who seem too decadent, too underdeveloped, etc., and pretend to reconnect directly with an invented past, imagined according to the desires of the present; the first of which is the desire to be strong, to be a winner in this world.

In the meantime, we are ashamed of the country that our forefathers bequeathed to us, which translates in a very material way into the destruction of ancient cities, as Marwa Al-Sabouni showed in her very good book (The Battle for Home)—Orientals have become incapable of loving their cities with their inextricable alleys; so much so that in the past, foreigners who photographed them were suspected of doing so to make fun of them. The Orientals were no longer able to see the beauty of their living environment; they were ashamed of it. It was so unmodern! Nationalists, “secular” and Islamists, are equal in the vandalism and destruction of any beauty inherited from the past. It is a good starting point to understand that they are only the two heads of the same monster.

SNT: The history of modern Arab literature, as illustrated by the free verse poetry movement, shows a willingness to rediscover the literary heritage without devaluing the past; on the contrary. Wasn’t the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser rich in culture?

YL: I’m quite nuanced about the Nahda. Indeed, the Nahda (I use the word in a broad sense that allows me to include all the cultural movements up to the middle of the 20th century), even if it was already inspired by the desire to resemble Europe (to finally have trains, scientists, engineers, a literature of the self, to finally be “enlightened”), could also have had its fruitfulness. Indeed, it nourished a curiosity; it widened the intellectual horizons and thus gave rise to questionings which, in a certain way, brought back life and complexity—thus of “orientality.”

I will be more severe on the era of Nasser, the one in which the “nationalists in shoes” replaced and swept away the literate nationalists. The ideology of Nasserism and its equivalents in neighboring countries is perfectly summed up by that moment in Youssef Chahine’s film, The Sparrow, when we see a crowd chanting, “One heart, one soul!” Unanimity is hardly conducive to the life of the spirit! And nothing is more contrary to the civilization of the Near East which, in its Jewish, Christian and Muslim variants, has always shown a true genius for quarrelling, for disagreement, to which it owes much of its wealth.

No doubt there were still great writers, musicians, film-makers, etc. in Nasser’s time. But they were not born with that era; they had grown up in the previous period, when unanimity was not the norm. Culture is like agriculture—it is with a certain delay that we see what we have sown coming out of the ground. Look at France. It is now that we understand the effect of all the school reforms that have favored illiteracy—not at the time, fifty years ago, when this cycle of reform was initiated. To see the cultural effect of Nasserism, one must look not at the Egypt of the fifties and sixties but at the Egypt of the eighties; the desert, or very close to it.

That there were, as you recall, some great names of Arab culture in the twentieth century, is not enough to prevent that century from being a century of cultural collapse in the Arab world. To a certain extent, the same is true in Europe; whether this century had a Péguy or a Simone Weil does not prevent it from being the century of the collapse of European civilization. It is even for having seen and understood it first that certain authors are so precious to us.

In the East, it was worse; at least in some respects, because if popular culture and anthropological bases held up better than in Europe, on the other hand, intellectual production was not up to par. There is no Arab Simone Weil, no Péguy, no Bernanos, no Gunther Anders, no Michel Henry, and you can add the names you want.

Modernism, the fascination of the success of the other, has diverted Arab intellectuals from their own heritage. Or they have exalted it but without really feeding on it; simply wanting to make it an identity card that would allow them to enter the modern world with pride, like those scholars exalting the Arab science of the Middle Ages in which they see only an early approximation of what would later be modern Western science, whereas the speculative bases of this science were entirely different (which makes it not an outdated approximation but retains all its value, at least philosophically). Arab intellectuals have not been able to make use of the heritage to understand the present moment. Despite the many exceptions, the ignorance of Arabs, including educated ones, of the past cultural wealth of the Arab-Islamic world is astonishing. And those who claim to be the most religious are often the most ignorant.

You told me that Nasser had awakened the pride of peoples humiliated by Western domination. This is very true. I highlight in my book how much the interventions of the West had pushed the Middle East to despise itself, to deny itself. And no doubt Nasserism reawakened pride—Nasserism was an “Arab Pride,” as Islamism is a “Muslim Pride.”

But pride is not a response—it is a counterpart to humiliation, not a liberation from it. There is no ostentatious pride that is not nourished by resentment; that is to say, by a form of shame. This is why, as we see with feminist or homosexualist “prides,” the more one says one is proud, the more one says one is a victim, which is quite curious. And this attitude is not limited to these very visible manifestations. It is because we feel that France is disintegrating, forgetting itself, letting itself be forgotten by the world, that our nationalists say they are “proud to be French.” Our ancestors of the time of Saint Louis were not “proud to be French;” they were—and they hardly thought about it; but they were really. What matters is to be—not to proclaim a pride. The need to proclaim pride is in itself a very bad sign. When one seeks pride, one has a wound to heal; to seek pride is to continue to be obsessed by humiliation.

SNT: The Arab countries of the Gulf, on the periphery, experienced colonization from afar. They have been sheltered from post-colonial ideologies. But in the last ten years, consumerism has wreaked more havoc there than in the societies of the Near East that have lived through European colonization. They were less protected in the end.

YL: What protects against the present is the past, and what protects against consumerism is a culture that is not based on consumerism. Now, the Gulf countries have always been marginal in the oriental culture; the great centers were in Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, Isfahan, etc. The Gulf countries had less of a past to protect them. The culture of the Gulf, steeped in Bedouin way of life, is a marginal culture, extremely friendly, which I was able to experience during my stay in Arabia, but it is not a learned culture. Cultures that do not have intellectuals to defend them are vulnerable cultures. And when they die, all that is left is what the present offers.

I would add that our way of entering the future is always influenced by the past, even if we have abandoned it. The culture of the Arabian Peninsula has valued cheerfulness more than thought. The people of the Gulf are very cheerful, with a very pleasant character. They like parties, music and a certain drunkenness, and the pleasures of life. We find something of this in an extremely naive way of welcoming everything that the world of consumption offers, without asking questions.

You speak of a certain resentment towards Lebanon and the Lebanese, which can be explained in part by the fact that this country assumes itself, does not deny itself, and finally is the only one to accept this orientality of contradiction. But Lebanon is also a project maintained by a colonial power whose cultural expression was manifested by the establishment of the American University of Lebanon which was initially a missionary institute. Were Orientals not outraged by what was the most perfect cultural expression of foreign interference on their soil? That was the justification given.

In reality, Lebanon is not the only Middle Eastern state that was “the project of a colonial power.” And Saudi Arabia?! And Jordan? Finally, the only Middle Eastern state that was not to any degree, even indirectly, the fruit of a colonial project, is the Ottoman Empire (for which Gobineau had so much sympathy), which the Turkish and Arab nationalists, enemy brothers in the imitation of the West, worked together to destroy. One can also, further on, add the old Iranian state, and perhaps, at a pinch, Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman, which are all the same somewhat marginal countries.

Why then would an Arab intellectual immediately think of applying this supposedly infamous qualification, “project maintained by a colonial power” to Lebanon rather than to Arabia or Kuwait? This reproach was only a presentable pretext. As for the American University of Beirut, whatever the intentions of its founders, it was a breeding ground for left-wing nationalists.

And if we talk about cultural interference, what was studied in the national universities of other Arab countries? The same as at the American University of Beirut, only worse. Without admitting it, people were happy that Lebanon was suffering. The Orientals consider, not without reason, that the Lebanese are arrogant and so were happy that this country was taking a beating; there was a kind of dull satisfaction. But there was a deeper reason for this Schadenfreude. People were angry at Lebanon for not having believed in this rationalist and efficient nationalism. On the contrary, it remained a completely elusive country.

What was it about Lebanon that shocked a Baathist Syrian or a Nasserite Egyptian? It was the fact that this country did not decide to be serious in the Arab revolution. Lebanon refused to enter the world of seriousness; it remained carefree, incoherent, ineffective, joyful, incredibly confused—all the bad things were said about it, but people took refuge in Beirut because there, in this carefree confusion, they could breathe. But one could not conceive this clearly; there was a cognitive dissonance, as the cooks say, between the pleasure that Arab intellectuals took in staying in Lebanon and the evil that they thought they were obliged to think of.

SNT: But what about the political domination that the Orientals suffered?

YL: Political domination is an insufficient explanation. It is said that from Cleopatra (and even Alexander, because the Lagids were of Greek origin) until Nasser, Egypt was never ruled by Egyptians. Was this enough for the Egyptian culture to disappear? It is also said that since the Mongols, and even since the Arab invasion, until the Pahlavi of sinister memory, Iran has always been ruled by foreign dynasties—but this vast period covers the most beautiful centuries of Persian civilization.

Foreign domination is only truly destructive, if one is convinced that the foreigner is not only militarily stronger, but that he is better than we are. This is the real humiliation that leads to resentment and denial—believing that we deserved to lose because the enemy was better than us. From then on, one will be obsessed by the ambition to become stronger than the one who is stronger than oneself, by having to be like him, by adopting his science, his technique, his rationality, etc. It is then that the foreigner really dominates, because he has entered into people’s heads.

In the opposite case (if the occupied are convinced of their superiority and the occupiers are impressed), the outcome is quite different. It happened, as with the Mongols in Iran. They were the strongest and they massacred like nobody else. But the Iranians remained convinced of the superiority of the Persian culture. The Mongols became convinced of it too and became Iranians like the others and even excellent propagators of the Persian culture, as far as India.

Certainly, material defeat contributes to self-deprecation; but it is not entirely sufficient to explain it. Western intrusions, however detestable, are not enough to explain the Orientals’ rejection of their own heritage. It is undoubtedly because this heritage was too difficult to bear. We come back to the starting point—complexity is heavy; it takes a lot of energy to remain human.

SNT: Concerning the Islamists, you recall that their ideology, contrary to their discourse, is not totally incompatible with Western modernity. They aspire to rationality, efficiency and reform of their religious corpus. How is it that they inspire so much rejection today?

YL: All serious researchers who have been interested in Islamism have come to the following conclusion: Islamism is the modernism of Islam. Adrien Candiard says it very well in an easy-to-read book. The lack of curiosity of Europeans, who love to have an opinion on what they do not know, is the only reason why we still hear such crazy things as the claim that Islamism is an irreducibly archaic Islam.

But there is no compatibility between this modernism and ours, that of LGBtism++. We have here two modernisms which are opposed to each other. It is a variant of the “modern against modern,” well seen by Muray. It is not the opposition of two civilizations—it is the opposition of two variants of modernism.

What has happened here and there, in reality, is that we have lost the spiritual sense. In Europe, the loss of spirituality has led to a dissolution of forms, first religious, then social; the most elementary forms of civilization, the first of which is the distinction between the sexes, tend to dissolve.

On the other hand, in the Muslim world, the loss of spirituality has led not to a dissolution of forms but to their devitalization. Empty forms have been maintained and have become the object of idolatrous worship. Both civilizations died, but their corpses did not have the same fate. The corpse of the West has decomposed, while the corpse of the Muslim world has mummified. One has the impression of an immense distance. But in the background, there is always the loss of the spiritual and the yearning for a world where there are no more humans, because the human is never simple, rational and content to be so; he is always tormented by absence, by what cannot be attained. Even Adam found that even in paradise something was missing.

SNT: The veil is today one of the most discussed subjects in the West. You speak several times of “the veil of the Islamists,” while regretting that the latter have turned their back on their traditional cultural and religious heritage. How do you distinguish the traditional veil from the Islamist veil worn by Muslim women?

YL: I quite agree with Michel Henry when he says that there can be no human sciences. Science implies a distance between the subject and the object; and that subjectivity does not intervene in the appreciation of the object. However, to understand a human phenomenon can only be done with one’s own human subjectivity. One will never be able to define objective criteria to establish categories that objectively separate the Islamic veil from the traditional veil. The only way is intuition. If I can perfectly distinguish between an Islamist and a traditional man or woman, even if they dress in more or less the same way, it is because I am human and I intuitively feel what humans are.

SNT: Isn’t this an arbitrary method?

YL: Assumed subjectivity is not necessarily arbitrary. To deny on principle that a subjective intuition has a heuristic value would mean that humans have no possibility of perceiving humans. In fact, I know very well how to distinguish between the Islamist who basically believes that he has taken out an all-risk insurance policy to go to paradise, and a woman who wears the veil out of devotion, out of attachment to a certain conception of modesty, but who does not see herself as chosen or better than the others. On the contrary, the Islamist will consider the others as potentially damned, whereas the traditional Muslim does not judge.

Moreover, in Islamism there is a desire for ostentation. It is a “Muslim Pride,” where one displays the signs that give one an identity; and thanks to this, one thinks of finding one’s place in the world of consumption. Indeed, we never consume anything other than signs that give us confidence, that “pose” in our eyes and in the eyes of others, whether it is a luxury watch or a scarf, or an ostentatious devotion, or a bikini if we feel confident about our figure. All these strategies are valid. What matters is to be proud of oneself. That is Islamism. Traditional Islam is not there to assert a pride, but is lived in humility.

No doubt, Muslim society was a society where self-satisfaction of being a good Muslim always existed, among some. But these were very vigorously condemned by words attributed to the prophet, which shows the antiquity of this attitude, but also that as long as this civilization was alive, one knew to guard against it.

SNT: It seemed to me that you were very severe on the supposed uprooting that affects Western civilization. However, the observer of European cultural life notices that people continue to go to the theater, literary prizes are still followed and celebrated almost everywhere in France, for example, and the museums in Paris are not empty. Why should we summarize all this interest in culture to the consumer mind of the ordinary man? Isn’t it the proof that this spirit of resistance that Bernanos called for is still present among the French?

YL: No doubt, since you and I are here to discuss, as we are doing, there are still beautiful interstices in the modern world. There are indeed people who still read Bernanos or Péguy. But that doesn’t change the picture of contemporary France. Our culture is collapsing; our very language, which our supposed elites are ashamed to speak, is disintegrating. Our little world of passionate and critical readers is a reservation of Indians. It is the last square that resists by retreating, while silliness and ignorance spread everywhere. Maybe it’s better in France than in other Western countries? There are no Philitts everywhere; it is a meager consolation. People like to talk about the misfortune of the Arab-Muslim world. Certainly, the Muslim world is doing very badly; but the other worlds are also doing very badly. The East is doing rather less badly than the West—the epidemic of wokism and that of LGBTism encounter solid immune defenses in the East.

SNT: You maintain that Islamism is to Islam what Puritan Protestantism is to Christianity. These consumerist deformations converge in what they offer to modern man—the immediate satisfaction of his desires. The delinquents who make the news are fed by both Islamism and consumerism. Do you make a difference between the newcomer rooted in his culture of origin and the young person from two or three generations ago?

YL: There is a difference between the immigrants, because of the conditions in which the immigration took place. The Iranian community, of Muslim culture, is well integrated in France and escapes Islamism as much as delinquency because there was a transmission—in this educated middle-class immigration, the children may have wanted to resemble their parents. When you are the son of a North African worker, humiliated by assembly line work, and an illiterate mother, you don’t want to resemble your parents, although there is still affection. Thus, there is more uprooting in some communities than in others.

Many young people were born here but do not have access to the France of the past, nor do they have access to the culture of their parents because it remained on the other side of the sea, and because their parents belonged to a milieu too poor and humiliated to be able to transmit it. So, they have no access to any heritage; they are the purest products of globalization, not of Arab or Muslim culture, or of this or that African culture.

For the newcomers, it is not always very different. It takes optimism to say that they are “rooted in their culture of origin.” When an African arrives in Europe, he comes from a big city, not from an immemorial village. He has already been uprooted from his culture for a long time; he has lived in an African metropolis where sometimes the daily lingua franca is not even an African language; he has never practiced one of the properly African religions; he does not know any of their myths. He has known nothing of the extremely complex social structure of the villages of yesteryear; he has been cut off from it for several generations. He is already uprooted long before landing in Europe.

Mutatis mutandis, these observations apply to immigrants of various origins, most often very removed, several generations before their birth, from what gave strength and finesse to their so-called culture of origin. This is also why they dream of the West. They are uprooted before they arrive.

The problem is not that they belong to another culture incompatible with that of Europe—it is that they no longer belong to any culture, except in a state of ruin; and that European culture is also in ruins. Two cultures eventually integrate each other, even if we do not believe that it is quick and easy. But we do not integrate an uprooting to an uprooting. Seriously, what do you want immigrants to integrate into? To the Paris of the silly bobos, to the school of the “ABC of equality?” If we want young foreigners to want to be French, we have to show them Romanesque churches, not sing them nonsense about “the values of the Republic.”


[This interview comes through the kind courtesy of Philitt.]

Featured: Walter Charles Horsley, “Women and an Old Man in the Harem;” painted in 1883.

Report of the 7th Inârah Symposion, May 4-7, Trier

From 4-7 May, Inârah held its 7th symposium on the origins of Islam and the origins of the Qur’an.

For the first time, the venue was the idyllically located Robert Schuman House in Trier. The leitmotif of this conference was expressed in the chosen motto: “Farewell to salvation history.” In biblical studies or church history, for example, the difference between historiography based on reliable sources and salvation history has long been the academic norm. Islamic Studies, particularly, as it is practised in Western universities, especially with the establishment of seminars of so-called Islamic theology in some German Länder in recent years, represents both an intellectual and an academic step backwards, where this important distinction is still for the most part conveniently ignored.

The conventional, “classical” narrative, actually a fairy tale, of the Qur’anic revelation to Muhammad and the subsequent emergence of Islam, in general a distillation of diverse, late, and largely contradictory literary texts, is regrettably still taught and disseminated academically—as if it were true prophetic word. Historical-critical research usually remains the exception, unfortunately.

The purpose of such conferences is to bring together the few good colleagues and interested people who work on the basis of historically reliable sources and an established philological methodology, so that they can exchange ideas. The goal of the conference, to bid farewell once and for all to the Islamic salvation history, is based on the results of the previous six conferences and the ten volumes published so far. The tome known as the Qur’an, which is evident to every reader, can hardly be imagined to be the written rendering of oral revelations to a prophet named “Muhammad,” or even the written memorandum of an exchange between the “proclaimer and his congregation,” as it is still heard from Potsdam.

In terms of genre, we are dealing [with the Qur’an] with an originally Christian work, perhaps a lectionary in Arabic, which was subsequently reworked several times by theologians, as it clearly shows different editorial strata.

The location of early Islam to Mecca and Medina, as claimed by Islamic traditions, is clearly a later, anachronistic retro-projection. Rather, the language, the script and the theological content [of the Qur’an] point to Mesopotamian northern Arabia. Islam in the proper sense can only be spoken of during and after the epoch of the Abbasids (from ca. 750 AD onwards)—the Umayyads were still (seen from the seat of the then Chalcedonian imperial orthodoxy) heterodox or heretical eschatological Christians, with an immediate expectation of the Parousia.

The historical efficacy of Muhammad, God’s messenger, cannot be gleaned from the hagiographic fables of the later Sira traditions, which arose, among other things, to read the prophet’s biography into the Qur’an. The authors of the later Islamic meta-narratives (Meistererzählung), as already mentioned, offer contradictory information; moreover, the fact that later Islamic works (without source references) can surprisingly offer much more detailed information is striking. The later a tradition, the more it supposedly “knows” about Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam. These authors, such as Tabari, were not historians in the true sense of the word; and although they occasionally do use some historical information (often unrecognisably reworked), they were moralists who set themselves the task of explaining their time on the basis of an imagined past. They created a “prequel,” so to speak (a story that appears to be a continuation of another narrative, but is not). This is therefore not a continuation of the narrative of the past in the proper sense, but rather a retro-projection of the past intended to explain the present situation, which in literary terms belongs to the genre of the “backstory” (toile de fond). The backstory is often used to lend historical depth or credibility to the main plot—the Star Wars sagas may be seen as the present-day equivalent of Islamic historiography.

The task of finding out how the emergence of Islam happened historically is more difficult. This was the actual task of the symposium, undertaken by the international participants from Germany, Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Syria, Tunisia, USA and even surprisingly Canada, as always in four languages (German, Arabic, French and English). We found it very nice that many a foreign participant gave his presentation in German.

The opening speeches on the first evening were on topics of contemporary relevance, such as the importance of our work (Schwab), the intellectually debauched notion of “Islamophobia” (Ibn Warraq) and the influence of our research on social debates in the so-called Islamo-Arab countries (Ghadban).

The second day got straight down to business with topics on the origins of Islam and the history of religion:

  • What does the slogan “Allahu akbar” actually mean (Popp), and the relationship of the Aramaic Ahiqar traditions to the Koranic Luqman (Abousamra).
  • Dequin and Shoemaker showed why Islam’s holy site was originally Jerusalem and not Mecca and referred to some of the possible substrate traditions underlying the Islamic Hajj.
  • Grodzki and Weintritt then presented papers on the source criticism of the alleged hagiography of the Islamic Prophet, the Sira.
  • Von Sivers discussed the misdating of the Doctrina Iacobi and the Nitsarot attributed to Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai, which were written later and thus say nothing about conditions in the first quarter of the 7th century.
  • The last lecture of the day, by a talented young scholar who had just defended his doctorate, discussed how and why the traditions about Muhammad, including the Hadiths, were only invented later as a source of legitimacy for Islamic law (Barsoum).

The third and fourth days were mainly devoted to Quranic topics:

  • The project to finally produce a critical edition of the Qur’an (Brubaker).
  • The biblical background of Suras 105 and 106 (Bonnet-Eymard).
  • On the “mysterious letters” in the Qur’an (Puin).
  • Wuestions of editorial history were discussed by Dye and Da Costa.
  • Younes discussed how later Muslim exegetes manipulated the Quranic text to justify later Islamic dogmas.
  • Striking parallels of an Arabic manuscript of Luke’s Gospel with a Hadith were addressed by Arbache.
  • Groß discussed possible Buddhist influences in Islamic orthopraxis.
  • Decharneux, another young talent who also recently defended his doctorate, and Van Reeth presented the Christian Aramaic theological background of the Qur’an originating in the South (today’s Emirates).
  • And finally, Nickel gave a paper on the unlikely phenomenon of pursuing science on Twitter and other social media.

On the evening of the third day, there was a round table “on the origins of the Qur’an,” moderated by Jean-Claude Muller, in which the topic was debated at great length.

On Tuesday evening, there was no formal programme, as Prof. Dr. Max Otte, who takes a keen interest in our work, generously invited all participants to dine at the Blesius Garten in Trier. We would like to take this opportunity to thank him once again for a very enjoyable evening, the highlight of the congress. Of course, there was further debate on the relevant topics between the fantabulous courses.

According to the feedback we received, the symposium was a success—the important questions were asked and answers sought. The discussions were lively and passionate and lasted long into the night.

The deadline for the submission of papers is the end of August, so it is expected that Volume 11, with the papers presented at Trier during the 7th Symposium, will be published before the end of the year.

To learn more, have a look at the Symposion booklet…


Featured image: Mural from the Apodyterium of Qusayr Amra, Jordan, 8th century.

The Five “Gods of Noah” In The Qur’an

We often hear about alleged polytheism in Arabia during pre-islamic times, the so-called ǧāhilīya, which was seemingly filled with mušrik practicing various forms of širk in honour of various deities. Naturally, this Arabic root does not refer to a plurality of deities, but rather to “partnering” or associating others with Allah who is unique (tawḥīd)—it is a polemic reference to the Christian notion of the Trinity, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost also participate equally (šarika) in the Godhead.

The question is to what extent polytheism still persisted in the Greco-Roman Middle East of Late Antiquity, which, as was the case with the Roman Empire in general, seems largely to have been permeated by monotheistic traditions before the seventh century. The Qur’an would seem to support this notion—it is (un)surprisingly vague in this regard. In the alleged Satanic Verses (53,19-20), “Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‹ Uzza and Manāt, the third, the other?” we find a vague reference to three pan-Semitic goddesses, who were venerated by many peoples in many places at many times. The only other concrete reference is 71, 23: “And they say: Forsake not your gods, nor forsake Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr,” the gods of those condemned to perish in the Deluge (cf. Gen 7,24-8,14).

The mention of these five deities of antediluvian times, and allegedly worshipped by Arab tribes until the arrival of Islam, understandably caused some unpleasant difficulties for later Islamic exegetes, not to mention the modern reader—how can the knowledge or the cult of them have survived that global eradication? According to Ibn al-Kalbī’s Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām), a compendium of legends and not an historical source, they are said to have washed up on the beach of Jeddah (the nearest port city from Mecca) after the Flood, where they gradually silted up until the fortune teller Amr ibn Luhai was told their location by his demon Abu Ṯumāna.

Be this as it may, we must remember that the Quranic account is based on (see above) the biblical one, which in turn, probably during the Captivity, was derived from Mesopotamian myths (e.g., the Atraḫasis epic, and the reworking of this narrative in the Twelve Tablet version of the Gilgamesh Epic): in the Mesopotamian version, the myth serves to explain why humans die, and does not function, as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as a divine punishment for otherwise unspecified sins. In Mesopotamia (lit. “Land between rivers”), inundations were rather commonplace, in contrast to Israel or more to the point, the arid Hijaz (and we note here in passing, that the Greek flood story around Deucalion also has a Semitic background [cf. Lucian, De dea Syria 13], cf. Iapetós of the “Catalogue of Women,” attributed to Hesiod, probably has something to do with the son of Noah, Japheth, Gen 10,2 ).

In any case, these Quranic deities are unknown in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian literatures. Their mention here remains Delphic, as has been noted in the past, e.g.: “Why Muhammad lists five deities as Noahite in Sur. 71,22ff. cannot be explained” (Fr. Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, reprint Hildesheim 1955, 74). “Admittedly, they must have been rather insignificant local deities at that time and in Mecca only known by name, if Muhammed can put them into the pre-Flood times” (J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, reprint Berlin 1961, 13).

The first god mentioned in this Quranic verse, Wadd, i.e., “beloved” in the non-sexual sense (wdd – therefore probably more of an epithet than a divine given name) is known from numerous inscriptions as the chief god of the Minaeans, a Yemeni kingdom which especially during the last centuries before Christ dominated trade along the incense route, eventually being subjugated by the Sabaeans after the campaign of Aelius Gallus in 25/24 BC. At first sight, we are dealing with an authentic old-Arabian god, which could indeed have been worshipped in the Hijaz. However, epigraphic finds are by no means limited to Ma‛īn, but is, as is to be expected with such a trading empire, spread further beyond the actual homeland. So, for example, a bilingual Greco-Minaean inscription on a marble altar was found on the Greek island of Delos, dated to after 166 BC, which mentions this deity in both languages:

Minaean (RÉS 3570)

1) Ḥnʾ w-Zydʾl ḏy Ḫḏb Ḥnʾ and Zydʾl, the two of the tribe Ḫḏb,
2) nṣb mḏbḥ Wdm w-ʾlʾlt built this altar to the Wdm and the gods
3) Mʿn b-Dlṯ of Maʿīn on Delos.

Greek (ID 2320)

Ὄδδου [Belonging to] Oaddos/Wadd
θεοῦ the god
Μιναίων of the Minaeans
Ὀάδδῳ [Dedicated to} Oaddos/Wadd.

This find alone makes it clear that the cult of this god, or rather this divine epithet, although certainly originating in Yemen (which is not a synonym with Hijaz, but an entirely different culture), had travelled far beyond, accompanying his worshippers on their mercantile journeys. We thus have a deity that on the one hand was not originally at home in the Hijaz, but could have been brought there sometime by Minaean traders; on the other, however, as with the three goddesses mentioned above, he attracted some following in a geographically vast region.

As for the second deity, Suwāʿ our only sources are contradictory reports from later Islamic traditions, some of which mention him, others which do not (e.g. Wāqidī mentions the destruction of his idol in Mecca, but this is not mentioned in the Prophet’s hagiography by Ibn Isḥāq)—”these stories of the destruction of the idols on behalf of Mohammad become more and more complete as the tradition moves further away from its origin, and the narratives are contradictory” (Wellhausen, op. cit. 19). Apart from such historically worthless information and some possible attestations as a theophoric element in early Islamic onomastics, we know literally nothing at all about this god. Did he even exist? I rather have the impression that there is a polemical intention behind this name, cf. Syriac šū/ōʿā (šwʿ >arab. swʿ) “stone, rock,” i.e., “petrified,” in the sense of a stone idol (Arab. waṯan, a loan-word from Sabaean, where the word has the meaning “boundary stone, stele”), which later was misunderstood not as a generic term for an idol, but rather as the name of a specific idol.

As for the third of the three here, Jaġūṯ, we again find colourful discrepant and paradoxical stories in the Islamic tradition. But as Jaġūṯ in Arabic means “he who helps—the helper” (possibly related to Jeush in Gen 36,14), this term is rather an epithet that could be applied to any (benevolent) god. Even if the Islamic tradition(s) actually contain(s) authentic materials here and there, it would be impossible to determine whether one and the same deity was meant in all cases.

The fourth God supposedly revered by Noah’s contemporaries according to the Qur’an, Jaʿūq remains shrouded in even more mystery than his already mentioned partners. There is no independent evidence for this god, and even his name does not seem to be Arabic. Wellhausen, who noted (op. cit. 23) “we are dealing with a South Arabian name,” thought of the closely related Ethiopian verb jǝʿuq (basic meaning “to observe, to be careful, to preserve; to manifest (reveal)”), although this root seems to be not of Semitic but rather of Cushitic origin, i.e., an African loan word in the Ethiosemitic languages.

Our findings up till now are somewhat meagre, even antediluvian with regard to what we actually know. It is thus of some relief that about the fifth god, Nasr, we actually have some data. In modern Arabic this word means “vulture” (perhaps originally denoting a totem animal). In the Talmudic treatise Avoda sara 11b, in a discourse on idolatry, we find the assertion:

אמר רב חנן בר רב חסדא אמר רב ואמרי לה א”ר חנן בר רבא אמר רב חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים קבועין הן אלו הן בית בל בבבל בית נבו בכורסי תרעתא שבמפג צריפא שבאשקלון נשרא שבערביא

“Rav Ḥanan bar Rav Ḥisda says that Rav says, and some say that it was Rav Ḥanan bar Rava who says that Rav says: There are five established temples of idol worship, and they are: The temple of Bel in Babylonia; the temple of Nebo in the city of Khursei; the temple of Tirata, which is located in the city of Mapag; Tzerifa, which is located in Ashkelon; and Nashra, which is located in Arabia.”

This passage in turn is reminiscent of one found in the famous Doctrina of the Apostle Addai (Phillips edition, p.23f.):

ܿܡܢܘ ܗܢܐ ܢ ܼܒܘ ܦܬܟܪܐ ܥܒܝܕܐ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܃ ܘܒܝܠ ܕܡܝܩܪܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܂ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܟܘܢ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܠܒܪܬ

ܢܝܟܠ ܐܝܟ ܚܪ̈ܢܝܐ ܫ ̈ܒܒܝܟܘܢ܂ ܘܠ ܼܬܪܥܬ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܡ ̈ܒܓܝܐ܂ ܘܠܢܫܪܐ ܐܝܟ ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ܂ ܘܠܫܡܫܐ ܘܠܣܗܪ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܫܪܟܐ ܕܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܼ

ܕܐܟܘܬܟܘܢ܂ܠܐܬܫܬܒܘܢܒܙܠܝ̈ܩܐܕܢܗܝܪ̈ܿܐ܂ܘܒܟܘܟܒܬܐܕܨܡܚܐ܂ܠܝܛܗܘܓܝܪܩܕܡܐܠܗܿܐ܂ܟܘܠܿܡܢܕܣܿܓܕ ܼ

ܠܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ܂ ܐܦܢ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܗܝܢ ܒܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ ܕܐܝܟ ܪܘܪ̈ܒܢ ܡܢ ܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ܂ ܐܠܐ ܟܢ ̈ܘܬܐ ̈ܐܢܝܢ ܕܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܐ ܿܡܪܬ ܼ

ܠܟܘܢ܂ܟܐܒܐܗܘܓܝܪܡܪܝܪܐܗܢܐܕܠܝܬܠܗܐܣܝܘܬ ܿܐ܂

“Meanwhile, I saw this city teeming with paganism, which is against God. Who is this Nabû, [but] an idol [made by men] whom you worship, and Bêl whom you worship? Behold, there are among you people those who worship Bath Nikkal such as the people of Harran, your neighbours, and Taratha [as venerated by] the people of Mabug, and Nashara by the Arabs, or as are the Sun and the Moon worshipped by the rest of Harran, as you do too. Do not be deceived by rays of light and by the bright star, for all creatures will be cursed by God.”

Nabû was a well-known Mesopotamian god of the first millennium BC (the son and quasi successor of Marduk, whose name means “the announcer, the called one”—cf. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabī “prophet”); Bêl is the Mesopotamian, and later Aramaic realisation of Baal, whose cult was well-known, i.a. at Palmyra; Bath Nikkal (“the daughter of N.”)—Nikkal is a goddess known in the Western Semitic world and among the Hurrians (derived < Sumerian NIN.GAL “great mistress”); the Sun and Moon, resp. Shamash and Sîn were naturally also worshipped in Mesopotamia as deities. Taratha is apparently another designation of the well-known goddess, Atargatis or the Dea Syria, who was worshipped at Ashkelon (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library, II.iv.2, where, among other things, it is described how and why she took the form of a fish—cf. the fish symbolism in Christianity: ΙΧΘΥΣ). Of particular significance is the fact that Nashara is also regarded here as a god of the Arabs. This god is particularly well known among the Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia and in Iran (e.g., the Mandaean Great Book of John, §73), and also attested by Jacob of Serug (451-521), who reports that the Persians were tempted by the devil to create an “eagle” (Nashara) as an idol. A similar account can be found in the Armenian History by Movses Khorenatsi (where the gods are called Naboc’us, Belus, Bathnicalus and Tharatha).

In all of these cases, including Qur’an 71,23 (supra), we are dealing with a formulaic warning against apostasy, that is to say against a falling away from the true faith in the one true (Jewish, Christian, Mandaean or Islamic understanding of) God. In all cases, his (exclusive) worship is contrasted in a list of five heavenly idols which were seemingly self-explanatory at the time. The Talmudic passage would seem to have used the same, or very close to that of the Doctrina Addai, although somethings seem to have been lost in transmission:

Mapag (מפג) is not a deity but, as in Syriac, the place

Mabug (ܡܒܘܓ “the spring” or Hieropolis, because it was the cult centre of the Dea Syria; today Manbij);

Tirata (תרעתא) as already mentioned is Atargatis resp. the Dea Syria and not a place(-name)—a well-known site (see above) of her cult was Askelon. The gods mentioned here are חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים בתי עבודת כוכבים “the five temples of star worship.” that is, celestial bodies: Nabû= Mercury, Bêl=Jupiter, Nikkal= a moon goddess, Taratha=Venus, and Nashara is the name of a star (see P. De Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum, 5:17 1860 ,Versorum quae supersunt, Leipzig,  ܥܕܡܐ ܠܕܢܚܗ ܕܢܫܪܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܢ ܢܐܘܡܝܢܝܐ ܕܟܢܘܢ ܐܚܪܝ “until the rise of the Naschara, which is the beginning of the month of January;” The seven wandering [planets]…

ܕܐܝܬܝܗܘܢ ܫܡܫܐ ܘܣܗܪܐ ܘܟܐܽܘܢ ܘܒܝܠ ܘܢܪܝܓ ܘܒܠܬܝ ܘܵܢܒܘ

…are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon, Venus and Mercury”—C. Kayser, The Book of Truth, or, The Cause of All Causes, Leipzig, 1889, 55:5).

The mention of Arabia, in connexion with Nashara, cannot be taken as confirmatory evidence in support of the assertion made by Islamic tradition that Nashara had been a deity in and around Mecca. Perhaps this was so—but we simply do not know. The Arabs who venerate “a bird” as god can here only be the Arabs of Mesopotamia—the Talmud as well as the Doctrina Addai do not concern themselves with the Hijaz

This area, roughly identical to the so-called Ǧazīrat al-‛Arab, comprises the lowlands of the Chabur, Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It was also referred to as “Arabia” in ancient times. Here we find e.g., a Ἀραβάρχης (“Arab-archēs—Arab princes”) in Dura-Europos (cf. C. B. Welles et al., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, Part I [New Haven, 1959], 115 No. 20, 5); in Sumatar Harabesi, present-day Turkey, five inscriptions are documented which were found at the old cemetery and bear the Syrian equivalent of this term:- šulṭānā d-ʿarab “Governor of Arab(ia)” (cf. H. J. W. Drijvers & J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene [Leyden, 1999], p. 104f. et passim); in Hatra, a mlk’ dy ʿrb(y) “King of Arabia” is documented (see B. Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréenes [Paris, 1991], 92 No. 193, 2; 135f. See also Pliny’s Natural History, V.xxi.86: “Arabia supra dicta habet oppida Edessam, quæ quondam Antiochia dicebatur, Callirhœm, a fonte nominatam, Carrhas, Crassi clade nobile. Iungitur præfectura Mesopotamiæ, ab Assyriis originem trahens, in qua Anthemusia et Nicephorium oppida. … 87] ita fertur [scil. Euphrates] usque Suram locum, in quo conversus ad orientem relinquit Syriæ Palmyrenas solitudines, quæ usque ad Petram urbem et regionem Arabiæ Felicis appellatæ pertinent. This is also the “Arabia” that Paul must have visited (Gal 1:17). It is noteworthy that Fredegar (Chronicon lxvi) locates the Hagarenes even more to the north: “Agareni, qui et Sarraceni, sicut Orosii [Boh. Eorosii] liber testatur, gens circumcisa a latere montis Caucasi, super mare Caspium, terram….” This location can explain the Mandaean and Iranian evidence (see above) of Nashara.

This area, in the north of Mesopotamia, is where historical-critical research locates the crucible of Islam. It is here that the linguistic (the forerunners of Quranic Arabic as well as the heavy Syro-Aramaic impact on the Quranic theological vocabulary) as well as other theological and cultural threads come together, where the Christians in the Sassanid Empire, after the conquest of Heraclius, were suddenly confronted with Christological formulations (Chalcedon) foreign to them, after over two and a half centuries of separation, since the death of Julian Apostata. Here, the only unambiguously identifiable deity of Sura 71,23, scil. Nasr, seems to be certainly at home. Locating his cult to the South, in Arabia deserta, in the empty Hijaz—whose historical and cultural vacantness would only later become the ideal(ised) theological projection surface—has no historical support—and in addition, one would not only have to invent Christianity in the Hijaz, but also Manichaeism!

Sura 71/Sūrat Nūḥ deals with tergiversation, abandoning God/Allah: Noah has warned his contemporaries at God’s behest—”My Lord, I have called my people by night and day (to faith). But my call only caused them to run away more and more: and whenever I called them that Thou mightest forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, and wrapped themselves in their garments, and persisted (in their state), and became overly arrogant. Then I called on them in public. Then I preached to them in public, and I spoke to them in secret, and I said: ‘Seek forgiveness from your Lord: for He is Oft-Forgiving: He will send down rain for you in abundance; and He will strengthen you with good things and with children, and He will give you gardens, and He will make rivers flow for you…’” (71,4-12). Furthermore, in verses 14-15 Noah asks, “Have you not seen how Allah created seven heavens stacked one on top of the other and set the moon as a light in them?”—i.e., the sky with all its contents, including the sun and moon, bear witness to the existence of God; they themselves are not gods. But Noah finds no hearing; the people remain on their chosen path and say, “do not leave your gods; do not leave Wadd, nor Suwāʿ, nor Jaġūṯ, Jaʿūq and Nasr.”

Contextually speaking, this interpretation of the latter passage fits in the theme of the Sura as a whole, and is quite similar to the admonition found inter alia in in the Doctrina Addai. Taken in this light, we have here a not unfamiliar pious topos, which here the Koranic authors put in Noah’s mouth because it was apparently felt to be somehow appropriate. The theonyms, however, as is also the case in the Talmudic example, where they were conflated with toponyms, have become garbled, yet a further indication that polytheism had long since ceased being an historical reality.

It is in this understanding, however, that this Quranic verse becomes understandable, seeing that, as was just noted, the creation of the heavens, moon, sun etc.—i.e., they are not to be understood as gods, is mentioned just several verses previously. The inexplicable gods mentioned in verse 23 may be just local epithets of the (divinised) celestial bodies, Nsr, the “eagle,” at the same time an astronym, would seem to favour such a proposal. In a Minaean dedicatory inscription (RÉS 2999 from Barāqish in the southern Jawf), the builders self-identify themselves as ʾdm Wdm S2hrn “servants (cf. Arabic ʾādam) of Wdd, the moon.” In this light, it is clear that Wdd could be understood as a(n epithet of) lunar deity. Perhaps then one might be partial to interpreting Suwāʿ as an Arabic realisation of Aramaic shrʾ “moon?” Jaġūṯ, as already been mentioned, is etymologically transparent, “the helper,” a term that might be appropriate for the moon (as attribute) or possibly the sun god?

Be that as it may, however one may choose to etymologise the five “Gods of Noah” in the Qur’an, they are most certainly designations for the (divinised) Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. As we have sown in the preceding the Classical planets, designated variously, were a common theme in Jewish and Christian polemics against the true faith in the one God. The Qur’anic renditions, as the Talmudic, have been somewhat garbled by later copyists. It is clear that we are dealing here with a topos known in the Syro-Mesopotamian region of Late Antiquity. This is by no means antediluvian and also has nothing to do with the Hijaz, nor originally even with Islam.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: The Almaqah Panel, which bears a Sabaean inscription, mentioning the god Wadd. Likely Ma’rib, Yemen, ca. 700 BC.

The Meaning Of The Surah Al-Kawthar In The Qur’an

The shortest Surah of the Qur’an is the 108th. In the Sahih International translation and in transcription it reads:

bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīmii
(In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful)
al-Kawthar. ˈinnā ˈaʿṭaynāka l-kawṯaraa
(Indeed, We have granted you, [O Muhammad]),
fa-ṣalli li-rabbika wa-nḥar
(So pray to your Lord and sacrifice [to Him alone]).
‘innā šāniˈaka huwa l-ˈabtaru
(Indeed, your enemy is the one cut off).

On the basis of this very short textual segment, one of many of such disparate origin that were later compiled into the book we know today as the “Qur’an,” almost all principles and methods of historico-critical textual interpretation can be demonstrated. The common Muslim understanding is that the three verses of Surah 108 refer to an event in Muhammad’s life, who is then regarded as the addressee of this urgent revelation. The “one who hates you” (šāniˈaka) mentioned in verse three is then in this view his adversary, whom God apparently cursed. But let us now treat this short Sura verse by verse in order to show some textual and exegetical problems, pars pro toto, for the holy book of Islam in its entirety and to offer possible explanations: often, the usual modern translations are by and large based on exegetical understandings of classical (secondary) Islamic commentary culture, and as such are mere speculations or exemplifications.

Firstly, for the introductory formula, the Basmala, which in the Qur’an, with the exception, generally speaking, of the first Surah, is not counted as a verse, much could be said. For Muslims it is controversial whether this formula belongs to the revealed text of all Surahs, or whether it is an introductory formula later seen as necessary, a posterior editorial addition. Bismi, literally “in the name,” here as in nomine Dei, is a widespread formula and not at all specifically Islamic. The two ornamental adjectives following the name of God “Allāh” are also of pre-Islamic, of Christian and Jewish (‘Ha-Rachaman’) origin (originally “uterus” = σπλάγχνα). But as far as the name of God Allāh itself is concerned, it should not be translated as “God,” despite the common objection that Muslims, Jews and Christians believe in the one God, the same God. But this is obviously a logical fallacy: etymological relationship does not mean that the common term denotes an identical entity.

In the initial two verses, the addressed person is, according to traditional Islamic exegesis, reminded of the benefits (verse 1) rendered by Allāh and the resultant obligations (verse 2). Almost all non-Muslim explanations follow this received interpretation without criticism. Wherever possible, the underlying exegetical method tries to see in Quranic sentences a reference to the hypostasised founding figure of Islam, i.e., Muhammad, and alleged events in his life in the sense of the “occasions of Revelation” (Asbāb an-nuzūl). In other words, a prophetic hagiography was secondarily read into the Qur’anic text.

Although this understanding of these verses has gradually become generally accepted, it is ultimately based on unfounded assumptions, since the three key terms on which this interpretation is based, namely al-kawṯar (usually “the fullness”), nḥar (usually imperative sing. “sacrifice”) and al-abtar (usually verbatim “the cut-off”) are only found here in the Qur’an (so-called hapax legomena). Their actual meanings are therefore difficult to determine; and different explanations, mostly without much linguistic support, can be found in the commentary literature. Kawṯar in verse 1 is either interpreted as “abundance” or as a proper name. In the first case—according to Muslim tradition, this term also comprehends the entirety of divine benefits, but especially the revelations of which the Qur’an consists—the word would then have an unusual linguistic form, since in Arabic this is the noun kathīr, which, by the way, is well attested in the Qur’an.

However, here the diphthong -au- (compare in English “Beer” vs. “Bear”), remains without any convincing explanation. The second interpretation follows the “proven” pattern of explanation: “If you cannot understand or interpret the word, then it must be a proper name.” In this explanation, which is dealt with extensively, especially in various hadiths, i.e., in later sayings attributed to Mohammed, the word is understood as the name of one of the rivers of paradise or its source, to which believing Muslims are led on the Day of Judgement. The last unusual Arabic word al-abtar, perhaps literally “cut off”, i.e., either from Allāh’s goodness or—from descendants (i.e., emasculated, or literally “dickless”). How “sacrifice” (nḥar) is to be understood in the light of Islamic orthopraxis remains obscure.

Since the orthography of the early Qur’ans did not use the diacritical points that distinguish the consonants—i.e., these are secondary—the next step, even if seen as controversial by some nowadays, can be to attempt to read the respective letters without or with different pointing. The many “linguistic-alchemical” details necessary for this, such as the shifting of reading points and the exchange of vowels (also added later), cannot be dealt with in detail here.

1) Kawṯar would then be an Aramaic borrowing from kuttārā/ܟܘܬܪ (consonantal kwtr, i.e. according to the Arabic Form كوتر testified here) meaning “Duration; steadfastness; persistence.”

2) Naḥara (ن-ح-ر) is read as Syriac ngar/ܢܓܼܪ (in Arabic script ن-ج-ر – both have the same consonant skeleton [rasm]; namely, “be persistent, steadfastness) ں-ح-ر

3) Abtar/ابتر without diacritics is identical to اتبر\atbar: ا-ں-ں-ر), probably from an Aramaic root ܬܒܪ often used in the Qur’an “completely smashed, destroyed, ruined;” or the Arabic form of this root ṯbr/ثبر – also identical when written without dots.

By this comparative linguistic approach, common in philology and especially biblical studies, otherwise unattested lexemes are avoided—the influence of Syro-Aramaic vocabulary, especially in the domain of theological terms found in the Qur’an is well-known. The resulting text reads:

1. We have given you firmness!

2. So pray perseveringly to your Lord!

3. Truly the one who hates you (scil. the devil) will be shattered!

One might consider reading the first word of the third verse as anna and not as إِ َّن inna, i.e., “That truly the one who hates you will be shattered”.

If one works with methods that are more controversial in Quranic scholarship, although well-established in textual criticism, the text becomes, as can be seen in this case, easier to understand. In order to avoid the accusation that we have imposed an interpretation on the text or read it into it, it should be said here that Syro-Aramaic loanwords are omnipresent in the Qur’an; Aramaic was, after all, together with Greek, the cultural language of the Arabs in Late Antiquity (much like Latin during the European Middle Ages). And, the text is now better both grammatically and in terms of content. The central idea of this Surah is then perseverance in prayer together with patient trust in God, a motif that occurs frequently in the Qur’an, mostly and for which most often the Arabic verb ṣabara (nominal ṣabr) “patiently persevere, persevere, persist” is employed. Examples are:

2:45: wa-staʿīnū bi-ṣ-ṣabri wa-ṣ-ṣalāti wa- ˈinnahā la-kabīratun ˈillā ʿalā l-ḫāšiʿīna (And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah]).

2:153: yā-ˈayyuhā llaḏīna ˈāmanū ṣ bi-ṣ-ṣabri wa- ṣ-ṣalāti ˈinna llāha maʿa ṣ-ṣābirīna (O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient).

3:200: yā-ˈayyuhā llaḏīna ˈāmanū ˈāmanū ṣbirū wa- ṣābirū wa-rābiṭū wa-ttaqū llāha laʿallakum tufliḥūna (O you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful).

And of course, this passage reading will make sense to those familiar with the Bible, e.g., “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (I Peter 5, 8-9).

This interpretation of Surah 108 fits much better into the corpus of Quranic texts; or rather can be contextualised in a meaningful way, and is no longer an impenetrable oddity.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: Surah Al-Kawthar, Naskh calligraphy, by Mirza Ahmad Neirizi, late Safavid era (18th century).

The Beginnings Of Islam: A Conversation With Hela Ouardi

We are pleased to present this interview with Hela Ouardi who has recently published the third volume of the series, Les califes maudits (The Cursed Caliphs), Meurtre à la mosquée, Murder in the Mosque). She has previously published Les Derniers Jours de Muhammad (The Last Days of Muhammad). In these works she seeks to demythologize and thereby humanize the founder of Islam. Professor Ouardi teaches French literature and civilization at the University of Tunis.

Here, she is interviewed by Annie Laurent, for La Nef, through whose kind courtesy we are bringing you this translation.


Annie Laurent (AL): Your work challenges the history of early Islam as it is generally transmitted, You teach French literature at the University of Tunis. How did you decide to dive into this work of a historian and is both iconoclastic and titanic?

Hela Ouardi (HO): There are two important points in your question. The first one concerns “questioning.” I think I am doing exactly the opposite insofar as I am trying to restore the true history of the beginnings of Islam and to highlight the mythical and mystifying character of the version “generally transmitted” as you say. At the beginning of my investigation, I asked myself this double question: where is this authentic version? Who is in charge of transmitting it? The answer to both questions is: nowhere and nobody. All that the Muslim knows about the genesis of his religion are bits of legendary and incoherent stories. So, I believe that my investigation is based on two major tasks that have nothing to do with any subversive attitude: to bring order to this history and to make it intelligible. The narrative approach in my books allows me to achieve this double objective.

Hela Ouardi © Albin Michel.

As for the relationship with my academic specialty, that speaks for itself. My literary training, far from making me a stranger to the work of historical investigation on the Muslim Tradition, has prepared me very well for it. The corpus of this tradition is a literary corpus par excellence (and we have only this to inform us about the beginnings of Islam—there is no archaeological trace dating from the period of the Prophet and even of his first successors). The historian of Islam is thus condemned to analyze a literary tradition. And here I must admit that I am a bit “like a fish in water” because my great familiarity with the analysis of texts puts me in a very good predisposition in this regard. The only notable change in relation to my previous research (French literature and civilization) is that of the language. However, as I am bilingual, the study of texts in Arabic and their rendition in French do not pose any particular problems for me.

AL: Your investigations refer to a multitude of Islamic sources, both Sunni and Shiite. How were you able to access them when many of them seem to be untransmitted, as if one wanted to make them suspect, so as not to interfere with the hagiographic approach to history?

HO: As I told you, there is no “official version” of Islamic history. On the other hand, I do not entirely agree with the idea of suspicion that you evoke: Muslims venerate the sources of Tradition without reading them and without knowing them; and all my work consists in revealing the contents of these books, to make them accessible by breaking a little the glass cage in which they have been imprisoned over the centuries.

AL: You point out that no text written by Muhammad or dictated by him to his secretaries has been preserved, even though, contrary to legend, he was not illiterate. Can you enlighten us on this point?

HO: Muhammad’s alleged illiteracy is a theological ruse to support the dogma of the Qur’anic miracle. In order to show that the Qur’an is a divine work and not a human work, the idea was conveyed that an illiterate man was not capable of producing such a scholarly and well-written book. In my books, I provide irrefutable evidence from the Muslim tradition that destroys the legend of the illiteracy of the Prophet of Islam. This legend has moreover imposed itself thanks to the semantic vagueness that surrounds the Arabic adjective “ummî” with which Muhammad is often tagged. This word designates at the same time the illiterate, the follower of a religion without a Book (at the beginning, Mohammed’s detractors refused to recognize his prophecy because he did not bring a sacred book). Finally, the word “ummî” can also designate a man from Mecca who was nicknamed “Umm al-qurâ” (this nickname appears in the Koran). So, you see, the vagueness surrounding Muhammad’s illiteracy is the pure product of lexical polysemy!

AL: The “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” This is the name reserved for the first successors of Mohammed, who are presented as models to be imitated even though they were particularly violent. Do you think you can convince your Muslim readers of the validity of the label “cursed Caliphs” that you attribute to them?

HO: I don’t want to convince anyone. I make Montaigne’s famous phrase my own: “I do not teach, I report.” So, I report facts that are not at all of my own invention or even the fruit of my interpretation. Thus, the label “cursed caliphs” does not reflect a personal position on these historical figures. It emphasizes a very specific event (on which Sunnis and Shiites are curiously agreed): the first two caliphs were cursed by Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, because they disinherited her; abused her so much that she died of grief (or of something else less natural!) only a few weeks after her father. This is a fact reported in great detail in all the sources, and I defy anyone to contradict me on this point.

AL: Your series stops at Omar, the second Caliph (634-644). Will you continue your research on the following ones?

HO: That is planned, of course; but the next two (Uthman and Ali) will not be included in the cycle of the “Cursed Caliphs;” they will be the subject of separate monographs.

AL: Don’t you fear being accused of disbelief or suspected of discrediting Islam as a religion at a time when it is presenting itself under worrying aspects from which Muslims also suffer?

HO: And you, when you get on the road, don’t you fear to have an accident? I don’t think about virtual threats because if I did, I wouldn’t do anything. Besides, whoever accuses me of being a disbeliever and of undermining Islam is in fact only accusing the “venerable” authors of the Muslim tradition, because I am only reporting what they say.

AL: In recent years, a growing number of Muslim intellectuals have called for a reform of Islamic thought. Do some of them join you in your enterprise of historical deconstruction? In other words, can Islam reconcile itself with history without risking annihilation?

HO: I prefer to speak of “historical reconstruction” because the mythification and the ideological instrumentation of the past have literally annihilated the history of Islam and have made of this religion a mummy, a timeless and anachronistic object. I regard my work as a restoration-reconstruction. I want to give life to this fossilized memory, by giving back to the founding characters of Islam their human dimension which would show them closer to us. So, Islam, by reconciling itself with history, does not risk annihilation; on the contrary: it will revive.

AL: Many emphasize the need to put an end to the dogma of the “uncreated” Koran, which blocks the contextualization of the most inappropriate passages for today’s world (the status of women, the legitimization of violence, etc.), while others stress the absence of a recognized authority that could assume such a responsibility. In what form do you see this resurrection?

HO: The resurrection will not take place at all on a dogmatic level, but by working on representations, such as, for example, humanizing the character of the Prophet and his Companions in films, serials, and documentaries that portray them so that they cease to be disembodied ghosts. And there, I think that the aesthetic appropriation of the history of Islam by artists, creators, playwrights, etc., could cause a lasting influence on the minds. The Renaissance in Europe was accompanied by atrocious religious conflicts. However, this period continues to shine on universal history, precisely because it was the bearer of a decisive aesthetic project. Islam awaits the aesthetic revolution that will revive it from within.


Featured image: The Angel of Bounty and the Arrival at the Second Heaven by Muhammad. Timurid Herat, ca. 1465.

Russian-Turkish Relations: Mutual Interests, Alliance, Hostility And Distrust

The relationship between Russia, Turkey (and the impact of it on Europe) is very long and controversial issue, marked by persistent hostility and with eleven wars (including WWI). The first war started in 1568, when Russia was still in the initial phase of her statehood path.

It is remarkable that the only occasion where Russia (in Bolshevik format) supported Turkey, was when Ankara faced Western Allied pressure and the Greek invasion after WWI, as retaliation for the Allied support of the ‘White’ counter revolutionary forces.

This situation, a de facto alliance against a mutual enemy, should be remembered as a thin red line which remains pertinent right up to today.

This complex and problematic cooperation-confrontation, especially during the 18th century, impacted several times the wider problem of stability of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Levant, and it is re-proposed today, in terms which adapted themselves to different situations and contexts.

Limiting the analysis to recent times, despite many (old and new, and growing) divergences, Moscow and Ankara have in common the use of foreign and security policies as a projection tool to limit the impact of domestic problems through external successes and to consolidate the internal cohesion, eroded by different factors.

Turkey’s aggressive policies in recent years, which raised great concern among its NATO and EU allies and partners, gave an important window of opportunity to Moscow to benefit from Ankara’s new assertive stance, perceived as a way to disrupt the internal cohesion of the Euro-Atlantic economic and security architectures.

Aware of the fundamental differences with Turkey (and the related management problems), Putin seeks to keep the relationship as fruitful as possible for the interests of Moscow.

Russia and Turkey were able to arrive at a quasi-positive understanding, pragmatic and case-by-case in areas of conflict, where both often support opposing sides, as in Syria, the Black Sea, Libya, the Caucasus, Sahel and elsewhere.

The (not full) cooperative confrontation model between Moscow and Ankara has been successfully implemented in different geostrategic theatres without the need for formal agreements.

The Decreasing Of The Economic Dimension

To better understand the dynamics of the Russian-Turkish relations and its contradictions, the economic dimension remains pivotal, even if it is not particularly strong, and appears altogether in decline.

Russian exports to Turkey in 2019 were around $17.75 billion and its imports around $3.45 billion. An increase of 2.5%, compared to 2018, and lower than the $31 billion reached in 2014, before the crisis of 2015, when a Russian plane was downed over Syrian airspace by Turkish jets.

Aside from that, Turkey gradually reduced its dependence on Russian gas, firstly because of the slowdown of the domestic economy, and the development of liquefied gas infrastructure as alternatives. Gazprom supplied up to 52% of Turkish gas imports, even planning to expand supply by building the “TurkStream” pipeline. This supply fell to 33% in 2019, in favour of Azerbaijan, which became the main supplier to Ankara.

Moreover, the promising gas exploration results in the Black Sea could make it possible to reduce Ankara’s dependence on Russian gas, even if the hopes for that are old and recurrent; this plan would require time to be verified and, if confirmed, require more time to become functional. Further, the activation of the “North Stream II” pipeline will reduce any urgency to complete the “South Stream” one and, as a consequence, any leverage for Ankara.

Despite the decrease of the hydrocarbons sector, energy remains relevant because of the ongoing important project – the construction of the nuclear power plant of Akkuyu by the Russian company Rosatom, which is planned to be completed by 2023, at a cost of 20 billion dollars. (It is very rare that Russia shares civil nuclear technology with third countries; only with Algeria is there a similar plan, but which is still at the initial, negotiation phase).

The interests of the two states – are increasingly divergent, and the role of energy is demonstrated by Iranian oil. While Moscow is trying to prevent flooding the world market, as it would result in a drop in oil prices, thus drastically reducing its own revenues – Ankara instead is keen on Iranian oil and gas to come to the world market through its territory, which would reinforce Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy distributor and hub.

Tourism, however, continues to record important growth with more than 7 million Russian tourists visiting Turkey each year, making Russia one of the largest visitors to the Mediterranean country before COVID-19.

The Security And Military Dimension

Moscow looks to preserve the recently built relationship by de-escalating the crises that have arisen with Turkey, despite the problems with Ankara; and the disruptive approach of Erdoğan towards the West is very useful to Russian strategic interests.

An example of this stance was evident when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 strike bomber in Syria in November 2015, and relations became very tense (even close to rupturing). But Moscow carefully managed its retaliation, avoiding extreme measures that might affect the growing ties between the two nations.

Given that Turkey is a NATO member, Russia is obliged to consider also the possibility that in case of a major crisis with the Alliance, Turkey could close the Bosporus Straits with the support of its Western allies and regardless of the spirit and the letter of the Montreux Convention of 1936.

This scenario for Moscow would be almost a “nightmare” because it would risk interrupting the pivotal line of communication between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (and, via the Suez Canal, to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and from Gibraltar to the Atlantic Ocean).

As mentioned earlier, Moscow tries to exploit as much as possible the various disputes that have antagonized Turkey with other stakeholders (France, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, UAE, Egypt), thus undermining the system of Western alliance, especially in the matter of delimiting the EEZ and exploitation of hydrocarbons reservoirs.

In this light, the series of disputes between Turkey on the one hand and Greece and France on the other side, in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, open opportunities for Russia to exploit and weaken Atlantic Alliance solidarity. The recent example of this is the special bilateral agreement, just signed, between Athens and Paris for security and defence aside/inside/outside NATO and EU frameworks is, in the final analysis, a weakening of Western security cohesion and an advantage for Moscow’s plans.

Thus, for Moscow, the military aspect of the mutual relationship, with Turkey’s NATO membership, is undoubtedly the most important component to consider in geostrategic planning.

In light of this, Putin supported Erdoğan fully after the attempted coup in July 2016 and offered for purchase to Turkey the S-400 “Triumph” anti-aircraft missile system; and thus also worsening the cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance, jeopardizing the integration of its air defence and C3 system.

For the EU pillar, the situation is similar. Even if Turkey’s relationship with Brussels is seriously to deteriorate because of the Cyprus situation, civil rights issues, the Libyan and Syrian files, or the use of migration as a tool of pressure, there is a possibility of a potential improvement.

But due to the weakness of EU facing the Ankara’s blackmail and the incapacity of Bruxelles (and its Member States) to face it with a firmer and at the same time more cooperative stand, there is a further indirect advantage of the strategic planning of Russia to undermine the Western economic and security architectures.

Two Cold Friends

The two leaders have not developed any personal affinity, revealing that both are aware of each other’s projects, views and perceptions and the similar, undemocratic nature of the two countries.

This, even weak, friendship is not, and likely will not be, the basis for ideological rapprochement, and also if the two countries are marked by an authoritarian approach; while this ‘brotherhood’ is more profound and evident between Russia and China, probably due to the previous Communist ideological base.

The major ideological element of distrust for Moscow is the Erdoğan’s vicinity (and in many cases with real support, like in Syria and Libya) to the galaxy of Muslim Brotherhood groups. These groups are banned in Russia and Moscow closely monitors their activities, especially in Muslim-populated areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia; and Putin is fully aware of the Turkish leader’s ambitions to lead the Muslim world.

Despite the suspicions, Moscow seeks to work with Ankara to control and moderate the extremism of Muslim populations. Also, here there are inconsistencies; Turkey continues to express support of the Tatar Muslim minorities in Crimea (the Ukrainian region unilaterally annexed by Russia in 2014), but avoids irritating Russia, and without any real action.

As mentioned, Putin is fully aware of the threat posed by jihadist extremism in the domestic dimension. So, the fact that the Turkish leader has ambitions to lead the Muslim world is a real concern for the Kremlin, which is constantly claiming at all occasions to cooperate with all the international community to fight against Islamic terrorism alongside Europe.

If Russian and Turkish interests would expand other geographical areas, the risk of mutual confrontation would increase; but also as problems that might be created in one area could be solved by resorting to a quid pro quo in other regions with the implementation of the pragmatic approach of Moscow and Ankara.

Mutual Influence?

In any bilateral relation, the influence that one partner may exert over the other, is a fundamental parameter to analyse.

It appears that Russia has more leverage with Turkey than the contrary. This asymmetrical situation emerged after a Russian plane was shot down in Syria in 2015 by Turkish jests.

Since then, Russia, while avoiding cornering Turkey in an untenable situation, increased the pressures on Ankara, from restrictions on trade and movement of people between the two countries, to the threat of canceling the nuclear energy power station project and launching media and social media campaigns targeting Erdoğan and his family’s alleged businesses in Syria, using well-organized resources, inherited from the Cold War.

Further, Moscow has in hand an old, but still powerful, and destabilizing asset against Turkey – the support for Kurdistan independence; especially with the assistance to PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party, which has existed since the days of the former USSR and the Cold War era), and which is a serious problem and a constant source of irritation for Ankara. Also, even if in a more covert way, Russia supports the Kurdish forces operating in Syria and Iraq, and this is another reason of concern for Turkey, which saw any Kurdish presence, a threat to its national security. (In fact, Ankara has pressured Washington to cut support to the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds regardless if they fought against ISIS/Al-Qaeda elements, but without significant results).

However, Ankara also believes that it has several assets of influence, such as, Russians (mainly from Tatarstan) studying in Turkish universities, the Northern Caucasus diaspora living in Turkey, or the millions of Russians who as tourists enjoy Turkish beaches every year and are to some extent attracted by its culture. Ankara is convinced that the Russian intervention in Syria would prevent the consolidation of Kurdish autonomy in the region (the Bashar Al-Asssad  government, despite using Kurdish forces to fight against the Islamist insurgents, is strongly against the establishment of any idea of setting up of an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria; this is welcomed also by the Syrian neighbours, other than Turkey, because it would pave the way for a future Kurdish state which may include the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranian Kurdistan, and the largest part of this possible entity, Kurdish Turkey).

Case Study Of Cooperation And/Or Confrontation: Syria

Syria is the main area where there is the highest risk of collision between Turkey and Russia; but at the same time, it is the area, where the two powers, despite their polarization and divergent interests, have established, even if unstable, a cooperative model.

Russian intervention, since September 2015, prevented the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, which was (and still is) Turkey’s long-term objective. It should be remembered that the controlling or weakening of Syria, under the French mandate after independence since 1945, has been a strategic target of Turkey, after the establishment of the republic in 1923.

It was thus surprising that in 2016 Putin brought Erdoğan into a trilateral meeting with Iran (the so-called “Astana,” the Kazakhstan capital city, dialogue format), which has however not been possible since February 2019, although this forum remains active at various levels, where it is able to design small-scale solutions.

Erdoğan, it should be remembered, initially was openly supportive of the Islamist insurgents and, for a period, openly sided with them and was strong allied with the Gulf States in support for the ISIS/Al Qaeda project to dismantle Syria (and Iraq), destroy the Sykes-Picot accord scheme, and set up a radical Islamist state, until its possible absorption by Saudi Arabia, according to informed reports.

Riyad had, and appears to have till today, the dream to re-purpose itself as the “new” (old) Hashemite project, in the Saudi hands, to re-unite all the Mashrak Arabs and territories into a united kingdom.

According to some analysts, when Erdoğan became aware of this plan, which collided with his own hegemonic project to re-establish the Ottoman domain over the Arabic peninsula, he broke with Riyad and approached the new deadly enemy of the Saudis – Qatar, which has become close to Iran, the strongest opponent of Riyadh.

The fact is that the Astana meeting of 2016 laid the groundwork for a compromise in October 2019 on “zones of controls,” which, although it did not satisfy any of the attendants, remains in place despite the violations.

When Turkey significantly increased its involvement in the Syrian conflict, the Assad government had no choice but to adhere more than ever to Russia, while Iran did not have the capacity to counter Turkey entering in the structure established by Moscow.

Thus, Turkish involvement allowed Moscow to dominate the Syrian scheme, albeit indirectly, reducing Iranian influence and limiting Ankara as well, right to the border area with Turkey.

In turn, other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia gradually reduced their impact on the Levant, as did Western diplomacy, making Ankara the dominant power supporting some of the Syrian opposition forces.

In this way, by controlling the warring factions in Syria (like Islamist “moderates,” ethnic Turkish militias), Moscow, and Ankara are now, even if on opposite sides, the masters of conflict (which has been case, tragically, since 2011).

The “Astana” format meeting in 2016 also contributed to moving the focus of international mediation mechanisms—put in place in both Vienna and Geneva—thus helping to increase their control of the conflict. Over time, the understanding between the two powers has contributed to diminishing Tehran’s influence, as tensions between rebels, Turkish proxies and Assad’s forces are better resolved through dialogue between Moscow and Ankara than through the trilateral Astana format.

Examples of this Russian-Turkish understanding or “cooperative hostility” can be found in 2016, when Russia gave the green light to Turkey’s operations in Syria, receiving in return the green light for Damascus’s forces to takeover Aleppo, the most important city under rebel control, in a clear quid pro quo.

The volatile situation in Syria may change, while Russia seems firm in remaining there, especially now that Damascus has overcome the worst crisis. The US could decide to change again its strategy there, which would change further the scene of the current situation and impact the Turkish stance and its relations with Moscow.

The Other Area Of Confrontation And/Or Cooperation: North Africa

North Africa appears to be the best area where the two divergent approaches of Russia and Turkey find now the best example.

The first example is Libya. At the end of 2019, Turkey decided to increase its involvement in Libya by sending military advisors, Syrian mercenaries and drones units belonging to the country’s regular armed forces in support of the UN and EU-(formally) backed government, based in Tripoli, which had the support of several Islamist militias. On the opposite side are Marshal Haftar’s forces, supported by the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and France.

Again, we could see how the intervention of one of the stakeholders in support of one faction enhances the importance of the other stakeholder’s help for the other side.

The intensity of Turkish support stopped Haftar’s offensive in its tracks, forcing him to seek further support from Moscow, which reacted by sending “Wagner” private security firm contractors and modern weapons systems (including MIG-29 fighters “Fulcrum” and Su-24 bombers “Fencer” and SAM units) along with personnel to operate and train the local staff.

The result produced a stalemate in the conflict, in which Turkey and Russia have once again contributed to be the most influential players in a conflict in a third country, and also favoured by US passivity and intra-European split (especially the France and Italy polarization in supporting the two powers there; Rome, openly, the Tripoli-government, and Paris, with a more discrete and ambiguous approach, the one in the East).

The present stalemate would end with the planned Libyan elections, planned for the end of the current year or the beginning of 2022. Regardless, the timing the elections and the formation of a nationwide government in Libya which will follow, will re-open the terms of the relations of Moscow and Ankara, at least in that region.

Russia, like Turkey, appears firmly oriented to (re)-establish a base on Libyan territory, expanding slowly but firmly, its footprint in the Mediterranean basin (it already has bases in Tartus and Latakia, Syria), and its target is to have a naval base in Benghazi and/or an air base in Tobruk. If this is achieved, this plan would substantially strengthen Moscow’s position in the central Mediterranean, and consolidating the Eastern one, and paving the way for the Western one.

Algeria is the most recent sub-area of the Mediterranean basin where the two cooperate.

Since independence, achieved in 1962, Algeria is a pivot of the great strategy of Moscow to get influence in the Mediterranean region; and during the Cold War, the use of the harbour of Oran Mers El Khebir was a real threat to the NATO naval forces in the Western and Central Mediterranean. After the collapse of the USSR, despite the end of the presence in Oran, Moscow was able to keep strong ties with Algeria, especially with the selling of more and more sophisticated weapons systems; Algeria, to face the hostility of Morocco, fully pro-Western, also maintained good relations with Moscow.

Now, with the persistent crisis in Libya, and to re-propose the Ottoman dream (when Algeria had a semi-autonomous status led by a “dey” under the nominal suzerainty of the Sultan of Constantinople), but also in more prosaic terms, to make its presence in Tripoli more efficient, Ankara boosted her penetration policy in Algeria.

The Algerian leadership, which crushed with an iron fist a bloody Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, looks with a mixed feeling at Turkish diplomatic action, given the sympathies Ankara has for political Islam. But the need of stabilization in Libya requires collective action, and Ankara may represent a partner, even with limits (Algiers refused the Turkish request to host air units, tasked to operate in Libya, in its soil and did not allow the use of national airspace to Turkish jets).

The recent worsening of the French-Algerian relations, due to words of President Macron (and other older issues), could be considered a window of opportunity, where both Russia and Turkey, with different channels and impact, take the chance to consolidate their contacts (already very solid for Moscow) with Algiers in antagonizing France and reducing the room of influence of Paris in its former colony.

Again, the pragmatic approach of their relations, shows that Moscow and Ankara have found a modus vivendi, semi-acceptable, making it altogether tenable.

For Russia, the decline of French (and Western) influence in Algeria is a main target, given the weight and role of the North African country in Africa, the Arab world, Europe and the Mediterranean; and Moscow makes clear that it is looking for more naval bases around the world, and Algeria was specifically mentioned in a speech by the Minister of Defence, Serghei Shoigu.

A Sensitive Area

Meanwhile, the same model of cooperative, mutually beneficial confrontation between Russia and Turkey saw a recent revival of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the tensions that followed.

The long-standing open failure of the Minsk Group of OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to establish a negotiated framework for the Nagorno-Karabakh region, pending since 1991, was the open excuse for Azerbaijan to launch its latest successful offensive, recapturing a large part of the region, and inflicting a heavy military defeat on Armenian forces. Baku was strongly supported by Turkey with military advisors and state-of-the-art equipment in terms of drones (including the suicide-like versions of those), communications systems and sensors. After that, Turkey saw an important rise of influence in Baku’s policies.

These successes reinforced Turkey’s ties with Azerbaijan, to the point of launching the idea of “two countries, one people” (re-proposed on a small scale, the dream of “Pan-Turanism” as a project of uniting the Turkish ethnic people from the Mediterranean to Asia, which is also the third element of the ideological architecture of the Erdoganism project, together the rebuilding of the Ottoman Empire and the defence of islam). Thus, Erdoğan visited his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev last December to celebrate the joined victory against the Christian and Westernized Armenia.

Both Turkey and Russia have thus consolidated their influence in the region. Turkey, which through Azerbaijan looks to gain access to the Caspian Sea and tries to assert itself in a region where its cultural, ethnic, and linguistic ancestry gives it influence.

It should be added, after the conflict, Ankara has tried to deploy military observers in the area; Russian opposition prevented it, despite the previous agreement, and limited the presence of Turkish military to the nominally bi-national, peacekeeping force, of some staff officers at the mission HQ.

Although it may seem contradictory, Russia also benefitted from the conflict by supporting defeated Armenia. In fact, since 2018, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan has been convinced by US and France (countries where there is a large, influential, and rich Armenian diaspora) to pursue a pro-Western agenda, to the detriment of Russian interests and historical ties. But, after the successful Azeri operation, Armenia was abandoned (as usual) by Western powers – forcing Erevan to turn to its traditional ally and security guarantor, Russia, which provided an additional security guarantee to Armenia in case of possible military pressure from Turkey in support of Azerbaijan. (A similar controversial personality like Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia had the same fate, initially supported by the West, then abandoned as corrupt and thus undesirable).

Russia, for its part, is consolidating its position as the dominant power over weakened Armenia—taking advantage of the West’s fickleness—as the guarantor of the peace agreement. Further, the use of the Caspian Sea (and the Eastern Mediterranean sea) as launching range for the spectacular firing of pre-strategic cruise missiles Kalibr/ Biryuza, hitting Islamist insurgent targets in Syria, rang an alarm bell for many stakeholders, in the region, and outside.

Moscow, for the time being, has reinforced its “buffer zone” in the Southern buffer despite pressure from NATO and has increased the pressure against the pro-Western Georgia.

The New Frontier Of Cooperation And/Or Confrontation Between Moscow And Ankara: Sub-Saharan Africa (Another Fissure Of Western Influence)

The recent Turkish presidental tour in Angola, Nigeria and Togo coincided with the announcement of the end of Sahel’s French operation “Barkhane,” and he seems determined to invest in African military terrain, and continue his offensive against France and the West everywhere.

Determined to accelerate his country’s diplomatic and economic offensive in Africa, since the option of rapprochement with EU faded at the turn of the 2000s, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is investing more and more in the sub-Saharan Africa.

Turkey already has significant economic weight in West Africa, which has enabled it to obtain from several governments in the sub-region the closure of schools close to the Gülen Islamist brotherhood (named after the imam Turkey accuses of having allegedly fomented the attempted coup d’état of July 2016), as was the case in 2017 in Senegal. On the security front, however, this cooperation is still in its early stages. Turkey, which has been hosting Malian officers for training since 2018, has donated $5 million to the G5 Sahel force and signed a military agreement with Niger in 2020.

It seems that Erdogan is seeking to fill the gaps left by the partial withdrawal of France. This option may collide with at least with one of the hotspots of the new politico-diplomatic-military offensive of Russia in the so-called “FranceAfrique” – Mali (the other, as of now is the Central African Republic).

In Mali, Moscow seems to have made an intensive bet, in providing military assistance (again the “Wagner” contractors, but only initially; and now also with provision of military hardware) and getting advantage with the growing hostility of the local population for any Western presence (e.g., the EU Training Mission, the UN Mission [MINUSMA]; the multinational European special force, Takuba, the presence of the CIA’s drones and the support of previous corrupted leaderships).

For the time being, it seems too early to foresee any possible polarization between Moscow and Ankara in the sub-area. But the only certain element for any kind of analysis is that the two work against France (and indirectly NATO, EU, USA). The future will tell what comes of all this.

Conclusion

Although the Russian-Turkish cooperation model—essentially a model with a high military content—has shown its usefulness, turning war zones into frozen conflicts that benefit both actors, it might have its limits.

This situation could lead the endlessly erratic policy of Erdoğan to consider that aligning with his Western allies could provide him with more leverage in the conflict zones.

An evident sign of this appeasement attempt with Turkey is the communiqué of the NATO Summit in June 2021, where no mention was made of Russia’s expansion attempts in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. The point was not to exacerbate Turkey, even though within the Alliance (and EU as well) there is a growing irritation against Ankara, with its blackmails, insults, and provocations.

This situation has led Moscow (according to its own logic) to instrumentalise as much as possible crises inside the Euro-Atlantic area with the aim of creating and/or widening rifts within the Western alliances and diversifying its focus.

Russian and Turkish dynamism are part of a new global geopolitical trend in which new emerging powers, such as Russia and Turkey, act in a coordinated manner to challenge Western interests.

In recent years the progression of the persistently ambiguous Russian-Turkish relationship, although not strategic, is bearing results for both the actors.

Regardless of reduced economic ties, ideological differences, Moscow and Ankara have reached, in pragmatical mode, a mutually acceptable mode of cooperation, despite supporting opposing factions in various geo-strategic theatres.

But, as mentioned before, the relation remains weak – especially for Erdoğan, because the Turkish leader has been compensating for growing domestic discontent with external military successes and interventions. And these successes are short-lived. He would be forced to embark on new and costly foreign adventures and further increase the already heavy pressure on the growing internal opposition, extremising the tensions especially with EU.

One of these potential external adventures, the most serious threat to the continuation of a stable relationship between Moscow and Ankara, could be the involvement of Turkey in the Ukrainian crisis, where it is providing support to the modernization of Kiev’s armed forces. Ukraine is a red line for Moscow and because of the nature of the two states, there is the risk of an uncontrollable escalation with an extremely worrying and uncertain outcome. Implementing such a scenario should be foreseen in advance because of the enormous risks it would entail, giving the limited possibilities of a rapprochement on security matters between the two states.

While the non-existence of a formal framework between Moscow and Ankara has allowed them to achieve significant results, this gap could represent a serious vacuum if the two enter into a collision route.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).