10 Questions for Hugh Pope

By Razib Khan | August 30, 2010 10:02 am

popehughHugh Pope is the author of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East, Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, and Turkey Unveiled. He was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for 25 years, most recently with The Wall Street Journal, and has a degree in Oriental Studies from Oxford. He currently works for the International Crisis Group, focusing on issues of Turkey and Cyprus. Despite similarities of physiognomy and Oxford educations Hugh Pope is not Hugh Grant.

Below are 10 questions.


1 – In Sons of the Conquerors I recall you being able to communicate with people from all over the Turkic world in Turkish. My impression from that is that from Xinjiang to Anatolia the differences between Turkic languages are relatively marginal. Am I misremembering something here? Can you give an analogy as to the distance between Turkic languages in terms of intelligibility? (e.g., Spanish:Italian::Turkish:Uzbek)

Turkic languages are in three main groups: roughly the more westerly group of Turkish, Azeri, Balkan Turkish and Turkmen; a central group including Uzbek and Uygur; and an eastern group that includes Kazakh and Kyrgyz. The westerly is the most developed, and you could say share the same inter-intelligibility of Spanish, French and Italian. A Kazakh and a Turk will however take longer to learn each other’s languages. However, since the structure is similar, and there is quite a good overlap of words (although they can be pronounced very differently), they learn them much quicker than learning a tongue in another language group. Because Japanese shares many grammatical similarities with the group, many Turks and Japanese can also learn their languages much quicker than others.

2 – One of the first nations in the Middle East in which you lived was Syria. As you observe in Dining with al-Qaeda Syria preserves a great deal of religious diversity, a variety draining out of many of the other nations in the region. In particular, I am curious as to your assessment of the attitudes of Alawis to the Muslim world as a whole. From my reading I am to understand that they have been “mainstreaming” their identity over the past few generations so that they are now a sect of Twelver Shia Muslims, whereas in the early 20th century their own self-perception was much grayer, with an identity more distinct from Islam as a whole like the Druze or Yezidis.

Interestingly, Alawis in Syria are different from the Alevis in Turkey, but both have hesitated to describe themselves completely outside mainstream Islam. Clearly they come from rural groups who share a common point of a different, Shia-style tradition, distinct from the main (Ottoman) Sunni power of the Middle Ages. In Turkey, many Alevi communities appear to have been converted by missionaries from Safavid/Shia Iran, and because there was so little communication between different parts of the empire, it gave rise to many different Alevi traditions. The picture in the two main post-Ottoman countries with Alevis/Alawis, Syria and Turkey, has diverged somewhat since then. The minority Alawism of the Assad family, in power since the 1970s, has had more impact on their efforts to keep Syria ‘secular’ rather than promoting any Alawi orthodoxy. In Turkey, where Western style rights and freedoms have been spreading, various Alevi factions compete to be known as mainstream or even official. There are some Turkish Alevis, apparently a minority, who want to be considered as a distinct religion. One feature shared with Syria is a love of secularism — some Turkish Alevis even treat republican founder Kemal Ataturk as a kind of saint, probably because his secularism defended them from oppression by the Sunni majority. A difference with Syria is that even though the Alevis in Turkey can’t agree on a common dogma, Alevism is now very much established as an alternative to Sunni Islam.

3 – I’ve never been to the Middle East so what I know is mostly from books, papers, and various data sources. The World Values Survey in 2005-2008 had he following results for selected nations in regards to those who were convinced atheists:

Great Britain – 10.4%, 105 out of 1041
USA – 3.6%, 42 out of 1249
Turkey – 0.5% 7 out of 1346
Egypt – 0% 0 out of 3051
Iran – 0.1% 3 out of 2156
Jordan – 0.1% 1 out of 1106

I’ve provided percentages and counts. As someone more intimately familiar with Middle Eastern people, do these numbers tell us anything real? (I know in the USA the percentage who don’t believe in God is higher than those who say they’re atheists, because the label atheist has some stigma)

It’s true that religion, and respect for religion, is very deep-rooted in Middle Eastern societies. I think it is partly because they have had a very rough time in the past couple of centuries, making people distrustful of human efforts and outside powers. You should also take into account the very vivid and influential stigma attached by the Koran and Muslim societies to anyone leaving the faith or not believing in God.

4 – The term nation has a relatively broad meaning in English today, and informally denotes a particular land mass enclosed by political boundaries. But a narrower older meaning is that a nation consists of a particular people with an identity as a nation on a particular territory. The nation-state if you will. By the second definition it seems that Turks and Iranians (despite the ethnic and religious diversity in both these nation-states) have a sense of nationality. Most Americans at this point would probably agree with the assertion that Iraqis do not have such a viewpoint, while it seems that many of the Persian Gulf monarchies are more coalitions of clans brought together by personal rule. Of the Arab nations Egypt in particular seems to stand out to me as analogous to Turkey or Iran. What would say of this assertion?

I think your assertion is broadly correct, and I’d also note that the sense of Iraqi nationality may be in eclipse but that it is still there. Most Iraqi Kurds might dream of an independent Kurdistan, but I’m not sure they really want to merge their advanced society of three million people with, say, the 12-15 million poorer, less educated Kurds of Turkey. Turkey, Iran and Egypt all have long and well-established state traditions, which also tends to nurture a sense of nationhood. Arab states, many of which were previously part of the Ottoman Empire, have a much harder time making their statehood seem like nationhood. Saudi Arabia may come the closest to this – the Saudi family has been running things in that part of the world off and on for 300 years – but Saudi Arabia is a rather unusual place so hard to make generalisations about it!

5 – Let’s play at “alternate history.” What if the world’s largest concentration of oil reserves were not in the Arab Middle East and Iran. Would these Middle Eastern nations be more well off, like Turkey, or would they be ignored and destitute like much of Africa and Afghanistan?

With all the caveats of alternative history, I suspect that a country like Iraq, with a state tradition and a long history would have done better, and that it would have been very hard without oil to make something of the Persian Gulf states. I agree however with the underlying idea behind your question, that lack of oil has forced a country like Turkey to work harder and have a more tolerant and pluralist culture.

6 – I’m curious about your interactions with the Yezidi’s. Did you discuss the details of their religion at all with them? If so, were you simply stonewalled, or did they give you consistent or inconsistent descriptions of their beliefs?

I did discuss aspects of their religion with some Yezidis, and they seemed to have as coherent a world view as any other in terms of theology (try explaining the Trinity to an outsider). In terms of religious culture, however, they had almost nothing to talk about since they have been so marginalized and oppressed. Certainly they feel a lot freer in U.S.-backed Iraq than they did under Saddam Hussein, but the attacks on them by extremists show that things could go badly for them too.

7 – I have an Iranian American friend. He is an ethnic Persian, and I inquired of him as to the existence of an independent Azeri Iranian community, and he did not know if such a group existed. Of course he knew that many Iranians were Azeris, but the distinction seemed of minimal interest to him. More a matter of curiosity than any importance. I’m curious as to ethnic relations in Iran, which seem relatively amicable. One model I have proposed for why Azeris and other Turks are so well integrated into the Iranian state is that to a great extent modern Iran as a Shia nation is a product of the Turkic Safavids and their successors. What do you think of this thesis?

That’s possible, but I’m not sure the Safavids took their ‘Turkicness’ very seriously (the Ottomans, their big rivals, didn’t make a big deal of it either). Iranian Azeris are well-integrated because they share Shia faith, they fought side by side with the others in the Iran-Iraq war, and because there is no limit to how high they can rise in Iranian society (despite all the Iranian snobbery against Turks and the Turkish language, and the occasional ethnic frictions there are in Persian/Azeri border towns). Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei comes from an Azeri family, as does Hossein Mousavi. The merchants of the Tehran bazaar are mostly Azeris.

8 – In Dining with al-Qaeda I was struck by the fact that Iranians you questioned about their militant rhetoric dismissed those who took their slogans literally. There seems to have been a gap in how people perceived language from culture to culture (this is true even within the United States). Perhaps a specialist in semiotics would have been handy. Your task as a journalist was to transmit information to the Western public, and so serve as an intermediary. And yet sometimes you encountered difficulties because your editors were less than familiar with the different way language is used in other cultures. Are the diplomats and politicians who deal with Middle Eastern issues versed in these nuances? After the Iraq War debacle I am not so sure that complacent confidence in the “commanding heights” of American civil service and politics should be a default.

The American civil service was well-versed in the nuances of Iraq before the war, but the political power chose to disregard their wisdom almost completely. (Same goes for the UK). American civil servants could not be expected to rebel against an unwise policy – in fact, only a handful resigned – but applied their can-do optimism to what (to me) seems like a completely impossible proposition. In Dining with al-Qaeda I was trying to tell people that they should trust no one with complacent confidence, especially not the media, and that they should develop a sceptical approach to information.

9 – A personal question. Your “divided loyalties,” so to speak, are highlighted in Dining with al-Qaeda. You’re British by national origin, have lived in the Middle East for much of your life, and worked for American journalistic outfits. If someone asks you “where are you from?, what do you answer? Is it very important who is asking the question?

I find this a very difficult question to answer. I was born in South Africa and raised there until I was nine, by English parents; I went to school in Britain; my university studies were of the Arab and Iranian worlds; I lived nearly half of my life in Turkey; I first married a Swiss national and now a Dutch national; my children have been educated in French and German schools. Generally I say, “I’m from Istanbul”, but even that seems less part of my loyalties now, since my favorite place to live is my house in the mountains in the south of Turkey.

10 – There exists the category “Middle East,” which includes the Arab nations (or perhaps the Arab nations of the Mashriq + Egypt + Arabia), Turkey and Iran. And yet there is also quite a bit of prejudice between Arabs, Turks, and Persians (as a South Asian I have experienced members of each group taking pains to distinguish itself from the others). But walking through Istanbul, Tehran, and an Arab city such as Damascus or Cairo, are the cultural differences that stark? Can the casual observer tell simply from styles of architecture what is Turk and Persian and Arab? Is it simply narcissism of small differences?

There are real differences between Turks, Persians, Arabs, Kurds and Jews, who are all main Middle Eastern peoples. But each national category has many sub-categories, some of which seem closer to the other main categories than they are to each other! It’s the same with Islam – people keep claiming it’s ‘one’, but in fact, Turkish, Persian and Saudi Islam, despite their shared theological reference points, could be entirely different religious cultures. The important thing in the Middle East is to recognize these differences, but also to see where they overlap, along with equally important overlaps with Western culture and commerce.

Image Credit: Thomas Foley

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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