How we all became ‘unknown Middle Easterners’

How we all became ‘unknown Middle Easterners’

Every flower has a season. Every idea has its time. That’s what I have been thinking about at the D-8 meeting in the southern province of Antalya this week. 

The “Developing 8” was established by the late Prof. Necmettin Erbakan in 1997, when he was prime minister of Turkey. This was right around the time when the G20 started as a meeting of finance ministers in response to the 1997 financial crisis. Erbakan was Turkey’s first Islamist prime minster, and he set up the D-8 as a forum for major Muslim counties. It was composed of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey, which have 15 percent of the world population. Back then, the union was fairly representative of the Muslim world, but had little coherence aside from that. It didn’t really come together as a policy unit. Today, that has changed.

I can think of no better way to explain this change than to look at the way the United States is talking about the caravan of migrants approaching its southern border. Donald Trump had a choice. He could have empathized with these people, recognized the difficulties of their circumstances, or he could use them to scare voters. Maybe he could have done a bit of both. He went for an undiluted version of the latter option, calling them violent criminals and painting a picture of a barbarian horde at the gates of civilization. Morally, this is despicable. Politically, it has become common sense.

“It’s all about the midterms, you know,” my American friends are saying apologetically. Of course I know. I am a seasoned citizen of Turkey, for one, and all too accustomed to electioneering. I know it, but I refuse to understand it. The mere fact that Trump implied that the Latin American caravan of people had “Middle Easterners terrorists” shows us the nature of the problem in Washington. He is just lumping “the wretched of the earth” together. This rhetoric isn’t thuggishness – even thugs have a moral code. I think that in the minds of Trump’s “base,” the world is composed of two parts: Places inhabited by human beings and places inhabited by monkeys. In small populist countries, this sort of thing can lead to difficult problems. Having taken over the United States government, it thrusts the world into a major moral crisis.

In this world, things like the D-8 have meaning because the liberal West is no longer liberal, and will not include countries like ours in global systems. While people like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan call for U.N. reform, Trump appoints John Bolton as national security advisor, all but guaranteeing that such a thing cannot happen. While populist flames in Mexico and Brazil take global anger to the U.S.’s doorstep, Washington remains emotionally numb. But more than ever, we “unknown Middle Easterners” have something in common with “Latinos,” Africans and Asians, mind you. Perhaps Trump is more right to conflate us than he realizes.

It reminds me of the tale of the stork and the crow of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi’s Mesnevi.

“A wise man spoke thus:

‘I once saw a crow and a stork run together, then take flight.

I was astonished, and set out to see what they had in common.

As I drew near, I saw that both were lame.’”

If someone in the liberal world still cares about the system their fathers built, they should learn to listen to crows and storks.

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