Archive for January, 2008

Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725, initiated the forced Westernization of his country.  After touring Europe in an attempt to gain first hand knowledge of the reasons for European military superiority, he paid Western experts to return to Russia to revamp its army and navy, he forced his courtiers to adopt Western style clothing and manners, and initiated far-reaching religious and civil reforms.  He initiated the Great Northern War (1700-1721) to achieve Baltic supremacy, and relocated the Russian capital to the new city of St. Petersburg once his objective had been reached.  When his plans to modernize Russia were threatened by his own son Alexei, Peter had him executed.

For all this, Russia remained relatively isolated from Europe and its rulers aspired to the still greater trade and military advantages that would accrue by taking control of the Black Sea and the Hellespont.  Access to the Mediterranean, they believed, would catapult Russia to a new level of wealth and influence.  Only the decaying Muslim Ottoman Empire stood in the way.

Thus in 1768, Catherine the Great, a former Empress-consort who had displayed her calculating character in obtaining the deposition of her husband and proclamation of herself as Empress, began the next phase of Russian aggrandisement.  Signalling Russia’s achievement of a new level of power, Catherine ordered the circumnavigation of Europe by a number of squadrons of Russia’s Baltic fleet in 1770.  The shock to Western Europe’s powers can only have been exceeded by that of the Turks, who were soundly defeated at the Battle Chesma, the results of which were mirrored on land at the Battle of Kagul in the same year. 


Allegory of Catherine the Great’s Victory over the Turks, by Stephano Torelli

The war and the Treaty of Kuchuk-Karnarji of 1774 were a terrible blow to Ottoman prestige, and a major milestone in the ongoing ascendancy of the European world over Islamic civilization.  The Ottomans were forced to cede the region surrounding the Crimea and the tributary state of the Tatar Khanate was rendered a Russian dependency.  Russia obtained freedom of trade and navigation in the Ottoman Empire and a protectorate over Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire as well.  Heartened by this progress, the Russians would attack again soon, and through the next Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792) obtain even greater control over the Black Sea and continued their march towards the Balkans.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 was the first of two key events that gave the “Eastern Question” a new dimension.  It brought the potential importance of the Middle East to the attention of the British Empire, then the world’s imperial superpower.  England had recently defeated France in the Seven Years’ War, securing control over both North America and India.  To its leaders, Russia’s advance in the Eastern Mediterranean was unwelcome. Soon it would be accompanied by advances in Persia and central Asia that might well threaten Britain’s interests.   Russia may have been a traditional ally of the Britain’s up to this point, but its new ambition would sour relations between the two powers.

Only Napoleon could temporarily bring the two nations to ignore their emergining differences and cooperate again.  However, it was also Napoleon who convinced the British beyond any doubt of the importance of the Middle East to its imperial scheme, and set Great Britain on a path that would lead it to over a century of Middle Eastern entanglements, from which America’s leadership could learn a great deal.

More on Napoleon’s fateful impact on the Middle East to come in the next edition of Middle East Milestones, exclusively for Powell History Mailing List members.  Join here!  For more information on the upcoming Powell History course for adults, The Islamist Entanglement, check here.

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Since 2007 is getting “old,” I guess I’d better finish this one off!

In a world without a preeminent leader — for good or evil — how does one choose a “Person of the Year”, and who do I think should be singled out for that title for 2007? 

The question is one of historical significance and of how to identify it in a journalistic context.

In choosing someone, one must identify the nature of the world events in fundamental terms, and then determine whose actions are likely to be important in shaping that world in the near and long term.  And to do both these things properly, one needs a philosophy of history –a generalized empirical outlook concerning historical change, integrated with a fundamental philosophy.

As of yet, however, no such philosophy of history exists, which makes the choice difficult. Still, I would note that the Middle East has quite evidently become the fulcrum of world events, and thus it seems appropriate to select an individual who is having–or may potentially have–and important impact on life there, or–perhaps more importantly–on the way that the Middle East is viewed abroad.

In terms of actual impact, Mahmoud Ahmedinehad is clearly the most influential leader in the region.  To make him “Person of the Year” for 2007, however, would be like having made Hitler “Person of the Year” in 1933.  Ahmedinejad has repudiated limits on Iran’s “sovereignty,” as Hitler did in 1933 at the World Disarmament Conference, but he, like Hitler at that early juncture, is far from dominating world events.

It seems more fitting to choose someone who may be helping to change Middle Eastern culture and/or the cultural response of the rest of the World to the Middle East even though, as in 1933, there may be no one in a position to stop the coming debacle that Iran is intent on creating. 

If there is going to be genuine, long-term progress in Middle Eastern culture, it will come from intellectuals who are able to straddle the divide between the West and Islam, and find ways to transpose Western values into the Middle Eastern context.  The type of individual I’m referring to will resemble a Namik Kemal in Turkish history. (Note: Wikipedia’s entry on Kemal, to which I have linked, does not sufficiently relate his importance to the progressive transformation of the Ottoman culture. I will be discussing Kemal and others like him in my upcoming course, The Islamist Entanglement)

Along these lines, I would choose Ayaan Hirsi Ali as Person of the Year for 2007.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – PHR Person of the Year, 2007

Selected by Time as one of the most influential people in the world in 2005, Ali is the most heroic critic of Islam I can think of–especially since she is a woman.  2007 revealed yet again the atrocities that Islamic societies perpetrate on women.  A few years ago, 16-yr old Atefah Sahaaleh was sentenced to death and publicly hung in Iran for “crimes against chastity.” Her crime was to be raped!  Since then a steady stream of horror stories of injustice have revealed what it is to be a woman in an Islamist regime.  Another Iranian woman, Nazanin Fatehi, may have escaped the worst, but more recently, “the Girl from Qatif” was gang-raped, and then punished by a Saudi Court for being the victim of a violent crime.

Ali, whose family escaped from the Islamic backwater of Somalia, herself suffered female genital mutilation and escaped an arranged marriage.  She obtained asylum in the Netherlands, where she served in its parliament, colaborated on the Dutch film Submission, by Theo Van Gogh, and recently authored her autobiography Infidel

At present, she is the most important advocate of the modernization, i.e. disintegration, of Islam.   In essence, what Ali stands for is the treatment of Islam as a historical creation which cannot act as a guide to modern life.  Thus she stands explicitly for a transformation equivalent to that which Western civilization has implicitly undertaken with regards to Christianity.  No idea could be more important for transforming the world in a positive way, with one exception (the rebirth of the United States as nation that consistenly upholds individual rights).

That Ali lives outside of the Islamic world may limit the impact she has on historical change there, and may weaken the case for making her a “Person of the Year.”  Kemal, by contrast, did live in exile from Turkey, but also returned there and was very influential in transforming that country’s culture.  Ali, however, has a far better grasp of what the Islamic world really needs to achieve genuine progress.  It may take others yet to absorb her ideas and give them currency among Muslim women and others in Islamic countries, but if that happens, a great positive step will have been taken.  Let’s hope I have reason to pick Ali again in the coming years.

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I’m very excited by the latest learning techniques I’m going to be teaching my students in the The Islamist EntanglementIn this, the 3rd course in the acclaimed A First History for AdultsTM program, I’ll be incorporating everything that Powell History clients have come to expect–and more!

Because the completion of my European History program has been delayed, however, I have to postpone the start of the course by two weeks.


The Islamist Entanglement will now begin February 20th, instead of February 6th.  Live classes will still run every two weeks, on Wednesday evenings.


Powell History is now offering 3-month and 5-month installment plans.  Students who register before February 8th, through the course webpage are eligible for this offer.  (Look for the offer in the “Latest News” section.)  Pay less and pay later with Powell History!  And get ready to learn!

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When a single individual has a preeminent impact on the world, then based on that person’s “historical footprint,” they have to be accorded the status of “person of the year.”

As Time’s editor’s wrote when assigning the position to Vladimir Putin, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person in question is good. 

Hitler Playing his Anthem of HateThis can be troubling for those who might prefer to single out the most important and morally good person as the “person of the year.” Taking that approach, however, would involve confusing two kinds of value-judgment:  ethical value-judgments–which pertain to whether or not someone is good or bad, and metaphysical value-judgments–which in this context pertain to the significance of a person’s role in shaping the world we live in.

Of course, good is fundamentally worthier of attention than evil, but that doesn’t mean that good people are necessarily those determining the course of events at any point in time. An evil person can be in that position, and thus be “person of the year” because of the failure of good people to be just (to recognize evil for what it is and defend the good).  A perfect example is Hitler in 1938 (actually chosen by Time Magazine), who was in a position to dominate events in the world, because of the infamous appeasement of the Nazi regime by Europe’s leaders.  In this historical example and in general, the selection of such a person as “person of the year” serves as an indictment of those (such as Neville Chamberlain in 1938) who allow evil to reach its undeserved status in the world and a clarion call to the moral to take action.

Fortunately, in our day, evil is nowhere near as empowered as it was in 1938.  Osama Bin Laden is living in a cave somewhere, where he belongs.  Ahmedinejad has to worry about his own people rebelling because the oil rich country doesn’t provide its own citizens with gas.  North Korea lives in darkness for lack of power. (A picture really is worth a thousand words!)

The most important troublesome regimes–Russia and China–are both coasting along pragmatically.  Their leaders have abandoned ideology and accepted whatever reforms they believe can benefit them, while maintaining their traditionally oppressive regimes.

Which is not to say that an evil person isn’t within striking distance of being “person of the year” very soon.  Ahmedinejad may be allowed to assume the title, though I believe that Israel will view the rise of nuclear Iran as intolerable and take matters into its own hands, making its own president the true “decider” of the coming decade.

We still haven’t arrived a PHR’s “Person of the Year” for 2007.  More on the algorithm, and my choice in Part4!

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The latter seventeenth century saw the marked advance of Western civilization at the expense of Islamic power, culminating in Europe’s victory in the “Great Turkish War.”

Despite a brief resurgence under the martial dynasty of vizirs (prime ministers) of the Koprulu family, it became evident that the tide of Islam had been turned and that the West would begin to dominate its rival. In one last push–an attempt to assert a rebirth of their power after losing naval supremacy in 1571 and failing to take advantage of Europe’s own internal struggles–the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1683.  The intervention of Poland, however, in the name of Christian solidarity, saw the invaders routed and pushed east. An extended contest followed between the Ottoman Empire and the “Holy League” that rallied to the aid of Austria featured a string of defeats for the Turks.  The Ottomans deposed their Sultan, hoping that new leadership would revive their fortunes, but it was for naught.  After briefly retaking part of Serbia, they failed to contain the European advance.

Return from Vienna

Polish soldiers return from Vienna with Ottoman loot.

(It was during this struggle that the Ottomans, to their eternal disgrace, used the Parthenon as an ammunition storehouse, leading to an explosion and the partial destruction of this irreplaceable monument to the glory of ancient Greece.)

In 1699, the Ottomans were forced to agree to the Treaty of Karlowitz as a defeated power.  By its terms they ceded extensive territories, including Hungary and parts of Romania and Croatia, long held to be within the “House of Islam.”

In the words of Middle East historian Bernard Lewis, the treaty was “a fateful opening to the eighteenth century.”  It began a series of humiliating defeats and an almost continuous string of cessions of territory to Europe’s powers.

A new pattern of East-West relations arose.  Europe’s power-hungry regimes could hardly be expected to passively observe the decay of Islamic power.  The impressive swath of Ottoman territory in Europe would have to be allotted to some appropriate power.  Its remaining presence in the Mediterranean would also demand attention, as its connection to Western imperial projects in Asia emerged.  Thus the “Eastern Question” was born.  How would the West, now in the ascendant, conduct its relations with the Middle East?

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