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European Report

Fall of Constantinople, Fall of Europe

For Whom the Bell Tolls

By Paul Belien

Monday, May 29, 2006

553 years ago today, on 29 May 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire had been in decline for decades and the fall was inevitable. Some had tried to turn the tide. In 1374, when the Ottomans were only a nascent power, Prince Manuel, governor of Salonica and a son of the Byzantine Emperor, had tried to rally the inhabitants of his city against the Turks. But the Salonicans did not want to bear the high costs of defending their city and promptly threw him out. Out of fear of the Turks his father, Emperor John V, refused Manuel shelter within the walls of Constantinople and so did all the other Byzantine cities. Consequently the prince was forced to seek refuge with... the Ottomans, whom he served until 1394, when he became Emperor himself.

When the Sultan demanded a Byzantine princess from the Emperor, the latter gave away his daughter Theodora to spend the rest of her life in the Sultan's harem. He also gave the Turks a church in Constantinople to convert into a mosque. All the appeasement was in vain, however, because in 1453 the Turks demanded that the Byzantines surrender Constantinople. This time the Byzantines refused. In their final hour they saved their honour. "They fought for the city as they had never fought for the empire,” writes Jason Goodwin in his History of the Ottoman Empire. After a siege of two months the city fell. Emperor Constantine XI, Manuel's son, died with his sword in his hand.

I have been in Turkey for most of the past fortnight, attending a conference where I was invited to give a talk about my book. The trip, though planned long before, coincided with two hectic weeks in which the Belgian priest Father Leman, and politicians such as the Socialist Party leader Johan Vande Lanotte, demanded that I be prosecuted for allegedly inciting racial hatred.

Turkish (Muslim) friends who heard about this said I am always welcome in their country if the Belgian authorities should prosecute. They say they do not understand why the West European countries tolerate Islamist extremism to a degree that is not tolerated in a Muslim country such as Turkey, where female civil servants are not even allowed to wear headscarves to work.

On a tour of the town the daughter of our Turkish host showed me a banner by the gate of a local school, which bore a quote of Atat˝rk: "Nations who do not know their national identity will become the prey of other nations.” West Europeans would do well to bear this in mind. A young Turkish woman said that she is opposed to Turkey joining the EU because she fears that the Eurocrats will force her country to be "tolerant” towards Islamist fanatics, allowing them "rights” which in contemporary Turkey they do not have. Possibly an EU including Turkey would adopt more realistic, sensible and "tougher” policies with respect to Muslim extremism. Perhaps the current witch hunt in Western Europe, where everyone who worries about Islamism is branded as an "Islamophobe” and a "racist,” would stop if Turkish voices were heard.

During the past two weeks I also heard Turks expressing more sensible views on the relationship between church and state than I am used to hearing in Western Europe. Prof. Attila Yayla, one of Turkey's most outspoken liberatarians, said there is nothing wrong with religious conservatism. The latter is not an enemy of the free society. On the contrary, "religious conservatives are our allies in the fight against state totalitarians,” says Yayla. I agree, as would most Americans (but not, unfortunately, most Europeans). Where morality is no longer upheld by religion, the state steps in to fill the void and the state becomes God, obliterating all morality. Today the welfare state, both at the national and at the European level (the "EUSSR”), is becoming increasingly totalitarian, confirming Vladimir Bukovsky's warning in this respect. It is no coincidence, I think, that precisely the fanatic proponents of a complete secularisation of European society, such as Belgium's leading politicians and intellectuals (including priests such as Father Leman) are harassing the so-called "islamophobes” and "racists.”

This weekend, upon my return from Turkey, I was in The Hague, where an American friend is trying to help Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Readers of this website know that I have been critical of Hirsi Ali, who tends to equate islamism with religion, while I believe that not religion but secularism is killing Europe. I have, however, always expressed admiration for Hirsi Ali's courage. If ordinary Europeans had just a tiny bit of her courage, we would not be in the mess that we are in today. The Dutch authorities are no longer able or willing to guarantee Hirsi Ali's safety, so she is forced to leave for America. She has been attacked by some of the Dutch leftist media in the most disgraceful way. Her Dutch passport has been taken from her, with the bureaucratic consequence that she currently cannot get an American visa. The Dutch seem set on making life hard for her, but I am sure the Americans will find a way to solve the problem.

Why have the Dutch turned against Hirsi Ali? Perhaps they are acting like the Salonicans in 1374 when they threw Prince Manuel out. Islamists threaten the Dutch with violence in response to what she says. And what do the Dutch do? They throw her out!

Last year Hirsi Ali was elected "European of the Year.” It is a bad omen for Europe when the "European of the Year” leaves for America. Let us hope and pray that history does not repeat itself and that Europe will not fall like Constantinople fell 553 years ago. Let us hope that Europe will save its honour and rediscover the will to defend the city, the way Constantine XI did. Many Dutch, however, do not seem to have much confidence in their country's chances of survival. Last year a record number of 121,000 people emigrated from the Netherlands, the largest number ever, while only 92,000 immigrated in. This emigration figure is the highest figure in the entire history of the country so far. The Netherlands is today also the European nation with the highest proportion of emigrants. Since 2003 more people have been leaving the country than entering it. The numbers are rising. In the first quarter of this year 29,000 people left the Netherlands – 5,000 more than in the same period last year. Now Ayaan Hirsi Ali is leaving too. The bell tolls for the Dutch, and those who do not hear it must be deaf.