Islam And Modernity, History Running Backward From Cairo To Berlin

A fully veiled woman using her smartphone in Istanbul
A fully veiled woman using her smartphone in Istanbul
Zafer Åženocak*


BERLIN There are photographs of Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul, taken in the 1960s, that show elegantly dressed women sitting in street cafés. There are similar photos from the period shot in Ankara, Cairo, Damascus and Karachi.

A half-century later, comparable scenes are nowhere to be found in many of these cities.

Ankara is the last city whose inhabitants have not been overtaken by an obscure Islam that involves civil war, destruction and fully veiled women. The former joy of life in Middle Eastern cities has been replaced by a kind of hostility to life that began with a devaluation of metropolitan bourgeois culture.

In the Orient, this Western-oriented culture developed after 1800. Educational institutions as well as cultural centers were reformed based on Western models. Turkish culture took this furthest, but Cairo too was for a long time a major hub of modernization in the Islamic world.

Today, this world that brought equality for Muslim women, educational opportunities to young people, and bridged the gap between city culture and rural areas is now endangered, even in Turkey. The threat of a collapse of civilization looms, the consequences of which would be just as significant as the collapse that took place in Germany in 1933, and finally ended up overshadowing nearly all of Europe.

But the break in the Islamic world is by far the more dangerous because the antidote is seen by parts of the population as foreign and destructive to their own culture and beliefs. Before World War II, some Germans had a tendency to want to separate themselves culturally from the West, but the tendency was very narrow, and could only be pursued by negating large parts of their own literature, music and art.

But how far can a Turk, an Iranian or an Egyptian adapt to Western bourgeois culture? How strong is resistance when the pillars of the modern Muslim, based in Western culture, are attacked? Most Muslim-dominated societies are confronting that question today.

Gaza cause, Turkish flag

As political Islam based on the Arab Muslim Brotherhood gains strength, the devaluation of Turkish culture is mainly playing out on the political stage. Culturally, attempts to do away with all things modern in Turkey seem doomed to failure.

The traditional novel, Islamic poem, neo-Ottoman architecture can only exist now as plagiarism. Compared to cultural creation in the language of the modern, such things have no staying power. Large parts of Turkish youth also now seem to be immune to the devaluation of modern life and its freedoms. Their creative energies are directed not only toward consumption but also to individual definition and arrangement of their spheres of life.

Biology class at Kabul University in the early 1960s — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But there has been a dangerous devaluation of modernity in Turkish political culture, and it stands out particularly clearly in the context of the Middle East conflict. A one-sided alignment on the part of Turks for Palestine is a symptom of this development. At the German demonstrations against Israel’s Gaza war, there are more Turkish flags visible than usual.

For a long time now, hatred of Jews hasn’t been just an Arab phenomenon. Nor is it a feeling that can be traced to chronic conflict, a historical and lasting disenfranchisement. Turkey’s engagement against Israel is an expression of Turkish alienation from its own history.

In Turkish self-perception there is no room for anti-Semitism. The Turkish Enlightenment made it possible for Turks to build a good relationship with modern Judaism. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the state of Israel. All that means nothing, however, to Turkish Islamism. Hatred of Israel is a welcome pretext in the devaluation of modern Turkish culture.

Sultan and Ben-Gurion

Political islam has no room for people who feel the joy of life. It wants nothing to do with elegantly dressed women who sit with men in sidewalk cafés. A culturally hostile ideology has been fashioned from Islam to hide what amounts to an inability to put down roots in the modern by building up notions of the enemy — be it Israel, the United States or the entire West.

Even in Turkey, where for a while it appeared that politicians from the Muslim spectrum would be able to modernize the country, it has now become clear from their political dealings that their movement is hostile to civilization — to such an extent that a break now threatens Turkish culture.

Here in Germany, we don’t take this development seriously. And then we’re surprised when anti-Semitism pops up at demonstrations. We must urgently think about how we can counter this devaluation of our civilization. Bringing German and European history in as reference sources won’t be enough. History can’t simply be exported.

But there are also those moments in history that transcend cultures. Do we talk about these points enough? About Kaiser Wilhelm’s trip to Jerusalem and Damascus? And Theodore Herzl’s visit to the Ottoman Sultan? Who today knows that Israel’s primary founding father David Ben-Gurion studied law in Istanbul?

Part of the conversation would include the photo of the 1960s street scene in Kabul; the reconstruction of Turkey after World War I; and people like Ernst Reuter, who spent the 1930s and 1940s exiled in Turkey and then became post-war mayor of Berlin. He was an ambassador of human civilization.

*Zafer Åženocak is a writer of Turkish origin who lives in Germany.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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