Late afternoon in May 29, 1453: Sultan Mehmet, the third son of Murad, born of a slave-girl – probably Christian – in the harem, fluent in Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Persian and Hebrew, followed by his top ministers, his imams and his bodyguard of Janissaries, rides slowly towards the Great Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople.

It’s unlikely that Sultan Mehmet would be sparing a thought for Emperor Justinian, the last of a special breed: a true Roman emperor on the throne of Byzantium, a speaker of “barbarous” Greek (he was born in Macedonia) but with a Latin mind.

Much like Sultan Mehmet, Justinian was quite the geopolitician. Byzantium trade was geared towards Cathay and the Indies: silk, spices, precious stones. Yet Persia controlled all the caravan routes on the ancient Silk Road. The sea route was also a problem; all cargo had to depart from the Persian Gulf. 

Justinian had to bypass Persia. 

He came up with a two-pronged strategy: a new northern route, via Crimea and the Caucasus; and a new southern route, via the Red Sea, bypassing the Persian Gulf. 

The first was a relative success; the second, a mess. But Justinian finally got his break when a bunch of Orthodox monks offered to bring him from Asia a few precious silkworm eggs. Soon there were factories not only in Constantinople but in Antioch, Tyre and Beirut. The imperial silk industry – a state monopoly, of course – was up and running.   

A fantastic mosaic in Ravenna from the year 546 depicts a Justinian who looks much younger than 64, his age at the time. He was a prodigy of energy – and embellished Constantinople non-stop. The apex was the Church of St. Sophia – the largest building in the world for centuries.

Fast forward …     

Sultan Mehmet silently proceeds with his slow ride all the way to the central bronze doors of St. Sophia. 

He dismounts and picks up a handful of dust and, in a gesture of humility, sprinkles it over his turban. 

Then he enters the great church. He walks towards the altar.  

His barely perceptible command causes his top imam to mount the pulpit and proclaim in the name of Allah, the All Merciful and Compassionate, that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet. 

The Sultan then touches the ground with his turbaned head – in a silent prayer. St. Sophia is now a mosque. 

Sultan Mehmet leaves the mosque and crosses the square to the old Palace of the Emperors, founded by Constantine the Great more than 11 centuries before and now in ruins. He wanders through the ancient halls, his fine velvet slippers brushing the dust from the fabulous pebbled floor mosaics. 

Then he murmurs two verses from a Persian poet: 

As the spider weaves the curtain over the palace of the Roman Caesars

The owl sings the time of the house of Afrasiab

Sultan Mehmet as painted by Gentile Bellini, the older brother of Giovanni. Gentile was sent on a special mission by the Venetian government to work for Mehmet, and lived in Constantinople 1479-1481.

The Byzantine empire, founded by Constantine The Great on Monday, May 11, 330, has ended, on Tuesday, May 29, 1453.     

Sultan Mehmet is now the lord of Constantinople and the lord of the Ottoman Empire. He’s only 21 years old.  

Back to The Magic Mountain 

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan re-purposed Hagia Sophia from museum back to mosque. He may have done it because of his waning popularity. His proxy wars are a disaster, his AKP party is shattered and the economy is bleeding badly.

But what’s striking is that right at the beginning of his official televised speech, Erdogan quoted exactly the same verses by the Persian poet that Sultan Mehmet murmured on that fateful afternoon in 1453.

Erdogan’s latest move – part of his perennial master plan to claim, from the decrepit House of Saud, leadership of global Islam – was widely interpreted in myriad latitudes as yet another instance of clash of civilizations: not only Orthodox Christianity versus Islam but, once again, East versus West.   

That reminded me of another East versus West recent derivation: a revival of the Settembrini versus Naphta debate in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, promoted by a Dutch think tank, the Nexus Institute, which aims to “keep the spirit of European humanism alive.” The debate pitted Aleksander Dugin against Bernard-Henri Levy (widely known in France as BHL). The full transcript of the debate is here.

Dugin is a leading Eurasianist and the conceptualizer of the Fourth Political Theory, which is largely banned in the West. As a philosopher and political theorist, Dugin is cartoonishly demonized across the West as “Putin’s brain,” a closet fascist and “the most dangerous philosopher in the world.”

BHL, hailed as “one of the West’s leading intellectuals,” is a vain poseur who emerged as a “nouveau philosophe” in the mid-1970s and ritually regurgitates the usual Atlanticist mantras enveloped in flowery quotes. He managed, among other feats, to write a book about Pakistan without knowing anything whatsoever about Pakistan. I thrashed it in a review for Asia Times back in 2002.     

French philosopher, writer and director Bernard-Henri Levy arrives to attend a national tribute to the memory of Jean Daniel, late founder of the French magazine Nouvel Observateur, at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, on February 28, 2020. Photo: AFP / Christian Hartmann / pool

Here are a few interesting talking points from the debate: 

Dugin stressed the end of Western hegemony and global liberalism. He inquired of BHL, directly, why “interestingly, in your book, you define the American empire or the global liberal system as a system of nihilism, based on nothing.”

Dugin did define himself as a nihilist “in the sense that I refuse the universality of modern Western values…. I just challenge that the only way to interpret democracy is as the rule of minorities against the majority, that the only way to interpret freedom is as individual freedom, and that the only way to interpret human rights is by projecting a modern, Western, individualistic version of what it means to be human on other cultures.”

BHL, who seems not to have read his own, dreary, book – this is something Dugin told me in person last year in Beirut, after the debate – preferred to resort to stereotyping using infantile Putin-bashing. He stressed that “there is a bad, dark wind of nihilism in its proper sense, which is a Nazi and a fascist sense, which is blowing in the great Russia.” 

Later in the debate, BHL added, “I really believe that there is a link between, on the one side, your and Huntington’s way of thinking; and, on the other side, the occupation of Crimea, the 30,000 deaths in Ukraine and the war in Syria with its bloodbath, tragic and horrible.”

On racism, Dugin was adamant. For him, “Racism is an Anglo-Saxon liberal construction based on a hierarchy between peoples. I think this is criminal.” Then he defined “a new Manichean division, a new racism.

Those who are in favor of Western values, they are good. Everybody who challenges that, in the Islamic tradition, in the Russian tradition, in the Chinese tradition, in the Indian tradition, everywhere, they are populists, and they are classified as fascism. I think that is a new kind of racism.”

BHL preferred to concentrate on “the civilization of human rights, freedom, individual dignity, and so on. This deserves to be universalized. This should be conceived, except if you are a racist, as profitable for the entire humanity.” And then it was anti-Semitism all over again: “All the men who you quoted and from whom you draw your inspiration – Spengler, Heidegger, who is also a great philosopher of course, and others – are contaminated, corrupted, infected by this plague which is anti-Semitism. And, alas, you too.” 

In Paris circles, the joke is that the only thing BHL cares about is the promotion of BHL. And everyone who does not agree with one of the “leading Western intellectuals” is anti-Semitic. 

BHL insisted he’s interested in building bridges. But it was Dugin who framed the real heart of the matter: “When we try to build bridges too early, without knowing the structure of the Other – the problem is the Other. The West doesn’t understand the Other as something positive. It is all the same, and we immediately try to find bridges – they are illusions, and not bridges, because we are projecting ourselves. The Other is the same, the ideology of the same. We first need to understand otherness.” 

BHL totally ignored Levi-Strauss. It’s Dugin who referred to Levi-Strauss when talking about The Other, describing him as one of his teachers:  

“This anthropological pluralism, I agree, is precisely the American and French tradition. But it is not reflected in politics, or it is reflected in a very perverted way. So I think there is a big contradiction between this anthropological thought in American universities and French universities, and a kind of very aggressive colonial neo-imperialist form to promote American interests on the world scale with weapons.” 

BHL was left with – what else? – Putin demonization: “The real imperialism, the real one who is interfering and sowing disorder and interfering in the affairs of others, alas, is Putin. And I need not speak of America, where it is now proved that there has been a huge, crude, and evident Russian intervention in the electoral process of the last election.” BHL, who does not even qualify as a neophyte in geopolitics, was oblivious of the absolute debunking of Russiagate. 

BHL was adamant: “There is today a real clash of civilizations. But not the one you mention in your books, between the North and the East and the West and the South and all of that; there is a clash of civilizations all over the planet between those who believe in human rights, in liberty, in the right for a body not to be tortured and martyred, and those who are happy with illiberalism and the revival of authoritarianism and slavery.” 

Dugin’s challenge for years has been to try to conceptualize what may come next, after the failure of Marxism, fascism and liberal  democracy. As much as he thinks Eurasian, he’s inclusive – incorporating “Euro” with “Asia.” BHL for his part simplistically reduces every “evil” to “illiberalism,” where Russia, China, Iran and Turkey – no nuances – are thrown in the same dustbin alongside the vacuous and actually murderous House of Saud.   

Mao returns 

Now let’s attempt a light-hearted ending to our mini-triptych on the clash of civilizations. Inevitably, it has to do with the ongoing US-China hybrid war.

Around two years ago, the following dialogue was a smash hit on Chinese Weibo. The Great Helmsman Mao Zedong – or his ghost – was back in town, and he wanted to know about everything that was goin’ on. Call it a – revisionist? – realpolitik version of the clash of civilizations. 

Mao:  “Can the people eat their fill?”

Answer: “There’s so much to eat they’re dieting.”

Mao: “Are there still any capitalists?”

Answer: “They’re all doing business overseas now!”

Mao: “Do we produce more steel than England?”

Answer: “Tangshan alone produces more than America.”

Mao: “Did we beat social imperialism [as in the former USSR]?”

Answer: “They dissolved it themselves!” 

Mao: “Did we smash imperialism?”

Answer: “We’re the imperialists now!”

Mao: “And what about my Cultural Revolution?” 

Answer: “It’s in America now!”

Mao Zedong guides the people during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Photo: AFP