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Re-definition of Turkey over Armenian Genocide

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

Published time: April 28, 2014 14:44
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters/Umit Bektas)

The past is a foreign country goes the quote that has now become nothing but a well-worn cliché.

In today's Turkey most people would probably agree with the sentiment, as "Ottomania" is all the rage and a self-professed interest in history (meaning Ottoman history) has become something akin to a national obsession – a fascination expressed in high ratings for television programs showcasing various personalities of differing academic (and/or political) persuasions pontificate about this or that titbit of Ottoman minutiae. Even the Turkish soap opera industry has become subject to this Ottoman fad, leading to such travesties as "The Magnificent Century" acquainting the public-at-large with well-known yet strangely unknown facts of 'national' history – as when the nation suddenly realized that the universally well-loved Sultan Süleyman (the 'Magnificent' one, after all) had his first-born son Mustafa murdered in cold blood. But apart from such quasi-spontaneous history lessons, the primary purpose of the current love of all things Ottoman sweeping the Turkey is clearly escapist in nature. At the same time, however, the government cunningly utilizes the people's escapist tendencies to push through its own agenda, an agenda that attempts to rewrite certain aspects of Turkish (if not Ottoman) history while, simultaneously, stressing the Islamic nature of the Republic and its imperial predecessor. Decades of Kemalist propaganda and indoctrination have succeeded in equating the terms 'Ottoman" and 'Islamic' in the Turkish mind.

In Turkey every year the approach of the month of April is accompanied by frantic lobbying activities across the pond (meaning millions of dollars well-spent) and public proclamations of Turkish (or Muslim) innocence at home. The reason for this recurring series of events has to do with a troubling episode in recent Ottoman history, and the question whether Turks (in reality, Ottoman policy-makers and their subject Muslim citizens) living in the early 20th-century did commit a series of crimes against humanity, culminating in genocide, or to be more precise terminating in the "Armenian Genocide". Throughout the post-war period, the Turkish authorities have continuously upheld that Turks could not have committed such an atrocious crime, but instead the then-Istanbul authorities had merely taken drastic relocation measures against an Armenian uprising in eastern Anatolia in view of Armenian complicity in Russian military ventures against the Ottoman state in the course of the Great War (subsequently known as World War I, 1914-18).

In this context, the role of the United States' Congress has always been of paramount importance. This year marked a departure from that clichéd path, as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John Boehner gave assurance to Turkey, on 15 April, that Congress will not get involved in any "Armenian genocide" bill – well ahead of the dreaded April 24th, the Genocide Remembrance Day, when in 1915 the first Armenian victims of the Ottoman policy of ethnic cleansing were deported from Istanbul. Boehner visited Turkey as part of a multi-country trip to the region (also visiting Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates), accompanied by a high-level congressional delegation.

In Ankara, John Boehner met the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament Cemil Cicek, and afterwards told reporters that "[t]he issue about Armenians comes onto the [Congress'] agenda from time to time. Don't worry. Our Congress will not get involved in this issue, we are not writing history, we are also not historians." Boehner went on to say that the US tries to improve bilateral ties with Ankara, while expressing his appreciation for Turkish support on such hot-button issues like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Activists hold pictures of Armenian victims during a demonstration to commemorate the 1915 mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, in Istanbul April 24, 2014. (Reuters)

In return, Cicek waxed lyrically about Turkey and America, indicating that the Armenian issue constitutes a "burden" in bilateral relations between the two allies. In this instance, Cicek undoubtedly had the US Senate's Resolution 410, passed on 4 April, in mind. The resolution proclaims "that the President should ensure that US foreign policy reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the US record relating to the Armenian Genocide."

The Republican-controlled House clearly favors business-as-usual with Turkey, arguably continuing to buy more American arms and weapons as in the previous year when Turkey's top spot on the destination list for US-manufactured arms was followed by Egypt and South Korea. The Democrat-controlled Senate, on the other hand, appears to follow its conscience, accepting the Resolution this year, the first time in a quarter century that such a clear stance was taken by the US legislative chamber. As a result of the House's refusal to get involved in the Armenian issue, however, the bicameral legislature of the United States of America that is the US Congress did not adopt a binding resolution. The bill thus failed to reach the floor on the last working day before a two-week Easter recess (11 April), giving Boehner ample reason to include Turkey on his business trip to the Middle East.

‘Shying away historical reality’

With regards to the Armenian issue, 2014 marked a clear departure for Turkey on the domestic front as the popular yet divisive Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to take a truly "unprecedented" step: on the Wednesday prior to the Genocide Remembrance Day, not by accident coinciding with the National Sovereignty and Children's Day in Turkey (23 April), the Prime Minister’s office issued a written statement regarding the Armenian issue, carrying his personal signature. It was published on the Prime Minister's website in several languages, including Turkish, English, and French, but also Armenian, Arabic, and Russian, among others. The text was not the outcome of a rushed decision, but clearly the result of a painstaking editorial process. Even though the letter starts off with the statement that the Remembrance Day "provides a valuable opportunity to share opinions freely on a historical matter", arguably in line with traditional Turkish protestations that the whole matter is an historical issue, best left to historians, its following lines appear unprecedented if not groundbreaking.

The Prime Minister's letter treads carefully, unwilling to offend fervent Turkish nationalists, stating that "[m]illions of people of all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in the First World War. Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences – such as relocation – during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes towards one another."

In the next instance, however, Tayyip Erdogan pulls out all the stops, announcing that "[i]n today’s world, deriving enmity from history and creating new antagonisms are neither acceptable nor useful for building a common future"; followed by the letter's pièce de résistance, "[i]t is our hope and belief that the peoples of an ancient and unique geography, who share similar customs and manners will be able to talk to each other about the past with maturity and to remember together their losses in a decent manner. And it is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren".

Shying away from actually acknowledging the historical reality of the "Armenian Genocide", Erdogan has now become the first Turkish politician to concede that the Ottoman policy of ethnic cleansing had disastrous consequences for the Armenian population of Anatolia, an "ancient and unique geography". One could argue that this concession is but the first step down the road to full acknowledgment of the genocidal results of the Ottoman population policy that attempted to transform Anatolia, the Ottoman heartland, into a purely Muslim entity. In fact, looking at the historical record, it seems that the Ottomans (or rather the Unionists or so-called Young Turks in charge of the Empire during the period 1908-18) had all but relied on actions previously carried out by their German allies to realise their goal of a Muslim homeland in Anatolia. Even though many commentators and even historians refer to the Armenian issue as the 20th century's first genocide, in reality the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918) had already constituted a precedent previously.

Activists hold pictures of Armenian victims during a demonstration to commemorate the 1915 mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, in Istanbul April 24, 2014. (Reuters)

The Dutch historian Jan-Bart Gewald, matter-of-factly relates that "[b]etween 1904 and 1908 Imperial German troops committed genocide in German South West Africa (GSWA), present-day Namibia." Germany's late and short ("about thirty-five years", as expressed by the sociologist Gurminder K. Bhambra) entry into Europe's colonial game overseas led to extreme measures. In South West Africa, German settlers employed the Herero-German war to 'rightfully' occupy territory belonging to the Herero tribes. This land-grab was preceded by "the planned and officially sanctioned attempted extermination of the Herero people". As the Ottomans had enjoyed good relations with the German Empire ever since the early years of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), it would stand to reason to assume that the Unionists were eager to apply the German experiences in South West Africa to their own territorial designs for Anatolia. As outlined in an earlier piece of mine, the Unionists' policies of social engineering "were aimed at transforming Anatolia (the heartland of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic’s geo-body, using Thongchai Winichakul’s coinage denoting the territory of a nation as expressed on a map and inscribed on the people’s consciousness) into a Muslim homeland where refugees from the Russian Empire and the Balkans were settled. Prior to the formulation of Turkish nationalism as an ideological binding-force [in 1922], the diverse ethnic groups in Anatolia were united by their common identity as Muslims and their allegiance to the Ottoman Caliphate, abolished in 1924".

As a result, the fact that Turkey's PM Erdogan used this year's Children's Day, the Turkish public holiday that commemorates the first opening of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (the nation's parliament) in Ankara in 1920, to express his condolences to the Armenian nation, is not coincidental. Turkish critics of the PM have oftentimes expressed their misgivings about Erdogan's apparent desire to return Turkey and its government to its original inception three years' prior to the foundation of the Republic and the Turkish nation state. When the original Grand National Assembly was founded, its constituency consisted of Anatolian Muslims. The concept of a Turkish nation in Anatolia was introduced in 1922, and, as I expressed in my earlier piece, "[o]pponents of Erdogan and the AKP now fear that the government’s long-term goal ... is to transform the nation state Turkey into an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate." Against this backdrop, Tayyip Erdogan's condolences to the Armenian nation appear like a preamble to establishing a new (or old) definition of Anatolia (or Turkey) as an "ancient and unique geography" inhabited solely by Muslim population groups. Acknowledging the reality that Christian populations, like the Armenians, once formed part of Anatolia's social mix is but a prelude to recognising that today's Anatolians are all Muslim, and will remain so forever.

In other words, as the US pragmatically continues to dodge the Armenian bullet, Turkey's AKP leadership seems bent on continuing its long-term policy goals that could lead to a re-definition of Turkey. Will the Turkish nation state eventually become an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities? Does Erdogan's expression of grief signal his ultimate goal of becoming the Turkish leader who revived Anatolia's commitment to the cause of the Prophet and will Turkey of the future look like the Anatolia of the past?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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