Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed the European Union recently why his country’s membership application should be rejected. In an interview with the BBC last week, Erdogan expressed his extreme displeasure with foreign countries recognising as genocide the 1915 massacre of the Armenians by threatening to deport 100,000 Armenians working illegally in Turkey.
“In my country there are 170,000 Armenians; 70,000 of them are citizens. We tolerate 100,000 more. So what am I going to do tomorrow? If necessary I will tell the 100,000: okay, time to go back your country. Why? They are not my citizens. I am not obliged to keep them in my country,” said Erdogan, leader of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, a conservative and Islamic political entity. Erdogan blamed the Armenian Diaspora for the genocide resolutions.
The reaction to Erdogan’s statement in Armenia was, predictably, swift and damning. Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian condemned the Turkish leader’s remarks, saying they “do not improve relations” between the two countries. The plan to open the Turkish-Armenian border, a prerequisite for Turkey acquiring EU membership, and to set up a joint commission to investigate the massacres may now be in jeopardy.
“When the Turkish Prime Minister allows himself to make such statements it brings up memories of the events of 1915,” said Sarkisian, whose government disputes the 100,000 figure.
In 1915, shortly after Turkey’s entry into World War One, 1.5 million primarily Armenian Christians living in the then Ottoman Empire, in an action resembling later slaughters by Stalin and Hitler, were subjected to massacres and deportations that often ended in death. The world’s indifference to the killings may even have encouraged Hitler who later referred to the 1915 Armenian holocaust in relation to his planned genocide of the Jews: “After all, who today speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”
The three million Armenians living in their truncated state on Turkey’s eastern border are as traumatised about the tragedy that befell their people as the Jews are about the Holocaust. Asia Times columnist Spengler (a literary pseudonym) has called them “the ghosts of their murdered brethren” who “haunt the geopolitical stage as a silent chorus.”
Turkish nationalists deny that an Armenian holocaust ever took place. They will only admit that about three hundred thousand Armenians and an almost equal number of Turks were killed in “civil strife” in eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1917. The 1915 deportations, they claim, were justified because some Armenians were supporting the Russian army, Turkey’s enemy at the time. The Armenians were regarded as a knife at Turkey’s back that had to be removed.
But the deniers are fighting a losing battle. Already, more than 20 countries have labelled as genocide the 1915 Armenian bloodbath, including EU member states France, Germany and Italy. The United States and Sweden are the latest countries to move in that direction.
When Erdogan was in England, Sweden’s parliament voted to recognise the Armenian killings, prompting the Turkish leader to cancel his visit there and recall his country’s ambassador. The American government’s House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution (23 votes to 22) to the same effect, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, angered Turkey.
But there are some Turks who want their country to confront this tragic crime in their nation’s past. The most prominent of these is Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate for Literature. Called by Spengler “the only Turk with a global voice”, Pamuk raised the Armenian genocide with a Swiss publication in 2005.
“Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares mention that. So I do,” Pamuk said.
For these remarks, Pamuk was criminally charged with “insulting Turkishness.” Legal proceedings were later stayed, but the resulting furor and hate campaign caused Pamuk to move to New York.
Other Turks, while not dealing with the genocide question, criticised Erdogan for his BBC comments. One Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Briand, pointed out the irony of Erdogan denying the first Armenian deportation, when he wants to organize a “second deportation”, one that television cameras would witness.
“We could defend ourselves all we want…no one would believe us,” he wrote. “They’d say, ‘See, again the Turks are casting out the Armenians.’ ”
Briand suggests instead that since these Armenians are mostly poor people, doing menial work, who came to Turkey after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, they should be shown compassion. These people would then preserve Turkey’s dignity, enhance its image and be “our strongest and most convinced lobby.”
A Times On Line story suggests Erdogan’s hard-line comments may have been directed towards a domestic audience rather than a foreign one. According to The Times account, since the next elections in Turkey are this July, Erdogan was trying to appease the voters who opposed reconciliation with Armenia.
Most likely though, Erdogan’s remarks are simply a “barbaric reaction” to offended dignity, similar to the Muslim reaction to the Mohammad cartoons.
But Erdogan’s comments may represent something more sinister than just an ethnic tantrum. Briand quotes another Turkish politician who said, “Turkey should teach Armenia a lesson never to be forgotten.” Erdogan is also not the first Turkish politician to advocate deporting the illegal Armenians, but is Turkey’s first leader. Like with Holocaust deniers whose negations conceal their desire to bring about another round of Jew extermination, the denial of the Armenian genocide may be serving the same purpose.
A new Armenian massacre may have been avoided as recently as the last decade. In his book Chechen Jihad, Yossef Bodansky writes that 2,500 Islamist fighters from Afghanistan helped Azerbaijan, “under the banner of jihad”, in the early 1990s in its war against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Bodansky states the Azeris exploited “the mujahedin’s Islamist zeal to escalate the war against the Christian Armenians…”
This zeal, as the world has seen, usually means death for non-Muslims. The Armenian forces, however, held firm and the jihadists’ savage hatred for the infidel fortunately never reached their territory.
Orhan Pamuk believes freedom of speech is the only way for Turkey to come to terms with its past. But if Erdogan continues to utter offensive remarks against Armenians like in the previous week, his country will not have future, at least not in the EU.