Turkey Has Big Plans for the Middle East—But It Needs to Reckon with Its Genocidal Past First





Taner Akçam is an associate professor of history at Clark University. Born in Ardahan, Turkey, he is a frequent commentator on Turkish affairs and is the author of several books on the Armenian genocide, including From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide and A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. This is an English version of an article that appeared in the Turkish daily Taraf.

It looks like the countdown to regime change has begun in Syria, and Turkey may end up having the final say regarding the international intervention that’s increasingly likely to occur.  It will pay for Turkey, however, to engage in some sober deliberation before getting involved.  For most in the Middle East, any action taken with Turkey’s participation will not be perceived as one in which Turkey is fighting to create free and democratic regimes in the region.  One should never forget that the peoples in the region view themselves through a window that’s been framed by Turkey’s imperial history. 

When Prime Minister Erdoğan declared Turkey would be playing a new role in the world and in the region, he recited all of Turkey’s neighbors and their capital cities, except for one: Armenia and Yerevan. This is extremely significant, and I’m not just saying this because of my own personal interest in Armenia. How Armenia (and more broadly Christianity) fits into Turkish plans will be the key to understanding if Turkey will be able to play a new role in the region.  This is also true of the Shi’a element—how the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deals with Iran will also be telling.

Allow me to formulate the main thread of the AKP’s policy like this:  to end the victimization of Islamic societies, a nation that is viewed as having been oppressed and victimized for centuries, through the adoption of international universal norms.  Another way of stating this is to call it a fight to protect the rights of the Muslim world, which is viewed as having been despised and oppressed by the West, and to raise its status to one of equality with the West, again through direct adoption of Western norms.  In other words, using the Hegelian German term, “aufheben” [to repeal, abrogate] the “master­slave” relationship and to change the status of the “slaves” into “masters.” If necessary, they would achieve this by defying the West.  This back story is instrumental to understanding Erdoğan’s tough stance with Israel and, to give a concrete example, his insistence at Davos in 2009 to have the last word with Netanyahu.  The great wave of sympathy unleashed in Turkey and throughout region by that stance shows that the AKP has pressed its finger upon a very deep wound.

“Strike the West with a Western Weapon”  

One central component of AKP policy is the idea is that criticizing the nation-state boundaries that were forced upon the Middle East in accordance with the West’s colonial motives, and developing policies of economic and political integration, would reunite the fates of all the peoples in the region.  In other words, the basis for the AKP’s policies in the region is taking the Middle East and reconfiguring it as a kind of “common home” for all its inhabitants.  “Zero problems with neighbors,” a shorthand statement by the AKP on its foreign policy, is a reflection of this thinking.  It would be extremely shallow and shortsighted to conclude that Turkey’s new policies in the region are expansionist and imperialist schemes.  We need to take a wider perspective when examining them.  One could argue that the creation of processes established upon humanitarian universal, democratic (i.e. Western) values in the Middle East and of an economic, political and cultural integration that ignores state boundaries, along the lines of the European Union, would be a very positive goal (the EU’s current troubles notwithstanding).  The real question, however, is whether or not Turkey has what it takes, ideologically, politically and economically to create regional unity.  The answer is both “yes” and “no.”

“Crimes Against Christianity”

Why “yes”?  To answer, I’d like to point out an interesting and somewhat unknown fact.  Bear with me for a moment.  “Crimes against humanity” is a very important international legal norm.  As a legal term, it was used for the first time on May 24, 1915 in connection with the Armenian genocide, and it comprised the moral and legal background for the Nuremberg trials as well as the more recent Yugoslavian, Rwandan and other international prosecutions of war crimes.  This is common knowledge, but what is not so commonly known is that the expression was first drafted as “crimes against Christianity.”

When Great Britain, Russia, and France were preparing the ultimatum which was to be presented to the Ottoman state, they had initially defined the crimes committed by the Union and Progress party as “crimes against Christianity” but later exchanged the word “Christianity” with “humanity” after considering the negative reaction it would almost certainly engender amongst the Muslims peoples who were now under their authority.  Both the revision of the word Christianity to humanity, and those against whom it was used (Unionists and the Ottoman Turks) summarizes the difficulty faced by the AKP and Turkey today. 

The substitution of the word humanity for Christianity is actually serves as a short history of the values for what we accept as humanitarian universal norms.  Universal values like human rights, democracy, etc., are the products of the Christian political and cultural world.  This world, (based on its Greco­Roman roots and the experience of the Enlightenment) has managed to take many of its own norms and sensitivities and turn them into universal, humanitarian values.  You could view the history of humankind, to some extent, as a journey from Christian-specific values towards the creation of values that are universal to humanity.  Nevertheless, it is completely understandable why this journey has been perceived by the Muslim world as one that is marked by hypocrisy and cunning, since Muslims perceive this history as a history of colonialism.

Moving from the World of Islamic Culture to Universality

What the AKP is trying to do is move the Islamic cultural world towards universality.  Just as the Christian cultural world moved away from its own particularity towards universality, why can’t the Islamic world and its new leaders, like the AKP, do the same?  Erdoğan can certainly be seen through this lens.  Actually, the AKP, in this sense, rests upon an Islamic tradition that extends back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The “newly awakening” Islamic movements of those centuries declared the universal norms of the West as values that were specific to Christianity, and that they were really hypocritical statements meant to disguise the West’s imperialist policies.  This tradition viewed the Islamic world as the “oppressed nations” and defined the fight against the West as the challenge by the oppressed against their colonizing masters.  Nevertheless, it was fp>So why “no”?  The main problem lies in whether the AKP will actually be able to successfully take Islamic cultural values and traditions and move them towards universal humanitarian values.  The key terms here are “oppression” and “victimhood.”  As is known from the human rights organization that Muslim activist circles close to the AKP have created in Turkey, the Islamic sector sees itself as the true oppressed.  What the West is facing, as well as the civilian-military bureaucratic elite, the West’s representatives in Turkey, is a population that believes itself to be the oppressed and victimized, and which conceives of its current fight as one for equality and freedom of the oppressed.  This is why Palestine holds such a special place within this fight; they constitute the most oppressed group in our region. 

In truth, defining oneself as “oppressed and victimized” is a method used by just about every group.  The problem is that the Islamic population has not experienced its recent past as “oppressed and victimized.”  Very serious mass murders, for which Muslims are in one way or another responsible, took place against Christians on this very soil.  If the AKP enters Syria without either mentioning this history or honestly confronting those crimes, all of the crimes that were committed against other religions in recent history will be sure to remind them of it, challenging the notion of the freedom fight that Islam, history’s oppressed and victimized,  has been waging for centuries.

If the AKP, which seems to be the answer to the Muslim majority’s demands for “freedom and democracy” through a Muslim sensitivity, does not bring this fight to a level where it becomes a critique of the crimes that Muslim populations committed in the past, it will not be able to complete the journey towards humanitarian universal values.  It will never be able to comprehend the successful transition the West made from Christian values to universal humanitarian values and it will get stuck in a limited pre-defined space denoted by the sensitivity of Sunni populations. 

Adding Armenia and Yerevan to the Address to the Nation

From all appearances, there are two main issues that plague the region.  One is freedom and democracy; the other is security.  It isn’t a coincidence, for this reason, that the Christians and other minorities support the Ba’ath regime in Syria.  In order to get security, they are willing to give up their freedoms.  While Turkey seems to provide answers to the Sunni Muslim majority’s demand for freedom in Syria, it cannot do the same for the Christians’ demands for security.   Quite the opposite.  Since it reminds them of what happened in 1915, Turkey looks very much like a security threat to them.  It is very important to note that the Syrian regime recently appointed a Christian to the ministry of defense.

In order to change this perception, the AKP has to confront history and take a clear position regarding the crimes that were committed against Christians.  The AKP, however, is very far from being capable of doing this and for this reason will continue to be perceived as a potential repeat actor of 1915 to Christians in the region.  Therein lays the irony.  Turkey, which wants to get involved in the region as an intervener on behalf of “freedom and democracy,” is going to be a reminder of its past “crimes against humanity.”

We need to add two other important factors to this.  The first is the close ties between Iran and the Syrian Alewites (Shi’a).  Even if this tie rests upon a defense of the authoritarian regimes of Syria and Iran, since the intervention that Turkey claims it will make in the name of “freedom and democracy” will be missing an honest accounting of history, it can easily turn into a sectarian fight—one between the Sunni Hanefis and Shi’a Alewites.  Secondly, it is a fact that under Cemal Pasha’s leadership, the Union and Progress Party hung the leaders of the Arab nationalist movement along main streets from Beirut to Damascus in 1915 and 1916.  There is a known connection between the suppression of the Arab nationalist movement and the genocide of 1915.  Each one was a piece of the policies of the Union and Progress Party to shape Anatolia around a Turkish Muslim identity.  Whether it is the Syrian Ba’ath regime or Arab nationalist circles in the region, no one will hesitate to remind Turkey of the truth behind the hanging of their own national leaders. 

The bottom line is the AKP can say whatever it wants about whatever powerful Islamic cultural back story it is using to develop its new policies in the Middle East.  If it does not confront history, it will appear as nothing less than a new Union and Progress Party.  And herein lies the importance of including Armenia and Yerevan in the address to the nation.  If the AKP wants to defend freedom and democracy in the region and wants to walk a path towards universal humanitarian values by way of Islamic sensitivities, it needs to learn how to look at Islam’s recent past with a more critical eye.  A statement about freedom and democracy must be defined in a way that responds to Christians’ ar from being able to define its own struggle on universal terms.  Still, it represented the first steps that Islamic thought had taken towards universality.  By resurrecting this powerful Islamic tradition and combining Western values with the Islamic cultural tradition, the AKP seems to be setting itself up as the last stop on this journey.

In this way, just as the West managed to take “crimes committed against Christianity” and turn it into “crimes committed against humanity,” under the leadership of the AKP it is possible for the Islamic world to turn “crimes committed against Muslims” into a more comprehensive category of crimes committed against humanity.  So the strong Islamic cultural weight found in Erdoğan’s statements is important, or, more precisely, is a necessity.  In fact, the main reason for Erdoğan’s popularity in both the Middle East, and in the rest of the world, too, is the way he manages to merge this emphasis on Islamic sensitivity with the West’s own values. 

Muslim History Is Not Just a History of the Oppressed

What the AKP should not forget is the fact that it was a very powerful self-critique that laid the foundation for the Christian West’s bombing of Christian Serbia. 



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