Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Armenians, Turks, Israelis, and Jews II

It would better if Turkey had continued its pre-1990s attitude of ambiguity towards the Ottoman empire and its final decades as "the sick man of Europe." That would at least make a good starting point towards recognition of what the wartime Ottoman government attempted and partly succeeded in doing, and why.

But that was not to be. In the last 15 years, Kemalism has suffered not only attacks from the outside (from the Islamic forces that deny nationalism, secularism, and republicanism), but also from an internal identity crisis. Instead of reaffirming Ataturk's basic commitment of Turkey toward a European future, Turkey's secular elites have fallen into a powerful Ottoman nostalgia, lamenting the empire's final days as a vanished golden era of Turkish power. It is not Kemalism that is the problem, but the abandonment of it. Turkey's elites are now in the grips of a romantic swoon - like Gone with the Wind - with the usual highly selective historical memory.

What about the Kurds? The Kurds are a Muslim, but Indo-European, people who speak a language closely related to Farsi (Persian). They live mainly in the mountainous areas of northern Iraq, a tip of Syria, part of Iran, and a large chunk of mountainous eastern Anatolia. They have never had a unified state, although they have produced famous Muslim leaders such as Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1187.

The Kurds were vaguely promised a homeland of some sort after 1918. But the facts on ground defeated them. Iran remained independent and neutral. The largest group of Kurds, in eastern Anatolia, came under the rule of the new Turkish republic, and in a strange status, as Muslims but not Turks. The second-largest group of Kurds, centered around Mosul and Kirkuk, were reluctantly herded by Britain, the new Mandatory power under the League of Nations, into what became Iraq. The Kurds of Turkey have suffered from second-class status ever since. The Kurds of Iraq, in recent decades, suffered not just from second-class status, but savage persecution under Saddam, including chemical gassing toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s.*

The more radical Kurds in Turkey formed a Marxist-oriented guerilla movement (the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK) that started to revolt against the Turkish state in the 1970s. After the Cold War ended, the PKK lost its old sponsor (the Soviets) and needed a new one. There is circumstantial, but strong, evidence that this new sponsor is - no surprise - Iran. The recent PKK incursions into Turkey (clearly modeled on Hizbollah's attack on northern Israel in June 2006) are designed to provoke Turkey into invading northern Iraq the same way that Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006. In this view, which is probably right, Tehran has an opportunity to create a new international crisis, not only for the US, but to divert attention from its nuclear weapons program - not that different from the Cartoon Jihad of early 2006.

The Turkish Kurds still have grievances, although the post-Cold War period did see a large improvement for them. They were allowed some degree of linguistic and cultural autonomy, although not self-government. That liberalization has petered out, because it ran into more and more resistance from Turkish elites and ordinary Turks in the street.

One final twist: the Kurds and the Armenians hate each other.

What to do? Look at the Israeli attitude. At a human level, free of official obligations, everyone in Israel knows what happened to the Armenians: you merely have to walk around the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem and talk to descendants of survivors. It's a ritual Israelis know well in another context. The newspapers certainly have no difficulty talking about it. But the Israeli ambassadors have a tougher job. Turkey is a key ally of Israel, while the present country of Armenia has formed a strange alliance with Syria and Iran. So on a official level, Israeli governments maintain a careful ambiguity whenever this issue comes up.

Successive American governments have to do the same: Turkey is a key ally in the Middle East and a member of NATO. The US officially backs Turkey's membership in the European Union. Hence the manifesto from the Secretaries of State and Defense. This in spite of the fact that, over the last 15 years, Turkey has developed some nasty new strains of anti-Americanism and antisemitism and is facing apparently insuperable obstacles to its full membership in the EU.

But that doesn't mean people can't know what they know on an everyday level, even if they oppose something as in-your-face as the recent Congressional resolution. There are other ways to work on this problem without turning it into diplomatic high explosive. David Harris, the American Jewish Committee's executive director, explains:
From my experience in tackling difficult relationships, I believe that engagement, not avoidance, is the best strategy. In a perfect world, Armenian and Turkish historians would sit together and review the archival material, debate differences, and seek a common understanding of the past. To date, that hasn’t happened in any meaningful way. I continue to hope that it will. It should. We at AJC have offered our services, if needed, to help facilitate such an encounter. Ninety years of distance ought to allow for the creation of a “safe” space to consider contested issues.
Two important Turkish writers, the novelist Orhan Pamuk and the historian Taner Akcam, have written and spoken at length about the Ottoman empire's final agony and what happened to its Armenians; both now face official prosecution and freelance death-threats for their pains. And it's important to recognize that the problem, while exacerbated by the Iraq war, is not American: Turkey's strange drift and regression result from an internal crisis. The Armenian genocide of 1915-17 is a fact; acknowledgment by Turkey of that fact won't happen unless the more basic crisis of Turkish national identity is constructively resolved. Otherwise, Congressional resolutions will mean nothing. The ruling Justice and Development Party, suspected by many of being crypto-Islamist, is a better bet here than the bankrupt Kemalist elite. Although supporting the JDP involves some risks, better a moderate religious party committed to democracy than decayed imperial stench and a heavy whiff of fascism.

Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist, one of the few Armenians left in Turkey, was assassinated earlier this year by a pan-Turkish fanatic. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands, mostly Turks. He once said he'd rather live in a democratic Turkey that had a hard time admitting the truth about the Armenian genocide, than in an autocratic Turkey that pushed some kind of "official line" on the subject, even if it happened to be the truth.

What Dink was saying was that "official history," like "official science," is a dangerous business. History, like science, works from the bottom up, not from the top down. To acknowledge facts on an individual level is one thing; to manufacture history like a political platform is a dead-end. It serves neither historical truth, nor the dead, nor the living.**

POSTSCRIPT: The national ADL's position has always been to avoid the word "genocide" in discussing the Ottoman Armenians and try to avoid the subject altogether. The New England ADL, facing criticism from local Jewish, Armenian, and human-rights groups, rejected the view of the national ADL, which then fired its New England regional director. (The Boston area has a significant Armenian diaspora, partly from those who fled the Ottomans during and after the Great War.) Eventually, the national ADL changed its view somewhat, but only under intense pressure.

The ADL's national director, Abe Foxman, later complained bitterly about what he viewed as the mistaken "idealism" of other Jewish groups, their refusal to play realpolitik. Undoubtedly, Foxman has a point, and he seems to view himself as the only adult in the room, so to speak. Some have tried to portray this as a conflict between promoting "interests" versus promoting "values." And really, given that choice, who wants to be on the side of "values" - politics is about interests, not values, right?

But the deeper issue here does involve Jewish interests. A world in which genocide is practiced, then ignored and denied - and the ignoring and the denial are essential to the practice - is a dangerous world for Jews, any ethnic or religious minority, and anyone who cares about freedom and human life. As the AJC's David Harris put it,
... as the issue once again heats up in the United States, it’s important to be clear. In a book entitled Holocaust Denial, published by the American Jewish Committee in 1993, the author, Kenneth Stern, an AJC staff expert on the subject, noted: “That the Armenian genocide is now considered a topic for debate, or as something to be discounted as old history, does not bode well for those who would oppose Holocaust denial.”

He was right. Picture a day when a muscle-flexing Iran or Saudi Arabia seeks to make denial of the Holocaust a condition of doing business with other countries. Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t.

We have many interests as a Jewish people. Protecting historical truth ought to be right up there near the top of the list.

Final thoughts from Victor Davis Hanson.


Some standard references in English in print today on the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians, and World War One. Fromkin and Power make extensive use of contemporary and pre-war documents, both published and unpublished, which are not lacking on these topics.

~ Winston S. Churchill, The Aftermath (1929; supplementary volume to The World Crisis: 1911-1918), covers the period 1918-24 in connection to British policy and the Anglo-Greek war against the Turks in great detail. He includes the unforgettable story of how a monkey's bite killed the King of Greece and many more besides. Churchill was both a participant in and an important historian of these events. It covers much else as well, such as the Russian Civil War and the Anglo-Irish and Irish Civil Wars of the same post-1918 period.

~ Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia (1941). Published the week Italy and Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, this monumental treatment of the Balkans and modern Yugoslavia is the greatest English-language work of contemporary history of the last century. Along the way, West is detailed and damning about the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, their final decades of rapacity and oppression, and the huge mess they left behind when they imploded. Her book has had no equal since, but Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts is a fitting sequel, paying repeated tribute to its model, and, like West's book, informs its readers of far-off places of which they knew nothing.

~ David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989), covers the period 1912-1924, with the greater Middle East (including Turkey and Central Asia) as the geographic frame. Best recent one-volume treatment; indispensable.

~ Samantha Power, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (2002), covers the major genocides of the last century, from the Armenians in the First World War to Kosovo in the late 1990s; also indispensable.

~ Accounts devoted to the Armenian genocide itself include the books of Graber, Melson, and Balakian. There is also the once-famous novel of Franz Werfel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1934), still worth reading and still shocking.

* This episode is also covered in Power's book.

Even the Arabs, Muslim but not Turkish, got a nationalist movement in World War One, although ironically, they were the last Ottoman group to do so - undoubtedly because they were Muslim and the majority and thus had the least incentive to revolt.

** Bush complained recently, in connection with the Congressional resolution, that he can't be put into the position of sorting through the Ottoman empire's history. It's hard not to sympathize - that's too much homework for anyone. Clinton had Yugoslavia, and Bush lept half-blindfolded into Iraq. One leftover Ottoman mess per presidency is enough.

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