Why do they hate Turkey?

I used to think that most of the Turks I met were paranoid, their outlook clouded by a persecution complex, obsessed with the conviction that everyone out there hated them. These days, however, I have more sympathy. Listen up.

First of all, I’m not talking about a full-blown international conspiracy here – though I’m reasonably sure there are conspiratorial elements at work. What I’ve got in mind is something much deeper and more subtle: a kind of millennia-long propaganda programme; a brainwashing process that began in the 11th century, and continues to this day.

29ofknc

Statue of Seljuk Sultan, Alp Arslan, in Muş, Turkey

Everyone who has passed through the education system in Turkey can tell you of a battle that took place in 1071 CE out in eastern Anatolia/Asia Minor. Known as Malazgirt to Turks, and Manzikert in English, the battle saw the defeat of the Byzantine Roman Emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, by the army of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. Historians generally agree that this battle marked the beginning of the end for the Eastern Roman Empire, though it staggered on, steadily shrinking, for a further four centuries. Certainly it was the first time a Christian Emperor had been taken captive by Muslim forces, and began the incursion of Seljuk Turks into the Anatolian heartland of the Byzantine Empire.

Twenty-four years later, by 1095, the initial entry had become a flood, and the new Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, sent a plea to his Christian brothers in Rome for military assistance. Pope Urban II responded favourably, and his impassioned speeches to Roman Catholic Europe launched the First Crusade in 1096. But what was that Crusading business really about?

Certainly the Pope and his Roman Catholics had no great love for their Eastern Orthodox brethren. Centuries of doctrinal conflict had led to the Great Schism in 1054, when Eastern and Western Churches made their split official and final. Consequently, there was no help forthcoming from the West when those Seljuk Turks won their great victory seventeen years later.

Supporting the Eastern Empire soon morphed into liberating the so-called ‘Holy Lands’ from Muslim occupation as the main motivation for Crusaders. This also seems less than convincing, however, given that those lands had been in Muslim hands for 400 years. It is far more likely that the Roman Pope was keen to unite Western Christendom – currently engaged in vicious internecine warfare – and establish a Holy Roman Empire with temporal power to match that of his eastern rivals. The Muslim operation was more of a pretext, deriving from the need to create a fearsome enemy, a bogey that would inspire and unite Christian warlords with religious fervour. Sound familiar?

So was born the thousand-year hatred of Turks – never mind that the Muslims in possession of Jerusalem were mostly Arabs; and zealots of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, laying aside earlier pretense, besieged, captured, desecrated and  pillaged Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Christians they were supposed to be helping.

Crusaders and Turks had their ups and downs, but it was other Turkic invaders and their Mongol cousins that finally ended the Seljuk Empire in the mid-12th century. It wasn’t long, however, before another, more ambitious and durable Islamic empire began to rise. Ertuğruloğlu Osman is generally credited with founding the Ottoman dynasty in 1299. By 1400, Osman’s successors had brought Anatolia under their control, and extended their reach into the Balkans. Fifty-three years later they completed the demise of the eastern Byzantine Christian Romano-Greek Empire (a rather confusing entity) by conquering their last stronghold, the fabled city of Constantinople.

Zonaro_GatesofConst

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II enters Constantinople, 1453

The fall of Constantinople was a matter of some ambivalence in Western Christendom. First and foremost, Roman Catholics saw their Eastern cousins as heretics and rivals, and once again refrained from sending military assistance. On the other hand, as historian John Julius Norwich has observed, those eastern Christians had acted as a buffer against Muslim westward expansion for 800 years. Without their resistance, the whole of Europe might have been overrun, and we might all have a more personal first-hand knowledge and understanding of Islam. The Eastern capital may have been the centre of heresy and dissolute corruption in the eyes of Western Papists, but its fall undoubtedly sent shivers of dread running down their spines.

Far from creating an exclusively Muslim domain, however, the Ottoman conquerors ruled over an empire that was indisputably multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious. Islam was the official state religion, but its adherents included Arabs and Kurds, and were not exclusively Turkish. Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Jews were given freedom to worship in their own churches, educate their children in their own schools, bury their dead in their own cemeteries, speak and write their own languages, conduct business, make money, build palatial houses, and serve at the highest levels of Ottoman society.

Hürrem sultan

Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana) wife of Suleiman the Great, and definitely not Turkish

As for the Ottoman sultans, they were a mixed lot from the earliest days. The mother of Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, was from a Christian family, possibly Italian or Serbian. Mehmet’s own consorts included women from non-Muslim families, and the mother of his successor, Beyazit II was reputedly of Greek or Albanian origin. This trend continued for centuries, making nonsense of the Western fiction labelling the Ottoman Sultan ‘The Grand Turk’. European insistence on referring to the Ottoman domains as ‘Turkey’ clearly owed more to a desire to belittle a dangerous opponent than any actual ethnic reality.

The danger to Europe was ever-present to the end of the 17th century, when Ottoman forces were finally turned back from the gates of Vienna in November 1683. So the stereotype was firmly established – European Christendom had had 600 years to develop a fear and hatred of ‘Turks’ – regardless of whether or not that’s what these people actually were.

Then the tone changed. Western Europe moved into its ‘Enlightenment’ period. Its wealth, industry, science, technology, and military effectiveness began to overtake that of its Ottoman rivals. Victories over their Eastern neighbours became increasingly common, and territorial expansion went into reverse. What began as a patronising Orientalist Ottomania for eastern fashions gradually turned into supercilious arrogance by the 19th century. Czar Nicholas I of Russia is credited with coining the term ‘The Sick Man of Europe’; and the dominant concern of the European ‘Great Powers’ Britain, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire in international affairs was ‘The Eastern Question’: simply put, when would the Ottoman Empire finally collapse and disintegrate, and which of them would get what when it did?

For the last hundred years of its existence, what kept the Ottoman Empire afloat was primarily the selfish desires of those ‘Great Powers’ to see that, individually, they got the best bits and the others didn’t. The building of the Suez Canal and the discovery of oil in the Middle East increased the importance of the eastern Mediterranean to the West. Mainland Greece was forcibly seized from the Ottomans in 1830, and the puppet Kingdom of Greece established with the support of Britain, France and Russia. The islands in the Western Aegean were ‘given’ to the new kingdom at that time. In the Balkan Wars of 1812-13, Greek and Italian troops seized the eastern islands, the seizure given ‘official international’ recognition under the Sevres and Lausanne Treaties (see maps below). Subsequently the Italians gifted their share of the islands to Greece, and precedent had been established for later events in Rhodes and Cyprus.

While the European Powers were systematically dismembering the territories of the Ottoman Empire, it was necessary for them to at least pretend that their motives were pure. In consequence, it suited them to foster in the public mind an image of ‘The Turk’ as unbeliever, barbarian and monster. This, then, justified their aggression and seizing of territory under the guise of protecting the Christian subjects of a cruel and ruthless regime. Their own ethnic cleansing of Muslims from areas they conquered took place far enough from home that it could be swept under the carpet. Ottoman attempts to stem the tide could be portrayed as characteristic incidents of gratuitous barbarity, justifying further crusading action.

All such pretence finally evaporated in the aftermath of the First World War. It is generally accepted that harsh reparations enforced by the victorious allies led to Germany’s economic collapse, and the rise of Adolf Hitler. It is less well known that the machinations of those victors, in particular Britain and France, created the conditions that pretty much directly produced the current turmoil in the Middle East.

7-sykes-picot

1. Sykes-Picot plans for the Middle East

Britain and France, with Russian concurrence, signed the secret Sykes-Picot agreement (see Map 1) in 1915 whereby Ottoman territory would be divided amongst them, with some allocations to Greece and Italy. The Treaty of Sevres (Map 2), signed in 1920 without the participation of the USA or Greece, more or less confirmed the Sykes-Picot boundaries. It was all very nice and tidy – and ‘Turkey’ would have to content itself with a rump of central Anatolia and Black Sea coastline.

treaty-of-sevres-corrected

2. Sevres Agreement – they would have if they could have!

What happened to upset their plans was the emergence of Turkish nationalism which – European insistence on the name ‘Turkey’ notwithstanding – had previously been pretty much non-existent. For three years, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk) led an army of liberation that drove the invading Europe-sponsored Greek military out of Anatolia, and forced the British and French to quit Istanbul, which they had been illegally occupying since 1919. The modern Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, at last bringing into existence a ‘Turkish’ state on which that thousand-year hatred could be focused. I am as sure as I can be that Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, Russia, have never forgiven Turkey for those humiliations.

In the 93 years since, Turkey has slowly turned itself from an economic basket case, destitute after decades of war, into a modern nation with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It hasn’t been an easy road. Turkey’s location at the gateway between Europe and the Middle East; and on the frontline in the Cold War with Soviet Russia, has meant that it would never be left alone to work out its own destiny. Unbeknown to most of us in the West, the United States maintained several military bases in Turkey during the Cold War, with nuclear-armed missiles aimed, from point-blank range, at targets in Russia. President JF Kennedy’s 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis takes on a different aspect when viewed in this context.

The 1974 crisis in Cyprus, when Turkey’s Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sent troops to the island to secure a Turkish sector, has led to unceasing international censure and accusations. It was, however, within the power of the British Government at the time, as guarantors of the treaty establishing the independence of Cyprus, to step in and make the Turkish action unnecessary – which they declined to do. In contrast, the action of Armenia, in invading and occupying the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, within the internationally recognised boundaries of Azerbaijan, arguably a less justifiable intervention, has been met with an almost universal silence from Western nations so unforgiving in their criticism of Turkey.

From 1960 to 1997, the Republic of Turkey experienced four military interventions that overturned democratically elected governments – according to some, with the connivance of United States administrations. Three of those coups resulted in periods of martial law, accompanied by detention, imprisonment without trial, torture and ‘disappearances’ of political ‘dissidents’. Many academics were removed from their positions in universities, and intellectuals obliged to flee the county.

Since the AK Party became the government in 2002, military intervention in the political process seems to have passed into history. Inflation of banana-republic proportions that had plagued the country for decades, was wiped out virtually overnight. Public transport and provision of water and electricity in the major cities has improved out of sight. Service over the counter in state offices has become an orderly process relying on numbered queues rather than crossing a public servant’s palm with silver. Medical treatment in state and private hospitals is now more accessible to all, and the Third World chaos formerly reigning in state clinics is also a thing of the past.

In spite of this, news media in the United States and Western Europe are unrelenting in publishing articles belabouring Turkey for its alleged descent into autocratic Islamic fundamentalism. They are aided in their propaganda by discontented Turks who seem to be hoping that they can enlist outside support for political ‘change’ they have been unable to achieve through the ballot box.

Sadiq Khan MP at Westminster, London, Britain  - 11 Oct 2012

Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London

The ongoing problem for the West, however, is that they have never quite been able to bring Turkey under their direct control. Attempts in the past at invasion and occupation failed. The present government has, at least so far, been able to forestall attempts through the courts and by the military, to remove them from office. The current refugee crisis, not of Turkey’s making, but imposing a huge burden on its economy and infra-structure, has been turned into a powerful lever forcing European leaders to enter into negotiations in a way they have previously refused to do.

We live in interesting times. As I write this, citizens of London have just elected a Muslim Mayor whose parents were immigrants from Pakistan. Well, at least he’s not a Turk – but still, it looks like an event that will require some shifting of mental gears in the birthplace of democracy.

Advertisements

Anzac Day and the Armenian ‘Genocide’ – What’s the connection?

Visitors from Australia and New Zealand attend a dawn ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli

2015 Anzac dawn service, Turkey

Tomorrow, or today, depending on your time zone, thousands of New Zealanders and Australians will gather for a dawn service on the beach of Anzac Cove beside the Dardanelle Strait in the Republic of Turkey. Most of them will then participate in organised tours around the battlefields and cemeteries of what we like to call the Gallipoli Peninsula.

I’ve been there several times myself. It’s a moving experience, reminding us antipodeans of our shared heritage, and providing us with a date on we can celebrate the emergence of a national consciousness.

Although I live in Turkey, I haven’t actually attended one of those 25 April commemorative services. My first visit was with a party of Turkish high school students and teachers, there for their own day of remembrance on 18 March. My most recent was with a couple of visitors from New Zealand on a quiet day in May.

I have, I guess, an unusual perspective on the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. I grew up imbued with all the legend and mythology associated with its memory in New Zealand. My years in Turkey have shown me another side to the story. Interestingly, both countries trace aspects of their origins to that tragic, bloody and ultimately futile conflict.

One factor, however, that has kept me from joining my fellow New Zealanders on their annual pilgrimages, is a feeling that we are not quite as appreciative as we might be of the hospitality the people of Turkey show in welcoming their former invaders, and allowing us to celebrate our national identity on their soil. What were our boys doing there, after all, 17,000 kilometres from home, invading the land of a people they barely knew existed, who certainly had not done them any harm?

Politics - Winston Churchill and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Winston Churchill with German Kaiser Wilhelm, 1909

However brave our lads were, and that is beyond debate, they were in the wrong – or at least their military and political leaders who sent them were. I sometimes half seriously ask my Turkish students who they consider their country’s ‘Number Two Man’, after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. They show considerable surprise, even anger, when I offer my nomination of Winston Churchill for the title.

Certainly Mustafa Kemal was the victor of Gallipoli/Çanakkale, and the founder of the Republic. However, my contention is that, without the outrageous provocation of the British Empire, and Churchill in particular, the spark that ignited the struggle for liberation and independence might never have been struck. His was the grand plan to force the Dardanelles and the surrender of the Ottoman government, and to assist Imperial Russia in attacking Germany from the east, thereby relieving pressure on the Western front. Undeterred by failure, the British encouraged the Greek army to invade Anatolia in 1919 as part of their plan to divide and destroy the Ottoman Empire once and for all. When the Greeks too were driven out, Churchill’s final affront was an ultimatum calling on Turkish nationalists to refrain from attempting to liberate Istanbul from occupation. His bluff was called, and the modern Republic of Turkey came into being on 23 October 1923.

One of the most touching memories for me of the 1915 tragedy is the extract from a speech delivered by Atatürk, addressed to the families of the Anzacs who left their mortal remains on the battlefields of Gallipoli:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

We shouldn’t forget, when we visit Turkey, that we are there as guests of a sovereign nation. The British Government back then underestimated Ottoman resistance, duped by their own rhetoric about ‘The Sick Man of Europe’. Our grandfathers paid a high price for that. Short-term visitors to Turkey cannot be expected to learn the local language – but we might make some effort to learn a little history and geography. ‘Gallipoli’ is in fact a town in Southern Italy. The Turkish name for the peninsula is Gelibolu, a corruption of the ancient Greek town called Kallipolis. Turks refer to the campaign as Çanakkale (Chunnuck-kaleh) a name they also apply to the strait we choose to call the Dardanelles. This latter word derives from another ancient Greek town named for the mythical son of Zeus and Electra.

Who cares, you may ask? But I’m arguing that we, New Zealanders of all people, should care. For some years we have been starting to realise that many of our own place names arrogantly replaced meaningful words assigned by the indigenous Maori people – Aotearoa, Taranaki/Mt Egmont, Aoraki/ Mt Cook, and so on. The Republic of Turkey will celebrate its 93rd birthday this year. Perhaps its time we consigned that Greek mythology to its rightful place on library shelves.

NPG 142; George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips

Lord Byron in ‘Albanian costume’ – I never even liked his poetry

After all, we owe much of our ‘knowledge’ of ‘Greece’ to a controversial, aristocratic English poet, Lord George Gordon Byron. A few words from his Wikipedia entry:

“Byron was both celebrated and castigated in life for his aristocratic excesses, including huge debts, numerous love affairs – with men as well as women, as well as rumours of a scandalous liaison with his half-sister – and self-imposed exile. He was living in Genoa when, in 1823, while growing bored with his life there, he accepted overtures for his support from representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Byron spent £4,000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet.

Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. He employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command, despite his lack of military experience. Before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill. He developed a violent fever, and died on 19 April. It has been said that if Byron had lived and had gone on to defeat the Ottomans, he might have been declared King of Greece. However, contemporary scholars have found such an outcome unlikely.”

Thwarted by Byron’s untimely death, the British government arranged for the installation of a German prince from the Bavarian Wittelsbach family as King Otto I of their new puppet state.

Well, I’m not here to talk about Lord Byron and the past sins of Imperial Britain – rather to warn that we need to exercise caution in deciding what to believe, especially when that belief may lead to actions with unintended and undesirable consequences. The 16th century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, observed that Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know’, and the passage of time has not detracted from the truth of his words.

Western news media are presently full of articles and opinion pieces referring to the so-called ‘Armenian genocide’. The reason is that the global community of Armenians chose 24 April as the day to commemorate another tragic event of 1915. The issue, as I’m sure you are well aware, is whether the expulsion and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at that time should be labelled a ‘genocide’ – and whether the modern Republic of Turkey should accept responsibility.

Clooney-invite

If you can afford $33,400 to $353,400 for a ticket

The Catholic Pope has apparently come out in support of the Armenian claim, and I read of a church service being conducted by a Catholic cardinal in a cathedral in Boston. George Clooney, better known as a Hollywood actor, has also announced his support for the Armenian cause. President Obama, meanwhile, has angered Armenians by soft-pedalling on the issue, despite earlier promises on the campaign trail.

Well, I’m not going to engage in diversionary arguments about whether the Catholic Church has any right to take anyone else to task for human rights abuses. Nor attack Mr Clooney and his wife for their ‘obscene’ financial support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

I would, however, like to express my sadness and disappointment over an article published in the New Zealand Herald today. Admittedly it’s an opinion piece, and possibly doesn’t reflect the position of the owners and publishers of the paper. However, it’s a sensitive issue, and they should give some thought to the warning of M. Montaigne.

The writer, James Robins, has chosen to make a connection between the Anzac involvement in the Gallipoli Campaign, and the current campaign to have the Armenian tragedy recognised as a genocide. He claims that New Zealand soldiers actually witnessed events proving that a genocide, the systematic and near-complete destruction of a people’ took place. Robins asserts that For centuries the Armenians had been second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire.’ In fact, Armenians, along with Orthodox Christians and Jews had been given the right to build schools and churches, speak their languages, practice their religion, bury their dead, hold high positions, and live rich and comfortable lives in the Ottoman Empire.

The article contains a picture of a desecrated and destroyed Armenian cemetery. I can take Mr Robins to many Armenian churches and cemeteries occupying fabulously valuable real estate in modern Istanbul. If he has any Greek friends, he could ask them to show him mosques or synagogues in Athens or Salonika, cities that once had large Muslim and Jewish populations. And good luck with the search.

Armenian cemetery 2

Armenian cemetery in Şişli, one of Istanbul’s most expensive neighbourhoods

Robins quotes the ‘historian’ Taner Akçam – much of whose ‘research’ has in fact been called into question. A Turkish historian, Haluk Şahin, has just published a book, ‘Anatomy of a Forgotten Assassination Plot’. Şahin refers to the murder of two Turkish diplomats in Santa Barbara, California, on 27 January 1973 by an American citizen of Armenian descent – the first killing in an orchestrated programme that caused the deaths of 90 Turkish diplomatic staff and members of their immediate families.

I have in front of me an article from Al Jazeera dated 5 April, about the ongoing conflict between the country of Armenia and its neighbour Azerbaijan. The subheading reads: ‘The international community has consistently deplored the occupation of the Azerbaijani territories’. The article refers to the 1993 incident where Through the Armenian aggression and ethnic cleansing policy, 20 percent of the internationally recognised Azerbaijani territory (Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts) were occupied by Armenia, and more than one million Azerbaijanis were expelled from their ancestral lands.’

I’m not interested in taking sides on these issues. We New Zealanders have unsavoury and still unresolved events in our own history. The Roman Catholic Church likewise. I do hope, however, that the Herald’s correspondent, James Robins, represents a minority point-of-view when he asks, ‘Can New Zealand state officials stand on a platform with Turkish officials at Gallipoli knowing that they actively refuse to acknowledge the truth of what happened to the Armenians? Knowing now that New Zealanders risked their lives for the survivors?’

Just remember who looks after those Gallipoli cemeteries from one Anzac Day to the next; whose government gives New Zealanders free visas to enter their country, and whose people welcome us like family when we’re there. Are you really so sure of your facts that you want to jeopardise those privileges?

__________________________________________

Other posts on this issue:

Who killed the Armenians?

Armenian Massacres and the Nationalism of Hate

In Search of Solutions

History at 10,000 metres

Reality buttocks, papal infallibility and the Armenian issue

Selective Amnesia

Who hijacked the left?

Armenian Massacres – and the nationalism of hate

A large crowd gathered in Taksim Square, Istanbul, on Saturday 25 February to commemorate the 20th anniversary of an event they were calling the Khojaly Massacre. Evidently there were some unruly elements, and among the placards there were a few thinly veiled threats against Armenians and locals who might be inclined to sympathise with them. A little unpleasant, but you get that kind of stuff at any demonstration, right?

Still, you’d have to be curious about the event, wouldn’t you – the Khojaly Massacre? What’s that all about? Well, I can tell you, the incident occurred back in 1993 during the local war that had broken out between neighbouring states, Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The problem apparently was/is that, despite being located within the borders of Azerbaijan, the area has a majority Armenian population, which provided the Armenian government with a reason for sending in troops and annexing it.

Unfortunately, as in any war, the casualties included not a few civilians, and the bloodiest incident took place in or around the town of Khojaly. Needless to say, accounts vary according to whether you’re listening to the Armenian or the Azeri side of the story – how many women and children were slaughtered, how it was done, and what was done to them beforehand. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Nagorno-Karabakh became a pseudo-independent state sponsored by Armenia, and the Azeris remain pretty unhappy about it.

Now, you may or may not know that Turkey and Azerbaijan have a kind of big brother-little brother relationship. Azeris speak a Ural-Altaic language that is the nearest relative in the world to Turkish. If you speak Turkish, you can watch Azeri television, get a few patronising laughs, and understand about 60-70% of what they’re talking about. Accordingly, in a show of solidarity with their smaller sibling, the Turkish government closed the border they share with Armenia. ‘So what?’ you may think. Armenians don’t love Turks that much. They’re probably happy to have a closed border. But take a look at a map. Armenia is a tiny, land-locked country, surrounded by some pretty shady, even dangerous, neighbours. Ironically, Turkey is probably the least threatening among them, and certainly provides the most stable and direct route to the west for goods and people travelling in and out of Armenia.

In the last two or three years, the Turkish government has indicated a readiness to engage in negotiations with their Armenian neighbours, with a view to reopening the border. However, they are insisting on the need for a fair and reasonable settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue – and that the Armenians back off a little on their ‘genocide’ claims. Surprisingly, as far as the actual nation of Armenia is concerned, the latter issue is less of a problem than the former. Most of the noise about an alleged Armenian holocaust originates in the diaspora. Local Armenians seem much more inclined to employ the soft pedal. Gwynne Dyer, a historian and journalist who has made a study of the issues has this to say:

For Armenians abroad, making the Turks admit that they planned and carried out a genocide is supremely important. Indeed, it has become a core part of their identity. For most of those who are still in Armenia, getting the Turkish border re-opened is a higher priority. Their poverty and isolation are so great that a quarter of the population has emigrated since the border was closed [in 1993], and trade with their relatively rich neighbour to the west would help to staunch the flow.

Vartan Harutiunian a writer and human rights activist in Armenia, and political prisoner in the days when Armenia was part of the Soviet empire, has suggested that self-pity and anti-Turkism lie at the heart of Armenian nationalism. ‘The most patriotic Armenian’, he says, ‘is the most anti-Turkish’.

Christopher Sisserian, a freelance journalist and graduate student of International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, has recently published an article entitled Understanding the Importance of a Shared History’. He argues that:

The separation of Armenians and Turks in 1915 is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In order for an understanding to be reached between the two nations regarding the genocide of 1915, it is first necessary to re-discover the history of two peoples living side by side harmoniously for hundreds of years . . . An understanding of this is the first step in re-humanising the relations between the two nations and promoting reconciliation. Armenians and Turks have dehumanized each other, often understandably, in the process of maintaining their separate cultural identities. Armenians learning about the genocide are led to believe all Turks were (and by extension still are) inherently evil, ignoring the many Turks that endeavored to save Armenian lives. Correspondingly, Turks alive today who bear no responsibility for the events of 1915 are incensed by accusations that they are guilty of a crime not committed by them.

There’s a tone of calm, balanced reason there, don’t you think, that is not commonly heard when this issue is discussed? Nationalism has been a two-headed monster since it surfaced as a rationale for political action towards the end of the 18th century. Unscrupulous seekers of power have been all too ready to unleash its forces of unity and aggression to further their own ends. Anatolia and the Balkan lands have been traversed and conquered by so many races and peoples since time immemorial that it is impossible to know who were the aboriginal inhabitants. The search for racial and national purity is futile, yet the very diversity of ethnic and linguistic groups drives a powerful need for identity.

One admission can be readily made. The ancestors of today’s Armenians have been in Anatolia longer than Turks – but relativity is an important factor here. The Seljuk Turks won the victory that allowed them entry into Anatolia[1] around the same time that the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons, and asserted their right to rule England. It would be no easy task these days to separate out the descendants of the Norman invaders and send them back to France.

Even if we accept that the invading Turks rode roughshod over the democratic rights of those who controlled Anatolia at the time, it was the Byzantine Greeks, not the Armenians who were in charge. As far as I can discover, there was a Kingdom of Armenia in ancient times, experiencing a brief Golden Age between 95 and 66 BCE under the rule of Tigranes the Great. Centuries later, there was a period of independence between 884 and 1045 CE, when the Bagratuni dynasty ruled from their capital city of Ani, now an uninhabited ruin located in Eastern Turkey. Apart from those interludes, Armenians have been a conquered people, ruled successively by Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans and Russians (Imperial and Soviet). Some historians argue that the Ottomans were the kindest and most tolerant of these masters, allowing cultural, religious, linguistic and economic freedom to a privileged people within their imperial borders.

Nevertheless, being a minority people within a dominant culture is not an easy condition to bear. There will always be voices saying that independence and autonomy would bring greater happiness – and who is to say they are wrong? The artist, Mkrtum Hovnatanian (1779-1846), was among the first to foster a consciousness of Armenian traditions and history through his paintings. Mikayel Chamchian, imperial jeweller to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul, wrote a grammar of the Armenian language, and a history of the Armenian people, towards the end of the 18th century. A religious leader and writer, Khrimian Hayrik (Migirdiç Hirimyan), worked to improve the lot of Armenian peasants in eastern Anatolia from the 1860s, and argued for self-determination. Interestingly, he served in Istanbul as Armenian Patriarch for a time, recognised by the Ottoman government, while his appeal to the Berlin Conference in 1878 for European support for Armenian self-determination apparently fell on deaf ears.

From the early 19th century, the Russian Empire fought several wars against Persians and Ottomans, with the aim, as ever, of forging a corridor for themselves to the warm waters of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. To further this aim, it suited them to encourage Armenians in a belief that they had common interests as fellow Christians. Armenians fought on the side of the Russians in the 1820s, and again in the 1870s. In the mid-19th century, Britain and France opposed Russian expansion, and even went to war against them, in support of the Ottomans[2]. Later, however, as Russian chauvinism increased from the 1880s, the Tsarist government began to crack down on Armenian nationalism, closing schools and discouraging use of the language.  It was at this point in history that Armenian revolutionary movements really began to grow, encouraged by the British, who suddenly started to take an interest in their ‘fellow Christians’. The part played by the increasing importance of petroleum in Western economies could make an interesting study, which I do not, however, intend to pursue here.

Suffice it to say that the activities of British and American ‘missionaries’ increased towards the end of the 19th century, in parts of Ottoman Anatolia where many Armenians lived, and subsequently revolts broke out against the Ottoman government. You might want to ask why missionaries were necessary when the Armenians were already Christian, but let’s leave that aside as well. From the 1870s, revolutionary Armenian groups such as the Hunchaks and Dashnaks began to incite and carry out acts of violence. Undoubtedly, something very dreadful befell Armenian people in Anatolia in 1915 – but balanced histories acknowledge that Armenians were not alone in their suffering. Justin McCarthy professor of history at Louisville University, Kentucky, has written much on the subject.

The Hollywood version

What seems clear is that there has been, at the very least, a one-sided presentation of a very complex story, to the severe detriment of Turkey’s international reputation. In 1919, shortly after the Armenian tragedy of 1915, Hollywood produced a film, black and white and silent of course, purporting to tell the story of a young Armenian woman who had escaped after horrific experiences in Turkish harems and slave-markets. Stills from this salacious film, ‘Ravished Armenians’, occasionally turn up in literature arguing for recognition of a genocide.


A name that also comes up in this literature is Henry Morgenthau. This gentleman was US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916. Morgenthau was no lover of the Ottomans, and reportedly went somewhat unwillingly to the post. Despite the fact that he was domiciled in Istanbul, and did not visit the troubled areas, preferring to rely on reports for his information, he is frequently quoted from his own writings on Ottoman atrocities. Interestingly, one of Morgenthau’s successors, Admiral Mark Bristol, US High Commissioner to the Ottoman Empire (and later Turkey) from 1919 to 1927, who did take the trouble to visit the area and speak to eyewitnesses, is generally ignored by genocide proponents, probably because he presents a more balanced picture of events. Bristol worked hard to get recognition in the USA for the new Republic of Turkey, and argued:

‘The new regime in Turkey is a most remarkable evidence of a revolution in form and administration of a government. Briefly, an absolute monarchy has been replaced by a republic. Church has been separated from state and religion eliminated from all law codes. Religion of any kind may be taught in the churches and the mosques, but not in the schools. All persons born in Turkey, without regard to race, religion or nationality, have all rights of Turkish citizenship. The Turkish leaders without previous experience must evolve the new administration. There are bound to be mistakes and the evolution will be slow, but there are many evidences of progress’.

An event sometimes cited in anti-Turkish propaganda is the Turkish (more properly Ottoman) Courts Martial of 1919-20. The courts were convened to bring to justice, perpetrators of Ottoman atrocities carried out on Armenians and others. One or two convictions resulted in executions, but most of the charges were eventually dropped. It should not be forgotten that Istanbul was under occupation by British forces at the time, and the Ottoman Sultan with his government were puppets eager to absolve themselves of guilt, to find scapegoats, and to curry favour with the occupying powers.

Between 1973 and 1994, Armenian terrorist organisations (or nationalist activists, if you prefer), such as ASALA, carried out attacks on consulates and embassies in several European and US cities, resulting in the deaths of 42 Turkish diplomats and four foreign nationals. Fifteen Turks and 66 foreign nationals were injured in these incidents. The stated aim was to raise world awareness and support for labelling as genocide the events of 1915.

Writers such as Vahakn Dadrian, Taner Akçam and Richard Hovanissian continue to turn out publications attacking Turkey and demanding the recognition of an Armenian Genocide, despite having been caught out on numerous counts of mistranslation of documents, selective reporting, and misrepresentation of facts.

Most recently, the French government of Nicholas Sarkozy has been trying to proscribe attempts to counter accusations of genocide against Turkey. Striking a blow for justice and democracy, the French Constitutional Council have apparently rejected the draft law as unconstitutional, obliging the French President to return to the drawing-board and reconsider his vote-catching exercise.

The Pandora jar of nationalist ideology was opened more than two centuries ago, and it is way too late now to re-stopper it. Politicians and power-seekers in Turkey and Armenia, in Europe and the Balkans, even in the United States of America, are only too willing to enlist the support of the ignorant and disaffected by employing nationalist rhetoric to arouse hatred and instigate violence against a stereotyped enemy. Organised demonstrations such as the one in Taksim Square serve only to stir up nationalistic fervour and focus aggression. All that remains in the ideological jar is hope – the hope that voices of reason and moderation will prevail, and past wrongs can be forgiven and forgotten. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.


[1] The Battle of Manzikert/Malazgırt, 1071 CE
[2] The Crimean War: 1853-6