Saturday, April 24, 2010

Call a Spade a Spade?

April 24 is an important date for the Armenian Diaspora and anyone concerned about international justice. Your calendar book might have it as Genocide Remembrance Day. On this date U.S. presidents, ever so careful in parsing their words, have weighed in on a tragic event that occurred during World War I. Both Armenians and Turks (the latter perhaps begrudgingly) will at least agree on this innocuous description. The former group claims that the Ottoman Empire, under the guidance of a wicked triumvirate in the dim twilight of imperial grandeur, masterminded the rape and slaughter of about 1.5 million Armenians. Most Western historians agree. The Republic of Turkey to this day maintains that at best 300,000 Armenians died and largely as a result of wartime conditions, not genocide.

On this date in 1915 Ottoman authorities arrested over two-hundred Armenian elite in Istanbul. Armenians see this incident as the beginning of the genocide. Inauspicious events had already been transpiring, however. The government had been disarming Armenians serving in the Ottoman army since February. Armenians in the Anatolian city of Van were already growing alarmed about an order to hand over weapons and started to put up what would be a futile resistance.  German army medic Armin Wegener secretly took the photo above and against his government's orders documented the horrors he witnessed.

For a number of years Armenian-Americans have been pushing for an Armenian Genocide resolution in congress, the idea being that the U.S. government would officially recognize the slaughter almost a century ago as a bona fide genocide. Such recognition, so goes the defense, would befit a nation that is committed to human rights and has a “proud history” in opposing the Armenian genocide. Peter Balakian, in his book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (2004), has documented American aid to Armenians in both the massacres of the 1890s and the 1915 slaughter. (The photo depicts an orphanage of Armenians expressing gratitude for U.S. aid.)  If we look to the White House in more recent times, though, only President Reagan, back in April of 1981, referred to the “genocide of the Armenians.” President Obama, despite his promises as a candidate, did not deliver the goods in his commemorative message this year; he made no mention of the word genocide today. Why?

Simply put, there’s a lot at stake. Turkish-American relations have stood the test of time, as the national interests of both countries have yielded mutual benefits. We strongly supported Turkey’s entrance into NATO back in the postwar era—the first and to date only Islamic nation in the military alliance. For its part, the Republic of Turkey was a strategic partner throughout the Cold War. It continues to work with us in the current War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling this conflict nowadays. Above all, the airbases at Adana and Incirlik provide high strategic value for our military. Overall, the geopolitical importance of Turkey, a nation of 80 million bestriding the northern reach of the Middle East and situated at the gateway between Europe and Asia, needs little explanation. The United States has pressed ardently for Turkey’s admission in the European Union, despite a weary Germany and an obstructionist France. Notwithstanding this dual alliance, borne more of fast friends than any deep ties between the cultures, Turkey has threatened to server ties with America should we insist on calling a spade a spade. The Armenian genocide pricks the national consciousness of Ataturk’s Republic more than anything else. House Resolution 252, should it pass, would require the president to “characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenian as genocide.” As far as the Turks are concerned, this resolution would amount to utter betrayal, for the tacit and not-so-tacit agreement with U.S. policymakers is the sine qua non of Turkish diplomacy.

To a certain extent I understand Turkey’s position on the matter. We too have skeletons in our closet. What we did to the Indians of North America is genocide pure and simple. Yet have we owned up to it? The answer is unequivocally no. Like the Turks, we don’t want to think of our nation, our ancestors, as mass murderers of an ethnic group. Moreover, the legal and financial morass that would ensue after such an admission would be unending. I get it. But as I call the so-called “Plains Indians War” ethnic cleansing at best and really just an episode in a long process of genocide, I likewise believe that the events of 1915 fit the definition of genocide. Some argue that Turkey needs the United States more than vice-versa, and so we shouldn’t be concerned about their threats to cut diplomatic ties. I don’t take this view. Turkey is serious about this issue, and I happen to agree with George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, a highly credible private intelligence agency. In his book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, he argues that Turkey will be a major player in world affairs in the coming decades. Don’t mess with the Turks.

As Der Viator Blog readers know, I’ve spent time in Istanbul and hope to visit other regions of the country in the future. I’m a Turcophile. I have devoured books on the Ottoman Empire and Attaturk. I love the food, the culture, the people, and the language (even if I’ve had little success in learning it!). You would find evidence of my love for Turkey on the walls of my house; the white crescent and star against a red background and the glass nazars (amulets to ward of the evil eye) adorn a few rooms. I’ve been known to wear a fez in the classroom. Orhan Pamuk is my favorite living novelist (albeit he fell afoul of the Turkish government in 2006 for expressing his view on the Armenian genocide). I think the European Union should have admitted Turkey years ago. Above all, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, and my respect for his achievement (including his war record) and moral courage is matched only by Winston Churchill. I do not come at this topic as a foe to Turkey. No. But you have to call a spade a spade. Humanity demands it.

We should keep in mind that the Republic of Turkey grew out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Technically speaking, Ataturk’s government had nothing to do with the genocide. As historian Taner Ak├žam has shown, the first president of Turkey called the genocide a “shameful act.” I suppose someone will point out that Ataturk has blood on his hands with regard to the Anatolian Greeks, and I don’t want to diminish his dark side, as it were; but Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt are not without their blemishes too.

The world from a blog is a simple place, but here’s my two cents anyway. The Republic of Armenia, in consultation with the Armenian Diaspora in Britain, Canada and the United States should come to an agreement with Turkey: you officially state that 1915 was an act of genocide and we won’t bring up any legal battles for financial and land restitution. I’m a dreamer, I know. Understandably, I'm sure that not a few Armenians would see restitution as intrinsic to a mea culpa; one should back up words with action.  Besides, the financial and legal issues are secondary for Turks; no nation worth it’s weight in gold (and Turkey is a proud nation with many great achievements) would willingly tarnish its self-image as an honorable people with a venerable past. With the aforementioned Native American genocide in mind, we certainly aren’t leading by example. We have a log in our own eye.  In keeping with the spade metaphor, however, I'll say that the Turks could rightfully thrown dirt in our face over this issue.  Gradually we're coming to terms with our past, but it will be a long uphill journey.  Even President Reagan, otherwise known for his sunny optimism about America, recognized our predicament: “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal."  But he hastened to add: "The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past.”  Ataturk wanted a complete break from the Ottoman past.  It's time the great Republic of Turkey confront its ghosts and properly bury the dead.

2010 is a highly charged political year in our country. The Republicans expect to gain a number of seats in both chambers of congress. Speculation is that candidates will try and garner Armenian-American votes this November by paying lip service to opposing HR 252. (Presumably the Armenian-American lobby is more powerful and numerous than the Turkish-American lobby.) Who knows?

The first chapter in Norman Naimark’s Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe is the best succinct description and explanation of the genocide. For anyone who is interested in this topic but doesn’t want to read a history book, check out Atom Egoyan’s movie Ararat (2002) or read Elif Shafak’s novel The Bastard of Istanbul (2007). They handle the topic circumspectively.  But Teddy Roosevelt, speaking only a few years before his death, gets the last word. His was a voice crying in the wilderness.

The Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it; because the failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means that all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense… Let me emphatically point out that the sympathy is useless...and that the indignation is useless if it exhausts itself in words instead of taking shape in deeds.

Side note: According to my sources, the expression "call a spade a spade" stems from ancient Greece.   How it took on racial overtones for some I'll never know.  Erasmus of Rotterdam mistranslated the saying, however, back in the early 16th century.  The saying was originally "call a bowl a bowl."  Readers probably know that Erasmus also bequeathed to us Pandora's Box, though the original Greek was Pandora's Jar