We have long defended the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the face of anti-democratic attacks from the Turkish Kemalist establishment and the ultranationalist right. This government has been a reforming force in Turkish politics and society, promoting democratisation and human rights at home and presiding over great economic growth while pursuing a moderate, progressive foreign policy abroad. The AKP government has improved the rights of women and Kurds, pursued detente with Armenia and Cyprus, tried to restrain Turkey’s hawks over the PKK and northern Iraq, and supported the fragile, threatened Balkan states of Macedonia and Kosova.
Nevertheless, any progressive regime that remains in power too long will cease to be progressive. And the indications are that the AKP government has reached this point. Its initially moderately Islamic ideology mirrored, for a time, the moderate Christianity of European Christian Democratic parties, and provided an appealing alternative Islamic message to that of the Islamists. By challenging the Kemalist establishment over the ban on headscarves in universities and the public sector, the government has simply been standing up for the right of religiously observant women to education and a career. Yet the government, whose public support has been declining and which performed badly in local elections last month, is increasingly slipping down the slope from moderate Islam to Islamic popularism. In January, Erdogan flounced off the stage during a panel discussion with Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum, after accusing Peres over the Gaza offensive: ‘When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.’ During the Gaza offensive, Erdogan regularly denounced Israel in Islamist terms, suggesting that ‘Allah would punish’ Israel, whose actions would lead to its own ‘destruction’.
That this had more to do with pandering to Muslim populism and rising anti-Semitism than to any genuine concern at Palestinian suffering is indicated by the fact that Erdogan has not displayed quite the same degree of anger at the crimes of the Islamist Sudanese regime in Darfur. Indeed, Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir was invited to Turkey in January 2008, when he reviewed a military guard of honour in Ankara in the company of Turkey’s president, the AKP’s Abdullah Gul, who described him as a ‘friend’. Bashir was invited to Turkey again in August, despite his indictment for genocide by the International Criminal Court. The Turkish government has extended a similarly warm welcome to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with whom it is developing a close friendship, and who was permitted to put on an anti-American and anti-Israeli display at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Ankara is also pursuing an increasingly close collaboration with Russia, and is obstructing the transit of Azerbaijani gas to Europe via the Nabucco pipeline project, thereby threatening a source of energy for Europe that would be independent of Moscow.
Perhaps most worryingly, Ankara has been blocking the accession of Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to become the next secretary-general of NATO, on account of his handling of the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005. In Erdogan’s own words: ‘We are receiving telephone calls from the Islamic world, telling us: “By God, this person should not become the secretary general of Nato and we have to take into consideration all these reactions”.’ The AKP’s Islamic populism is thus threatening the functioning of NATO.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government has hardened its stand on the Kurdish issue, with Erdogan warning the Kurdish people that, with regard to Turkey, they should ‘love it or leave it’, creating major difficulties for the AKP’s own Kurdish deputies in relation to their constituents. This is apparently linked to increasing government paranoia over the role of the US and Israeli intelligence services in the country. This shift may account for the AKP’s poor showing in Kurdish regions in Turkey’s recent local elections.
Erdogan is mutating from a Muslim moderate into a Muslim bigot; his government is becoming a negative force in world politics. It is time for them to go.
The record of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has not been a glorious one. Most of the top-ranking leaders of Serbia, Montenegro and the Yugoslav People’s Army who planned and executed the war of aggression and genocide in the former Yugoslavia were never indicted. The only top-ranking leader to be indicted, Slobodan Milosevic, died before he could be convicted and sentenced. For all their horrendous suffering, the Bosnian people must be content with the prosecution of a few secondary figures. The Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is one such secondary figure, and his belated arrest may serve as a small scrap of comfort for the victims of his murderous, criminal actions.
The real success over Karadzic is, however, not so much that he has finally been arrested, but that he was indicted in the first place. His indictment back in 1995 ensured that he would be driven out of political life and underground, where he was no longer in a position to dominate Bosnian Serb politics and obstruct peace and reconstruction in Bosnia. The same was true for Milosevic: he was indicted by the ICTY in 1999 and his political fate was sealed; every rational person in Serbia, even among the ranks of the nationalists and regime apparatchiks, knew that an indicted war-criminal could not long remain a European head-of-state. The Milosevic indictment was, along with the Serbian defeat by NATO in Kosova, a major blow to Milosevic’s credibility among his own supporters that helped pave the way for his overthrow.
All this is worth remembering when we consider the indictment issued by International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide and other crimes. The indictment has inspired a chorus of wailing and hand-wringing from various Cassandras and members of the Neville Chamberlain brigade. That the African Union and several of its members have condemned the indictment is undoubtedly a good reason why it should be celebrated; several other heads of state of African Union countries should undoubtedly also be prosecuted as criminals. Countries like South Africa, China and Russia that oppose the indictment of Bashir have also stood out as defenders of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. What a coincidence ! No doubt these sensitive humanitarians are deeply concerned that the indictment may endanger peacekeepers and jeopardise peace negotiations in Sudan… Yeah, right…
Those that align themselves with the genocidal tyrant, Russia and China against the ICC are either extremely naive, or they are likely to view things like international justice and human rights simply as figleaves for ‘Western imperialism’. Veteran Sudan correspondent Julie Flint has aligned herself with the appeasers on this question; she really ought to know better. As for Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele, his polemic in opposition to the indictment of Bashir is an absolute disgrace; he actually uses phrases like ‘The conflict in Darfur is too complex and the attempts to resolve it are too delicate for so one-sided and blunt an approach’, and even ‘Atrocities have been committed on all sides’. Steele followed this up with a eulogy to the Russian regime of Dmitry Medvedev, even complaining that Medvedev has been ‘pilloried in Britain and the US for allegedly backing down on sanctions against Mugabe.’ Pilloried for defending Mugabe – how outrageous ! Even as I write, no doubt many a bereaved mother in Zimbabwe and Chechnya is shedding tears of blood for the indignity suffered by the Russian President. According to Steele, ‘Russia has not always behaved well over the past decade and a half, but it is more provokee than provoker.’ If Steele can reduce Moscow’s slaughter of the Chechens, defence of Mugabe and attempts to sabotage Kosova’s independence and Balkan stability to it having simply ‘not always behaved well over the past decade and a half’, it is unsurprising he is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of Bashir being made to answer for his crimes. And it is a good reason why any sane person should support the opposite of what he advocates.
The Bashir indictment is to be celebrated, because whether or not it results in the tyrant ever facing justice, it represents a nail in his political coffin; a push sending him further along the road already trodden by Milosevic and Karadzic. His international isolation will increase; what is left of his legitimacy will decrease; it will be more difficult for other states to collaborate with him; and if he survives his eventual overthrow, the successor regime will have to collaborate with the ICC in bringing him to trial, which will be a catalyst to its own democratic reform – just as enforced collaboration with the ICTY catalysed democratic reform in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. Of course, this presupposes that Russia, China and the African Union will not succeed in sabotaging the indictment; I’m not betting my life’s savings that they won’t.
Returning to Karadzic; the principal reason why we should celebrate his arrest is that it indicates the new Serbian government’s commitment to improving relations with the West. This is what Aleksandar Vucic of the neo-Nazi Serbian Radical Party believes; he points out that the Karadzic arrest is occurring simultaneously with the return of Serbia’s ambassadors to states that have recognised Kosova. Five months after the Western recognition of Kosova’s independence, Serbia is making better progress on the arrest of war-criminals than it has done since the time of Zoran Djindjic. The Karadzic arrest bodes well for the future peace and stability of the Balkans.
There is also the tantalising possibility that now he is behind bars, Karadzic may spill the beans on Serbia’s involvement in the Bosnian genocide, and on Western collusion with it. I’m not holding my breath, as earlier Hague indictees have not revealed anything shocking in this regard. But we can always hope…
Five days ago on 12 June, the Swedish parliament overwhelmingly rejected a motion to recognise the 1915 Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. However counter-intuitive it may seem, the result of this vote should not be mourned by anyone who believes in the need to educate the world public on genocide and its history.
The Armenian Genocide happened. As Donald Bloxham argues in his book The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, London, 2005) – which I recommend as an intelligent and balanced introduction to the debates surrounding the topic – there is no reason whatsoever why the genocide-deniers should be allowed to set the agenda, and force us to justify the use of the term ‘genocide’ when we discuss the fate of the Armenians. Let us be clear about this: genocide deniers are not simply those who prefer to use a term other than ‘genocide’ – such as ‘systematic mass-murder’ or ‘extermination’ – when describing what happened to the Armenians, or to the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, or to the Srebrenica Muslims in 1995. Rather, a true genocide-denier is one who, in the course of denying that a genocide occurred, seeks to whitewash the crime, minimise its magnitude and the tragedy of the victims, and usually also to shift the blame away from the perpetrators and on to the victims themselves. In other words, genocide deniers have an ideological agenda, and a very obnoxious one at that.
The Armenian case is perhaps alone, at least among the cases of genocide with which I am at all familiar, in that some historians who are in other respects actually very serious and competent are ranked among the deniers. There is always a temptation among foreign historians, who depend upon the hospitality and collaboration of the academic community and archivists of the countries they are studying, to become spokespeople for the nationalist or regime agendas of the countries in question. This is something that reflects badly on all those who fall into this trap. It is one thing for historians to be discreet or diplomatic when touching upon such issues, or to to use euphemisms like ‘extermination’ or ‘destruction’ instead of genocide, if that is the only way to keep the archives open. But if you start agitating on a denialist platform to ingratiate yourself with your hosts, you have crossed a line. As a historian, I am proud to say that I have always referred openly to the Armenian genocide; to the genocide of the native Americans; to the Soviet genocide of the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and others; to the Ustasha and Chetnik genocides in Axis-occupied Yugoslavia during World War II; and to the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s – both when writing about these topics and when teaching my students. If that ever means that some doors are closed to me that might otherwise be open, so be it. Some of us, at least, value our integrity more than our careers or our connections.
This is important, because it is ultimately historians and other scholars and teachers upon whom the task falls of educating the public about past acts of genocide. There are very sound reasons why the recognition of historic genocides in foreign countries should not be undertaken by national parliaments. In the case of the Armenian genocide – which, I repeat, should not be denied by respectable scholars – there are two crucial reasons why national parliaments should not actually vote to recognise it. The first reason concerns the context of the Armenian genocide itself, while the second reason concerns the concept of ‘genocide’ more generally.
The Armenian genocide was one of the last, and probably the largest-scale, of the series of acts of mass murder and expulsion that accompanied first the contraction, then the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement by several nation-states in the Balkans and Anatolia. The emergence from the Ottoman Empire of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria as autonomous or independent nation-states during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries involved the extermination or expulsion of much of the Ottoman Muslim population that had inhabited the territories of these countries under the Ottomans. A related phenomenon was the southward expansion of Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, across the northern coast of the Black Sea and into the Caucasus and the Balkans, often in collusion with local Christian peoples and similarly involving the killing or expulsion of vast numbers of Muslims – indeed, of entire Muslim peoples such as the Crimean Nogai and the Caucasian Ubykhs.
These acts of killing and explusion culminated in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro finally destroyed the Ottoman Empire in Europe. According to Justin McCarthy (Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, Darwin Press, Princeton, 1996, p. 164), the Balkan Wars resulted in the death of 27% of the Muslim population of the Ottoman territories conquered by the Christian Balkan states – 632,408 people. This is a figure comparable to death-toll of the Armenian genocide from 1915, which Bloxham estimates as claiming the lives of one million Armenians or 50% of the pre-war Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, with another half million Armenians deported but surviving (Bloxham, p. 1).
These massacres and expulsions of Ottoman Muslims, and particularly the Balkan Wars, were both precursors and catalysts for the Armenian genocide, which was launched only a couple of years after the Balkan Wars ended. This was because a) Muslim Turkish nationalists copied the model of European-style nationalism already adopted by the Balkan Christian nationalists, involving the same principle of ethno-religious homogeneity; b) the decades of explusions of Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims to Anatolia, culminating in the Muslim exodus from the Balkans during and after the Balkan Wars, provided a constituency of embittered refugees and their descendants whom the Turkish nationalists could mobilise in the 1910s to attack Anatolian Christians; c) the settlement of these Muslim refugees in Anatolia began the process of Muslim colonisation of historically Armenian-inhabited lands that paved the way for the genocide; and d) the Turkish nationalists who ruled the Ottoman Empire in 1915 viewed the extermination of the Armenians as the necessary alternative to what they feared would be the establishment of an Armenian state in Anatolia under Russian protection, on the model of the Balkan Christian states and involving the same acts of killing and expulsion of Ottoman Muslims that the establishment of the latter had involved (NB to point this out is not to justify the genocide; any more than pointing out Hitler’s undoubtedly sincere belief in a ‘Jewish threat’ to the Aryan race justifies the Holocaust).
The question is, therefore, why national parliaments in Europe or elsewhere should recognise the Armenian genocide while according no recognition whatsoever to the series of Christian crimes against Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims that both led up to and catalysed it. Historians can debate how decisive this catalyst was, or whether and to what extent the earlier crimes against Muslims should rightfully be labelled ‘genocide’. But this requires a degree of nuance and sensitivity to history of which blunt, clumsy parliamentary resolutions framed by historically ignorant parliamentarians are simply not capable. At the very least, the similarity of these crimes to the Armenian genocide should not be denied; nor should they be deemed less worthy of recognition. In singling out the Armenian genocide for recognition while ignoring the destruction of the European Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims, a parliament would be saying that the victims of the one are more worthy of recognition than the victims of the other. And this is something that the Turkish public cannot legitimately be expected to swallow – given that it is itself partially descended from the survivors of the Christian crimes in question, therefore much more aware of the double standard than are most Europeans.
This brings us to the second reason why parliaments should not recognise the Armenian genocide, or indeed any other historic genocide carried out by a foreign regime in a foreign country: the danger that a genocide will only be considered a ‘real’ genocide if recognised by a national parliament. All those who would like to turn a blind eye to genocidal crimes – whether in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or elsewhere – tend to do so by arguing that they are not ‘really’ genocide. They like to present genocide as something that almost never happens. Hence, they apply the term ‘genocide’ to only a very few historic cases – generally, to only the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge and the Rwandan genocide – or not even to all of those. Conversely, those who actually wish to see greater international efforts to prevent genocide, as well as most scholars writing about the phenomenon of genocide today, usually prefer to apply the term to a much larger number of historic crimes of mass murder. The point is not that these latter crimes are necessarily less worthy of the ‘genocide’ label than the destruction of the Armenians or Tutsis, but that they are less well known internationally.
In principle, therefore, recognition of the Armenian genocide should be followed by the recognition of other genocides: of the Herero people of German South West Africa in the early twentieth century; of the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and other Soviet peoples in the 1940s; of the Mayan population of Guatemala in the 1970s and 80s; and so forth, amounting to dozens or hundreds of cases. But we are unlikely ever to have international teams of scholarly experts deciding which of these cases warrant recognition as ‘genocide’ – more likely, genocide will only be recognised under the pressure of powerful and determined lobbies, as has been the case with the Armenians in several European countries. This would be bad for any genuine understanding of what genocide is and bad for the memory of the innumerable victims of what will be consigned to the category of ‘unrecognised genocides’. But it will be good for all those apologists for murderous regimes who will be only too happy to claim that it is only the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide that are recognised as genocide, and that we should all turn a blind eye to ‘lesser’ crimes.
No, parliamentary recognition of historic genocides is not the way forward. Rather than alienating Turkey by singling out its historic crimes for unique recognition, we should do better to encourage its further democratisation, to the point where its intellectuals can publicly acknowledge and discuss the Armenian genocide without fear of persecution or arrest. This, ultimately, is the only way to ensure that the memory of the Armenian victims is kept alive among those who most need to remember them.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
My colleague Philip Spencer, in a lecture yesterday at Kingston University, observed that in all the extensive coverage of Sudan’s ‘teddy-bear crisis’, nobody has made a connection between the treatment of the British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons and the genocide in Darfur. A regime that carries out genocide against its own citizens is also likely to be one that persecutes individuals arbitrarily, for ‘crimes’ such as naming a teddy-bear ‘Muhammad’.
Philip, Brian Brivati and I are teaching a course on the ‘Politics of Mass Murder’ at Kingston University, and both Philip and Brian have been closely following events in Darfur. In the seminar following the lecture, one of my students remarked that the trial of a single British schoolteacher seems to have generated much greater media coverage than the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in the same country.
Since it appears to be illegal in Sudan to name a teddy-bear ‘Muhammad’, is it unreasonable to expect the Sudanese courts also to take action against all those guilty of murdering people called ‘Muhammad’, desecrating their bodies, raping their wives and daughters and kicking their families out of their homes ? They could start by indicting Omar Hasan al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, for killing more Muhammads than anyone else this century.
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