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 populism. 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.
Idealism is the new realism, it has been said. Nowhere has the adage proved more pertinent than in South East Europe, where socially fired popular protests against despotic regimes have consistently worked to strengthen the position of the Western alliance and the democratic world generally. It was, of course, thanks to the great wave of democratic revolutions in 1989, culminating in the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu, that the two East Balkan countries of Romania and Bulgaria – not so long ago bastions of the worst kind of Communist tyranny – are today members of NATO and the EU. Serbia’s turn toward the West began with the revolution of October 2000 that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic; though this turning point turned out to be less sharp than was first imagined, Serbia’s evolution into a democratic state with credible ambitions to EU membership has been steady, if not exactly smooth, since then. Georgia and Ukraine, too, turned westward with the Rose and Orange Revolutions of 2003 and 2004.
Some might be inclined to view this through Cold War lenses, and to say that such upheavals are to be desired when directed against hostile regimes, but less so when directed against those that are our allies. Yet this would be to fail to grasp the political realities of the late 2000s. For there is a very good case to be made that states today that are less than democratic are necessarily less than perfect as allies, and that being subject to democratic change can only improve them in this regard. This is because authoritarian regimes tend inevitably to present pressure for democratic change in occidentalist, nativist terms, as part of an alien, Western imperialist, possibly Jewish assault on the nation. And rhetoric of this kind inevitably serves to undermine any alliance we may have with them, even if purely geopolitical factors should work in favour of such an alliance. Conversely, genuine democrats in non-democratic or democratising states will usually look to the US and EU as beacons of light.
This may be demonstrated by a look at the southern flank of South East Europe – Turkey and Greece. Both countries have been committed members of NATO for many years, but anti-democratic tendencies in both have rendered them less than model allies. Turkey’s brutal suppression of its Kurdish population, and the resulting war between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish PKK rebels, has persistently spilled over into northern Iraq, further undermining stability in that already barely stable country. Turkey is a strategically crucial member of the Western alliance, yet its human rights abuses, its restrictions on free speech and its military’s interference in politics have helped to keep it out of the EU. Turkey’s gradual democratisation in recent years, under the guidance of the moderately Islamic, pro-EU Justice and Development Party (AKP), has ironically, according to some sources, led extremist elements from the ranks of the secular Turks to begin closing ranks with the Turkish Islamists on an anti-democratic, anti-Western basis. It is the democratising elements that look westward, while their opponents seek to defend the nation and/or faith from corrupting Western influences.
As for Greece, though its restrictions on democracy and human rights abuses are not on the scale of Turkey’s, as an ally of the West it scores much lower than its eastern neighbour – precisely because it is not a mature democracy. Greece’s disgraceful role in regional politics; its past support for the Milosevic regime; its undermining of the fragile states of Macedonia and Kosova – all are the result in large part of a Greek ultranationalism that also hates the West as the mortal enemy of the Orthodox East, as Greek journalist Takis Michas has brilliantly described. Greece is, furthermore, among the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe, something that the Greek media’s reaction to the Gaza conflict has only confirmed.
Both Greece and Turkey are, however, countries whose internal politics are very much in states of flux. Greece has in recent weeks been the scene of a huge explosion of social anger on the part of youth and workers, directed against the very government of Costas Karamanlis that has been proving such a menace to regional stability. The protests have included riots, vandalism and assaults on police officers, something that can only be condemned without reservation. But the violent element cannot obscure the large numbers of Greeks who have been protesting and striking peacefully. Although the protests have now passed their peak, the social struggle in Greece is not over; Greek farmers are currently blockading roads and border crossings in Greece in protest at the low prices of farm produce. It would be a mistake to see these protests purely in social terms; as was the case with the Romanian revolution of 1989 and the Serbian revolution of 2000, the Greek protests, fired as they are by social grievances, may have positive political effects. There is every reason to hope that these protests will hasten the end of the Karamanlis regime and contribute to a political rejuvenation of Greek politics, resulting in a country more at peace with itself and with its neighbours.
There was a time, perhaps still not completely past, when radical socialists would see in every wave of social protest the harbinger of the overthrow of capitalism, and many members of the conservative right would fear such protest for the same reason. Yet saner heads today know this is false: ordinary people are fundamentally conservative with a small ‘c’. They do not want the overthrow of capitalism, or revolution for revolution’s sake, but engage in social protest defensively, when the system seems to be letting them down. What they want is stability, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness – things that liberal democracy is better able to offer than any other political system. For all the Cassandras’ talk of how recognising Kosova’s independence in February 2008 would drive the Serbian people into the arms of the extreme nationalists, most Serbian people are fundamentally less interested in Kosova than they are in feeding themselves and their families – as was proved when pro-European elements won the Serbian parliamentary elections that followed soon after international recognition of Kosova’s independence. Bread and butter issues will, in the last resort, trump nationalist pipe-dreams; Turkish Cypriots abandoned the unrealisable goal of an independent Turkish Cypriot state when in 2004 they voted overwhelmingly in favour of Cyprus’s reunification on the basis of the Annan Plan, because they wanted to enjoy the benefits of EU membership. Greek students who had a better chance of finding decent jobs and pursuing more promising careers after graduating would be less likely to go out on to the streets to fight the police. Thus, the ordinary people of the Balkans, like the rest of us, have an interest in the spread of stable, post-nationalist liberal democracy.
Quieter, but perhaps ultimately more significant than the social explosion in Greece, is the movement to apologise for the Armenian genocide currently under way in Turkey; more than 28,000 Turkish citizens to date have signed a petition drafted by a group of Turkish intellectuals apologising for what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Turkish state prosecutors have announced they will not take action against the organisers of the petition. This campaign, the work of entirely mainstream Turkish academics, journalists and others, marks a tremendous step forward for Turkish democracy; a step toward a Turkey that will, it is to be hoped, enjoy normal relations with neighbours like Armenia, Cyprus and Iraq, and whose commitment to, and sharing of the values of, the Western democratic bloc will be unquestioned. Yet this process of democratisation depends entirely on the initiatives of brave individuals, such as the organisers of the apology petition.
No southeast European nation is a stauncher friend of the West than Kosova. Here, a particularly active protest movent exists, directed against the international administration of the country but catalysed by social discontent, and spearheaded by Vetevendosje. Given the dismal record and stupendous corruption of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the pusillanimity of the EU in resisting Serbian efforts to destabilise Kosova, the frustration and anger that have spawned this movement can only be described as entirely legitimate and justified. The people of Kosova are as deserving of full democracy as any other nation, and full democracy requires full international independence. If we allow the international administration of Kosova to drag on indefinitely, without any meaningful progress on the reintegration of the Serb-controlled areas, we shall only have ourselves to blame for any future popular explosions in Kosova in which the international administration finds itself on the receiving end.
We can, at the very least, learn something from the Russians about how not to treat one’s allies. After the Russians cut gas supplies to the Balkans in the course of their dispute with Ukraine, citizens of Russia’s supposed ‘ally’ Serbia, in the industrial city of Kragujevac, burned a Russian flag earlier this month in protest at being left without heat during the winter. And as one elderly Belgrade resident was quoted as saying, ‘Russians always gave us nothing but misery. They should never be trusted, as this gas blackmail of Europe shows’. Resentment of Russia is not limited to Serbia, but has spread across eastern Europe. In the words of one elderly citizen of Bulgaria, another country frequently described as traditionally pro-Russian: ‘This is a war without weapons in which Russia has used its control of energy supply to flex its muscles in front of the world… I am cold and angry. We have always been dependent on Russia, and this crisis shows that the situation hasn’t changed. Instead of bombs or missiles, they want us to freeze to death.’ In the Bulgarian port of Varna, residents demonstrated in front of the Russian consulate, holding banners that read ‘Stop Putin’s gas war’. Moscow’s mistake has been to wage its gas war indiscriminately, without taking into account the effect this would have on South East Europeans upon whose goodwill its geopolitical ambitions ultimately depend.
The biggest advantage that the democratic world has over its enemies is that its governments govern with the consent of the people. We must never forget this, as we strive to deal with the difficult set of problems facing us in South East Europe.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
In deciding to comment on the conflict in Gaza, I’m reminded of the old joke from the time of the siege of Sarajevo, in which someone is alleged to have written on a Sarajevo wall, ‘Comrade Tito, please come back to us’, and someone else then wrote below, ‘I am not so stupid’. The bitterness of the polemics over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly on a par with the bitterness of those over the former Yugoslavia, which is enough to make even a Balkan veteran such as myself think twice before venturing onto the Gazan terrain. Yet it is increasingly difficult to remain silent in the face of the escalating calamity of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, in essence, a national conflict similar to those over Bosnia, Kosova, Cyprus and Turkish Kurdistan. Yet for all the similarities, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also unique, in the peculiar symmetry of the legitimate causes of each of the two sides. There is or was no justice whatsoever in Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds, in Serbia’s oppression of the Kosova Albanians, in Turkey’s dismemberment of Cyprus or in Serbia’s and Croatia’s dismemberment of Bosnia. Any discussion of these cases must proceed from the basis that the respective instances of national oppression or aggression, in each case, are injustices that must be addressed, and that the injustices carried out or threatened by the other sides in each conflict are simply of a lower order of magnitude. For example, no amount of irritation at Greek Cypriot behaviour in recent years, or sympathy for the current Turkish government’s honourable attempts to reach a settlement over Cyprus, can obscure the fact that the Turkish partition of Cyprus is an injustice that should never be recognised. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the absolute legitimacy of the Israeli quest to survive in the face of sections of the Arab and Muslim world that do not recognise its right to exist is matched by the absolute legitimacy of the Palestinian quest for national independence and statehood.
Thus, it does not make sense to attribute to either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the role of national oppressor equivalent to Serbia with regard to the Kosova Albanians or Turkey with regard to the Kurds. Israel’s horrific oppression of the Palestinians is an absolute, and the existential threat to Israel represented by Arab and Muslim rejectionism is also an absolute. Hamas is at once the representative of the oppressed Palestinians of Gaza and the spearhead of the Islamist campaign to wipe Israel off the map. This peculiar symmetry may be attributed to the fact that while on the one hand the conflict is the fault of the Arab states, on account of their refusal since the 1940s to recognise Israel or reach a just settlement as well as their refusal to absorb the Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, the overwhelming weight of the suffering in the conflict has been borne by the Palestinian people. The legitimacy of each side’s case makes for exceptionally rigid discussions about the conflict.
Paradoxically, however, the very intractability of the Palestinian conflict is matched by the obviousness of what the solution should be in the eyes of most reasonable people: firstly, two states based on Israel in its pre-1967 borders and a Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with any departure from these borders being based on entirely equitable territorial swaps; and secondly, a Palestinian abandonment of the right of return in favour of just compensation for refugees, matched by just compensation for the Jews expelled from Arab countries after 1948. Such a settlement would be eminently fair and should be welcomed by moderates on both sides, as the alternative to a continuation of the conflict that is increasingly likely to lead to calamity for at least one of them, possibly both.
This being so, the international community should rescue Israel and the Palestinians from their current impasse by imposing a just peace of this kind upon them. An element of coercion is necessary as, without it, domestic opposition might make it politically difficult for the leadership of either side to accept such a compromise. Given the equal justice of both the Israeli and the Palestinian causes, to be acceptable to both the parties and to the international community, the coercion would have to be applied to both sides.
A possible model for the imposition of a fair compromise on Israel and the Palestinians might be the 1999 Rambouillet negotiations to resolve the Kosovo dispute. Less important than the actual compromise offered was the method of compulsion, involving a threat against both sides. As Tim Judah recounts: ‘While the Serbs were being told that if they failed to sign up to the draft proposals they would be bombed, the Albanians were, in effect, being told that if failure was their fault, they would be left to the tender mercies of the Serbian security forces and paramilitaries.’ This follows the dictum of Conor Cruise O’Brien, that ‘Conflicts don’t have solutions. They have outcomes.’ In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the international community should impose a just settlement by threatening to come down like a ton of bricks on whichever side rejects the settlement. But this should not, let us be categorical, involve a threat of direct military action against either side.
A possible punishment for a rejection by the Palestinians might be international recognition of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements and support for its crushing of Palestinian resistance by any means necessary, coupled with military support against any retaliation from the Arab or Muslim world. Should the settlement be accepted by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian leadership but rejected by Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Organisation could avert this punishment by joining with Israel to drive Hamas out of the Gaza Strip, after which the path to a settlement would be clear. Conversely, a possible punishment for a rejection by Israel might be a unilateral recognition of an independent Palestine in the proposed borders and punitive sanctions against Israel, coupled with international support for Palestinian efforts to drive the Israeli Defence Forces from the West Bank. Hopefully, such a double deterrent would ensure acceptance of the settlement by both sides, but if it did not, there would at least be an outcome.
If this proposal sounds harsh, I should reply that allowing the conflict to fester, leading eventually to an attempt at a more radical solution by one side or the other, would be much more harsh.
‘Left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.’ – Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love
Greater Surbiton became one year old on 7 November. Some weeks before that, it passed the figure of 100,000 page-views. Many thanks to all my readers. Well, at least to some of them. As it has been a very busy academic term, I have not had the time until now to write a suitably self-indulgent birthday post. I apologise in advance for the rambling that follows.
I had two principal aims in mind when launching this blog: to discuss what progressive politics might mean in the twenty-first century, and to provide commentary on South East European affairs. The second of these has tended to predominate, partly because it has been such an eventful year in South East Europe, with the international recognition of Kosova, the failed nationalist assault on the liberal order in Serbia, the escalation of the conflicts between Greece and Macedonia and between Turkey and the PKK, the failed judicial putsch against the AKP government in Turkey, the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Russian invasion of Georgia, and so on. Although the recognition of Kosova and the defeat of anti-democratic initiatives in Serbia and Turkey gives us reason for optimism about the region, all the indications are that events there will not cease to be ‘interesting’ in the forseeable future. Key struggles are either being decided now, or are simmering: for the international recognition of Kosova and its successful functioning as a state; for the defence of Macedonia’s name and nationhood; for the democratisation of Turkey; for the resolution of the Cyprus conflict; for the defence of Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity; and for the reintegration of Bosnia.
While I remain cautiously optimistic about at least some of these, reason for concern is provided by the direction in which EU policy is tending. This includes support for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s disgraceful six-point plan for Kosova, which will reinforce the country’s ‘partition lite’. It includes also support for a new partnership with Russia, in violation of the ceasefire agreement over Georgia (from which Russian forces have refused fully to withdraw) and at the expense of the military defence of the states of Eastern Europe. All this indicates a new appetite for appeasement, for which France, Germany, Italy and Spain are principally responsible. The big unknown, at the time of writing, is precisely what the Obama Administration’s policy toward the region will be. I am somewhat Obamaskeptic and have voiced my concern about this already, but we really won’t know what Obama will do until he assumes office. In the meantime, I am happy to note that our own, British ruling classes show no indication of going back down the road shamefully trodden by John Major’s government in the 1990s: David Miliband’s performance as Foreign Secretary with regard to South East Europe has on the whole been commendable, while David Cameron’s response to Russian aggression in Georgia was magnificent. Whichever party wins the next British general election, the UK is likely to act as a brake on some of the more ignoble impulses of our West European allies.
It is fortunate, indeed, that the only political parties likely to win the next general election are Labour and the Conservatives, both of them respectable parties of government, rather than some irrelevant fringe group. Such as the Liberal Democrats. I have written to my various MPs several times in the course of my life, and on a couple of occasions to other elected politicians. The only one who never wrote back was my current MP Ed Davey, the MP for Kingston and Surbiton, to whom I wrote to ask to support the campaign to provide asylum in the UK to Iraqi employees of the British armed forces. No doubt, as Mr Davey has assumed the immensely important job of Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary, he will have even less time to waste on trivial matters such as writing to his constituents, and no doubt democracy would anyway potter along so much better if we all stopped pestering our MPs. And the fruits of Mr Davey’s labour are there for all to see – such as this empty, incoherent, waffling attack on ‘neo-Cons, from Dick Cheney to David Cameron’, for being too ‘macho’ over Georgia. One can always rely on a certain type of wishy-washy liberal to be infinitely more offended by resolute calls for action against aggression than they are by the aggression itself. The line isn’t to oppose aggression, comrades; the line is to oppose people who oppose aggression. The electoral contest here in Kingston and Surbiton is a straight fight between the Conservatives and the LibDems; readers may rest assured I won’t be voting for the LibDems.
Indeed, as a point of principle, progressives can no longer automatically back the left-wing candidate against the right-wing candidate; we need to think hard before deciding whether to back Merkel or Schroeder; Sarkozy or Royal; Livingstone or Johnson; Obama or McCain; Cameron or Brown. Politicians and parties of the left or of the right may be a force for positive change, while both the parliamentary left and the right must move toward the centre if they want to win elections. Thus, the US presidential election was fought between two centrist candidates, lost by the one who waged the more divisive and partisan campaign, and won by the one who reconciled a message of change with a message of healing and reconciliation. About a billion commentators have pointed out the signficance of a black man being elected president of the US, yet it was the reviled George W. Bush who appointed the US’s first black Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in 2001, and first black woman Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in 2005, something to which even the Guardian’s Gary Younge pays tribute.
Only joking. In his article at the start of this month on how inspiring the possibility of a black president is for young black people in the US, Younge actually complained that Obama hadn’t been all good, because he had voted to confirm Rice as Secretary of State. A couple of years ago, Younge said: ‘Of course, on one level it’s important that black people have the right to fuck up and to be bad, but we have to separate progress of symbols and progress of substance. At a symbolic level, Condoleezza Rice does represent some kind of progress, but if that’s where we are going with this thing I’m getting off the train now.’ Has everyone got that ? The election or appointment of black politicians to senior posts in the US should only be celebrated as symbolic of positive change if they’re politically sympathetic in the eyes of Guardian journalists.
If there’s one blogging decision I took that I was initially unsure about, but now definitely do not regret, it was the decision not to have comments. I realise that this makes me a social outcast in the blogosphere – something equivalent to a leper during the Middle Ages. But do you know what, dear readers ? I really don’t care. Just as I don’t like dog turds, half-eaten kebabs and squashed bubble gum littering the parks and pavements where I walk, let alone on my doorstep, so I don’t want my nice clean blog littered with comments from the assorted riff-raff of the internet: Chetniks; Ustashas; national chauvinists; genocide-deniers; Stalinists; Nazis; ‘anti-imperialists’; ‘anti-Zionists’; Islamophobes; Islamofascists; BNP supporters; SWP supporters; Red-Brown elements; ultra-left sectarians; toilet-mouthed troglodytes; Jeremy Kyle fodder; ‘Comment is Free’ types; and others like them. And I particularly don’t want flippant, inane comments that take ten seconds to think up and write, by Benjis who don’t bother to read the post properly in the first place. Thank you very much.
Let’s face it, members of the above-listed categories generally comprise about half of all the people who comment on blogs dealing with my fields.
Of course, all credit to those bloggers who do succeed in managing comments in a way that keeps the debate lively and the trolls and trogs to a minimum. But I see no reason why every article has to be followed by comments. While I applaud the democratisation of the means of communication that the blogging revolution represents, this democratisation has come at a price. The ubiquitous nature of online discussion and the generally inadequate level of comments moderation has resulted in a vulgarisation of public discourse. Where once the letters editor of a paper could be relied on to reject automatically semi-literate, abusive or otherwise bottom-quality letters for publication, now many, if not most, online discussions are filled with outright filth and rubbish. Well, I’m doing my bit for the online environment.
Related to this is the unfortunate fashion for blogging and commenting anonymously, which inevitably results in a ruder, nastier online atmosphere. I’m not going to judge any individual who chooses to remain anonymous – you may have a valid personal reason. But really, comrades, is all this anonymity necessary ? So long as you live in a democracy, and the secret police aren’t going to come round to visit you just because you express your opinion, then the default position should be to write under your real name.
Greater Surbiton has received plenty of intelligent criticism in the one year of its existence, and not a small amount of really stupid criticism. So, to round off this too-long post, I’m going to announce an award for Most Ill-Informed Attack on Something I Have Written. In this inaugural year, the award goes jointly to Hak Mao of the Drink-Soaked Troglodytes and to Daniel Davies of Aaronovitch Watch (unless you really have nothing better to do, you may want to stop reading at this point – it’s my time off and I’m having a bit of pointless fun with my sectarian chums).
‘There you are, minding your own business and then you read this steaming pile of bollocks: The most important change of opinion I’ve ever had … was realizing that ‘anti-imperialism’ … was something highly negative and reactionary, rather than positive and progressive. Can’t spell Vietnam, Laos, Amritsar, Bay of Pigs or Salvador eh? You are welcome to compose your own list of atrocities committed in the name of the ‘West’. And one of those whose historical contribution to human emancipation I most appreciate [is] … Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The emancipation of Armenians was particularly heartwarming.’
This criticism is being made by someone who is a born-again Leninist and Trotskyist religious believer, whose favourite book is still Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’, who views Trotsky’s martyrdom the way Christians view the crucifixion, but who nevertheless writes for a pro-war, Christopher-Hitchens-worshipping website.
The Bolshevik regime of Lenin and Trotsky armed and funded Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists. It signed a treaty ceding to Turkey territory that had been inhabited and claimed by the Armenians; the US president Woodrow Wilson had wanted the Armenians to receive much more territory than the Bolshevik-Turkish treaty gave them. The Turkish slaughter of Armenian civilians in Smyrna in 1922 was made possible by Bolshevik military and financial support for the Kemalists. The Bolshevik regime was therefore utterly complicit in Turkish-nationalist crimes against the Armenians.
Someone like Hak Mao, properly equipped with a Scientific Theory of Class Struggle, who is faithful to the Principles of Revolutionary Socialism and well versed in Marxist-Leninist Scripture, can simultaneously 1) revere Lenin and Trotsky, 2) ignore their support for Mustafa Kemal and their complicity in his crimes against the Armenians; 3) denounce bourgeois reactionaries like myself who write favourably about Mustafa Kemal; and 4) justify all this in ‘scientific’ Marxist terms. And of course, everyone knows that, were Lenin and Trotsky alive today, they would undoubtedly, as good anti-imperialists, have joined with Christopher Hitchens in endorsing George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, in welcoming the Bush dynasty to the campaign against Islamic terror, and in supporting Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And naturally they would still have denounced apostates and traitors to the cause of anti-imperialism, such as myself, in the strongest possible terms.
Anyone with a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism can only reach this conclusion. If you do not reach this conclusion, it is because you do not have a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism. And anyone without a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism is an ignorant pleb whose views don’t count, and who should defer to a vanguard comprised of professional revolutionaries with a proper understanding of Dialectical Materialism.
Here’s a joke for the comrades:
Q. What do you call a racist, anti-Semitic, Great German nationalist supporter of capitalism, the free market, globalisation, Western imperialism and colonialism ?
A. Karl Marx
(NB I’m also pro-war over Iraq and Afghanistan, and I agree with Christopher Hitchens more often than not. But I don’t pretend to be an ‘anti-imperialist’.)
‘Bill Clinton collaborated with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban.’
Davies (‘Bruschettaboy’) replied:
‘call me a bad blogger, but I would shed very few tears and protest only halfheartedly at our terrible UK libel laws if it turned out that there were some sort of consequences for saying something like that.’
This is what Ahmed Rashid, one of the most eminent journalists of Afghanistan and the Taliban, writes in Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia:
‘Between 1994 and 1996 the USA supported the Taliban politically through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, essentially because Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and pro-Western. The USA conveniently ignored the Taliban’s own Islamic fundamentalist agenda, its suppression of women and the consternation they created in Central Asia largely because Washington was not interested in the larger picture.’
Hopefully, Rashid will agree to be my defence witness in the event that Clinton follows Daniel’s advice and takes me to court.
As for Milosevic, Davies clearly has not heard of the Dayton Accord, but I assume everyone else who reads this blog has (certainly everyone who reads it as assiduously as Daniel does), so I’ll confine myself to posting this picture of Clinton’s man Richard Holbrooke, the architect of Dayton, carrying out Western imperialist aggression against the anti-imperialist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic:
You see, comrades from the ‘Indecent Left’ like Daniel see their mission as defending the leaders of Western imperialism and their record over crises like Afghanistan or Bosnia, from condemnation coming from the ranks of the ‘Decent Left’, and they do so in the most strident and aggressive manner – even when the condemnation is totally justified. And there I was, thinking we were all part of the same left-wing extended family.
Honestly, what a bunch of splitters.
Update: Davies isn’t now trying to defend his previous claim that Clinton never collaborated with Milosevic or the Taliban, and that I deserve to be sued for saying so, but is taking refuge in the defence that he didn’t understand what I was saying, because I wasn’t expressing myself clearly.
What do you think, readers, is the sentence ‘Bill Clinton collaborated with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban’ at all difficult to understand ? Is the grammar or vocabulary at all complicated ? Perhaps I’m using opaque academic jargon that a non-specialist might find difficult ?
Or could it be that Daniel simply isn’t the sharpest tool in the box ?
It may be that I have spent too much time living in Serbia and studying it, and that some of that fabled Serbian inat, or bloodymindedness, has rubbed off on me (readers may be surprised to learn that, as an adult, I was christened in the Serbian Orthodox Church, something that occurred not because of religious belief – of which I have none – but because I was once married to a Serbian woman). Or it may be just that I don’t like jumping on bandwagons. Be this as it may, I’m not prepared to follow the herd and endorse Obama for US president. That said, there are some powerful arguments to be made in favour of Obama, which I have been hearing from Obama supporters – such as my own girlfriend, as well as my mother – for some time now. The strong reasons for supporting McCain, however, which I have outlined in previous posts, remain. Each of the candidates offers a very different set of advantages and disadvantages, and a US citizen deciding whom to vote for should weigh them up very carefully before deciding.
One of the paradoxes of this election is that Obama is perceived by much of the liberal intelligentsia in the West as being the progressive, anti-establishment candidate, even though his likely election victory will owe much to the fact that his campaign has enjoyed much greater financial resources than McCain’s. The richer candidate is spending his way to victory; even if a large part of this funding has consisted of small donations, the hated representatives of American capitalism have hardly been falling over themselves to fund his Republican opponent. Yet Obama’s greater popularity among the liberal intelligentsia, and indeed among international opinion generally, is undeniably because he is more widely – and unfairly – seen as less quintissentially American than McCain. Obama may be just another liberal Democrat in the tradition of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, but for various reasons – in part because he would represent a dramatic break with the politics of George Bush, in part because he is black, and in part because he is undeniably charismatic – he has been invested with much greater belief on the part of the outside world as a force for change than he probably warrants.
But perception matters. And here is the strongest reason for voting for Obama. A President Obama would restore the world’s goodwill toward the US. The outside world will give him the benefit of the doubt, and the US a second chance to enjoy the degree of international popularity it enjoyed before 9/11. Conversely, a victory for McCain – particularly after such a strong and sustained poll lead enjoyed by Obama for so long – would produce another great outpouring of anti-American bile across the world, and above all from the ranks of the European chattering classes. The Republicans would, once again, be viewed as having unfairly stolen the election; their regime would enjoy little international credibility or goodwill. McCain will be painted as a continuation of Bush, and continue to be punished for the sins, real or perceived, of his predecessor. Obama would, therefore, be better able than McCain to restore the US’s network of alliances and connections, rejuvenating the US’s world leadership, or what is termed on the left as ‘American imperialism’.
Yet the reason why Obama would enjoy such international goodwill, and be able to restore the US’s world image and standing, is also the reason why one should think twice before supporting him: the world prefers soft US presidents, and Obama will undoubtedly be a much softer president than McCain. George Bush Snr betrayed the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 and acted to keep Saddam Hussein in power; Bill Clinton collaborated with Slobodan Milosevic and the Taliban, and strove hard to keep the US from having to intervene to stop genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia; yet neither has earned the kind of opprobrium incurred by the current US president for the crime of overthrowing Saddam. Obama has shown himself to be less committed than McCain to the defence of democratic Iraq and of independent Georgia; his restoration of US popularity globally may come at a high price.
Obama’s choice of the tough and experienced Joe Biden as his running mate does something to allay one’s concern at the foreign-policy implications of his presidency. Biden deserves credit for his opposition to aggression and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But his instincts have not always been so good: he has supported the partition of Iraq. Biden is, like Obama, pro-Greek and anti-Turkish; they would be taking over leadership of the US at a time when, given the threats posed by the hostile regimes in Moscow and Tehran, we need to maintain the Turkish alliance, and at a time when Greece’s merciless bullying of the fragile Republic of Macedonia potentially threatens disaster in the Balkans.
So the choice between Obama and McCain revolves around the question of whether it is better to have a US president who can restore the US’s global popularity and standing but is likely to be less resolute in resisting the enemies of the democratic world, or a president who will be globally unpopular but more determined in resisting our enemies.
Some readers may feel that US domestic policy should count for more in this weighing up. All well and good; I prefer Obama to McCain on domestic issues, but there are 6.7 billion people in the world, and only 300 million of them are Americans. The United States is a sophisticated system of decentralised democracy and constitutional checks and balances, and the battle between conservatism and liberalism will continue to be fought out at multiple levels throughout the country, regardless of which candidate wins. But it is foreign policy where the president’s voice counts for most. I would discount on principle the idea that one should vote on the basis of the candidate’s age or skin-colour; Winston Churchill was presiding over the Normandy Landings when he was only a year or two younger than McCain is today, and was several years older when he became prime minister for the second time, while the social changes that have made it possible for the US presidency to be within reach of a black candidate have occurred, and will continue to occur, regardless of who wins. The fact that Obama supposedly is friends with various dangerous radicals is a big red herring; most of us probably have been, one way or another. But it is no more a red herring than the big Sarah Palin bogey; Palin was brought in by McCain to mobilise the Republican base; she will not determine US policy. McCain might die in office and leave the inexperienced and very right-wing Palin as acting president. But probably not. Finally, I have faith that US capitalism will rejuvenate itself, regardless of who is managing the economy.
So for me, it boils down to a choice between the man who will capture the world’s hearts and the man who will fight the world’s enemies. While there are strong arguments to be made for each, I would always support the candidate who, when the chips were down, defended a small nation against a brutal aggressor, against the candidate who has supported an aggressor against a fragile small nation.
Others may draw the line in a different place.
This is a guest post by Nadja Stamselberg
For the past eight months I have taught English as a second language to teenagers coming form Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iranian Kurdistan. Out of the ten pupils, three were girls and seven were boys. Aged between sixteen and nineteen, all but one were here without their families. Two boys from Afghanistan and a boy from Pakistan are orphans, whilst another three Afghan boys and an Ethiopian girl don’t know where their parents are or whether they are still alive. Most of them have been trafficked to England. Put on a lorry by a relative who couldn’t afford to look after them, they were sent off to a better future. They survived weeks of inhumane conditions, cramped at the back of airless containers, their limbs numb, their hearts brought to a standstill each time a lorry slowed down or stopped. Some of them even saw their friends and fellow passengers die of exhaustion and dehydration. Nevertheless, when talking about their perilous journey, their faces light up as if they are remembering a great adventure. Perhaps it is a privilege of youth to gloss over most the horrendous experiences and refer to them with nostalgia, or perhaps a mean of survival. One of the boys often talked about Rome, a city he spent a week in whilst the local mafia negotiated with the traffickers before letting them continue their journey. The city made quite an impression on him. It was the first sight of Europe that he saw. The ancient squares and churches were as beautiful, if not even more so, than the ones in his hometown of Herat in Afghanistan. More importantly he was able to experience a place he read and learnt about in school in Iran. Growing up in a refugee camp outside Tehran, he would often imagine these faraway places, and now he was in one of them.
Once in the United Kingdom they applied for asylum and were housed either with foster families, or were put in shared accommodation with other adolescents from similar backgrounds. Each one was assigned a social worker to help them to adjust to their new life. They were also enrolled at a college where they would study English, basic numeracy and IT. With few exceptions, most of them had never been to school. Growing up in war-torn countries robbed them not only of their childhoods and their parents, but of their education as well. Nevertheless, most of them could read and write in their own languages, with a number of them being multilingual, able to speak several languages and dialects. Literacy, however limited, was courtesy of the madrasas. Religion in fact has been the only stable, positive factor in their lives. It provided them with discipline; purpose and most importantly hope that better times were to come. Many of them battle depression and have anger issues and difficulties coping with their new lives. The Afghan boy, whose trafficking experiences took him on an unwilling yet fascinating journey across Europe, broke down in one of the tutorial classes. Only sixteen at the time, he felt that his life was not worth living. He was alone, his parents were killed by the Taliban upon their return from exile in Iran; an only child, he had no one to lean on. Coming from a Hazara background, most of his family has been killed and displaced. The only living relative, his aunt’s husband who paid for his journey to England, was never heard of again. He would often miss college to go to the Refugee Council. A French lady who worked there became like a surrogate mother for him. He spoke of her with so much tenderness, always mentioning that she said that he was like a son to her. Humane contact and genuine emotions are what these children crave the most.
The ones who have successfully been placed with the foster families often thrive. However, as soon as they turn eighteen they are no longer allowed to stay with the families, nor in the shared accommodation. Upon reaching legal adulthood they, often with as little as fifteen minutes notice, have to move. We had cases where the key worker would call the college and ask for the student to be sent home to move as a cab was coming to his place to pick up his stuff. If they did not make it in time, their things would be packed by the key worker and sent to the new address. They were promised that their relocation to hostels and B&Bs was temporary until they were allocated a more permanent abode. Very often they would spend months living in minimally furnished rooms, sometimes not even having bed sheets. Robberies were regular occurrences, their rooms broken into and their few precious possessions stolen.
Unfortunately, these are not the only insecurities they face. Their long-term stay and settlement in the United Kingdom is questionable, with their right to remain reconsidered once they turn eighteen. In fact, for the duration of their stay in the United Kingdom they face uncertainty and the possibility of being sent back to their country of origin. Since quite a few countries are now seen as ‘safe enough’, a number of the adolescent asylum seekers will most certainly face deportation. Having to deal with these issues manifests in different ways. Some of them resolve to self-harm, some get in trouble with the law, others grin and bear it making the most of their lives here. Sadly, they are often expected to transgress. The overworked and jaded social workers tend to have little sympathy for their plights. At a parents’ meeting, I had one student’s social worker refer to him as a ‘little sod’ who keeps getting into trouble with the law. Upon inquiring further I was told that he was booked for dodging the bus fare and for sitting in the driver’s seat of a car without having a licence. Furthermore, their life stories are not believed. The Home Office regards most of their asylum applications as fabrications designed to fool the British system. Their dates of births are also often dismissed as fakes and many are given new ones, the most popular being 1st of January.
At the same parent’s meeting, another social worker told me that I should be careful with believing everything the students tell me as they come form a culture, in this particular case form South Asia, where it is a norm to tell people what they want to hear instead of the truth. He was trying to show understanding for my naiveté, but stressed that I will soon realise myself that this student’s story was questionable, constructed for the benefit of staying in this country. The story that his parents were killed by his uncle in a dispute over land was questionable. His subsequent crime of beating the same uncle to death by a wooden stick whilst sleeping could not be confirmed and the account of both him and his brother spending two years moving from one place to the other all over Pakistan running from relatives was unsubstantiated. Furthermore, he was illegally in this country for two years before applying for asylum. Having turned eighteen, the Home Office is due to reconsider his case. Aware of this, he was filled with terror by the prospect of being sent back to Pakistan. Ever since he was twelve years old he has been on the run. He had a deep hatred and fear of the country where he found no protection from the law and saw no justice served. He was so grateful to be able, for the first time in his life, to go to school and have some semblance of a normal life, and was looking forward to making his life here.
My initial reaction when he told me that if he gets sent back home he will join al Qaeda was to dismiss it as another provocative remark. Looking for a reaction, some of the students would talk about al Qaeda, Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, boasting about their support for their cause and playing up to the stereotypes imposed on them by society. However, I was soon to realise that his statement was not a childish attempt at attention seeking, but an option he was seriously considering. His motifs were neither a religious fervour nor a dislike of the West and its values. On the contrary, they were a frantic plea for some structure, direction and security, whatever that might be. Feeling let down by his own family, country and eventually by the United Kingdom, which had supposed to provide him with a safe haven and another shot at the normal life and education he so desperately craved, he would be a perfect target for recruiting. Preying at disillusioned youth with no jobs and no hope, al Qaeda offers to fill the vacuum left by poverty, lack of education and displaced and destroyed family units. Youth, inexperience and feelings of hopelessness make al Qaeda’s newfound followers susceptible to all sorts of anti-Western sentiments disguised as ‘anti-imperialist’ ones.
Back in the United Kingdom, Islamophobia (systematically promoted by some sections of the political elite and the media); poor treatment of the immigrants; and attempts to manage community diversity to suit certain economic interests best, all deepen divisions within the popular classes, creating more resentment toward the young asylum seekers. Consequently, some of the students are faced with bigoted comments and insults. Many of them also complain about their treatment by the Home Office officials. All of this in turn provides a valuable service to reactionary political Islam, giving credibility to its anti-Western discourse. This makes it possible to lure and draft the deported asylum seekers. Despite everything, most of them love living in the United Kingdom and are very grateful for the freedoms and opportunities it offers. Casualties of the wars we waged on their behalf, our broken promises and their own societies’ inability to provide them with protection and a future, these vulnerable young people need our help. Instead of treating them as parasites on our economy and a threat to our society and values, the Home Office should recognise these young persons’ strengths and potential. Giving them an opportunity; a much-deserved chance to rebuild their shattered lives; we will not only gain valuable members of our society, who will enrich and contribute to it, but also deprive various terrorist organisations both of their mission and of many of their potential followers.
Nadja Stamselberg has recently finished a PhD in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She wrote her thesis on practices of exclusion and European identity. She is currently working on a book, which traces the historical precursors of exclusion in Europe, connecting it to the subsequent concepts of hospitality and cosmopolitanism.
There is some resistance among liberal intellectuals to the term ‘Islamophobia’, because it is assumed that Islam is a religion, therefore an ideology, and it is questioned if one can be prejudiced against an ideology. Yet such a distinction is not satisfactory from the standpoint of a scholar of the Balkans; or indeed, from the historical standpoint generally. To treat chauvinism against a religious community as being fundamentally different from chauvinism against an ethnic or racial group is to superimpose a modern understanding of religion onto the past. We may believe in the ideals of the separation of church and state; and of religion as a private, personal matter of conscience; but it is anachronistic to impose this liberal ideal onto past human history.
We are all aware of the distinction between religious and racial anti-Semitism, but also of the connections between the two – of the fact that even the Nazis used religious background to determine who was Jewish. In the Balkans, at least, the model for chauvinism that anti-Semitism provides – in which prejudice against a religious community evolves into an ethnic or racial prejudice – is the rule rather than the exception. Religious and ethnic prejudice are not distinct categories, and it makes no historical sense to see them as such.
The Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Balkans from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, and it was the Ottoman system that laid the basis for modern ethnicity and nationality in the Balkans. The Ottoman empire was organised on the basis of different legal statuses for Muslims and non-Muslims, in which Muslims were the dominant and privileged group but Christians and Jews nevertheless enjoyed a degree of communal autonomy. This laid the basis for the different religious communities to evolve into separate nationalities.
When the Orthodox nationalities of the Balkans rose up against the Ottoman overlords during the nineteenth century with the goal of establishing their independence from the empire, the process involved the expulsion or extermination of much of the non-Christian population, which was identified as an alien, non-national element. This process of ethnic or religious cleansing was directed primarily against the Muslim population that was concentrated in the towns. But it targeted also the Jews, who were also concentrated in the towns and who were, in the eyes of the predominantly peasant and Christian rebels, equally alien and part of the Ottoman presence. This was something that occurred in the violence that accompanied the uprisings themselves, with rebels spontaneously massacring non-Christians. But it also took place more quietly in the decades that followed the establishment of autonomy or independence, as the new governments encouraged ethnic homogenisation.
Thus, for example, in Serbia during the nineteenth century, the number of mosques in the main cities rapidly declined. The Serbian capital of Belgrade was largely Muslim before the nineteenth century. But following the establishment of an autonomous Serbian principality in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Muslim population was mostly expelled and most of the mosques were destroyed or dismantled. Similarly, the Jewish communities suffered restrictions they had not suffered in the Ottoman period, and were expelled or relocated from the towns outside Belgrade. This, of course, is a generalisation: the extent to which Muslims or Jews were massacred, expelled or persecuted varied according to country and period. This was not a matter of Nazi-style total extermination. Persecution and expulsion alternated and overlapped with efforts at cooption, assimilation and toleration. But the model of nationhood remained very much one that was based on Orthodox Christianity, in which non-Orthodox were, at best, viewed as less national than the Orthodox.
This model of religiously determined nationhood was not adopted only by Orthodox Christians, but also by the Muslim Turks. The establishment of a Turkish nation-state in the 1910s and 1920s involved the extermination or expulsion of literally millions of Christians. Formally, they were Greeks or Armenians. But this included Turkish-speaking Christians who were excluded from the Turkish nation solely because of their religion. Turkish nationhood, therefore, was based on the Muslim religion: it was inclusive of Kurds and other non-Turkish-speaking Muslims who inhabited Anatolia. But it was exclusive of Turkish-speaking Christians.
After establishing their nation-state, the Turks had a rather better record of treating the Jews than did the Balkan Christians. This was a legacy of the fact that the Muslims, as the elite group in the Ottoman Empire, had not viewed the Jews as outsiders in the same way that the Christians had done. But there was still some anti-Jewish activity on the part of the Turkish state which, with Nazi encouragement, reached its peak during World War II. Furthermore, in the great anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul in 1955, Jews were also targeted.
Another example serves to illustrate the connection between religion and ethnicity in the Balkans. Both Serbia and Croatia entered the modern age with relatively small Jewish communities that could readily assimilate into the dominant Serbian and Croatian nations respectively. By contrast, in Bosnia there was no dominant nationality. So members of the Sephardic Jewish community in Bosnia developed a distinct sense of nationality of their own. They saw themselves as distinct from the Ashkenazim, who were culturally different. And as they were not oppressed by a dominant nationality that treated them as outsiders, they were less receptive to Zionism than were the Jews of most Central European countries. So the Bosnian Sephardim followed the general Bosnian pattern, whereby the different religious communities evolved into different nationalities.
There were some exceptions to the general rule of religiously based nationhood in the Balkans. The Albanians are the only major example of a Balkan nation for which religion is not the determining factor. The most likely explanation is that Albanian nationalism originated with the Catholic population among the Albanian-speakers. And the Catholics were not legally and economically subordinate to Muslim landlords in the way that Orthodox peasants throughout the Balkans were subordinate to Muslim landlords. So there was not the same degree of class oppression tied into the religious divide between Catholics and Muslims among the Albanian-speakers, as there was between Orthodox and Muslims among the Slavic-, Greek- and Turkish-speaking peoples. Interestingly, the Albanians’ record with regard to the Jews during the Holocaust was about the best in all of Nazi-occupied Europe; Albanians sheltered Jews more solidly than almost any other occupied people.
Another interesting case, for the purposes of comparison, is that of the Croats. Croatia was not part of the Ottoman Empire, so its social structure was not determined by the Ottoman system. Croatia had a relatively small Jewish community, so its anti-Semitism was fairly typical by the standards of Christian Europe. However, Croat nationalists were almost unique in Europe in the extent to which they were ready to embrace Muslims. Ante Starcevic, the father of integral Croat-nationalism, viewed the Bosnian Muslims as the purest of all Croats. According to the tradition he established, the Bosnian Muslims were the ‘flower of the Croat nation’. This was possible for Croat nationalists because, unlike the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, Croatia had not been ruled and oppressed by the Ottomans. The Islamophile character of Croat nationalism was, of course, a way for it to lay claim to Bosnia, where the Catholics were only a small minority.
The different ways in which Serb and Croat nationalist ideology perceived the Muslims became apparent during World War II. Serb extreme nationalists – the Chetniks – carried out systematic massacres of Muslims and Catholics, and also murdered Jews or handed them over to the Nazis. Croat extreme nationalists – the Ustashas – carried out systematic massacres of the Orthodox Serbs and Jews. But not of Muslims, as the policy of the Ustashas was to treat Bosnian Muslims as Islamic Croats. In contrast to the nationalism of the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, it was only in the 1990s that the Croat-nationalist mainstream became overtly anti-Islamic; this was due to the policy of the Croatian despot Franjo Tudjman, who aimed to join with the Serbs in partitioning Bosnia. What made the difference for Croat nationalists by the 1990s, compared to the 1940s, was that by then the Muslims had been formally recognised within the Yugoslav constitutional system as a nation in their own right, distinct from the Serbs and Croats. When Muslims could no longer be viewed as Islamic Croats and potentially assimilated, they became open to persecution by expansionist Croat nationalism.
By this period – the 1990s – both Serb and Croat nationalists were more likely to identify with Israel on an anti-Muslim basis than they were to indulge in anti-Semitism. Although the more extreme elements among Serb and Croat nationalists in the 1990s did sometimes express anti-Semitic views, they were generally astute enough to know the propaganda value of not being seen to be anti-Semitic, and they did try to appeal to Jewish opinion – though not very successfully. Albania and Croatia, therefore, are the exceptions that prove the rule: firstly, that anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish prejudice in the Balkans are essentially similar, in that both are prejudices directed against ethnic groups that have their origins in religious differences; and secondly, that Muslims are targeted and persecuted as an alien ethnic group – like the Jews – not simply as a religious community.
To go back to the case of the Serb Chetniks in World War II: they were an extreme-nationalist movement that systematically persecuted and killed the non-Orthodox population in Bosnia: Muslims, Croats and Jews. The Chetniks were engaged in a vicious war against the Yugoslav Partisans, who were a multinational resistance movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The Chetniks identified the Communists with the Jews, but also with the Muslims and Croats. One Chetnik leader even accused the Communists of destroying Orthodox Churches, and building mosques, synagogues and Catholic churches. In World War II, however, it was still possible for the Chetniks to waver between massacring Muslims, and attempting to co-opt them, on the grounds that Bosnian Muslims were ‘really’ Serbs. So as late as World War II, both Serb- and Croat-nationalists could still make some pretence at treating the Muslims as a religious group within their respective nations. One can compare this to the confusion among modern anti-Semites, until quite late in the day, as to whether the Jews were a religious or a racial group.
By the 1990s, however, despite lip service to the traditional nationalist view, that Bosnian Muslims were really just Islamic Serbs or Croats, in practice, this kind of assimilationism was no longer possible or relevant. Muslims were treated in practice as a hated, alien ethnic minority. There was no policy of forced conversion. Serb nationalists, and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, ethnically cleansed Bosnia of Muslims who spoke their language, much as the Serbian regime attempted to cleanse Kosovo of the Albanians who spoke an entirely different language. Rather like anti-Semites, extreme Serb and Croat nationalists in Bosnia in the 1990s simultaneously viewed Muslims as a racially alien element, while portraying them in their propaganda as part of an international, global threat to Christian Europe.
Of course, there are differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: anti-Semites traditionally portray the global Jewish conspiracy in terms of sneaky, intelligent puppet-masters working behind the scenes, whereas Balkan Islamophobes portray the global Islamic conspiracy in terms of mindless but fully visible – indeed visually striking – fanaticism. Hatred of Islam and Muslims has, for all its intensity as felt by Balkan Christian nationalists, never quite achieved the intensity of being an all-consuming end in itself, as it has for some anti-Semites. And of course, Balkan Islamophobes do not formally treat global Islam as a race, in the way that anti-Semites treat global Jewry as a race. But we are ultimately talking about ideological window-dressing used to justify the same type of persecution and violence.
It is nonsensical to argue that the systematic destruction of mosques and the Islamic heritage in Bosnia by Serbian forces, combined with a propaganda that stressed the role of mujahedin and of foreign Islamic states, was not an expression of Islamophobia, on the grounds that Islamophobia does not exist. But equally, it is nonsensical to argue that this campaign was genuinely motivated by hostility to Islam as an ideology: there was no pretence that Muslims were a danger because they might indoctrinate the Serbian population with subversive views. Serb nationalists in the 1980s and 90s made much of the growing threat of the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia, and of Albanian Muslims in Serbia. But the danger they presented was not that these groups would spread Islam to the Serbs, and Islamify Serbia. Rather, the danger was that these groups would increasingly outbreed the Serbs, and turn them into increasingly small minorities in their own countries.
Thus, we are not talking about a threat equivalent to the Communist threat, as it was viewed in McCarthy’s US, or to the counter-revolutionary threat, as it was viewed in Stalin’s USSR. Muslim children in Serb-occupied Bosnia were not simply deported along with their parents, as they might have been if they were viewed as the children of subversives. Still less were they subjected to ideological reprogramming. Rather, they were themselves singled out for rape, torture and murder. Muslim women were raped with the stated goal of making them give birth to Serb babies. Biljana Plasvic, the Bosnian Serb vice-president, theorised about the Muslims being a genetically defective offshoot of the Serb nation.
In sum, Islamophobia, in the Bosnian war, was an expression of hatred directed against an ethnic group, or groups. One of the paradoxes of this is that for all the Islamophobic hatred directed against the Balkan Muslim peoples by Balkan Christian nationalists, and indeed by the anti-Muslim bigots in the West who supported them, the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians are among the most secularised Muslim peoples in the world. Just as Jewish atheists will always be the Christ-killers or ritual slaughterers of Christian children in the eyes of certain anti-Semites, so Bosnian Muslim and Albanian atheists will always be jihadis in the eyes of Islamophobes.
This paper was presented at the conference ‘Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: Comparisons – contrasts – connections‘, that took place at University College London on 22-24 June.
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.
Happy sixtieth birthday, Israel ! It should not be necessary to explain why today, formally the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, is worth celebrating for those of us who are not Israelis. The survival of a nation that has been threatened with destruction is cause for celebration. The fact that nationally conscious Jews have been able to exercise their right to self-determination, and establish a homeland that has successfully provided a safe haven for members of the long-persecuted Jewish people, is cause for celebration. And the fact that an Israeli nation exists at all is cause for celebration. This is not to say that the process by which the Jewish state came into being, or its actions since its birth, are without their moral ambiguities – far from it. But these moral ambiguities are not reasons why Israeli independence should not be celebrated; merely why Israeli policy needs to change. One day, it should be possible to celebrate Israel’s anniversary in the knowledge that the moral ambiguities are all in the past.
Israel’s critics point out that the establishment of the State of Israel involved the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – for Palestinians, the ‘nakba’. This is true, but frequently taken out of context: Israel is no different from most of the world’s other nation-states, which are founded upon the oppression and ethnic cleansing of other peoples. Beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the emergence of a modern nation-state of England, Britain and the United Kingdom and their evolution over hundreds of years involved the colonisation, dispossession and forcible assimilation of the Irish, as well as an almost unrivalled programme of imperial aggression and expansion overseas. But there is no way that our English and British nationhood can be divorced from this heritage. The modern French nation-state was founded with the Great Revolution of 1789, an event that is widely viewed as marking the birth of modern politics, yet it quickly involved the genocidal or proto-genocidal persecution of the people of the Vendee, acts of massive territorial conquest and, under Napoleon, a failed genocidal project directed against the black population of Haiti. The US is founded upon the genocide of the Native Americans, without which it would not exist. Yet one could not expect the French not to celebrate the Revolution, or Americans not to celebrate Independence Day.
Israelis may feel it is unfair of me to compare them with great imperial powers. So it is – I cite these examples to dispense with the myth of ‘good’ Western nations vis-a-vis ‘bad’ others. In the moral ambiguities of its creation, Israel more closely resembles the nation-states of Central Europe and the Balkans – appropriately, since Israel is itself a post-Ottoman state many of whose citizens originated in Central Europe. Where these nation-states are concerned, who was the ethnic-cleanser and who was the victim largely depended upon who happened to win the war. This was the case with Israel and the Palestinians: had the Arabs won in the 1940s, the extermination and explusion of the Jewish population of Palestine would have resulted. Throughout the region of Greater Europe, the question of which nation was dispossessed was open to question; the fact that dispossession would take place was not.
Today’s relatively ethnically homogenous states of Poland and the Czech Republic are founded upon the massive ethnic-cleansing of ethnic Germans after World War II, involving millions of victims. The Balkan states – Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey – are all in their present forms, to varying degrees, products of ethnic cleansing. The Orthodox Christian states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece were founded upon the slaughter and expulsion of a large part of their Ottoman Muslim inhabitants, and ideed upon the slaughter and expulsion of other Orthodox Christians. Romania had a large Jewish population and an exceptionally anti-Semitic political culture that culminated in massive Romanian participation in the Holocaust and the post-war emigration of Romanian Jews. The establishment of the Turkish nation-state involved the genocide of the Armenians, followed by the expulsion of at least one and a quarter million Greeks (or Turkish-speaking Christians) – which parallelled the Greek expulsion of a smaller number of largely Greek-speaking Muslims. Most recently, the establishment of independent Croatia involved the exodus of 150,000 Serb civilians from the ‘Krajina’ region and the slaughter of hundreds of them. I am leaving aside here the question of the respective rights and wrongs of these cases, or of how blame should be apportioned – that the formation of modern nation-states involves a process of ethnic homogenisation accompanied by real horrors should be indisputable.
There is no point pretending, therefore, that the establishment of modern nation-states – Israel included – is without its profound moral ambiguities. Yet it is the modern system of nation-states upon which our system of world politics is built – we can no more abolish nation-states than we can abolish modern politics. Indeed, nation-statehood is the prerequisite for liberal democracy: dynastic states such as the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and multinational ‘socialist’ federations such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had to give way to sovereign nation-states for Europe to become a continent of democracies. Perhaps even more importantly, the people of the world love their nation-states, which they consider part of themselves. Asking the Israelis or anyone else to renounce their national identity is a violation of the most dearly felt feelings of ordinary people.
What is essential for the transition to full, post-nationalist democracy, however, is for members of every nation to face up to the moral ambiguities involved in the creation of their national state. This is not a question merely of assuaging liberal guilt. The crimes involved in the creation of a nation-state poison the functioning of its democracy and its relations with its neighbours. This poison can only be purged from its body politic by a recognition of its crimes. Turkey’s difficulty in functioning as a democracy is closely related to its unwillingness to face up to the Armenian Genocide or to the existence of a Kurdish people within its borders – hence it cannot fully permit freedom of speech, as this would result in open discussion of the Armenian Genocide and open expressions of Kurdish national politics. Greece’s imperialistic policy toward the Republic of Macedonia today is not based on any genuine national interest, but is a product of a nationalist ideology that guided a century of Greek colonisation, ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation in Greek Macedonia, of which the denial of the existence of a Macedonian nationality was a necessary part. The US’s record remains far from perfect, but in the US there is at least full freedom of speech – hence the possibility for films such as ‘Dances with Wolves’, that portray Native Americans sensitively and as victims of white oppression, to reach a mass audience. The American public still needs to face up to the genocide of the Native Americans, something that would produce a healthier American democracy and more politically aware citizenry. But we are still a long way off from the day when mass popular Turkish audiences will watch films of the ‘Dances with Wolves’ variety about the Armenian Genocide, or Greek audiences about the colonisation of Greek Macedonia, or Israeli audiences about the nakba.
So far as Israel is concerned, its record of democracy and human rights concerning its own citizens compares very favourably with most other Middle Eastern countries, but very badly with just about any West European country, because its stage of national development more closely resembles Turkey or Greece than France or the Netherlands. The two deformations resulting from the nature of Israel’s birth are, firstly, a failure to embrace the concept of a multi-ethnic citizenry and accord equal rights to all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, resulting in suffering and injustice for Israeli Arabs; and, secondly, a continued policy of colonisation in the West Bank, resulting in massive suffering for the occupied Palestinians. These deformations are, of course, linked to the behaviour of the Arab states and the refusal of most of them to recognise Israel, as well as to the Palestinians’ own behaviour – but this is not ultimately a question of apportioning blame. Like every nation-state, Israel needs to develop a post-nationalist national ideology if it is to complete its national and democratic development. This means becoming a genuinely Israeli nation-state, i.e. a state of the Israeli nation; a state of the citizens of Israel – rather than simply a Jewish state in which non-Jews are second-class citizens. Jews would still form a comfortable majority in Israel, thereby guaranteeing Jewish national self-determination. But a Jewish ethnic majority can comfortably exist with a concept of citizenship blind to ethnicity – as all concepts of citizenship should be, from the US and France to Israel and the Arab states. And as the American and French models show, a concept of citizenship blind to ethnicity rests upon identification with the state’s legal borders – hence no colonisation projects directed against neighbouring peoples.
As a Croat, I am very pleased that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is forcing Croats to face up to the crimes carried out in the course of their War of Independence. All Croatian children should celebrate this War of Independence, but they should also learn about its moral ambiguities – the crimes against Serb civilians and the parallel attempt, which thankfully was defeated, to expand into Bosnia. They should learn about Croatian resistance to the Nazis in the form of the Partisan movement, of which they should rightfully feel proud, but also about the Croatian Ustasha genocide of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies – and, of course, about Partisan atrocities. Above all, they should be taught that theirs is a multiethnic nation that encompasses Serbs, Bosniaks and others, who do not cease thereby to be Serbs or Bosniaks. One should be able to be an ethnic Serb and at the same time belong to the Croatian nation as fully as an ethnic Croat, without abandoning one’s Serb identity, just as one should be able to be an ethnic Arab or Palestinian and belong to the Israeli nation as fully as an ethnic Jew, without abandoning one’s ethnic Arab or Palestinian identiy.
When this happens, a national anniversary becomes something that everyone, regardless of ethnic background, can celebrate without reservation.
Turkey has launched a large-scale military assault against Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) guerrilla bases in northern Iraq – the biggest Turkish attack on the region since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This presents the democratic world with a dilemma.
In principle, every state has the right to defend itself from military attacks by neighbouring states, and this includes attacks by guerrillas based in neighbouring states. If a government allows its territory to be used by guerrillas to attack a neighbour, it becomes in practice an aggressor in relation to that neighbour, which then has the right to retaliate. Formally speaking, Turkey is acting within its rights when it carries out attacks on PKK bases in northern Iraq. In this case, however, there are three complicating factors.
The first is that this security problem is of Turkey’s own making. Having subjected the Turkish Kurds to decades of national oppression and forced assimilation, while at the same time outlawing any peaceful and democratic expression of Kurdish national politics in Turkey, Ankara has generated the problem it now faces: the PKK insurgency is its Frankenstein’s monster. There is ultimately no military solution to this problem, which will go away only when Ankara permits its Kurds the option of peacefully agitating for their national rights within the democratic system.
The second complicating factor is that Turkey’s interest in Iraqi Kurdistan is far from purely defensive. Ankara wishes to prevent a powerful, effectively sovereign Kurdistani entity from coming into being in northern Iraq, one that it fears might further catalyse the nationalism of its own Kurdish population. For this reason, Turkey is opposed to the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Furthermore, Ankara is attempting to use the Turkoman minority in Iraqi Kurdistan as a catspaw with which to destabilise the region; its proxy political force, the Iraqi Turkoman Front, campaigns against the federalisation of Iraq and the incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Region. Turkey has long expressed an interest in the territory and, in particular, the oil of northern Iraq, following claims that go back to the 1920s and the foundation of the Turkish Republic. In other words Turkey, which has not been a very good ally to the US and UK over Iraq, is pursuing an entirely selfish and destructive policy at the expense of the Iraqi Kurds, our best friends in the country.
The third complicating factor is that the impetus to attack the PKK in northern Iraq comes less from Turkey’s democratically elected leaders, President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), who are more enlightened with regard to the Kurdish question, but from the Turkish military, which is itself hostile to the AKP regime and which is putting pressure on the latter to be more hardline. A Turkish victory in northern Iraq, in the unlikely event that one were to occur, would strengthen the most undemocratic and retrograde elements in the Turkish state.
In these circumstances, it is not in our interest to support Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policy; nor are we under any obligation to do so. By collaborating with Turkey’s war against the PKK and policy of destabilisation of Iraqi Kurdistan, we become collaborators in Turkey’s oppression of the Kurdish people; participants in a nationalist conflict on the side of the party that is, quite frankly, more in the wrong. Yet we cannot ignore Turkey’s legitimate concern at PKK attacks, nor can we afford to turn our backs on this potentially disastrous conflict that pits our allies against one another and threatens our vital interests in all-too-fragile Iraq. We need to address the legitimate fears of the Turkoman and other non-Kurdish minorities in Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Region, and to put pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure that all ethnic groups under its jurisdiction are properly protected and represented. But a solution to the Turkish-Kurdish question has to span both sides of the Turkey-Iraq border.
Britain and the US must engage with the PKK in an effort to bring its insurgency peacefully to an end, on the basis of a negotiated compromise, similar to that which has been successfully reached in Northern Ireland. Turkey’s conflict with the PKK is scarcely more intractable than was our own conflict with the Irish Republican Army; the coexistence of ethnic Turks and Kurds at the grass-roots level is rather better than that between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. There is absolutely no reason, therefore, why Ankara cannot pursue a similar negotiated settlement with the PKK, as we pursued it with the IRA. However comical the image of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as partners at the helm of the new Northern Ireland might be, it is at the same time symbolic of how even the bitterest enemies can come to collaborate when given the right inducements. It might prove difficult to persuade the PKK to lay down its weapons, but our interests are sufficiently at stake for it to be worth the effort.
The concession that Ankara would have to give in exchange for a cession of PKK violence would be the lifting of all restrictions on the peaceful expression of Kurdish nationalist politics in Turkey. Kurdish parties in Turkey should be free to organise and to campaign for Kurdish national rights – for language and cultural rights, autonomy and even secession and independence, just as in the UK we permit Sinn Fein, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru to campaign for a united Ireland, independent Scotland and independent Wales respectively. Ankara has to realise that the territorial integrity of a democratic nation-state ultimately rests upon the consent of its citizenry, for which repression and coercion cannot substitute.
Turkey should, however, be reassured in the belief that ending the repression of its Kurdish population and permitting it full political freedom would be highly unlikely to lead to the emergence of an independent Turkish Kurdish state, for the simple reason that such a state would not be in the interests of the Kurdish people of Anatolia. Ethnic Kurds and Turks in Anatolia are too intermingled to make a bloodless drawing of a border between them feasible, even if the Turkish state were incomparably more enlightened and well intentioned than it is – more likely would be something similar to the intercommunal massacres that beset fledgling India and Pakistan in the 1940s. A particularly high price would be paid by the Kurds who would remain behind in a rump Turkey; they would be transformed at a stroke from ‘Turks’ into foreigners. Independence would cut the Turkish Kurds off from the prosperous cities of western Anatolia, the natural destination of their economic migration, and confine them to an impoverished and landlocked state wedged between unstable Iraq and hostile Turkey. As citizens of Turkey, by contrast, they are only a step or two away from Europe.
Self-determination does not mean simply drawing lines on a map as though it were a blank slate; one cannot disregard decades of history. However unjust the division of the Kurdish people following World War I between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria may have been at the time, the clock cannot simply be turned back. The transformation of Turkey into a bilingual state with Kurdish as an official language – as Swedish is an official language in bilingual Finland – while Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys widespread autonomy, might represent the best possible solution to the Kurdish question. Europe’s German-speakers are, after all, divided between the states of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy’s South Tyrol, and the arrangement is entirely satisfactory to all concerned.
A bilingual Turkish national state in which both Turkish and Kurdish are official languages would not be some arbitrary Western imposition; Turkish nationalists have traditionally viewed Kurds as Turks, while Kurds for their part were ready to fight in large numbers in defence of the common Anatolian homeland in Turkey’s War of Independence in the 1920s, against the European invaders and their local Greek and Armenian allies; Ismet Inonu, the most important of the founders of the Turkish Republic after Kemal Ataturk, was himself of partly Kurdish background. So too was the former Turkish prime minister and president Turgut Ozal, a pioneer in the lifting of restrictions on the Kurds.
In attempting to suppress all manifestations of the Kurdish language and identity, Ataturk, Inonu and their successors may have been doing what they saw as necessary in their endeavour to create a homogenous Turkish nation-state in place of the ruined Ottoman Empire. But today’s Turkish leaders have to realise that with the Turkish Republic a securely established fact, it is time for them to moderate a policy that has been too rigid for too long and that has come to threaten the very national unity it is supposed to uphold. Indeed, the ruling AKP has already taken major steps towards improving the rights of the Turkish Kurds, and it is imperative that Western leaders further encourage them in this direction, and help them to overcome the resistance of hardline nationalist elements in the army and elsewhere.
While the danger of radical Islam in Turkey is not to be neglected, yet it is ultra-nationalism that has proven to be the most dangerous force in contemporary Turkish politics, as witnessed by the assassination at the start of this year of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and by the attempt to prosecute the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in both cases for the ‘error’, in nationalist eyes, of raising the question of Turkey’s historic crimes against the Armenians. This ultra-nationalism is ruinous to Turkey’s own interests. A Turkey that allows Kurdish political parties freely to operate and the Armenian Genocide to be freely discussed would be much more attractive as a member of the European Union, which is where Turkey rightfully belongs. So much is at stake in an untangling of the Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan-PKK triangle that we cannot afford not to attempt it, difficult though it will be.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
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