By Aijaz Zaka Syed
April 17, 2015
I am an admirer of all things Turkish. I have fond memories of a few days spent in Turkey, exploring its rich tapestry of history and heritage, especially in Istanbul. I have yet to come across a more fascinating city.
Muslims in the Subcontinent share strong cultural and historical ties with Turkey thanks to the long Muslim and Mughal rule in India. The founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babar, was of Turkish stock and wrote his fine memoirs, Tuzk-e-Babri, in the language that came naturally to him – Turkish.
Why are we talking about Turkey though? With the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaching (April 24), this seems to be open season on Turkey. This week, an angry Ankara summoned the Vatican ambassador and recalled its own from there to register its protest after Pope Francis uttered the ‘G’ word to describe the Armenian tragedy.
“The first genocide of the 20th century struck Armenian people”, said the pontiff during a mass in St Peter’s Basilica to mark the centenary of the tragedy in which a million Armenians are said to have perished at the hands of the Ottoman army of course.
Turkey, however, rejects the charge, arguing that thousands of Turks died as well in civil strife when Armenians rose up against the Ottoman rulers and sided with the Russian and western forces. Ankara argues that hundreds of thousands of Muslim besides Armenians were killed in conflicts that engulfed the eastern Ottoman Empire during World War I.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded angrily to Pope’s comments on Tuesday: “We will not allow historical incidents to be taken out of their genuine context, and be used as a tool to campaign against our country. I condemn the Pope and would like to warn him not to make similar mistakes again.”
On Wednesday, the European Parliament joined Pope Francis in urging Turkey to recognise the 1915 events as genocide, prompting another rebuke from Ankara. Turkey balks at attempts to put the Ottomans in the same category as Nazi Germany and a string of dictators from Stalin to Pol Pot.
Some 20 nations, however, recognise the 1915 killings as genocide. In 2008 Barack Obama condemned them as such although in 2009 – as president – he was more circumspect in his speech commemorating the tragedy: “My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts. The best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward.”
Exactly! The two sides need to move on and that cannot happen without Turkey acknowledging the past. Excesses may have indeed been committed by a dying empire, desperately trying to hold on to its fast slipping dominions. Confronted with the Russian aggression and combined onslaught of European powers, the receding Ottoman empire had been fighting for its survival.
The Battle of Gallipoli saw the entire west, including forces from as far as Australia, ganged up against the world’s only surviving Muslim empire, eventually dismembering it into bits and pieces. And like all empires under siege, the Ottoman troops were guilty of excesses in Armenia, just as they had been in other parts of the crumbling caliphate. And it is about time modern Turkey acknowledged it. There is no point in living in denial about it.
But while what happened in Armenia was truly horrific, was it a coldblooded and calculated genocide along the lines of Jewish Holocaust at the hands of Nazis or the ethnic cleansing of Balkan Muslims at the hands of Serbs in 1990s?
The Armenians may have borne the Ottoman wrath for siding with the invaders but were they picked and eliminated for what they were and believed in as had been the case with Jews and Muslims in the Balkans?
If it is any consolation, the Ottomans weren’t any less brutal in dealing with seditious subjects in Muslim lands. The Egyptian soldiery was dispatched to deal firmly with the rebellious Arabs.
So the attempt by Pope Francis to give this whole issue a religious overtone comparing it with Christians fleeing oppression at the hands of Isis is absurd. Equally over the top has been Turkey’s reaction to the pontiff’s comments.
Whatever the historical circumstances, what happened in 1915 resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives was unfortunate and unconscionable and deserves to be condemned in strongest terms.
War crimes and crimes against humanity are among the gravest in international law and they are to be dealt with as such no matter who the victims and their tormentors are. Martin Luther King rightly argued that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
More often than not though, it’s not genuine humanitarian concerns but realpolitik and hypocrisy that dictate such denunciations. We are selective in our collective outrage and choosing our victims. So has been the case with the Armenian tragedy. It has become an annual ritual for western politicians and media to beat Ankara with this big stick.
To be fair to Turkey, in the past few years it has gone out of its way to reach out to its neighbours, including Armenia and Greece, in an attempt to heal the past. Erdogan surprised everyone, including his own people, in 2009 when he acknowledged Turkey’s troubled past: “Those with different ethnic identities were expelled from our country. This indeed was the consequence of a fascist approach.”
In the same year, in what came to be known as soccer diplomacy he famously invited Armenian President Serzhe Sarkisian to Turkey to watch a football match between their national teams. Last year, Erdogan sincerely apologised and offered condolences for the loss of hundreds of thousands of Armenian lives in 1915, something unimaginable for many Turkish politicians. So here is a nation that has had the courage to own up to its past.
On the other hand, those rushing to condemn and burn Turkey at the stake hardly come across smelling of roses. Who can feign ignorance of Europe’s own illustrious past in the last three centuries? Almost every single European power once boasted of and benefited from its rich colonies in Africa, Asia and Americas. Besides raping and denuding Africa of its fabled riches, they stole its most precious resource by enslaving millions of its people and selling them like cattle around the world.
Don’t we know how Americas and Australia were won for the west, nearly wiping out their indigenous populations? Thousands were hanged in India when it rose in revolt against the empire in 1857.
In the last century alone, millions were killed in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, as part of the colonial project. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed and millions driven from their homes after their country was generously gifted away to European Jews.
We have seen more than a million people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last one decade alone as part of western wars, not to mention the chaos unleashed across the Muslim world. Who will account for all these crimes? How would the European Parliament describe what some of its member states visited on their former colonies?
The Pope is right in cautioning humanity against forgetting the ‘senseless slaughter’ of Armenians 100 years ago. But while doing so, let’s also spare a thought for millions of victims of western wars and historical wrongs. Selective memory, like selective justice, does more harm than good. Without acknowledgement, there is no reconciliation.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East based columnist.