Re-definition of Turkey over Armenian Genocide
By Dr. Can Erimtan
April 28, 2014

"The past is a foreign country" goes the quote that has now become
nothing but a well-worn cliché.

In today's Turkey most people would probably agree with the sentiment,
as "Ottomania" is all the rage and a self-professed interest in
history (meaning Ottoman history) has become something akin to a
national obsession ` a fascination expressed in high ratings for
television programs showcasing various personalities of differing
academic (and/or political) persuasions pontificate about this or that
titbit of Ottoman minutiae. Even the Turkish soap opera industry has
become subject to this Ottoman fad, leading to such travesties as "The
Magnificent Century" acquainting the public-at-large with well-known
yet strangely unknown facts of 'national' history ` as when the nation
suddenly realized that the universally well-loved Sultan Süleyman (the
'Magnificent' one, after all) had his first-born son Mustafa murdered
in cold blood. But apart from such quasi-spontaneous history lessons,
the primary purpose of the current love of all things Ottoman sweeping
the Turkey is clearly escapist in nature. At the same time, however,
the government cunningly utilizes the people's escapist tendencies to
push through its own agenda, an agenda that attempts to rewrite
certain aspects of Turkish (if not Ottoman) history while,
simultaneously, stressing the Islamic nature of the Republic and its
imperial predecessor. Decades of Kemalist propaganda and
indoctrination have succeeded in equating the terms 'Ottoman" and
'Islamic' in the Turkish mind.

In Turkey every year the approach of the month of April is accompanied
by frantic lobbying activities across the pond (meaning millions of
dollars well-spent) and public proclamations of Turkish (or Muslim)
innocence at home. The reason for this recurring series of events has
to do with a troubling episode in recent Ottoman history, and the
question whether Turks (in reality, Ottoman policy-makers and their
subject Muslim citizens) living in the early 20th-century did commit a
series of crimes against humanity, culminating in genocide, or to be
more precise terminating in the "Armenian Genocide". Throughout the
post-war period, the Turkish authorities have continuously upheld that
Turks could not have committed such an atrocious crime, but instead
the then-Istanbul authorities had merely taken drastic relocation
measures against an Armenian uprising in eastern Anatolia in view of
Armenian complicity in Russian military ventures against the Ottoman
state in the course of the Great War (subsequently known as World War
I, 1914-18).

In this context, the role of the United States' Congress has always
been of paramount importance. This year marked a departure from that
clichéd path, as the Speaker of the United States House of
Representatives John Boehner gave assurance to Turkey, on 15 April,
that Congress will not get involved in any "Armenian genocide" bill `
well ahead of the dreaded April 24th, the Genocide Remembrance Day,
when in 1915 the first Armenian victims of the Ottoman policy of
ethnic cleansing were deported from Istanbul. Boehner visited Turkey
as part of a multi-country trip to the region (also visiting
Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates), accompanied by a high-level
congressional delegation.

In Ankara, John Boehner met the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament
Cemil Cicek, and afterwards told reporters that "[t]he issue about
Armenians comes onto the [Congress'] agenda from time to time. Don't
worry. Our Congress will not get involved in this issue, we are not
writing history, we are also not historians." Boehner went on to say
that the US tries to improve bilateral ties with Ankara, while
expressing his appreciation for Turkish support on such hot-button
issues like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

[Photo: Activists hold pictures of Armenian victims during a
demonstration to commemorate the 1915 mass killing of Armenians in the
Ottoman Empire, in Istanbul April 24, 2014. (Reuters)]

In return, Cicek waxed lyrically about Turkey and America, indicating
that the Armenian issue constitutes a "burden" in bilateral relations
between the two allies. In this instance, Cicek undoubtedly had the US
Senate's Resolution 410, passed on 4 April, in mind. The resolution
proclaims "that the President should ensure that US foreign policy
reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues
related to human rights, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing,
and genocide documented in the US record relating to the Armenian

The Republican-controlled House clearly favors business-as-usual with
Turkey, arguably continuing to buy more American arms and weapons as
in the previous year when Turkey's top spot on the destination list
for US-manufactured arms was followed by Egypt and South Korea. The
Democrat-controlled Senate, on the other hand, appears to follow its
conscience, accepting the Resolution this year, the first time in a
quarter century that such a clear stance was taken by the US
legislative chamber. As a result of the House's refusal to get
involved in the Armenian issue, however, the bicameral legislature of
the United States of America that is the US Congress did not adopt a
binding resolution. The bill thus failed to reach the floor on the
last working day before a two-week Easter recess (11 April), giving
Boehner ample reason to include Turkey on his business trip to the
Middle East.
`Shying away historical reality'

With regards to the Armenian issue, 2014 marked a clear departure for
Turkey on the domestic front as the popular yet divisive Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to take a truly "unprecedented"
step: on the Wednesday prior to the Genocide Remembrance Day, not by
accident coinciding with the National Sovereignty and Children's Day
in Turkey (23 April), the Prime Minister's office issued a written
statement regarding the Armenian issue, carrying his personal
signature. It was published on the Prime Minister's website in several
languages, including Turkish, English, and French, but also Armenian,
Arabic, and Russian, among others. The text was not the outcome of a
rushed decision, but clearly the result of a painstaking editorial
process. Even though the letter starts off with the statement that the
Remembrance Day "provides a valuable opportunity to share opinions
freely on a historical matter", arguably in line with traditional
Turkish protestations that the whole matter is an historical issue,
best left to historians, its following lines appear unprecedented if
not groundbreaking.

The Prime Minister's letter treads carefully, unwilling to offend
fervent Turkish nationalists, stating that "[m]illions of people of
all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in the First World War.
Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences ` such as
relocation ` during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and
Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes
towards one another."

In the next instance, however, Tayyip Erdogan pulls out all the stops,
announcing that "[i]n today's world, deriving enmity from history and
creating new antagonisms are neither acceptable nor useful for
building a common future"; followed by the letter's pièce de
résistance, "[i]t is our hope and belief that the peoples of an
ancient and unique geography, who share similar customs and manners
will be able to talk to each other about the past with maturity and to
remember together their losses in a decent manner. And it is with this
hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives
in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we
convey our condolences to their grandchildren".

Shying away from actually acknowledging the historical reality of the
"Armenian Genocide", Erdogan has now become the first Turkish
politician to concede that the Ottoman policy of ethnic cleansing had
disastrous consequences for the Armenian population of Anatolia, an
"ancient and unique geography". One could argue that this concession
is but the first step down the road to full acknowledgment of the
genocidal results of the Ottoman population policy that attempted to
transform Anatolia, the Ottoman heartland, into a purely Muslim
entity. In fact, looking at the historical record, it seems that the
Ottomans (or rather the Unionists or so-called Young Turks in charge
of the Empire during the period 1908-18) had all but relied on actions
previously carried out by their German allies to realise their goal of
a Muslim homeland in Anatolia. Even though many commentators and even
historians refer to the Armenian issue as the 20th century's first
genocide, in reality the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II
(1888-1918) had already constituted a precedent previously.

The Dutch historian Jan-Bart Gewald, matter-of-factly relates that
"[b]etween 1904 and 1908 Imperial German troops committed genocide in
German South West Africa (GSWA), present-day Namibia." Germany's late
and short ("about thirty-five years", as expressed by the sociologist
Gurminder K. Bhambra) entry into Europe's colonial game overseas led
to extreme measures. In South West Africa, German settlers employed
the Herero-German war to 'rightfully' occupy territory belonging to
the Herero tribes. This land-grab was preceded by "the planned and
officially sanctioned attempted extermination of the Herero people".
As the Ottomans had enjoyed good relations with the German Empire ever
since the early years of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), it would
stand to reason to assume that the Unionists were eager to apply the
German experiences in South West Africa to their own territorial
designs for Anatolia. As outlined in an earlier piece of mine, the
Unionists' policies of social engineering "were aimed at transforming
Anatolia (the heartland of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish
Republic's geo-body, using Thongchai Winichakul's coinage denoting the
territory of a nation as expressed on a map and inscribed on the
people's consciousness) into a Muslim homeland where refugees from the
Russian Empire and the Balkans were settled. Prior to the formulation
of Turkish nationalism as an ideological binding-force [in 1922], the
diverse ethnic groups in Anatolia were united by their common identity
as Muslims and their allegiance to the Ottoman Caliphate, abolished in

As a result, the fact that Turkey's PM Erdogan used this year's
Children's Day, the Turkish public holiday that commemorates the first
opening of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (the nation's
parliament) in Ankara in 1920, to express his condolences to the
Armenian nation, is not coincidental. Turkish critics of the PM have
oftentimes expressed their misgivings about Erdogan's apparent desire
to return Turkey and its government to its original inception three
years' prior to the foundation of the Republic and the Turkish nation
state. When the original Grand National Assembly was founded, its
constituency consisted of Anatolian Muslims. The concept of a Turkish
nation in Anatolia was introduced in 1922, and, as I expressed in my
earlier piece, "[o]pponents of Erdogan and the AKP now fear that the
government's long-term goal ... is to transform the nation state
Turkey into an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly
linked to a revived caliphate." Against this backdrop, Tayyip
Erdogan's condolences to the Armenian nation appear like a preamble to
establishing a new (or old) definition of Anatolia (or Turkey) as an
"ancient and unique geography" inhabited solely by Muslim population
groups. Acknowledging the reality that Christian populations, like the
Armenians, once formed part of Anatolia's social mix is but a prelude
to recognising that today's Anatolians are all Muslim, and will remain
so forever.

In other words, as the US pragmatically continues to dodge the
Armenian bullet, Turkey's AKP leadership seems bent on continuing its
long-term policy goals that could lead to a re-definition of Turkey.
Will the Turkish nation state eventually become an Anatolian
federation of Muslim ethnicities? Does Erdogan's expression of grief
signal his ultimate goal of becoming the Turkish leader who revived
Anatolia's commitment to the cause of the Prophet and will Turkey of
the future look like the Anatolia of the past?

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in Ä°stanbul, with a
wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and
the Greater Middle East.