By Dr Abdullah Al-Ash’al
It is indisputable that the Turkish government of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) is a model modern state that has applied the principles of Islam beyond semantics. It has been committed to the principle of effectiveness, as was the government of Mahathir Muhammad in Malaysia, albeit with significant differences. The foremost among those differences have been imposed by Turkey’s history and geography as well as Western military and political alliances, ambitions for European Union membership and aspirations for a distinct role in the region. Usually referred to as the “Turkish project”, it is welcomed by regional states inclined towards peace and development.
The JDP government has tackled sensitive issues that were impeding its progress, notably the opposition of the Turkish army, the secularists and the Supreme Court. Externally, Turkey has had to balance its strategic alliance with Israel and the US with the deterioration of Arab-Turkish relations, especially with Syria. Turkey used to be part of the pro-Israel Western alliance against the Arab world, especially since Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel due to Ankara’s secularism and membership of NATO as part of the then Western political alliances against the Eastern bloc of Soviet influence. Over the past five years, the Turkish government has also tackled the sensitive issues around the Armenians and Kurds. It would have achieved success with both but for the intervention of the Supreme Court in the Kurdish issue.
Turkey has embarked on a process of rapprochement with the Republic of Armenia, once part of the Soviet Union. It discussed frankly the issue of the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians during the First World War, which is a national issue for the Armenians and a highly sensitive issue for the Turks. It is true that some of the “diaspora” Armenians were not satisfied with the outcome and demanded an apology from Turkey. However, a solution of sorts was reached with Turkey standing by a claim that while Armenians were killed by the Turks, the number was considerably less than the 1.5 million claimed; nor was the killing systematic and thus genocidal.
The crime of genocide is based on two elements: moral, whereby there is an intention for a given particular racial, religious or political genocide. The second is material, characterised by carrying out acts depriving members of a particular social or national group of the basic requirements for life and eradicating their communal history. This is similar to what is happening to the Palestinians today in the West Bank and Gaza at the hands of Israel.
The problem facing Turkey and hindering its international progress is that some parties insist that what happened to the Armenians in the First World War was genocide, and that Ankara must apologise and pay compensation. The French parliament has done this, as have the Canadians, Americans and the Swedes, the latter by a single vote in parliament. On each occasion Turkey withdrew its ambassador from the country in question. When Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan cancelled a visit to the Scandinavian country, the Swedish Foreign Minister announced that the decision was a mistake.
The protests by Canada, the US and France may be linked to the power of the Israel lobby in those countries, which was angered by Turkey’s strong condemnation of Israel’s assault on and invasion of Gaza. Turkey’s good relations with Iran, Syria and Hamas and the deterioration of its diplomatic, military, security and political relations with Israel have given the lobby further cause for alarm. By raising the Armenian issue, Israel is, through its lobbyists, sending a message to Turkey that Turkey’s treatment of the Armenians can be compared to the that meted out to the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany.
It is worth noting that the Armenian issue was one of the reasons why former US President Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points in January 1918, in which he insisted among other things on minority rights. In fact, the defence of minority rights was simply a pretext for western intervention against the Islamic Ottoman Empire in favour of the Armenians, the Christian minority in the sultanate. It remains a political issue with a humanitarian cover, a moral pretext to veil a covert religious agenda. What happened to the Armenians is part of a history in which modern Turkey was not involved, having adopted secularism and detached itself from its imperial past.
The core of the current situation is the independent streak exhibited by the JDP government and its emergence as an emblem for Islamic rationalism, as well as its tense relations with Israel. This in part compensates for Arab helplessness and has annoyed the West and its Zionist power brokers whose aim is to inflict harm on Turkey and weaken it by playing the Armenian card. For this reason, a withdrawal of ambassadors is not the answer. The solution is an emphasis on the fact that the Armenian issue is an Ottoman issue, not a modern Turkish issue. More importantly, Israel’s genocide of the Palestinians is an ongoing scenario, as is Washington’s genocidal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Why are Western parliamentarians so keen to discuss a controversial historical event whilst ignoring very current Israeli transgressions?
Erdogan should ignore these efforts to derail his policies. Paying attention to them will create in the Turks a complex that is similar to the Germans’ about the Holocaust. The Zionist lobby is behind the constant references to the Armenian issue, inciting Armenian groups to raise it in order to exert pressure on Turkey. However, many governments have no wish to lose Turkey as an ally and balance this with clear messages for transparency on the Armenians from the Turkish government. This fact notwithstanding, in all cases Western governments are united in their support for Israel, despite its crimes against the Palestinians and the Arabs. Nevertheless, Israel has faced criticism from many of states due to the invasion of Gaza, during which a UN Report claims war crimes were committed.
There is a huge difference between the Israel state established by force and built on the ruins of a dispossessed people, and a modern Turkey that seeks justice and equity. Prime Minister Erdogan is well aware that Israel wants to put Turkey on the same level as Nazi Germany but he must free himself from historical sensitivities about Armenia that still open up his government to blackmail. Even if he is forced to apologise for something done by the Ottomans (and it would be courageous of him to do so), if he is convinced otherwise, let it be said publicly and permanently.
Present-day Turkey is not responsible for the sins of the Ottoman Empire. If it is, then many governments around the world must be pursued for the sins of their forefathers, not least the Americans for what they did to the Native Americans and for what they continue to do to the Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians. Colonial states would be open to prosecution for what they did across the world, notably in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
It has long been an aim of many in the Western Christian world to continue the Crusades by attacks on the modern states created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This takes the form of political blackmail and open support for the state of Israel and its 21st century colonialism. Turkey must stand firm in the face of such attacks and lead by example in the Islamic and Muslim world.
*Dr Abdullah Al-Ashal, is a professor of international law at the American University in Cairo and a former Egyptian foreign minister, he is a member of the Arab Bar Association and the Arab Federation of Lawyers (AFL).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.