Erdogan, A Gift to the Armenian Cause
Erdogan, A Gift to the Armenian Cause
Since Ronald Regan’s presidency in the eighties, US presidents have been taking one step forward and then two steps back on recognizing the 1915 Armenian Genocide. All of this was done out of consideration for the relationship with Turkey, “a NATO ally” on the “alliance’s southern front.” Recently, we saw a reversal: US President Joe Biden called the massacre “collective genocide.”
Some have expressed doubts over the recognition’s value and the potential for using it to deter genocides that are taking place or those that might take place here or there. Others saw it purely in terms of the US’s worsening relationship with Turkey and the forms of political pressure being put on the latter. A third group saw it as more “cultural” than “political” and more about “conscience” than “effectiveness.” Of course, there were also those who condemned Biden’s words solely on the basis that he is the US president.
What is certain, in all cases, is that the latest step, despite that it will likely be symbolic, provides qualitative support to liberating Turkish political consciousness from denial. Such an achievement, if it were realized, would be an immense gain for the Armenian cause.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu understood the issue best. One among the many Turkish officials to thunderously hit back at Biden’s recognition, Cavusoglu tweeted that Turkey does not take lessons on its history from anyone, putting the US’ new position down to populism. The fact is that this is precisely what should happen, that is, giving a history lesson aimed at liberating this history from denial. Such a task is precisely the opposite of what is usually done by populism, which, by definition, quashes or manipulates facts.
The two pillars of the Turkish consensus on denial were the Ataturkist Nationalists and the Islamists, who share with the former an identical national and ethnic-religious identity. Non-Muslim Turks, like the Armenians, and then the non-Turkish Muslims, like the Kurds, became unwelcomed guests to Turkish national identity, and they paid the steep price of a closed identity that has no room for sub-identities. This denial of the other required a conspiratorial consciousness that had always been part of the intellectual apparatus of the Ataturkists and Islamists. In this narrative, the Armenians and Kurds, as well as the Greeks, the Assyrians and others, were depicted as the allies of the nation’s enemies, and they deserve, for this reason, what has befallen them and what may befall them.
This fantastical story seemed solid because it was a product of political and popular consensus. This is how it managed to conceal events that preceded and came after the central massacre, like the Hamidian pogroms of 1894-5, when between 200 and 300 thousand Armenians and Christians from other communities had been killed. Afterward, with the Christian minorities’ annihilation- especially the Armenians- the Kurdish question emerged. As the cross-national Muslim empire collapsed, the Turks denied the Kurds’ independent existence in 1924-5, callings them “Turks of the mountain.” Thus, in 1921, the beads of the Kurdish and Alevi uprisings began to roll successively, accompanied by their fierce suppression, which culminated with the Dersim uprising of 1936, which had erupted in response to laws that had been issued two years earlier, authorizing the use of violence at the service of “assimilating” populations and regions.
As denial became one of the components of Turkish political life and then Turkish patriotism, this feature became an indication of the weakness of the transition from an imperial consciousness to the modern national consciousness of nation-states. But it was Recep Tayyip Erdogan who began to undermine this denial that is reinforced by consensus that the outside world implicated it. His sultanic behavior throughout his long reign was accompanied by two developments that did not help in the realization of the desired goal: Western societies came to increasingly celebrate religious, ethnic and linguistic pluralism, and democratic practice began to recede in Turkey itself with the suppression of protests in Gezi Park in 2013 (22 dead and thousands of wounded) and the horrific diminishment of respect for human rights, especially after the failed coup attempt of 2016: tens of thousands were detained, the constitution was changed, journalists and human rights activists were arrested, and the disruption of social media platforms became a weekly occurrence...
On the other hand, the only factor buttressing this denial, allowing for the continuation of the blind eye policy, was that geopolitical dimension inherited from the cold war: Turkey’s membership in NATO. However, it is Erdogan who took it upon himself to undermine this bulwark: he diverged from NATO’s strategy regarding the rapprochement with the Syrian Kurds and the war against ISIS, and especially in Erdogan’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia (what adds to his foreign policy’s futility is that its relationship with Moscow has also deteriorated since then because of Libya and the Black Sea Canal).
What is important, at the end of the day, is not Joe Biden’s intentions but the ability of the Armenians and democratic forces to benefit from this state of affairs to besiege the Turkish policy of denial. Erdogan’s haphazard behavior is an important ally in making Biden and his administration act on what they say. It is a priceless gift to the Armenians’ right.