Picking a fight you cannot win…

Donegal man Fiachra Gibbons with an unforgettable analogy for France’s proposed new law that would ban denials of Armenian genocide. The reaction in Turkey has been fierce.

For those who enjoyed a country childhood beyond the reach of a reliable TV signal, entertainment often consisted of watching two farmyard animals headbutting each other to the point of unconsciousness. Typically, two young bullocks would square up to one another in the way the Turkish donkey and the French ass are doing today over the Armenian genocide, the collected crimes of French colonialism, the headscarf, the French insistence that it is their liberal duty to publish every Muhammad cartoon ever drawn, and any other raw nerve within reach. Stupider breeds of sheep can keep this up for hours.

It is pretty poor sport, and one that must take a toll on the limited reasoning capacities of the creatures involved. Which is why it makes it all the harder that the supposed excuse for this release of political testosterone is one of the great forgotten tragedies of the last century: the massacre – or what some call the genocide – of around one million Armenians in what is now eastern Turkey. “Who remembers the Armenians?” Hitler remarked before he set his own Holocaust in motion. Sadly, few did, even in France.

The answer, Gibbons argues, is not to submit to collective amnesia, but to champion those who are slowly uncovering the uncomfortable truths of the past:

…the taboo about even mentioning the Armenians has been slowly broken over the last four years, helped along by the brilliant and the brave, chief among them the novelist Orhan Pamuk. He has been prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness” by claiming that a million Armenians died. What irony that the same Turkish nationalists who wanted to lynch him then will today be celebrating his Nobel prize win. Pamuk’s right to freedom of speech was yesterday on the lips of the French parliamentarians who voted through the bill that would jail for a year anyone who questions the use of the word genocide for the killings. No one seemed to have heard that Pamuk himself, in common with all Turkish liberals, had condemned the bill. It is of course a cynical exercise to harvest the sizeable Armenian vote, but so out of touch are the Parisian elite with their suburbs that they fail to realise the size of the Turkish minority. Officially, of course, it is illegal to count them, as everyone is French and nothing else.

  • Crataegus

    History is never straight forward, and there are always shades of grey with many to blame, but what the young Turks did to the Greeks, Yurds and Armenians was deplorable and sooner or later Turkey has to maturely come to terms with its past. In fact in the interests of humanity I wish all countries would be frank about their past deeds.

    The French action is crass stupidity and utterly arrogant. Internally it is of dubious benefit and as a gesture in foreign policy utterly pointless and counter productive.

    Turkey is of considerable strategic importance to Europe. It is different from much of Europe but also fundamentally different from the Arab states to the south east. It is Byzantium, the eastern part of the Roman Empire and in my opinion more European than Eastern. Since Diocletian’s reforms it has been enmeshed in the affairs of the Balkans and the lower Danube. It is very much part of Europe and not somewhere apart.

    It is to our advantage that Turkey and Ukraine look west and not east and we need to be much more astute in our relations with these countries. In both countries we are making a right pigs ear of it due to myopic, domestic xenophobia.

    I am glad to see that Orhan Pamuk received the peace prize. We would be better served if we simply supported people like him and less of the grand gestures which are ever so French.

  • mickhall


    An excellent post, calm and rational, I just wish others when discussing or writing about Turkey would follow your lead. It is impossible to underestimate the positive role the prospect of EU membership has had within Turkey. It really has played an enormous part in liberalizing and modernizing the Turkish Republic; and to remove the opportunity to join some time in the future would be just plain wrong, and open the door to all the reactionary forces within Turkey. For if Turkey does not look to Europe and its values whose lead will it follow?

    Just as Jack Straws sudden interest in the veil has more to do with British [LP] politics than women’s liberation etc. The sudden interest in France about Armenian/Turkish history has one eye on the forthcoming Presidential elections etc.. I am not saying it would not be a good thing for the Turkish people to fully understand what happened to and who was responsible for the Armenian massacres, far from it.

    But when clamoring for them to recognize what occurred, perhaps the French [and the British] should first fully consider what happened in the days of their own Empires and the untold suffering they caused, not least to the Irish, Indian’s, Vietnamese and various peoples around north and west Africa and elsewhere.

    Few nations who have had an Imperial past have been quiet as successful in putting it behind them and learning lessons from it than the Turkish Republic, not least that you muck about in other peoples countries without first having been invited in at your own nations peril. If only Blair had understood this truism, which is something almost every Turk understands only to well.

    However people should not lose sight of the fact the Turkish Republic is a comparatively new nation; and it has little of the Ottoman empire about it. Ataturk made sure of that and it should not be forgotten when he founded the Republic, he attempted to take all that was best from the European democracies and the cultures within them.


  • One question that no-one seems to ask is whether there is any reason apart from the obvious why the Turks are so prickly about the Armenian Genocide. People in the West are completely ignorant of the expulsion and murder of hundreds of thousands of Turks in the Balkans and Caucasus in the last decades of the 19th Century – often with the connivance and even active support of influential people in Western Europe.

    This embarassing little detail is usually expunged from popular Western histories of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, as indeed is the expulsion of Muslims and wholesale destruction of Mosques in Greece which paralleled the expulsion of Christians from Anatolia post-1922.

    Westerners may forget these facts – but Turks don’t, especially the millions whose grandparents and great-grandparents arrived as refugees from Bosnia or Thessaloniki or Circassia. Fail to understand that and you fail to understand what shapes Turkish views of the outside world today.

    Secondly, don’t forget that Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to set up a joint Turkish-Armenian history to study the genocide question last year, and was rebuffed out of hand by the Armenian government, and even more firmly by the Armenian diaspora in France and the USA. There is no question that the Turkish military and Kurdish irregulars murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent Armenians and Assyrians in what is now Eastern Turkey during World War One. However, the exact circumstances are far from clear cut, especially when one considers that many of the Western sources were actively trying to whip up anti-Central Powers feeling during WW1 (Arnold Toynbee’s Blue Book) or were written by people who had a long history of anti-Muslim bias in the Near East (Henry Morgenthau).

    Not that the Turks can’t be deeply stupid in all this – they can. But it takes two to tango and steps like this one taken by the French parliament do not exactly help resolve the situation. Quite apart from the stupidity of having parliaments act as arbiters of historiography and the free speech implications.

    There is no such thing as true history, but as an old fashioned believer in the Socratic method I would hope through open debate and rigorous contestation that one can get closer and closer to it. This stupid law makes me want to stand outside the Asemblee Nationale with a sign saying “Ermeni Soykirimi yoktu”.

  • Greenflag

    Let’s see how the Turks face up to an independent Kurdistan on their south eastern borders after the Iraqi debacle ? If the Turks accept an independent Kurdistan and transfer majority Kurdish areas in eastern Turkey to a new Kurdish State then I for one would ‘welcome ‘ Turkey into the EU . The Turks have come a long way but they still have some baggage left over from the Ottoman days – And not just Armenia .

    Post World War one when the Ottoman Empire was dissolved -fell apart -some of the European countries surrounding Turkey wanted to dismember Turkey – The Greeks wanted to take most of western Turkey including Anatolia -the Italians also were making demands not to mention Russians etc .

    Turks fortunately found a leader in Kemal Attaturk whose military prowess persuaded the imperial powers to leave Turkey intact .

    The last thing they wanted to do said one far seeing European diplomat at the time was to set the Islamic world in turmoil and have war between Christians and Muslims for a thousand years.

    He got that right 🙁

  • mickhall


    As much as it pains me to say it, any independent Kurdish state that included the Kurds who live in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey would implode into violent civil war within months if not weeks of it coming into being. Not only would you have the Kurdish political parties fighting for power, you would have the powerful families, Kurdish gangsters and the surrounding powers stoking the flames.

    Many of these factions differ economically and politically and the rest would want to get their hands into the cash-point a la Iraq of western aid money. All this would be on top of the fact that few of the many differing Kurdish’s peoples speak the same language. Thus I do not feel a Kurdish independent State is a viable option. The idea was probable thought up by some foreign office bod to destabilize the unfriendly governments in the region

    In any case there is not a hope of any Turkish government giving independence to the Kurdish people who live in south east Turkey; and incidentally a great many of the Kurds may not wish it, unless it was forced upon them.

    Perhaps to begin with there best option would be a form of autonomy for the Kurdish regions of Turkey, if this worked out, then independents if they wished for it could be put on the agenda at a latter date.
    Before we wish independence on the Kurds, would any of us really like to be governed by the likes of the PKK and Abdullah Ocalan.

    Although without its approx 20 million Kurds, Turkey would look a much more attractive proposition to many people in Brussels, it is a wonder some ars—– at EU head-quarters have not reminded the Turks of this.

  • Fanny

    “There is no question that the Turkish military and Kurdish irregulars murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent Armenians and Assyrians in what is now Eastern Turkey during World War One.”

    Thank you, Sammy Morse, for remembering the Assyrians. Most do not. In fact, most people I’ve met were convinced they had died out along with Babylon and Nineveh.

    This gap in general knowledge is proof, if proof were needed, that a propaganda war can easily be won. Let’s hope the Armenians don’t go the same route.

  • andy

    Mick Hall
    Thoughtful words but I think the Kurds should have the right to be governend by their own incomopetent politicians rather than Turkish, Syrian or Iranian ones. That sais – it would be interesting to know how muchof a true yearnign for independence there is from Kurds around the region.

    re: Attatuturk. My understanding was that he condemned the Armenian genocide (I think he termed them massacres).I used this fact to save myself being thrown out of a taxi by a Turkish Cypriot taxi driver recently. I had stupidly raised the Armenian issue with him.

    One unfortunate combination of these two issues is that a lot of the actual massacres of Armenians were perpetrated by Kurds.

  • Thank you, Sammy Morse, for remembering the Assyrians.

    Having been a guest of the Assyrians in their last remaining toehold in South Eastern Turkey, I will always remember the Assyrians, hospitable, intelligent, thoughtful people who history left stranded in a dangerous borderland where they have repeatedly been shat upon by the great powers of the region.

    That sais – it would be interesting to know how muchof a true yearnign for independence there is from Kurds around the region.

    I wouldn’t even begin to pretend I knew enough about Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds (not to mention the little pockets of Kurds scattered between Armenia and Afghanistan). I do know Turkish Kurdistan fairly well, though, and it’s a difficult question to answer.

    The Kurdish population of Turkey is around 20-25%, while the main Kurdish nationalist party has traditionally polled between 6% and 8% of the vote. And even it has now jumped into a collective with various ethnically Turkish far-left parties.

    Some overwhelmingly Kurdish areas are contentedly assimilated into the Turkish Republic, while others are staunchly nationalist – for example, travelling the 150km or so from Urfa to Diyarbakir one crosses a political faultline, for example. It’s probably fair to say that most Kurds see their future as lying within the Turkish Republic, particularly if progress on linguistic and cultural freedom continues to be made, but a significant minority regard Turkey as nothing more than a foreign imperialist state, especially when you get up into the mountains.

    The whole situation is complicated by the huge movement of population from Turkish Kurdistan to the big cities of Western and Southern Turkey – Istanbul now has more Kurds than any other city in the world. For example, Kurdish nationalist DEHAP polled a much bigger vote in the booming Adana-Mersin metropolitan area on the Mediterranean coast, for example, than it did in some of the assimilated Kurdish regions like Adiyaman or Elazig, in the last Turkish general election.

    Drawing a border between a Kurdish state and Turkey would also be a nightmarish proposition – there isn’t a clear ethnic boundary line and there is a deep zone of East-Central and North Eastern Turkey where Kurdish, Turkish and mixed villages abut one another, even before you look at some of the smaller ethnic groups like the Zaza and the Hemshin. The PKK talk a good game of equality, but then so did Atatürk in 1920. And then there’s the potential conflict between the largely Alevi or secular Sunni population in the mountains and in Diyarbakir City and the deeply conservative Sunni population down on the plains.

    Personally, I don’t think an independent Kurdish state taking in a single square kilometre of Turkish territory is a starter. Which is all the more reason why the Erdogan government needs to continue the progress it has made on linguistic and cultural freedom. Unfortunately, its own inexperience, hardline spooks in the Turkish military establishment and the no surrender faction of the PKK have seen that process derailed.

    Oh, and there’s the other problem with Turkish Kurdistan – too many people are doing too well from it being in the mess it’s in at the moment. Too bad for the poor sod trying to scrape a living in a Mardin shanty town, but hey, that’s politics.

  • crataegus

    Sammy Morse

    Thanks very interesting.

  • mickhall

    Sammy M,

    Yes from me to cheers, any thoughts on that 10% ceiling a party needs to get into parliament.

    Best regards

  • Greenflag

    Sammy M, mickhall,

    Thanks for the ‘enlightening post ‘ and the background . Any Kurdish State is likely to emerge first in Iraq . Which is why the Turks are so ‘sensitive’ to internal divisions in the present Iraqi State . Visitors to Iraq on it’s north western border now see Kurdish flags when they cross the frontier not Iraqi flags . The Kurds have been ‘unfortunate ‘ in their geographical location in relation to the old Ottoman Empire and more importantly as regards the ‘map drawing’ skills of the former colonial powers . Could be reminiscent of parts of the world not too far from here – the former Yugoslavia , and indeed the present NI.

    The Kurdish ‘area’ in Iraq has been the most ‘stable’ since Saddam was removed . The Americans and British have largely left the Kurds to themselves while they try to moderate the sectarian war between Sunni’s and Shiites across the rest of Iraq .

    An independent Kurdistan is probably inevitable. Bringing in Kurdish minorities into such a State from neighbouring States in a peaceful manner probably not .

  • Mick – the 10% threshold is undemocratic (and was brought in solely to stop the Kurds), but arguably no more undemocratic than the current British electoral system. It’s unlikely to change in the short term, though.

    Greenflag – the Northern Iraqi Kurds (the liberation of whom was allegedly one of the reasons we went into Iraq in the first place) had been [i]de facto[/i] independent since the creation of the no-fly zones anyway so it’s hardly a surprise that they’ve continued to make a reasonable fist of it.

    The two potential problems they have are – Jalal Talabani’s PUK and Massoud Barzani’s KDP still hate each other in true Monty Python fashion; and that Kirkuk still has the potential to explode in everybody’s faces – possibly in a way that would bring Turkish troops on to the scene to ‘defend the Turkmen community’ in Kirkuk. The world just does not want to go there, believe me.

    Two years or so ago the Turks were starting to make serious overtures to Talabani about how to handle relations between the Turkish Republic and any Northern Iraqi Kurdish state whose autonomy would verge on independence; unfortunately the breakdown of the PKK ceasefire seems to have swept all that off the table.

    Which is a pity, because those discussions desperately need to be held, as I can’t see how the Iraqi Kurds are going to see their long term future being in a civil war-wracked failed state.

  • abucs


    seeing as how America was wanting to have a presence in the middle east and build up a democratic state there along ‘Western lines’ how do you think it would have panned out going in and and making a greater Kurdistan that democratic state ? (Non Turkish but including the oil rich area of Kirkuk).

    Would the US have actually got some support and long term influence in the region that they were looking for ?

    (Of course that would be leaving all morals aside, as with just about all invasions, but that seems to be the present state of affairs anyway. My question is only from a strictly tactical viewpoint).

  • [i]how do you think it would have panned out going in and and making a greater Kurdistan that democratic state ?[/i]

    If your talking about a **greater** Kurdistan – wow! From the very start the US would have to antagonise an important ally – Turkey – and then take some territory from either Iran (not hugely feasible militarily) or Syria. A bit of a non-starter, I would think.

    On the other hand, if you mean giving financial and other support to the idea of an independent ‘Haremi Kurdistan’ based on the Northern Iraq no fly zone – difficult but a lot less difficult than anything else the US has tried in the Middle East. There would need to have been some fancy diplomatic footwork with the Turks but it would have been possible given Turkey’s EU ambitions – not guaranteed, but possible, especially if Talabani and Barzani could be leaned on to turf out the PKK.

    Then your problem becomes arming and supplying your allies – you may be able to batter and bribe the Turks into sullen acquiescence, but no more than that and Haremi Kurdistan’s other neighbours are at that point Saddam’s Iraq, Iran and Syria. Not the easiest supply line in the world.

    I think the only foreign policy advice I would give to the United States is the old chestnut saying: You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

  • Byzant

    Making denial of the Armenian genocide a crime is a fundamental breach of basic human rights. So, for that matter, is making denial of the Holocaust a criminal offence. Thank heavens neither restrictions apply in these parts.