With a century of practice in the art of denial, Turkey has innovated a clever stratagem to undermine the growing clamor for recognition of the Armenian genocide. During the First World War, according to Turkish officialdom, civilians suffered on all sides. This rationale has become the go-to Turkish response to the argument that the Ottoman government perpetrated genocide against its Christian populations. The recent acknowledgment of the genocide by the Pope and the European Parliament has infuriated Turkey. According to Prime Minister Davutoğlu, “interpreting this suffering in such a one-sided manner recognizes the suffering of one group of human beings, while covering up that of another group.” Turkey disingenuously claims that Armenians have always rejected their offers to establish an impartial historical commission to investigate the archives and decide what really happened. This is sheer hypocrisy.
What Turkey says to the outside world is entirely different from the rhetoric it uses at home. In present-day Turkey, the “Armenian matter” is presented as a genuine danger. Turkish historians still teach about “internal and external threats,” which seek to “destroy the state’s order.” Turkish public understanding of history is shaped, not surprisingly, by the educational system. And Turkish textbooks falsely teach that the reason for the wartime deportations were Armenian organized gangs who “murdered many people living in villages, even children, by attacking Turkish villages, which had become defenseless because all the Turkish men were fighting on the war fronts.” These Armenian “gangs were even killing Armenians who did not join in acts of terror and rebellion,” and even issued instructions that “if you want to survive you have to kill your neighbor first.”
This distorted narrative suggests that the deportations were organized to “secure the lives of the Armenian people” from these gangs. “Since the Armenians who engaged in massacres in collaboration with the Russians created a dangerous situation” for the lives of other Armenians, the Ottoman government organized “the migration of [Armenian people] from the towns they were living in to . . . a safe Ottoman territory.” Another Turkish textbook quotes an alleged document, published in a 1915 Armenian newspaper, exhorting Armenians to “murder at every opportunity” all “Muslims above age 2 who are seen behind army front.” Furthermore, “the food, goods, and property of Muslims shall be confiscated or burned and destroyed” and “[the Armenians] shall burn down their own homes, grains, churches, and pious foundations that they abandon and spread the word that Muslims caused it.”
These hate-filled teachings are not only taught to Turkish students, but are mandated for Armenian children attending Armenian schools in Istanbul. And the US refusal to recognize the slaughter as a genocide reinforces the Turkish regime’s self-denial and allows these falsehoods to flourish. In this cynical game of repudiation, Turkey holds US national security interests hostage. Realpolitik forces the United States to abandon its moral position.
Pitting “national interest” against “morality” as mutually exclusive simply doesn’t work. Any security policy in the Middle East that excludes morality cannot ultimately be a “realistic” policy because it ultimately undermines national security. History and historical injustices have ongoing consequences in the Middle East where the past is the present. Morality is a very real issue, and for realpolitik to be successful in the region, moral values — in this instance, acknowledging historic wrongdoings — must be integrated into a policy of national security.
There is a strong connection between security, democracy, and facing history in the Middle East. Historical injustices and the persistent denial of them by one or another state or ethno-religious group is a major stumbling block, not only for the democratization of the region but also for the establishment of stable relations between different ethnic and religious groups.
Seeing the “Armenian issue” as a risk to domestic and regional security builds rather than diminishes threats. In previous years, the promotion of basic democratic rights, such as equality under the law, social reform, and freedom of speech for the Kurds, were also considered threats to national security. Promoting false national threats created actual security problems for Turkey as it battled Kurdish unrest in a conflict that simmered for more than 30 years. When Turkey acknowledged injustices committed against the Kurds, secured Kurdish democratic rights, and began to find solutions to their problems, the security threat disappeared.
The regional situation is no different. A nondemocratic, authoritarian Turkey creates more of a security problem than it solves when it makes the consistent denial of historical injustices an integral part of its security policy. It is exactly this attitude that delays not only democratization in the region, but also destabilizes relationships in the volatile Middle East. The main problems in the region relate to insecurity felt by ethnic groups towards each other as a result of historical injustices. Kurds, Arabs, Alevis, Armenians, and other Christians perceive Turkey through the prism of history. Persistent denial of the past is not an effective security policy.
If the United States wants to bring security and stability to the region, it should recognize the plight of the Armenians for what it truly was — a genocide. And when it does, perhaps Turkey will revise its textbooks and truly begin to confront the past.
Taner Akçam holds the Kaloosdian and Mugar Chair of Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University. He is the author of many books including “The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity.” His most recent book, with Ümit Kurt, is “The Spirit of the Laws,” which will be published next month. Mary Jane Rein is executive director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.