by Gordon Taylor | 4/09/2009 03:34:00 AM

One treads carefully in the Turkish presence. Turkey is no joke.
--Jan Morris

It's a tough crowd, the Turkish parliament. Say the wrong thing and you'll quickly discover the disadvantages of growing a mustache. The above photograph was taken 21 December 2008 after a Kurdish deputy of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) got up and told his fellow MPs that it was high time for Turkey to face up to the Armenian Genocide of 1915. As a Kurd, of course, he had his motives for this deliberate provocation: he knew that until the Turks confronted the truth about 1915, they would never recognize reality about the Kurds. It was a gutsy move. He, his DTP party colleagues, and millions of other people are still waiting for something other than a fist in the face.

On April 6, in Ankara, Barack Obama faced the same uncertainties. You could see it on the videos: the tiniest dent in that iron assurance we have come to expect of him. Perhaps it was because Michelle, his partner in world conquest, had left him to be with their daughters back home. In any case, he seemed slightly hesitant as he spoke to the Turkish parliament. "Who are these people?" one can almost hear him thinking; or, perhaps he was mesmerized by the sight of all those mustaches. This was not an easy crowd, nothing like those cheerful Europeans in Prague and London, delirious at having found a U.S. President who actually seemed to have a brain in his head. Most of Obama's Ankara speech, said reports, was greeted with silence.

But, to begin with a generalization, it was as good a speech as one could expect, given the occasion. In it nuance, nonsense, diplomacy, and willful disregard of reality found equal expression. Someone from the military-industrial-diplomatic complex worked hard on this text, and it showed.

First, the nonsense. Those who take a jaundiced view of Turkish nationalism can find plenty of it in Obama's words. He began his speech with the usual--a homage to Ataturk, the Republic's founder--by referring to the morning's signal event, the requisite wreath-laying at Fred's tomb. Here his restraint was admirable. At no point did Obama point out the absurdity of a free and quasi-democratic people, a NATO member and EU-aspirant, bowing and scraping before a personality cult that rivals that of Kim il-Sung.

Obama then moved on to the main event: friendly persuasion and flattery. There were references to Turkey's democracy, a dubious concept, as well as to the friendship between our two peoples--which really is a lie, since I doubt that more than five Americans out of a hundred could find Turkey on a map. (Hell, they can't even find their own country!) Here the message was, Let's Cooperate. The two nations, he said, were working together for peace and prosperity, as was appropriate. Obama affirmed U.S. support for Turkey's EU candidacy. (Which he can do because he knows that France and Germany will have the guts to tell them No.) Cliches like Resolute Ally, Responsible Partner, and Bridges Over the Bosphorus were given the requisite airing. Two Turkish basketball players were duly noted. Obama praised the Turks for their progress (non-existent) on penal code reform, as well as for their establishment (scorned by most Kurds) of a TV station broadcasting in Kurdish. This is where it began to get interesting:
These achievements have created new laws that must be implemented, and a momentum that should be sustained. For democracies cannot be static: they must move forward.
In other words, We know that you've passed a few laws. But you have to make them work; otherwise it's just an empty form. (Which is the game, Turkey-watchers know, that the Turks have always played.)
Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people. Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens.
Note: "a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state." This is the toughest sell of all, the idea that the freedoms Turkish officials fear so greatly could actually strengthen their beloved, all-important Turkish State. This is the heart of the matter. And the Halki Seminary? It's an interesting gambit, a reference to a long-closed seminary near Istanbul which the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate desperately needs to have reopened if it is going to sustain itself in its ancient home. If you really become a democracy, Obama is arguing, you become stronger. And upholding minority rights is the key.
I say this as the President of a country that not too long ago made it hard for someone who looks like me to vote. But it is precisely that capacity to change that enriches our countries. Every challenge that we face is more easily met if we tend to our own democratic foundation.
Note: "that enriches our countries"; using the language of inclusion to cajole the listeners into going along. Obama then moved on to admission of past American sins, like slavery, in order to slide into that most treacherous of quicksands, the Turkish treatment of Armenians.
Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. While there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.
No one, I submit, is ever going to make a more diplomatic, nuanced statement about this subject. With this Obama and his speechwriters have slipped through a narrow opening indeed. If the "full and frank exchange of views" of diplomatic doublespeak were taken literally, a visitor might have said, "Grow up, people, and stop being afraid. Yes, the murderers of a million Armenians were your ancestors, but the ordinary Turks who worked to save their Armenian neighbors were also your ancestors, as were the army units which refused to participate, and the Ottoman generals and officials who refused to go along. Ataturk himself called it a 'shameful act.' So what is your problem?" Obama would never have said such a thing, but for what he did say he deserves credit.

So for the Greek patriarchate and the Armenian Genocide, two touchy subjects, we can give Obama decent marks. He went on to make a statement which was, for America's tone-deaf news media, a big deal: "[T]he United States is not at war with Islam." And he made a pitch for Turkey's cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for Turkey's biggest problem, the Kurds, Obama was as silent as a Turk at Easter. True, he had declared himself in favor of "robust minority rights." But in a Turkey defined by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, "minority" does not apply to the Kurds. Unlike Jews, Greeks, and Armenians, 15 million Kurds do not have official "minority" status in Turkey. They are full-fledged citizens, indigenous residents of Anatolia for thousands of years, who have a culture and language that has never been recognized by the Turkish Republic.

In a short meeting with Ahmet Turk, vice-chairman of the DTP and the "grand old man" of Kurdish politics in Turkey, Obama expressed "sympathy" for the Kurds but said what he had to say, that violence was not a solution for the Kurdish problem. As he said this, Turkey's Kurdish provinces were still reeling from the latest outbreaks of police violence, which left two Kurds dead and a Kurdish female deputy of the DTP injured after being beaten by the state's "security forces." Despite these almost daily reports, it is still official U.S. policy that the PKK, which has made repeated offers of negotiation, is a "terrorist group"; and the Turkish government, which rarely sees a head that doesn't deserve beating or an F-16 that isn't worth buying, is a beacon for democracy in the Middle East.

So nothing really has changed. Obama's speech made some intriguing gambits, and the symbolism of meeting with Kurdish MPs, a group that has been shunned up to now, will no doubt resonate; but without straight talk and an abandonment of the lavish armaments contracts that are the true core of Turkish-American relations, nothing ever will change. Like a baby in an iron womb, Turkish democracy has gestated for decades without hope of accouchement. Turkey's governance has always had one goal: to maintain the state and its power. And the pattern continues. For the sake of the all-important State, political parties have been closed, papers shut down, reporters imprisoned, YouTube prohibited, websites darkened, letters of the alphabet proscribed, and thought crimes punished. While murderers of liberals and ethnic minorities, caught red-handed, go unpunished, people who speak the simplest truths are arraigned and convicted within weeks. Inquiries into the most blatant thuggery drag on, without resolution, for years. Judges render verdicts that defy common sense, then retire to drink tea out of tulip-shaped glasses.

And so it goes.

Cross-posted at The Pasha and the Gypsy.

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Blogger AndrewMc on 4/09/2009 8:02 AM:

Wonderful piece-nice breakdown of the speech and its context.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/09/2009 8:28 AM:

I wouldn't say that the US media is "tone deaf" so much as the "not at war with Islam" line was in their upper register -- the right ear -- and they are pretty sure that their audiences couldn't care less about the nuances of Turkey's internal issues and historical consciousness. I did see some reporting on the Armenian thing, as well: another, and I hate this term, but it says exactly what I mean, dog-whistle moment for domestic constituencies.

That said, I do appreciate the analysis. I've learned an immense amount reading your stuff; I still haven't figured out how to transmit it to my students effectively, but the 20th century is coming around again shortly (in the seasons of the semester), so I'll give it another go.


Anonymous KA on 4/10/2009 10:07 AM:

Well done Gordon. The title progressive historian applies well to your thinking style. Despite all the obstacles Turkey creates, progress is inevitable. The main obstacles are the Kurds themselves who are shy about asking for their independece. Progress in thsi regard is inevitable too; it will happen regardless of all the obstacles.



Blogger Gordon Taylor on 4/10/2009 11:15 PM:

Thanks for the kind comments. Obviously I'm a bit of a one-trick pony on this stuff, which accounts for my lack of blogging lately. I don't know how much longer I can repeat the same things.

Ahist, I'm not sure what you're looking for in your classroom, but I recommend a couple of books which will enlighten you a great deal more about that neck of the woods. You may have read them already. They are:
1) Salonica, City of Ghosts, by Mark Mazower; ISBN 0-375-41298-0, and,
2) Twice a Stanger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark. ISBN 978-1-86207-924-3.
Both books are beyond praise, really; for me they opened up a whole universe of stuff that I, who considered himself a little bit knowledgeable, had never heard of before. I've wanted to write reviews of both, but I may never get around to it.

KA, I believe you're right: progress of a kind really is inevitable. People in Turkey have been amazingly resourceful at getting around restrictions, and of course amazingly courageous. I still doubt, however, that Turkey's Kurds will ever want full-scale independence. They're scattered all across Anatolia, and there are even indigenous Kurds who live in the highlands west (WEST!) of Ankara. Why would middle-class, educated Kurds want to be stuck in an independent Kurdistan together with all those peshmergas in Iraq, when they could be citizens of a democratic Turkey and live in a condo in Istanbul or somewhere on the Mediterranean or Aegean?