From National Post, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, by Jonathan Kay, Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
This week, a Turkish court approved a criminal indictment against four former Israeli military commanders for their alleged role in the deaths of nine Turkish activists who were trying to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza in 2010. The indictment calls for between 8,000 and 18,000 life sentences for each of the Israeli men.
That’s a lot of life sentences — especially given last year’s UN report concluding that, while Israel had used excessive force against the knife- and club-wielding Turkish jihadis, the blockade itself was perfectly legal.
As an arithmetic experiment, imagine if the Israeli military had done something truly monstrous — comparable, for instance, to what the Ottoman Turks did to the Armenians during World War I and the years that followed. How many life sentences do you hand out to the killers of over a million innocent people? (Extrapolating from the flotilla indictments above, the figure I come up with is over a billion.)
Alas, those WWI-era Ottoman killers have long since given up this earthly vale of tears. Many died in their beds — unlike the Armenian men and women who perished from exposure or starvation, clutching their children’s bodies, during their forced marches through the Anatolian hinterlands.
As it happens, a new book on this historical episode — The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, by Clark University professor Taner Akçam — landed in my mailbox a few months back. According to the publishers, Princeton University Press, Akçam is the first scholar of Turkish origin to publicly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.
Till now, Akçam’s work has been taboo in Turkey. But given the recent flotilla indictments, it would seem the Turks are exhibiting a newfound zeal for litigating the crimes of the past. What better time to crack open Akçam’s book?
The first theme that jumps out from The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity is the obsessive zeal with which the Turks of the early 20th-century sorted the Anatolian population by religion and ethnicity. Christians — Greek and Armenian alike — were singled out for special scrutiny. But even non-Turk Muslims were seen as suspect. Millions of Kurds, for instance, were ethnically cleansed from certain regions in a bid to weaken their political claims — a legacy of persecution that continues to this day.
“In order to reform the Kurdish element and transform it into a constructive entity, it is necessary to immediately displace and send [Kurds] to the assigned places in Anatolia,” reads one 1916 telegram cited by Akçam. “In the place of resettlement, the sheikhs, leaders and mullahs will be separated from the rest of the tribe and sent to different districts … to places where they will be unable to maintain relations with other members.”
The overarching demographic goal of the Ottoman Turks prior to WWI was what Akçam calls “the 5% to 10% rule”: Officials sought to cleanse each region of the country such that resettled non-Turk groups would constitute not more than one-in-20 or one-in-10 within the larger population. One way to meet this mathematical threshold was through massive, long-range population transfers.
Another strategy, implemented as World War I unfolded, was outright extermination: Cadavers didn’t count toward the 5-to-10 quota.
The process by which Ottoman officials and generals used military exigencies as a pretext for annihilating large swathes of the Armenian population was complex. Readers looking for the details will find them in chapters five through eight of Akçam’s book, along with the names of the men responsible. But it is the anecdotes that stand out in a reader’s memory, such as this one, quoted from a 1918 debate in the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies:
“There was a county head in the military district. He loaded the Armenians onto a caïque on the pretext of sending them off to Samsun [by boat] and then dumping them into the sea. I heard that the governor [of the province of Trebizond] Cemal Azmi performed this act personally … As soon as I arrived [in Istanbul], I told the interior minister those things that I had seen and heard … But I was unable to persuade him to take any action … I tried over a period of perhaps three years, but it was not to be. They would claim it [had happened in] the war zone, [and] say things like this.”
Almost a century later, Turkish officials still “say things like this” when confronted with evidence of the Armenian Genocide. The country’s formal position is that the Armenians endured a mere “relocation” exercise during a period when they were suspected of comprising a pro-Russian fifth-column threat. Five years ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan asked his government officials to use the phrase “1915 Events” to describe the Armenian Genocide — which is kind of like referring to the Jewish Holocaust as “that thing that happened in the early 1940s.”
Many nations and ethnic groups whitewash their own history. Russian school textbooks underplay the crimes of Stalin. And Chinese officials are scandalized whenever someone mentions the atrocities against Falun Gong practitioners. But unlike Turkey, these nations generally do not posture as guardians of human rights and international law.
If Turkey presumes to lecture Israel or anyone else on these subjects, it could start with a frank admission of the horrors that Turks themselves perpetrated against Armenians and other minorities. Even then, the Turkish case against Israel would have little merit. But at least, it wouldn’t stink of hypocrisy.