Camel greeting

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Combating Terrorism –and treating Turkey right

I paid a visit to the US Consulate in Istanbul recently. I’d heard about it, but this was my first visit to the new location. It’s an impressive building, if a little out of place, its stark minimalist architectural bulk rising over the modest apartment blocks and roadside stalls of backstreets Istinye.

The US Consulate in Istinye, Istanbul
I was reminded of the previous consular building in Şişhane, in the heart of the city’s old European district of Galata/Beyoğlu. Like its neighbours, it was a 19th century structure of the belle époque – built on a more human scale, considerably more accessible, and infinitely less intimidating than its modern replacement. Perhaps its best feature, as far as I was concerned, was the library, which was open to the public. In my early days in Istanbul, in the mid-90s, before the Internet created a research centre on my desktop, an English language library was a pearl without price.

There was another such library, a few hundred metres up the road near the Galatasaray High School, part of the facilities provided by the British Council, in their mission to bring the English language to nations in need. That one too has gone, both of them victims, not human, but sad losses nonetheless, of the terror that struck the Western world in the early years of the new millennium.  In addition to the suicide plane attacks in New York and Washington DC, there were bombings on public transport in Madrid and London. In Istanbul, two synagogues, the British Consulate and the headquarters of HSBC Bank were targeted.

The Istanbul buildings were high profile locations, and the dead included six Jewish people, as well as the British Consul-General himself. The HSBC Bank was an iconic new tower in a particularly public spot on a main thoroughfare in Istanbul’s financial district. The force of the explosion blew off most of the white marble and green glass that were a feature of the façade – and the denuded concrete skeleton remained a grim reminder of the attacks for nearly seven years.

It seemed that the terrorists had focused particularly on foreign nationals in Istanbul, so we can understand why the British and Americans were somewhat nervous. The Americans, in fact, had already moved four months earlier to their impregnable fortress some distance from the metropolitan heart of the city – which probably saved them from featuring among the targets. The British decided to stay where they were – no doubt reluctant to leave what must surely be one of the most expensive and desirable pieces of real estate in a city rich in such treasures. They did, however, take the precaution of building a seriously high wall around the perimeter of Pera House’s four hectares of elegant lawns and sculptured gardens.

The British Council had continued operating their library, English teaching and teacher training programmes from a conveniently located building in the historic area of Beşiktaş, beside the Bosporus. After the bombings, they moved across the road to the second floor of the five-star Conrad Hotel. I did visit them there once or twice, negotiating, with some difficulty, hotel security and a labyrinth of corridors – but I was not altogether surprised to hear that they had closed down their Istanbul operation, one assumes, from lack of suitably determined customers. I checked out their UK website recently, under the ‘What We Do’ heading, and I found this:

Creating international opportunities and building trust
The British Council creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide.
We call this cultural relations.
We have offices in more than 100 countries and territories and are active in many more.
Cultural, diplomatic and economic benefit for the UK
We create long-term relationships that provide cultural, diplomatic and economic benefit for the UK.
We provide access to the UK’s assets (language, arts, education and society), especially in big and emerging markets, as well as opportunities for millions of people to engage in global dialogue.
We are operationally independent from the UK government, which enables us to build trust on the ground in places and with people where relationships with our country, society and values are strained.
We place the UK at the heart of everything we do. We are working for the UK where it matters.

Well, clearly Turkey is not one of those one hundred countries where the British Council have an office, nor even one of the ‘many more’ in which they are particularly active. My attempts to locate them online turned up a PO Box in the Turkish capital, Ankara, an Istanbul telephone number, a web address that connects to the British Consulate (despite their ‘operational independence’), and a Google map with a flag which, on closer inspection, announces ‘This address does not belong to the British Council Istanbul office’.

Anyway, that’s the British Council, a non-profit-making, non-governmental organisation, with no particular obligation to risk life and limb in the establishment of cultural relations. But what about the British Government itself? Their diplomatic representatives in Istanbul used to hold an annual fete in the grounds of their palatial Beyoğlu Consulate to raise money for charitable causes. Tickets were sold at the gate on a Saturday in early summer. Hundreds of Turks and ex-pats took advantage of the opportunity to shop for second hand clothes and books, rummage for treasures at the white elephant stall, partake of tea and scones, and generally immerse themselves for a few hours in a moderately authentic English ambience. Sadly, no longer. The fete continues, but tickets must be purchased weeks in advance, from limited, user-unfriendly outlets, and the occasion these days hardly warrants the effort required.

Again, you may say, so what? The staff of a General Consulate have more important business than providing entertainment and cheap shopping opportunities for down-at-heel locals and itinerant back-packers.  But what business? There used to be an office attached to the Consulate which carried out passport renewal and visa-issuing services. After the bombing, these services were outsourced to a Turkish company whose premises were located across the Bosporus on the Asian side of the city. Last year I heard from an English colleague that even this minimal service had ceased. Check it out for yourself - British residents in Turkey are now required to apply to the United Kingdom’s Regional Passport Processing Centre in . . . Dusseldorf, Germany! I wonder what the Queen thinks about that as she celebrates her 60th year on the British throne. If she happens to pass by the churchyard of St Martins in Bladon, Oxfordshire, she may well hear the rattling of Winston Churchill’s bones as he stirs restively in his grave.

Nevertheless, you can understand the Brits wanting to stay. Pera House was purpose-built as the British Embassy in Istanbul in 1844, at a time when Queen Victoria’s Empire was well into its century of world domination. The Ottoman Empire was still staggering along, but undoubtedly under the contesting thumbs of the European Great Powers, all of which maintained grand ambassadorial palaces in this ‘City of the World’s Desire’[1]. You can appreciate their initial incomprehension and disbelief when the Turkish Nationalists emerged victorious from their War of Independence and declared the establishment of a new republic in 1923, with its capital in the dusty Anatolian town of Ankara, effectively side-lining the Ottoman Sultan and his government in Istanbul. We can perhaps imagine the European victors of the Great War growing increasingly frustrated as the fledgling republic stubbornly refused to collapse and disappear into a historical footnote.

So the Brits are still there, in that Beyoğlu palace, though heaven knows what they do. The Germans, the Russians and the French similarly maintain architectural reminders of their former imperial grandeur, although their ambassadors and associated staff have long since relocated to Ankara. Still, Istanbul remains by far Turkey’s largest city, its commercial, financial and historical heart, and continues to attract foreign companies and capital investment, huge numbers of short-term tourists and significant numbers of more serious travellers, financing their wanderings by selling their God-given gift of the English language to the EFL industry. There are even some of us who find the country and people so attractive that we elect to make a new life here. Clearly, then, there is a need for consular services. The Americans at least recognise this. Their Istinye fortress may be intimidating, and their demand for payment in Yankee dollars a little arrogant, but at least they provide a face-to-face service.

Now, you may think I’m being unnecessarily critical here. After all, as we noted above, there were four very unpleasant bombing attacks on foreign interests in Istanbul back in 2003, and the British Consul-General himself was killed. Of course the countries concerned will be wary of exposing their people to repeat attacks. It’s a natural response. However, let’s take a look at some statistics:

The final list of casualties in the Istanbul bombings totalled 57 dead and around 700 injured. Most of those killed and injured in the attacks, were, in fact, Turkish Muslims, despite the fact that the perpetrators were apparently Al Qaeda affiliates. Those numbers are comparable to the 2005 incidents in London, when bombs in the Underground and on a double-decker bus resulted in 52 deaths and approximately 700 injured. They are somewhat less than the toll in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which 191 died and 1800 were injured.

The September 11 attacks in the US resulted in 2996 deaths. I have not been able to find the number of injured persons, and I wouldn’t want to speculate. My purpose is not to compare or belittle the scale of grief and suffering caused by these terrorist attacks. What concerns me is that, generally, the response of governments to such events is a determination not to be intimidated, and to return to business as usual as soon as possible. The Assembly of Turkish American Associations records 27 attacks by Armenian terrorists on Turkish embassies and consulates abroad in the 1970s and 80s, in which 21 diplomats and other Turkish nationals were killed. As far as I am aware, the Turkish Government has continued to provide services to Turkish and foreign nationals in those cities.

I have lived in Istanbul for fifteen years, and I have travelled much in the rest of the country. I have to say that I feel safer on the streets of this city of thirteen million, than in my own hometown of Auckland, with a tiny fraction of the population. In no public toilet in Istanbul have I seen a box for the disposal of used syringes, such as are commonplace and unremarked in Sydney, Australia. As a high school teacher in New Zealand twenty years ago, I had to cope with students who would return to class after a lunch break spent convivially toking a joint in a distant corner of the playing fields. My Turkish students of the 21st century are refreshingly and touchingly innocent by comparison. Street crime can, of course, be a problem in certain parts of town, and sensible caution should be exercised in venturing down back streets in seedier areas – but race-based gangs are nowhere in evidence, and unruly public drunkenness is a rare sight.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Brits and the Americans. This is a dangerous part of the world. Every Turkish male is required to do a stint in the armed forces – and one look at a map of the region will be sufficient to understand why. Starting with Greece in the west, and working our way in a clockwise direction, we see Turkey’s adjoining neighbours as: Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Without even considering the Middle Eastern states, as recently as the 1980s, Bulgaria was ethnically-cleansing Muslim Turks; and the Greeks have never forgiven them for the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Resentments run deep in this part of the world, and violence for the sake of religion, nationalism or political interests is an ever-present threat.

Democracy and internal security are goals to which (one hopes) we all aspire, but which exist nowhere in their purest forms. Undoubtedly, Turkey needs to work on issues of human rights, freedom of speech and equality of opportunity. At the same time, Western nations should recognise the value of Turkey as an outpost of genuine democratic aspiration and economic and political stability in a part of the world desperately in need of an example locals can identify with. Adhering to ancient prejudices of the Islamic and Turkic world as ‘other’, and treating Turkey as some kind of international pariah will, in the long run, have a negative impact on the West.

What can be done? As a New Zealand citizen, I feel like an honoured guest in Turkey. When I and my compatriots enter the country, we breeze through passport control and immigration without requiring any kind of visa or payment. When I see the hoops the NZ government requires Turks to jump through, even to visit as tourists, I feel more than a little shame. Especially when I see a wealthy young German, with a history of cyber-crime, welcomed with open arms. Some kind of reciprocal visa deal with Turkey would be nice gesture. The US Government might like to consider that accepting Turkish Liras as payment for consular services in Turkey will not unduly compromise their national security or international prestige. The British Government, for their part, might give thought to assisting or encouraging the British Council to re-establish library facilities in Istanbul – in the interests of fostering cultural relations.

[1] Constantinople -
City of the World's Desire 1453-1924 
By Philip Mansel

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Armenian Massacres – and the nationalism of hate

A large crowd gathered in Taksim Square, Istanbul, on Saturday 25 February to commemorate the 20th anniversary of an event they were calling the Khojaly Massacre. Evidently there were some unruly elements, and among the placards there were a few thinly veiled threats against Armenians and locals who might be inclined to sympathise with them. A little unpleasant, but you get that kind of stuff at any demonstration, right?

Still, you’d have to be curious about the event, wouldn’t you – the Khojaly Massacre? What’s that all about? Well, I can tell you, the incident occurred back in 1993 during the local war that had broken out between neighbouring states, Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The problem apparently was/is that, despite being located within the borders of Azerbaijan, the area has a majority Armenian population, which provided the Armenian government with a reason for sending in troops and annexing it.

Unfortunately, as in any war, the casualties included not a few civilians, and the bloodiest incident took place in or around the town of Khojaly. Needless to say, accounts vary according to whether you’re listening to the Armenian or the Azeri side of the story – how many women and children were slaughtered, how it was done, and what was done to them beforehand. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Nagorno-Karabakh became a pseudo-independent state sponsored by Armenia, and the Azeris remain pretty unhappy about it.

Now, you may or may not know that Turkey and Azerbaijan have a kind of big brother-little brother relationship. Azeris speak a Ural-Altaic language that is the nearest relative in the world to Turkish. If you speak Turkish, you can watch Azeri television, get a few patronising laughs, and understand about 60-70% of what they’re talking about. Accordingly, in a show of solidarity with their smaller sibling, the Turkish government closed the border they share with Armenia. ‘So what?’ you may think. Armenians don’t love Turks that much. They’re probably happy to have a closed border. But take a look at a map. Armenia is a tiny, land-locked country, surrounded by some pretty shady, even dangerous, neighbours. Ironically, Turkey is probably the least threatening among them, and certainly provides the most stable and direct route to the west for goods and people travelling in and out of Armenia.

In the last two or three years, the Turkish government has indicated a readiness to engage in negotiations with their Armenian neighbours, with a view to reopening the border. However, they are insisting on the need for a fair and reasonable settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue – and that the Armenians back off a little on their ‘genocide’ claims. Surprisingly, as far as the actual nation of Armenia is concerned, the latter issue is less of a problem than the former. Most of the noise about an alleged Armenian holocaust originates in the diaspora. Local Armenians seem much more inclined to employ the soft pedal. Gwynne Dyer, a historian and journalist who has made a study of the issues has this to say:

For Armenians abroad, making the Turks admit that they planned and carried out a genocide is supremely important. Indeed, it has become a core part of their identity. For most of those who are still in Armenia, getting the Turkish border re-opened is a higher priority. Their poverty and isolation are so great that a quarter of the population has emigrated since the border was closed [in 1993], and trade with their relatively rich neighbour to the west would help to staunch the flow.

Vartan Harutiunian a writer and human rights activist in Armenia, and political prisoner in the days when Armenia was part of the Soviet empire, has suggested that self-pity and anti-Turkism lie at the heart of Armenian nationalism. ‘The most patriotic Armenian’, he says, ‘is the most anti-Turkish’.

Christopher Sisserian, a freelance journalist and graduate student of International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, has recently published an article entitled Understanding the Importance of a Shared History’. He argues that:

The separation of Armenians and Turks in 1915 is a comparatively recent phenomenon. In order for an understanding to be reached between the two nations regarding the genocide of 1915, it is first necessary to re-discover the history of two peoples living side by side harmoniously for hundreds of years . . . An understanding of this is the first step in re-humanising the relations between the two nations and promoting reconciliation. Armenians and Turks have dehumanized each other, often understandably, in the process of maintaining their separate cultural identities. Armenians learning about the genocide are led to believe all Turks were (and by extension still are) inherently evil, ignoring the many Turks that endeavored to save Armenian lives. Correspondingly, Turks alive today who bear no responsibility for the events of 1915 are incensed by accusations that they are guilty of a crime not committed by them.

There’s a tone of calm, balanced reason there, don’t you think, that is not commonly heard when this issue is discussed? Nationalism has been a two-headed monster since it surfaced as a rationale for political action towards the end of the 18th century. Unscrupulous seekers of power have been all too ready to unleash its forces of unity and aggression to further their own ends. Anatolia and the Balkan lands have been traversed and conquered by so many races and peoples since time immemorial that it is impossible to know who were the aboriginal inhabitants. The search for racial and national purity is futile, yet the very diversity of ethnic and linguistic groups drives a powerful need for identity.

One admission can be readily made. The ancestors of today’s Armenians have been in Anatolia longer than Turks – but relativity is an important factor here. The Seljuk Turks won the victory that allowed them entry into Anatolia[1] around the same time that the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons, and asserted their right to rule England. It would be no easy task these days to separate out the descendants of the Norman invaders and send them back to France.

Even if we accept that the invading Turks rode roughshod over the democratic rights of those who controlled Anatolia at the time, it was the Byzantine Greeks, not the Armenians who were in charge. As far as I can discover, there was a Kingdom of Armenia in ancient times, experiencing a brief Golden Age between 95 and 66 BCE under the rule of Tigranes the Great. Centuries later, there was a period of independence between 884 and 1045 CE, when the Bagratuni dynasty ruled from their capital city of Ani, now an uninhabited ruin located in Eastern Turkey. Apart from those interludes, Armenians have been a conquered people, ruled successively by Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Ottomans and Russians (Imperial and Soviet). Some historians argue that the Ottomans were the kindest and most tolerant of these masters, allowing cultural, religious, linguistic and economic freedom to a privileged people within their imperial borders.

Nevertheless, being a minority people within a dominant culture is not an easy condition to bear. There will always be voices saying that independence and autonomy would bring greater happiness – and who is to say they are wrong? The artist, Mkrtum Hovnatanian (1779-1846), was among the first to foster a consciousness of Armenian traditions and history through his paintings. Mikayel Chamchian, imperial jeweller to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul, wrote a grammar of the Armenian language, and a history of the Armenian people, towards the end of the 18th century. A religious leader and writer, Khrimian Hayrik (Migirdiç Hirimyan), worked to improve the lot of Armenian peasants in eastern Anatolia from the 1860s, and argued for self-determination. Interestingly, he served in Istanbul as Armenian Patriarch for a time, recognised by the Ottoman government, while his appeal to the Berlin Conference in 1878 for European support for Armenian self-determination apparently fell on deaf ears.

From the early 19th century, the Russian Empire fought several wars against Persians and Ottomans, with the aim, as ever, of forging a corridor for themselves to the warm waters of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. To further this aim, it suited them to encourage Armenians in a belief that they had common interests as fellow Christians. Armenians fought on the side of the Russians in the 1820s, and again in the 1870s. In the mid-19th century, Britain and France opposed Russian expansion, and even went to war against them, in support of the Ottomans[2]. Later, however, as Russian chauvinism increased from the 1880s, the Tsarist government began to crack down on Armenian nationalism, closing schools and discouraging use of the language.  It was at this point in history that Armenian revolutionary movements really began to grow, encouraged by the British, who suddenly started to take an interest in their ‘fellow Christians’. The part played by the increasing importance of petroleum in Western economies could make an interesting study, which I do not, however, intend to pursue here.

Suffice it to say that the activities of British and American ‘missionaries’ increased towards the end of the 19th century, in parts of Ottoman Anatolia where many Armenians lived, and subsequently revolts broke out against the Ottoman government. You might want to ask why missionaries were necessary when the Armenians were already Christian, but let’s leave that aside as well. From the 1870s, revolutionary Armenian groups such as the Hunchaks and Dashnaks began to incite and carry out acts of violence. Undoubtedly, something very dreadful befell Armenian people in Anatolia in 1915 – but balanced histories acknowledge that Armenians were not alone in their suffering. Justin McCarthy professor of history at Louisville University, Kentucky, has written much on the subject.

The Hollywood version
What seems clear is that there has been, at the very least, a one-sided presentation of a very complex story, to the severe detriment of Turkey's international reputation. In 1919, shortly after the Armenian tragedy of 1915, Hollywood produced a film, black and white and silent of course, purporting to tell the story of a young Armenian woman who had escaped after horrific experiences in Turkish harems and slave-markets. Stills from this salacious film, ‘Ravished Armenians’, occasionally turn up in literature arguing for recognition of a genocide.

A name that also comes up in this literature is Henry Morgenthau. This gentleman was US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916. Morgenthau was no lover of the Ottomans, and reportedly went somewhat unwillingly to the post. Despite the fact that he was domiciled in Istanbul, and did not visit the troubled areas, preferring to rely on reports for his information, he is frequently quoted from his own writings on Ottoman atrocities. Interestingly, one of Morgenthau’s successors, Admiral Mark Bristol, US High Commissioner to the Ottoman Empire (and later Turkey) from 1919 to 1927, who did take the trouble to visit the area and speak to eyewitnesses, is generally ignored by genocide proponents, probably because he presents a more balanced picture of events. Bristol worked hard to get recognition in the USA for the new Republic of Turkey, and argued:

‘The new regime in Turkey is a most remarkable evidence of a revolution in form and administration of a government. Briefly, an absolute monarchy has been replaced by a republic. Church has been separated from state and religion eliminated from all law codes. Religion of any kind may be taught in the churches and the mosques, but not in the schools. All persons born in Turkey, without regard to race, religion or nationality, have all rights of Turkish citizenship. The Turkish leaders without previous experience must evolve the new administration. There are bound to be mistakes and the evolution will be slow, but there are many evidences of progress’.

An event sometimes cited in anti-Turkish propaganda is the Turkish (more properly Ottoman) Courts Martial of 1919-20. The courts were convened to bring to justice, perpetrators of Ottoman atrocities carried out on Armenians and others. One or two convictions resulted in executions, but most of the charges were eventually dropped. It should not be forgotten that Istanbul was under occupation by British forces at the time, and the Ottoman Sultan with his government were puppets eager to absolve themselves of guilt, to find scapegoats, and to curry favour with the occupying powers.

Between 1973 and 1994, Armenian terrorist organisations (or nationalist activists, if you prefer), such as ASALA, carried out attacks on consulates and embassies in several European and US cities, resulting in the deaths of 42 Turkish diplomats and four foreign nationals. Fifteen Turks and 66 foreign nationals were injured in these incidents. The stated aim was to raise world awareness and support for labelling as genocide the events of 1915.

Writers such as Vahakn Dadrian, Taner Akçam and Richard Hovanissian continue to turn out publications attacking Turkey and demanding the recognition of an Armenian Genocide, despite having been caught out on numerous counts of mistranslation of documents, selective reporting, and misrepresentation of facts.

Most recently, the French government of Nicholas Sarkozy has been trying to proscribe attempts to counter accusations of genocide against Turkey. Striking a blow for justice and democracy, the French Constitutional Council have apparently rejected the draft law as unconstitutional, obliging the French President to return to the drawing-board and reconsider his vote-catching exercise.

The Pandora jar of nationalist ideology was opened more than two centuries ago, and it is way too late now to re-stopper it. Politicians and power-seekers in Turkey and Armenia, in Europe and the Balkans, even in the United States of America, are only too willing to enlist the support of the ignorant and disaffected by employing nationalist rhetoric to arouse hatred and instigate violence against a stereotyped enemy. Organised demonstrations such as the one in Taksim Square serve only to stir up nationalistic fervour and focus aggression. All that remains in the ideological jar is hope – the hope that voices of reason and moderation will prevail, and past wrongs can be forgiven and forgotten. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

[1] The Battle of Manzikert/Malazgırt, 1071 CE
[2] The Crimean War: 1853-6