Today’s Zaman, Turkey
April 25 2010
End of the Ottoman Empire, end of tolerance
`The first casualty when war comes is truth,’ proclaimed Hiram
Johnson, a US senator, in the first decade of the 20th century.
However, with the advent of the profession of spin doctors, that
particular virtue has not fared so well in peacetime either.
One of the great arguments that Turkey has been embroiled in over the
last century, and which has continually reared its ugly head in its
foreign policy and international relations, is the question of the
truth of what happened to the Armenian minority during World War I and
its aftermath. One extreme in the argument claims a systematic
extermination stemming from clear political will, which amounts to
genocide. The other extreme claims either that there were no deaths,
or that those that happened were as a result of a sick and hungry
people marching back to their homeland.
The truth lies hidden in the mists of time, but the tentacles of this
event stretch to this day, even affecting US-Turkish relations every
time the House debates the issue. French-Turkish entente has also been
seriously strained over the last 20 years by the genocide debate and
issues of compensation. The border between Turkey and Armenia is
closed, leading to losses of millions of dollars of trade. There is
Academics, politicians and diplomats all come to the issue with their
own measure of bias. The debate often revolves around tit-for-tat
claims: Why discuss this for 90 years when massacres of Turks by
Greeks or Armenians are ignored? Or on discussing whether Armenians
even died in eastern Turkey during those years. To be honest, many in
Turkey just believe it is another stick which Europe and America can
beat them with any time they wish to make their Muslim ally and
eastern flank of NATO fall into line.
I am a great fan of legal dramas on television. It seems to me, as a
layman, that in both the UK and the US, the difference between a
charge of manslaughter and murder is that for murder, the prosecution
must prove (beyond reasonable doubt, of course) that there was clear,
pre-meditated intent to kill. By extrapolation, international law is
similar. For the charge of genocide, there does not just have to be
proof that many thousands died, but this was a premeditated,
systematic attempt by one party to destroy another nation.
This tends to be the focus of the debate for scholars Heath Lowry and
Justin McCarthy, whose views — that although countless Armenians
died, so did many Muslims, and this was not as a result of genocide,
but civil war in the aftermath of world war — have attracted harsh
criticism. They are generally accused of denying the genocide, being
in the pay of the Turkish government, using the same arguments as
those who deny the Holocaust, following a Turkish nationalistic agenda
and of revising history.
The latter charge is interesting. The phrase `revising history’ has
both positive and negative connotations. The two positive aspects of
revisionist history are:
* Re-examining the past through a different lens of social or
* Correcting the record of past events through checking facts.
However, the phrase is used by McCarthy’s detractors to mean its
* An intentional effort to falsify or skew past events for specific motives.
The way we look at history in general, and revisionist history in
particular, is complicated by the fact that people’s identities are
strongly linked to their histories; challenging long-held claims about
past events always draws criticism and controversy. The field itself
isn’t cut and dry — revisionist historians work from different
`The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire’ by McCarthy is a
fascinating account of how the Ottoman Empire came to be broken up and
an examination of how its peoples have fared since. Much more than
just a debate on the Armenian issue, McCarthy’s work covers the whole
swathe of land around the Ionian, Aegean and Mediterranean seas which
was Ottoman: from the former Yugoslavia right round to northern Africa
and extending eastwards to the Persian Gulf.
McCarthy’s main premises are that firstly the Ottoman Empire did not
end of its own accord, it was broken up by other territory and
power-hungry states, and secondly that fall of the empire meant the
end of a unifying force and the tolerance that meant people of various
religious and ethnic groups could live together in harmony. The
peoples of the old Ottoman Empire have not necessarily fared well
since then, he observes.
The epithet of `Sick Man of Europe’ was applied to the Ottoman Empire
by its political enemies. According to McCarthy’s research, most of
what was written in Europe about the Ottoman Empire was the result of
one (or all!) of three prejudices: political prejudice (imperialism or
nationalism), racism (belief in European supremacy, fear of `the
other’) or religious prejudice (fear of Islam). McCarthy maintains
that `the Ottoman Empire was not sick. It was wounded by its enemies
and finally murdered.’
These enemies were both within and without the empire. `Rebellion and
nationalism in the Balkans is not unconnected from greater European
politics. These rebellions were only successful because they were
supported by foreign powers, especially Austria and Russia.’
`Ottoman people lived with and among each other, not in homogeneous
enclaves.’ The creation of ethnically homogeneous states in Greece and
Serbia in the 1870s involved some ethnic cleansing, McCarthy says.
Foreign powers `ignored Turkish deaths, condemning their atrocities.’
This pattern continues, he writes.
In `The Ottoman Peoples,’ McCarthy presents a number of fascinating
case studies: the attitudes of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia as they
each claimed part or all of Macedonia for themselves; the creation of
the state of Armenia, the Paris Peace Conference, the division of the
Arab world and the recreation of Turkey.
On the Arab question McCarthy concludes that `had they known that
European control awaited them, the Arabs would have wanted the old
Ottoman Empire to survive.’ Theoretical states were drawn up by the
Europeans using maps, regardless of economic and social realities. The
creation of Lebanon and Syria by the French is an example, he says, of
the divide and rule policies pursued. `In the end, the Europeans’
policy failed in perpetuating European rule, but it did have a great
effect in perpetuating divisions that served as the basis for future
AtatÃ¼rk and the new Turkish Republic gain praise for the way the
nation was rebuilt after the ravages of war. `It is impossible to
appreciate properly the real difficulties facing the Turks or to
evaluate their success in meeting them, unless one understands the
desolate state of Turkey at the beginning of the Turkish Republic.’
Ottoman rule is famous for its religious tolerance. In the empire the
various religious and ethnic groups lived happily side-by-side. The
carnage in the former Yugoslavia, recent history in Iraq and terrorist
activities committed in the name of the Kurdish people have shown us
that this harmony can be destroyed once a power vacuum is created.
McCarthy summarizes this antithesis of tolerance by saying `it is not
the heritage of Ottoman rule that has been seen in modern ethnic and
religious conflict in the Middle East and the Balkans.’ Unlike his
comments on the Armenian issue, few would disagree with him here.
`The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire,’ by Justin McCarthy,
published by Bloomsbury Academic / Arnold, 22 pounds in paperback
25 April 2010, Sunday
MARION JAMES Ä°STANBUL