Akcam: Before Further Escalation in Syria

It looks like the countdown to regime change has begun in Syria. And Turkey may end up having a say in the international intervention that’s likely to occur. Still, Turkey should engage in sober deliberations before getting involved in any outside intervention. From the perspective of Syria and the region, Turkey’s participation will not be perceived or explained as wanting to create free and democratic regimes in the region. One should never forget that the peoples of the region view themselves through a window that’s been framed by the events and perceptions of what has occurred in history.

Erdogan and his wife greet supporters after the 2011 elections in Turkey.

Turkey’s declaration that it will be playing a new role in the region and in the world was made in an address to the nation that followed the elections.[1] When making the declaration, “It’s time to count me in,” all of Turkey’s neighbors and their capital cities were recited one by one. The fact that Armenia and Yerevan were missing from that list was extremely significant. I’m not saying this because of my own personal interest in the subject of Armenia. The key to understanding if Turkey will be able to play a new role can be found from where it fits Armenia (and to that extent Christians) in the policies it will develop for the region. The Iran factor, too, should be added to the mix—Tehran was also not mentioned in the address. The clues to what the AKP’s policy will be in the region will be discovered in the place and role that will be given to the Shia sect, one of Islam’s major branches, along with Christians.

Allow me to formulate AKP’s policy like this: to end the victimization of Islamic societies, viewed as having been oppressed and victimized for centuries, through the adoption of international universal norms. Another way of stating this could be to call it a fight to protect the rights of the Muslim world, which is viewed as having been despised and oppressed by the West, and to raise its status to one of equality with the West, again through the direct adoption of Western norms. In other words, using the Hegelian German term aufheben, to repeal or abrogate the “master­slave” relationship and change the status of the “slaves” into “masters.” If necessary, they will achieve this by defying the West. This back story is instrumental to Erdogan’s tough stance with Israel and his “one minute” insistence at Davos.[2] The great wave of sympathy that was unleashed in Turkey and the region because of that tough stance shows that the AKP has pressed its finger upon a very deep wound.

‘Strike the West with a Western weapon’

The idea is that criticizing the nation-state boundaries that were forced upon the Middle East in accordance with the West’s colonial motives and developing policies of economic and political integration would reunite the fates of all the peoples in the region. In other words, the basis for the AKP’s regional policies is taking the Middle East and reconfiguring it as a kind of “common home” for all its inhabitants. The “zero problems with neighbors”[3] policy is a reflection of this thinking. It would be extremely shallow and shortsighted to conclude that Turkey’s new policies in the region are expansionist and imperialist schemes. One should take a wider perspective when examining them. One could argue that the creation of processes established on humanitarian universal and democratic (i.e., Western) values in the Middle East and of an economic, political, and cultural integration that ignores state boundaries, along the lines of the European Union, would be a very positive goal. The real question, however, is, does Turkey have what it takes, ideologically, politically, and economically, to create such a union in its region? The answer is both yes and no.

‘Crimes against Christianity’

Why “yes”? For this, I would like to point out an interesting and somewhat unknown fact: “Crimes against humanity” is a very important international legal term, used for the first time on May 24, 1915, in connection with the Armenian Genocide. It comprised the moral and legal background for the Nuremberg trials and the more recent Yugoslavian, Rwandan, and other international prosecutions of war crimes. This is common knowledge, but what is not so commonly known is that the expression was first drafted as “Crimes against Christianity.”

Great Britain, Russia, and France had initially defined the crimes committed by the Union and Progress Party (CUP) as “Crimes against Christianity,” but later exchanged the word “Christianity” with “humanity” after considering its possible misinterpretation and the negative reaction it could engender among the Muslim peoples who were under their own dominion at the time. It is as if all of the secrets of the subject being discussed here lay within that word: The revision of the word Christianity to humanity, and those against whom it was used (Unionists and the Ottoman Turks), seems to summarize all of the difficulty faced by the AKP and Turkey today.

The substitution of the word humanity for Christianity is like a short history of the values we accept as humanitarian universal norms. Values like human rights, democracy, etc., are actually the products of the Christian political and cultural world. This world, based on its Greco­Roman roots and the experience of enlightenment, has managed to take many of its own norms and sensitivities and turn them into universal, humanitarian values. One could view the history of humankind, to some extent, as a journey from Christian-specific values towards the creation of values that are universal to humanity. Nevertheless, it is completely understandable why this journey has been perceived by the Muslim world as one that is marked by hypocrisy and cunning, since Muslims perceive it as a history of colonialism.

Moving from world of Islamic culture to universality

What the AKP is trying to do is move the Islamic cultural world towards universality, just as the Christian cultural world moved away from its own particularity towards universality. Why can’t the Islamic world and its new leaders, like the AKP, do the same? One can interpret Erdogan’s address to the nation through this approach. Actually, one needs to concede that the AKP, in this sense, follows an Islamic tradition that dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The “newly awakening” Islamic movements of those centuries declared the universal norms of the West as values that were specific to Christianity, and saw them as hypocritical statements meant to disguise the West’s imperialist policies. This tradition viewed the Islamic world as the “oppressed nations” and defined the fight against the West as the “challenge by the oppressed against their colonizing masters.” It was, however, far from being able to define its own struggle on universal terms. Still, it represented the first steps that Islamic thought had taken towards universality. By having resurrected this powerful Islamic tradition and combining Western values with the Islamic cultural tradition, the AKP seems to be setting itself up as the last stop on this journey.

In this way, just as the West managed to take “crimes committed against Christianity” and turn it into “crimes committed against humanity,” under leadership like that of the AKP, it is possible for the Islamic world to turn “crimes committed against Muslims” into a more comprehensive category of “crimes committed against humanity.” So the strong Islamic cultural weight or emphasis on Islamic sensitivity found in Erdogan’s statements are not that important or, more precisely, are a necessity. In fact, one could say that the main reason for Erdogan’s popularity in both the Middle East and in the world is the way he manages to merge this emphasis on Islamic sensitivity with the West’s own values.

Muslim history not just a history of the oppressed

Why “no”? The main problem lies with whether the AKP will be able to take Islamic cultural values and traditions and move them towards universal humanitarian values. The key terms here are “oppression” and “victimhood.” As is known from the human rights organization that Muslim activist circles close to the AKP have created in Turkey, the Islamic sector sees itself as the truly oppressed. What the West (as well as the civilian-military bureaucratic elite, the West’s representatives in Turkey) is facing is a population that believes itself to be oppressed and victimized, and conceives its current struggle as one for equality and freedom for the oppressed. This is why Palestinians holds such a special place within this fight—; they constitute the most oppressed group in our region.

In truth, defining oneself as “oppressed and victimized” is a method used by just about every group. The problem is that the Islamic population has not experienced its recent past as “oppressed and victimized.” Mass murders, for which Muslims are in one way or another responsible, took place against Christians on this very soil. If the AKP enters Syria without either mentioning this history or honestly confronting those crimes, they will surely be reminded of all the crimes that were committed against other religions in recent history, thereby challenging the notion of the freedom fight that Islam, history’s oppressed and victimized, has been waging for centuries.

If the AKP, which seems to be the answer to the Muslim majority’s demands for “freedom and democracy” through a Muslim sensitivity, does not bring this fight to where it becomes a critique of the crimes that Muslims have committed in recent history, it will not be able to complete the journey towards universal humanitarian values. It will never be able to comprehend the successful transition the West made from Christian values to universal humanitarian values, and it will get stuck in a limited pre-defined space denoted by the sensitivity of Sunni-Muslims.

Adding Armenia to the Address to the Nation

From all appearances, there are two main issues plaguing the region: One is freedom and democracy; the other is security. It isn’t a coincidence that the Christians and other minorities support the Ba’ath regime in Syria. In order to get security, they are willing to give up their freedoms. While Turkey seems to provide answers to the Sunni-Muslim majority’s demand for freedom in Syria, it cannot do the same for the Christians’ demands for security. Quite the opposite. Turkey looks very much like a security threat to them, because it reminds them of what happened in 1915. It is very important to note that the Ba’ath regime recently appointed a Christian to the ministry of defense.

In order to change this perception, the AKP has to confront history and take a clear position regarding the crimes that were committed against the Christians. The AKP, however, is very far from being capable of doing this and, for this reason, will continue to be perceived as a potential repeat actor of 1915 to the Christians in the region. Therein lies the irony. Turkey, which wants to get involved in the region as an intervenor on behalf of “freedom and democracy,” is instead going to be a reminder of its past “crimes against humanity.”

We need to add two other important factors to this: The first is the close ties between Iran and the Syrian Alewites (Shia). Even if they rest upon a defense of the authoritarian regimes of Syria and Iran, Turkey’s intervention (made in the name of freedom and democracy, but missing an honest accounting of history) can lead to sectarian fighting—between the Sunni-Hanefis and Shia (Alewite). Secondly, it is a fact that under Jemal Pasha’s leadership, the CUP hung the leaders of the Arab nationalist movement along the main streets from Beirut to Damascus in 1915 and 1916. There is a known connection between the suppression of the Arab nationalist movement and the genocide of 1915. Each was a piece of the CUP’s policy to shape Anatolia around a Turkish-Muslim identity. Whether it is the Syrian Ba’ath regime or Arab nationalist circles in the region, no one will hesitate to remind Turkey of the truth behind the hanging of their own national leaders.

The bottom line is that the AKP can say whatever it wants about whatever Islamic cultural back story it is using to develop its new policies in the Middle East. If it does not confront history, however, it will appear as nothing less than a new Union and Progress Party. And herein lies the importance of including Armenia and Yerevan in the Address to the Nation: If the AKP wants to defend freedom and democracy in the region, and if it wants to walk a path towards universal humanitarian values by way of Islamic sensitivities, it needs to learn how to look at Islam’s recent past with a more critical eye. A statement about freedom and democracy must be defined in a way that responds to Christians’ demands for security and includes them in the equation. The road there passes through an honest reckoning with the crimes that have been committed in the past, not least of which was the Armenian Genocide.

What the AKP should not forget is that it was a very powerful self-critique that laid the foundation for the Christian West’s bombing of Christian Serbia.

Translated by Fatima Sakarya. The Turkish version of this editorial was published in Taraf, a daily newspaper in Istanbul, on Aug. 11, 2011.

[1] The original Turkish version of the article refers to this as the “balkon konusması,” or literally, the “balcony speech,” an address to the nation given by Prime Minister Erdogan.

[2] Refers to a heated verbal exchange with Shimon Peres of Israel in the Davos Summit of 2009, where Erdogan insisted on having the last word.

[3] A shorthand statement by the AKP of its foreign policy.


Taner Akcam

Taner Akcam is the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University.


  1. Very interesting and relevant article in regards to what is happening in the Middle East today.  The old adage comes to mind, ‘History repeats itself.’  Could it be that Turkey is essentially the last dying remnant of the Ottoman Empire?  I say dying because, try as it may, Turkey seems not able to escape it’s Ottoman past, that is Empire.  For rather than operating from the point of view of a new nation with aspirations based on reality as it stands today, Turkey seems to be reverting back to grand ideas of hegemony over it’s neighbors.  If instead as the article suggests, it were to honestly embrace the past, i.e. consider all the good and the bad of the Ottoman Empire, then perhaps it could function as an honest broker of democracy in the region.  If not, then one only needs to look at history to see what happens to remnants of failed empires.

  2. The “no problems with neighbors” era is dissolving before our eyes. How could anyone have expected it to last, let alone achieve a millennial peace for the entire region. Turkey is now tiptoeing through some very thorny turf, and, as Professor Akcam very effectively points out, many of those thorns were planted by Turkey itself. How long can the promulgators of the “no problems with neighbors” motto go on ignoring the most monumental, unresolved problems of modern Turkish history and expect anyone to believe that they have the capacity to recognize what a problem is, let alone the vision to bring peace to the Middle East!

  3. Well said David jan… agreed..

    Thank you Taner Akcam… Very intrigued by the article… Appreciate your continueous support and fight against injustice and denial…


  4. David,you are  right.Mr. Akcam’s long stretched, approach  to what great Turkey is trying to achieve in a very round about fashion,boils  down to “reverting back to grand ideas  of  hegemony  over its  neighbours”. Supposing, she was successful with a plan to penetrate  into the Arab  fabric through intervention in Syria-an impossibility-*really-meaning attracting, rather  than forcing them to follow  her leadership in the region,it could not overcome her own two very old  problems  that  , as  he  hints  at  the Armenian one,plus  the Kurdish Dillema. Latter, by the by unlike  the former cannot be as easily be  done with,since   both Numbers  as well as changed  Times  factors  are  there.
    Meaning ,it is one thing Evicting  2 million  people,another 20 million. Kurds  nowadays are spread  over  three strongholds, Iraq, Iran and Turkey  and some in Syria, mainly.
    Iran will very cordially listen to what Mr. Erdogan preaches, but will recline that graciously to accept  and submit itself to such suggestions. Moreoverso , as  there are  more Shia Iranians  and some in Iraq  as well who cannot see themselves  in the sphere of the Sunni. However, Mr. Akcam is  a modern historian and who knows  perhaps his conjectures  may result  positively for his countrymen to emerge  this time over in the Region with a totally different “Gerbarank”  Armenian that best  describes  the different shapes  that  ex-Ottoman Turks may transform  into.
    May I add  my own  hypothetic  assumption. Here goes.
    great  Turkey has  in the past been able  to change  sides, allure westerners to their way  of thinking as rgds  issues  in the Middle  East  that  I would dare say  that they would short  of any power  accomplish their desires to fruition.Why even lenin/stalin  were lured  by Mustafa  kemal pasha to think  that  they had persuaded  latter to enter  into their newly born-then- World Communism   Brotherhood.I do not discard  that. It all depends on their persuation , no, not to arab   countries  and/or Iran, but to especially the West.
    Then again, it remains to be seen if the Northern Bear  ,plus  ,this time over  the other Bi-colour Bear from the East, that  encompasses  Uyghurland will swallow the offered pill.

  5. Yerevan and Armenia were not included within AKP address of nation because Turkey has
    no open boarder with Armenia. Turkey has declared war with Armenia unilaterally
    via closing her de facto boarder with Armenia forcing Armenia’s birth rate to
    decrease to the level of distinction which is tantamount with modern Genocide.
    The key for Turkey’s transformation to a civilized nation is to have viable
    state of Armenia by returning Western Armenia and establishment of independent
    Kurdistan. Universal norms of humanity demand such stable environment. Turkey
    has lost her dream of being part of EU. She is looking to find her majesty
    within Muslim Nations. Unfortunately, the most important Muslim Nation, Iran,
    is Shia not Sunni. The existing conflict between these two major branches of
    Islam would not allow any reform that would be based upon universal values.
    Therefore, Turkey is going to be slave of her past for very long time to come.
    Even though, she recognizes the Armenian Genocide, she will remain a nation
    with the darkest page in the human history.

  6.  How about having a strip through the black sea, the Mediterranean as well as red sea  would be the ice cream on top the cake?

  7. Whoever John  is…
    Armenia  HAS  THE BEST  PASSAGE-STRIP-VIA      I  R  A  N   , all the way down perdy-pretty- soon   when railway link is also set up from Tabriz to Yerevan….all the way down to KHOFRRAMSHAHR , the ,Bandar Abbas  best Iranian seaports  for Ocean going vessels.
    As to   STRIP   …Northward to Europe…Armenia DOES  have access to Black Sea  ports  of both POTI  and BATUMI  and with freighteres  from there  on to North to Ukrain  and RRRRussian ssseaports,thus connecting to Europe…
    Armenia  DOES  NOT  NEED  THE BOSPHOROUS  STRAIT Istanbulla  ,sea ports, since   great Turkey can at  any moment shut  the  pass-like she  did  that  some dozen yrs ago, when the mighjty soviet  union  ordered  great Turtkey to open  upt.
    But Armenia  does  not  need  that as above explained… 
    So go grind  your oxydated  axe  elsewhere….please 

  8. The denial of the Armenian Genocide is turkeys anchor, reminder of her worst history of barbarianism.The real reason was: in WW1 turkey was part of the Axis,Germany/Austria.After being soundly beaten on two fronts,she grovelled,(on her KNEES)and joined the Allies.removed camel attaturkey,the young thugs took their anger out on the poor defenseless Armenian women,children,old people,referred to as the Armenian Genocide.70% of turkey is ILLITERATE.

  9. Gaytzag, you were a bit harsh to John, don’t you think?  He only said what many have said before him.  If you have new or better info to offer him do so with respect, please.

  10. 70% illiterate. LOL, that is a lie, the illiteracy rate is only 12% and most of them are actually Kurds who live in the poor isolated Southeast and the reason why the Southeast is so poor is because of PKK terrorists. Btw, not all Kurds are for PKK, I have 1/2 Kurdish cousins who almost got killed for outspokenly exposing the evils of the PKK.

  11. Mr. Rajab Erdogan of Turkey is afraid of new regime in Syria, they don’t care about human rights in Syria, they have enough headache with their own penal code 301, which is written on top of Turkish “Koran”..the most reason why Turks are invoked in Syrians affair, is because of Kurds, where Asad had a deal with Turkey during Ocalan times to control them. now that Asad Regime is getting weaker Mr, AKP wants to use Islam card in order to get control of Syria and Kurds, in the other hand eliminate Iran’s influence with new regime…I think personally, that this man Rajab is a crazy politician, where his beloved people do not see that…he will create more headache not only for EU countries, also for RF and USA…only matter of a time, where Turkey will end up their own “Turkish Spring”.

  12. To Boyadjian,
    Firstly, like a few others  here ,who do not  appear-as to others too-as what they pretend to be,let us say it,they are Turks  with such names,then my response  was not mingled with contempt-mocking  like  his, but   PROOF.
    Secondly I did  not offend or mock him. When I use  “whoever” that  does not constitute an offense,rather  a question like stance.
    Anyhow, I do believe  that his contemptuous attitude WAS   and is the one to be put  into question and  ask  him not to MOCK.
    I repeat  I only explained  very clearly  that the STRIPs  he writes about ,Armenia  has.
    I really think  we , i.e.   you included  should actually ask  him why does  he approach with such contemptuous fashion towards  geopolitical  issues  that Armenia has  or  has  not.  

  13. Taner ,

    do not forget all Russia, Brits and French invaded Turkey and they are good to create names for others. What about invading values by those countries of Turkish land killing millilions. Ducth soldiers allowed to kill howmany Bosnians. You probably do no know what Russians, french and Brits did to Turks with the help of its dominions. you know who are they.

    Turks have never colonized any country and it shows the statement by Hungary’s president. Come to reality…stop hating Turks.

  14. ‘Turks have never colonized any country’

    And where would  you say  Seljuk Turks came from, kurt ?
    Is it your contention that Turks are indigenous to the Armenian Highlands and Asia Minor ?

    Have you heard of the land called Turan/Turania around Altai Mountains that Turks claim as their birthplace ? Do you know where it is ? (Hint: it is nowhere near the Armenian Highlands; it is about 3,000 miles due East of Armenia) 

  15. Kurt,
                      Keep in you mind when soldiers killed in any war or combat action are not part of Genocide…this is what you Turks always mixed up Genocide against killed soldiers…Turks never lost single soldier during 2-nd world war, they were busy in their harems, when Russians and Armenians fighting against Nazi Germany…Armenians lost 300.000 soldiers out of 1.5 million population and they are not part of Genocide…when Mr. Taner Ackam talking about Genocide, he meant children, women, elders and men without weapon.. they had nothing to do with front line soldiers regardless if they were Turks, Russians, or Germans or French!!This is why your beloved “smart” government officials screwing people like you to believe that Turkish “mamas and papas” and “little boys and girls” raped and killed by allies..people like you needs more information and better understanding there is a different between Genocide or killed soldiers.. war activities such as bombardment by enemy artillery by their fire power is not intended to civilians population they were just victims and I don’t believe Turks lost civilian population during 1-st world war, all those killed Turks were soldiers who just happened to be finished their holy war and jihadism against their own weaponless Christian civilian population of Turkey as a good revenge from invading none Islamic soldiers in the land of Ottomans, actually invading “Christian soldiers” didn’t care at all, they were just happy to see,  Ottomans were defeated!!
    A Brilliant Fraud

  16. Ohhhh look who decided to visit our pages again.. Kurt… wel well well….

    Turks never colonized any country huh?? this statement of yours is as true as me saying ” I am the president of the United States…”  now go and figure out what this truly means… you are a smart man.. i hope…well.. ok maybe not because a smart individual would not state such a laughable statement with such matter of fact.. knowing very well that the ENTIRE world knows Turkey to be the “sick man of Europe” who did not originate from Armenian Highlands or Asia Minor….do you Denialists Turks ever think on your own .. is that even a possibility ??? do you do research on your own?? is that even a possibility???

    God I am sick and tired of the Turkish govt’s abuse toward these poor souls… they are being stripped from opportunities to learn and educate themselves…it is sickening..and Kurt… just like any other denialists on our pages keep repeating the same thing over and over… i will repeat this over and over again…

    WE DO NOT HATE TURKS IN GENERAL… WE DO NOT HATE ORDINARY TURKS….we despise how Turkish govt is behaving and how denialists and Turkophiles continue this white Genocide by confirming the denial and lies… UNDERSTOOD?????

  17. Well  said Grish!!!
    May I add  that,what Armenians did is really AN ACT  OF REAL  LOYALISM!!!!
    We have been likewise loyal to the British, to the U.S. to the French.However, what  we did for the “Patriotic War”  as the soviets then coined  it, was outstanding!!!
    And  as appreciation, we have received very little from the main Patria,i.e. the Russians.
    In my viewpoint aside  those  shining medals ,Armenia  should receive  a THOUSAND TIMES  MORE   than what some compatriots  like K.Kerkorian, Eduardo Ernekian  have done. Russia  owes  us  really  much  more. Neither the Georgians nor the Azeris contributed  that  much to win the WWII…
    A French Armenian writer activist-hope he is still alive, in South of France-who left Istanbulla  to live  and write freely  in France  wrote a book in Armenian,title  of which  nearly is to the effect  of “ESH NAHADAG  HAY   ZHOGHOVOURT”. He implies  what  you me  have just  posted above.We did best  for  others……
    MY  VIEWPOINT…From now  on Do exactly as  much  as  others do to us,no more  no less.NO need to overdo in any field  favours  to  ODARS!!!!! 

  18. This is another brilliant piece of analytical insight by Taner Akcam.

    Each of his sentences and paragraphs reflects in-depth knowledge and reference to many undeniable historical facts of regional history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.