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.
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. 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. 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” 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.
 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.
 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.
 A shorthand statement by the AKP of its foreign policy.