Noam Chomsky Discusses Turkey with David Barsamian

David Barsamian, the director of Colorado-based Alternative Radio, conducted the following interview with Noam Chomsky on Jan. 20 at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

Barsamian (L) and Chomsky at MIT in January 2012. (Photo by Balaji Narasimhan)

Chomsky is the internationally renowned Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT. In addition to his pioneering work in linguistics, he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. “The New Statesman” calls him “the conscience of the American people.” Howard Zinn described him as “the nation’s most distinguished intellectual rebel.” He’s the author of scores of books including Failed States, What We Say Goes, and Hopes and Prospects.

Chomsky and David Barsamian have collaborated on a series of best-selling books.

Their latest is How the World Works. This interview will be part of Demand the Impossible, to be published later this year.

The Armenian Weekly thanks David Barsamian for providing a transcript of the interview.


D.B.: Let’s talk about Turkey. The country for a number of years strove to get into the European Union, and did not succeed. There’s a front-page New York Times article [Jan. 5, 2012] entitled “Turkey’s Glow Dims as Press Faces Charges.” Turkish human rights advocates say that there’s been a “crackdown” on journalists that “is part of an ominous trend.” Further, it says, “The arrests threaten to darken the image of the prime minister, Erdogan, who is lionized in the Middle East as a powerful regional leader who can stand up to Israel and the West.” According to this report, “There are now 97 members of the news media in jail in Turkey, including journalists, publishers, and distributors,” a figure that human “rights groups say exceeds the number detained in China.” One of those imprisoned is Nadim Sener, an award-winning journalist, for his reporting on the murder of Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated in Istanbul in January 2007.

N.C.: First of all, that this report should appear in the New York Times has ample ironic connotations. What’s going on in Turkey is pretty bad. On the other hand, it doesn’t begin to compare with what was going on in the 1990’s. The Turkish state was carrying out a major terrorist war against the Kurdish population: tens of thousands of people killed, thousands of towns and villages destroyed, probably millions of refugees, torture, every kind of atrocity you can think of. The Times barely reported it.

They certainly didn’t report—or if they did, it was very marginal—the fact that 80 percent of the weapons were coming from the U.S., and that Clinton was so supportive of the atrocities that in 1997, kind of when they were peaking, that single year Clinton sent more arms to Turkey than in the entire Cold War period combined up until the onset of the counterinsurgency campaign. That’s pretty serious. You won’t find it in the New York Times. Their correspondent in Ankara, Stephen Kinzer, barely reported anything. Not that he didn’t know. Everybody knew.

So now if they’re upset about human rights violations, we can take the reaction with a grain of salt. Now they are willing to highlight the human rights violations because it’s not the U.S. that’s backing them, it’s a country that’s been standing up to the U.S. And that they don’t like. Erdogan’s popularity in the Middle East does not make him popular in the U.S. He’s by far the most popular figure in the Arab world, whereas Obama’s popularity is actually lower than Bush’s, which is quite a trick.

Turkey has taken a fairly independent role in world affairs, which the U.S. doesn’t like at all. They’ve maintained trade relations with Iran—in fact, are even increasing them. Turkey and Brazil carried out a major crime. They succeeded in getting Iran to agree to a program of transferring the low-enriched uranium out of Iran, which happened to virtually duplicate Obama’s program. In fact, Obama had actually written a letter to Lula, the Brazilian president, urging him to proceed with this, mainly because Washington assumed that Iran would never agree, and then they could use it as a diplomatic weapon against them and have more support for sanctions. But they did agree. There was great anger here that they got Iran to agree, because then that might undermine the push for sanctions, which is what they really were after. So that was another source of hostility.

And there are others. For example, in the case of Libya, Turkey, which is a NATO power, interfered with NATO’s early efforts to carry out the bombing of Libya, effectively overriding the UN resolution, though they claimed they were observing it. Turkey was by no means cooperative; in fact, they actually blocked NATO meetings. Washington didn’t like that either.

They don’t like the increasing trade relations with Iran, they don’t like their independent foreign policy. So given that situation, it’s appropriate to condemn human rights violations in Turkey, which are there. There’s been regression. Actually, there was a lot of progress over the past 10 years, quite considerable progress, but the last couple of years have been pretty unpleasant. It’s correct to protest them, cynicism aside.
D.B.: In March 2011, Orhan Pamuk, a leading Turkish writer, Nobel Prize winner, was fined for his statement in a Swiss newspaper that “We have killed 30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians.” Hardly any discussion of Turkey can take place without mention of at least the Kurds, and sometimes of the Armenians.

N.C.: Actually, the Kurds are rarely discussed. The worst atrocities against the Kurds, as I mentioned, were in the 1990’s. And then the press coverage was very slight and dismissive. I actually ran through it once. There were a couple of things, but not a lot. That, of course, was the most significant period, not just because of the scale of the atrocities but because we could have stopped them. They were being supported strongly by the U.S., and NATO generally, the U.S. in the lead. If that had been made public, it could have had an effect.

It was particularly striking in 1999. There was a NATO conference, an anniversary, in 1999, that was right around the time of the decision to bomb Serbia. There was plenty of coverage in the West about how NATO was lamenting the fact that atrocities are being carried out so close to the NATO world, so we have to do something about it, like bomb Serbia. Actually, much worse atrocities were being carried out within NATO, namely, in Turkey. But try to find a word about that. You can find a word. I wrote about it, a couple of other mavericks wrote about it. So the cynicism is overwhelming.

But putting that aside, the problems are real. I was in Turkey a year ago at a conference on freedom of speech. A large part of it was devoted to the Turkish journalists speaking, describing their own activities in trying to write about, expose the Hrant Dink murder, the atrocity against the Armenians, the repression of the Kurds. These are very courageous people. It’s not like a New York Times correspondent, who could write about it if he wanted and nothing would happen. Maybe he would be censured by the editors. These guys can get sent to jail, undergo torture. That’s serious. But they talk openly and strikingly.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about Turkey—here, again, is an irony—the European Union says, “We can’t invite them in because they don’t meet our high standards of human rights,” and so on. Turkey is about the only country I know of in which leading intellectuals, journalists, academics, writers, professors, and publishers not only constantly protest the atrocities of the state but regularly carry out civil disobedience against it. I actually participated to an extent 10 years ago when I went there. There’s nothing like that in the West. They put their Western counterparts to shame. So if there are lessons to be learned, I think it’s in the other direction. Frankly, I never thought that Turkey would be admitted into the EU, mainly on racist grounds. I don’t think Western Europeans like the idea of Turks walking around freely in their streets.


D.B.: How do Turkish-Israeli relations have an influence Washington, with the 2010 Israeli commando raid in international waters on a Turkish ship killing nine Turks, one of whom was an American citizen? And now there has been a suspension of diplomatic relations.

N.C.: It started before that. Turkey was the only major country, certainly the only NATO country, to have protested very sharply against the U.S.-Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-09. And it was a U.S.-Israeli attack. Israel dropped the bombs, but the U.S. backed it, blocked the UN resolution, and so on, including Obama. Turkey came out very strongly in condemnation. There was a famous incident in Davos at the World Economic Forum where the Turkish prime minister spoke out strongly against the attack while Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, was on stage with him.

In general, they stood out for their protest—one reason why Erdogan is so popular in the Arab world. Of course, the U.S. didn’t like that. Having cordial relations with Iran and condemning Israeli crimes does not make you a favored figure in Georgetown cocktail parties.


D.B.: And now there’s a report that Israel, which has long been denying the Armenian Genocide, is considering a resolution, primarily to irritate the Turks now, who they know are hypersensitive to any mention of the Armenian Genocide.

N.C.: It cuts both ways. Israel and Turkey were pretty close allies. In fact, Turkey was the closest ally of Israel, apart from the U.S. Their alliance was kept kind of under cover, but it was perfectly open, from the late 1950’s. It was very important for Israel to have a powerful non-Arab state allied to it. Turkey and Iran under the Shah were very close to Israel. At that time they refused to allow any discussion of the Armenian Genocide.

In 1982, Israel had a Holocaust conference. It was organized by a Holocaust specialist in Israel, Israel Charny, somebody I knew as a kid in Hebrew-speaking camps. He went to Israel. He organized it. He wanted to invite someone to talk about the Armenian atrocities, and the government tried to block it, strongly opposed it. In fact, they pressured Elie Wiesel, who was supposed to be the honorary chair, to resign, which he did. They went ahead with it anyway. It was over strong government opposition. At that time Turkey was an ally, so you don’t talk about it.

Now, as you say, relations are frayed, so you can sort of stick it to the Turks, you can talk about it now. In fact, Israel’s behavior has been pretty remarkable. One of the incidents that didn’t get much publicity here but really bothered the Turks was a meeting between the Turkish ambassador to Israel and Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister. He called in the Turkish ambassador and they set up a photo op with the Turkish ambassador sitting on a very low chair and Ayalon sitting on a higher chair above him. And then the photographs are publicized all over. Countries don’t act like that. It’s very humiliating. The Turks didn’t like it a bit. Israel is so arrogant, they didn’t care. They figure, we can do anything we like so long as the master is behind us, which he is.

That’s one of a series of events which actually, from Israel’s own strategic point of view, is not very brilliant. The Turkish-Israeli military strategic relationship, trade relationship, commercial relationship is pretty significant. Again, we don’t really know the details, but for years Israel has been using eastern Turkey, as the U.S. has, for military bases, military training, preparations for possible war, aggression in the Middle East. If they sacrifice that, it’s serious.


D.B.: And the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turkish civilians were killed.

N.C.: The Mavi Marmara was part of a flotilla. It was attacked in international waters by Israeli commandos, who killed nine people, Turks, one of them Turkish American. Attacking a ship in international waters is a serious crime. Israel was kind of surprised at the reaction—with some justification, because they’ve been hijacking ships in international waters since the late 1970’s, and the U.S. never made a fuss about it. They’ve been attacking ships going from Cyprus to Lebanon, sometimes killing people, sometimes taking prisoners, kidnapping them, and taking them off into Israeli jails, where they are kept as hostages. And the master never objected. So they were a little surprised that there was a fuss about this. But there was a lot of international indignation, not just by Turkey but more broadly, for their really criminal behavior. Turkey demanded an apology, Israel refused. It led to a serious souring of relations.


D.B.: There has been a severing of diplomatic relations.

N.C.: Severing at least on the surface. There’s probably more going on under the surface. But, yes, a formal severing of relations.


D.B.: The Kurds, who straddle three or four countries—Iran, Iraq, Turkey—constitute, I think, the largest single minority in the world that does not have a nation-state. What about the situation of the Kurds, particularly the semi-autonomy that they have achieved in northern Iraq? How viable is that?

N.C.: There are plenty of problems. They have achieved a kind of semi-autonomy in northern Iraq, but, first of all, there’s a lot of repression and corruption there. Furthermore, it’s fragile. And it’s not really viable. They’re landlocked. If they don’t have significant support from the outside, they can’t be sustained for long. And they’re not only landlocked but they’re surrounded by enemies, so Iran on one side, Turkey on the other, Arab Iraq as well. There’s a connection to Syria, but that doesn’t help much. So it exists by the tolerance of the great powers, primarily the U.S., which could be withdrawn.

The U.S. has repeatedly sold them out over the years. They sold them out to Saddam Hussein in the 1970’s and again in the 1980’s. During Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurds, the U.S. government tried to silence them. The Reagan Administration refused even to acknowledge them. They tried to blame them on Iran. The Kurds have an old saying, which goes something like, “Our only friends are the mountains,” meaning we can’t rely on outsiders for support. If you look at their history, they have plenty of reason to believe that. So I think they have to find some mode of accommodation with the surrounding countries and also a way to deal with their Kurdish population.

The Kurdish population, say, in Turkey, is quite excited about Kurdish semi-autonomy in Iraq.


D.B.: They see that as a model?

N.C.: They see that as something hopeful, but they themselves have not been well treated by the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurds, who are after their own interests. One of the few American journalists to have really worked in the area, Kevin McKiernan, once described a mountain in northern Iraq called Mount Kandil. He said it has two sides: on one side there are terrorists, on the other side there are freedom fighters. They’re exactly the same people: They’re Kurdish nationalists. But one side faces Turkey, so they’re terrorists. The other side faces Iran, so they’re freedom fighters. Apparently, they’re pretty well integrated. It’s reported that the guerrillas on the mountain have regular commercial and other interactions with the general surrounding population.

David Barsamian

David Barsamian

David Barsamian is the award-winning founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent weekly audio series based in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of numerous books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and Edward Said. His best-selling books with Chomsky have been translated into many languages. His latest books are How the World Works and What We Say Goes (both with Noam Chomsky) and Targeting Iran. David's interviews and articles appear in The Progressive, Z and other publications. He is winner of the Media Education Award, the ACLU's Upton Sinclair Award for independent journalism, and the Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. The Institute for Alternative Journalism named him one of its Top Ten Media Heroes.
David Barsamian

Latest posts by David Barsamian (see all)


  1. A brilliant example to” Truth nothing but the truth only the truth”
    Honest and with integrity…..
    silenced mainstream media can no longer close its eyes and ears to the change that has taken place in Turkey…

  2. Chomsky decries the lack of coverage in the 90’s by the NYT of widespread atrocities against the Kurds.

    I may be wrong on dates, but I believe that Stephen Kinzer was the Istanbul Bureau Chief in those years. The man loves Turkey so much he has a home there. Despite the NYT policy to describe the AG as such instead of “what Armenians call the AG,” I suspect he prefers the latter formulation so as not to offend, although I think the policy was announced after he moved on.

    There is a deeper process at work that goes beyond Kinzer. Western journalists and their editors seem enamored of Turkey, in the way one week tourists are. We hear so much about the moderate Islamic state.

    I’m still waiting for the press to expose Ergun Kirlikovali’s racist writings, and what the Talat Pasa Societies and Gulen are up to.

    I think the press failure to go after these stories is some combination of timorousness and cowardice, laziness, and wanting to show their Turkish friends – most of whom come from Kemalist elite families – that they understand Turkey.

  3. “They’re (Kurds) landlocked. If they don’t have significant support from the outside, they can’t be sustained for long. And they’re not only landlocked but they’re surrounded by enemies, so Iran on one side, Turkey on the other, Arab Iraq as well”

    Not true at all. Turks have mostly put aside their paranoia about an independent Northern Iraq. In fact, Turkey, not USA is their guarantee for safety and security. They may be land locked but their pipes reach the seas through Turkey. Turkish businesses have invested hugely there and Northern Iraq is mostly isolated from the central government. Independece for them is just a technicality at his point and may not even worth the headache for a long while. Iran would not dare to threaten them which would ilicit direct response from Turkey and USA.

    Also worth noting that as we speak Northern Iraq hosts the deadly
    PPK. It is from their lands that they launch massive terrorist attacks. They have control over this or not besides the point. Ironically Saddam had never allowed PKK this much freedom and space. Compare this with Taliban that hosted Alquaide. USA did not care, and rightly so, if Taliban had any control over the situation and responded with full invasion that took countless lives.

  4. To jda: Indeed, 99% of those in the mainstream media who write about Turkey kiss up to that country. Whether intimidated, bought-off, or just plain stupid, they’re nothing but a bunch of bums.

  5. Unfortunately our Arab brethren have a short memory. It was less than 100 years ago that many of them, muslim mostly, were killed trying to throw off the Ottoman yoke.

  6. Turkey must come to reason and understand that it can not fight a simple truth that Kurds in Turkey need their rightful rights in a peaceful democratic framework. USA should know better that even for the mid-term strategic goals turning a blind eye on this issue is a mistake.

    Turkey instead of spending money on this military machine which in several operation into Kurdistan of Iraq in the 90s didn’t succeed to solve the issue. i.e. the military solution is totally rediciulous. Through the 1970 Iraq,Iran, and Turkey never had the control enough over those triangle! So? Better spend on other policies than military solution.

    Long term advantage of Turkey too is to be much opener towards Kurdistan of Iraq and they are slowly realizing that, however towards Kurds in Turkey they find it hard to accept that…but they seem to have sensed that too. So they’d better be accepting peace. PKK has done fatal mistakes in the past, nevertheless they are a voice claiming fighting for freedom. There are more peaceful trends among the Kurds in Turkey. USA should be caring about that, and Turkey too.

  7. I fully understand it when US puts its economic and military interests before any human right concerns. But what I can’t understand is why these left-wing intellectuals keep pushing the Palestinian issue to the very front while completely ignoring the Kurdish issue! Here, Noam Chomsky, the “conscience of the American people”, skillfully veered the conversation towards supporting Turkey and lionizing Erdogan, like everyone else in the Arab world! The interviewer, David Barsamian, mentions in the beginning that there are more intellectuals detained in Turkey than in China, but Chomsky never elaborated on this subject afterwards.

    Chomsky at least partially admits the truth that the semi-autonomy in Northern Iraq “exists by the tolerance of the great powers, primarily the U.S.”

    The interviewer, David Barsamian, is not even sure in how many countries Kurds live: “The Kurds, who straddle three or four countries”

    After the independence of Ukraine we are the largest ethnic group without a country of their own and now it’s time to talk more loudly about it! The growing apart between Turkey and US should be fully used for our benefit, instead of running after the tails of these self-righteous left-wing elites who only use this fact in irony!

    • Alan I take it you are Kurd. I am an ethnic Kurd myself, but my family has been severely Turkified. However much evil the US did in Iraq, at least our people are one big step closer to a country in Northern Iraq. And you’re right, Kurds should use the gradually growing rift between Turkey and USA to their advantage. I’m not sure the US or NATO would take too kindly of Turkey daring to bully an independent Kurdish nation. I feel your frustration. Better days are coming, I know it.

    • Hi RVDV, Yes, I’m Kurdish from Southern Kurdistan. I share your optimism. We need to be more realistic in choosing our allies and fetter ourselves less and less by ideology and religion. Till the day of complete independence we should also refrain from strong ideological commitments and work stubbornly towards our one and only goal: an independent Kurdistan that includes every single part of it!

      Thanks for your input. Look for me in facebook.

      Alan Saeed, Toronto

  8. The problems of Kurds and Palestinians are not comparable. Not even close. Kurds are citizens of a democratic country with equal rights as everyone else. They can go to school (Kurdish education if they like), work anywhere, become the president or prime minister if they can. They can travel freely and carry on with their trade as they like. Palestinians on the other hand are prisoners with pretty much no rights and no hope. Their desperate state pushes them as far as becoming suicide bombers. The story of Kurds and Palestinians are very very different.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.