The new Turkish jurisprudence on Armenian genocide

The new Turkish jurisprudence on Armenian genocide

As I sit and write this article, the French vote on a bill to criminalize genocide denial is still half a day away. All the same, the result of the vote will be totally irrelevant to the contents of this piece.
In recent years, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the Chinese treatment of its ethnic Turkish Uighur minority amounted to “near genocide,” that he went to Darfur and saw no genocide there, that politicians should not comment on genocide and that it was the historians’ job to do so. And just last month, Mr. Erdoğan invited Turkish politicians to freely debate the 1937/8 massacres in Dersim (Tunceli) of thousands of uprising Kurds, blaming the tragedy on the Republican People’s Party, the ruling (and only) party at the time.

But since last week Turkish bigwigs have been issuing warning after warning that all cooperation with the French government and joint projects would be frozen along with diplomatic relations if the French Parliament passed a bill making the denial of the Armenian genocide illegal.

In fact, the Armenian claims of genocide may have found many Turkish supporters, especially among the ruling Islamist elite, if they accused Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (or his prime minister, İsmet İnönü) instead of the Ottoman government. It is the “Ottoman touch” that offends Turkey’s neo-Ottomans. Unsurprisingly, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said the French bill “dishonored our country and nation.”

First, Professor Davutoğlu, you should have learned from your boss, Mr. Erdoğan, that parliaments represent the “will of the nation” and their decisions are sacred in democracies. You should be able to explain why the Turkish Parliament’s decisions are sacred but decisions of the French or any other Parliament may not be so.

Second, you should be able to explain why politicians should be able to speak and vote on past crimes like the massacres of Dersim but not on the Armenian genocide. Third, you should be able to explain why the Turkish leader has the right to say that in Sudan there was no genocide “because he went there and did not see it” while the French or any other leader has no right to say the Armenian genocide did take place. Why? Because President Nicolas Sarkozy did not personally see it? Fourth, of course, you should be able to explain why Turkey has full diplomatic relations with Switzerland where genocide denial is an offense, but intends to freeze relations with France if the latter passes the same bill.

But more importantly, Turkey’s not-so-mature “we’ll freeze our ties, recall our ambassador and your companies will suffer” rhetoric has set an example of jurisprudence which neither Mr. Erdoğan nor Mr. Davutoglu would wish to be reminded of in the future.

In 2001, the French Parliament recognized the Armenian genocide. So it has been a decade of perfectly normal relations between Turkey and France, including joint projects and full diplomatic ties. Now Turkey threatens to freeze relations if the French Parliament makes it an offense to deny the genocide. This is the example Ankara is mistakenly creating: “Dear members of parliaments of the world! From now on, you can recognize the Armenian genocide and have perfectly normal relations with us; but we’ll get badly offended only if you made genocide denial illegal.”

Will the U.S. Congress get the message? The Turks should hope it won’t. Sadly, the more than 20 countries in the world whose parliaments have recognized the Armenian genocide stand like an unpleasant reminder that the soft power Mr. Davutoğlu loves to assume Turkey possesses does not exist in the real world.