Love thy neighbour

by | Oct 26, 2007

Most commentators on the Congressional resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide have adopted a US-centric view. Andrew Sullivan describes the move as “foolish in the extreme” because it will antagonize a key US ally. The University of San Francisco’s Stephen Zunes supports the decision because it is vital for the US to uphold its “longstanding principles.” But it’s not all about America – Turkey has some questions of its own to answer.

The row over the Armenian genocide and the threatened incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan are two sides of the same kuruş for Turkey. Ninety years after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, Turks still inhabit a foreign policy realist world, where all your neighbours want a chunk of your territory and the criticisms of far-off superpowers mask their real goals of gaining influence within your borders and weakening your global standing.

This is the world of Ataturk, the late, great father of the Turkish nation whom nearly all Turks revere and who, in the shape of his avatars the generals, has protected their country from covetous outsiders since he saw off the Brits and ejected the Greeks in the early decades of the last century.

Turkey has lost no further territory since Ataturk founded the modern Republic in 1923 – in fact it gained some when it occupied northern Cyprus – but sensitivities remain as brittle now as they were then. The protective embrace of the fiercely nationalist generals has cocooned the Turkish people and their elected politicians in a 1920s mindset, when the country had just lost a vast empire and remained an object of desire. Its paranoia over the secessionary impulses of the Kurds and the Americans’ perceived support for both Kurd and Armenian is that of a newborn but weakened and wary nation – not unlike today’s Russia. The generals stoke that fear to maintain their own position of power.

Turks’ worries are largely misplaced. Their country can boast 80 years of democracy and one of the fastest growing economies on the planet. They have strong allies in the US and important parts of the EU. And they are a beacon of secularism and freedom in a sea of Muslim tyrannies. They should, in short, be confident, not fearful.

Turks are a notoriously fatalistic bunch – many a future commitment is appended with “if I’m still alive” – but it is time they shed their pessimism. Instead of letting petulance guide their decisions (as seen in their cosying up to Iran and threats to end military co-operation with the US), they should look to their long-term interest. Turkey shines when it drops its paranoid posturing – think of its support for Greece after the latter’s 1999 earthquake. It will benefit both the country and its neighbours if modern Turkey can cast off the anxieties of the past.


  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lived for two years in an informal settlement on Ukerewe Island in Tanzania and lived in revolutionary Sudan until being evacuated because of coronavirus. He is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.

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