ISTANBUL — The day after the U.S. election I received an email with the subject line: “PRISON SENTENCE FOR UP TO 15 YEARS FOR OBAMA.”
The message came from a Turkish human rights organization and contained an imaginary legal complaint — caustically satirical, like much Turkish political commentary — detailing how Obama could be charged under article 305 of the Turkish penal code for violating Turkey’s national interests.
His offense? Using the word genocide to describe the massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. In Turkey, the killings are officially considered accidents of war. A century later, the battle between Turks and Armenians worldwide over what to call them has become a central issue in U.S.-Turkish relations.
Over the past two years, in Turkish media coverage of the U.S. elections, each candidate’s position on the Armenian issue was discussed — before Iraq, before the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party), before Cyprus, Iran, or the economy.
Hillary Clinton? “Supporter of the Armenian plan” (Zaman, April 7, 2007). McCain? “Refused to bow to Armenian demands” (Today’s Zaman, Feb. 21, 2008). Giuliani? “Courting the Armenians” (Turkish Daily News Jan. 7, 2007). Huckabee and Romney? “Not close to Armenian groups” (Turkish Daily News Jan 17, 2008). As November approached hardly a day went by without an election story in one of the major papers mentioning the Armenian issue.
At stake — other than national psychology — is U.S. House Resolution 106, which calls on the president to recognize the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians as genocide. It is a label Turkey considers so unacceptable that in October 2007 the head of the Turkish army warned that if the House Foreign Affairs Committee put H.R. 106 to a vote, U.S.-Turkey military ties “would never be the same.” The resolution froze.
Yet Obama’s support of the resolution has been unambiguous. In January 2008, he delivered a statement to Armenian-American groups: “As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian genocide resolution and as president I will recognize the Armenian genocide.”
As if that weren’t enough to sink a candidate’s reputation here, the day Obama announced Joseph Biden as his running mate, Hurriyet, one of the largest daily papers, wrote that Biden’s views on the Armenian issue were “anti-Turkish.” The paper treated Biden’s views on Iraq as a mere footnote.
That the Armenian issue got more election airtime than Iraq was astonishing not only because one conflict is ongoing and the other took place a century ago, but because Turks’ anger over Iraq has led to rampant anti-Americanism here. According to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, between 1999 and 2007 the percentage of Turks with favorable views of the U.S. dropped from 52 percent to 9 percent. Among 23 countries surveyed, Turkey ranked as feeling least favorable toward the U.S.
Despite all this, Turks have not been immune to Obama’s charms. In between discussion of the candidates’ genocide views, columnists also waxed romantic about how Obama gave hope to all those who “felt black” in the world. When the election results were in, they heaped rare admiration on America for transcending its history of racial inequality.
Villagers near Van, in southeastern Turkey, sacrificed 44 sheep for the 44th president and held up blood-smeared signs that said “You are one of us.” Akif Emre, a columnist in the conservative Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, wrote on Nov. 5: “Obama’s victory reminds me of the most successful aspects of the American system: the mentality that means that in the name of facing up to your history, you apologize to history and not shrug off your responsibilities.”
Although he was talking about America, he might as well have been referring to his own country. The notion of confronting history has lately entered public discussion here like never before.
In December, a group of prominent Turkish intellectual figures announced a campaign called “We Apologize,” and put forth the following statement: "My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them."
Visitors to the “We Apologize” website can add their names to the statement. Almost 30,000 Turks have done so in the month since the campaign was launched. Prime Minister Erdogan, not so moved, stated wryly that perhaps those who felt it necessary to apologize had carried out genocide, but that Turkey had no such problem. President Gul, more diplomatic, called the initiative an example of freedom of speech but stopped short of supporting it.
Meanwhile, Turks debated whether the apology campaign would be seen as a concession of guilt or whether it might instead serve to convince Washington that the 1915 debate was taking care of itself and congressional involvement was not necessary. Instead of “How does Obama feel about the Armenian issue?” the question has become “Will Obama keep his word about H.R. 106?” If he does not, he will not be the first U.S. president to renege on this particular promise. Even President Bush vowed to acknowledge the genocide before his election in 2000.
There is no doubt that several other issues, especially the U.S. presence in Iraq, U.S. cooperation in fighting the PKK, and now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are vital to Turks.
Yet it is this old story from the last century that endures. A few weeks after the election, columnist Omer Taspinar wrote in Today’s Zaman that “[the Armenian] issue will sadly dominate the next few months in Turkish-American relations.”
(For further anaysis, read two recently released articles on anti-Semitism in Turkey and Turkey's relationship with the West, commissioned by The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) for its series On Turkey.)