Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The American Indian and the Armenian Genocide

Keşke Birde Türk Bayrağı Olsaydı
'If only there was a Turkish Flag' A picture from a Turkish man protesting the 'Kurdish Opening' back in 2009 as something that would split the motherland.

How does the United States Senate celebrate the Armenian Genocide? We have an old tradition as unchanging as the Christmas Tree or the Black Friday shopping death stampede. First, on Genocide Eve, the Committee on Foreign Relations draws up a bill to recognize April 24th as a day ‘to remember and observe the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.’ Then the Turkish media, government, and civil groups start to sing the age-old Genocide carols to their American friends. Some of the most popular are ‘The Nature and Scale of the Killings Remain Highly Contentious’, ‘We Warn You Not to Harm US-Turkish Relations’, and the classic ‘We Didn’t Do It And If We Did, They Asked For It.’ Then on Genocide Day, the US Senate refuses to hear the resolution in the general assembly and it goes absolutely nowhere.

So I am going to tell you guys a Genocide story that I stumbled on in my various researches and through my accidental membership in the Turkish Coalition of America—a charity organization made up of Turks and Turkish descendants living in America. (I started getting emails from them when I moved to Istanbul) I think this story nicely illustrates the nature of the whole Genocide issue.

The TCA does a lot of noble work. A quick perusal of their latest newsletter includes scholarships, an aid package for the victims of the Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines, a cultural exchange with Canadian youths and a commemoration ceremony celebrating the ties between Turkey and the Native American community.

What ties you may ask?

Well the TCA has been lobbying for the American Indians for quite some time now. (Let me say now that I’m not all that sure that ‘Indian’ is the preferred term. I read in an interview with a Lakota that it was the word aboriginals preferred and have seen the term in the speeches of firebrand Russell Means, so I’m running with it.) Most recently they helped organize the government of Turkey’s funding of a water tower for the Warm Springs Tribe in Oregon. Turkey donated over 200,000 dollars. The TCA had a competition among American Indian Tribes for the grant in 2012. The grant was announced in a newsletter regularly distributed to the tribes and Warm Springs won the bid. (Let that sink in, Turkish lobbying groups have a regular newsletter for the Indians) This was back in October, right after Erdoğan had spent several months gassing and attacking hundreds of thousands of people protesting him in the streets and was presented to us by the press here in Turkey as evidence of how great Turkey had become. Now America’s poor and downtrodden came to Ankara for help, not to Washington.

The Warm Springs tribe was a little baffled, but grateful of course. And I’m glad they got their water tower. They deserved it and I’m sure the other 31 applications that didn’t win were deserving as well. Still, everyone was trying to figure out why a government halfway around the world busy secretly funding Al Nusra radicals in the Syrian Civil War while at the same time sending phalanxes of police against its own citizens in the greatest demonstration of civil unrest in its history was fussing over a small Oregon tribe. Turkish officials cited ‘the historical and cultural connections between Turkey and Native Americans.’  

The TCA has been trying also to sponsor a bill for economic development on Indian lands. Great! If passed, the bill would enable tribal governments to approve development projects sponsored by foreign investors without the approval of the Federal government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This is apparently a very time consuming process, full of red tape, which helps cripple tribal economies. Great again. Sounds like a stupid requirement anyway, left over from the bad old days—or rather, the worse old days. I doubt any American Indian would ever say the bad old days are over. But as it turns out, the bill mainly favors one country and one source of foreign investor-Turkey!

Turkey and the TCA also grant scholarships to American Indians. They fly officials to Turkey for economic conferences and they attend native conferences in the States as well. In 2010, an official from the Turkish Trade Ministry became the first foreign official to speak at the annual conference in Las Vegas on tribal economic development. In the same year, Turkey brought members of the Coeur D’Alene tribe to Ankara. Alaskan Representative Don Young, a strong supporter of his state’s tribes said Turkey was “the first foreign country that has shown interest in investing with — cooperation with — a tribe to improve their economic lot.” All this official attention and show of respect must feel like a vindication for a people whose history is filled with diplomatic betrayals, political marginalization, and broken treaties.

So why all this fuss? Why all this effort to support a trampled minority in another country-a minority who more than deserve the support, by the way. Which is kind of the crux point of the issue here. Turkey has chosen a target that no one would ever, in their right mind, argue against. The moral soundness of trying to help American tribes build sustainable economies is unassailable. And when, say, Armenian-American lobbyist argue against the bill, they look like assholes.

Here is what TCA president, Lincoln McCurdy has to say about the motivation on the TCA’s own website:  

"It definitely broadens (Turkey's) political base and it increases the opportunity for Turkish companies to establish operations in this country. A broader political base, in turn, could aid Turkey in recurring Capitol Hill conflicts with Armenian-Americans. In raw population, Armenian-Americans widely outnumber Turkish-Americans. Turkey, though, enjoys considerable high-level clout as an important NATO country. Nearly every year, these competing forces are on display as lawmakers press for an Armenian genocide resolution that takes note of the massacres that took place during the Ottoman Empire's dying days. The resolution routinely fails but keeps coming back; this year's version has 84 House co-sponsors. It's in this context that the Native American investment bill reflects Turkey's cultivation of tribes."

Holy shit! Did he actually write and post that? The main reason we are offering help to a people who have suffered perhaps more, or at least longer, than any other in the world is to build our numbers against the annual Armenian Genocide bill? To drown out the Armenian lobby? First, if I have any American Indian readers at this point, I would love to know what you think on this issue. My advice for you guys would be take the money and run. In my limited experience with American Indians they are too politically canny to be fooled by any of the ideological hocus pocus (been there done that), and practically speaking, the TCA is pursuing a policy that makes sense for the welfare of the tribes and that other countries should follow. And it’s such a shame that this historical and herculean effort is being put forth in the name of genocide denial.

And here is where the issue gets more complicated, because one of the classic denial arguments is “Well, you Americans committed genocide against the Kızılderililer (That’s the Turkish word for Indian and it means ‘Redskins’—yep, that’s right.) So you have no room to talk.” The rather extremist website tallarmeniantale (which pops up in any search on the Genocide, so it’s not so marginal) devotes an entire section to the subject—going as far to suggest that the white genocide of American Indians was attempted by Europeans on ‘the Turk’, their racial brothers. You see pictures of Indian chiefs everywhere in Turkey—in leftist cafes and in the windows of vans and minibusses. Everyone feels both a racial connection as a people with ancestors in Cenral Asia (which they should then feel toward every Asian except maybe the Chinese) and also a political one, as the abused victims of European Imperialism.

This argument is a tacit admission, of course—‘You did it, too!’ they say, but the ‘too’ implies that we did it as well. And it’s always curious that someone would try to clear their name by connecting it to one of the largest massacres of a people in human history. And never mind that Turkey, far from being a hapless victim, was a large empire—and that the Sunni Turks hold the reins of power over minorities who have been here a lot longer than they have, minorities who continue to be driven out and marginalized; a little bit like European descendants hold the reins of power over a minority that have been in the Americas a lot longer than we have. But Turkey has a compulsion to constantly identify itself with the victims, which is why Erdoğan, in command of the military and police, can mastermind an attack on protesters in Turkey’s 80 cities and still feel that he is the underdog. The psychology of victimhood is extremely dangerous here—it’s what justified the Genocide in the minds of the Ottomans in the first place and still forms the core of denial arguments.

And so what of this assertion that white Americans committed genocide. Does anyone deny it? Article II from the Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of Genocide says:

“Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a)     Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

At some point over the last five hundred years, the conquerors of the Americas have done all of these things to one or more Indian nations. By international law, it certainly classifies as a genocide. I never saw the word in a school history book, though, so out of curiosity I googled 'American Indian Genocide.' (I am not a scholar so that is my research method—sorry) and one of the first articles to pop up was this one by GuentherLewy. He methodically makes the case that the deaths of millions upon millions of Native Americans was not a genocide. So we do genocide denial too! But what is Mr. Lewy’s connection to Turkey? Well, he also is one of the American deniers of the Armenian Genocide and a scholar that Turkey loves to drag out as proof it did nothing wrong (but if we did, so did you!). Mr. Lewy’s purpose seems to be to defend the Jewish Holocaust’s status as the most important genocide in history, if not the only one. Somehow The Holocaust’s exclusive right to the term ‘genocide’ is important to a large number of people.

Another Google search on Turkey’s aid to the American Indians turns up articles in fanatically anti-Muslim websites such as Jihadwatch, the Counter Jihad Report or this one. They make some of the same points I do about Turkey's motivations but for horrible reasons. So some of the most vocal groups keeping up with and speaking out against this issue are racist themselves determined to prove the innate violence and danger of Islam.

And so we have the full immoral picture.

Here you have the wealth of entire country and the efforts of a major lobbying group in the US devoted to helping a group that has suffered much at the hands of various oppressors throughout history. And the help they provide is logical and long overdue. But their aims in doing so are horrifyingly cynical—to secure support in covering up another one of the greatest crimes in history. Think about that a second—you are devoting millions of dollars and hundreds of hours to getting one oppressed group to aid in the oppression of another. Some of the people who oppose this are wildly racist themselves (the jihadwatch type) and their main motivation is hatred and fear of Muslims—which of course supports the Turks assertion that they are the victims of white racism because sometimes they actually are. Another contingent who is helping Turkey deny the genocide is also denying the genocide of the people Turkey is trying to use in its own denial—all in the name of justice to another genocide which they believe only retains it’s legitimacy if it remains the only one.

Turkey’s motivations for targeting the Indians is multifold I think. On the one hand, they have picked a cause which justifiably blackens the American name and in doing so, teach a very expensive lesson to the United States. “See? This is what it feels like when one country meddles in another country’s affairs in the name of human rights.” (The theme of the genocide issue being merely a case of the West meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs is a common one). Politically speaking, if numbers of supporters was their sole goal then they probably should have gone after a group with more clout. Second, they somehow build a sense of moral superiority at a time when their moral clout is going down the toilet."We aren’t oppressing anyone! We have gone into the very den of the oppressor and helped liberate a people." Maybe that explains the timing of the Warm Springs announcement. And third, as was evident from the newspaper coverage of the same Warm Springs grant last year, it’s a tremendous boost to nationalist pride to be the one country capable of supporting a poor minority which not even the once great United States can manage to help. Turkey sends monetary aid to the US—what a propaganda coup! And then there is this perceived racial brotherhood—which infuriates me the most—the belief in race being the root of all this evil in the first place, all coupled with the false belief in a mutual victimhood.

This whole thing stands as a sad example of how historical denial twists and corrupts everything it touches. The TCA is doing a good deed but its motivations stink up the whole thing and corrupts both the justice to the American Indian which was long overdo and the good intentions of those behind the good deed. Turks, as a culture, seem very hospitable, empathetic, sensitive and possessors of a conscience that allows them to sympathize and grieve for, say, the recent deaths on the South Korean ferry in a way that I have not seen another nationality do. And yet this race issue, this nationalism problem fouls it all up. It holds them back as a nation. (And as a man coming out of the South I know what it's like to have a racist culture hold back the progress of your homeland)

It somehow reminds me of a professor of history I heard about recently—who has devoted his entire life to trying to prove that the Ottoman Armenian Balyan family or architects did not in fact build any of the buildings they are credited with. What an incredibly tragic waste of a brain, of a life, of thousands upon thousands of hours of research. He could be devoting himself to something that might actually help his country, but no, instead all that effort is bent upon an absurd racist denial of history.

Even as I write—Haberturk promises a ‘historical’ announcement from the Prime Minister’s office on the Armenian incident of 1915. We are still waiting to hear what Erdoğan will say. It was published on the PM's website at least--an offer to share the grief of those massacred in 1915. An unprecedented step by the Turkish state run by a man so intolerant that all opposition is swiftly crushed.  In any case, on April 24th, may all the world’s butchered and martyred and downtrodden rest in peace. This year is the 99th anniversary. 

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