April 27, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 274

The Ottoman Road Untraveled

April 27, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Turkey | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 274

The Biden administration's recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks initially received a relatively muted response by Turkish officials. Foreign Minister Cavusoglu tweeted "We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past," while Erdoğan's nationalist political ally Devlet Bahçeli retorted that Turkey's history was "faultless" with "neither genocides nor massacres" by the Turkish nation. Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin chided the U.S. president to "look to his own history and present."[1] When Erdoğan finally did respond to the Biden declaration, 48 hours later, the tone and content of his remarks were negative, but seemed more in sorrow than in anger.[2]

The "Three Pashas," implementors of the Armenian Genocide, in a 1918 newspaper

Compared to the steady drumbeat of extreme anti-American content for years in pro-regime Turkish media this was – so far – relatively light. In 2020, Erdoğan himself tweeted that a "racist and fascist approach" in America had led to the killing of George Floyd, while in 2018 he threatened U.S. troops with "an Ottoman Slap" if they got in the way of Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurds.[3]

One reason for the relatively restrained response is, of course, because Turkey faces a difficult political and economic situation.[4] While Erdogan has effectively used xenophobia as a tool of statecraft for years, whipping up such a campaign against the U.S. now could have unforeseen circumstances and could get out of hand. A campaign to, for example, evict the U.S. from Incirlik Air Base might succeed, and see such a base moved to Greece. An embrace of American adversaries Russia, China, and Iran – something Erdogan has done already at times – can also bring consequences, even though this is a step for which Erdogan's unofficial mouthpiece at Yeni Şafak has called repeatedly for years, identifying the U.S., Western Europe, and Israel as Turkey's real enemies.[5] Erdoğan also has to consider the general atmosphere he wants for an upcoming June meeting with Biden.[6]

The Biden statement on the Armenian Genocide was well crafted. There was no mention of Turkey at all, but of two of the Ottomans who carried out the genocide. Constantinople was mentioned instead of Istanbul, but that is what the city was formally called at the start of the 1915 genocide - Ḳosṭanṭīnīye. Were Erdoğan and the AKP Kemalists (or more subtle global statesmen), there would be ample room to maneuver, since the Turkish Republic is not mentioned at all. A diplomatic off-ramp is there for all to see.

The problem is that, in opposition to Kemalism, Erdoğan and his AKP and their nationalist allies have embraced a specific spin on the Ottoman Empire (and earlier figures such as Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan) as potent nationalist and religious symbols. The Ottomans ruled for 624 years, and it should have been relatively easy to carve out an exception to this adulation for the brief but disastrous five-year rule of Turkey's Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) from 1913 to 1918. It is this group, under the leadership of the so-called "three pashas" – Talat, Enver, and Jamal – that not only carried out the genocide of Armenians and other subject peoples but also disastrously conducted the war that saw Turkey lose its empire and be nearly dismembered. The bravery of regular Turkish soldiers could not in the end overcome disastrous military leadership in the First World War, despite scattered victories at Gallipoli and Kut. That bravery only awaited a talented leader like Mustafa Kemal to lead them to ultimate victory in 1923. The three pashas were even sentenced to death in absentia by Ottoman authorities (admittedly under allied pressure) after the war.

There are good reasons why the Erdogan regime can't distance itself from a chauvinistic Ottoman past – first of all, because such a connection has been wildly successful in almost two decades of AKP power. Evocations of nationalism, and especially toxic nationalism combined with religion, can be very powerful tools. One only has to see Erdogan evoking Abdul Hamid II (a butcher of Armenians), Mehmed the Conqueror, and Alp Arslan in political ads, or see the use of religious imagery in the conversion of former churches turned museums into mosques.[7] Such symbolism has real raw power.[8]

A second reason is that the Turkish nationalist vision of the CUP during those five years is not so different from the nationalist vision of today. Both rejected a tolerant, cosmopolitan multiethnic (non-Turkic) and multi-religious vision of empire for the supremacy of Turkishness above all. Both looked beyond Anatolia to a broader Turkic world, especially a Turkic Islamic one.[9] When Erdogan praised Enver Pasha in 2020 in Baku, he was lauding a figure who both was implicated in the Armenian Genocide and personified Turkish expansionary ambitions in the Caucasus and Central Asia.[10]

Imperial history and national pride don't have to be toxic. But they can be easily manipulated to be so. There were many massacres during the rule of the Ottoman Empire; the Armenian Genocide was just the most extreme. In the 19th century alone, the Ottomans responded to the rebellion of subject peoples with extreme brutality, as with the Greeks of Chios in 1822 and the Bulgarians of 1876. Other massacres, such as that of Arab Christians in Damascus in 1860 and the Hamidian massacres of Armenians and Assyrian Christians in 1894-1896, were stoked by religious bigotry and economic pressure.

But there was also notable tolerance and pluralism in the Ottoman Empire, that gave refuge to Iberian Jews and European Protestants, and where minorities flourished for centuries. This same empire saw subject peoples – Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, and Armenians – rise to high office. This is also the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century Tanzimat reforms, which sought sincerely to give greater rights to all the peoples of the empire no matter their religion. An imperial narrative can be forged that builds on that cosmopolitanism, on a pluralistic self-image and on positive international ties. Or that same imperial history can be cherry-picked and built for war, violence and intolerance. It has been, sadly, much easier to forge the latter in Erdoğan's Turkey.

The Biden off-ramp remains open for Erdogan's regime. But backtracking is not easy when you've sedulously invested and built to go in the other direction.


*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], April 24, 2021.

[2], April 26, 2021.

[3], February 15, 2018.

[4], January 5, 2021.

[6], April 23, 2021.

[7], June 18, 2018.

[8], February 22, 2017.

[9], April 25, 2021.

[10], December 15, 2020.

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