Tuesday, August 28, 2007

ISTANBUL, Turkey. — Some developments, good or bad, can catch us so fully by surprise that they feel like a joke. But the best jokes are a reflection of an emotional threat as they mirror the truth.

Today, the Turkish Parliament will appoint Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as the country’s 11th president. Since April, Mr. Gul’s candidacy has divided Turks. Turkey went to early elections as a result of this unrest and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a significant victory. Nevertheless, that doesn’t negate the millions of protesters who demonstrated in order to try to prevent Mr. Gul and his wife, who wears a headscarf, from assuming office. The protesters fear a president with a background in political Islam. But they have to take this day as a joke, hoping that it will bring laughter of unity at the end. Yet they have reason to be concerned.

Recently, Bekir Coskun, a prominent secular-minded columnist, wrote that he would not feel comfortable calling Mr. Gul “my president.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would not tolerate such criticism. “Some say that [Mr. Gul] cannot be their president,” he said. “If they can say such things, first, they need to have their Turkish citizenship revoked. They can go wherever they want, and elect whomever they want.” Soon, Mr. Coskun received death threats. The Turkish media rallied to his defense — supporting the right to speak freely and criticize the government, regardless of whether or not they agreed with his position. Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman later issued a statement backpedaling from the attack.

Turkish government officials have blindly refused to acknowledge that they need to watch what they say, lest their “declarations” touch off reactionary violence. Last week, the U.S.-based advocacy group the Anti-Defamation League announced that what happened to the Armenians at the end of World War I is “tantamount to genocide.” The group also made clear that they “[c]ontinue to firmly believe that a Congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.” Mr. Gul responded by saying that Israel would pay a heavy price if it does not renounce the ADL’s position.

When Mr. Gul visited Washington earlier this year, he explained that “the reason the Jewish lobby gives support to Turkey on this issue is clear: because Turkey’s relationship with Israel is important to them.” Reading the ADL statement with this thought process in the background, that the bill “[m]ay put the Turkish Jewish community at risk,” feels like another joke. Many Turks would never hurt their Jewish community. But there are the reactionaries who could be spurred to violent anti-Semitic and nationalistic action by such comments. Turks must not allow controversy over Armenian genocide claims to hijack their relationship with Israel. The AKP must fight Turkish anti-Semitism. Israel and the Jewish lobby have worked with Turkey for decades to prevent the U.S. Congress from passing such bills. In return, Turkey failed to build its own lobby to do its own work.

Turkey must acknowledge that a good relationship with Israel is vital to its relationship with the West. In a recent interview, Pinhas Avivi, Israel’s ambassador to Ankara, told me that Turkey can only benefit from good relations with Muslim Arab states, the European Union, the United States and Israel. “[Y]ou are not important for our state unless you have good relations with me… If you don”t have good relations with the U.S. and Arab states, you are not important for the EU,” he said. The ADL statement highlights how the Armenian genocide bill has strained Turkey’s relations with its Western alliance, though.

Turkey’s president — and all of the country’s elected representatives — must be more mindful about the words they use when talking about such sensitive issues. Turkey’s reactionary and violent element murdered the beloved Armenian journalist Hrant Dink earlier this year, and the AKP government has thus far failed to support bringing justice to this crime.

In the end, harsh rhetoric backed with poor work has a dear price: affecting Turkey’s most sensitive foreign policy matters in Washington. But this debate proves that the bill in the U.S. Congress is less about confronting history and more about politics. A public opinion poll conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow shows that Turks want this issue to come to a conclusion. “We found out that the Turkish people overwhelmingly oppose any kind of resolution in the U.S. Congress on this issue,” Ken Ballen, president of Terror Free Tomorrow, told me. Turks feel Congress is not a neutral body to judge their history, Mr. Ballen said. The most important finding in the poll — the first to examine Turks’ feelings on the issue — is that “three quarters of the Turkish people said they would be willing to accept independent historians coming up with judgments on what occurred during Turkish history,” Mr. Ballen said.

Turks’ real desire is for everyone to be open-minded on this issue, and look at history without current judgments — offering both opportunity and responsibility to everyone who wants to end this debate. They believe the last chapter of their history has not been written, but that it is up to them, not Congress, to write it.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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