Erdogan’s Hypocrisy

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While routinely declaring that Israel’s behaviour toward Hamas is genocidal, Erdogan has consistently denied the real genocides carried out by Turkey.

Benny Morris

 · 8 min read

Athens, Greece, 19 May 2015. A Pontian man wears traditional costume during a ceremony to commemorate 19 May, which marks the Day of Remembrance for Pontian Greek Genocide. Shutterstock.
 

Israeli–Turkish relations have had their ups and downs over the past decade—mainly downs. To bolster his standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds and for religious, ideological, and political reasons, Turkey’s Islamist leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has supported both Hamas—even providing some of its military leaders with protection and a safe haven in Istanbul—and the Palestinian cause more generally. But he has held off on severing diplomatic relations with Israel for economic reasons—it would damage Turkish–Israeli commerce and Israeli tourism to Antalya—and because it would damage Turkey’s relations with both the US, its NATO ally, and with the European Union, to which he still hopes his country will one day gain admission.

But last October, Erdogan went one step further in his opposition to Israel. He expressed sympathy for the Hamas assault on southern Israel and, the following month, lambasted Israel’s counter-offensive in Gaza as a “genocide” and called Israel a “terrorist state,” in pointed contrast to the official American and European designation of Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Later, he denounced Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu as “worse than Hitler,” described Israel as “expansionist,” and declared that Israel’s counter-offensive was “worse than the Holocaust.” In recent days, Turkey has mobilised a small civilian “aid” flotilla designed to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. (Israel fears the flotilla may convey contraband and terrorists.)

On 9 April, Turkey announced that it had imposed serious economic sanctions against Israel, banning the sale of such products as cement and iron to the Jewish state. That same day, I received an email from Tryfon Topalidis, a Greek scholar researching the 1923 destruction by Turkish Muslims of a cluster of Anatolian Greek villages in the mountains near Adana. That small outbreak of ethnic cleansing was the last chapter in the genocide of the country’s Greek minority population, which had begun in early 1914, before the start of World War One, when Christian communities were forcibly uprooted from Turkey’s Aegean coast. By the end of 1922, under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the “enlightened” founder of the Turkish republic), the Turks had butchered hundreds of thousands of Greeks and brutally expelled many more to the Greek mainland.

The massacre of the Greeks took place alongside the Turkish massacre of the country’s Armenian minority during the Armenian Genocide, and the mass murder of the country’s Assyrian Christian minority, which claimed between a quarter and half a million Assyrian lives. Together, Turkish Muslim peasants and townspeople, officials, gendarmes, and soldiers, assisted by Kurdish, Chechen, Circassian, and Arab tribesmen, murdered some two million Christians (there is no way of knowing the exact number) during the years 1894 to 1924 in three bouts of systematic massacre (1894–1896, 1915–1916, and 1920–1923). Greek historians maintain that one million of those murdered were Anatolian Greeks and Armenian historians usually speak of 1.5 million murdered Armenians.

Topalidis emailed me to inquire about American and British documents relating to the early 1923 massacre of Greek men, women, and children in the village of Gurumza (Gurumze) in Adana Province. He attached copies of Greek documents that reinforced the information conveyed in the reports written by Western diplomats and missionaries and American naval officers that I briefly summarize in my 2019 book The Thirty-Year Genocide, Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (co-authored with Dror Ze’evi).

One of the Greek documents contains the transcript of an interview with elderly Gurumza survivor Prodromos Fotiadis, who provides these recollections of 22 February 1923:

[It was a] very cold day  … The herald was shouting: “Let all young and old gather in the Church” … [Then] the Chetes [irregulars, brigands] said: “Let all the men go out into the Church yard.” … We were told to sit down. Says the chief: “Line them up for execution.”  … They start to shoot … Next to me they are killed … Four bullets passed through my chest … [Later, after the Chetes had gone] I shouted and a child came … He untied my hands … So, God spared me. In the meantime, the Chetes had chopped papa-Eustathios [one of the village priests] to pieces … inside the Church. Grenades were thrown into the Church from the windows. Then they brought grass … and piled it in the gynaeceum [the women’s section of the building] [and lit it] … The place was filled with smoke … That day the Turks slaughtered 70 men and 20 women and children in the Church. First of all, they slaughtered the three priests …

In a second document, dated 4 May 1923, the Greek consul-general in Beirut, Xenophon Stelakis, estimated the number slaughtered at “about 200.” The Gurumza survivors eventually made it to Greece, where they established the village of Neos Mylotopos, near Thessasaloniki.

It was not only non-Muslims who were massacred by Muslim Turks during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of the Turkish republic. Turkish nationalist passions motivated at least one other murderous chapter of ethnic cleansing: Between 1923 and 1930 many thousands of Kurds—some historians put the number as high as 87,000—were killed in a series of massacres, following outbreaks of Kurdish rebellion. Thousands more were killed over the following decades. Since 2016, Erdogan himself has presided over a policy of cultural repression against Anatolia’s Kurds, who represent 20 percent of Turkey’s population, while waging war against pro-independence Kurdish militants and their sympathizers in eastern Anatolia, Syria, and Iraq. Thousands of Kurds have died in these campaigns, many of them civilians.

Erdogan’s hypocrisy is mind-boggling. While routinely declaring that Israel’s behaviour toward Hamas is genocidal (“worse than Hitler”), he, like all previous Turkish leaders, has consistently denied the multiple real genocides carried out by his people over the past 140 years.

There can be no doubt that thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli bombing and shelling in the Gaza Strip over the past six months, but we cannot rely for exact figures on the statistics dispensed by Gaza’s Hamas-controlled Health Ministry. Some 12,000 of the dead, according to IDF calculations, were Hamas fighters embedded among and in the tunnels underneath Gaza’s civilian population—a population that is largely sympathetic to Hamas’s actions and goals, which include the destruction of Israel. In going after the Hamas units, the IDF inevitably killed many non-combatants. They died in a war initiated by Hamas. It is also striking that in all the Hamas-monitored television footage from Gaza over the past six months, no military-age male casualty has ever appeared—all the dead are women, old men, children, and babies.

In April 2021, after President Joe Biden officially recognised the Armenian genocide, Erdogan retaliated with a counteraccusation: “The Native Americans, I don’t even need to mention them, what happened is clear … You cannot pin the genocide accusation on the Turkish people.” In October 2019, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to recognize the Armenian genocide. (Prominent progressive Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar abstained.) Erdogan responded with bluster: “In our faith [i.e., Islam], genocide is definitively banned … We consider such an accusation to be the biggest insult to our people.”

The Armenian genocide has received worldwide recognition—though, to its shame, Israel has failed to acknowledge it. But, with the exceptions of Greece and Cyprus, no country has recognized the Greek genocide (though some European parliaments have). And, of course, the various Assyrian and Syriac churches (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, etc.), do not have a parent state to speak for them, so their genocide, which they call the Sayfo (Syriac for “sword”), generally goes unremembered, except by their exiled congregations dispersed around the world.

Erdogan routinely charges Israel with “expansionism.” He is right to do so when it comes to the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, and to some Israeli efforts over the decades to formally extend Israel’s sovereignty beyond the Green Line borders established in the 1949 Arab–Israeli armistice agreements. (After 1967, Israel annexed Arab areas around Jerusalem and, in the 1980s, extended Israeli jurisdiction to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War).

But Erdogan, who appears to be seeking to re-establish the Ottoman Empire or a Greater Turkey, is hardly in a position to complain about expansionism. In 1974, the Turkish Army invaded Cyprus and ethnically cleansed the northern third of the island of its Greek inhabitants. Since then, Ankara has ruled that area, as, in effect, a province of Turkey.

Ever since then, Greeks have feared further Turkish invasions. Greece has publicly downplayed, and even ignored, Turkey’s Greek genocide and ethnic cleansing, perhaps because Athens has been apprehensive about provoking the big bad wolf on its doorstep. The Greek fears are focused on their islands in the eastern Aegean. These fears are not unfounded. Turkish fighter jets routinely overfly Greek Aegean airspace and the islands— especially Lesbos, Chios, Samos, and the Dodecanese—are clearly in Erdogan’s sights. On 3 September 2022, Erdogan himself publicly threatened to invade the “occupied” Aegean islands; and on 11 December 2022, he talked of bombarding Athens with Turkish-made missiles.

Erdogan’s words appear to reinforce an ideology that has become increasingly prominent in Turkish media and academe, in which the waters west and south of Anatolia, encompassing the economically and strategically important, oil- and gas-rich Aegean islands, are seen as a part of Turkey’s “Blue Homeland” (mavi vatan). Five years ago, the Turkish Navy carried out an exercise called “Blue Homeland 2019” in these waters. Maps endorsed by officials of Erdogan’s party, the AKP, even show Crete—an island that was transferred from the Ottoman Empire to Greece in stages, over the period 1897–1908, as a result of Anglo-French pressure and local rebellions—as part of the Turkish state.

The Turkish Blue Homeland project dovetails with the Muslim Brotherhood’s overarching goal of substantially expanding the realm of Islam to ultimately encompass the whole of the Earth. Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot of the Egypt-based Brotherhood, and Hamas’s 1988 charter likewise states that the movement’s reach extends to “anywhere that there are Muslims … everywhere in the globe … to the depth of the earth and … to heaven … The movement is a universal one.”

Erdogan must be aware of the genocides carried out by the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic, even though, while denying the genocides, he accepts the conventional Turkish narrative that it was Christian rebelliousness and violence that provoked and justified Muslim ire. No doubt, Erdogan also feels that Turkey was unjustly deprived of parts of its realm, which were shorn away by Russia and the West during and after World War One and that these actions were partly driven by anti-Muslim sentiment. Erdogan views Turkey as a nation of almost 100 million people with a “glorious” past, which deserves a more prominent place in the sun. Unlike Germany or Japan, Turkey has never officially apologised for its past atrocities. Turkey and its leader remain unapologetic and unrepentant. Little wonder, then, that while Erdogan berates Israel for its expansionism, he is busy laying the groundwork for the territorial “adjustments” of a resurgent Turkey.

Benny Morris

Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and author. His books include 1948: A History of the First Arab–Israeli War (Yale UP, 2008) and most recently Sidney Reilly: Master Spy (Yale UP, 2022).

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