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On Jan. 24 the French Senate passed a bill to criminalise denial that the killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16 amounted to genocide. The law has caused Franco-Turkish relations to plunge to an unprecedented nadir. The car crash was obvious long in advance, which only made it – and the predictable reaction that followed – all the more painful to watch. France had already officially “recognised” the genocide in 2001, but the new law goes one step further, making it illegal for a French citizen to publicly question the events. The signatures of enough French lawmakers have since been collected to challenge the bill in the French constitutional court, which is where it sits now. But if it ends up passing that test and going into the statute books, those found guilty will be landed with a maximum 45,000 euro fine and one year in jail. In the days leading up to the vote, thousands of French-Turks demonstrated in the streets of Paris to protest the law, and on the day of the vote rival groups of Turks and Armenians – separated by police – gathered outside the French Senate, waving flags and blowing whistles.

Some expressed quiet surprise at the apparent “moderation” of the Turkish response, although if that was “moderate” one wonders what the “extreme” reaction would look like. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan railed furiously against the bill and threatened strong concrete measures – including economic sanctions and recalling the Turkish ambassador from Paris – if it wasn’t revoked: “This is politics based on racism, discrimination and xenophobia. This is using Turkophobia and Islamophobia to gain votes, and it raises concerns regarding these issues not only in Francebut all Europe.” According to Erdoğan, the vote disturbingly echoes the “footsteps of fascism.” “The votes in the French Parliament and the proposal that has been adopted are an open demonstration of discrimination and racism and amount to a massacre of free thought,” he said. “This bill has removed the atmosphere of free discussion [inFrance]. The principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, which form the basis of the French Revolution, have been trampled on.” Other Turkish politicians and diplomats have also revelled in casting themselves as defenders of the liberal European ideal. Vice chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ömer Çelik, took to twitter to claim: “Sarkozy is turningFranceinto Bastille Prison step by step.” Chief Turkish EU negotiator, Egeman Bagis, similarly tweeted: “I celebrate 40,000 Turks marching against the bill to defend the French Revolution’s values.”

The prospect of Turkish politicians posing as modern day Voltaires, protesting in defence of the principles of the French Revolution must be irresistible for the satirist. Such a stance might appear more sincere if Article 301 of Turkey’s own constitution didn’t make it punishable by law to “insult Turkishness.” It might also if there weren’t currently more journalists locked up in Turkish jails than there are in China (95 at the last count); or if Turkey didn’t rank 148th out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index; or if Turkey wasn’t by far the worst violator of human rights among the 47 signatory states of the European Convention on Human Rights; or if that same court hadn’t received nearly 9,500 complaints against Turkey for breaches of press freedom and freedom of expression in 2011 (compared with 6,500 in 2009). A distinct tendency towards authoritarianism has been unmistakably creeping into the AKP’s rule of late, perhaps giving some perspective to this most recent outburst in defence of European liberalism.

And the French defence? There isn’t much to be said. Before the vote, President Sarkozy claimed: “The genocide of Armenians is a historic reality that was recognised by France. Collective denial is even worse than individual denial […] We are always stronger when we look our history in the face, and denial is not acceptable.” Nevertheless, the law is widely understood to be a cynical piece of electioneering, the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) having bowed to the active and well-organised Armenian lobby in Paris, and seeking to secure the 500,000 French-Armenian votes ahead of this spring’s French Presidential election. The move will also doubtless serve to further paralyse Turkey’s already-moribund EU accession bid, which Sarkozy repeatedly makes clear he opposes. There may also be some truth in the accusation that the UMP is seeking to curry favour with France’s populist right-wing, with a move targeted at a Muslim minority.

The question of whether national governments should legislate on how historical events are remembered is probably an unanswerable one. But that won’t stop both sides attempting an answer to fit their own national political agendas. Do you think those 40,000 angry Turks were protesting on the streets of Paris out of earnest concern for Enlightenment values and in sincere defence of free speech? Such lofty protestations are mere fig leaves. Whether it’s Sarkozy opportunistically chasing votes in return for laws, or the Turks spuriously invoking the French Revolution and defending some destructive, nebulous idea of “national honour,” both sides are cynically invoking the high-minded language of moral righteousness to pursue squalid political ends.

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On 23rd November the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, officially offered a state ‘apology’ for the massacre of thousands of Alevi Kurds that took place in the eastern province of Tunceli (formerly Dersim) in 1937-1939. Without wading into the rights and wrongs of today’s politicians apologising for yesterday’s crimes, well-meaning observers – including many in the Western media – have responded approvingly, citing this as the latest evidence of a democratising, self-critical Turkish politics in action. If sincere, Erdoğan’s words would have been a brave and commendable, but there are reasons to be sceptical.

The Prime Minister knows that he has nothing to lose from such an apology, (feeble as it was in any case: “If an apology is required on behalf of the state and if such precedents exist, I am apologizing”). The current Justice and Development (AKP) government will hardly be held accountable for events that took place whilst under single-party, Republican People’s Party (CHP, current opposition), rule seventy-five years ago. Whilst apologising “on behalf of the state”, Erdoğan used the opportunity to lay down the gauntlet to the CHP, declaring that it was the real culprit behind the events: “The party that should confront this incident is not the AKP. It is the CHP which was behind this bloody disaster”. Evidently, the primary motivation behind opening up this issue at this time wasn’t to have an honest, sensible debate about a difficult issue, but rather to launch the government’s latest attack on the opposition. Instead of using the opportunity to reflect modestly on some of the darkest days in the history of the Turkish republic, Erdoğan has cynically exploited a sensitive issue to score cheap political points. The spectacle is nauseating.

For a number of complex reasons Tunceli – with its predominantly Alevi population – has traditionally been a strong supporter of the secular establishment, and thus of the CHP. In the parliamentary elections earlier this year the province again voted for a CHP representative, making it something of a novelty in the Anatolian hinterland (consider this map: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/2011_Turkish_general_election_english.svg to see why). Could electoral calculations have anything to do with the Prime Minister’s opening up of the issue at this time, and in such a combative way? Political scientist Doğu Ergil reflected: “I wonder if Erdoğan would have done the same thing if the perpetrators had been close to his political views”, before going on to suggest that the debate “shouldn’t be limited to the Dersim killings. Turkey should also apologize for the 1915 Armenian killings and the Sept. 6-7, 1955, events, which resulted in the mass exodus of minorities from the country”. Don’t hold your breath.

Apparently it isn’t possible to stimulate an honest conversation about the darker episodes of the country’s history without seeking political reward; it isn’t possible to reform the judiciary without leaving a legacy of overbearing party political control; it isn’t possible to de-fang the military without simultaneously loading the police with your own supporters. Yet again the convenient narrative of Turkey’s steady democratisation is exposed as, at best, flawed.

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