The Armenians should be good candidates for western sympathy. A small Christian nation with Muslim enemies, they were also one of the first victims of Soviet imperialism, which extinguished their short-lived independence in 1920.
But affairs in the Middle East are rarely that simple. The Armenians were actually less anti-Soviet than they might have been, because the Russians, as fellow-Christians, were traditional allies. And their main adversary, Turkey, became a key western ally and member of NATO, which posed an obstacle to western recognition of Armenian grievances – especially the genocide of 1915-17, in which more than a million Armenians were systematically massacred by Ottoman Turkey.
So support for the Armenians has tended to be a marginal cause, mostly found on the left (journalist Robert Fisk is a notable example). Recognition of the genocide has been resisted by the political establishment in both Britain and America. Even those who otherwise have little time for Muslim countries often side with the Turkish view – for example, neoconservative pundit Daniel Pipes, who favorably reviewed a book by Justin McCarthy, one of the leading minimisers of Turkish guilt for the massacres.
That’s the background to the revelation last week by the ABC that Parliament House in Canberra is to be the venue this Thursday for a talk by the very same Justin McCarthy, arranged by the Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance and titled “What happened during 1915-1923?” You can be sure that McCarthy’s version of what happened will be significantly at variance with that put by mainstream historians.
The ABC says that the venue was booked by Labor MP Laurie Ferguson. If so, it suggests his foreign policy views are a bit all over the place (although he’s obviously not the only one in that category); he previously attracted notice last year for defending the right of Labor members to support self-determination for West Papua.
It may be coincidence or it may be part of the same Turkish propaganda offensive, but the speaker of the Turkish parliament last week also weighed into the debate, warning the Sydney Morning Herald that any recognition by Australia of the Armenian genocide could jeopardise relations with Turkey, and condemning New South Wales MPs for having done just that back in May. He apparently maintained that reports of genocide were, of all things, “still inconclusive”.
Premier Barry O’Farrell, to his credit, fired back, saying “‘It’s deplorable anyone associated with the Turkish government would try and use next year’s centenary of the Gallipoli landing for political purposes.”
April 2015 marks the centenary of the beginning of the genocide as well as of the Gallipoli campaign; it would be the most obvious time for Australia to offer some mark of recognition to the Armenians. Strong statements of sympathy have been made in the past by, among others, Joe Hockey (who has Armenian ancestry) and Malcolm Turnbull. But Turkey’s reaction to any official move would be entirely predictable.
It’s only fair to say that Turkey’s case in relation to the Armenian genocide is not quite so far beyond the pale as the denial of Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. There was at least some military logic behind the extermination of the Armenians; as I said a few years ago, “questions about the Armenian genocide are not confined to the sort of lunatic fringe inhabited by the Holocaust-deniers.” But that’s setting the bar very low.
Yet it looks as if that fig leaf of historical “controversy” will be sufficient for the federal government to stay well away from the issue, at least until the centenary is safely over.