By Kani Xulam
March 31, 1998
[The following speech was made at Kay Center at American University Table Talk Series on March 31, 1998. The topic was, “The International Sale of Weapons: Should the U.S. Be An Arms Merchant?]
My short answer is an emphatic no. But just as other campaigns that have taken the road of “just say no”, this question too is a complex one and has as many opponents as it does proponents. My primary opposition to the sale of arms stems from the fact that I am a Kurd, on the receiving end of these deadly weapons that continue to kill my people and devastate, the place I call home, Kurdistan.
Today, I want to tell you how the sale of arms perpetuates oppression and retards the progress of human development. The case of Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire is a good example in point; as is the case of my people in the present day Turkey. How did the first got resolved and will the Kurds ever see the light of day? In other words, those who sell arms have their agendas; those who seek freedom have theirs. The two needs, the policy makers in Washington will tell you, often dovetail; the Bulgarians and the Kurds have a different tale to tell.
In 1870’s, the British press was deluged with news of atrocities from present day Bulgaria, then a province in Ottoman Empire. The dailies carried the drawings of beheaded Bulgarians who had shown the temerity to ask for what we would today call, political rights. Cold war was not invented then and so the debate in the newspapers and in the British parliament was portrayed as the struggle of Christians against the Turks, the Ottoman Empire.
The persecuted Christians had a friend in London, the Prime Minister of Britain, William Gladstone, who in 1876 thundered, “There is not a cannibal in the South Sea Islands whose indignation would not arise and overboil at the recital of that which has been done [in Bulgaria].” In the same year, at another parliamentary debate, he added, “Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiyes and their Mudurs, their Binbasis and their Yuzbasis, their Kaymakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall I hope clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned.”
Exactly 120 years later, on January 11, 1996, a British newspaper, The European, had a headline that read, “Pictures That Will Shock The World”. This time the decapitated heads were of Kurds, from a former Ottoman province called Kurdistan, but presently incorporated into the present state of the Republic of Turkey. This time the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street was John Major — but there was no public cry. In Washington, the sign at the State Department read, “Business As Usual”.
Lord Eric Avebury, a member of the British House of Lords who has become a persona non grata in Ankara today, has visited the region numerous times and he uses a quote by Tacitus to describe what the Turkish government has done in the Kurdish regions of the country: “Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appelant” or in English, “They made it a desolation and called it peace.”
What do these events have in common? What do they say about the arms sales? Is religion a factor in the formulation of foreign policy of one country toward the other? Are there other factors at play? What can we do to as students of politics to stop this march of folly from ever happening?
In the first instance, despite Prime Minister Gladstone’s indignation towards the sick man of Europe, the Ottomans, there were also the so called realists in his government, Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Istanbul, for example, who opposed the policy of punishing the Ottomans. In their view, Britain’s anti Turkish policy would only help the Russians who by moving closer to the straits would undermine the British national interests. So in Ambassador’s words, Britain’s policy toward Turkey should, “not [be] affected by the question whether it was 10,000 or 20,000 people who perished [in Bulgaria].”
As a result, the British support of Ottomans continued despite the rumblings in the parliament and the debate in the press. Ottoman armies, armed with the British and European arms, continued to exact a heavy toll on the Bulgarians. It took the Russians to liberate the Bulgarians and force the Turks, in the words of Gladstone, to leave, “one and all, bag and baggage”, from the province they had misruled for centuries.
In the second instance, the Turkish government continues with its policy of total pacification against the Kurdish rebels. This time it is the Uncle Sam that does most of the arming and the Turkish army has done a good job of drawing lessons from its Ottoman history to keep the Kurds in check. In the most recent Kurdish uprising for political rights in Turkey, some 30,000 people have died, more than 3.000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed and close to 4 million Kurds have become refugees.
The United States government has been the most generous towards Turkey. Ankara is the third highest recipient of the US foreign aid. The Turkish Army boasts of some of the most sophisticated weapons in its arsenal and most originate from the shores of this country. 240 F-16 fighter planes. 57 Black Hawk helicopters. A number of deadly Cobras. Over 1.000 tanks and hundreds of thousands of machine guns.
A number of arguments have been put forward for the sale of these weapons. Turkey is a NATO member and the US is obliged to arm it. Or, if the US doesn’t sell these weapons to Turkey, the arms merchants of other countries will. Or, Iran and Iraq are rogue states, countries that State Department believes support terrorism and both happen to share a long border with Turkey and hence Turkey’s strategic importance for the US policy makers.
So the debate with its pros and cons continues as does the destruction of Kurdish villages and the dislocation of millions of Kurds as destitute refugees. Some Kurds, like their Bulgarian counterparts a century ago, have taken up arms to do undo the Turkish presence from Kurdistan. For now, no Patron-Saint country appears on the horizon, the way Russia did for Bulgaria, to give a helping hand to the Kurds for their liberation. Eventually though, this student of history believes, Turkish soldiers will pack and leave, “one and all” the way the Ottoman soldiers did from Sofia and the rest of Bulgaria.
That day would come sooner if the United States stops selling arms to Turkey. That day would come sooner if Turkish generals stop meddling in the workings of the fledgling democracy in the country. That day would come sooner if you stop thinking as Americans or we as Kurds and if we all start thinking as world citizens. I hope that that day does come sooner rather than later. A world with Kurds and Bulgarians is a richer place irrespective of the logic of greedy arms merchants and their mouthpieces in seats of governments in London, in Washington or in Moscow. Thank you.