Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Heart of the Matter

Turks extend messages of mourning for the Armenian victims of the 1915 Ottoman massacres of an estimated 1.5 million people during a series of forced deportations. AFP Photo from Hurriyet Daily News

For the second time in his presidency, President Obama avoided using the word "genocide" in his Aprl 24 commemoration of the massacres and mass deportations of over one million Armenians living in Ottoman Anatolia in 1915. While some might take this as a victory for Turkey, such a reading is sadly mis-informed. The real victory for Turkey is that a debate is occurring in this country, the proportions of which are not appreciated to the degree that they should be in Western countries passing these resolutions.

While Obama eschewed the word "genocide" yesterday, a group of Turks went to Taksim Square to commemorate the massacres, marking the day with memorials to victims and messages of reconciliation, both with the past and with Armenians in the present. The message of the protest: "This is our pain. This is a miurning for all of us." Additionally, a group of Turkish intellectuals issued a statement reiterating their regret of the massacres, recognizing the pain of their Armenian brothers and sisters, and calling for solidarity between Turks and Armenians. Two years ago, the same group had organized a petition since circulated around Turkey apologizing for what Armenians themselves call "The Great Catastrophe," and though the petition did not mark the events with the legal label"genocide" (its signatories were largely not qualified in the fields of law and history to do so -- nor, importantly, are the politicians and lobbyists who work on this issue), the move was a risky one that was open to all of Turkish society -- an important fact, regardless of the number who signed. Additionally, hundreds of Turks continue to take great risks despite continued restrictions on the freedom of expression in order to write articles and discuss the massacres, opening up the debate and pushing it forward despite tremendous threats to themselves and their families (see Dec. 8, 2008 post). Let us also not forget the huge masses of people that came out onto the streets to honor Hrant Dink, carry signs blazoned with the memorable and still repeated phrase, "are are all Armenian." As the coverup of Dink's assassination continues, a large number of these supporters continue to protest the government's lacking investigation into Dink's murder, marking Jan. 19, the date of Dink's assassination, with as much importance in Turkey as April 24 (for this year's protests, see Jan. 23 post).

Talking about the grave sins of one's past is always the most difficult thing for people to do, and this is exactly what is happening in Turkey. Those who lobby on the Armenian question, whether Turks or Armenians, are but mere tools in the game. The real heroes, the true free-thinkers, are those on the Turkish and Armenian sides that have taken steps to question their own history, build cross-border contacts and connections, and step outside of themselves and the nationalist understandings of history they received as children to move their respective societies forward. While the politics of Washington is focused on which congressman supports what for whatever particular reason (almost all strategic, whether in terms of getting the vote of the Armenian diaspora or protecting/advancing bilateral ties with Turkey), the debate in Turkey is something more soulful, more inspiring, and without a doubt, important to watch and encourage. Protocols or no protocols, resolutions or no resolutions, I am confident this debate in Turkey will continue and advance over the coming years.

UPDATE I (4/27) -- Today's Zaman columnist Ihsan Dagi has a striking piece today on the issues I discussed in this post An excerpt:
For the last couple of years, a debate has been opened in Turkey. Conferences have been held, public gatherings have been organized and articles and commentaries have been published discussing different aspects of the Armenian massacre. Even the Turkish prime minster declared last May that “through fascistic approaches, we forced many to leave this country,” and he asked, “Did we do any good?”

As Turkey proceeds along the path of democratization, it has become common to debate Turkey’s past, including the Armenian question. An authoritarian regime with a monopoly on the interpretation of history and with its control of civil society does not allow free research and free debate. The past is presented in a way to legitimize the position of the established regime. This is fortunately changing. The democratization of Turkish politics and the liberation and diversification of civil society is allowing the emergence of plural ideas on the past including the Armenian massacre.

This process will certainly continue. But the critical point is that if debating 1915 is reduced to naming the events genocide, it may block the whole process. Such a strategy provokes Turkish nationalism, preventing the Turkish masses from being attentive to the thesis that contravenes the dominant view in the country. Thus to unlock the hearts and minds of the Turks at large necessitates abandoning the attitude of categorical accusation against the Turks over the 1915 events.

Of course the belief of Armenians should be respected, but they should also understand that the genocide claims make the reconciliation efforts between the Turks and Armenians almost impossible to attain. We can get out of the imprisonment of the past atrocities not by labeling but disclosing it. Calling it a genocide is the shortest way to close the debate. I think both societies should learn more about the time when disasters hit both the Armenians in Anatolia and the Turks in Anatolia and the Balkans. Thus the first thing to do is to let the sides share their stories without a language of accusation, to create empathy, understanding. This is possible.

UPDATE I (4/29) -- Another example of expanded debate in Turkey is the conference in Ankara that kicked off April 24. Katchdig Mouradian gives an account of it at
The conference, organized by the Ankara Freedom of Thought Initiative, was held under tight security measures. The hall where the conference was held was thoroughly searched in the mornings by policemen and security dogs, metal detectors were installed at the entrance of the hotel, and all members of the audience had to be cleared by the organizers before entering. Unlike the commemoration events in Istanbul, however, no counter-demonstrations were allowed to materialize.

The conference attracted around 200 attendees, mostly activists and intellectuals who support genocide recognition. Among the prominent names from Turkey at the conference were Ismail Besikci, Baskin Oran, Sevan Nishanian, Ragip Zarakolu, Temel Demirer and Sait Cetinoglu.

Besikci is the first in Turkey to write books about the Kurds “at a time when others did not even dare to use the ‘K’ word,” as one Turkish scholar put it. Besikci has spend years in Turkish prison for his writings. Oran is a professor of political science. He was one of the initiators of the apology campaign launched by Turkish intellectuals. Nishanian is a Turkish Armenian scholar who has authored several books and also writes for Agos. Zarakolu is a publisher who has been at the forefront of the struggle for Armenian Genocide recognition in Turkey with the books he has published over the years. Demirer is an author who has been prosecuted for his daring writings and speeches. Cetinoglu is a scholar and activist and one of the key organizers of the conference.

. . . .

was the first time that a conference on the Armenian Genocide that did not host any genocide deniers was held in Ankara. Moreover, the conference did not simply deal with the historical aspect of 1915. For the first time in Turkey, a substantial part of the proceedings of a conference was dedicated to topics such as confiscated Armenian property, reparations, and the challenges of moving forward and confronting the past in Turkey.

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