A Plea To The Next French President

A PLEA TO THE NEXT FRENCH PRESIDENT
By Karabekir Akkoyunlu

International Herald Tribune, France
May 2 2007

These are uncomfortable times for young, cosmopolitan Turks who want
their country to have a European future. Especially troubling is the
downturn in relations between our nation and the country on which the
Turkish republic, and its firmly secular Constitution, were modelled
– France.

Young Turks of my generation are, to put it mildly, interested in the
result of the French presidential election: Will it be won by Nicolas
Sarkozy, an opponent of Turkey’s membership in the European Union,
or by Segolène Royal, who is more open to the idea of Turkish entry?

Either way, the new occupant of Elysee Palace will have to cope with
a rapid short-term decline in relations between the two republics –
a decline that is worrying to European-minded Turks of all ages.

Only a few weeks ago, Turkey suspended talks with the French gas
company, Gaz de France, over the Nabucco pipeline project that would
carry Caspian energy to Europe. Shortly before that, the Turkish
authorities made it harder for French planes to use their country’s
airspace.

These gestures are the latest symptoms of Turkey’s official dismay
over a law passed by the French Parliament last year that makes
it a criminal offense to deny that the Ottoman Armenians suffered
genocide in 1915. Similar legislation exists in Switzerland. In Turkey,
meanwhile, people who assert the opposite – that genocide did occur –
can face prosecution under the penal code introduced in 2005.

The net result is that efforts to understand a complex historical
period have been reduced to a single yes or no question: Was there
a genocide?

As Turks who attend universities in the West (I am studying in England;
many of my friends study in France or Germany) we are in an awkward
position. Leaving behind the conformist atmosphere of our homeland,
we feel a challenge to look beyond the traditional answers to the
hard questions about our national history. At the same time, many of
us are conscious of being representatives of a country whose European
credentials are under scrutiny.

In practice, some Turkish students react by forming close-knit groups
that follow the official line. These groups do battle in campus
debates with equally aggressive students who want the 1915 tragedy to
be classified as genocide. Such debates involve repeating memorized
animosities, while saying nothing new, and learning nothing new.

The alternative is to plunge into open-ended historical discussions
without assuming there is a single, black-and-white answer. Many
of us feel that this bloody chapter of the 20th century cannot be
summed up by a simple yes or no. But this conclusion makes our lives
more difficult, because shades of grey satisfy nobody. In trying
to understand the tragedy that shapes the Armenian psyche, we risk
being ostracized by fellow expatriates, and denounced by hard-liners
back home.

Nor does openness to dialogue about the events of 1915 win many
points with the "other side." The mere fact that we don’t begin the
conversation with a submissive yes means we are still dismissed as
"Turks in denial" – and potential criminals in the eyes of French or
Swiss courts.

Even if discussions about politics or history bear no fruit, we can
at least relate to one another as members of the same generation who
share common interests, as well as similar cultures. But finding a
common language proves difficult, as our "parents" in places like
Paris, Brussels and Ankara have given us none.

As students in foreign lands, we should in principle be more receptive
to new ideas than our compatriots back home. To some of us, at least,
it seems clear that a common understanding of the tragedies of World
War I will not be reached by a process in which one side, and then
another, reels off uncompromising arguments. The only hope is for
each side to take steps toward understanding the other.

So here is a plea to the victor of the French election. Monsieur le
president (or Madame la presidente), do not make things any harder
for the young people of Turkey. There are a lot of us – nearly a
third of the Turkish population is under 16 – and one way or another,
we will make a difference to Europe’s destiny.

Karabekir Akkoyunlu is studying international relations at the
University of Cambridge.

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