ISTANBUL: Paris’s Folly

Paris’s Folly
YAVUZ BAYDAR

Today’s Zaman
Jan 24 2012
Turkey

The French Senate’s passing of the bill which criminalizes the denial
of the mass deportations and massacres of the Ottoman Armenians in
1915 is simply an act of folly.

Let us first ignore the disproportionate and questionable (in
principle) reaction of Ankara, which seems to echo the folly at new
heights. Regardless of that, the vote on Monday night will serve
nothing good, other than the short-term interests of the French
politicians. But, in the mid- and long-term perspective, it will set
a negative example of how the French decision-makers attempt to limit
the area of free speech and cause delays in Turkey’s social process
of reconciliation of the disaster and bringing it to a closure.

To begin with, the text of the law is problematic. Both of the
terms used to describe the ‘crimes’ (‘outranciere’ – ‘outragous’ and
‘minimiser’ – ‘to minimize’) – defined as ‘genocide’. These terms
are, to say the least, ambiguous, and open to interpretation. And,
I am inclined to believe, the law contradicts the Article #34 of
Constitution of France. Namely the part, that goes: ‘…civic rights
and the fundamental guarantees granted to citizens for the exercise
of their civil liberties; freedom, diversity and the independence
of the media; the obligations imposed for the purposes of national
defence upon the person and property of citizens…’

It is a domestic matter for the French to take the issue further,
but I have an inkling it will flare up only after the presidential
elections. This is exactly as described in an Anatolian proverb:
“A madman throws a stone into a well, it takes 40 [sane] men to take
it out.” What happens, say, if Turkish, German or Russian military
archives (still fully coiled or with strictly limited access) offer
new aspects in the future for academics to question the thesis of
“Armenian Genocide”? It may be a weak prospect, but what if? No doubt,
the current law already puts a great strain on the freedom of French
scholarship on the subject.

What unites Turkey and countries like France is their willingness
to restrict freedom of speech in the matter of genocide. True, in
many cases, the denial of crimes of this nature can fall into the
domain of racism and sheer hatred, thus offending the victims’ kin,
but more often it is used worldwide to exercise skeptical views,
doubt, nuances and civilized objections.

In Turkey, there are many such examples of people who fall into the
latter category, separate from Armenian-haters or nationalists,
and their restraint in calling it genocide is based on the lack
of proper debate, and French-like laws — such as Article No. 301
of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) — which scare them from debating
freely. Therefore, many of us here fight firmly to have Article 301
fully abolished so that more and more Turks can be informed and reach
their own conclusions. The more they have access to diverse views,
the more revived their conscience will be to face the Great Pain
of the Armenians. The less third-party interventions by legislating
history and through memory laws, the easier the process. Thus, Paris
has only hit the brakes on this one.

The immediate effect of the folly is the mutual political
instrumentalization of the tragedy. As described spot-on by Timothy
Garton Ash in The Guardian newspaper, (“In France, genocide has become
a political brickbat,” Jan. 18): “..a tragedy which should be the
subject for grave commemoration and free historical debate, calmly
testing even wayward hypotheses against the evidence, is reduced to an
instrument of political manipulation, a politician’s brickbat. The
corpse counts of yesterday are parlayed into the vote counts of
tomorrow. You accuse me of genocide, I accuse you of genocide.”

The Armenian diaspora in France and elsewhere may feel (with
justification from their perspective) relieved, and many Turks —
still not fully aware of the crimes of humanity in their past —
feel outraged, but what brings them together is the usage of their
lack of closure by outside actors. They are abused. France is not,
will never be, on the high moral ground on this one.

A good sign, after all, is the reaction by Turkey’s Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday. By underlining “patience and calm,” he
is now on the right track to reduce the tension. Where does he stand
on 1915? Not so clear, but he is the one that initiated the Turkish
glasnost 10 years ago — a process that moves in slow motion and hits
bumps on the path. The awakening is now a fact, and irreversible.

The process of Turkey’s glasnost is based on taking into account the
bloody tradition of the Young Turks and the Committee of Union and
Progress, which set the patterns 100 years ago through a series of
erratic moves and crimes against humanity. If anything, Erdogan knows
what he is up against and who in Turkey supports him if he aims for
historic closure.

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