For Turkey, Denying An Armenian Genocide Is A Question Of Identity


April 24 2015

Analysis: Turkey’s national identity is built on a carefully crafted
and tightly controlled version of history

April 24, 2015 7:00AM ET by Caleb Lauer

“In one ear, out the other,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
said in anticipation of the European Parliament’s recently adopted
resolution “encouraging” Turkey “to come to terms with its past [and]
to recognize the Armenian genocide.”

When Pope Francis reiterated his predecessor John Paul II’s opinion
that what happened to Ottoman-Armenians during World War I was the
“first genocide of the 20th century,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet
Davutoglu said the pontiff was conspiring against Turkey. This week
Turkey recalled its ambassador to Austria, after its parliament
recognized “the terrible events as genocide” — a step Ankara said
“permanently damaged” the countries’ relations.

Turkey’s refusal to heed others’ insistence that it accept that the
mass killing of Ottoman-Armenians in 1915 constituted genocide is
usually expressed in tones of animus, shaming and national pride. At
the same time, foreign condemnation often misses the mark, encourages
deniers and helps Turkish politicians at home. The heat generated by
such exchanges obscures the reality that Turkey’s denial is as much
about the country’s democratic deficit as it is about the emotive
elements emphasized by both accusers and apologists.

Historical evidence indicates that during World War I, Ottoman leaders
— specifically Mehmet Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmet Cemal, the Young
Turk triumvirate — decided to eliminate Anatolia’s Armenians. On April
24, 1915, the day before Britain and France attacked at Gallipoli, some
250 Armenian notables in Istanbul were arrested, packed into trains and
sent to join the hundreds of thousands of other Armenians soon to be
massacred or driven out to their deaths in the Syrian desert. Children
were kidnapped. Property was seized. Many people were shot dead. Many
died of thirst. Between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians perished,
and Anatolia was effectively emptied of the community.

Turkey has said the Armenian victims were simply one part of the
hundreds of thousands of Ottoman civilians of various ethnicities
killed in war violence, thus avoiding the question of whether a
decision had been taken to annihilate the Armenians.

But to understand Turkey’s position today, it is important to
understand what has happened there since 1915.

The Ottoman Empire lost the war. With Istanbul occupied, Ottoman
territory was being parceled out to Western powers. But a Turkish
nationalist army, led by Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk), eventually
liberated Anatolia; modern Turkey was founded in 1923. Abolishing
the sultanate and caliphate, Ataturk and his associates established a
Western-oriented, secular republic. But the remarkable, avant-garde
creation of a Turkish nationality and nation-state required drastic
social engineering to repudiate the Ottoman past and give the new
republic a new, Turkish identity.

The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 legalized a forced “population exchange” —
Greeks out of Anatolia, Muslims in. Any remaining Greeks, Armenians or
Jews have largely disappeared over the years, suffering pogroms, tax
persecution and dispossession. The state took control of and remains
the sole administrator of Sunni Islam in the country, marginalizing
other Muslim traditions such as Alevism. Non-Turkish Muslims —
Kurds for example — were expected to assimilate. Ataturk by edict
changed the Turkish alphabet and adopted Latin script, leaving later
generations unable to read Ottoman and Islamic texts. The official
Turkish History Thesis essentially invented a past for the Turks.

This provoked challengers, of course, and the Turkish state has
long responded as if deeper and wider knowledge of the cost of the
Turkish national project — in terms of the oppression and control of
historical knowledge required — could undermine it. The Turkish army
has deposed four Turkish governments since 1960, each time setting
the country’s democratic development back and reinforcing the laws
and mechanisms of this control. The country’s human rights activists
like to say that the Turkish state and its national project has always
been well protected from its citizens.

What happened to the Armenians — and Turkey’s obfuscation — is
inseparable from this national project. It is the mother of Turkey’s
Pandora’s boxes, the opening of which would mean re-evaluating,
reinterpreting, uncovering and unsilencing all the aspects of Turkey’s
history heretofore protected by taboos, laws, state-written textbooks
and state-serving academics. Confronting the the stains of the past
is integral to the project of Turkey’s democratization.

Davutoglu, responding to the European Parliament’s exhortation to
recognize an Armenian genocide, said, “What was done in Africa during
colonialism? What was done in Asia? What was done in Australia? …

Where are the Aborigines?”

But the answers to those questions are no longer secrets — because
in democracies, the state is unable to control knowledge and memory.

That’s why commemorating 1915 has been so important to so many Turkish
activists, and it helps explain the more open attitude toward the
topic in Turkey since the Justice and Development Party, or AKP,
came to power in 2002 and succeeded in pushing the Turkish military
out of politics. When the army ruled, talking about anything other
than the “so-called genocide” or “Armenian lies” meant prosecution
and harassment. Today, exhibitions, conferences, talk shows, films,
books and newspaper columns all broach the subject in explicit
terms. In 2009, Turkey sought to reconcile with Armenia; the deal
called for a historical commission. Tens of thousands of Turks have
signed their names to an “I apologize” campaign. Journalist Hasan
Cemal, Ahmet Cemal’s grandson, is a major voice calling for Turkey
to understand what happened to the Armenians. Since 2010, activists
— mostly Turkish — have commemorated the tragedy on April 24 in
Istanbul’s Taksim Square. And last year, on the 99th anniversary,
Erdogan used remarkable language, extending “condolences” to Armenians.

It looks unlikely Turkish leaders will go further for the centenary,
not least because it is a campaign season in Turkey. The June 7
general election is high-stakes, and in Turkey, campaigns are fought
with nationalism. Seething rivalries aside, the AKP and two opposition
parties jointly condemned the European Parliament’s resolution. Many
Turkish politicians seize chances to deny foreign accusations of
genocide like free money. And most important, whatever democratic
optimism the end of military tutelage brought has long expired.

The government is using the centenary of the Gallipoli landings to
deflect attention from commemorations in Armenia. Geopolitical logic
appears to have again saved Turkey from the eventuality of the White
House uttering the word “genocide.”

Most Turks’ denial was learned in school and reinforced by various
media emphasizing the treachery of those Armenians who backed the
invading Russians, foreign powers’ manipulation of Ottoman minorities,
conspiracy, possible loss of territory to “Greater Armenia,” greed
for reparations and the dozens of murdered Turkish diplomats killed
by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia.

Many simply cannot accept that their forefathers may have committed
such a crime — a position that becomes more unyielding the more
that shaming Turkey becomes the goal and the more that the Turkish
government plays this up. Less appreciated is the chance here for
empathy. Hrant Dink, a Armenian-Turkish journalist assassinated in
2007, once said, “To the Armenians I say, Try to see some honor in the
Turks’ position. They say, ‘No, there was no genocide, because genocide
is a goddamned thing that my ancestors never could have done.’ And to
the Turks I say, Dwell for a moment on what the Armenians are saying
and ask yourself why they insist so much.”