Beyond the genocide debate
“Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statement of condolence to the Armenians was a milestone in Turkey’s history.”
This was the first sentence of my column in daily Hürriyet on April 26 last year.
The then Prime Minister Erdoğan had made an unprecedented move in Turkish history by issuing an official statement offering condolences to Armenians on April 24, the 99th anniversary of the Armenian massacres.
This year, however, April 24 arrives in Turkey in a totally different atmosphere. The declaration of Pope Francis last Sunday that “the Armenian Genocide is the first genocide of the 20th century” and the resolution adopted by the European Parliament last week urging Turkey to recognize the genocide have rekindled the longstanding genocide debate in the country.
In my piece last year, I described Erdoğan’s message of condolence as follows:
“For the first time, Turkey has not denied and has accepted the grief of Armenians. For the first time it has spoken with its conscience, saying “mutual history” and “mutual pain.” For the first time Turkey has eliminated third parties and addressed the Armenians directly. For the first time it has not been defensive and it has taken responsibility. For the first time Turkey has emphasized a mutual future with the Armenians.”
Up until then, the official paradigm had been different. The non-Muslim community in Turkey was eliminated through different ways during the Republican era. The population exchanges between Turkey and Greece, the Wealth Tax imposed by the state only on non-Muslims, and the fact that the assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 was overlooked by various state officials, are only some of the illustrations of this mentality.
By ignoring the Armenian massacres of 1915 until last year, the state kept that mentality alive. The message of condolence therefore signaled the process of confrontation with the issue.
However this was only a phase of a long process. The organization of a conference titled “Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire” in Istanbul in 2006, the online campaign titled “I Apologize,” which was launched in 2008 and which collected over 30,000 signatures, and the protocols signed by Turkey and Armenia in 2009 were the cornerstones of this process.
But there has also been another process in progress - between the West and the Armenian diaspora. The European Parliament had also issued a resolution recognizing the genocide, like the recent one, in 1987. Pope Francis’ recent message had also previously been issued in a written statement by Pope John Paul II in 2001.
What we need to recognize is that these two processes are not independent of each other. Turkey gets distressed and shaken by every step taken by the West and the diaspora. And this, in turn, runs the tape back and damages the process of confronting history. Vice versa, every counter-attack of Ankara affects the diaspora negatively.
Alas, we have been stuck in this vicious circle for decades.
The only way to break this cycle is to continue the confrontation process in Turkey no matter what, instead of reacting sharply and reviving the pre-2014 mentality every time the issue arises.
The next step could be issuing an apology to the Armenians, whose pain we shared last year, and offering to grant Turkish citizenship to the descendants of Armenians who were displaced or killed.
Only such steps will be able to take us beyond the genocide debate.
What’s more, we should recognize that this has become a very artificial and hypocritical discussion. Politicians everywhere refer to the Armenian massacres according to the varying conditions of the day.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan had described the massacres as genocide in 1981, while President Obama gets through April 24 every year by avoiding the term “genocide” and instead using “Meds Yeghern” (Great Catastrophe). At the same time, however, Obama states that his personal view - that he recognizes the genocide - has not changed.
Last but not least, it is not enough to expect only the state to confront the past. Ordinary people themselves also need to face the traumas.
The public apology issued by the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroue regarding the Civil War in Lebanon between 1975-90 could serve as a guiding light:
“I apologize for having thought that my comrades and I were right and always on the right track. I apologize for not knowing the reasons and the roots of the civil war, which I claimed to understand.”
It is time to question ourselves: Do we know the reasons and roots of the traumas of Armenians? Do we think that we are always right?