Turkey's evolving denials of the Armenian Genocide

erku's picture

Many across the Jewish community in the United States seemed to have breathed a sigh of relief when the influential Anti-Defamation League acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. The growing gap between public understanding of the historical events and the political concerns of the Jewish-American leadership over relations with Turkey had become untenable.

The longstanding policy of the Turkish government to deny the Armenian Genocide has suffered yet another embarrassment. Virtually everywhere the Armenian diaspora has a presence it has had its voice heard by local communities and host governments. With one major exception, the United States, twenty countries have on record formally recognized the Armenian Genocide.

It is no secret that the Jewish community has been divided over the issue of U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide. To curry favor with Turkey on behalf of Israel’s security and strategic interests, most key organizations representing the Jewish-American community in Washington have supported the Turkish Embassy’s lobbying strategies to hinder approval of congressional resolutions. Of course they are not alone in opposing such legislation. The Departments of State and Defense have also consistently disagreed with proposed congressional resolutions on the argument that relations with Turkey would be harmed. There is no real evidence that relations between Turkey and the United States would rupture as nothing of the sort has happened upon recognition by other countries. Nor can it be argued that a relationship built upon a half-century long United States - Turkey alliance is so shaky that it can be undone by one congressional resolution. Still the debate continues.

What is apparent through all this is the failure of the Turkish government to convince the rest of the world of its position on the events of 1915, That position, which only twenty-years years ago was unchallenged is now viewed as inconsistent with the facts and offensive in its propositions. How far Turkey has retreated is evident in the continuously evolving denial arguments manufactured somewhere in Ankara. As one case after another was discredited, more arguments were contrived. Even the politicians in Turkey have lost sight of where their government started and where it has ended up.

Turkey’s starting point was complete denial that anything out of the ordinary had occurred in Armenia in 1915. At best a program to relocate Armenians from the war zone with Russia was allowed and Ankara argued that this was done out of humane consideration for the benefit of the Armenians in order to remove them from harm’s way. This absurd line of argument proving too ludicrous to maintain for long was replaced with another arguing that wartime conditions precipitated the resettlement of the Armenians because they had become an unreliable population.

Heatedly denying the commission of atrocities, in the face of the growing evidence that began to be issued mostly retrieved from official archival sources, the enormous loss of life suffered by the Armenian population begged an explanation. First the theory of epidemics was promoted, attributing the death to passive causes. Then the theory of wartime military exigency and the lack of sufficient manpower to oversee the wholesale relocation of the Armenians was advanced, and thereby shifted the blame for the casualties to lawless elements and especially unruly Kurds. Finally a civil war was posited to deal with the matter of the scale of the atrocities. As dismissal of the evidence attesting to such could no longer be sustained, the denials began insidiously to imply that Armenians invited the calamity upon their own heads and got what they deserved by taking up arms. The argument also ignored the logic that if there was a civil war then there might have been legitimate cause for people to defend themselves. The blame was laid upon the victims for starting the conflict, ignoring the fact that the Ottoman state had fully equipped armed forces and Armenians constituted a largely unarmed civilian population.

When all failed, a country that had always prided itself in its military might contrived the strangest defense yet. If it is true that Armenians were subjected to genocide, the Turks were the victims of genocide also, a bizarre combination of admission and accusation that possibly made facing the historical evidence more palatable.

The pressure upon the public, the media and academia inside and outside Turkey to sustain these rationalizations only delayed the reckoning that was occurring in many quarters all across the globe. As the scholarship on the Armenian Genocide grew and improved, skepticism in academia retreated, so much so that a mere handful nowadays defends the official Turkish version of events. That scholarship proved rigorous enough to raise questions in the mind of Turkish academics. For a brief moment in 2005 they dared convene a conference in Istanbul to address the issues and possibly usher in a new beginning in the debate over the Armenian Genocide. In response prosecutors invoked Article 301 of the Turkish penal code criminalizing reference to the Armenian Genocide. Then the assassination in January of 2007 of the outspoken Hrant Dink, who was motivated by honorable intentions, spread fear and silenced those who had dared challenge the system.

Dink was allowed a public funeral and even the Turkish media conceded its shock upon the demise of man who never advocated violence and who passionately strived to cure some of the sources of the hatred that poisoned relations between Armenians and Turks. The reality of an independent Armenian state symbolized for him a new scope of possibilities and the Turkish media had found in him an interlocutor who could help explain the rancor and offer remedies.

In some small way perhaps the Turkish government thought that it could ease the situation by announcing the re-opening of the renovated Church of the Holy Cross, more simply known as Akhtamar, one of the very rare still intact places of worship once venerated by Armenians.

However, the occasion of the re-opening of Akhtamar was squandered by the lack of coordination with the Armenian community in Turkey and by the hoisting of the national flag and a giant poster of Ataturk upon the entrance to the church. Everyone is entitled to raising the flag of their country upon an appropriately positioned mast, but the hanging of a giant portrait of Ataturk where people once worshiped the Deity bespoke of the vast distance remaining between Armenians and Turks. The Turkish authorities may have wanted to leave the impression they had permitted the renovation of an Armenian church, and certainly they allowed the media to spread that notion widely. What they actually announced was the formal secularization of the onetime church as a museum and as a tourist site, and in so doing stressed less its renovation and more its appropriation as a Turkish cultural heritage site.

Finally, there is a long way to go before a common language is shared by Armenians and Turks. One thing is certain, however, the vindication of the memory of the Armenian Genocide has made men and women of conscience take note, and governments to take heed, and for some Turks to take steps toward a rapprochement that does not discard the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide that caused so much loss and so much injustice. - Source: ArmeniaNow.com

Add new comment