The price of denial

Why Turkey needs to come to terms with history

April 17, 2006
Source: The Weekly Standard (Washington, D.C.)

By Ellen Bork

IN ISTANBUL LAST OCTOBER, an acquaintance invited me to lunch with three participants in a conference of historians, journalists, and civil society activists that had recently been held at Bilgi University. Its subject was the fate of Armenians in Turkey during the early part of the 20th century.

Although it received far less attention abroad than the prosecution of novelist Orhan Pamuk for speaking publicly about the deaths of over one million Armenians and tens of thousands of Kurds, the conference was just as significant, demonstrating Turkish civil society's growing self-confidence in questioning the official line on the Armenian genocide--and the ruling AKP party's messy flexibility in allowing such questioning to take place. Postponed, then blocked in court after the justice minister called it a "stab in the Turkish nation's back," the conference finally took place with the public support of the prime minister.

According to my lunch companions, the conference participants agreed, as one put it, that these massacres were "deliberately done by a small group within the ruling party." In other words, without using the word "genocide," the specific elements of its definition are increasingly being accepted by Turkish society.

Describing the fate of the Armenians in Turkey as genocide is much less charged in the United States. "Turkish deniers are becoming the equivalent - socially, culturally - of Holocaust deniers," says author Samantha Power in The Armenian Genocide, a documentary by Andrew Goldberg and Two Cats Productions, to be broadcast Monday, April 17, on PBS. The one-hour program provides a compact, evocative, and visually rich treatment of the massacres by the Ottoman sultan's Hamidiye regiments in the late 19th century, and the 1915 deportations and massacres of approximately one million Armenians, including intellectuals from Constantinople, as Istanbul was then called. It also includes the campaign of assassination against Turkish diplomats by Armenian terrorists in the 1970s and '80s.

Even here, however, the matter remains fraught. When PBS decided to follow the documentary with a 25-minute debate among academics and authors, there were objections that this would suggest the genocide itself was in question. Some individual PBS stations, including the Washington and New York stations, have decided not to air the panel discussion.

The reason controversy persists has little to do with scholarship and everything to do with the role the United States plays as a battleground for efforts to achieve official recognition of the genocide. While the Armenian-American community ensures that the issue is brought up annually before Congress, Turkey, a NATO ally with a high diplomatic profile in Washington, wages a campaign that can be presumptuous. Speaking to the Congressional Study Group on Turkey last month, the Turkish ambassador admonished American congressmen to do their patriotic duty by voting down resolutions recognizing the genocide.

Paradoxically, the importance of the Holocaust to Americans ensures both sensitivity to the Armenian tragedy and a reluctance to accord it the significance of genocide. There is also a disinclination to criticize Turkey, a valuable Muslim ally of Israel. These considerations inform the views of Turkey's allies in the foreign policy establishment, of which conservatives constitute a significant part. Within the conservative camp, criticism of Turkey recently has been concerned mainly with an Islamic tilt under the ruling AKP, and growing anti-Americanism across the Turkish political spectrum. And, of course, Turkey's refusal to provide support for the Iraq war.

Little concern has been expressed about persisting limits on speech, which are frequently connected (in the Pamuk case and many others) to criticisms of Turkey's treatment of minorities, and its relationship to a Turkish national identity forged during a period of instability and imperial collapse.

As The Armenian Genocide demonstrates, it is precisely this historical background upon which a specious, yet persistent, objection to recognition of the genocide is based. In its most respectable form it is the contention that the deportations, massacres, and starvation of Armenians took place in a particular "context"--that is, amid (or in response to) rebellion and treachery from Turkey's Armenian population, in league with Russia.
"So, if the Armenians killed and were killed," Yusuf Halacoglu, head of the Turkish Historical Society, says in the film, "the fact is there were two sides involved in a civil war." The argument boils down to a claim that the events were not genocide but a response to provocation in which the victims, including unarmed women, children, and the elderly, brought on their fate.

It is a variation on the argument, made by some in the 1990s, that there was no obligation to stop the killing of Muslims by Serbs in Bosnia since the people of the region had been "killing each other for centuries." Both justifications are red herrings, which can be effective when made with confidence by articulate proponents.

In the documentary, Turkish historians reject this claim, providing historical context that enhances rather than undermines an understanding of the fate of the Armenians as genocide. The loss of Balkan territory, the flow of refugees from these Christian quarters of the empire telling of persecution--all combined, says Taner Akcam, to make "fear of collapse... [the] basic factor of the emergence of Turkish nationalism."

The effects of this fear have been profound, and the documentary's most compelling moments come when the Turkish historians describe their experience with their society's most stubborn taboo. Halil Berktay received death threats for being a "Turkish historian inside Turkey that has spoken up." He argues that the new Turkish republic, launched in 1923, dissociated itself from the past by adopting attributes of Western society, including secularism, and found itself embraced and courted by Western powers.

"All kinds of reasons like this made it undesirable for the young republic to maintain an honest memory of what had been done in 1915," says Berktay, and "as a result, you have an enormously constructed, fabricated, manipulated, national memory."

After decades of denial and silence, it took an act of courage for these historians to question the official version. Fatma Müge Göcek expresses the confusion she felt upon realizing "you could actually live in a society, get the best education that society has to offer, which I did, and not know about it or have any books or anything available to read about it."

This situation is changing, as this documentary and events like the Bilgi conference make clear. While my acquaintances in Istanbul have complicated feelings about international pressure on Turkey to confront its past, America has been involved from the outset. Reporters and diplomats relayed news of the atrocities, and charity appeals raised enormous sums, all of which is documented in the film. For some Turks, it was in the United States that they found the freedom, the libraries, and the contacts with Armenian Americans that enabled them to delve into the past and develop independent judgments. Of course, the U.S. government is still the prime target of Turkish efforts to prevent official recognition of the genocide.

It will be up to the Turks to come to a complete understanding of their past, and consolidate their democratic institutions and civil liberties. In the meantime, less deference to the Turkish official position would put America on the side not only of justice for genocide victims, but also of Turks, like the historians in this film, who refuse to accept limits on their speech and scholarship.

Ellen Bork is deputy director at the Project for the New American Century.