Turkey and the Armenian Genocide Issue

January 16, 2009

Yigal Schleifer, writing for Eurasianet.org, has recently posted an interesting piece regarding  
a Turkish website set up last December which apologizes for "the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915."

The site, which was set up by 300 Turkish academics and intellectuals, invites Turks to sign their names below a statement reading:

My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.

As of January 17, more than 27,000 individuals are listed as having signed the petition.

The petition campaign hasn't received a lot of attention in the Turkish media, but it has attracted numerous retorts and counter-allegations from within the Turkish blogosphere. 

When I first started living in Turkey in 1992, I was often surprised by the degree to which almost all of the people I met here seemed to feel personally invested in the issue of whether or not the Ottoman government committed a "genocide" against Ottoman Armenians in 1915. Not only did I find the near uniformity of opinion on this matter to be striking, but it also seemed interesting that Turkish people would feel their national honor to be so closely bound up in events which occurred eight years prior to the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.  I often had trouble understanding why, having traditionally rejected so much of their Ottoman past in favor of the Turkish Republic, Turkish people would feel so defensive with regard to this issue.

Yet there are a number of reasons, of course, why Turkish people would feel so defensive about this issue. Many Turks feel that their history is being compared to that of Nazi Germany, which strikes them as particularly galling when so much of Turkey's current population is made up of the descendents of Muslims who fled genocidal conditions in the Balkans, the Crimea, and the Caucasus. Why, it is asked, does no one ever seem to raise the question of genocide with regard to the French in Algeria, or the United States and the native Americans, the Russians in the Crimea and Chechnya, or the Armenians themselves in Nagorno-Karabakh? Additionally, many people are concerned that, since Turkey is the legally recognized successor state to the Ottoman Empire, any acceptance of culpability to genocide could lead to claims for reparations, even demands for territory.

Indeed, many of the postings I've read on Turkish blogs in relation to the online petition campaign raise these questions. There is a lot of finger-pointing, and a lot of effort to distinguish the events of 1915 from the Holocaust or from various definitions of the term "genocide."

Clearly, the Armenian genocide issue is something which is still extremely difficult for people in this country to talk about. After all, the Republic of Turkey was founded at the conclusion of over a solid decade of war which witnessed an incredibly brutal series of events befalling both the Muslim and the Christian populations of the region. Talking about these events outside of the traditional "forging of a nation" narrative surrounding the triumphs of Ataturk is not something that many people in this country are accustomed to, and doing so opens up a very painful chapter in Ottoman/Turkish history. But I think that undertakings like the petition campaign are an indication that people here are growing more comfortable bringing up these issues. 

It is worth noting that the online petition does not mention the word "genocide" anywhere. I think that's probably a good idea. Discussion of this issue has all too often concentrated on the suitability of the term "genocide" for describing the events of 1915. While I think that such a debate is definitely worth having, I also feel that arguments over terminology have too often become a distraction from what should be the most important issue here: the recognition of the incredible suffering that befell innocent civilians of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds during a very dark period in this region's history. Perhaps by starting with such a recognition, both Turks and Armenians can begin to move towards a healthier discussion of these events. 

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