21 April 2006

572) 1915 and Today

There we are, again. As April 24, day of commemoration of the Armenian Tragedy approaches, nothing new on the Turkish front.
Well, some things are different than, say, 1999.
A couple of days ago, a book printed by Mr Ragip Zarakolu of Belge Publishers, landed on my desk: the first Turkish translation of “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story”. A key – and for the official Turkish line, disputable - document for all research around the terrible events in Asia Minor in 1915-16.

Along with “The Blue Book” (Bryce/Toynbee), almost all basic sources of information that defend the “genocide” thesis are now published in Turkey. More is certainly to come.

This is good news, for the sake of more intensive debates and learning.

Turkish opinion, as it widely deserves in a country with a free press and open debate despite some obstacles, is being fed by variety and diversity of opinion on the touchy subject. Interest for finding out “what really took place in those tumultous years” is particularly high amongst the younger segments in society.

Books by Dadrian, Balakian and numerous other Armenian scholars and reasearchers are now freely avaliable in the bookstores of Istanbul, Adana, Edirne, Kayseri etc. People buy and read them.

Despite loud protests in the public sphere, I believe most of the intellectuals are content with the level of debate that is only getting better and better. Different approach from the government, based on respect for free circulation of ideas, is helping a lot. Press is feeling free to give, albeit occasionally, space to “dissent”.

All this is not without headaches, one must add. Mr Zarakolu is facing sentences of 7.5 and 13,5 years for publishing two books: Dora Sakayan's “Memoirs of an Armenian Physician” and George Jerjian's “Truth Shall Set Us Free”. He was in a new court session recently and an “expert report” was demanded for evaluaion of the the Jerjian’s book and the prosesutor's own assessment was deemed sufficient for the other one.

This may sound alarming to some, raising concerns that nothing has changed. It should not. Are we still in an era of deep taboo on the subject? Absolutely not.
It would please some, perhaps, but it is not.

Actually, such trials, with the pattern almost always pointing out to acquittals, are in quantity getting less and less. As long as the EU process is unharmed, it is fair to look into the future – in terms of free speech – with growing optimism.

What we should be worried about is the current political sphere.

Historic research may be continuing; a new conference on Ottoman Armenians in Kayseri’s Erciyas University between April 20-22 may have shown us that the interest for the subject is on the rise for younger generation of scholars; articles and interviews with experts in Turkish press may even increase in the future, but the apparent immobility of Ankara on how to tackle the international press for, let alone any sort of “recognition”, confrontation with the past is alarming.

Because the clock is ticking and certainly the time appears not to be on “official line’s” side.

I am faced by the insistent question every time I meet foreigners – journalists, NGO folks, diplomats, politicians: “Why is it that” they ask, “the governments continue with the denial?”

For me the response is easy, and I do hope every time I tell my take on it, that it will be easily comprehended (often it is not): Democracies certainly develop with enlarged freedom, pluralism and accumulation of all sorts of information. Only then can the citizen be ready to look at the past without prejudice, cliche, and distortion.

If the majority of the society has been kept away from any sort of past (national) wrongdoings by total cover up or disinformation, confrontations with them can be utterly traumatic.

Therefore, in order to avoid reactions based on emotions rather than reason, it is wise to remain patient. Only more and more information and education can help.

In the current climate, given the level of ignorance and defensiveness, any subject matter of this sort can be turned into a tool for violent ultranationalism and populism, which is naturally a nightmare for a seemingly reformist government.

At this very point, I tend to get the following reaction from our foreign friends: “Well, still, the leadership must act, because time is working against Turkey..”

I tell them, simply, that they are forgetting a fundamental element of democracy:

That a consensus on “acceptance” must form, rise and come from within the conscience of the people, that it must move from the bottom to the decision makers. You can not simply impose something “unknown” without seeking understanding from the citizens, majority of whom are totally ignorant on or indifferent to the matter. Otherwise you risk being compared to a dictator.

So, let the Turkish society define its own pace with reaching the truth and some sort of conclusion by itself. It will and must take time, yes, but still, as long as the pace is forward, in better conditions becoming a democracy, every citizen will have an idea of the real picture of 1915.

No matter what the denialists say or the staunch Armenian diaspora say, we are not finished with the subject: Research is still going on, there are chapters in late Ottoman history that we should analyse and understand, we must continue to demand that all archives (Armenian, Turkish, Russian, German) must be fully and unconditionally be opened, and Turks and Armenians of different professions must seek a wider dialogue with each other.

I have studied the subject and read everything within my reach for the past 25 years and I still feel very agnostic about the definition. And my desire to learn more is certainly stronger than reaching a personally premature verdict.

Definition of 1915 has often damaged any further civilised conversation.

Limiting the discussion to “is this a genocide or not?” phrase will never help; it is a trap, a fruitless path that leads nowhere. Neither are declarations of genocide by parliaments here and there. Have those parliaments been equally courageous to look at their own national crimes of humanity in the past? Most of them did not.

Hence, it paves way for all the further debate on hypocricy. No good either.

Something horrendous happened in 1915. It was a human tragedy of enormous dimensions. We know who the responsible were. They were responsible for dragging the country into the World War, and they were responsible for sending tens of thousands of (mainly Muslim) young men of Anatolia to their death on Sar�kami� Mountains, as they were responsible of sending Ottoman Armenians to their tragic fate, they were responsible for killing the democracy after 1908 by frightening people to silence, having the voices of dissent killed.

Those responsible had nothing to do with the Turkish Republic that followed the Ottoman Empire. Nor could they find any remorse or shelter from the founders of the republic. The remnants of the worst criminals linked with 1915 in Turkey were eliminated by Ataturk himself.

Yes, Turkey will have to face its past; as much as Germany will have to face its pats genocide of Herero people in Africa early 1900’s (which was, despite other claims, the first genocide of last century), as much as the USA must face its past acts of genocide against the indians; as much as France must face its past crimes of humanity against the Algerian civilians etc etc.

And also, let us not forget that the people of today had nothing to do with those crimes. Reconciliation with the past hast to take special care not to hurt feelings of them. Understanding is a more laborious process than dealing with emotions.

There we are, again. As April 24, day of commemoration of the Armenian Tragedy approaches, nothing new on the Turkish front.

Well, some things are different than, say, 1999.

A couple of days ago, a book printed by Mr Rag�p Zarakolu of Belge Publishers, landed on my desk: the first Turkish translation of “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story”. A key – and for the official Turkish line, disputable - document for all research around the terrible events in Asia Minor in 1915-16.

Along with “The Blue Book” (Bryce/Toynbee), almost all basic sources of information that defend the “genocide” thesis are now published in Turkey. More is certainly to come.

This is good news, for the sake of more intensive debates and learning.

Turkish opinion, as it widely deserves in a country with a free press and open debate despite some obstacles, is being fed by variety and diversity of opinion on the touchy subject. Interest for finding out “what really took place in those tumultous years” is particularly high amongst the younger segments in society.

Books by Dadrian, Balakian and numerous other Armenian scholars and reasearchers are now freely avaliable in the bookstores of Istanbul, Adana, Edirne, Kayseri etc. People buy and read them.

Despite loud protests in the public sphere, I believe most of the intellectuals are content with the level of debate that is only getting better and better. Different approach from the government, based on respect for free circulation of ideas, is helping a lot. Press is feeling free to give, albeit occasionally, space to “dissent”.

All this is not without headaches, one must add. Mr Zarakolu is facing sentences of 7.5 and 13,5 years for publishing two books: Dora Sakayan's “Memoirs of an Armenian Physician” and George Jerjian's “Truth Shall Set Us Free”. He was in a new court session recently and an “expert report” was demanded for evaluaion of the the Jerjian’s book and the prosesutor's own assessment was deemed sufficient for the other one.

This may sound alarming to some, raising concerns that nothing has changed. It should not. Are we still in an era of deep taboo on the subject? Absolutely not.
It would please some, perhaps, but it is not.

Actually, such trials, with the pattern almost always pointing out to acquittals, are in quantity getting less and less. As long as the EU process is unharmed, it is fair to look into the future – in terms of free speech – with growing optimism.

What we should be worried about is the current political sphere.

Historic research may be continuing; a new conference on Ottoman Armenians in Kayseri’s Erciyas University between April 20-22 may have shown us that the interest for the subject is on the rise for younger generation of scholars; articles and interviews with experts in Turkish press may even increase in the future, but the apparent immobility of Ankara on how to tackle the international press for, let alone any sort of “recognition”, confrontation with the past is alarming.

Because the clock is ticking and certainly the time appears not to be on “official line’s” side.

I am faced by the insistent question every time I meet foreigners – journalists, NGO folks, diplomats, politicians: “Why is it that” they ask, “the governments continue with the denial?”

For me the response is easy, and I do hope every time I tell my take on it, that it will be easily comprehended (often it is not): Democracies certainly develop with enlarged freedom, pluralism and accumulation of all sorts of information. Only then can the citizen be ready to look at the past without prejudice, cliche, and distortion.

If the majority of the society has been kept away from any sort of past (national) wrongdoings by total cover up or disinformation, confrontations with them can be utterly traumatic.

Therefore, in order to avoid reactions based on emotions rather than reason, it is wise to remain patient. Only more and more information and education can help.

In the current climate, given the level of ignorance and defensiveness, any subject matter of this sort can be turned into a tool for violent ultranationalism and populism, which is naturally a nightmare for a seemingly reformist government.

At this very point, I tend to get the following reaction from our foreign friends: “Well, still, the leadership must act, because time is working against Turkey..”

I tell them, simply, that they are forgetting a fundamental element of democracy:

That a consensus on “acceptance” must form, rise and come from within the conscience of the people, that it must move from the bottom to the decision makers. You can not simply impose something “unknown” without seeking understanding from the citizens, majority of whom are totally ignorant on or indifferent to the matter. Otherwise you risk being compared to a dictator.

So, let the Turkish society define its own pace with reaching the truth and some sort of conclusion by itself. It will and must take time, yes, but still, as long as the pace is forward, in better conditions becoming a democracy, every citizen will have an idea of the real picture of 1915.

No matter what the denialists say or the staunch Armenian diaspora say, we are not finished with the subject: Research is still going on, there are chapters in late Ottoman history that we should analyse and understand, we must continue to demand that all archives (Armenian, Turkish, Russian, German) must be fully and unconditionally be opened, and Turks and Armenians of different professions must seek a wider dialogue with each other.

I have studied the subject and read everything within my reach for the past 25 years and I still feel very agnostic about the definition. And my desire to learn more is certainly stronger than reaching a personally premature verdict.

Definition of 1915 has often damaged any further civilised conversation.

Limiting the discussion to “is this a genocide or not?” phrase will never help; it is a trap, a fruitless path that leads nowhere. Neither are declarations of genocide by parliaments here and there. Have those parliaments been equally courageous to look at their own national crimes of humanity in the past? Most of them did not.

Hence, it paves way for all the further debate on hypocricy. No good either.

Something horrendous happened in 1915. It was a human tragedy of enormous dimensions. We know who the responsible were. They were responsible for dragging the country into the World War, and they were responsible for sending tens of thousands of (mainly Muslim) young men of Anatolia to their death on Sar�kami� Mountains, as they were responsible of sending Ottoman Armenians to their tragic fate, they were responsible for killing the democracy after 1908 by frightening people to silence, having the voices of dissent killed.

Those responsible had nothing to do with the Turkish Republic that followed the Ottoman Empire. Nor could they find any remorse or shelter from the founders of the republic. The remnants of the worst criminals linked with 1915 in Turkey were eliminated by Ataturk himself.

Yes, Turkey will have to face its past; as much as Germany will have to face its pats genocide of Herero people in Africa early 1900’s (which was, despite other claims, the first genocide of last century), as much as the USA must face its past acts of genocide against the indians; as much as France must face its past crimes of humanity against the Algerian civilians etc etc.

And also, let us not forget that the people of today had nothing to do with those crimes. Reconciliation with the past hast to take special care not to hurt feelings of them. Understanding is a more laborious process than dealing with emotions.

Yavuz Baydar
yavuz.baydar@gmail.com
20 April 2006

http://www.thenewanatolian.com/opinion-5205.html

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