17 October 2007

2080) For All Turks And Armenians: An Analysis And Manifesto

This op-ed aims to do two things: Give a balanced rendering of the Turkish-Armenian dispute and call upon Turks and Armenians to get out of their straight-jackets and reach an understanding. .

The Analysis

Last week, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 106, titled “Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution.” Introduced by Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), H. Res. 106 calls “upon the President [of the United States] to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide, and for other purposes.”[1] It is expected that the resolution will be approved by the full House in mid-November. While Armenians around the world rejoiced at the decision, Turkish officials have pointed out that if the House accepts the resolution, nationalist reaction in Turkey will damage Turkish-American and Turkish-Armenian relations beyond repair.

For decades, a lot has been said on the tragedy that befell Ottoman Armenians during World War I. The argument is over whether the events can be described as genocide (defined by the “UN Convention on Genocide” as the deliberate “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group”) or not.[2]

Those who make a case for genocide argue that from April 1915 until late 1917, the Ottoman government used the military losses on the Caucasian front at the hands of Russia and the terrorism by Armenian nationalist revolutionaries to implement a genocide against Armenian civilians. For this school, the Ottoman government’s decision to relocate/deport the Armenians was a smoke-screen.[3]

Those who argue that the events did not constitute genocide point out that Istanbul’s order to temporarily deport Ottoman Armenians intended to do strictly that – to relocate Armenian civilians to areas away from the troubles. Their destination was other Ottoman provinces. Incompetent administrators, pressed by terrorism, poor logistics, and an inadequate infrastructure, failed to cope with the situation. All of this resulted in the tragic deaths of the Armenians. At any rate, this school argues, Armenian terrorists also killed many Muslims; the killings went both ways.[4]

These stances can be scrutinized in different ways. A strict application of the UN Convention’s definition of the term “genocide” may disqualify the Armenian example. Those who make the case against genocide maintain that the government in Istanbul did not intend to exterminate the Armenians. Those arguing for genocide claim the opposite and point out to the secret telegrams sent from Istanbul to the eastern front ordering the mass killings.

Some of those Ottoman officials who were guilty of premeditated murder actually confessed to their crimes in military tribunals following World War I. The records of the tribunals, coupled with some of the hand-written copies of telegrams sent from Istanbul to the front, demonstrate that it took a little more than berserk troops on the ground to carry out the genocidal killings.

But the claim that Istanbul ordered the annihilation of Armenians is also weakened by certain factors. The authenticity of certain documents tarnishes the case for genocide. The secret telegrams, for example, are almost exclusively available at the archives of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Not a terribly neutral venue.

Specifically, take the “Naim-Andonian telegrams.” In 1920, Aram Andonian, an Armenian journalist who had worked for the Young Turk government earlier in the war, published the memoirs of a certain Naim Bey. According to Andonian, Naim Bey was a Turkish official who served as the chief secretary of the deportation committee in Aleppo during the war. Upon the conclusion of the war, Naim handed Andonian the telegrams originating from Istanbul with the orders to massacre Armenian civilians. The problem is that those telegrams are labeled as forgeries by some historians because Andonian never produced the originals. In fact, some scholars have even gone far as to suggest that Andonian simply wrote what he thought about the massacres by using Naim as a mouthpiece.[5]

Documents comparable to the minutes of the Nazis’ Wannsee Conference of January 1942 (where they came up with their infamous “final solution to the Jewish question”) in brevity, scope, and authenticity cannot easily be mustered that in the Armenian case and that is a problem.

None of these points, however, eclipse one glaring fact: Hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians died between 1915 and 1917 (the estimates range from 600,000 to 1.5 million, depending on one’s position). Turkish and Kurdish civilians also suffered horrendously at the hands of Armenian bands, both in the Russian-occupied parts of Eastern Anatolia and the territory controlled by the Ottoman state. It is true that some of the Armenians died of disease, cold, and malnutrition. On the other hand, it must be conceded that probably a lot Armenians died at the hands of Turkish soldiers and Kurdish tribesmen as well.

The Manifesto

Looking at the sheer numbers of dead civilians, we have to understand the futility of the “genocide – not genocide” discussion. How can anyone limit one’s conscience to a single word? No person in his right mind would do such a thing. And neither should Turks and Armenians.

This tragedy that befell us was much more sinister than a genocide. If the Istanbul government implemented a genocide, why did most of our ancestors not stand up for their neighbors? When Armenian terrorists rounded up fellow Muslim villagers, why did most of our grandparents not do anything to stop them? Forget about stopping the massacres, some of them – Armenian and Muslim – happily did their part in the killings!

What is tragic is that since 1915, we have only emulated their mistakes. The deaths of Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s, incessant bickering between Turks and Armenians, and lately, the tragic murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007, attest to the fact that we have to change our attitude.

That change of attitude should start by recognizing the fact that we Turks and Armenians killed each other on an industrial scale. That many more Armenians died than Turks is irrelevant. The important thing is that innocent civilians perished – babies, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

If you cannot comprehend the gravity of such a loss, just imagine yourself at a family gathering: You are surrounded by all the people you love – your mother, father, siblings, spouse, children, nieces, nephews. And all of a sudden imagine that these people – every single one of them – are killed before your eyes by people with whom you lived as good neighbors for nearly a millennium. After the deaths of your loved ones, hundreds, thousands, and millions would mean very little for you because you do not have a reason to exist anymore.

So I call upon all Turks and Armenians: Come to your senses!

We have lost too much and suffered long enough. Let us regain what we once had – our friendship, peaceful coexistence, and respect for each other. Let the Armenians convince Turks, rather than American politicians, about their sufferings. Let the Turks make the Armenians see their point of view. As Hrant Dink said in an interview not long before he was slain, “Armenians are the doctors of Turks and Turks are the doctors of Armenians.” Only by talking to each other rather than through each other can we resolve our differences and ease our suffering.

Esteemed members of the U.S. House of Representatives: The biggest favor that Western nations can possibly do to Turkish and Armenian people is to mind their own business and let them come to an understanding on their own. Your resolution is only going to exacerbate enmities. To expect that H. Res. 106 will facilitate a reconciliation between Turks and Armenians is as sensible as extinguishing fire with dynamite. We implore you not to do it.

Finally, those who owe their petty existence to the perpetuation of this dispute: Hate-mongers! Appear as you may as Turks or Armenians, you are all on the same side. Yes, you hate-mongers are on the same side!

You extremists do not strive for the happiness of your peoples; you look around for enemies to satiate your neurosis. Stirring up trouble is only a convenience for you. You live by seeing enemies everywhere. If you cannot find enemies, you create them, just as you did nearly a hundred years ago. You, murderers of Hrant Dink, Mehmet Baydar, Artin Penik, Necla Kuneralp and hundreds of thousands of others, are all on the same side. We – real Turks and Armenians – are on the other side.

Leave us alone!
Barin Kayaoglu is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia and a regular contributor to the Journal of Turkish Weekly. kayaoglu@virginia.edu

[1] H. Res. 106 is available in full text from http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=hr110-106.

[2] See “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” available from http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/p_genoci.htm. A very typical quarrel of historians, which is not the finest piece of scholarly courtesy, can be found at this link: “Michael Gunter: He Blurbed a Book…Should He Then Have Reviewed It?” History News Network, August 17, 2007; available from http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/41948.html.

[3] A flood of studies exists on the subject and even the shortest list will look like a long bibliographical essay. Therefore, scholarly works that are also readable are mentioned here. The most convincing case for genocide is made by the Turkish historian Taner Akçam. See his From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide (London and New York: Zed Books, 2004) and A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).

[4] The case against genocide is most cogently made by the American historian Justin McCarthy. See his The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire (New York: Arnold, 2001) (which gives the broader contour of the demise of the Ottoman Empire and places the Armenians’ plight in that context) and The Armenian Rebellion at Van (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006).

[5] See, for example, Türkkaya Ataöv, The Andonian “Documents” Attributed to Talat Pasha Are Forgeries (Ankara: University of Ankara, 1984). The “Naim-Andonian telegrams” are so problematic, though he accepts their possible authenticity, even Prof. Akçam does not use them in his A Shameful Act. See Akçam’s footnote in A Shameful Act, p. 378, n4.

Barin Kayaoglu, 17 October 2007

Journal of Turkish Weekly(JTW)


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