2668) Armenia, Diaspora, And Facing History, by Taner Akcam

Akcam Taner © This content Mirrored From  http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com This essay was originally published in Taraf as "Ermenistan, diaspora ve tarihle yüzlesmek" on Nov. 16, 2008 ( www.taraf.com.tr/haber/21653.htm ). The translation is by Fatima Sakarya with additional notes by the author. .

There is no doubt that Abdullah Gül's visit to Yerevan was an historical step, and we should applaud both the Turkish leader and Armenian president Serge Sargsian for having shown the courage to take it. It was a big move on their part, and it has cracked open the door to a new beginning in Turkish-Armenian relations. It looks like many people will be able to pass through that door.

It was only seven years ago, in February 2001, when my statement on a television program, that Turkey should apologize to Armenians, created a firestorm of sentiment against me. Now, after Abdullah Gül's visit, retired Ambassador Volkan Vural repeated the same words and stated, "We should apologize," and not a single objection was raised. The words seemed to have been greeted with general acceptance (Taraf, Oct. 18, 2008). As this example shows, with the passage of time, Turkey seems to have made a lot of progress on the subject.

The Ergenekon investigation and arrests play a special role in this progress. If the arrests had not been made, we would have witnessed a serious campaign for the hearts and minds of the public being waged against Abdullah Gül's visit. For the past few years in Turkey the campaigns against the Armenians and 1915 have been led by Ergenekon.[1] It was Ergenekon followers who organized the memorial anniversary for the execution of mayor of Bogazlayan Kemal,[2] the marches for Talat Pasha in Berlin,[3] and the "war of law" in Switzerland.[4] Again, it was they who mobilized the public against the conference we organized in Istanbul in 2005,[5] who dragged us into the courtrooms,[6] and who drove the campaign against Hrant Dink all the way to murder.

[Notes from the author:

1. Ergenekon is the name of a secret organization existing primarily within the military and civil bureaucracy. The organization, which includes retired generals, journalists, bureaucrats, educators, and businesspeople, has been under investigation for several years. In the end, a trial against 86 individuals, 46 of whom are being detained, was begun on October 20, 2008. The defendants have been accused of establishing a terrorist organization called "Ergenekon," and of plotting to effect regime change through a military coup by committing politically motivated crimes and terroristic acts. Although the murder of Hrant Dink does not figure in the charges of the indictment, there are some very strong clues that the organization was involved.

2. Kemal was the kaymakam (county executive) of Bogazl?yan county in the Yozgat district. He was prosecuted by a mlitary tribunal formed in Istanbul in 1919 for having massacred Armenians en masse, was sentenced to death, and executed on April 10, 1919.

3. The committee was formed in 2005 under the leadership of former Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Rauf Denkta?. A significant number of its board of directors are now under arrest and facing prosecution under the Ergenekon trial. In order to protest the claims of the Armenian Genocide, in Europe, the Committee organized the "Lausanne 2005," "Berlin 2006," "Lausanne 2007," and "Paris 2007" marches and activities.

4. Dogu Perinçek, one of the founders of the Talat Pasha Committee and now a detainee defendant in the Ergenekon trial, had initiated a "legal war" in Switzerland by declaring that "the Armenian genocide did not occur" to protest that country's crime of "denying the genocide." That trial concluded in March 2007 with Perinçek's conviction.

5. On September 23-25, 2005, Bogaziçi, Sabanc?, and Bilgi Universities had organized a conference titled "Ottoman Armenians during the Period of the Empire's Decline: Scholarly Responsibility and Problems of Democracy." The conference, originally planned for August, was initially suspended by court action and a serious campaign against the intelligentsia who had organized the conference, was waged, headed by some government offficials.

6. What is referred to here are the court actions initiated not only against Hrant Dink but also against other well-known journalists and writers, including Orhan Pamuk, Elif ?afak, Murat Belge, Hasan Cemal, and Ismet Berkan, based upon Article 301 and other articles of the Turkish Criminal Code.]

Ergenekon's use of such a painful episode in history, 1915, as a way to confer legitimacy upon itself in society, is extremely significant and meaningful. The connection between those who enforced a policy of annihilation against Armenians in the past and an organization like Ergenekon that organizes hostility against the Armenians today is a subject that deserves to be given a great deal of attention.
Misguided reason

In this short piece, I would like to take up some points that figure prominently in many of the writings that have purported to support Mr. Gül's visit, but which I nevertheless view as misguided. Many of these writings, written by our own enlightened thinkers, are nevertheless poorly conceived. Representing some of the first influential ideas to make it "through the newly opened door" they have the potential for influencing public opinion and for that reason it is imperative that they be critically examined now. Besides presenting a simple critique, I want to create a framework on the subject of how the matter should be approached in the near future. My hope is that I will succeed in laying a stronger foundation to undergird future discourse on the subject matter.

If we examine the general premise behind all of the writings issued thus far, we see that there are serious differences between the Armenian state and the Armenian diaspora, particularly on the issue of the perception of Turkey and the attitude that should be taken toward history. According to what's been written thus far, the Armenian state and the diaspora constitute practically polar opposites. The diaspora is defined as a singular, monolithic entity, and the word diaspora itself is given a negative connotation. The primary reason why the diaspora is "negative" and "bad" is the position it takes on "insisting on recognition of the Genocide." Therefore, in the hands of our intellectuals, the demand for "recognition of the Genocide" and "insistence" on it has become the bogeyman. According to their logic, the more the diaspora stays away from "demanding recognition of the Genocide" and/or refrains from insisting on it as much as possible, the better.

According to the articles being written, the Armenian state has not been very insistent on the subject of "recognition of the Genocide." As the last visit illustrated, our neighbor Armenia is very "good"; it reflected its "goodness" by refraining from use of the word "Genocide" and by not demanding "recognition" during the course of the visit. However, the Armenian state is seriously in the grip of and under the influence of the "bad" diaspora. According to these writers, in order to relieve Turkish-Armenian tension, "our good neighbor Armenia" must be saved from the "bad" diaspora.

The biggest reason why Armenia has fallen under the influence of the "bad" diaspora, so their reasoning goes, is because of poorly conceived Turkish policies. As a result, in order to save Armenia from the diaspora, Turkey must relinquish its bad policies and foster "good" relations with Armenia. Consequently, Armenia will be able to distance itself from the bad policies of the diaspora, policies like "insisting on recognition of genocide." In other words, the key to resolving the matter is in the "genocide-demanding bogeyman." In order to resolve the issue, this demand must disappear.

The intellectuals in our country who share these views describe Turkish-Armenian relations after 1991 in this way. The first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was soft on the issue of the genocide. He didn't "insist" on its recognition and supported more open policies toward Turkey. For this reason, he had positioned himself against the "bad" diaspora. The reason why Mr. Ter-Petrossian fell from power was that Turkey hadn't supported him. In conclusion, Mr. Ter-Petrossian's loss occurred on an axis between "those who demanded recognition of the Genocide, and those who did not," and the "bad" policies we followed cost him his administration.

I believe that we need to evaluate this viewpoint and repair it. If you sincerely want to resolve this issue, it is imperative that you possess information about each side that resembles the truth. Just to give one example, Mr. Ter-Petrossian's fall from power had little to do with Turkey's policies or its position regarding the issue of genocide. The main reasons for his loss had to do with deteriorating economic conditions (especially irregularities in administration) and his insistence on moving toward a quick resolution of the Karabakh matter.

What is even more important than this is that after Mr. Ter-Petrossian, the policy of the Armenian state towards Turkey has not actually changed. It has in essence stayed virtually the same. The team of Robert Kocharian, both in personnel and in policy, has continued the same political line of the Ter-Petrossian period. The best example of consistency in personnel is Vartan Oskanian, the minister of foreign affairs from the Kocharian period. From the mid-1990s of the Ter-Petrossian administration, Mr. Oskanian performed a very important role in foreign relations and even took on the position of [deputy] minister of foreign affairs in the final years.

The essence of the policies followed by all of the administrations in Armenia following 1991 can be summarized thus: "establishment of diplomatic relations without preconditions." One should not forget that Armenian president Serge Sargsian, the person who invited Mr. Gül in the first place, was Mr. Kocharian's candidate and won the election in opposition to Mr. Ter-Petrossian. This consistency in policy can be deduced from the fact that Mr. Gül's invitation came from a member of the Kocharian team. In contrast, Mr. Ter-Petrossian did not openly support the invitation; in fact, he took a very critical view of it, stating that it was "premature." (The fact that he's part of the political opposition no doubt played a big role in this.)

The point I am trying to make is that possessing information and knowledge about Armenian political developments and about the opposing sides that is accurate, is crucial to moving away from the wrong kinds of presumptions that have been voiced in Turkey. If you represent one side of a problem and you are seeking a solution to that problem, you need to possess at least as much information about your opponent as you possess about yourself. If you do not have a detailed picture of the other side, you will never be able to negotiate a solution.
"Bad" diaspora and "demanding" Genocide recognition

There is another reason that the division between "bad diaspora" and "good neighbor Armenia" needs to be examined more closely.

First, I need to state that intellectuals who have dealt with the subject, myself included, carry a great deal of responsibility for the creation of an image of "good neighbor" Armenia and "bogeyman and bad" diaspora, in Turkey. Intellectuals who have been closely involved with the subject and written many articles on it have, as a body, insisted on a definition that required the diaspora to be "bad" and contributed to the creation of this image in public opinion. (This was a subject of endless conversation with Hrant. At the very least I could state on his behalf that "Hrant was perhaps misunderstood," but I'm not sure it would do any good.)

[Note from the author: Hrant Dink was one of the leading figures in Turkey to address the problems related to the Armenian Genocide. In his different articles and interviews, he criticized certain tactics used by some diaspora Armenian organizations. He was against bringing the "recognition of the Genocide" before foreign parliaments, etc. His actions and writings might have contributed to this negative image of the diaspora. And I personally discussed this issue with him. He always reiterated to me that he never meant that the diaspora is one monolothic block and that he was opposing a certain mindset which is dominant in the diaspora.]

The problem in my opinion arises from this source: Intellectuals in Turkey who deal with the subject matter live under an incredible amount of psychological pressure. One of the most important points of this psychological pressure has to do with the term "Armenian," which is practically an insult in Turkey, and the "demand on the subject of genocide" by "bad" Armenians. The prevalence of such a negative and pejorative view of the term "Armenian" and the way the words "demand on the subject of genocide" have been perceived as practically curse words placed our intellectuals in a serious impasse and continue to do so to this day. Our intellectuals reacted in the way that any human being would naturally react and continue to react this way. Instead of openly confronting the mentality that defines Armenians as "negative," "bogeyman," or "bad" and instead of explaining that a desire for "recognition of genocide" is a completely understandable democratic demand, they accepted the main lines of the reasoning that undergirds this aggressive mentality. According to the defensive strategies developed by our intellectuals, the "bad" Armenians aren't the ones in Turkey or the ones in neighboring Armenia. The "bad" Armenians are the ones in the diaspora because the ones who keep "insisting on recognition of the Genocide" are actually they. In other words, instead of directly stating that the problem has to do with defining Armenians as "the bogeyman" and "bad," they accepted those definitions but changed the object of those definitions; instead of saying Armenians are "bad," they stated that the diaspora is "bad." In conclusion, the mentality that predominates in Turkey continued unabated in our intellectuals and continues to do so.

In my opinion, the problem starts here. If we do not question this dominant way of thinking and make no changes to this mentality, if we merely change the object connected to the adjective "bad," we will not find a solution to the tensions between Turks and Armenians. What we need to see is that there is absolutely no difference between calling an Armenian "bad" and a "bogeyman" and doing the same to the diaspora. If we continue to use those adjectives, "bad" and "bogeyman," to define something, we have merely slid the issue sideways; the problem will remain exactly as it was. It will not budge, not only because "bad" and "bogeyman" are still being used but also because "demanding that genocide be recognized" is not something that is inherently wrong.

You may possess different opinions about the demand for "recognition of genocide." You may object to the use of that term to describe an historical injustice or you may support the use of a different phrase or term to describe it, but there is nothing "bad" about making the demand itself. It is a very democratic demand. We need to understand that there is very little difference between a mindset that views a demand for "recognition of genocide" as "negative" or "bad" and a mindset that considers open discourse about our history as "negative" or "bad." The boundary between those who are enraged over individuals demanding "recognition of genocide" and those who become equally enraged over persons who insist that we need to confront our history, is extremely thin. It is impossible know where one stops and the other begins.

Additionally, it makes no sense to draw a line between Armenia and the diaspora on the subject of "recognition of genocide." According to the thought processes that prevail among our intellectuals, there are deep differences between Armenia and the diaspora on the subject of the policies toward recognition of the genocide. Everyone who deals with the subject in Turkey needs to know that when it comes to acknowledging the genocide, Armenia and the diaspora are on the same page. It is improper to draw a distinction between the sides on an axis of "those who insist on recognition and those who do not." It needs to be emphasized right here, right now, that Armenians everywhere agree that what occurred in 1915 was genocide and they feel that it needs to be acknowledged by Turkey.
The meaning behind "recognition of genocide": the Japan-Germany Axis

If we are going to discuss differences regarding the issue of "recognition of genocide" then it is safe to say that there will in fact be differences to be faced in the near future. These differences will become apparent, however, from the differences of opinion that will arise from within both Armenia and the diaspora. The main questions are going to be: "What does it mean to recognize genocide? What do we want recognized? On the issue of addressing an historical injustice, what steps that Turkey might take will be considered sufficient?" Depending on the answers to these questions, there is a very high probability that the approaches both within Armenia and the diaspora will differ.

The subject has another serious side. The ramifications of these questions and their answers go far beyond just Armenians in either Armenia or the diaspora. These questions first and foremost are directed at Turks and Turkey. Those in Turkey who agree that there is a problem here and who seek a resolution will, depending on the answers to those questions above, form different positions. These questions affect Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and anyone who takes a side regarding the issue. As a result, the groups that will form based upon the different answers to those questions will not turn on just an "Armenian" or "Turkish" axis. Ultimately, we are dealing with something beyond ethnic identity; we are dealing with the question of how to respond to historical violations of human rights. This is the crux of the issue.

The main question facing us all is, how are we going to confront our history? Before us are two different opposite points on an array that is colored by the Japanese and German models. The Japanese example can be characterized by the half-hearted expression, "Hey, no hard feelings?" This kind of semisincere expression possesses no societal-cultural or political meaning. Confronting one's history in such a manner, from a societal standpoint, fails to attain the level of a true democratic accounting for events. With this kind of position, no progress on a democratic scale in society can be possible. If in connection with Turkish-Armenian tensions, Turkey were to apologize in the same manner as Japan, in connection with the crimes that were committed by the Japanese during World War II, would that be considered sufficient? Is that what we meant and what we are expecting when we talk about confronting and acknowledging our history?

The German example, by contrast, constitutes the other end of the pendulum swing. In that example, to simply identify past events as genocide would not be enough: acceptance of all consequences that arise from that acknowledgment, including providing reparations if necessary, would be required. To follow in Germany's footsteps, Turkey would have to identify the events of 1915 as genocide and make a serious effort to compensate all who were injured by those events both emotionally and materially.

We must see that what lies before us is a period that will be marked by very serious, very deep discussions about where in that Japanese-German continuum we are going to position ourselves. Between these two opposite points there are dozens, yes, dozens, of other possible choices. There will be many factions, many lines of positions that will form around all these choices in Armenia, in the diaspora, and in Turkey. The question for everyone should be: How is Turkey going to confront its history and in what manner will it acknowledge the events of 1915? We can support this question with other questions too: Can confronting one's history consist of taking a position regarding a single event? What is the relevance for today of confronting one's past? Is it possible to confront one's history before societal relations are fully democratized, for example the problems faced by citizens of Armenian ancestry in Turkey today? What connection can be made between confronting one's history and acknowledging the cultural-democratic demands of the Kurds? What lies at the heart of this question and others is the relationship between an honest assessment of history and the creation of democratic relations within a society.

I would like to pause here and say without equivocation that I am approaching this solely from the point of Turkish-Armenian tensions. It is possible to go far beyond the Armenian issue when engaging in an open and frank debate about confronting one's history and addressing past injustices. Historically, no matter what nation or ethnic group is the subject of examination, one must debate the injustices from the same perspective. For instance, during the fall of the Ottoman state, the injustices suffered by Muslims in the Balkans and Caucasus and other Christian groups, especially Greeks and Assyrians, or those suffered by the Jews, Kurds, or Alevis during the Republican era (or those of leftist political leanings, most recently), deserve serious debate. This must be done without placing each group on the same standing, without pitting one group against another, and by acknowledging the differences among them. It is critically important that we not engage in a mixing of historical injustices where one injustice is presented to counter another injustice, or various injustices are pitted against each other in competition and attempts are made to minimize one injustice's level of horror, if you will, by pointing out the injustice committed against another. Clearly, all of these issues need to be the subject of another article.
The relationship between freedom and justice

A society's confrontation with its own history is directly related to its issues with freedom and justice. The freedom aspect of the subject is widely known but that related to justice is not. Many of our intellectuals in Turkey assert that the Armenian problem is essentially one involving freedom of thought. According to this view, the main problem lies in the restrictions on the subject matter, particularly, though not exclusively, our criminal laws. If these laws were to be repealed, leading to a more democratic Turkey where the subject could be freely discussed, so the argument goes, the crux of the problem will have been resolved. One of the reasons why there is so much anger toward those who "insist on recognition of genocide" is that the problem has been defined simply as a matter of freedom of expression, not justice.

In fact, confronting one's history isn't limited to the ability to speak freely about injustices of the past. One could argue that actually the relationship with freedom is an indirect one. The process of healing a past injustice must take place within the realm of justice, not freedom. Undoubtedly, freedom is necessary, if for no other reason than to allow the open expression of thought needed to define the limits of the justice that will heal injustice. Today, however, in many democratic nations in the West, there are freedoms. Injustices of the past are freely discussed, but the wounds from the past continue because justice remains undone. All of the powerful states' relationships with former colonies; the massacres and genocidal episodes from colonial periods; slavery in America, etc., all of these remain unresolved in the realm of justice. Therefore, even if the "Armenian problem" were to be discussed freely in Turkey it would nevertheless remain unresolved.

When seeking to resolve past injustice, the kind of "justice" you need has two different characteristics. The first is "retributive justice," which primarily targets the particular perpetrator group responsible for the injury and pain. The foundation for this kind of justice is to identify, prosecute, and punish those individuals who were involved in and responsible for the events in question. The second kind of justice is "restorative (constructive) justice." This kind of justice focuses on those who were victims of the events and those who are left behind in their wake. Healing the victims' wounds is the goal of this kind of justice. To heal past injustice, we must demand something more than freedom. We must start a serious debate on the "boundaries of justice." Almost 100 years have passed since the events in question; therefore "retributive justice" is no longer practical or relevant. However, the means by which "restorative (constructive) justice" may be reached is indeed a subject of serious debate. It goes without saying that a society's debate over the "boundaries of justice" has an inherent aspect of freedom-building and democratization.
Three reasons to confront history

When asked why one must confront history, we present three different reasons. First of all, we must do it in order to restore the human dignity of the victims of large-scale massacres. Every large-scale massacre begins by removing the targeted group from humanity. That group's human dignity is trampled on, and they begin to be defined by biological terms like "bacteria," "parasite," "germ," or "cancerous cell." The victims aren't usually defined only as something that needs to be removed from a healthy body: they are socially and culturally demeaned, their humanity removed. So, prior to being slaughtered, they are removed from humanity. Our humane duty is to restore the dignity of these victims and show them the respect they deserved as human beings. Reparations and other similar moves to heal past injustice work to restore the victims' dignity and gain meaning as a way of repairing emotional wounds.

Second, we confront our history so that the opposing sides can learn to live together in peace and freedom. If past adversaries share the same geography and are condemned to living together, they should reconstruct a mutual respect. Stability and peace can be constructed upon such a foundation of respect. Adversaries can live together in respect, peace, and stability only when both sides create an environment where history can be discussed and debated. If we are discussing our own region, confronting history is a precondition for establishing regional peace and stability.

Third, we confront history in order to prevent similar events from ever happening again in the future. After the Jewish Holocaust, the slogan "never again" was often repeated. The past ten years have shown, nevertheless, that large-scale massacres continue in human history, in the middle of Europe and especially in Africa. On the subject of large-scale massacres, no one can deny that the Middle East resembles a box of dynamite, ready to explode at any moment. If a nation-state, especially one that is guilty of having organized a large-scale massacre in the past, does not broach the subject, the risk of repeating those events is quite real. Confronting history, discussing and freely debating past massacres, constitutes the first step toward preventing their reoccurrence.

Obviously, confronting history by itself is not enough. However, if you want to prevent something from happening again, you must learn why it happened in the first place: what were its causes, what started it? If you can answer those questions, you can take precautions against them. In the body of the United Nations today, the prevention of large-scale massacres, the establishment of cultural infrastructures, and the study of the institutions necessary for prevention, are the subjects of serious debate. As people of a region that has experienced great pain, it is imperative that we engage in this kind of discussion as well.

In conclusion, my opinion and recommendations regarding the tensions between Turks and Armenians are that this tension be conceived in a whole new way. As in the examples I cited above, we must break away from patterns of thought that are far from even properly defining the issues and start to approach the problem from a broader perspective.
The need for a new paradigm

Based upon the most general lines of thought, until now the Turkish-Armenian conflict has been approached within the framework of the disintegration of an empire and the rise of problems among various ethnic groups and nationalities. In time these problems developed into confrontations between ethnic groups over territory and boundaries, and the massacres occurred during the course of these confrontations. Today's Turkish-Armenian problem has been approached from this kind of framework and in this way has been viewed as a legacy of the past. My recommendation is that both societies stop approaching the problem as "a legacy from the past"; they ought to view it as a part of today's democratization process. The problem is not "something from the past": it is a problem "from which we will construct our future."

This means that Turkey and Armenia, as neighboring countries, should consider the problem as part of their own democratization and the democratization of their regional relationship, as two countries which are in the process of becoming more democratic: Turkey, as a country on the verge of acceptance into the EU; Armenia as a country, in transition, that is newly independent after separating from the USSR. The most common characteristic of this transition is that both societies must redefine their pasts, their presents, themselves, and the "other."

To put it more generally, during this period of progress toward democracy, i.e. the process of developing social freedoms, both countries must approach the problem with regard to determining the limits of the justice that will be done in relation to the past. In other words, progress toward democracy must be measured in terms not only of freedom but also justice. In moving toward democracy, what will be the boundaries of the justice conceived to deal with the past? That is the question that must be answered.

The primary goal is to resolve the problem in light of three principles. The first is to restore the human dignity of the victims of the past, by viewing them as human again; it is to bow in respect before them. The second is to create the conditions under which people in our region can learn to live together in peace and stability, upon a foundation of respect. The third is to create a network of relationships that will prevent the painful events from the past from ever happening again, and a cultural foundation that supports this network.

If we can approach the confrontation with history in a broad framework as described, we will not only facilitate democratic relations in our region but also create a serious cultural atmosphere that will prevent the reoccurrence of these events from our past.

November 28, 2008, (c) 2008 Armenian Reporter


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