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A conflicted moment for the Armenian consciousness

The reason the French genocide law has proved so popular amongst Armenians is that it represents the prospect of a final catharsis to a tragic history. In reality, however, it is yet another obstacle to reaching a conclusion.
Christopher Sisserian
24 January 2012

The recent passing of the French bill criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide has been the cause of much celebration for Armenians in France and across the world.  Though celebrated by many as a step towards recognition and justice for a crime committed nearly 100 years ago it is difficult to see how the law presents anything other than another obstacle to the process of reconciliation between Armenians and Turks. Though the formal process of reconciliation has definitely stalled in the past year, informal contacts between Armenians and Turks have continued to grow, maintaining the small possibility of improved neighbourly relations.

The assassinated Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink, whose murder brought the importance of Turkish-Armenian relations to the forefront of global consciousness, was resolutely against the passing of any such law and even promised to travel to France and deny it himself if it were to ever be passed. That Dink is sadly no longer alive to stand up for the freedom of speech he campaigned for in his native Turkey is testament to the fact that relations urgently need to be improved.

However, rather than provide a step forward the new French law only serves to fuel the seemingly diametrically opposed nationalist identities that can trace their roots back to the events being legislated over. The media storm created by the bill adds to the discourse of presenting the issue as a simple binary, with Armenians claiming one thing and Turks maintaining another. However, it is not Armenians that claim genocide occurred but rather research from scholars of various nations, including Turks that have documented and analysed the history. Conversely it is not Turks that present the counterargument; rather it is the Turkish state that denies the genocide through its official state policy. Many Turks are aware of what happened towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, particularly amongst intellectual circles and those living in the south east of Turkey where the tragedy of what happened in 1915 is maintained in oral histories. Consequently those Armenians and Turks managing to find common ground and come to terms with their shared history are constantly growing.

Last week saw over 30,000 protestors taking to the streets of Istanbul to mark the 5th anniversary of Dinks assassination and the end of his killer’s trial. Stemming from a general feeling of injustice at the failure to expose the wider mechanisms at work behind Dinks murder, primarily the notorious ‘deep state’, many have made the search for justice part of the wider movement for democratic rights in Turkey, including freedom of speech. The dominant slogan, just as it was immediately following his death, was hepimiz Hrantiz, hepimiz Ermeniyiz –we are all Hrant, we are all Armenian. That citizens of Turkey, both ethnically Turkish and Armenian, are able to come together and protest at the shared feeling of injustice demonstrates the prospect of moving away from the binary concepts of ‘us’ against the ‘other’ that have long governed relations between the two groups.

The very act of celebrating a supposed ‘Armenian victory’ over a ‘Turkish defeat’ within the French legislature threatens these prospects and reduces the argument to the level of farce. What good is a law that will inevitably provoke a more hard line Turkish nationalist response? The state of France is of course free to legislate as it sees fit but in the wider picture the criminalisation of genocide denial has no constructive impact on the one state whose stance on the issue is of importance: Turkey. Though the very concept of governments decreeing over history is also debatable, if any state were able to make progress on the matter by passing a law then surely it is Turkey and Turkey alone.

Unfortunately the law also overshadowed the progress made on the same day over Nagorno Karabagh, the unrecognised self-declared independent ethnically Armenian republic that presents the other significant point of tension between Armenians and Turks. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a staunch ally of Turkey over Karabagh is often viewed through the prism of Armenian and Turkic history, of which the genocide remains the central issue. The protocols aimed at normalising relations between Armenia and Turkey primarily collapsed as a result of Azeri pressure to link Turkish-Armenian rapprochement to progress on the Karabagh issue. That progress can be made when both sides agree to sit at the table provides a small degree of hope for the wider Turkish-Armenian issue, provided the ingrained ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality can be abandoned.

The key problem remains that the Armenian genocide, as a result of having been erased from the historical consciousness of the Turkish state, has yet to be adequately dealt with. The reason the law has proved so popular amongst Armenians is that it represents the prospect of a final catharsis to a tragic history touching almost all those of Armenian ancestry. However, despite this it merely presents yet another obstacle to reaching a conclusion. Decades of silence and pain mean that Armenians seek a genuine sense of closure while Turkey’s attempt at becoming a genuine democracy demands that it address and come to terms with the history upon which the state was founded. With the hundredth anniversary fast approaching perhaps it is time for all those involved to discuss how to really create a sense of closure around the events of 1915.

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