Turkey and the Armenians: politics of history

A new generation's encounter with the Armenian genocide of 1915 is producing fresh understandings of Turkey's - and the middle east's - modern history, finds Vicken Cheterian.

Vicken Cheterian
3 July 2012

Taner Akçam, the leading Turkish scholar on the history of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and after, delivered a lecture in June 2012 on the subject of "Armenian genocide and Turkey’s national security". He began his address by projecting a map of the late Ottoman empire which showed the many urban centres in Anatolia where Armenians lived (such as Erzincan and Aintab), the routes they were forced to take after their expulsion, and - for those who survived the killings and massacres along the way - their final destinations, such as Deir Ez-Zor deep in the Syrian desert.

A curious feature revealed by the map is that several of the towns and cities where the exhausted and brutalised Armenians ended up are today scarred by the Syrian uprising and its violent repression by forces loyal to the Damascus government. If this is a reminder of the continuities of conflict and tragedy in the region, it also suggests the importance of seeing the events of a century ago in a wide perspective that takes several factors into account: the growing debate within Turkey about the fate of the Ottoman Armenians during the "great war" of 1914-18; the evolution of Turkey's political culture and its processes of democratisation; and (not least) the experience of other middle-eastern societies whose political space has become increasingly "communitarised", often under the influence of slogans of "progress" or "state security".

A prison of security

Taner Akçam's own story is part of these historical currents. The fruits of his brave and pioneering archival work are found in several notable books, such as A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2006). But his excavation of buried truths have made him an enemy of powerful forces in Turkish society who would prefer these to remain buried. His name, for example, was one of five on a hit-list discovered during the "Ergenekon" trials (an alleged conspiratorial military-nationalist organisation that aimed to destabilise Turkey and pave the way to a military coup).

Another name on the list was Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor of Agos, the Armenian-language weekly paper published in Istanbul. Hrant Dink was assassinated near the paper's offices in January 2007 by a young Turkish nationalist suspected to have links with Turkey's "deep state". A third name was Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's Nobel literature laureate. These intellectuals are considered by hardline security-obsessed militarists and nationalists to be "traitors" on account of their questioning of the offically sanctioned version of Turkey's history (see Taner Akçam, "Turkey and history: shoot the messenger", 16 August 2007) 

Akçam, who has experienced many attacks on his work and reputation, says that the supposed protection of "national security" has long been used in Turkey to curb his freedom of speech. The same logic is apparent even in the United States, where congressional debate about the Armenian genocide is said to threaten cooperation with its Turkish ally and the US's national interest in the middle east" .

But, responds Akçam, a secure, stable and democratic middle east can only be created if historic understanding is integrated into the political space - and that means overcoming lingering taboos and putting moral values beside Realpolitik. "The problems of the region cannot be solved if historic wrongdoings are not addressed. History is strongly present in the everyday life of the middle east," says Akçam.

A rediscovered history

Betul Tanbay, a professor of mathematics, was a high-school student in Paris when her history teacher asked her to write a paper on the Armenian genocide: "I come from a leftist, politicised family, and grew up in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul", which had a large, mainly Greek, minority population. Yet she was shocked to realise that she did not know an important part of the history of her own country. Her story is repeated by a numerous other Turkish migrants who in European or north American schools and universities have been invited to articulate what they thought of the "genocide of the Armenians" but were unable to grasp even what the question was about.

"In the past", says Tanbay, "we explained the lack of recognition of the Armenian genocide as a matter of lack of knowledge, of ignorance. But after the assassination of Hrant Dink I lost this naiveté. Every single behaviour of the Turkish state reminded me of the continuation of the same mentality. The silent acceptance is unbearable to live with."

In the last few years, the debate about formerly taboo subjects such as the Armenian genocide has advanced in Turkey. Rober Koptas, the editor-in-chief of Agos - Hrant Dink's paper - says that the ruling AKP (Justice & Development Party) has taken some positive steps towards Turkey's Armenian community, but not over the genocide issue or the neighbouring Republic of Armenia (see Hratch Tchilingirian, "Hrant Dink and Armenians in Turkey", 23 February 2007). It's true that there was a brief rapprochment between the two states, involving the signing in 2009 of two "protocols" to normalise relations, But, says Koptas, "[the] protocols were the project of President Abdullah Gül and foreign minister Ahmet Davudoglu. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not convinced by [the process] and opposed it, fearing that it would cost him a certain percentage of nationalist votes."

More recently, a new force has emerged alongside domestic Turkish nationalism to oppose the recognition of the Armenian genocide within Turkey: the Azerbaijani lobby. Azerbaijan and Armenia are engaged in bitter rivalry over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The oil-rich Azeris are, says Koptas, "working to oppose genocide-recognition, intervening actively inside the Turkish political sphere. Azerbaijan is spending money on NGOs, media, and universities to advance this aim, and in a very aggressive manner."

A continuous thread

Yet Turkey is a country both economically successful and increasingly important on the international political scene. It has every reason to be confident about facing its own past and acknowledging uncomfortable truths. There is a strong case that its refusal to do so is rooted in the history of which the Armenian genocide is part.

Taner Akçam's studies of the subject reveal a deep continuum between the Ittihadists (the Party of Union and Progress, which came to power after the 1908 revolt against the Ottoman Sultan) and those who built the Turkish republic in the aftermath of the first world war and the collapse of the Ottoman empire. He argues that the continuity of elites in power also entailed a continuity of policy (reflected in the Armenian genocide and its denial) and strategy (top-down social engineering). The Ittihadists got rid of the Christian minorities of the empire (a quarter of the empire's entire population); the republic continued the repression, this time against the Kurdish minority and Islamists, in order to forge a unified "Turkish" identity out of a diverse population (see Taner Akçam, The Young Turk’s Crime Against Humanity : The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire [Princeton University Press, 2012]).

Akçam says: "Every nation has founding fathers who are presented as heroes of the nation. If Turkey acknowledges the Armenian genocide it will be declaring its founding fathers to be murderers and thieves, since part of them were involved in the mass killings, while others became rich as a result" by pillaging Armenian properties left behind. Cengiz Aktar, a university professor and specialist on Turkey-European Union relations, says: "Turkey’s main ideological matrix is Ittihadist-Kemalist, with a social-engineering political culture very similar to the Ba'ath Party, and a total absence of self-criticism." The Ittihadists promised reform and modernisation when they took power in 1908, but the attempt to build a new state with a homogenous population was followed by massive violence against and repression of its own citizens, including Greeks and Assyrians as well as Armenians.

A slow unravelling

The schism in the official ideology started in 2002-03, after the Islamist-inspired AKP was elected, creating a break with the elites in power since the origins of the Turkish republic (see Gunes Murat Tezcur, "The AKP years in Turkey: the third stage", 20 September 2011). Aktar says: "The Islamists are trying to break with this past, and partially managed to settle their accounts with the Ittihadist paradigm." But while "they went as far as to secure their own future" by rehabilitating political Islam in the struggle against Turkish nationalism, they stopped short of a radical revision of history. "As Islamists in power stopped short, the momentum they initiated does not go beyond a certain limit. But society took advantage of this new era, by seizing the chance to revisit the past with their own hands", Aktar concludes.

Akçam has come closer to understanding the significance of Armenian property confiscated by the Turkish elites following the 1914-18 war. In order to hide and legitimise this massive expropriation, the Turkish legal system had to take many covert and unacknowledged measures - manipulating citizenship and deforming property rights, among others - in order to maintain the confiscation of Armenian property.

Koptas said that a new generation of Turkish citizens is joining the struggle against past taboos. Hilal Kaplan was a 19-year-old university student when she was denied access to a university campus because of her headscarf. She was shocked to hear Turkey's then president, Suleiman Demirel, declare that veiled women had no place in Turkey and could go to Saudi Arabia if they wanted to cover their hair. If the state behaved in such a repressive manner towards the majority Muslim population, she asked herself, how would they behave towards minorities such as the Armenians? Since then, she has "adopted" the Armenian cause, seeing it as part of a Turkish nationalist attack against both ethnic-religious minorities and Islam.

Agos's editor Koptas says there are different groups today in Turkey, such as those of a Muslim or Kurdish tendency, interested in revising the official Turkish nationalist narrative: "We tell them they should also consider the Armenian issue, there is no way to avoid it." Here, Koptas added, it was extremely important to create a dialogue between Turkish liberal forces, Armenian intellectuals and Muslim thinkers.

The various people I interviewed in Istanbul have little hope of dramatic change in Ankara’s policy in the approach to 2015, the anniversary of the beginning of the genocide. The AKP has become too established to be interested in such a radical revision. Yet there are signs of incremental change: nine decades after the expropriation of Armenian property, over a dozen properties have in recent years been returned to Armenian churches and foundations in Istanbul. Many more are waiting. The coming period will see more claims, and fresh historical understandings. The process of recovery, of truth and property, is irreversible.

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