The approaching centenary of the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman empire is a moment for Turkey’s civil society to create a new ethical reality around the issue
he centenary of the Armenian genocide in 1915 is fast approaching. Much attention will shift towards Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman empire. Since its inception, the Turkish republic has rejected responsibility for the genocide and mobilised its cultural and educational infrastructure to eradicate Armenians from Turkey’s history.
In recent years, especially since the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007, an increasing number of individuals and civil-society organisations has begun to engage with the heritage and history of the country’s once substantial Armenian communities and their violent end. This interest in parts of civil society had little impact on government policy until 23 April 2014, the day before the genocide’s traditional commemoration, when the office of Turkey’s prime minister released a letter offering condolences to the grandchildren of those that perished.
This statement was significant; it was the first time a Turkish prime minister had addressed the issue of Armenian suffering and loss. The letter was seen by some as a humane expression of grief and as a departure from the cold rhetoric of Turkish denialists, who fetishise numbers and documents in a way that barely conceals their racist reflexes. A closer look, however, suggests that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s words seem less to break with the denialist mindset than to reframe the existing state position. They do this by shifting the gaze from the genocide, and relativising the destruction of Ottoman Armenians through an emphasis on the uprooting and suffering of Turks during the Balkan war and the first world war. In reality the statement may have been more about Erdogan’s quest for power than about justice and atonement with Armenians (whether in Turkey, in the diaspora, or in the Armenian republic).
Turkey briefly acquired an image as role model for the Arab-spring countries, which underpinned its attempts at regional leadership. But after this interlude, Turkey lost much of its international credibility over both the heavy police violence meted out to the Gezi park protesters in 2013, and a series of foreign-policy blunders in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Erdogan’s AKP government has become isolated, both domestically and internationally, and is now desperately seeking to restore its international stature. To Erdogan’s advisers and foreign-ministry strategists, any goodwill gesture must therefore have appeared a sensible policy option. As 2015 drew nearer, a symbolic change in rhetoric over the Armenian issue eventually looked appealing. Turkey’s breach with Israel, whose camp in the United States was once enlisted to do the dirty work of lobbying against recognition of the genocide, meant that this route was no longer open to Ankara.
Hence Erdogan’s letter. It is a masterly work that manages to appear to talk about the Armenian genocide without actually recognising it; that insinuates reconciliation without acknowledging injustice; and that uses words of condolence, while warning its recipients not to establish “a pecking order of suffering” (i.e. not to insist on recognition).
The role of civil society
1915 means many things to different people. For Armenians it is overwhelmingly about a sense of justice; for many liberals in Turkey it is about the country’s democratic future; and, this must also be said, for the majority of Turks socialised in the notoriously nationalist education system, it means a plot by western powers to divide Turkey’s territory.
The liberals’ argument goes like this: only by addressing the country’s violent past and the authoritarian behemoth of the modern Turkish state will the republic be able to transform itself into a state of all its citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious, linguistic heritage or gender. The Gezi park protests show there is a sizeable constituency that would subscribe to this argument. But as prime minister Erdogan’s relentless stance against the protesters and the police repression against them both demonstrate, power in Turkey is not in liberal hands. Turkey today is not much more of an inclusive democracy than it was a decade ago.
Turkey’s civil society has often been at the forefront of the struggle for a more democratic polity, but not necessarily for the recognition of genocide. The latter remains a highly contested topic, which only the most radical of civil-society organisations is ready to tackle. The centenary of the Armenian genocide therefore presents an opportunity for Turkey’s critical civil society to confront the country’s record of state-organised mass violence, as well as to explore the remnants of what once was a thriving community of Ottoman Armenians without whose contribution Turkish culture as it is today would be unthinkable.
Such recognition will not come from this government and probably not from the next one either. The administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proven repeatedly that democratisation is not its primary objective, and that any reckoning with the modern Turkish republic’s record of violence and destruction – something built into its DNA, and by no means a record of the past only – is not in its interest.
It is unimaginable that Erdogan, or any other Turkish political leader in this decade, would kneel down before Yerevan’s genocide memorial and ask for forgiveness. His letter was above all an attempt to avoid such a heartfelt expression of grief, commiseration and responsibility for the crimes of his forefathers’ generation.
But if political Turkey will not kneel down in the foreseeable future, some civil-society organisations began to do so several years ago. A series of genocide remembrance events have been held in Istanbul and several other Turkish cities. In the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, a memorial was inaugurated in 2013 that laments all those killed by injustice. In the steps of Hasan Cemal, a respected journalist and grandson of one of the key perpetrators of the genocide, hundreds of Turks have visited Dzidzanagabert, Armenia’s equivalent of Yad Vashem; many have laid flowers in memory of those who perished.
So where hope can be found, it is not in the realm of strategically placed and half-hearted swings in rhetoric but in the courageous work of those facing history, accepting responsibility and transcending enmity. Activists in Turkey have been helped in this quest by members of the Armenian diaspora, who have moved beyond their own concerns and fears of re-engaging with people of a country which, for many years, has been portayed as the enemy per se.
The position of Armenians in Turkey
Yet this is where Erdogan’s government, embattled as it is, has also been making a difference. Not through any big strides forward, but through simple measures such as easing the heavy discrimination and restrictions on Armenian community life of the kind it has faced since the foundation of the Turkish republic. Even the recent years’ limited restitution of foundation properties and church buildings, for example, has helped reinvigorate Armenian life in Istanbul.
Istanbul’s official Armenian population today amounts to 70,000, which may only be a faint shadow of its larger presence in the 1920s or even the 1960s. But numbers can be misleading. For the community has been able to sustain an impressive network of sophisticated schools, churches and civil-society institutions, which distinguishes it from many other Armenian communities. It is also growing in less visible ways, and has culturally related and sympathetic kin groups all over Turkey and beyond.
Tens of thousands of citizens from Armenia now live and work in Turkey. Many more “Muslim Armenians” are also beginning to discover their Armenian heritage; these are people whose grandparents survived the genocide by forced conversion or marriage, and who are estimated to number several hundred thousand. Some convert to Christianity, others explore the possibilities of engaging with Armenian identity outside the church, and yet others seek to reconcile their interest in Armenian heritage with their Islamic faith.
Istanbul itself is also a meeting-point between those with an Armenian connection and members of the Hemsinli community, an Armenian-speaking Muslim population from the mountains of the eastern Black Sea, many of whose members have migrated to Istanbul in recent decades. Their folk songs and laments about loss, grief and survival are mutually understood.
Istanbul today, with all things considered, therefore hosts much more of an Armenian presence than might be glimpsed at first sight. It is there that the genocide was planned and it also there – not in the republic’s capital, Ankara – that the genuflections are taking place. And it is there too that civil society will explore to what extent Turkey can become a multicultural, multi-religious and multilingual society of all its people: not under the conditions of Ottoman authority or Erdogan’s authoritarianism, but in the spirit of a free and inclusive democracy.
This article was inspired by a workshop on Armenian-Turkish relations at Sheffield Hallam University on 8 June 2014. It was convened by Joanne Laycock (Sheffield) and Sossie Kasbarian (Lancaster) and brought together a wide range of academics, activists and civil-society representatives as well as performers and filmmakers.
Published on Open Democracy