Why this is so difficult for Turkey

A closer examination shows that the “genocide” debate is merely a red herring.

A woman lights a candle at the cathedral in Yerevan, ahead of the canonization ceremony for the Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. [AFP]
A woman lights a candle at the cathedral in Yerevan, ahead of the canonisation ceremony for victims of the mass killings [AFP]

It may appear Turkey has a strong allergic reaction to the phrase “Armenian genocide” whose mention has been known to cause many of its citizens to fall into a near apoplectic state. For this reason, the more conciliatory among us have put forth the argument that use of the word should be avoided altogether, so as not to anger the Turks, and thereby allow discussion of the subject to continue.

Nevertheless, a closer examination shows that the “G word” debate is merely a red herring. What raises Ankara’s ire isn’t the question of “proper terminology”, but of what stands behind it: The fundamental assumption that a crime has been committed.

The essence of the denialist argument is that the events of 1915, while unfortunate, were in no sense a “crime”. If the concern was merely one of determining which charges to file, successive Turkish administrations could, long ago, have suggested classifying the killings as “crimes against humanity” or such taxonomy as they felt better fit the bill.

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But no such suggestion has been forthcoming. Instead, Turkey continues to categorically deny that the Ottoman government committed any action that could be deemed “criminal” by or through the 1915 deportations and their aftermath, thus making any “was it/wasn’t it” argument a pointless endeavour.

If the Turkish government were just to issue a statement regarding the basic “criminal” nature of Ottoman actions in 1915 – not even mentioning “genocide” – it would represent a huge step towards reconciliation.

In this light, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s April 20 statement extending his condolences for Armenian suffering, while conciliatory in tone, did not go very far. It served only to reiterate the official Turkish position, stopping far short of acknowledging any responsibility – much less guilt – for the events in question.

The difference, in regard to the political and moral implications, would be similar. Either way, Turkey would have to address all of the issues – including that of restitution – with the parties involved.

An acknowledgement of their deeds as crimes would necessitate a serious re-evaluation of our very identity as members of the Turkish nation.


Domestic fears

But let’s forget the term “genocide” for a moment. For its part, Turkey’s rulers are well aware that referring to the events of 1915 as a crime of any kind would cause them all kinds of problems.

First, such an admission implies an obligation for compensation. Of the nearly two million Armenians living in Ottoman territory in 1915, only 67,000 Armenian-speakers remained by 1927.

Even if we accept the higher estimate of 140,000 remaining, it still represents the effective elimination of most of the country’s Armenian population, along with the unrecompensed seizure of their considerable assets and properties. Any admission of responsibility for this crime must surely be followed by claims for restitution.

Another less tangible consideration when denying the genocide is that the events that eliminated much of the Christian population of Anatolia are inextricably woven into those leading to the founding of the Turkish republic itself.

Modern Turkey was established in large part by the surviving cadres of the Committee of Union and Progress that had planned and carried out the Armenian deportations. The preparations for the Turkish war of Independence of the early 1920s were in fact laid in the pre-war period of 1913-14. During this time, the Unionists developed contingency plans for popular resistance in the event of military defeat.

A woman walks past an archive photograph during an exhibition at the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan [AFP]
A woman walks past an archive photograph during an exhibition at the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan [AFP]

A series of organisations were established, and adversarial parties or circles were excluded from them. A significant component of the founding cadres were Unionists, many of whom had played significant roles in the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia, enriching themselves in the process.

Heroes of crime

Today, they are celebrated as national heroes – the founding fathers of the nation; men who, according to what we were taught in schools, “created our nation and the state out of nothing”. In short, they define who we are. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a central pillar of Turkey’s foundational myth, its national creed, so to speak, and one embraced across all sectors of society.

An acknowledgement of their deeds as crimes would necessitate a serious re-evaluation of our very identity as members of the Turkish nation.

This, it must be admitted, would be a daunting proposition even for a country with a less brittle national identity and stronger democratic foundation than that of Turkey. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any such denunciation occurring without a democratic foundation robust enough to absorb the shock.

The unanswered question is whether the people of Turkey are willing and able to construct a new national identity that allows them to view their foundational myths in a more detached light.

Genocide recognition may be more a matter of justice than of civil liberties, but there is strong connection between acknowledging and remedying past injustices on the one hand, and fostering a democratic society on the other.

Since the 2007 murder of Armenian journalist and intellectual Hrant Dink and the Gezi Park protests of last summer, there is a growing civil society in Turkey that seems ready to march onwards and face this challenge. We must not only hope, but also work for their continued growth and success. 

Taner Akcam holds the Kaloosdian and Mugar Chair of Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University. He is the author of many books including award-winning book The Young Turks’ Crime against Humanity. His most recent book, with Umit Kurt, is The Spirit of the Laws, Confiscation of Armenian Properties.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.