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‘Genocide’ in 1915: Law, Language, and Politics

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip ErdoganThe Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the American President, Barack Obama, have both been accused of ‘denialism’ by representatives of the Armenian community in response to their official statements issued to commemorate formally the 99th anniversary of atrocities committed in 1915 against the Armenian minority living in Turkey.

The accusations directed at the two leaders are somewhat different as is the tone and substance of their two statements. Obama is essentially being attacked because the Armenian diaspora community in the United States was led to believe during his presidential campaign of 2008 that he would if elected formally affirm that what happened in 1915 to the Armenian minority living in Turkey constituted genocide. Obama's statement adopts strong language of condemnation:

“We recall the horror of what happened ninety-nine years ago, when 1.5 million people were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.” He added, “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” apparently seeking to console those who expected more, while refraining from crossing the red line associated with the G-word, which is what Armenians were waiting for. Obama calls for a “full, frank, and just acknowledgement” of the facts as being in the interests of all sides, and part of the struggle to “build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future,” and with a nod toward national humility Obama observes that Armenian/Turkish reconciliation should go forward “as we [in America] strive to reconcile some of the darkest moments in our own history.” But this is not enough to satisfy those who articulate the views of the Armenian campaign that will settle for nothing less than the unambiguous avowal that the Armenian ordeal was ‘genocide.’ Any other description of these events is dismissed as unacceptable, being regarded as evasive or denialist in relation to this insistence on the word.
 
Oddly, the complaints about Erdogan’s response to the 1915 anniversary are rather similar, although his rhetoric is more problematic in relation to how the events in question should be historically understood. For Erdogan many ethnicities suffered unjustly during the final stage of the Ottoman Empire, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and millions of others during this “difficult period.” He calls for an approach that appreciates “all the sufferings endured..without discriminating as to religion or ethnicity.” And further, that no justice is rendered by “constructing hierarchies of pain nor comparing and contrasting suffering.” Erdogan pushes back against Armenian pressures by saying “using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning the issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible.” In effect, Erdogan repudiates the major premise of the Armenian campaign.
 
Erdogan articulates, as well, an approach that Turkey has more broadly embraced in its sponsorship (with Spain) of the Alliance of Civilizations: “The spirit of the age necessitates dialogue despite differences, understanding by heeding others, evaluating means for compromise, denouncing hatred, and praising respect and tolerance.” More concretely, he repeats the call for “a joint historical commission,” which would have the benefit of an expanded access to the extensive Turkish archives now available to all researchers. Along these lines Erdogan also proposes that the diverse peoples of Anatolia, who lived together peacefully for centuries, “talk to each other about the past with maturity and to remember together their losses in a decent manner.” And somewhat piously at the end, “it is with this hope and belief that we wish the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”
 
As might be expected, the Armenian reaction to such sentiments is one of anger, and feelings of disappointment that can be summarized by the reaction, ‘nothing new.’ Erdogan’s message is the familiar Turkish refrain that refuses to accept the central Armenian grievance—that Armenians were the main target of the lethal Ottoman policies of 1915 to such a deliberate and systematic extent as to justify the label of ‘genocide.’ The Armenian campaign for rectification is centered upon the unconditional demand that governments throughout the world, especially Turkey, and secondarily, the United States, confirm that what took place was genocide. For this reason, although the differences between what Obama and Erdogan had to say are significant, even profound, the Armenian reactions are almost equally dismissive.
 
To some extent more nuanced Armenian responses to Obama and Erdogan might help lead toward a more constructive approach to persisting tensions. After all, Obama basically subscribes to the Armenian understanding of what took place in 1915, while Erdogan rejects the far more basic idea that Armenian suffering is of such a grave character as to warrant special consideration. It would seem desirable and reasonable for Turkey to move beyond this view of plural suffering to a willingness to accept the historical narrative long convincingly put forward by respected scholars and representatives of the Armenian and international community, and concentrate attention on how this terrible past episode may be properly acknowledged during 2015, a hundred years later.

The responsible debate at this time is about the legal status of the 1915 events, taking the historical facts as sufficiently established as to not require further investigation. Indeed if the Turkish government were willing to make this concession it might ease the way toward creating a process with some real prospect of mutual accommodation. From this perspective, it should be possible to start by agreeing with the descriptive accuracy of Obama’s formulation and move beyond what Erdogan proposes while incorporating his remarks encouraging dialogue and tolerance.
 
What seems most helpful at this time is shifting away from a focus on the historical interpretation of the events of 1915 toward a consideration of how to achieve an agreed rendering of the legal and semiotic issues that are the true residual core of the controversy. Such a shift will at least allow us to understand the overriding importance attributed by both the Armenian community and the Turkish government to whether the word genocide should be treated as applicable or non-applicable in the good faith search by the parties for justice and reconciliation.

In the spirit of moderation it needs also to be realized that time has passed, that the hurt of such remembrances can never be fully assuaged, and that the best that can be achieved is some compromise between remembering and forgetting. Such a compromise is essential if the shared objective of the Armenian community and Turkey is to escape finally from the twinned entrapments of embitterment and rationalization.   


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