An unacknowledged genocide

By Harry Hagopian
27 Jan 2010

Today marks the observance of the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and other mass atrocities around the world. The sadness and horror evoked by this occasion is felt particularly strongly by the descendants of the victims of unrecognised genocides.

As historians have asserted on the basis of ample archival evidence (http://www.armenian-genocide.org/), this first genocide of the last century was in fact perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government between 1915 and 1923 when it systematically and relentlessly targeted and killed Armenians within its Empire.

Ultimately, well over one million ethnic Armenians, who incidentally were Ottoman and later Turkish citizens, lost their lives.

As an Armenian born after this grisly period of our history, I often wonder how our forbears managed to persevere in the face of such immense suffering and adversity. Not only did they, their families and friends, undergo the most harrowing experiences, they also managed to pick themselves up and rebound from the devastation of their orphaned situations.

It is due to their intrepid steadfastness and belief in their collective identity as Armenians, that we - the younger generations - can now lead our lives more freely and with more confidence.

But what does this say about modern-day Turkey? Equally importantly, what does it say of those across the world who still resist tooth and nail the idea of genocide - any acts of genocide, that of the Armenians or subsequent ones - with denial and who debase human life and dignity for spurious political and economic considerations?

How can we possibly claim to defend a political order based on human rights and common decency on the one hand only to stifle it on the other? Do deniers not recall George Santayana, a principal figure in classical American philosophy, asserting that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (in The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905).

As the American NPR broadcaster, Scott Simon, wrote in ‘Genocide’ is a Matter of Opinion, there are times when one has to utter the word ‘genocide’ in order to be accurate about mass murder that tries to extinguish a whole ethnic group. That is why the slaughter of a million Tutsis in Rwanda is not called merely mass murder. This is also why any politician who goes to Germany, for instance, and describes the Holocaust of European Jews merely as ‘terrible killings’ would be reviled without mercy and even prosecuted without appeal.

President Obama assumed the high moral ground during the US presidential primaries by stating clearly that the Armenian people deserved “a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides”.

But on Armenian Remembrance Day on 24 April 2009, his written statement from the White House referred twice to the Armenian genocide as medz yeghern - translated literally as “great catastrophe” rather than “genocide”. Many American politicians still refrain from using the ‘g-word’.

However, debates are intensifying along with speculation on the possibility that the US Congress in April may finally recognise the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government, which still talks about the "confusion" of 1915-23, is lobbying hard against this.

Once again we will witness a showdown between realpolitik and the truth: in other words, between contemporary political expediency and the burden of past atrocities. All too often the former seems to win. Does this not sadly alert us - believers and humanists alike - how the values of our global world today often avoid words such as truth, conscience and honour?

On 24 April 2010 we will be six years shy of a century of denial that - no matter whether individual, collective or institutional - still contaminates the truth. Is it therefore not high time to put the record straight? Is it not time for Turkish officials to put jingoism, let alone misplaced pride or fear aside by recognising this unfortunate chapter of their Ottoman history during World War One? Is it not time for the Turkish judicial system today to stop invoking Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code and charging reporters or writers simply because they refer to the massacres of Armenians as genocide? Is it not time also for the Turkish President and Prime Minister to prove their EU-friendly credentials by mustering the political fortitude -let alone the moral rectitude - to acknowledge past aberrations?

Moreover, is it not time for the world community to embark upon a veritable phase of genocide education by underlining the eight stages of genocide which culminate in denial - as elaborated by Dr Gregory H Stanton in his Eight Stages of Genocide in 1998 when he was president of Genocide Watch? Or as the chartered clinical psychologist Aida Alayarian elucidated in her book Consequences of Denial, does the denial of the Armenian genocide not deprive its victims of the opportunity to make sense of their experience, as well as rendering Turkish society unable to come to terms with its past, and therefore with itself?

Such recognition is not solely for the sake of Armenians. After all, I consider this genocide a historically-recognised reality, even if some governments dither, equivocate and refuse to admit to it for reasons that have more to do with political weakness than historical truthfulness.

No, it is also for the memory of all those righteous Turks who assisted, harboured and supported Armenians during this wounded chapter of history. But as a firm believer in forgiveness and reconciliation, I hold that it is ultimately for the sake of both Armenians and Turks alike so they can begin the painful but ineluctable journey toward a just closure of this open sore.

------------

(c) Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/). His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/)

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.