Remembering Armenian sorrows and articulating Armenian hopes

By Harry Hagopian
27 Apr 2012

During my recent travels, I followed with interest the controversy in Germany over a recent poem, What Must Be Said, written by the German Nobel literature laureate Günter Grass. His nine-stanza, 69-line poem, published in the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, referred to the nuclear standoff with Iran and labelled Israel as a threat to an ‘already fragile world peace’. Following the publication of his poem, the 84-year-old author of The Tin Drum was excoriated in some circles for being critical of Israel whilst only obliquely referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated threats against Israel by writing solely that the Iranian people are being “subjugated by a loudmouth”.

Grass, not a stranger to controversy, admitted later that he might have been a tad hasty with his pen, but his thoughts and words nonetheless contained the kernels of some truth in them. And not unexpectedly, they stirred up a hornet’s nest across the whole of the country and forced Germans to exercise some soul-searching in their relations with Israel. After all, one key characteristic of German-Israeli close relations is that Germany remains reluctant - unable even - to criticise Israel because of the sheer force of the moral guilt it still feels from the execrable killings of Jews by the Nazis during WWII.

Turkey, on the other hand, feels no such moral compunction or guilt at all despite the holocaust (as Robert Fisk calls it) that it committed against Armenians. Instead, and unlike Germany than has bent backwards in its admission of responsibility for the Jewish Holocaust, Turkey challenges any statement that dares question its actions during WWI. So I would like to take a leaf from this German poet’s book today in order to share with readers some of my own broader thoughts about the issue of the Armenian genocide, 97 years old this week, and its zealous let alone frenetic denial by Turkey.

• I would like to re-affirm today that there is no doubt in my mind about the historical veracity of this genocide - a macabre event that one priest recently described as ‘the granddaddy of all genocides’. And I utter this statement not as an ethnic Armenian with presumed genetic biases, but as someone quite familiar with the solid literature coming out from international historians, organisations, scholars and lawyers - not least the International Association of Genocide Scholars - confirming time and again that forced deportations and massacres took place against Armenians of Turkish nationality [alongside Greeks, Assyrians and Nestorians] living in their homelands in Western Armenia during the ominous years of WWI.

• Mind you, any search engine would come up with a wealth of serious and incontrovertible documentation about this genocide. As Professor Colin Tatz, former director of the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies, stated, “The Turkish denial [of the Armenian genocide] is probably the foremost example of historical perversion. With a mix of academic sophistication and diplomatic thuggery - of which we at Macquarie University [in Sydney, Australia] have been targets - the Turks have put both memory and history into reverse gear”. In fact, was it not Tala’at Pasha, in a conversation with Dr Mordtmann of the German embassy in June 1915, who said that Turkey was taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate {gründlich aufräumen} its internal foes?

• Yet, many Turks remain largely unaware of this Ottoman chapter in their history. How could they really? A blend of Turkish stubborn nationalism, coupled with a blackout of any literary or academic sources (until quite recently) have meant that a gap has existed in the education of Turks. One rule of thumb has always been that ignorance often fosters strident tones of nationalism - which is what also happens at times in modern-day Turkey. Nonetheless, there is a creeping awareness by Turks of this genocide: after all, some universities, academics, authors and researchers are openly - at times bravely - defying this manner of self-imposed and deliberate denial.

• In this sense, one very powerful manifestation of this evolving trend was the public Call for Commemoration: The 24th of April statement that came out this week from the Human Rights Association, Istanbul Branch Committee against Racism and Discrimination. Its members held a silent procession on 24th April in keeping with the tradition of mourning in front of the Museum for Turkish and Islamic Arts (a prison during the Ottoman era). They also sent letters to the two catholicoi (highest authorities of the Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin and Antelias) in which they decried “the deracination of the Armenian population throughout Anatolia where they had lived for thousands of years, and their annihilation as a result of starvation, destitution and massacres”. In fact, the significance of this decision by the Human Rights Association far outreaches its small numbers. It is a bold decision that is driven by respect for human rights per se and as such is a crucial transit point for the future since what matters most is not the recognition of this genocide by third parties - even important ones such as the USA or the UK - but rather by Turkey itself. Simply put, the buck started with Turkey, and the buck can only really stop with Turkey.

• Moreover, and as Marc Nichanian writes somewhat controversially in his Historiographic Perversion (CUP, 2009) when discussing history and law, the Armenian genocide deals with amputation as well as imputation. Indeed, the certainty alone that the genocide occurred - no matter how deliberately cruel – is in itself an inadequate response. The same could be argued for the self-sufficiency of worldwide campaigns for recognition embracing our political, religious or community leaders. Even though their words are fiery and rousing, their follow-up actions remain politic and therefore casuistic. Nor, for that matter, is recognition achieved merely through an overinflated reliance on draft laws submitted to parliaments (such as in the French Houses of Parliament by President Nicolas Sarkozy who uses Armenian-French votes as a political football) or the prevarications of US Administrations and Israeli governments who spin their decisions politically and label the genocide as medz yeghern (great catastrophe) or market the recognition of the genocide episodically for the sake of rankling if not pressuring Turkey. This panting dependency by Armenians on recognition by world leaders or parliaments is not the real solution. What is required is a much deeper reflection on longer-term strategies rather than shorter-term tactics alone.

• In my opinion, as a Christian believer let alone political advisor, such expressions of frustration and indignation - understandable though they might well be - must also be measured and well thought out. We must certainly lift up our indefatigable values, sacrifices and traditions as Armenians but we should also ensure that we do not go down the slippery road of revenge. Recognition is not tantamount to revenge or a settling of scores. So I do wonder about the wisdom of constant Turkey-bashing with words and eggs (as happened this week in front of the Turkish embassy in Beirut), or when our recognition-campaigns turn exceedingly jingoistic and attempt to legislate our freedoms of thought and expression - those very freedoms our forefathers were deprived of during the genocide?

• This year, in 2012, the Republic of Armenia has invited Diasporan communities to establish committees that would prepare for the centenary of the Armenian genocide. So what should be the task of those august committees world-wide? Should it be one of narrow-minded self-centredness, with each committee behaving parochially or else slavering to the expectations of vested interests - Armenian or otherwise - as they consider the programmes that could feature in our commemorative events in 2015? Or should they come together as avant-garde thinkers who go outside the box and confidently seek to define a robust and united roadmap that is grounded in an inclusive vision? Are they ready to challenge some of our long-held taboos? Where do we Armenians wish to go in terms of a genocide that cleansed two-thirds of the Armenian populations in Ottoman Turkey during 1915-1918? Should we not look at the arsenal of tools that constitute the real wealth of the whole Armenian nation today?

• Such tools could be political, legal, literary, religious and media-friendly - to name just five. Are we not aware of the number of journalists or activists being detained in Turkish gaols today or are we not familiar of the vagaries of the Turkish Penal Code and its restrictive articles that muzzle Turks and handcuff their words, let alone deeds? Should we not challenge the vociferous denial of modern-day Turkey in legal fora, academic and media outlets as well as on political levels that require less grandstanding perhaps than the White House or Elysée Palace but are at least as effective in mobilising grassroots support for an Armenian case that helped Lemkin craft the UN Genocide Convention of 1948? Here in the UK, a small number of committed activists in Wales have over the years achieved much more than in many other parts of the UK. The same could easily be said of Edinburgh where a handful of Armenians also managed twice to pass Resolutions by the Edinburgh City Council recognising the Armenian genocide despite massive Turkish opposition and the reluctance of Scottish Conservatives to support the Motion.

• Finally, and while keeping recognition by Turkey as the clear target of all collective efforts, the Armenian genocide must also tap into its available resources in association with survivors of other genocides - from the Holocaust and Cambodia to Rwanda and Darfur. After all, and as George Shirinian of the Canada-based Zoryan Institute stated recently, education is a mnemonic, the one indispensable skeleton key toward the achievement of the Armenian objective. Education is harder than loose words, but it could also re-incarnate the memories of all those Armenians killed, wounded, raped, deported, converted or forgotten during this cheerless period in the history of humankind.

Like most Diasporan Armenians today, I too trace my roots to the horrors committed against my family by the triumvirate rulers of Turkey almost one century ago. But I do not seek revenge, nor do I want to spill more blood in order to cleanse the stain that blots Turkish history. Rather, I seek my painful way of honouring the memories of all my relatives who perished during the genocide so that I too can move forward - alongside other Armenians and Turks. After all, whilst all Turks are certainly not righteous Hrant Dinks, some of them certainly are and therefore they too become part of my future.

So let us not forget: 2012-1915 = 97.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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