One year to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide

By Harry Hagopian
24 Apr 2014

Just utter the words ‘Armenian genocide’ or mention the date ‘24 April 1915’ to any Armenian in any corner of the world, and he or she would instantly launch into stories about the near-extermination of their Armenian forebears by Ottoman Turkey under the cover of the First World War.

Mention those same words or dates to most Turkish men or women and they would in all likelihood profess ignorance of the event, or deny that it ever happened, or go into fits of indignation about such Armenian mendacities. Welcome to the world of Armenian-Turkish relations 99 years after this horrible chapter in their shared history.

While most Diasporan Armenians define much of their identity through those events, Turkey seemingly feels no such moral compunction or guilt despite the holocaust (as Robert Fisk calls it) that its Ottoman predecessors committed against Armenians. Instead, and unlike Germany that has bent backwards in its admission of responsibility for ha-Shoah (the Jewish Holocaust) let alone made reparations, Turkey still challenges any statement that dares question its actions during the First World War.

So here are my latest thoughts about the issue of the Armenian genocide at a time when Armenians in all five continents commemorate this event despite what have been frenetic, persistent denials by Turkish officials -- with some more hopeful comments recently forthcoming from Prime Minister Erdogan.

• I have probably repeated this statement ad nauseum, but I would like to re-affirm 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 Eastern Turkey / Western Armenia during those 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, a 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 near blackout of any literary or academic sources (until quite recently), has 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 chauvinism - 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 Turkish manifestation of this evolving and encouraging trend has been the public Call for Commemoration: The 24th of April statements issued yearly by the Human Rights Association, Istanbul Branch Committee against Racism and Discrimination. In letters they sent to the two catholicoi (highest authorities of the Armenian Church at Etchmiadzin and Antelias) a couple of years ago, for instance, 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, the UK or Israel - but rather by Turkey itself. Simply put, the buck started with Turkey, and the buck can really only 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 as political footballs or the prevarications of US Administrations and Israeli governments who spin their decisions politically and label the genocide as meds yeghern (great catastrophe) or else market the recognition of the genocide episodically for the sake of rankling if not pressuring Turkey. What troubles me is that this Armenian dependency 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 but equally as an international lawyer who has worked with such cases, those expressions of frustration and indignation - understandable though they might be on an emotional level - 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 vindictiveness or a settling of scores. So I do wonder about the wisdom of constant Turkey-bashing with words (and at times with eggs hurled at Turkish demonstrators!), 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 2014, the Diasporan communities are preparing - some less slowly than others - for the centenary of the Armenian genocide. So what should be the task of those committees that are meant to represent Armenians worldwide? Should it be one of looking inward (perish the thought, even navel-gazing), 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 for 2015? Or should they come together as avant-garde thinkers who surprise us by stepping outside the box, even pushing the proverbial envelope, and confidently seeking to define a robust and united roadmap that is grounded in an inclusive vision? As appointed leaders, are they ready to lead by challenging 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 1915-1923? Should we not look at the arsenal of tools that constitute the potential wealth of the whole Armenian nation today?

• Such tools could be political, legal, literary, religious, dialogical and media-friendly - to name just five. Are we not aware of the number of journalists or activists who are detained in Turkish gaols today or are we not familiar of the vagaries of the Turkish Penal Code and its proscriptive 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 more 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 be said of Edinburgh where another handful of Armenians managed to pass two Resolutions by the Edinburgh City Council that recognise the Armenian genocide despite massive Turkish opposition and a reluctance by Scottish Conservatives to support the Motion.

• Finally, and whilst keeping recognition by Turkey as the bull’s eye 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. Should we not talk perhaps to Rwandans or Kurds about their experiences at Kigali, at Halabja and elsewhere too? After all, and as George Shirinian of the Canada-based Zoryan Institute stated a while back, 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 ninety-nine years ago. I have lost members of my family and have heard the stories recounted to me by my maternal grandfather some decades ago. But I do not seek revenge, nor do I want to spill more blood in order to cleanse the stain that blots Ottoman Turkish history. Rather, I seek painfully a way forward that honours the memories of all those who perished during the genocide so that I too can move forward - alongside other Armenians and Turks.

And let me say it plainly but also confidently, while all Turks are certainly not righteous Hrant Dinks, some of them certainly are, as they went out of their way to help protect Armenians - and therefore they too become part of my own future.

* More on the Armenian Genocide from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/armeniangenocide

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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 Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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