From 1915 to 2015: the challenge of the Armenian Genocide centenary

By Harry Hagopian
January 8, 2015

“Another bird cannot prosper in an abandoned nest; the one who destroys a nest cannot have a nest; oppression breeds oppression.”

I had never heard this maxim before, but I learnt last week that it comes from Yasar Kemal, a leading Turkish author of Kurdish origin whose publications include the Ince Memed tetralogy. He was quoted in a powerful and challenging article entitled ‘Entering 2015’ in Zaman by Cengiz Aktar, a Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Centre who has also worked for long years at the United Nations. His piece is one of the sharpest and clearest indictments of Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide on its centenary anniversary in April 2015.

I read and re-read this piece not simply because it said all the things that most Armenians would wish to hear, but rather because he said it as a sign of concern for what denial of this crime is doing to Turkish society. In that respect, he reminded me of Ragip Zarakolou, a human rights activist and publisher, who often told me that his campaign for the recognition of the Armenian genocide was also due to his concern about the impact of denial on Turkey.

Having read Aktar’s article, and being the recipient of much e-correspondence regarding the centenary, I was led to wonder where Turks and Armenians find themselves today? After all, it has been 100 years since the genocide, 50 years since the lobbying efforts started in earnest across the Armenian Diaspora, and just under a decade since I stopped running the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (CRAG) in the UK.

So let me start off with a negative statement: the Turkish political establishment has not shifted its position regarding the Armenian genocide. In fact, and as Cengiz Aktar reflects in his own piece, Turkey still resolutely maintains its denial. It distorts and minimises memory by blaming the deaths and deportations of well over 1 million Anatolian Armenians on a concatenation of political upheaval, collaboration (with the enemy Russia) and victimisation of Turks (who were seemingly killed by Armenians). But running parallel with this official denial is also an ignorance (because it has been erased from Turkish mass consciousness), a negligence (they are uninterested in events that occurred a century ago and prefer not to make links with modern-day Turkey) and an avoidance of the disastrous consequences of what really occurred during 2015 (largely because of an innate and somewhat overzealous nationalism by quite a few Turks whose pride disallows them from doing a German act of recognition let alone contrition). Just imagine that there are over 26,000 volumes published abroad on the genocide against less than 20 serious accounts in Turkey!

So it is quite true that things look bleak at this stage and I truly doubt - much like Cengiz Aktar did - whether 2015 will witness any seismic changes in Turkey regarding recognition.

However, despite all those Turkish encumbrances that can be wedded to an Armenian Diasporan singular focus on their own genocide, I still think that there are slower and less proactive signs of hope that herald subtle changes overtaking Turkish society. These are not occurring necessarily because of a sense of mea culpa by Turkish politicians and their mouthpieces or hirelings. Rather, they are happening almost beneath the radars of many people, and I would opine that one key catalyst which shook up many beliefs and introduced this sobering nudge was the murder of Hrant Dink in Istanbul on 19 January 2007. It seized the conscience of Istanbul and some other parts of Turkey and galvanised sections of the Turkish civil society to question a country that kills its citizens for the sake of preventing the truth coming out. Besides, and despite his reputation as a prominent Turkish intellectual, I suspect that Cengiz Aktar would still have been charged under the infamous (and unconstitutional) Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for ‘insulting Turkishness’ had he written his candid piece about the repercussions of genocide denial a few years earlier.

There are other small telltale signs too. One such sign is the re-opening of some Armenian churches – such as the St Guiragos Armenian Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir that was renovated from its dilapidated ruins – or the restoration of some Armenian cultural monuments. There are also the commemorative events taking place across Turkey today – from Istanbul to Diyarbakir and Mardin – that are testimony of an incipient realisation by local officials that Turkey must come to terms with its own history – for its sake as much as that of Armenians – and are therefore not necessarily being clamped down upon. Otherwise, and in a greyer Turkey, Project 2015 or the Gomidas Institute (to mention just two examples) will not have managed to plan commemorative events in Turkey in 2015 let alone publicise them.

Recently, Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Orthodox Church, issued a pontifical encyclical declaring that the Church will canonise as saints all the Armenian victims of the genocide. Much as I am ambivalent about wholesale canonisations, what other events will characterise Armenian commemorations in 2015? Will they simply be endless wakes – concerts, conferences, marches, recitals, vigils or defiant and high-decibel talks – for our murdered forbears or will they also walk the next step to celebrate our collective achievements as a people and a nation despite a genocide that almost annihilated a whole race? Is this not ample testimony to the fact that the erstwhile Ottoman killing machine failed to snuff out the pulse of Armenians worldwide? Does it not prove that there is more than grief that characterises the Armenian being, and that we should care as deeply about the 10 million living Armenians worldwide today as we do about our departed relatives?

Only recently, the prominent barrister Geoffrey Robertson, QC, published his new book An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers The Armenians? (Biteback Publishing, 2014) in which he applied his legal prowess to provide the world with a tapestry of answers about the 1915 events and prove that there was a genocide committed against Armenians in accordance with the UN Convention of 1948. He also asked – quaintly – that Turkey undertake a CBM (confidence-building measure) toward Armenia by shifting the borderline a tiny bit to include Massis (or Mount Ararat, the preeminent national symbol and talisman for Armenians, and the location of Noah’s biblical ark) into Armenia. I would not hold my breath, and I do not think that the QC does either, but would it not be a brilliant move that could bridge the yawning chasm between two peoples?

There have been far too many victims of this genocide already, with men, women and children who lost their lives – or in the case of someone like Gomidas, a priest and the father of Armenian liturgical music, his manuscripts as well as his mental faculties (when witnessing the suffering of Armenians). But there are other victims too: they include those older Armenians who are still afraid to share their memories, their younger counterparts who feel alienated and unrepresented by their elders, or those who have been carrying history on their backs for decades let alone those who would genuinely wish to see a closure of this open sore that would help Armenians and Turks begin a process of reconciliation that could eventually help them both overcome this chapter of suffering and begin a healing process.

On this centenary, can Turkey show good will – commensurate with good faith – to repair and repopulate the destroyed Armenian nest that had been assembled over many centuries, so that its legal denial of a human truth does not breed further oppression, but challenges it instead?

* More from Ekklesia on the Armenian Genocide: 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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