Some Turks Question Turkey’s Longstanding Position on Armenian Genocide

A century-long controversy over Armenian Genocide redefines political boundaries in Turkey.

For many Turks, the legacy of Armenian Genocide remains controversial and contested.

As another year turned on, with diaspora Armenians desperately seeking to secure the recognition of the events from the country they saw as responsible for the mass atrocities, the definition of what happened in 1915 during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire has still been a matter of political and diplomatic controversy. To master the historical narrative, both sides are jostling to persuade the international audience to accept their account of the events.

To Armenians, the Ottoman Empire executed a premeditated plan to extirpate its Christian citizens. To Ankara, the capital of successor state — Turkish Republic — the 1915 episode must be seen in a larger historical context, from a world-historical event — the World War One —  and what happened was a multifaceted story.

Simply put it, the main thesis of the Turkish side is that a lot of Armenians suffered and died, not result of a deliberate genocidal campaign, but because of defensive measures of the Ottoman authorities to blunt separatist Armenian militias’ collaboration with the advancing Russian troops in the eastern Anatolia. In that effort, Istanbul saw the relocation of its Armenian population as an essential measure to safeguard its eastern flank and to preemptively thwart any potential rebellion by militias that would paralyze the Ottoman war-making abilities and jeopardize its territorial integrity.

Not only Armenians suffered, but also Muslims as well. So goes the official narrative. This angle has held waters since the foundation of the republic. For Armenians, it was pure denialism.

But the stirring of change and contours of a new thinking on the part of some Turks appear in the offing. As Armenians all around the world commemorate their loss and remember the tragic events on every April 24, the day of the Ottoman decree to relocate a more than million of Armenians in 1915 from all parts of Anatolia to Syria, some Turks have a change of heart on the matter that has been regarded by the national security apparatus of Turkey as off-limits for discussion for a long time.

For much of the Republican history, the Armenian genocide remained a taboo in Turkey, a political minefield that deterred any independent thinker or historian to challenge Ankara’s long-standing views on the matter. Except for only a small bulk of intellectuals, authorities enjoyed a grip over political and epistemological discourse both in academia and media, left very little space for alternative studies that could have unseated the official narrative.

Despite all the government-engineered obstacles and challenges, it is promising to see the emergence of a body of critical works over the past two decades. The public reach of studies by historian Taner Akcam, or other young figures, is palpably expanding.

But what made social groups in Turkey change their views about the issue was their first-hand experience of the political persecution and brutal crackdown in different parts of Turkey’s contemporary history. While minorities endured state-sponsored discrimination and pogroms in the early republican history, Kurds, Alevis and the political left went through different forms of repression in various periods. Elites and intellectual figures from those groups pioneered critical studies and challenged the default position of Turkey, ‘no-genocide’ stance that was held as holy writ in public imagination, history textbooks and the official discourse.

The left and Kurds’ embrace of alternative approaches, standing close to the Armenian view, did not make serious headways into the mainstream political discourse and thinking. And the center-right and nationalist elements of Turkish society remained largely unmoved by recent publications or public display of diverse voices.

Contours of Change in the 2000s

Turkey’s official policy has also undergone significant changes since the 2000s. Istanbul Bilgi University held a conference on the Armenian Genocide in 2005, marking the 90th anniversary of the event.

It was a taboo-breaking event that shattered the established norms of academic silence. While it sparked a political backlash, ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) still allowed it to take place. In another groundbreaking move, the AKP government launched a new diplomatic initiative for normalization of ties with Armenia in 2008. A protocol was signed by foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia in Zurich after international efforts to steer rapprochement between two neighbors. Turkey has had no diplomatic relations with its eastern neighbor since its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has kept its land borders closed in solidarity with Azerbaijan following the war between two Yerevan and Baku.

The prospect of achieving normalcy suddenly appeared within the realm of possibility. The show of comity was most evidently displayed as part of football diplomacy when Turkish and Armenian presidents visited each country to watch soccer games between the two national teams for World Cup qualifications. But the diplomatic process was tangled with geopolitical complexities and demands of internal politics. Therefore, after a promising start, it hit snags. This year, the initiative finally crumbled, with Armenian President Serz Sarkisian ditching normalization talks amid lack of tangible progress and evident setbacks over the past years.

Separately, in 2011, the Turkish government removed the notorious 312th article of the Turkish Penal Code, which provided Turkey’s prosecutors a great latitude to go after intellectuals, writers and journalists who questioned Ankara’s official stance with impunity.

Thanks to the 312th article, dozens of journalists and writers, including Orhan Pamuk, Elif Safak and Hrant Dink faced a legal investigation and criminal charges over their line of thinking regarding 1915 events.

In 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered condolences for the losses of Ottoman Armenians, for the first time. It marked a watershed moment. But it was not followed by other similar gestures. Yesterday, President Erdogan returned to default position of Turkey and denied atrocities against Armenians.

President Erdogan charged Armenians with killing Ottoman Muslims and Turks. The evolution and shift in his political standing reflect a larger story about the general patterns of Turkey’s politics as the country descended into a militarist, authoritarian mode of governance in the aftermath of an attempted coup in 2016.

Post-Coup Crackdown and Rethinking Armenian Genocide

Brutalized, dispossessed and targeted by Turkey’s colossal purge, victims of post-coup crackdown publicly question the very nature of Leviathan they are dealing with. Echoing Hegel’s portrayal of the modern state as God’s reflection on earth, Turks have long worshipped state, their state, as a living organism that guides his/her spiritual and existential journey in time and space, or history and geography.

The 2016 coup unleashed a new wave of repression and crushing of certain segments of Turkey’s society, mostly Gulen community, and rekindled questions over identity, past and the relationship with the very idea of the state. The omnipresent Turkish state was, for some people, no longer a sacred and flawless apparatus idealized in the historical imagination of people.

“The events of 1915 were a combination of brutal tactics against Armenian Christian minority. Turkish Ottoman state and some civilian elements overreacted on self-defense against elements of Armenians who allied with Russians,” Ali Halit Aslan who was Washington Bureau Chief of now-defunct Zaman daily for two decades told Globe Post Turkey. 

“Forced deportation was part of a collective punishment of Armenians to secure Turkey’s eastern borders. In short, numerous crimes against humanity, which fall into the modern definition of genocide, were committed in 1915.”

The legal controversy over whether 1915 event could be described as a genocide lies at the heart of the dispute between Ankara and diaspora Armenians. The Turkish government never denies the existence of mass atrocities against Armenians during the tumultuous days of the Great War. But it shies away from labeling the 1915 events as a genocide and rejects any political motive on part of the Ottoman authorities to eliminate Armenian population from the Anatolian landscape. But the scale of calamitous consequences looms large over any attempt to define the nature of events.

According to Akcam, the Turkish Republic was founded on a policy of denialism. In a speech delivered to Swedish Parliament on Tuesday to mark the 103rd anniversary, he expounded on how the Armenian Genocide shaped central pillars of the modern Turkish Republic and determined its relationship with the past.

For democrats and liberals, Turkey’s path to consolidation of democracy only goes through the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Arzu Yildiz, a Canada-based Turkish journalist who had to flee persecution in her home country, laid out a comparison between Germany and Turkey. She told Globe Post Turkey that the Turkish nation is still haunted by its traumatic past and is unable to make steps forward without truly facing the truth, however unpleasant it might be.

“Germany educates its new generations about the mistakes and calamity perpetrated by the Nazi leaders. Unlike Germany, Turkey has shown no ability to face the painful truth about some dark chapters of its modern history,” she said in disbelief.

This, according to the investigative journalist who left her two little daughters behind, enabled the Turkish authorities to conduct similar forms of repression even today without fear of backlash.

“If the Turkish government arrests 700 babies, tens of thousands of women, people from all background without trial, due process in today’s world, I’m sure that authorities did much worse to Armenians in 1915 on the sidelines of the First World War, which diverted international attention from tragic events taking place in Anatolia.”

What is more jarring, she argued, is the fact that Turkey’s authorities make ordinary folk and citizens collaborators for their atrocities against a targeted group, be it Alevis, minorities or Gulen community today.

According to Aslan, there is a long road ahead for the society to come to grips with its blood-soaked past.

“Turkish official state position denying Armenian Genocide has been reinforced by the education system, which limits critical thinking even in universities, while statist and nationalist culture remains largely prevalent in Turkish society, in mainstream media and among many public intellectuals shaped by a huge propaganda machine,” he said in a cautious tone.

Gulen Community and Armenian Genocide

While the Turkish government went on an unrelenting crackdown on opponents of different social conviction and political creed, members or sympathizers of Gulen community have emerged as the biggest victims.

Authorities employed scorched-earth tactics to crush the movement at home and abroad.  Consequently, the relentless campaign on a grand scale has opened new vistas for critical thinking for its intellectuals and even ordinary members.

Ismail Akbulut, head of Colorado-based Mosaic Foundation, a civil society organization promoting multicultural and inter-faith dialogue, is one of the intellectuals who went through a dramatic transformation in his view of the issue.

In his formative years, he had no problem with where Ankara stood and never questioned Turkey’s historical account. Erdogan, in early stages of his ascension to power, represented the long-suppressed pious middle class and worked hard to remove the last vestiges of exclusive politics of secular, Kemalist elites.

But that perception of Erdogan and AKP, which claimed to represent moderate Islam, recently came crashing down.

“Erdogan, a man who claims to be a righteous Muslim, ordered the arrest of thousands of journalists, academics, public servants, teachers, business people, women, and children,” he said in dismay. Human rights violations, torture, abductions and displacements, now are a part and parcel of everyday life, he added, elaborating on a long list of abuses, including arrests of nearly 700 babies, that took place under Erdogan’s government. 

“Erdogan’s brutality raised my awareness of Turkey’s flaws, and my ability to be critical of Turkish history,” Akbulut told Globe Post Turkey via an emailed statement.

It caused me to question nationalistic narratives that I previously accepted as facts. If many Turks are now conveniently unaware of (or unwilling to see) the human price of Erdogan’s rise to power, I see clearly now that all of those notions of Turkish superiority I used to believe in were just part of a grand, nation-building myth.”

The price of that “beautiful” myth, he noted, was to deny the pain and oppression of Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities. He added with candor and self-confidence: I can no longer pay that price; my own blinders have been ripped off by these events.

“Today, I personally regret and sincerely apologize that I denied the suffering of Armenians who endured one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, the Armenian genocide.”

If the recent turn of events in Turkey’s coarsened democratic landscape is succinctly disheartening, the emergence of more and more people willing to come to shed some fetters of the troubled past would be a source of consolation.

People with real and perceived links to Gulen community are regarded from conservative, religious quarters of society who constitute the backbone of Turkey’s socio-political structure and emerge as the core supporters of nationalist reading of the Turkish history.

But that social setting comes to fall apart during AKP era given the fact that an Islamist government does everything available at its disposal to throttle civil society, and choke off members of a faith-based movement, fellow Muslims.

Sympathizers or media outlets affiliated with Gulen Movement, too, had long taken a stance on the Armenian question similar to the Turkish government. Not anymore.

Still, a radical reckoning with problematic parts of Turkey’s modern history is not a common practice.

“It’s not a general pattern yet.  However, there is certainly a growing body of Gulenists, especially with higher education level, who question the state position. I believe this trend will continue,” veteran journalist Aslan said, sharing his observations over evident changes that take place within the Gulen community. 

“Some Gulenist intellectuals were privately acknowledging the Armenian Genocide but due to societal and state pressure, they have refrained from publicly saying it. This has been changing and we see more of them publicly speaking their minds,” he noted. 

“What’s more remarkable is the trend in the grassroots of the movement.”

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