Saturday, October 13, 2007

Coming to terms with history

13 October 2007
Guardian Unlimited, UK
Michael Herron
As the article below shows, one benefit of the decision by the US House Foreign Affairs Committee to recognize the Armenian genocide, is that much to the concern of Turkey, the debate on Turkey's root cause of denial has intensified. May be this is a wake-up call for Turkey as we enter the 21st century. Turkey cannot politically force amnesia to the rest of the world, on the contrary it should force itself to remember its past. Turkey should allow unhindered discussion of the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians within Turkey. It must abolish article 301 of its penal code which muzzles free speech on the genocide. May be then it will attain the glory of a great nation. Greatness does not emanate from power but from humility.
The Armenian genocide, not the Holocaust, was origin of the term. Turkey must acknowledge this if it is to create a more positive identity.

Simon Tisdall's article Righteousness before realism on Comment is free describes the congressional resolution recognising the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks during the first world war "as a matter of putting the world to rights, according to America's lights".

This gives the incomplete picture that it is singly American moral imperialism that wishes to dredge up this issue from the distant past so that it can bask in the glow of self-righteousness. It is not only the Americans who are interested in this issue. The French parliament also passed a resolution last year, which made denial of the Armenian genocide a crime as it is for Holocaust denial.

The Holocaust is a significant marker by which to judge the moral and pragmatic consequences of this recent congressional resolution. No reasonable person questions the fact that the Holocaust should be held up as the worst example of man's inhumanity to man. This moral example outweighs all practical political concerns. Should the Armenian genocide be held to a lower moral standard than the Holocaust? The Holocaust was worse because it was more all encompassing and done on an industrial scale but one could argue they were both genocides.

The reason for this assumption is due to the author of the word "genocide", the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin coined the term in response to Winston Churchill's statement about the crimes of the Nazis as a "crime without a name". Even though Lemkin used the term to describe the Holocaust he had been working since the 1920s on a legal definition of similar acts of brutality. The original acts of brutality that started Lemkin on his search for a definition were committed by the Turks against the Armenians during the first world war. For Lemkin the original genocide was the Armenian genocide not the Holocaust. In order to be consistent if one describes the Holocaust as genocide one also has to describe the mass murder of the Armenians as one as well.

The prism of the Holocaust influences Turkish responses to accusations of genocide. Turkish officials find it beyond the pale for the Turks to be compared to the Nazis. The fact that the Holocaust was so well documented and the Armenian genocide less so, allows the Ankara government to argue: "it is blatantly obvious that Congress does not have a task or function to rewrite history." This chimes with Turkish official arguments that it should be left up to historians to determine what happened in the past not politicians. This would be very well if Turkish authorities did not use article 301 of the Turkish penal code to muzzle Turkish writers who describe the killing of Armenians as genocide.

The problem for the Turkish government is that Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian living and working outside Turkey, has published a number of works on the Armenian genocide. He has researched what consists of Turkish government records of the time and has come to the conclusion that it was a case of genocide.

One reason Akcam gives for the sensitivity of the Turkish government to this accusation of genocide is not only the natural reluctance to be tarred with the same brush as the Nazis but that the heroic generation that founded the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire included Young Turks who were involved in the deportation and killing of Armenians during the first world war. As protectors of the secular principles of the Turkish Republic established by this heroic generation, the Turkish army is especially hostile to this charge of genocide.

This accusation tarnishes the reputation of the heroic generation as "good soldiers", an identity that Turkish males are supposed to assume and thereby maintain the importance of the army within the Turkish state. Accusations of genocide might hinder the reproduction of this national identity, but as in the case of West Germany after the second world war, acknowledgement of genocide can help create a more positive identity. Genocide should not be ignored nor airbrushed from history to satisfy short-term political interests. We owe it to the victims to remember and to future generations to remind.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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