Saturday, March 08, 2008

'Turkish taboos' and freedom of expression

Saturday, March 8, 2008
Turkish Daily News
Robert ELLIS

A fortnight ago the Danish section of PEN, the worldwide association of writers, held a panel discussion in Copenhagen on Turkish taboos, freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey. There was general agreement among the four Turkish panelists, a journalist, a novelist, a poet and the president of Turkish PEN, that the four main taboos were the Armenian genocide claims, the Kurdish question, the military and Atatürk.Two of the panelists pointed out that these taboos are characteristic of Kemalist orthodoxy, but that the advent of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government was accompanied by a freer discussion of these issues. Prime Minister Erdoğan's landmark speech in Diyarbakır in 2005, when he became the first Turkish leader openly to admit there was a Kurdish problem, was also mentioned.

The Armenian issue:

Nevertheless, the first taboo, that surrounding the Armenian "genocide," still remains on both sides of the political divide. For example, three years ago in a party address Tayyip Erdoğan said, “Turkey has never committed genocide throughout its history,” and two weeks ago he added, “the character of this nation does not let it commit such crimes.”Therefore, Orhan Pamuk must have behaved like a bull in a china shop when he claimed in an interview with the Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger three years ago, “30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.” The official Turkish reaction was not long in coming, as Pamuk was prosecuted according to Article 301 of the Penal Code for “the public denigration of Turkishness,” but the charge was dropped on a technicality.The recent arrest of the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon gang revealed their plan to assassinate Pamuk and linked them to the murder of the Turkish-Armenian publisher Hrant Dink and the three Christians in Malatya. Indeed, these murders, as well as that of Father Andrea Santoro in Trabzon, can be linked to the virulent strain of ethnic nationalism that arose 100 years earlier during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid from 1876 until 1909.

That period was characterized by extensive massacres of Armenians from 1894-96 and again in 1909. As historian Donald Bloxham said in “The Great Game of Genocide,” the perpetrators believed they were acting in accordance with the true interests of the state.This period was also characterized by a rise of Armenian nationalism and the founding of the two leading revolutionary groups, the Hunchaks and the Dashnaks, in 1887 and 1890. In 1913 the Committee of Union and Progress (“the Young Turks”) came to power through a coup d'état, but it was the outbreak of World War I the following year, and Turkey's alliance with Germany, that sealed the fate of the Armenian people.Turkey's defeat at the hands of the Russian army, aided by Armenian volunteer battalions, on the eastern front in January 1915 was widely blamed on the Armenians, but the turning point came with the Armenian uprising in Van in eastern Turkey on April 20 and the Allied landings at Gallipoli on April 25. On April 24 more than 200 prominent Armenians were arrested in Istanbul and sent to the interior, where most were later executed.On May 27, 1915 the Deportation Law (the tehcir law) was passed to provide for the deportation of the Armenian population for reasons of national security.

This is where the facts are hotly disputed, ranging from Ambassador Morgenthau's telegram to Secretary of State Lansing in July 1915, which spoke of “a campaign of race extermination…under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion,” to Professor Özay Mehmet from Carleton University in Canada, who recently claimed, “the Ottoman Armenians committed treason and were relocated out of the war zone.”So far 22 countries have officially recognized the tragic events of 1915-16 as "genocide" and Barack Obama has pledged recognition as a plank of his campaign.

However, the crux of the issue is not international recognition but that the topic is not open to free debate in Turkey.

'Stab in the back' :

On an academic level, scholars who organized a conference at Boğaziçi University in May 2005 on the Armenian question during the Ottoman Empire were accused by government spokesman, Minister of Justice Cemil Çiçek, of “stabbing the Turkish nation in the back.” The conference was postponed, but after an international outcry it reconvened at Bilgi University four months later.The main Turkish fear is that a discussion of the Armenian and Kurdish issues could once again lead to a partition of Turkey. This view was confirmed by a prominent member of the Armenian community in the United States, Harut Sasunian, who stated in December that the ultimate goal of the Armenians was recognition of their claims and getting amends and land from Turkey.As noted, the main obstacle to freedom of expression in Turkey is Article 301 of the Penal Code, which has resulted in the prosecution of a large number of authors, publishers and journalists. In yet another cosmetic change, the government plans to change the wording from “denigration of Turkishness” to “denigration of the Turkish nation,” which brings us back to square one. But as long as Turkish people are denied a full understanding of their past they will be unable to build a firm foundation for the future.


The views expressed by commentator Robert Ellis are the author's own and reflect neither endorsement nor editorial policy of the Turkish Daily News. Mr. Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish press (

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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