Rene — Turkey starts to admit it has an 'Armenian Question'

Topic(s): Armenian Genocide | Comments Off on Rene — Turkey starts to admit it has an 'Armenian Question'

This article maybe a bit on the optimistic side, but there are some very important developments taking place to grapple with the Armenian Genocide in Turkey and one hopes that these historical questions are addressed with not only an outlook for historical clarity and justice, but also clarity and justice in addressing the Kurdish question at this present moment – rg
Turkey starts to admit it has an ‘Armenian Question’
by Mavi Zambak
Despite resistance and opposition by nationalists, books, newspapers
and TV are starting to talk about the hitherto taboo issue. Judges
are helping the process by throwing out cases against writers accused
of insulting the nation and its institutions.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Section 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which
makes it an offence to insult Turkish identity, is outdated, a
leftover from a nationalist past that is still hanging, thanks in
part to groups like the Grey Wolves, who are linked to the Turkish
Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi or MHP). It
was Grey Wolves’ member Mehmet Ali Aðca who tried to kill Pope John
Paul II in 1981.
Last year famous Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk received death threats
after admitting to a German newspaper that a million Armenians had
been killed in Turkey. He was also charged under Section 301 with
denigrating “Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly
of Turkey, [. . .] the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the
judicial institutions of the State, the military or security
organizations”. Only after several postponements and Europeans
grumbling about Turkey’s commitment to freedom of expression was the
writer found not guilty on January 24 of this year.
Similarly, elements within the judiciary close to the MHP tried to
ban a conference entitled Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the
Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy at
Istanbul’s Bilgi University on September 24-25 2005 after it was
blocked in the previous May because its scientific validity and the
qualifications of its participants were challenged. Also in this
case, protests in favour of academic freedom led Turkish Prime
Minister Erdogan to intervene and so it went ahead.
Elif Þafak, a young Turkish writer who lives in the United States,
went on trial yesterday for the same reason. Charges were brought
again by Kemal Kerincsiz, head of the Executive Board of the Lawyers’
Association, which pretends to defend the country against any writer,
editor, journalist or free thinker opposed its own narrow-minded
On trial with Ms Þafak was her bestselling novel The Bastard of
Istanbul (50,000 copies already sold) in which an Armenian character
accuses “Turkish butchers” of massacring Christian Armenians from
1915 till the end of the Ottoman Empire.
If Pamuk risked three years in prison for a historical-political
statement, Ms Þafak faced the same prospect for words uttered by a
fictional character in a novel that had nothing autobiographical
about it. But she too was acquitted and case against her was thrown
out of court. Kemal Kerincsiz lost again.
With the exception of a few nationalist lawyers who protested outside
the Istanbul courthouse, no one has questioned the judge’s decision.
The writer was not present at the proceedings because she gave birth
to a daughter over the weekend. But outside the courthouse
nationalist protesters came face to face with her left-wing
supporters. As a shouting match quickly descended into scuffles, riot
police moved to stop them from degenerating.
All this is a sign that Turkish nationalism is no longer what I used
to be: the ban on talking about Armenian issues is increasingly being
For years, Turkey has tried to tackle its own recent history. The
Armenian Question is undoubtedly one of the hardest and most painful
ones. It is at the core of a process Turkish historian Altuð Taner
Akcam has called the black hole of the Turkish Republic’s identity.
Leading the charge are Turkish journalists and intellectuals.
“There is a silent revolution underway but it is largely the work of
reform-minded political and cultural elites,” Ms Þafak said. “The
refusal to acknowledge the genocide inflicted on the Armenian people
stems from collective amnesia, a fracture point in [a people’s]
memory”. Several cultural events are however underway to “give back
to the Turkish people its own memory and past”.
In early 2005 an exhibit showcasing some 600 old postcards opened in
Istanbul. The purpose was to allow ordinary Turkish citizens to see
how important and rooted the Armenian presence was on Ottoman
territory. The opening of Istanbul’s Armenian Museum, inaugurated by
Prime Minister Erdogan himself, represents another step in the same
On the 90th anniversary of the genocide (1915-1916), TV stations,
including state-run broadcasters, devoted several programmes to the
Armenian Question inviting historians and intellectuals with
different points of view to round table discussions.
With in-depth reports, interviews and editorials, print media has
also begun covering the Armenian Question and modern Armenia.
The publishing industry has also started to do its part by releasing
many books in Turkish on the issue.
Another element in this trend is the number of Turks of Armenian
origin daring to speak out. For decades descendants of Armenians
converted to Islam to escape the massacres tried to hide their
shameful origins. Now, taking advantage of greater openness in
today’s Turkish society, many are coming out into the open and
reclaim their roots.
Lawyer Fethiye Cetin was amongst the first to do it. In her 2004 book
Anneannem (My Grandmother), she tells the story of her grandmother
who was born in an Armenian village in Elazig province, eastern
Turkey. Based on the old woman’s recollections of her life, the
tragic events of 1915, the massacre of the men of her village, the
deportation of the women, her own adoption by a Muslim family and
conversion come alive again. The book has sold 12,000 copies and is
in its 7th printing.
What is important to Ms Cetin is that hundreds of “people in a
situation like mine called to tell me: ‘Me too, my grandmother . . .
always with a veil of suffering.”
“I hope that my book will be a trailblazer. I, too, was afraid to
deal with this because it is so taboo,” she said. “Being called an
Armenian was an insult. Armenians are seen as conspirators, but today
there is process of digging out” the truth.
After her book came out others started revealing that they, too, were
partly Armenian according to columnist Bekir Coskun. This set in
motion a new trend as more and more people tried to stir the murky
waters of their past.
Film maker Berke Bas is one of them. She set out to find out more
about of her own old grandmother’s story and interviewed residents of
Ordu, a town on the Black Sea, in north-eastern Turkey.
“Many people provided me with information. They remembered very well
their old neighbours,” she said. “Turks in Ordu remember with sadness
and nostalgia a time of peace and coexistence.”
For the young woman who learnt about her Armenian ancestry only as an
adult, Turks today are better prepared to look at their past and are
happy to discover a history that is different from the official
version, one in which Armenians were portrayed as cruel enemies.
“In my opinion half of all Turks are of Armenian origin,” said Luiz
Bakar, an attorney for Istanbul’s Armenian Patriarchate, as she told
stories of converts who talked to her.
According to Bakar, every year about 20 people or so, who lived most
of their life as Muslims, come to the Armenian Patriarchate to be
baptised finding their way back to the religion of their forebears
before they, too, die.
In order to look at the past with courage the nationalist
stranglehold over history must be broken. Only this way can the
country’s painful and troubled past be brought to light without fear
of losing face or one’s honour.
This is why more and more people want Section 301 of the Penal Code
abolished, a step the European Union has insistently called for. Not
only does it criminalise any affront to Turkishness but it also
stifles freedom of thought and limits the rights of historians to
freely conduct their research.
Prime Minister Erdogan himself welcomed the court’s decision in
favour of Ms Elif Þafak.
He went further and said that parliament must take heart and sit down
to calmly discuss abolishing or at least unanimously amending the
offensive section that has forced to so many Turkish intellectuals to
stand in the defendant’s box.
Still another writer, Ipek Calishar, is up for trial on October 5.
She is faced with a possible five-year sentence for writing the story
of Ataturk’s former wife thanks to the latter’s sister. Like the
Armenian Question, the founder of the Turkish Republic is another
issue, too taboo for Turkish nationalists.