The horrible legacy of genocides

By Fawaz Turki, Special to Gulf News


Recep Tayyip Erdogan: call your lobbyist in Washington. Congressmen there, choosing a bad time to pick a fight with Ankara over a century-old dispute, are determined to put Turkey and the US on a collision course.


Early this month, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives voted to declare the massacres of roughly a million Armenians by Young Turks in 1915 to be genocide.


The full House has yet to vote on the resolution, but the Turkish government, reacting angrily, immediately recalled its ambassador, hinted at denying the American military use of its vital supply line at Incirlik airbase, and threatened to launch a major ground offensive in northern Iraq in pursuit of guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who in the past two weeks have killed well over two dozen Turkish soldiers. A messy situation was about to get messier.


Turkey considers the question of Armenian genocide not only a sensitive issue, virtually taboo in the public debate, but places it under the rubric of “insulting Turkishness” in the penal code, for which a conviction will get you three years in jail.


To this day, 92 years after the incidents, Turkey continues not only to obfuscate the facts surrounding the massacres but to deny them outright. Very simply, you don't bring up the issue, but if you must do so, accept the official version: a “mere” 300,000 to 600,000 “died” at the time, and their deaths were “the unfortunate consequence of war”.


That is the version modern day Turks learn at school from their sanitised textbooks, which barely mention the tragedy. They thus grow up with little comprehension of its scope.


Turks must own up


It's a mystery why Turks do not want to own up to their past and why they persecute those intellectuals and academics in their midst who do.


The novelist Elif Shafak, author of the critically acclaimed The Bastard of Istanbul, and Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, have both faced charges of (you guessed it) “insulting Turkishness” when they spoke up.


And Taner Akam, a prominent professor of history at the University of Minnesota, opted not to return to his homeland after writing his seminal work Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, in which he meticulously chronicled the destruction of the Armenian community whose members where hunted down and slaughtered throughout their habitat by the Ottoman military.


Hundreds of thousands of others were deported to what was then called Greater Syria or, in Arabic, Bilad Al Sham. For what are these Armenian enclaves that exist in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq today, but the survivors of that dreadful act?


If this narrative is not factual, and these figures are wrong, and the killing of Armenians was indeed the “unfortunate consequence of war”, then the Turkish authorities have nothing to fear of an open debate at academic conferences and panel discussions devoted to exploring the issue.


By silencing or incarcerating those who have something to say, you make a pact with the devil who will shield your history and your name from shame. But the devil will return one day asking for his fee to be paid.


Turks should exercise their right to throw a backward glance at their past without fear of retribution, in the name of intellectual integrity of nothing else.


Congressmen on Capitol Hill, however, opting to probe another nation's historical experience and pass judgment on it, is another story. If these folks are such titans of moral rectitude, guardians of the truth, why not pass a resolution, say, identifying the mass killings and deportations of Chechens by Stalin's regime in 1944 as genocide?


At the time, in February that year to be exact, in the dead of winter, Russian troops, after slaughtering thousands who resisted, deported virtually the entire population of Chechnya to the Kazakh steppe in Central Asia.


About half a million Chechens were loaded on trains, like cattle, and expelled. As many as 78,000, men, women and children, among them the elderly, the sick and the infirm, died on the road from starvation and the cold.


Or a resolution condemning Israel for its genocidal acts in Deir Yassein in 1948 and the ethnic cleansing it mounted against the entire population of the twin cities of Lydda-Ramlah that same year? Or the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 against 500,000 Tutsis, whose misfortune was that they belonged to the wrong tribe?


Why not, you ask? Because Chechens, Palestinians and Tutsis do not have large, organised communities with arm-twisting lobbies in Washington.


And, yes, I do share the Turks' anger, indeed their outrage, at Congressmen, pandering to constituents in California, who feel entitled to dig into the long-gone past of a country half way around the world and issue it a report card.


Here's how it should be done. Instead of souring their relationship with the US or embarking on an ill-conceived military adventure in Iraq (heaven knows we don't need another of these over there!), Turkish parliamentarians should give their counterparts in Washington a taste of their own medicine: they should pass a resolution, in the same cavalier fashion, condemning the United States for the genocide it inflicted on Native Americans and African Americans almost two centuries ago. And leave it at that. Deal?


Fawaz Turki is a veteran journalist, lecturer and author of several books, including The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile. He lives in Washington D.C.


Source: “Gulf News”, 27 October 2007