The Unknown Genocide

The world remembers the Armenian Genocide -- but memory can be selective.

| Fri Apr. 23, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

On April 24th, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, President Bush will issue a statement mourning the state-sponsored mass killing of more than a million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 in what was then the Ottoman Empire. Yet to the disappointment of many Armenian-Americans, he will refrain from using the term "genocide." Against the evidence, Turkey -- the successor state to the Ottoman Empire -- officially views the Armenian Genocide as an unfounded allegation, not the established historical fact that it is.

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History, then, is not on Turkey’s side, but realpolitik is. Aside from being a crucial N.A.T.O. ally, Turkey is also the transit-point for oil. U.S. companies have a large stake in the ongoing construction of an oil pipeline running from Baku, Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. In 2000, the House of Representatives withdrew a resolution on the Armenian Genocide after Turkey threatened to close its airbases to U.S. planes on fly-over missions in Iraq.

There are about Armenian-Americans, concentrated in New York, California, and Massachusetts, make up one of the most politically active ethnic communities in the country. The Armenian National Committee of America (A.N.C.A.), a grassroots political organization, expects its Armenian Genocide Observance on Capitol Hill to be attended by 110 legislators. The organization’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter recently mailed 10,000 brochures to history and social science teachers publicizing a workbook on the Armenian Genocide developed by the San Francisco school district. The project was funded by A.N.C.A., which also launched a companion website: http://teachgenocide.org/.

The Armenian Diaspora has made progress in discrediting the Turkish government's version of events in legislatures, newspapers, and classrooms throughout the world. Several parliaments -- including the French National Assembly have passed laws recognizing the Armenian Genocide. The U.S. Congress had passed resolutions doing the same. The Association of Genocide Scholars of North America concluded that the killings meet the definition of the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide which includes the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Atom Egoyan's "Ararat" -- the first major motion picture on the Armenian Genocide -- was shown worldwide and won Canada's top movie awards in 2003. The movie focused on the way the Diaspora has dealt, over generations, with the memory of the genocide and Turkey's refusal to acknowledge it.

This year, the New York Times issued guidelines to its journalists stating that the facts of the Armenian Genocide are well-established and that references to it "should not be qualified with phrasing like 'what Armenians call,' etc." -- reversing a long-standing policy of using qualifiers.

Turkey contends that the number of Armenians killed is vastly exaggerated; that there was no systematic effort by the government to exterminate the Armenians; that traitorous nationalist Armenian parties allied with the Russian Empire during World War One bear responsibility for the suffering that befell their people; that during this time of "international war and inter-communal struggle" Armenians weren't uniquely afflicted, suffering along with Muslims, Jews, and other subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey also refers to the deportations of the Armenians -- most infamously via marches to the Syrian deserts during which many were killed or died from disease and starvation -- as "relocations."

The problem for Turkey is that records of the "Young Turk" government which orchestrated the killings, dispatches from Western diplomats, military officers, and aid workers, and testimonials of genocide survivors all confirm a systematic effort to wipe out the Armenian minority.

Fear of being forced to pay reparations -- monetary and territorial -- is often cited as a reason for Turkey's refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Some Armenians are still calling for "the return of the lands" from which their ancestors were expelled, a demand that is not going to be supported by the international community. In any case, even if it was, mass migrations from Paris and Los Angeles to populate Turkey's rural areas are not realistic either -- the descendants of the survivors are well-integrated into their "host countries." More likely, international courts will require that Turkey pay massive reparations.

Turkey's refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide, is much more than a matter of money, though -- the recognition would entail a fundamental transformation of the country's political and educational discourse. An honest examination of the violent dismemberment of the multi-national empire from whose ashes modern Turkey rose would require that the government dismantle the founding myths of the state. As Etienne Copeaux of France's Group for Research and Studies on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Affairs told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

"To recognize the genocide would be to recognize that a very large number of Armenians used to live in Anatolia. Therefore, it would mean there is a multi-cultural Anatolia. But, as we can see today with the issue of the Kurds, the Turkish state is envisaged as a uni-cultural state, a state with a single culture, a single language. So [to recognize the Armenian genocide] would mean Turkey should offer concessions not only to Kurds but also to other nationalities that still live in Turkey."

The few Turkish historians who are challenging the government's version are not to be envied: Taner Akcam, who has called the killings of the Armenians a "genocide" left Turkey after universities refused to hire him; he currently teaches at the University of Minnesota. And after battling genocide denial for so long, many Armenians are wary of scholars who urge a full reckoning with their Turkish counterparts. As Armenian-American political scientist Ronald Grigor Suny told the New York Times: "Many people in the diaspora feel that if you try to understand why the Turks did it, you have justified or legitimized it in some way."

The Republic of Armenia said that it wants Turkey to apologize for the Armenian Genocide but has not made it a prerequisite for diplomatic or economic relations. Armenia is currently blockaded by neighboring Azerbaijan -- the two countries are in a "no peace, no war" stalemate over the Armenian-populated statelet of Nagorno-Karabakh and several Azeri regions adjacent to it. Turkey -- which shares a border with Armenia -- has blockaded Armenia in support of Azerbaijan. The World Bank estimates that the dual blockade is costing Armenia $500 million annually. A third of the country's population emigrated following the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, as the economy deteriorated and the Karabakh War escalated, its security is highly depended on the Russian military, and is the highest recipient of U.S. aid per capita in the former Soviet Union.

There have been press reports about the re-opening of the Armenian-Turkish border in the last few months. The United States and the European Union see resumed trade ties and the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations as key to stabilizing the Caucasus. Several Turkish officers even participated in NATO's Partnership for Peace program exercises held in Armenia this year -- not without generating more than its fare share of controversy in the country and the Diaspora.

Turkey's drive to enter the E.U. has been met with constant promises of "tomorrow, tomorrow." The Europeans have pointed to Turkey's poor human rights record, Cyprus, and lack of progress on democratization, but unwillingness on the part of Europe to let a poor, populous Muslim country into the club is a reason as well. The E.U. has not made the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide a requirement for Turkey's entry, but it has urged Turkey to re-examine its past in keeping with the E.U.'s commitment to the protection of minority rights.

Turkey's younger generation is growing up in a world at odds with their country's denial of the Armenian Genocide and under a government that has little tolerance for dissent on the subject. Continuing the current policy is bound to backfire internationally by isolating Turkey, in addition to undercutting its aim of becoming a fully-fledged democracy.

The few remaining survivors of the Armenians Genocide will not, in all likelihood, live to hear an apology. It is a shame that Turkey has begun the new century with its continued rejection of one of the greatest crimes of the last.