The Unknown Genocide

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


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.

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.