Sunday, December 28, 2008

Should Turkey Apologize To The Armenians? [, 26.12.2008]

Should Turkey Apologize To The Armenians?
Asli Aydintasbas, 12.26.08, 12:01 AM EST
A conciliatory Web site causes a furor.

ISTANBUL--Should we apologize to Armenians?

It's almost a miracle, but I have somehow managed to avoid the "Armenian issue" throughout my journalism career. I never wrote a single column on it, even throughout the various diplomatic rows between Turkey and Armenia on whether or not the tragic events of 1915 were genocide.
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During the time I covered Washington for a Turkish paper, I stayed a dispassionate reporter as the Armenian Diaspora tried year after year to pass various U.S. congressional resolutions condemning the 1915 events--and Ankara lobbied hard to ward these off.

The truth was, undeniably bad things happened in the Eastern provinces of the declining Ottoman Empire in 1915, but I had no idea whether or not they "amounted to" genocide.

Depending on whom you believe, 500,000 or 1.5 million Armenians were either forcibly deported or coldly massacred, either during the chaos of a civil war or by an organized state campaign. The Armenians in turn either killed thousands of Muslim Turks in an effort to establish an independent homeland, or they were fighting a civil war of liberation.

I am not trying to make light of the fact that this was a horribly painful episode, leading to the death of thousands of innocents. But today's discussion is largely semantic--"genocide or not?"

While most Turks are taught in schools that killing happened "on both sides" and do not believe their Ottoman ancestors committed the g-word, Armenians in the tiny modern Caucasus republic have built their national identity on the pain of genocide. It is to them what the Jewish Holocaust is to Israelis.
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But the reason I have so far avoided the topic was not because of an inability to face the past, but because I felt I never could do justice to the mountains of books, memoirs and historic archives arguing one side or the other. After all, plenty of Turkish, Armenian, American and French historians dedicated lifetimes to this debate.

I, on the other hand, lacked that kind of attention span. At school, we were taught that the "so-called genocide" charge was trumped up by the Armenian diaspora because it was their raison d'être. Friends and family mostly seemed to think the Ottomans had committed some sort of "ethnic cleansing," but that it wasn't genocide. (Legally speaking, "war crimes" and "ethnic cleansing" do not necessarily mean genocide, the most heinous of all crimes against humanity.)

During the time I lived abroad, I encountered plenty of Armenian resentment toward Turkey, but then again, I thought, "What's new?" After all, neighboring Greeks, Kurds, Iranians, Arabs and some Europeans often seemed to hate Turkey, too! (Being the descendants of an imperial people is overrated on the karmic scale.)

But not everyone in Turkey is willing to go with the type of "strategic ignorance" I have been carefully practicing on the Armenian issue. Recently, a group of 200 Turkish intellectuals signed an online petition "apologizing" to Armenians for their suffering at the hands of Ottoman forces during the First World War.

It reads: "My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers. I apologize to them." The name of the Web site translated into English is ""

Even with no mention of genocide, the short text hit a raw nerve with the Turkish public. Politicians lined up to condemn the initiative, while a group of academics and retired diplomats issued a counter-declaration, denying charges of genocide and asking for the Armenians to apologize for the murder of 38 Turkish diplomats in the 1970s by Armenian terrorists seeking revenge. "I find it unreasonable to apologize when there is no crime," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Spinoff Web sites are full of nationalist fervor.

In clogged Istanbul traffic, an irate driver gave me his unsolicited view: "Excuse me, miss, but now they want to apologize to Armenians. I am a Muslim expelled from the Balkans when the empire collapsed. My family was annihilated. We lost all land and property and took refuge in Turkey. Who will apologize to me?"

Another unsolicited response came over e-mail from the lady who had recently decorated our home: "I have no idea whom else we are supposed to apologize to. The Anzacs for the Gallipoli? The Greek, British, and Italian soldiers for having liberated our homeland [in 1923] from their invasion? Does anyone remember there were two sides to this conflict?"

I ran into a senior diplomat at a funeral and he told me that neither the apology nor the counter-declaration rang the right tone. "They are both extreme positions and would encourage extremists on both sides." In Turkey, the apology certainly created a backlash, while in Armenia, it is likely to encourage those who want to seek compensation and land from Turkey.

So incendiary has the apology been that the Turkish President Abdullah Gül had to withdraw his initial support for the statement when he was accused of having Armenian blood. And Turkey's military issued a statement condemning the apology, suggesting it would torpedo any possibility of rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia.

It is difficult to tell if the online petition has actually lifted a taboo or reinforced it. For starters, Turks are never good at apologizing. With no exposure to Oprah and psycho-babble, anger is preferable to soul-searching in much of the Middle East. But even most liberal Turks I know hate the idea of an apology to Armenians, partly because it tacitly admits to genocide--something the majority do not believe happened.

Of course Turkey needs to face its past and have a more open debate on the Armenian issue. But do you begin with an apology? I fear this would foment enough anger on both sides of the border to just about block any meaningful dialogue.

Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated by Turkish nationalists after he labeled the 1915 events a genocide. On the Armenian side, there are politicians who still have hopes of reclaiming land. In both countries, there is a potential climate of violence and, until that abates, an apology will just incite more trouble.

I wish the petition Web site said everything that it did, but had stopped short of an apology. It would have more appeal here in Turkey. Rome was not built in a day and bridges between nations cannot be either.

Turks and Armenians have a long way to go in overcoming hatred, and certainly setting history straight will have to be part of that process. But apology is not the beginning. Friendship, something we lacked for almost a century, is.

If I could have my own petition, I would say to Armenians, "Friends, I feel your pain and am sorry for not recognizing it before. Let's leave aside semantics for now and just meet." And then wait for what they had to tell me.

Asli Aydintasbas is an Istanbul-based journalist and former Ankara bureau chief of the newspaper Sabah.

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