No shame in slaughter

The histories of Turkey and Armenia are deeply intertwined. Dating back to the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian Orthodox Christians, a prominent minority community, specialized in commerce, often working as intermediaries for merchants from Europe and the eastern empire. But in the early 20th century, as momentum and support for Armenian independence expanded, Armenians faced mounting repression from Ottoman authorities. During the explosive events of World War I, Ottoman repression resulted in genocide, with an estimated 1.5 million Armenians massacred and expelled from the crumbling empire.

The Armenian genocide persists as a matter of international controversy, one that Turkish activist and scholar Taner Akçam continues to confront. As one of the first prominent Turkish historians to call the slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1917 a genocide, Akçam’s work has garnered international attention.

His celebrated new book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, incorporates archival material from British, German, U.S. and Ottoman records. Akçam will be delivering two lectures in Montreal this weekend.

Official silence

“An official recognition of the Armenian genocide must take place in Turkey,” Akçam tells the Mirror. “The Armenian diaspora seeks a clear recognition of this historical injustice, which present-day Turkish pro-democracy advocates must support.”

“Despite the international attention toward my book, there has not been one single book review published in Turkey,” he says. “People in Turkey can’t touch the book publicly due to pressure from government authorities.”

Akçam is not new to controversy. The historian and professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota fled Turkey as a political refugee in the 1970s. After receiving a 10-year prison term for producing a student journal that focused on Turkey’s treatment of the Kurdish minority, Akçam was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 1976 and eventually granted asylum in Germany.

“I was part of the 1968 generation, a common student movement in all of Europe and throughout the world,” says Akçam. “In Turkey, this student movement had multiple targets, including the U.S. war in Vietnam and democratization in Turkey, an important U.S. ally until today.”

In 2004, the Canadian federal Liberal government presented and passed an “acknowledgement resolution” within Parliament concerning the Armenian genocide. However, Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay recently tailored the Canadian acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide. MacKay’s new position includes a statement in support of a recent Turkish proposal to create a joint investigative commission with Armenia concerning the events surrounding the genocide, which the Armenian Foreign Minister dismissed as a “smokescreen”.

Democratic demands

Turkey currently faces multiple political crossroads. As negotiations on European Union accession continue, pro-democracy activists continue to mount pressure on the government to recognize the Armenian genocide. Akçam argues that its open acknowledgment is essential to allow an honest discussion of Turkey’s past, while opening contemporary political space to address the treatment of minorities today.

“Recognizing the Armenian genocide is a crucial point in the process of building a vibrant Turkish democracy,” says Akçam. “Although the genocide occurred almost 100 years ago, it remains central to the Armenian identity and directly relates to how Turkey treats its minorities today, especially Kurds.”

Both the Turkish government and military continue to publicly deny the Armenian genocide, while grassroots political pressure to recognize the genocide has grown in recent years. “Turkey is facing a political fight between two forces. On one side, the democracy movement–a civil movement without central organization–and on the other side, the unelected authoritarian military bureaucracy which until now has refused to relinquish its grip on power,” says Akçam. “The current government is caught in between these two political forces.”

Last month, Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul, allegedly by a Turkish ultra-nationalist. Days after Dink’s death, hundreds of thousands gathered in Istanbul to denounce the murder in one of the biggest demonstrations in contemporary Turkish history.

“The Armenian diaspora should follow closely the current developments in Turkey and build ties with the democracy movement,” says Akçam. “Turkey’s movement for democratic change views the recognition of the Armenian genocide as part of its struggle, which is one of the messages I will be bringing to Montreal.”

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