On December 15, around 200 intellectuals in Turkey launched an Internet petition1 apologizing for the Armenian Genocide. Soon thereafter, hell broke loose.
Although there is a wide consensus among genocide and Holocaust scholars that the Armenian Genocide took place, the Turkish state continues to vehemently deny that a state-sponsored campaign took the lives of approximately 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. The Armenians, the official Turkish argument goes, were victims of ethnic strife, or war and starvation, just like many Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire. Turkey invests millions of dollars in the United States to lobby against resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide and to produce denialist literature. Moreover, many Turkish intellectual who have spoken against the denial have been charged for “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.
The fact that the text of the apology2 didn’t employ the term “genocide” but opted for “Great Catastrophe” did not stave off condemnation. A barrage of criticism and attacks followed almost immediately. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish army, many members of the parliament, and practically the entire Turkish establishment instigated and encouraged a public outcry against the apology. Threats and insults flew from left and right, and counter-petitions were launched from Turks demanding the Armenians to apologize.
Yet despite the wave of condemnation, thousands of ordinary Turks from all walks of life added their names to the petition. After breaking the taboo against talking about the Armenian Genocide, Turkish scholars, writers and journalists had made apologizing for the Armenian Genocide an issue of public discourse. The petition did not simply recognize the suffering of the Armenians; rather, it went beyond and offered an apology, which was crucial for the initiators of the campaign. “I think two words moved the people: Ozur Dileriz (‘We apologize’),” said the drafter of the petition, Prof. Baskin Oran when I asked him about the wording of the petition. “These are the very two words that kept thousands of Turks from signing it. But they were imperative. I don’t feel responsible for the butchery done by the Ittihadists [the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the organizers of the Genocide] but we had to say these words. There is something called a ‘collective conscience,’” he added.
Some criticized the text because it avoided using the term “genocide.” The former head of the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association, lawyer Eren Keskin, said, “I do not accept compromise when it comes to the use of the term genocide. Even though the word genocide was not used in the petition, I signed it, because I believe any change in a country or in a system can take place if there is an ‘internal’ demand. I believe that the Republic of Turkey is a continuation of the Ittihadist tradition—the tradition of the perpetrators of the Genocide. The majority of the founding members of the Turkish Republic, including the leaders, were members of the CUP.” An apology is an obligation, Keskin told me. “Just as the Republic of Turkey took over the financial obligations of the Ottomans under the Lausanne Treaty, it should take over the obligation to apologize for the Genocide. I believe it is first and foremost the obligation of the Republic of Turkey to apologize. The individuals who internalize the official ideology, who do not question it, who ignore the fact that a genocide has been committed and who give their approval by remaining silent also owe an apology to Armenians,” she said. “I signed the statement because I think this is an initiative that will normalize, in the eyes of the Turkish public, the concept of and the obligation to apologize to Armenians.”
Amberin Zaman, Turkey’s correspondent for The Economist and a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf, said that regardless of the criticism about the wording, the petition initiative was a turning point. “When we look back at this campaign several years from now, I think there can be no doubt that it will be viewed as a turning point—not just for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, but more importantly in terms of getting modern Turkey to come to terms with one of the darkest chapters of its recent past,” she said. “Whether people agree, condemn or quibble with the wording of the text, in the end [the petition] has unleashed an unprecedented debate about the fate of the Ottoman Armenians. It has also sent a very strong signal that rapprochement efforts between our mutual governments [Armenia and Turkey] is far surpassed by the very real desire at a societal level to heal the wounds and move on,” she added. “The genie is now well and truly out of the bottle.”
Poet Ron Margulies considers the petition a first step. “It does something which should have been done decades ago and tells Armenians that many Turks share and understand their pain, sorrow and grief. This apology and expression of empathy is the first step without which nothing else can follow,” he said. “But there is also a second reason which, for me, is as important as the first, and it has to do with Turkish politics rather than the Armenian issue in particular. In recent years, many unmentionables have become mentionable and are frequently mentioned in Turkey. These include the existence and rights of the Kurds, the issue of the other minorities, the role of the armed forces in the political life of the country, the competence of the armed forces and of the chiefs of staff, the issue of Islam, the right to wear a headscarf in public offices, etc. Once out of the bottle, these genies refuse to go back in. And they all deal serious blows to Kemalism, to nationalism, to the official ideology of the Turkish state. This petition, and the fact that 8,000 people signed it within the first day-and-a-half, is another such blow. We must continue raining blows on the edifice of the Kemalist state,” he added.
For these reasons, Margulies notes, the wording of the petition was not so important to him. “Every text can be improved upon. But that is not the point. The petition has already had a phenomenal impact—because of its content and its spirit, not because of the specific wording,” he explained.
When I asked why she signed the petition, author and journalist Ece Temelkuran spoke about the massacres, but more importantly, about the dispossession. “Since writing my book [The Deep Mountain], the conflict, which was already profoundly emotional for most of us after [Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink’s death, became a personal issue to me. The petition was a way of telling my Armenian friends that I share their long lasting pain and that I understand. As far as I observed among the Armenians in the Diaspora and in Armenia, the deepest and the most vital pain is the homelessness they feel. Besides the pain of being massacred, Armenians today, all over the world, feel homeless. With the petition, I just wanted to tell the Armenians that people still living in Anatolia didn’t forget what happened and that they still feel the absence of their Armenian brothers and sisters.”
2 The apology read: “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 and sisters. I apologize to them.”