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I don’t need to test the proposition that I may say this freely in Turkey, because I’ve done it already and nothing much happened.
A few years ago, I was invited by the American Studies department at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University to give a lecture about the way the US media covers Turkish politics. During the question time, a member of the audience asked why the American media insisted upon referring to the events of 1915 as a genocide. There was a collective, agitated murmur in the crowd. The moderator said to me, “You don’t have to answer that,” aware that this was hardly what I’d been invited to discuss.
But I did answer it. They insisted upon calling it a genocide, I explained, because that’s precisely what it was.
The audience disagreed–quite spiritedly–but they were polite. Obviously, I was neither fined nor arrested.
I continued to explain that I believed the real issue was the belief, held by many in Turkey, that the word “genocide” means “exactly like the Nazis, and as uniquely and consummately evil.” Moreover, Turks are justly offended that those who pronounce judgment upon them would be hard-pressed to locate their country on a map, have no deep familiarity with the history of the era, and could no more read documents from the Ottoman archives than decipher a communique from Alpha Centauri. Most do not know that Turks, too, were the victims of horrific massacres; that a great number of Armenians joined the Russian forces invading Turkey and were thus genuinely Fifth Columnists; and that the evidence that these massacres were planned is nowhere near as overwhelming and irrefragable as the evidence that the Nazi Holocaust was planned
Indeed, historians such as Bernard Lewis base their argument upon this. The events of 1915 were not analogous to the Holocaust, he argues, because to make the analogy, one would have to imagine that Jews had been collaborating with the Allies, that the cities of Hamburg and Berlin were exempted from the deportation order, and that order applied only to the Jews of Germany.
So let us follow that analogy: Imagine just that. What would you call that? You’d still call it genocide.
The word genocide is defined by the International Criminal Court as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.” It was coined in 1943 by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the fate of the Armenians in 1915. “I became,” he said, “interested in genocide because it happened so many times. First to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”
So there is in fact no doubt: There was an Armenian Genocide because that’s what genocide means.
But let’s go a bit beyond this. The man who spoke in this video, Ragip Zarakolu, is an important figure in Turkey:
In December 2004, Zarakolu was first charged for publishing a Turkish translation of British author George Jerjian’s book The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled under Article 159 of the Turkish penal code, which made it illegal to “insult or belittle” various state institutions. That article was replaced in March 2005 with the now-infamous Article 301, a new version of the insult law that conservative prosecutors have since used against dozens of writers, journalists, and publishers in Turkey. Article 301 was slightly amended on April 30, 2008.
On June 17, 2008, Zarakolu was convicted of “insulting the State” under Article 301 for publishing Jerjian’s book. He was sentenced to a five-month prison term, which was reportedly subsequently commuted to a fine. He is appealing the conviction.
On May 3, 2007, Zarakolu was acquitted of similar charges under Article 301 in another case for the publication of Professor Dora Zakayan’s book An American Doctor in Turkey: My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922. This case had its first hearing in August 2005, when the prosecutor demanded a six-year prison sentence for Zarakolu for “insulting the Army” and also “insulting Turkishness” by publishing this book. Attila Tuygan, the translator of Dora Zakayan’s book, testified as a defense witness and stated that as translator of the book, he held himself responsible. As a result, Zarakolu was acquitted, but a new trial against the book under Article 301, with Tuygan held responsible, is still expected.
Last October, Zarakolu was arrested again–this time, on charges of terrorism:
Professor Büşra Ersanlı and publisher and human rights activist Ragip Zarakolu were taken under custody on October 28, 2011 within the framework of the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) operation.
Another 41 people were taken under custody as well in the scope of this operation. The police raided various pro- Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) offices in İstanbul including the BDP Istanbul Politics Academy and several BDP branches.
Professor Ersanli is a constitutional law expert and a member of the BDP Assembly. She is an academic at the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations of Istanbul’s Marmara University and a member of the BDP Constitutional Commission.
As far as I know, the United States government has said not one word about this. When asked, the US State Department spokesman, Victoria Nuland, replied:
”We do not want to comment at this stage on specific issues before the court. However, the execution of the trial process transparent and timely manner, and all defendants are subject to call for a fair hearing”.
Doesn’t that robust defense of human rights make you feel proud to be an American? (For those of you who are irony-impaired, please put in your hearing aids.)
Now, back to the Armenian Genocide. Look at this map:
The numbers of dead are legitimately disputed. The degree of central planning is legitimately disputed. But the dots indisputably represent Armenian deaths–probably as many as a million–and the lines represent the routes on which Armenians were forced into the desert, without food or water, where they died of starvation and heat exhaustion.
No, this was not the Nazi Holocaust. The Armenians were not the only victims of the First World War. Yes, this was a terrible time, during which massacres occurred on previously unimaginable scales throughout the world. No Turk now alive is responsible for these crimes. Indeed, it is fair to say that ethnic Kurds, not ethnic Turks, bear a greater historical responsibility; they were the primary agents of the killings.
Yet the facts remain: Before the war, an ancient community of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, established long before the Sultanate of Rum, numbered somewhere between 1.3 and 1.8 million. By the end of the 1920s, only a handful were left in what had become the Turkish Republic.
I will defend your right to say this–particularly because it is true–as vigorously as I will defend your right to deny it. But I doubt I’d defend your right to deny it to the death. I’d rather go down fighting for something a bit more noble.