By Ayse Gunaysu
In 2005, 550 members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) signed a letter addressed to the British Parliament arguing that the 1916 parliamentary “Blue Book,” titled The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-16, was wartime propaganda material—a mere fabrication—and that the parliament today should formally withdraw it.
Clearly, when the TGNA drew up that letter, they hadn’t seen the book, let alone read one line of it. The book had not yet been translated into Turkish and was not accessible in Turkey.
Four years later, on Fri. June 26, 2009, Lord Avebury, the vice-chairman of the Human Rights Group in the British Parliament, and Ara Sarafian from the Gomidas Institute (London), introduced the authorized Turkish translation of the Blue Book in Ankara at a press conference hosted by the Human Rights Association, Turkey and the Ankara Initiative for Freedom of Expression. It was announced during the meeting that copies of the Blue Book translation were sent to TGNA members, individually packaged and addressed to every single Turkish parliamentarian, “in an effort to enable them to be better informed about their subject matter.” Permission was also obtained for the distribution of the book to bookstores in Turkey.
Anti-terrorist police teams took security measures outside the building and quickly dispersed a small group attempting to protest the meeting by shouting slogans against the “allegations” of genocide. It was quite unexpected, yet senior police officers also contacted the organizers and asked if they needed anything, or if they wanted to remove disruptive audience members from the conference room! The police even offered to escort the organizers and guests to the restaurant they were planning on going to after the event.
Addressing an audience visibly eager to hear the speakers, Ara Sarafian, the editor of the uncensored editions of the original Blue Book published by the Gomidas Institute in 2000 and 2005, pointed out that the official criticism of the Blue Book adopted by the members of the TGNA was based on the denial of the existence of the Toynbee papers in the British archives, which gave “incredible details” on the 1916 publication.
The TGNA position, he said, also denied the existence of the printed confidential key that accompanied the Blue Book, which disclosed the names and places withheld in the original publication. “Similarly, the fact that the United States was the main source of information for the British, especially official State Department records from the Ottoman Empire, has simply been ignored, even though the original records in question are still available in United States archives today,” said Sarafian. He thus called the TGNA position a denialist position, as it systematically denied information that was relevant to the issue under discussion, and introduced irrelevant or false information.
Sarafian said the TGNA letter raised some serious questions, such as: “How could members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly pass judgment on a 1916 publication and declare it as a fabrication in such a public manner, when clearly most of them had never seen the work they were criticizing, including the uncensored edition published five years earlier?”
“How and on what basis could they make a judgment that there were no creditable sources related to the Blue Book?”
“How could they rely on official Turkish histories from the 1980’s and 1990’s, without independent and better informed appraisals, for their own assessments?”
“How could their advisers or members of the Turkish press not comment in public debates that there was much more to the issue than what had been discussed?
“How did the TGNA expect the outside world, which has access to the relevant records in Great Britain and the United States, not to criticize or ridicule the official Turkish position?”
“Those who distort historical facts have no place in democratic societies,” concluded Sarafian. “The best way to counter their negative impact is through open public discussions. The uncensored edition of the Blue Book, which has been translated into Turkish, is such an exercise in an effort to re-engage the Armenian issue within a more democratic and open Turkey. I hope that at least some deputies of the TGNA will reconsider their collective position on the Blue Book and distance themselves from it.”
Taking the floor after Sarafian, Lord Avebury summarized the history of the “Blue Book debate” between the TGNA and the British Parliament. “On Oct. 12, 2005, Lord Archer of Sandwell QC, Lord Biffen, and I organized a meeting in Westminster for British parliamentarians to respond to a petition sent to members of the British Houses of Parliament by the Turkish Grand National Assembly contesting the veracity of the 1916 British Parliamentary Blue Book, The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-16,” he said.
“It was our appraisal that the TGNA was not properly informed about the Blue Book. Consequently, on Jan. 27, 2006, 33 British MPs responded to the TGNA petition with a letter to the speaker of the TGNA, Bulent Arinc, inviting members of the TGNA to a face-to-face meeting with their British colleagues to discuss the Blue Book. Since there was no response to that letter, a second email communication was sent on Sept. 1, 2006 to all individual members of the TGNA, inviting them to a face-to-face meeting. Again there was no response. Our final conclusion was that most TGNA members were not aware of the actual content of the 1916 Blue Book, nor the archival trail associated with it. (For copies of letters and reports related to this issue, see www.gomidas.org.) In order to facilitate better understanding and reflection, I suggested that the Gomidas Institute should undertake the Turkish translation of their uncensored edition of the Blue Book, which was replete with discussion and full archival references. I am pleased that they were able to undertake such a major project so that a whole new Turkish readership—not just members of the TGNA—can appraise the Blue Book issue in an informed and balanced manner. The publication of the Turkish edition of the book is a milestone in a historical sense for Turkey and I believe a new era for dialogue will be created after this book.”
Lord Avebury concluded with a quotation from George Santana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He went on to state that there were dark chapters in the history of all nations and gave two examples. In 1997, the queen of Great Britain personally apologized in Amritsar, India, for the 1919 massacre of Sikhs who were shot in that city by British troops, while in 2008 the British Parliament apologized for the British government’s role in the Irish potato famine.
There were some in the audience who disagreed with Sarafian and Lord Avebury. During the question and answer session, they were allowed by the moderator, Ozturk Turkdogan, the chairman of the Istanbul Human Rights Association, to comment about the “Armenian lies,” to show their denialist books and other printed materials, and to ask Sarafian and Lord Avebury what they would say about the “genocide” of the Azeris by the Armenians. In this way, Turkdogan demonstrated that denialists could express themselves in non-violent ways in place of physically or verbally abusive means, which has often been the case—from the trials of Hrant Dink, Orhan Pamuk, and others, to panel discussions or conferences.
Sarafian told the denialists that they should let the press conference continue, and that he would be happy to discuss what they had to say, sensibly, in another forum, after he saw their literature and had a worthwhile response.
After the press conference, asked about his overall impression about the event, Sarafian said, “We, as the Gomidas Institute, did what we wanted to do. This is part of a process, not an end in itself. A diasporan Armenian organization translated and published a book in Turkey about the Armenian Genocide, and made a public presentation. We called on the Turkish parliamentarians through email messages to come, but none of them did. Next week they will receive their books. I hope the significance of this opening will become apparent. We plan to print more books, make more presentations, and have more discussions in Turkey. And we will press on with the Blue Book issue, in good time, when the members of the TGNA have had a chance to look at our publication.”