BY VACHÉ THOMASSIAN
Editor’s Note: Below is the text of a speech given by Vaché Thomassian, a member of the Hollywood “Musa Dagh” AYF Chapter and of the United Human Rights Council (UHRC). It was given at the UHRC’s second annual “Opposite of Silence” event in Glendale, Calif. The event aimed to bring together Armenians and Kurds, and to pay tribute to those activists in Turkey who have been targeted, harassed, or murdered for their efforts to advance human rights, Armenian Genocide recognition, freedom of speech, equality, and democracy. The keynote speaker of the event was Kani Xulam, the executive director of the American Kurdish Information Network.
A lot of things are taken for granted. In our daily lives we wake up, go to class, go to work, check our emails, check our Facebook, go out, live our lives, often times taking the smallest things, usually the most important things for granted. Things like our ability to freely express ourselves, the ability to have opinions, to make them, argue about them. The ability to stand up and speak. The ability to hear and be heard.
Here in the United States, the free speech movement in the 1960’s was a pivotal time in developing and shaping our country’s activist spirit. It was a time when students stood up to authority to demand their right to express themselves. This spirit was captured by the immortal words of Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley when he said:
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!
This was the movement that secured free speech and academic freedom here in America.
In a place like Turkey where the call to speak is an invitation to prosecution, to harassment, in a place where historical truths do not exist, where contemporary human rights are trampled, minority rights are unfathomable, women’s rights unimaginable it takes courage and it takes conscience to speak. That is the common quality spotlighted by individuals like Layla Zana, Akin Birdal and Erin Keskin—the courage to see a wrong and speak out about it, ignoring the personal consequences.
There is no better example of the consequences of allowing Turkey to get away with Genocide then what is happening to the Kurds today. The news headlines about the Kurdish question hits especially close to home for Armenians: “Community leaders arrested”, “Violence in the streets”, “Demonstrators beaten or killed”, “Political parties banned”…all in the name of preserving the Turkish nation…protecting Turkishness…sounds all too familiar.
When we talk about the Armenian Cause we have to talk of it as an issue of justice for humanity and we shouldn’t limit our vision to securing the rights of just Armenians, but instead affirm the idea that Turkey as a nation must free its people, end its occupations and be saved from itself. Until those who live in exile, those that live in fear, those that live in silence, Kurds and Armenians can lose the shackles that they still wear.
Recently, Turkey has tried diplomatically strong-arming the weak and inept government of Armenia with protocols that would undermine Armenian Genocide recognition efforts. Recently also, deceitful claims by Turkey of making peace with the Kurdish Worker’s Party have again resulted in violence, arrests and killings. The “TheArmenian Issue”and “TheKurdish issue” remain top priorities among the list of taboos in Turkish society. Taboos that are punished by Article 301.
Only by confronting these taboos of their society through open, honest and meaningful dialogue, without prosecution or arrest, can there be a revolution of values in Turkey, when the historic rights of Armenians who were slaughtered in Genocide and removed through deportation are respected, where the natural rights of the world’s largest landless minority, the Kurdish people’s right to exist is respected.
Only then, not through any other hollow means can there be a shift from Turkish ultanationalist arrogance towards real peace.
In this world the ideas of power and powerlessness chase each other around in a perpetual circle of conflict. One struggles to attain and maintain its vise-grip while the other struggles to find a voice and fight for its liberty.
Those of us who have only ever lived in a democracy, however flawed, would find it hard to imagine living a state of powerlessness. The fear of reprisal for expressing your thoughts, the hesitation felt before opening your mouth. Living your life constantly looking over your shoulder. Like Hrant Dink said in his last article before being murdered, “I am just like a pigeon, equally obsessed by what goes on my left, and right, front and back…”
But Dink wanted to turn the boiling hell that he lived in, into a heaven and he saw that the only way to do that was through democracy, through free speech and through respect for all humans.
Our job as activists is to look at the world in its proper perspective. In today’s interconnected world, we can longer isolate ourselves, separate our struggle from the struggles of groups in similar circumstances, we can’t just preach to ourselves and hope for the best. The struggles of oppressed peoples are like the fingers on your hand. Although each one is independent, each one moves fluidly in its own way they are all connected by the hand that holds them together. Their commonalities far outweigh their differences. And only when the fingers come together, only when they cooperate and work in concert, can they form a fist that can protect their rights and ensure their vitality.
Our job as activists is to open our eyes to the world, to the voiceless, to stand when they cannot stand and to speak when they are silenced.
In the memory of Hrant Dink, in solidarity with the likes of Ayse Gunaysu, , Elif Shafak, Layla Zana, and individuals like Kani Xulam. In solidarity with their struggle and making that struggle our own.