BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
The prominent journalist was a harsh critic of Turkey’s genocide denial
Author, journalist, and critic Christopher Hitchens died of pneumonia on Dec. 15, at the age of 62, after a long struggle with esophageal cancer. A phenomenal debater, he angered many. He was an outspoken atheist, an unforgivingly cool and passionate critic of religion. Following the attacks on the twin towers in September 2001, Hitchens voiced his contempt of what he referred to as “Islamofascism” and, to the surprise and dismay of many of his leftist supporters, became a staunch proponent of the Iraq War, turning venomous towards its critics. What many Armenians remember, however, and are grateful for, is his unyielding support—spoken and written—for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Speaking to an audience on April 1, 2010, Hitchens reminded them that in a few weeks’ time Armenians would be commemorating the attempted extermination of their nation: “[The survivors] all died not with just the knowledge of what happened to their families, their friends, and their communities, and the extirpation of not just them physically, but the destruction of their churches, their libraries, the renaming of their towns, the attempt to erase them from the map, the production of new atlases in Turkey that fail to show there was ever an Armenian province—the cultural erasure! [They] didn’t just die in the knowledge of that; they died in the knowledge that it was still said that it never happened to them. This, I think, is the crowning insult, and the one that above all cries out for justice,” he said.
The insult of denial was too hard for him to swallow, just as it is for the descendants of our surviving nation. Hitchens was a crafty orator, tripping and baffling his opponents in a swordsmanship of words. Debating was who he was. He sought opponents, battled, and at times bragged: “…If you go into the matter with Turkish parliamentarians—as I have—[you will only get a] flat stern-faced denial. Go into it a little further, and you will suddenly hear them say, ‘Well, the Armenians were taking the Russian side in the First World War. They were a subversive minority within our borders. They didn’t follow our religion.’ So you say to them, ‘Ah, so I see. You say it never happened, but it would have been very justifiable if it did happen.’ And you catch them. And you realize they see it in your face, and you see it in theirs. ‘Oh, yes, I shouldn’t have put it quite like that.’”
When news of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to deport his country’s Armenians went viral, infuriating Armenians worldwide, Hitchens was outraged. He saw Erdogan’s behavior as salt on the wound. “This man is an out-of-control thug, and he’s posing as a defender of the human rights of the Palestinians,” he said. “It makes me want to throw up things that I’ve forgotten ever eating.”
In another interview, he called Erdogan “a bully.” “He goes into tantrums,” he explained. Hitchens saw the prime minister’s behavior as “vulgar,” and as an example noted Erdogan’s response to an Armenian Genocide commemoration. Hitchens paid no attention to Turkey’s threats to cease its cooperation in the Iraq War if Congress recognized the genocide. He saw Turkey as a tunnel, not a bridge, between Europe and Asia. Turkey’s suppression of the press, intellectuals, and activists within its own borders, and its expectations from others to do the same, worried him. The “Ankara government had the nerve to try to hold up the appointment of a serious Danish politician, Anders Rasmussen, as the next secretary-general of the [NATO] alliance, on the grounds that as Denmark’s prime minister he had refused to censor Danish newspapers to Muslim satisfaction!” he wrote in Slate. “It is now being hinted that if either President Obama or Congress goes ahead with the endorsement of the genocide resolution, Turkey will prove uncooperative on a range of issues, including the normalization of the frontier between Turkey and Armenia and the transit of oil and gas pipelines across the Caucasus.”
Exactly a week after Hitchens’ death, the French parliament passed a bill rendering the denial of the Armenian Genocide punishable by a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000). Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu used threats and insults to dissuade lawmakers from ratifying the bill.
Almost two years ago, in another column for Slate, Hitchens unleashed his fury on the modern Turkish state for not only denying what its predecessor inflicted on the Armenians, but also for threatening countries who considered officially recognizing the genocide. “History is cunning: The dead of Armenia will never cease to cry out. Nor, on their behalf, should we cease to do so,” he wrote. “Let Turkey’s unstable leader [Erdogan] foam all he wants when other parliaments and congresses discuss Armenia and seek the truth about it.”
“The grotesque fact remains that the one parliament that should be debating the question—the Turkish Parliament—is forbidden by its own law to do so. While this remains the case, we shall do it for them, and without any apology, until they produce the one that is forthcoming from them,” he added.