Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, spoke at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy on February 16. His topic was: “Public Diplomacy: The Turkish Experience.”
The Turkish Ambassador assumed his post in Washington last February, but shortly after his arrival was recalled to Ankara when the House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted a resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide.
Amb. Tan is no stranger to Washington, where he served as the Embassy’s Counselor from 1991 to 1995 and First Counselor from 1997 to 2001. During his long diplomatic career, he also was Ambassador to Israel, Second Secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Russia, and Deputy Undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara.
During his first visit to Los Angeles this month, the smooth-talking Ambassador managed to meet with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, spoke to the World Affairs Council, and held meetings with the American Jewish Committee, Turkish community leaders, and the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times.
Prior to his arrival, the Association of Turkish-Americans of Southern California had posted a note on its website, urging local Turks to attend the Ambassador’s public appearances and “show visible support… especially in the face of usual anticipated detractors.”
Running the risk of being labeled “a detractor,” I decided to attend the Ambassador’s talk which ironically was held at USC’s Ronald Tutor Campus Center — named after its Armenian benefactor, the son of Al Tutor (Varjabedian), a genocide survivor. I made my way through scores of U.S. Secret Service agents, campus security, and Turkish bodyguards who almost outnumbered the guests at the event. Even more surprising was the fact that there were only a handful of Armenians and Turks among the attendees, consisting mostly of USC students and professors.
Amb. Tan, who spoke in fluent English for half an hour, presented his country in the best possible light. Since he had not addressed Armenian issues, I decided to pose the following interrelated questions:
The Turkish government recently renovated a couple of Armenian churches. There were thousands of Armenian churches and monasteries throughout Turkey before the genocide, most of which were converted into mosques, warehouses and stables, and many were destroyed. Isn’t it time for the Turkish government to turn over these Armenian churches to the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul? Also, after Armenians were deported and killed, they left behind their houses, lands and belongings. Isn’t time for the Turkish government to return these properties to the heirs of their original Armenian owners? Finally, regarding the Armenian Genocide issue, Pres. Obama declared in his statement of last April 24: “95 years ago, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.” If you say that is not true, wouldn’t you be calling the President of the United States a liar?
Here is Amb. Tan’s response:
“This hate should end. We should put it behind as early as possible. That’s why we are trying to reach out to our Armenian friends and we have signed the [Armenia-Turkey] Protocols. In these Protocols, one of the suggestions that we put is that we want an independent historical inquiry commission which will include representatives from every country — from US, France, and whichever country you like. They will study those claims and we will see the decision all together. But history cannot be legislated. This is not the way that history could be judged. So, I think this has created a lot of ill feelings in our societies. Armenians have given a lot of contribution to our social life historically. Therefore we need to continue such kind of engagements, but this hate should be stopped.”
I politely reminded Amb. Tan that he had not answered my questions. He responded by saying: “That is my answer.” He probably was not prepared to face such politically sensitive questions. By sidestepping my queries, he left a negative impression on his audience, despite his highly-skilled diplomatic credentials.
At the program’s conclusion, Amb. Tan walked over, shook my hand, and thanked me for my questions. I told him that his assessment was inaccurate, as the Armenian issue had nothing to do with “hatred.” I explained that a great crime was committed by Turkey against the Armenian nation, and that Armenians are not blinded by “hatred,” but simply demanding “justice.” The Ambassador turned around and walked away with a mysterious smile on his face!
Even though Amb. Tan avoided answering my questions, our public exchange had the beneficial effect of exposing the university audience, the Ambassador and his entourage to the just demands of the Armenian people for the crimes committed by Turkey. Indeed, it is also imperative to challenge Turkish officials at every opportunity, so that neither they nor their audience would be able to ignore the Armenian grievances.