BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
The past year has been rife with intriguing developments on our Turkish (non-Azeri) front. So I realized it would probably be good to put those often-positive-seeming events in some context.
Some 1,000 years ago, Turks arrived in Asia Minor— Anatolia and the Armenian Plateau. That’s when our interaction with them began. These marauding horsemen proceeded to establish rival domains which fought one another until Turkish statehood was consolidated in the form of the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Byzantium in 1453. All along those five centuries, the natives (Armenians and others living further west) were being trampled figuratively, and probably even literally, under the hooves of these newcomers to our homeland.
But despite what might have been expected, and as happened in most other empires, the onset of the Ottoman era brought no real relief, at least in the form of personal safety and economic revival, to the subjects of this new state. Periodic massacres continued, naturally aimed at Armenians, and others, who had to be tamed and controlled.
After Ottoman expansion was halted at the gates of Vienna in 1683, the slow decay of the empire began. One aspect of the self-consumption that plagued the vast lands ruled from Constantinople was the corrupt, expropriative, system of tax-farming that fell heaviest on the peasantry, meaning Armenians. Someone would buy, from the government, the taxation of a certain area. As long as the Sultan got his predetermined amount, that person was free to extract as much money from the subjects of “his” area as he wanted and could. This resulted in families losing their lands and and/or having to send sons to the cities to work to pay the exorbitant taxes. The political benefit of this was the slow removal of “undesirable” populations (Armenians) from their homelands, allowing settlement there by Turks and other Moslems who were being forced out of the periphery of the empire. This gradual ethnic cleansing suited the purposes of the Turkish rulers.
But this was not the totality of the ongoing repression. Armenians, second-class citizens under sharia law as implemented in the Ottoman Empire, despite being a “people of the book” and therefore deserving of Islamic protection, the loyal millet, and the financial backbone of the empire, were subject to constant persecution. Whether it was having their tongues cut out for speaking Armenian (as my grandmother had learned from her father), being forced to convert to Islam, or having no recourse in the country’s courts because of their “infidel” status.
Those four-and-a-half centuries of de-Armenianization of the population of the Armenian plateau paved the way for the 1915-23 period Genocide, definitive expropriation, and establishment of a supposedly mono-national-Turkish state on the ruins of the occupied Western portion of the Armenians’ homeland.
But the Genocide wasn’t enough for the murderous Young Turks ideological heirs, Ataturk and his Turkish-chauvinist minions. See “Depriving Anatolian Armenians of Education” in the current issue of “The Armenian Weekly” in which the story is told of how Armenians were kept under- or un-educated in the post 1923 time frame. This was nothing but a continuation of the forced removal of Armenians from our homeland. But of course, this subtle pressure wasn’t enough. During the Kurdish uprising of 1937-38 in Dersim, the more traditional and murderous Turkish techniques reappeared. As had happened for centuries, many Armenians had “become” Kurds during the Genocide. A significant number of those were in Dersim. As the rebellion was quelled, Kurds were promised leniency if they ratted-out those hidden Armenians. Once their identity was revealed, they were killed, and the Kurds who exposed them were also penalized for harboring them!
And with this, we can perhaps accept that the Turks’ bloody ways of eliminating Armenians from “their” (the Turks’) country ended and we transitioned to more “civilized” processes of conducting anti-Armenian campaigns. This might be when the real hatred of Armenians started to wane since… there were no significant numbers of evident Armenians left to hate. All that was left was the “Armenian” as an evil caricature, which is what we must contend with even today. Most, who had not been killed, exiled, or scared away, were concentrated in Bolis.
The 1930s also witnessed the beginning of the out-of-country external propaganda campaign that Turkey has waged unabated, and in fact, escalated, against Armenians and Armenian interests, to this day. Its ambassador to the United States prevented the making of Forty Days of Musa Dagh into a film
In keeping with its more “civilized” approach, but still manifesting hatred towards Armenians and other non-Turkish, non-Moslem minorities, and still lusting after Armenians’ and others’ un-expropriated possessions, in 1942, Varlik Vergisi— the wealth tax—was enacted as a means of stealing Armenian’s post-Genocide holdings. Obviously, this was just another way of driving Armenians out. While abolished just two years later, Varlik Vergisi just confirmed Ankara’s unstated policy towards Armenians. They were to be driven out. Those of our compatriots who remained under Turkish rule suffered the same ignominy as in the pre-Genocide period. Properties were stolen, Armenians schools were kept under destructive state scrutiny, and Armenian life was generally squeezed to make things uncomfortable. This led to a steady trickling exodus from Bolis, but the community there was replenished, ironically, with those of our compatriots who were even worse off in the “interior” of Turkey, i.e. Turkish-occupied Western Armenia.
Meanwhile, the external front was heating up. As Armenians in the Diaspora came to be organized and set on the path of post-Genocide economic recovery, we were also becoming more active politically and diplomatically, demanding the 3-Rs— recognition, reparations, return of lands. Naturally, this led to Turkey responding. An excellent example is the 1971-85 saga of UN Economic and Social Council’s Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities effort to prepare a report about genocide. Inescapably, the Armenian example had a significant place in it, which led to an ultimately unsuccessful Turkish effort to exclude it.
Starting in 1975, a roughly decade long string of attacks on Turkish diplomats commenced. Unsurprisingly, this elicited a response from the Turkish government. But this response did not just consist of the one commonly comes to mind, i.e. Turks calling Armenians murderers and trying to cover up their crimes. In 1978, the Turkish government quietly reached out to the leadership of the ARF to meet and come to some arrangement. The ARF immediately involved the Hnchags and Ramgavars and met with the Turks. Not much came of it since all that was proffered was some form of recognition. But, we’ll never know since the third of Turkey’s four coups cut the process short. Perhaps this marked the very beginning of Turkey’s “split personality” regarding Armenians and Armenian issues.
The 1980s witnessed unabated anti-Armenian Turkish government and probably even societal attitudes. Examples abound. On a very impactfully personal level, the first time I encountered a living human being who unabashedly denied the Genocide was in 1980 when then Turkish Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen spoke at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. There was the 1982 conference about genocide that ultimately was held in Tel Aviv, with the Israeli government withdrawing its sponsorship after tremendous Turkish pressure, in which the Armenian Genocide was addressed. Turkey’s efforts on the academic front really took off, with the poster-child of denialism becoming UCLA’s Stanford Shaw. In 1982, the beginnings of what is now New York’s Turkish parade began under the guise of celebrating “Children’s Day” which falls, oh-so-conveniently, on April 23 in Turkey. Also in the summer of 1982, a trip to occupied Armenian territories by a small group of Diasporan Armenians (including future Armenian foreign minister and almost-president Raffi Hovannisian) ended badly with inappropriate searches conducted of their persons by Turkish authorities who confiscated most of the photographs they had taken.
But something must have been changing in Turkish society. The repressive regime installed by Ataturk was starting to come apart. Plus, the assassinations of the Turkish diplomats and the Genocide related publicity and activity in parliamentary and diplomatic settions had to trigger some thinking Turks to inquire what the hullabaloo was all about.
In 1988 Armen Aroyan started taking groups of Armenians to visit their ancestral homes and homeland. He has continued since then. This could not have happened without the knowledge and tacit acceptance of the Turkish authorities. His were not the first, or only, trips. I already mentioned one. Another is the one that Moushegh Kheteyan (Mitch Kehetian) had been on 1965, the same year as my grandmother visited Giligia and elsewhere in what’s called Turkey. This is evidence of something shifting.
In 1990, the Turkish Historical Society, the seat of official Genocide denialism, held its 11th Congress of Turkish History, in Ankara, at which included 16 papers on Armenian topics were presented. One of those was by Levon Marashlian who was the first of us to dare to venture into that lion’s den and present reality to a denial-addled Turkish society. This was not an easy step to take. I remember both Levon, and Armen Aroyan, were viewed with some consternation for their activities. It was also in the 1990s that the partially, selectively, opened Ottoman archives started being researched by people who were not Turkish government lackeys. Meanwhile, more Turkish scholars were looking into Armenian issues and deciding to escape the denialism of their society. More evidence of shifting…
Yet all along, formal Turkish policy remained unchanged. Whether it was opposing passage of commemorative resolutions in the House or Senate of the U.S. Congress and legislatures around the world or pressuring (in 1995) Argentina’s President Menem to veto a law recognizing the Armenian Genocide, the Turks kept battling truth and simple reality on every “battlefield” imaginable— not just legislatures and presidents, but all diplomatic venues, the media, and academia. Yet something had to be brewing.
Then came 2002 and what I’ll call the “AKP shift” when the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development party) was elected to power. Our compatriots in Bolis indicated this was an overall positive. Things started to loosen up internally and Turkish civil society seemed to commence a very early, and fragile, spring bloom, despite the Islamic/religious basis of this new ruling party. Now, more activists INSIDE Turkey were coming around to truth. In 2005, at Bilgi University in Bolis, a conference somewhat grandiosely titled “Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy” was held after two previous attempts to convene it were blocked. The murder of Hrant Dink turned thousands of Turks out onto the streets claiming “we are all Armenians”. Things really seemed to be improving or changing, at least on the non-governmental side of life in Turkey. This decade seemed to deepen, enshrine, and confirm the split personality I noted earlier. Turks want to know the truth, still, they simultaneously can’t handle the truth because it involves admitting monstrous acts by their close relatives. The government wants to be rid of the “Armenian problem” but hasn’t the political will and a society prepared to handle the ramifications.
Yet, during the same first decade of this century, we had the 2005 disclosure by Sibel Edmonds of what can only be described as the bribery of Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, by Turks so he would block passage of a resolution commemorating the Armenian Genocide, which he did. In the same year, we had Dogu Perincek going to Switzerland to pick a fight over the ability to deny the Genocide despite Swiss law. This led to his being found guilty and a series of appeals which just days ago absolved him of wrongdoing because his freedom of expression had allegedly been abridged since the Armenian Genocide is not a “fact” in the same way the Holocaust is, according to five of the seven judges of the European Court of Human Rights which heard the latest appeal. Of course there is the 2007 murder of Hrant Dink by a 17-year old. What does that age say about where Turks’ minds are when it comes to Armenians? The murder happened on the cusp of Turkish government and society interface— a boundary still murky, as who exactly organized the murder remains hidden and the subject of ongoing court cases. Of course the infamous 2008/9 Armenia-Turkey protocols are an outstanding example of Turkish government duplicity and commitment to evading responsibility for the Genocide and expropriation of Armenian land and property.
Moving to the current decade, the reopening 2010 Soorp Khach on Lake Van’s Akhtamar Island aroused both hope and suspicion. It is now formally a museum, with extremely limited rights of use by the Armenian community as a church, absent a cross on the dome, and with what some argued was inappropriate material used in the renovation. But 2010 also witnessed a failed attempt to put a monument of Ataturk in a public place in Buenos Aires. Interestingly there’s a similar process afoot in the Los Angeles basin’s City of Carson even a now. A fundraiser for it was held just two weeks ago! What purpose does erecting a statue of a mass-murderer serve?
2011 witnessed the removal by the central government of a Turkish-Armenian friendship monument that had been erected by local authorities in Kars. A French attempt to pass a law criminalizing Genocide denial was thwarted, at least in part due to Turkish pressure. Yet in 2012, the Soorp Giragos church of Dikranagerd was reopened and returned to the Armenian Patriarchate by the local authorities, this time by Kurds, who have been making ever stronger overtures of friendship to Armenians. Just weeks ago, a conference was held in Bolis about crypto-Armenians, eliciting some heart-wrenching discussions. Yet we learn from Asbarez that, simultaneously, the “Turkish Government Targets Academics Studying Genocide”.
Need any more evidence of the confusing, split personality of Turkey, its society, and the humans composing it? This situation makes it very difficult and risky for Armenians to engage, but engage we must, and we are. Research about the Hamshentzees has been going on for a number of years. These are Armenians who were Islamicized over two centuries ago, yet still retain bits and pieces of Western Armenian in their rapidly disappearing local dialect. Obviously, the Turkish government knows of this and allows it, much like the tours of Western Armenia. Yet this is the same government that destroys Armenian monuments, actively in the past and through neglect in the present.
While some scholars, intellectuals, and sectors of civil society are soul searching and reaching out to Armenians, trying to find a way to make progress, other parts of Turkish society are busy spouting anti-Armenian hate. One example is attributing Armenian origins or connections to the Kurdish movement which has led to much loss of life and fear in Turkey over the past three decades. There are the ongoing efforts to block Armenian Genocide resolutions/proclamations and school curricula implemented by governments outside Turkey. Now, this is increasingly taken on by the non-governmental Gulen movement. It is the same religious sector of Turkish society which helped bring the AKP to power a decade ago leading to the “opening’ in Turkish society we’ve been witnessing. And, in what might be the height of cynicism, Turks are reaching out to Native Americans, themselves victims of Genocide, in what can only be explained as a way of deflecting the charge of genocide that attaches so strongly to Turkey.
All of this is the cauldron of confusion that constitutes Turkish society. This doesn’t even include the anti-Armenian activity of Azerbaijan’s government, a parallel track to Turkey’s efforts, both aimed at delegitimizing our rightful claims for restorative justice.
But the confusion, the lack of clarity, and the absence of a societal consensus in Turkey regarding Armenians and Armenian issues cannot last forever. At some point, some force, governmental or otherwise, will succeed in forging a consensus. The more we push and engage, the better that outcome is likely to be. But I cannot imagine an outcome that I would describe as being ‘good’ for at least another generation. In fact, we may end up seeing a few cycles of split personality/confusion/new consensus before Turkey finally escapes its self-built trap of denial.
The first of these cycles, the one we’re in now, may well come to a close in 2015 with the 100th anniversary of the Genocide. The outcome might be the offer of immediate citizenship in Turkey and the right to return for all descendents of Genocide survivors. Turkey’s government could announce this without ever using the word Genocide, just “descendents of former inhabitants” might be its formulation. What an ingenious trap! And it’s very possible since I hear that this idea, of granting citizenship, is often broached in casual discussions by Turks with connections to officialdom. Turkey could trumpet its “magnanimity” while calculating that very few Armenians are going to take up its offer. And, even if many or most did, what would that change? Anyone returning would be under the government’s thumb. What would we return to? Would our ancestral lands be handed back over to us or would we have to buy homes? What rights would we have? What guarantees of representation, of personal safety?
Let’s keep pushing, engaging, educating, watching, and optimizing every opportunity that presents when it comes to Turkey and Armenian rights, but always with extreme discernment and caution.