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The 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide

Visitors mourn at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia. David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Editor’s note: Today, April 24, marks a day of recognition for the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians in what Pope Francis characterized as “the first genocide of the 20th Century.” As historians and scholars have noted, about two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire in the years before World War One; there were fewer than 400,000 by 1922, the rest systemically killed or dying from starvation and forced relocation. Turkey has long denied that Armenian deaths constituted “genocide,” which is defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” Turkey has insisted the Armenian deaths resulted from violence in a civil conflict. Turkey withdrew its envoy from the Vatican after the pope’s remarks about genocide. We asked scholars to examine issues raised by today’s anniversary.

What Turkey might learn from a history of acknowledgments, apology and reparations

By Alexander Hinton, Rutgers University-Newark

In 1915, the late Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Armenian population. Even if this point is still politically charged and sparks the ire of the Turkish government, almost all scholars agree that a genocide took place. Eventually, perhaps within a decade if recent trends continue, the Turkish position will change.

How might this process of recognition unfold?

A first step would be acknowledgment, that is, the Turkish government’s acceptance of what occurred. A “thin” acknowledgment would be more passive, perhaps simply the cessation of its active program of domestic and diplomatic denial. Such a shift would allow small non-governmental spaces of dialogue about the genocide, ones that recently have begun to emerge in Turkey, to gain momentum and grow.

A “thicker” acknowledgment would take things further, involving a more formal and official admission about what occurred in 1915. German president Richard von Weizsäcker’s recognition of the Holocaust provides an illustration of such a “thick” acknowledgment.

A second step, building on a “thick” acknowledgment, would be an apology. A number of governments have formally apologized for historical genocides (and some have not, including the US, which has not apologized for the genocide committed against Native Americans), although this has sometimes been done in a halting, half-hearted, or qualified manner.

Examples include the apologies of Australia’s Kevin Rudd to Australian aboriginals, Germany’s Johannes Raufor the Holocaust, and Canada’s Stephen Harper for the Aboriginal residential schools.

Apologies are complicated, ideally involving, as psychiatrist Aaron Lazare has argued, proper acknowledgment of who was involved, what happened, how the event breached the moral contract, and what were the impacts and consequences of the violating act.

The Armenian intellectuals who were arrested and later executed on April 24, 1915. Soviet Armenian Encyclopedia, Seventh Volume, Yerevan: 1981, p. 423.

Another step might involve reparation, an issue that has been a factor in Turkey’s denials since there are possibly high financial stakes. But reparations come in many forms. An apology is a sort of symbolic reparation. Alternatively, reparations may involve the return of property or even monetary payments that, while significant, would be acceptable to both Turkey and descendants of Armenian victims.

The road to Turkey’s recognition of the Armenian genocide may be long. But as we gaze back at 100 years of denial, it is a good time to look forward to consider the possibilities for acknowledgment, apology, and reparation.

The effect of 100 years of amnesia on the Turkish population

By Doga Ulas Eralp, American University

The greatest obstacle for Turkey in coming into terms with the humanitarian tragedy of 1915 is not necessarily the recognition of events as genocide but rather the simple but complicated act of collective remembrance.

Following its inception after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic has built its model of new Turkish citizenship around an imposed amnesia of events predating 1923. Accounts of Armenians’ sufferings in forced pogroms and violent ethnic cleansing by the Ottoman militia have been conveniently brushed under the carpet, as detailed by University of Massachusetts scholar Rezarta Bilali in “National Narrative and Social Psychological Influences in Turks’ Denial of the Mass Killings of Armenians as Genocide,” in the Journal of Social Issues.

A 1923 map of the Armenian Highlands =

The areas where historically Armenians have lived in Central and Eastern Anatolia were subjected to a process of Turkification. Properties and wealth confiscated from the Armenians were redistributed between local Kurdish notables and Muslim refugees the Balkans and the Caucasus who were resettled in the vacant Armenian villages.

During the following decades the Ankara Government replaced the old Armenian names of towns and villages with Turkish ones while the now empty churches crumbled and fell into ruins.

Turkish society was forced to confront the issues of 1915 for the first time in the 1970s with the the militant violence of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) when prominent Turkish diplomats were assassinated as described ) by historian Uğur Ümit Üngör.

However, the killings did not induce any cathartic awakening in Turkish collective memory. Turkish government responded by emphasizing the “treasonous” behavior of the Armenian revolutionaries during World War One in the Turkish public education system. The Armenian diaspora responded by launching a global campaign of recognition by 2015.

The diaspora’s recognition campaign has been successful as more governments across the globe recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. Yet such global political pressure only serves to make officials in the Turkish government more defiant and further strengthens the hands of Turkish nationalists who frame this campaign as proof of ongoing prejudice against Turkey.

A more fruitful avenue to pursue may be encouraging civil society initiatives that focus on public remembrance and recognition between the Armenian diaspora and Turkey rather than pushing for a political solution to a 100-year old human tragedy.

The Importance of Being Clooney: can celebrities sway Turkish public opinion about the genocide?

By Ted Bogosian, Duke University

Aside from a small, but growing, Turkish intellectual elite – privately educated outside of the country – most Turks either aren’t aware of the extent of the Armenian genocide, or aren’t able to freely debate it.

George Clooney and wife, Amal Clooney. Danny Moloshok/Reuters

It’s rarely a part of public conversations: the Turkish government suppresses any form of public acknowledgment of the genocide by designating it a crime under the guise of “denigration of the Turkish nation.” (In 2006, a Turkish author was brought to trial for having a fictional character mention the Armenian genocide.)

And Turkey’s state-controlled media seems to be doing a good job shaping public opinion. According to a survey from earlier this year, only 9% of Turks want their government to acknowledge the genocide.

Is there any hope for reaching the Turkish public, for raising awareness of atrocities committed 100 years ago?

Enter celebrities. Like it or not, we’re in an era of celebrity diplomacy, and the Armenian genocide has become their most recent cause célèbre. Perhaps the 100th anniversary has something to do with it; nonetheless, they’ve come out in force.

  • Last month, George Clooney told journalist Gwen Ifill that “just because the term ‘genocide’ wasn’t coined for 30 more years [after 1915] doesn’t mean [the Armenian genocide] didn’t happen.” On CNN, he argued that the Armenian genocide “needs to be acknowledged” so similar atrocities are never committed again.

  • In January, Clooney’s wife, Amal – who, according to Time, is “the most famous human rights lawyer in the world” – argued on behalf of Armenia before Europe’s top human rights court in a case against a Turkish politician who denied the genocide.

  • The web was atwitter earlier this month as the Kardashian clan – including power couple Kim Kardashian and Kanye West – traveled to Armenia, where they visited the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. During their trip, whenever someone entered “Where is…” on Google, “Armenia” was the first suggestion (meaning it was the most popular search term).

  • Meanwhile, actor Hugh Grant and singer Cher have each posted tweets bringing attention to the genocide.

This matters. Celebrities wield extraordinary influence in raising public awareness and swaying public opinion. One recent study showed how Katie Couric’s public health campaign on colon cancer screenings had “a substantial impact on public participation in preventive care programs.” Another found that young people are more likely to agree with a political position if it’s been endorsed by a celebrity.

While the Turkish public may get censored versions of the news on their TVs and in their newspapers, surely some make up a portion of “Kimye’s” 45 million Twitter followers.

And where are all the celebrities supporting the Turkish denial, countering the Clooneys and the Kardashians, Grant and Cher?

Virtually nowhere.

Forgetting is not the same as denying

By Noëlle Vahanian, Lebanon Valley College

Why won’t the Armenians forget about the past?

If there is a point that is forgotten, it is that one can only forget what one has acknowledged. In the interest of moving on, Turkey must recognize what it denies. That logic is incontrovertible in spite of so many efforts to take the shortcut to forgetting.

Armenians killed during genocide taken from account by Ambassador Henry Morgenthau published in 1918. Ambassador Morgenthau's Story Doubleday, Page p314,

To wit, when Pope Francis called the mass killing of Armenians “the first genocide of the 20th century,” Volkan Bozkir, the Turkish minister for European affairs, responded that because the pope is Argentine, and because Argentina housed many Nazis, the Pope could not judge.

For instance, we can read that Turkey is “defined by its divisions, between the secular and the religious, rich and poor, liberal and conservative,” and yet that it is united it its refusal to recognize its genocidal past.

We here in the United States have our own issues. President Obama has reportedly declined to use the word “genocide” about the mass deaths in Armenia.

And there’s our own history to consider. While the 2009 Native American Apology Resolution recognizes the Federal Government’s official depredations of Native Americans, but the word “genocide” does not appear. Instead, the resolution “serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the European Parliament’s resolution to urge Turkey to recognize the genocide “a new reflection of the racism in Europe.”

Would Europe be so insistent if the Armenians had not been Christians, but “savage” or “primitive” natives? We only have to look to the case of Native Americans to answer that. But, surely, that does not make the wrong of genocide a right. Nor does it make the Armenian genocide a lie.

If even the Pope is not “innocent,” who are we to judge? But recognizing genocide is not about Turkey alone conceding guilt for what happened in the past. It’s not about giving a pass to those who benefit from war and conquest. It is about forgetting.

That is also why we remember April 24, 1915.

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