Talking turkey about Armenian history
Few issues in recent memory have incited as much fervor, debate, applause and concomitant outrage as the recent bill passed by the French Lower House, which proposes making denial of the Armenian genocide punishable by law. Not surprisingly, Armenians around the world have supported the initiative almost unconditionally, while most Turks have opposed it on historical grounds - i.e. they still refuse to label the massacres of 1915-1923 as genocide. A few Turkish scholars accept the genocide label, but along with many in the West, oppose the bill as an encroachment on free speech. Should the bill pass and become law - an unlikely event given political realities such as Turkey’s EU bid - it would mirror the existing Loi Gayssot, which criminalizes the public denial of the Jewish Holocaust.
Ordinarily, the right to free speech should be protected with only limited constraints and exceptions. For example, if an American citizen wants to insult the United States, it is his or her right to do so, as it is his or her right to desecrate the American flag. The first amendment is clear on these and other issues of free expression. In certain instances, however - for example, when national security is endangered - it is acceptable for the state, after the proper consultations and votes, to step in to (hopefully momentarily) curtail certain rights. The fact that George W. Bush has now shamelessly abused this right on more than one occasion should not mean that the French government should not, conversely, use its full powers to protect its Armenian citizens from continued insults and affronts - by Turks or anyone else. Similarly, the French state ought to protect its Turkish citizens from anti-Turkish or anti-Muslim attacks as well.
The French bill, as already mentioned, follows legal precedent, namely the existing Loi Gayssot. Le Monde and other publications have claimed that the two laws are different because the latter essentially serves as a bulwark against existing and future anti-semitism. Yet the Armenian genocide law, nay-sayers to the contrary, would function in exactly the same way, given the existing racism and discrimination against Armenians in France. Armenian genocide monuments in the country have recently been desecrated, while Armenians have been subject to all sorts of vile abuse - physical and otherwise - including violent attacks by French Turks at a recent Armenian genocide commemoration. The question then becomes : Do Armenian citizens of France (and other countries who have passed similar anti-Holocaust denial laws) not deserve the same protections as their Jewish compatriots ? Is the suffering of one people to be placed above that of another ? When push comes to shove, what applies to one group should also apply to the other. Furthermore, the French quite rightly consider historic memory to be a basic human right, and thus denial of historic events that incite or abet racism a violation of that right.
The positive human rights reforms that have occurred within Turkey in recent years (discussion of the Armenian genocide in newspapers and certain intellectual circles, the opening of a Kurdish-language television station etc.) have been cosmetic at best : anti-semitism and anti-Armenianism are in fact rampant in the land of the Moon and Stars, and Islamic fundamentalism on the rise. And although Elif Shafak, the noted Turkish novelist, and Armenian journalist Hrant Dink have been acquitted of charges of "insulting Turkishness" under the nefarious Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code, they have both been harassed to a degree beyond the norms of any civilized country. Dink has now been accused five times by the Turkish state, each time under the same ludicrous law that smacks of the worst in state fascism. His life has been threatened and he has become persona non grata almost everywhere he goes - within Turkey where nationalists want his head, as well as within the Armenian diaspora, where he is alternately seen as an accommodationist or a traitor for his views on the issue at hand and the Armenian genocide in general. http://www.dailystar.com.lb
The problem, then, is not just that Turks deny the Armenian genocide within Turkey, but that they have exported this denial to European countries. To deny the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians, as well as another 1.5 million Christian Pontic Greeks and Assyrians, is malevolent and in and of itself a denial of Armenians’ basic human dignity. France has every right to tell Turks : "You can spew your venom in Turkey, but leave your denialism at home." The degree to which France acknowledges its own colonialist past in Algeria is beside the point, although one would hope that it does so as well. Turkey has threatened to "retaliate" against the French by passing laws about the "Algerian genocide," further polluting the historical debate. Algeria may have been many things - colonialist, insulting, invasive - and French dominion there may in fact have visited wide-scale killings on a foreign population of differing religion and language, but genocide it was not, according to accepted definitions.
Armenians endured the loss of lands, property and self-respect during the Armenian genocide. From 1915 to 1923, they watched their men slaughtered outright, and their children and women raped, tortured and sent to their deaths in the most inhumane ways, including the torching of sulfur caves and churches, where practitioners seeking refuge were burned alive. Mass drownings in the Black Sea, hangings and crucifixions were commonplace. Billions of dollars of goods, property and lands were expropriated.
Unlike the Germans vis-ˆ-vis the Jews, the Turks have not only failed to apologize or compensate Armenians, but they continue their vile campaign of denial, which they now export all over the globe. As Elie Wiesel has accurately pointed out, denial is the last stage of genocide and a symbolic re-enactment of the crime itself. In this case, the French have said : Enough ! You cannot kill the victims again, at least not within our borders. It is disingenuous to suggest that because of a French law, Turks will now have an added excuse to continue what they have been doing for 90 years - i.e. finishing off the complete annihilation of its native Christian populations. The correct response from Turks should be shame and an acknowledgment that yes indeed, these sad events took place, rather than the bombastic nationalism that has kept the country on the margins of the civilized world for the better part of the 20th and 21st centuries. As Jacques Chirac rather pompously declared in his recent speech in Yerevan : Vive la France ! Vive L’Arménie !
Christopher Atamian is a New York-based writer and journalist of Lebanese origin who writes frequently on culture and politics for the The New York Times, Gourmet, New York Press and more. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
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