I expected that I would be attacked for my column on the Armenian Genocide. Criticism can be good and, if constructive, can provide a springboard to discussion. Unfortunately, some of the letters I received from Turkish groups were anything but constructive. They were overly defensive, and, at times, crude and insulting.
In a way, the Turkish reaction to my recent article reminded me of the equally intense responses I received six years ago when I wrote a column supporting President Obama's April 24, 2009 decision to hold back from using the term genocide so as not to disrupt the Turkish-Armenian negotiations that had been announced only two days earlier (on April 22nd of that year). After that column appeared, some Armenian American groups felt that I had done their community a grave injustice and they flooded my inbox with some pretty nasty letters. The intensity was the same, but with a difference that is profound.
I was troubled in 2009 and I am troubled now. And it's not because of the criticism. It has more to do with the rawness of the reaction that appeared to spring from an existential need. It feels as though Armenians need the acknowledgment of genocide in order validate their history, while Turks need to deny genocide in order to validate theirs. All in all, this is not a healthy state of affairs. As a result, both Turks and Armenians are engaged in a "zero-sum" game. If you use the "g word", you are damned by the Turks; if you don't use it, you are damned by the Armenians.
Having said that, I want to be clear that in the ensuing standoff, I will side with the Armenians. They have been the victims and continue to be victimized by the Turkish efforts to falsify or obfuscate history and, when all else fails, to bully into submission those who continue to insist that recognition be given to the tragedies inflicted on the Armenian people a century ago.
It may be that in response to Turkish obstinacy, Armenians have felt forced to also play "zero sum" with the matter of genocide. I wish they had not taken that path. As I said to my Armenian friends in 2009, and still say today, they should give President Obama and their other friends a break. For example, in his message to the Armenian people, issued on the eve of this year's anniversary, the President used extraordinarily evocative language to describe the horrible tragedy of 1915, saying
"Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths. Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished."
As the statement continues, the President uses the Armenian term "Meds Yeghern" ("Great Calamity"), and speaks about "terrible carnage" and "a dark chapter of history". Although he is clearly standing in solidarity with Armenians, because he did not use the "g word" he was denounced this year, as he was in 2009, and was even accused of having betrayed Armenians. One leader went so far as to suggest that the President's statement had brought shame to America. Such over-the-top criticism is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, shameful.
History is on the side of the Armenian people. And after 100 years there is growing recognition of what transpired in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. But in the end, US recognition of genocide will not bring justice or restitution to the victim Armenian nation. That will only come when Turkey is able to accept and become reconciled with its own past and that is what President Obama has called on the Turks to do.
There appeared to be signs of positive movement in that direction last year when then Prime Minister Erdogan called the killings "inhumane" and sent condolences to the families of the Armenian victims. Prime Minister Davutoglu expanded on these same themes last week and added that Turks "understand what the Armenians feel" and proclaiming "a historical and humane duty for Turkey to uphold the memory...and cultural heritage" of the Armenians.
These signs of openness close quickly, however, when foreign governments or leaders dare to use the "g word". Turkish officials were, for example, extraordinarily harsh in their denunciation of both Pope Francis and EU Parliament for commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. As disturbing as I found the bullying and mean-spirited language that was employed, what bothered me more was the extent to which the denunciations were coupled with healthy doses of historical falsification.
I got a taste of this last week when a Turkish organization sent me a 10-page letter that alternated between silly insults and attempts to educate me.
The insults were no more than trite name-calling-"incompetent", "ignorant", "prejudiced". The "education" was more disturbing. The letter's argument drifted between an invitation to put all the facts on the table to see what really happened, to telling me what they believe really did happen.
According to the Turkish group's letter, the Armenians did a "skunky thing" by rebelling against the Ottoman Empire while "the Sick Man was on its knees". The Armenians formed "terror groups" and it was the effort to defeat them that has now been turned into a "genocide". Who was the "enemy" the Turks needed to defeat? According to the letter "it was not just the armed rebels. It was most everyone in the Armenian population". As a result, the Armenians were ordered deported "not to eradicate an entire people, but to deny support to the Armenian guerrilla bands and to remove Armenians from the war zones and other strategic locations". What else, the letter asks, could be done with rebellious minorities?
Having thus made the case that it was indeed genocide, the group's letter moved on to educate me about how many Armenians actually perished. They questioned the oft-cited more than one million or 1.5 million, by claiming that there were no more than 1.5 million Armenians to begin with. Then by demonstrating that at war's end almost one million Armenians remained alive-many in exile-the letter then notes "We will leave it up to you to perform the easy calculation to figure how many died?" Then comes the rebuke "why did you double the mortality (sic)?" What I took from this bizarre argument was that even if we accept the claim that only 1.5 million Armenians existed before the war, 500,000 dead and the bulk of the rest in exile is somehow acceptable and not evidence of genocide!
I cite this letter because it is symptomatic of the problem of the lengths to which some Turks will go to deny history. They continue to rebuff efforts to prod them to acknowledge their past-as the White House continues to do. As the President noted, many nations were born with "original sins", including our own. The genocide against Native Americans and the institution of slavery remain festering wounds that have not healed. Europe's legacy of colonial conquest, Germany's horrific crimes against Jews and others, Israel's forced expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians-all are "original sins" which these nations must acknowledge and for which they must make restitution if they are to have peace-not only with their victims, but with themselves.
A nation's refusal to come to grips with its past is more a sign of weakness, than of strength. Making peace with your past makes you stronger and more able to deal with future challenges. The inability to do so, is disturbing, to say the least. Denial and bullying the victim only delays the recognition that must ultimately come.
Dr. James J. Zogby is The President of Arab American Institutes.
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