the touchiest subject in Turkey?

Istanbul Travel Blog

 › entry 11 of 14 › view all entries
Earlier today, I was introduced to an 80 year-old Armenian-Turkish jeweller as a 'true resident of Istanbul', since his family has been living here for over 300 years.  This really is rare, because most Turks living in Istanbul have roots in the city only going back a generation or two; they or their recent forebears came either from elsewhere in Turkey to avail themselves of the better economic opportunities in fast-growing Istanbul, or from territories of the former Ottoman empire during or shortly after its collapse.  But it also served to remind me of something I've meant to write about, although it is a (somewhat) touchy subject in Turkey, depending on how it's approached:  for years, historians, politicians, and others have debated the deaths of ethnic Armenians in central and eastern Turkey during the World War I, and whether they were systematically murdered by ethnic Turks and/or Turkish national forces in a genocidal manner.  It's an incredibly murky subject (even the number of deaths is heavily disputed, ranging from several hundred thousand to over two million) and objective historians have had great difficulties piecing together definitive analyses.

When I first arrived in Turkey, the issue had recently flared up again, due to the fact that in October the French parliament had passed a bill making it a crime to deny the existence of an 'Armenian genocide' (see news articles here and here).  The bill was never going to considered by the French senate or presidency and so never really had a chance of becoming law, but it certainly didn't endear France to the hearts of most Turks (although I never heard any 'freedom fries' proposals...), who correctly regarded it as a political ploy to appeal to ethnic Armenian voters and voters who opposed Turkey's entrance into the EU made at the expense of Turkey and freedom of speech.  It really was absurd; using the same definitions of the term loose enough to criminalize the denial that what happened in Turkey was in fact 'genocide', what the US government did to native Americans in the 19th century certainly qualifies as such, and yet the US isn't widely accused of 'genocide' - even by mssrs. Chavez or Ahmedinijan - and no other countries would dream of passing a law making it a crime to deny that it was.

So given the charged atmosphere, I expected the 'Armenian genocide' to be a somewhat taboo subject here in Turkey; instead, I was surprised how many people were willing to coolly discuss the issue with me (or maybe it was because of the sensitive nature of the subject that it was such an easy one to broach, because many people wanted to try to logically defend Turkey out of a sense of justice and/or national honor).  In general, I found the average Turkish position to be reasonable, and - also surprisingly - not heavily colored by emotion or national pride.  No one denied that lots of Armenians were killed, but generally the position was that the violence was two-sided, since many Turks were also killed by Armenians.  Aside from the inconclusive historical evidence, this is probably the main reason the Turkish government will never say 'OK, it was genocide, let's move on' -- many Turks have relatives or ancestors who were killed in eastern Turkey in WWI and to cop to genocide would involve the politically unpopular implication that they died carrying out a genocidal war rather than honorably defending their country.  Interestingly, most people don't blame the Armenians themselves for the violence, but rather Turkey's WWI enemies (particularly Great Britain) for promoting the violence, and given the historical climate of the time, it's certainly plausible to me that the Great Powers would attempt to stoke non-Turkish ethnic nationalism in the interest of weakening the then Ottoman Empire, and that the Armenians and other groups would attempt to take advantage of the disarray of the war-torn government to try to establish independent homelands.  This angle is supported by the fact, cited by most of the people I talked to, that Turks and Armenians had hitherto lived side by side in relative peace for hundreds of years (admittedly, the Jews lived in Germany for hundreds of years as well, but anti-semitism there seems to have been much more widespread than 'anti-armenianism' in Turkey).  The general view is that there could have been some cases of genocide, but to definitevely classify the entire event as 'genocide' is as unreasonable to completely deny it as such (although most Turks would probably err on the side of the latter).

So while most Turks would probably just prefer to put the issue to bed, if it entails accepting the 'genocide' tag, they'll have a very difficult time doing so.  One of my friends made the really interesting point that the 'culture of repentance' is foreign to Turkey, since as a predominantly Muslim (or secular - more on this soon) nation, Turkey lacks the basic cultural tenet stemming from Christianity that you have to admit your sins before they can be forgiven.  Yet if Turkey truly wants to join the EU club (with its Christian cultural heritage), it will have to make a big show of the fact that it has learned to admit its past sins, even if doesn't truly consider them as such.  Will that ever happen?  My guess is it will, but in some compromised form (e.g. the admission that 'limited acts of a genocidal nature' were perpetrated), but only one thing is certain:  the issue isn't about to go away for good any time soon.
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photo by: Memo