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What do people mean in Turkey by Armenian genocide recognition?

  Standpoint of Turkey

What do people mean in Turkey by Armenian genocide recognition?

Burçin Gerçek


Burçin Gerçek

Journalist from Turkey

In spite of many initiatives to develop awareness of the Turkish society regarding what happened in 1915 and appeals to ask for official forgiveness, a deeper reflection needs to be carried out in Turkey about how to render justice a hundred years after the genocide. 


On the eve of the centennial of the Armenian genocide, the positions of the Turkish civil society and authorities are very different from those in the days when just uttering the word genocide was still taboo. The time is over when suggesting that Ankara recognize the genocide was considered utopian – although the people who take or follow steps in that direction remain a relatively small circle in Turkey. However, there still are very different meanings attached to the word recognition according to various community groups in Turkey, and they may seem far from what Armenians understand by it.

“Facing 1915” -- the growing awareness of Turkish civil society

When the words Armenian genocide were still a taboo in Turkey, with rare initiatives trying to break it, the only available sources in Turkish were the studies of Taner Akçam and the publications of Ragip Zarakolu. The priority of some intellectuals was to raise awareness in the Turkish society – who had remained in ignorance for decades – about what had happened in 1915. Thus, the recognition expected at the time was from the civil society. It was not necessarily a call for official State recognition, and even less for reparations. In those days, some intellectuals even stressed – through many articles and lectures given in Turkey and abroad – that the use of the word genocide could be an obstacle to raising awareness among the Turkish society, and that asking for official recognition was still premature.

 In that same period, journalist Hrant Dink took a different approach. Convinced that developing awareness in the Turkish civil society was paramount and that a new language was needed to speak to people’s consciences, Hrant Dink would nevertheless use radical words, and did not shy away from the word genocide. He refused however to focus on efforts to obtain recognition by parliaments abroad, and even at home. “Will your story be true when the Turks recognize it? I don’t doubt my own story. I don’t have any problem with either recognizing or not recognizing the genocide. It’s an issue that concerns human rights and your conscience. It’s not my problem, since I know very well what happened to us in the past,” he declared in an interview for Nokta Magazine in 2004. 

After Hrant Dink’s assassination in 2007, debates on 1915 and genocide recognition took another turn in Turkey. In March of the same year the NGO Dur De! (“Say Halt to racism and nationalism”) was founded, and three years later it staged its first 24th April Remembrance Day in Taksim Square, Istanbul. In the meantime, the “Ask for Forgiveness” campaign was launched by Ali Bayramoglu, Cengiz Aktar and Ahmet Insel, with the support of many Turkish intellectuals. Opening a wide debate in Turkey, the movement was nevertheless mostly concerned with “developing awareness through society.” The text of the Appeal is based on an individual approach to asking forgiveness and sharing “of feelings and pains,” without mentioning any need for action on the part of the Turkish State.

Clearly breaking a taboo, the first commemoration of 24th April organized in 2010 in Taksim Square, initiated by Dur De!, was not going beyond that framework either. The Appeal text essentially referred to the “great catastrophe,” and “feeling immense pain,” without mentioning any request for recognition.

Requesting State recognition

Long before remembrance ceremonies took place in public squares, the Human Rights Organization IHD (Insan Haklari Derneği) had organized ceremonies in smaller circles. “We have called for State recognition at the very beginning of our action, in 2005,” recalls Ayse Günaysu of the IHD. In 2014, the Dur De! And IHC celebrations, which had until then been organized separately, were unified and the demand for State recognition was thus included in the Appeal text. At the same time, many organizations and foundations, including Anadolu Kültür, Heinrich Böll and the Helsinki Citizens Assembly worked out projects towards normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia, raising the sensitivity of public opinion about the rights of minorities and promoting better knowledge of the Armenian genocide by Turkish society. Many cultural activities, lectures, exhibitions and workshops for the young were organized by the NGOs working in that field. The Hrant Dink Foundation also became a major player in organizing activities towards better understanding the 1915 events. The main goal of these activities is to contribute to the democratization of Turkey, which cannot progress without overcoming the taboo subject of the Armenian genocide. In the eyes of some political players, making 1915 known to a larger audience in Turkey also makes it possible to question the foundations of a State system based on the absence of responsibility and judgement for the crimes perpetrated against those who were qualified as “inner enemies” – namely, at various times, Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslim communities, but also any kind of opposition.

The Kurdish movement thus considered that, after aiming at Armenians, State violence had turned against Kurds. Together with the BDP-HDP alliance (Peace and Democracy Party-People’s Democratic Party) and the councils led by those two parties, it undertook several actions calling to face the past and asking for State recognition of the Armenian genocide. For instance, the Sur district council, in Diyarbakir, erected a monument of “common conscience.” A remembrance ceremony was even organized on 24th April 2014 with the exhibition “99 portraits of Exile: 99 photos of Armenian Genocide survivors” in partnership wit the Diyarbakir Council and French-Armenian NGO Yerkir Europe. Many intellectuals, academics, researchers and activists who define themselves politically as left wing or liberal wrote about the need for State recognition of the genocide and asking for forgiveness in the name of the State. But few of them mentioned the meaning of such recognition and above all which answers to bring to the requests for justice made by descendants of genocide victims. The question of reparations/compensation – and which form they should take – is only broached by a handful of activists or intellectuals. 

As for circles considered close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP, in power), the stands are diverse and sometimes include very different proposals on government position .As shown by the “condolences” text published by Erdogan in April 2014, the government has recently showed an approach based on the recognition of “common suffering” and “fair memory,” a concept made up by the former minister of Foreign Affairs and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. There is of course no chance at the moment that the government will pronounce the word genocide or recognize it. The condolences presented by Erdogan last 24th April were thus presented by pro-AKP columnists as a “revolution” and a response to the demands of Armenians. But some pro-government columnists, such as Hakan Albayrak or Rasim Ozan Kütahyah, go further and write about the need for an official asking for forgiveness for “the wrongs causes by what appears to have been genocide perpetrated against innocent Armenians,” and even suggest possible financial reparations. In the words of Albayrak, the payment of indemnities “of maybe 5 or 10 billion dollars, would lighten Turkey like a bird” and “the world industry around the genocide would collapse.” Reading those lines, one cannot help remembering Erdogan’s refusal to apologize for the victims of the military blunder that cost the lives of 33 people in the Kurdish village of Roboski in 2011, in the most arrogant statement: “We gave out indemnities. What else do they want?”

  Another approach, which does not deny the 1915 facts but tries to find an alternative to recognition or asking for forgiveness, has been worked out by conservative circles called Helallesme – or “to be even” in Turkish. (See article by Yetvart Danzikyan on the subject: “Apology, confrontation, mourning”.)

Asking for justice and reparations

Despite tangible breakthroughs regarding awareness of the 1915 events in the Turkish society as well as debates about the need for recognition and for the State asking for forgiveness, only very few intellectuals have tackled the question of reparations and how to responds to requests for justice from the descendents of genocide victims. In 2011, the human rights organization IHD (Initiative for Freedom of Thought) included a request for reparations in its demands. Taner Akçam, Ümit Kurt, Mehmet Polatel, Sait Cetinoglu and Nevzat Onaran are some of the few researchers working on the subject of properties belonging to Armenians which were confiscated during and after the genocide. As for the government, its sole proposal for “reparations” has so far consisted in granting a right of return to the country and citizenship to the descendants of the genocide victims.

On the 24th April 2014 Remembrance Day, which was coordinated in Ankara by the IHD, Dur De!, the Modern Lawyers Association, the HCP (People’s Democratic Party) and ÖSP (Socialist Party), more precise requests were made  about reparations. The Appeal document, signed by intellectuals like researcher Sait Cetinoglu and writer Temel Demirer, addressed the following requests to the government:

-       End genocide denial

-       Ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Turkish State

-       Grant citizenship rights to victims of the genocide and return all of their confiscated material properties or indemnify correspondingly.

-       Take the names of genocide criminals off schools, boulevards, squares and streets.

-       Give the names of genocide victims to public squares.

-       Stop deliberate misinformation through public institutions, mass media and school programmes.

-       Criminalize genocide denial as a “hate crime.”

The need for official recognition and for reparations should also be voiced during the 24th April centennial celebrations which will be organized separately by both the IHD and Dur De! next year. Beyond these steps and the current embryonic debate on the possible ways reparations could be implemented, deeper reflection still needs to be carried out in Turkey on how to render justice a hundred years after the genocide.