Nick Danforth: Moving Beyond Black and White on the Armenian Genocide





It's time to ask what outside resolutions are doing to further the conversation in Turkey over recognizing the Armenian genocide.

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... While no one would claim it is easy to discuss the fate of the Armenians openly in Turkey, the once formidable legal and social obstacles to doing so are gradually eroding. Until recently, challenging the official view of the 1915 killings was a sure way to end up in court. Now historians are debating what happened on television and columnists are doing so in print. This winter, around 200 Turkish intellectuals apologized to their "Armenian brothers and sisters" in an online petition which almost 30,000 people have since signed. Responding to demands that the authors be prosecuted, Turkish President Abdullah Gul declared that everybody was free to express their opinion. The ruling Justice and Development Party is slowly beginning to recognize and conserve Armenian architectural monuments in Turkey, and recently began Armenian-language broadcasting on Turkey's state radio.

Some Armenians have suggested that many of these steps were taken cynically, designed for use in op-eds like this one, as arguments against genocide recognition. Even if this is true, Turkey is likely to find it has shortsightedly purchased American silence at the price of a robust internal debate with unanticipated consequences.

Most Turks will merely see a U.S. congressional resolution as a tribute to the power of an aggressive, Turk-hating Armenian lobby. Rather than question deeply held beliefs, many will feel that their nation is under attack, and may be more inclined to support laws like the infamous Article 301 that claim to protect the nation by curtailing free speech.

This is not to imply that the Turkish population is simply too immature to handle the truth. Part of the problem is that many Armenians and Americans are so fixated on the egregiousness of Turkish denial that they fail to see how this denial feeds off of the biases, distortions and omissions in their own versions of history.

Perhaps because of the fear that explanation would imply justification, popular accounts of the genocide seldom delve too deeply into its historical causes. During the 19th century, Christian Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians revolted against Ottoman Turkish rule. Following their victories, they expelled or massacred the Muslims who lived in their newly created states. By some estimates over 200,000 Muslims died when Bulgaria won its independence in 1878. In light of this precedent, destroying the Armenian Christian population of Eastern Anatolia became a coldly rational -- and in the end brutally effective -- way of preserving Ottoman/Turkish control over the region and protecting its Muslim inhabitants. It is no coincidence that the men who planned the genocide began their careers as army officers witnessing Ottoman defeat in the Balkans.

Clearly this context does nothing to mitigate the individual guilt of the perpetrators. Yet to ignore it is to unfairly demonize Turkey, and it is no surprise that accounts which do so hold little appeal for Turks. As Turkish scholars gain the freedom to acknowledge the genocide while also acknowledging Turkish suffering, they will be able to write far more persuasive accounts of what happened....

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