Turkey needs powerful and reliable opposition

Interview with Baskin Oran

The 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide is approaching and Turkey’s stance toward this anniversary and the request for a recognition of the crimes committed in 1915 is not yet defined. Ankara has, nevertheless, recently abandoned the total denial position, thanks also to the work of historians and researchers and the commitment of activists and journalists to inform about the mass atrocities and deportations suffered by the Armenian population. The turning point in public awareness was the conference "Ottoman Armenians during the decline of the Empire: issues of Scientific responsibility and Democracy" held in September 2005 at the Bilgi University in Istanbul, after being blocked twice by the authorities. The conference - called "A Crack in the Wall of Denial" in an article by the Turkish writer Elif Shafak for the Washington Post - was the first open debate in Turkey on the official version of events of 1915 and an attempt by scholars, writers and journalists to break a taboo.

Then, in 2007, the murder of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist founder of the bilingual newspaper Agos, was a violent shock that turned the spotlight on the “Armenian question”, hitherto confined to a minority of intellectuals. The funerals of the activist, who had spoken about the mass killings of Armenians and encouraged the reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, were attended by over 100 thousand people shouting "We are all Armenians" and "We are all Hrant Dink".

Another important step in the open debate on 1915 atrocities was the "I Apologize Campaign", launched in December 2008 by Ahmet Insel, Baskin Oran, Cengiz Aktar and Ali Bayramoglu and supported by other intellectuals, to apologize for the "huge catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915," through an online petition, signed by 5,000 people in the first 24 hours, that rose to 30,000 by January 2009.

Finally in July 2014 Armenians and Turks intellectuals, artists and academics launched the Manifesto "Together we have a dream", which goes beyond the formal recognition of the genocide to ask for "a peaceful era to begin between the people of Armenia and Turkey, in which both nations respect each other and each other’s history”, and for the repair of some of the damage and the help to the victims. The initiative seems to find a support in the recent signs of willingness by the Turkish side, like the condolences expressed last April, for the first time, by the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan - later elected President - for the 99th anniversary of the genocide to the grandchildren of the Armenians killed by the Ottomans.

Gariwo has asked some Turkish intellectuals whether their Country is actually ready to face the "Armenian issue" without prejudice. The first interview is with Baskin Oran, Professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University, an expert on nationalism, minorities, religion-state relations, and columnist at "Agos" since February 2000.

The Armenian-Turkish Manifesto “Together we have a dream” shows that the attitude of Turkish intellectuals toward the Armenian genocide issue has changed. But what about the majority of Turks: do they still deny the genocide?

An uninterrupted and unbelievable change has been going on since we held the very first conference on Ottoman Armenians in Istanbul in 2005. But there are two mental blocks that make it difficult for the majority of Turks to learn about it.
First: “education”. Turkish philosopher Celal the Bearded once said: “So much ignorance can only be due to education”. I think this needs no explanation but I’ll say this much: I learned about the Armenian issue after I was 40. 
Second: the state of mind created by the term genocide. People in Turkey associate this word with Nazis only. Any term but this one would have made things considerably easier for us: crime against humanity or monstrosity for instance, any term but genocide. When people hear this, they close their ears with invisible membranes and oppose you, even if they readily admit that savage things have been done in 1915. 
There is more to it: the outcome of these two calamities (1915 and 1933-45) is practically the same (mass killings, mass exile, destruction of a civilization…) but the historical processes concerned are too different to call them by the same name. The Nazis calmly planned and applied it starting from 1933 in peace time, while 1915 took place during a war that disintegrated the Empire. On the other hand, genocide is a strictly legal term very loosely used politically. 
Let me underline this again: Concerning the atrocities and outcome of 1915 there is NO DIFFERENCE whatsoever between my thinking and that of a Dashnak. The only difference is: I don’t use this term. I use “Ermeni Kiyimi” or “Ermeni Kirimi” (Armenian slaughter, massacres, carnage, etc.) in use among people of Turkey since 1915. This is the equivalent of “Holocaust” used by the Jews, or “Metz Yeghern” in Armenia, which means Great Calamity, a term unknown to the Diaspora who usually doesn’t speak Armenian. The Diaspora uses the term genocide not only because its ancestors were cruelly killed by the Ottomans and because the Turks shamefully deny it now; but also they know that this is what really hurts the Turks of today. Understandable.

Since 2000 you are political columnist in Agos, weekly newspaper of the Armenian community in Istanbul, founded by Hrant Dink, who was killed in 2007. How far has Dink’s death affected the awareness of the genocide within the civil society?

Hrant Dink is now a Saint in Turkey, even for those who have no sympathy for Armenians, and saints are more powerful that living humans. I am referring both to his way of talking to people, and to his unbelievable funerals. Not only did he totally transform the civil society, but he did more than that: He transformed whole Turkey altogether. It’s been years since that affair can freely be discussed by everyone; no problem. Hrant was the most important factor for this, with his life and his death. Did you see his dead body lying facedown on the sidewalk of Agos? Did you see the torn up sole of his right shoe?

The Azeri factor (the strong relation with Azerbaijan) is a further reason for Turkey not to normalize the relations with Armenia. Could an external factor, like the relation with the EU, push Turkey toward a different policy toward Armenia?

Azerbaijan is for Turkey the most harmful State that exists on earth. Relations with the EU is, by far, the most important incentive for Turkey to come to normal, to democratize. Although it has been very difficult, how do you think we were able to hold that conference in 2005? That’s because Turkey, to reach the EU carrot, passed EU Harmonization Packages between 2001 and 2004. But the carrot is there no more and both sides are responsible for it, let me say. 
On the other hand, the external factor triggers the development but the rest of it takes time, much time, not talking of the reaction that comes when events are triggered from outside. And, mind you, that reaction is directly proportional to the force and velocity of the foreign intervention, especially when you have other national problems, especially economic. To give you an idea: just think of how much centuries Europeans needed to reach democracy after they accomplished the bourgeois revolutions. Can you tell me how much you had cared for human rights, the sine qua non of democracy, before the Second War?  For the Armenian question at least, we started about a decade ago; these things take time, valuable time. But that doesn’t mean that this intimidates us. On the very contrary: This invigorates us tremendously.

Pope Francis visit to Ankara and Istanbul puts the Christian minorities in Turkey in the spotlight. Do you think the Islamic-rooted AKP government has enhanced the Turkish Muslim nationalism so far that the situation of the minorities might get worse?

No. This might be surprising for someone who is not familiar with Turkey’s politics but AKP, compared to any previous secular government, has been much more lenient on non-Muslims’ rights. But a lot of time is needed to explain this. On the other hand, AKP is much harsher on the Alevis. Sounds familiar? Thirty Years’ War?

Within the civil society are there non religious forces able to counterbalance the Islamisation process?

None, for the moment. Civil society is the most vigorous national factor for Turkey’s democratization, but Turkey needs more than that. It needs powerful and reliable opposition, and this doesn’t exist yet. Interesting and important: AKP was a real chance for Turkey and also for the World. For the World, because it could bring Islamism down to room temperature, meaning a marriage between Islam and democracy. For Turkey, because it could bring the 1930’s nationalist politics of Turkey down to room temperature also. In this respect AKP has been a failed experience comparable to the Democratic Party (DP) movement during 1950-60, which was destroyed by a Kemalist military coup in 1960. And now, the AKP is being destroyed by R. T. Erdogan, its leader. This person has no logic, no manners, no brakes, no exit plan, no nothing: He says that women cannot be equal with men, his police uses tear gas and water cannon against totally peaceful sit-ins, his municipalities declare that student homes should be stormed. That person suffers of grave hubris, mythomania and megalomania, among others. But another fact is, he has no rival for the moment either. We have to wait till he destroys himself, and pray that he doesn’t destroy the country as well. Sounds familiar? Although the comparison is far from being perfect, who destroyed the Fascist movement in Italy or the Nazi movement in Germany? The Allies?

Viviana Vestrucci, journalist

9 December 2014

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