May 03, 2012, Thursday

A headscarved woman at the April 24 commemoration

The Armenian issue has been a periodically recurring problem for all governments of the Turkish Republic so far.

 It has become a habit for us to react and voice national concerns via our Foreign Ministry when parliaments of foreign countries pass bills on recognition of the genocide, or as April 24 looms. Meanwhile, we have tended to market it as a victory when we manage to make some Western countries backpedal thanks to Turkey’s commercial and military importance. The critical point was that the Armenian issue tended to be defined as a “foreign policy” matter in the eyes both of governments and of society. It was as if these incidents had occurred, not in Anatolia but during a conflict with another country along the country’s geographical borders. In support of this perception, the official accounts of the country’s history advocated that during the forced relocation, the country was at war with foreign forces that sought to divide Anatolia, and therefore, internal territories should be considered as a sort of boundary. From this perspective, Armenians could no longer be seen as an ancient nation (millet) of the Ottoman Empire, and they could be defined an aggressive tribe warring against the state. This was how the forced relocation could be expanded to include all Armenians...

This perspective further called on the community in Turkey to lend support to their state, and the community complied with this invitation despite its internal diversity. On the other hand, there were natural connections with the Armenian issue and the Republican regime because the founders of the new regime were no one but the pro-Community of Union and Progress (CUP) circles. Moreover, Kemalists held no different ideas about non-Muslims than the CUP. Indeed, several years after the establishment of the republic, non-Muslims started to witness increased pressures on them through laws and deliberate practices. Eventually, society was feeling indebted to the state that had saved them from the domination of foreign powers, and, as a result, they unquestioningly adopted the official position with regard to the Armenian issue.

When the genocide debate flared again after 1980, the state, in line with the mindset of the Sept. 12 regime, started to tell its citizens more openly how they should think about this matter. And those who stepped outside the state’s official discourse were seen as traitors, and they were crushed by criminal laws. The general public was feeling that they were in a big conflict that was growing bigger and bigger, and they thought that the “right” thing they could do was to side with the state...

This picture started to change in the mid 1990s. Secular groups were showing signs of division, with democrats distancing themselves from the state with respect to nationalism and secularism. The first broad contact occurred in this period between the democrats of the secular groups and the intellectuals of the Islamic groups that were in the grips of change, and with the coup of Feb. 28, 1997, the division inside the secular groups ran deeper. In this stretch of time, the New Democracy Movement started to shake the state’s official discourse in many respects, the intellectuals of the Armenian community launched the Agos newspaper and a “progressive” opposition emerged out of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP).

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) served as a silent revolution that directed this fragmented change to a single melting point. In addition to being significant in terms of making sense of the Islamic groups, this movement is acting as the mediator of society and the state’s need for “reform.” This change is progressing so fast that Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek, who had said, referring to the Armenian conference in 2005, “They are stabbing us in the back,” now felt the need to touch on the Armenian issue in the context of the initiative to draft a new constitution and stressed that the country has to confront its past to the end. The AKP is not the driving force behind this striking change... The real change is going on inside the Islamic community, and the energy coming out of this change is going beyond the government’s reticence.

This year, a headscarved woman read the press release concerning the commemoration of April 24 in the name of all participants. Many intellectuals and columnists from Islamic groups expressed their respect for the sorrow resulting from the forced relocation of Armenians, and they condemned the pro-CUP mentality. The Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), the most important human rights association among the Islamic groups, issued a press release that was extremely respectful for the lost lives, that underlined the historical reality and that refused to use pro-state jargon. In this respect, Turkey is about to pass the threshold... The policy of denial is now being perceived as a ridiculousness that sticks only to neo-nationalist (ulusalcı) TV channels. The government is very unlikely to remain indifferent to the mental liberation of the Islamic groups. But the West should refrain from raising this issue as a “foreign policy” matter once again...

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