We Turks have two worlds; the world of our trivial follies where we pass time talking about issues like abortion, cesarean sections, etc. and a world that is not of our making.
We take the first very seriously and consider the other to be conspiratorial and against us no matter what. But the realities of our past and present follow us and press us hard to reconcile with them.
One such issue is the “Armenian problem,” which lacks a proper definition and acknowledgement, just like the “Kurdish issue.” Last week I had to present a paper at a meeting to review the Armenian problem that Turkey must eventually reconcile with. Here are some thoughts to ponder:
The Turkish political class has come to grips with the reality that the republican era historiography is a fabrication of the founders, who wanted to legitimize the new regime and their privileged place in it. It severed the cultural ties of the nation from the Ottoman past as well as obfuscated its cultural diversity with the hope of creating a homogenous society. Both efforts denied the country’s history and went against the plural cultural reality of the country. The process had already started with the elimination of individuality (the “Turkification” of the people and the elimination of those who are not) of the Committee of Union and Progress (the Young Turks) that ruled during the last decade of the empire.
Thus a society ignorant of its past and inimical to pluralism emerged. As was stated in the constitution, the “union of the state with its nation and motherland was more important” than the rights and freedoms of citizens. Any discussion to the contrary was subject to severe punishment and exclusion.
Turkish society learned about a past with Armenians with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) violence just as it learned about the Kurdish problem from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) violence. However, because of the intransigence of the regime and the political class to understand the root causes of both problems, neither has been solved. Turkey is living under the spell of an officially generated schizophrenia.
Coming to grips with both problems will help Turkey rehabilitate. This can be done in two ways: by reaching out to Armenians and trying to empathize with their pain and grief as well as reparation of material loss.
Armenians call the debacle they have gone through the “Med Yeghern” (Great Catastrophe). Turks could find a suitable term to match this that would help them to understand and to empathize with the human and material loss of the Armenians at the hands of their forefathers. These losses are not only personal but collective: the loss of a country, of a past, a cultural heritage, families, and women and children converted to a different ethnicity and religion. The Armenian collective identity since then has been shaped by this grief. Their mourning can only end with the recognition of what they have gone through and their present suffering if and when Turks today acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past that has been silenced by their forefathers. Hence, keeping the “oath of silence” deliberately if not by official design will only poison the Turks’ mind and soul as well as keep the wrath of the Armenians alive that poison them with hatred of the Turks, as the late Hrant Dink said (and was convicted for insulting “Turkishness”!).
Turks can argue that “genocide” is a legal term, but what happened is a human tragedy and one in which they cannot be implicated today. However, admitting that they identify with what Armenians feel and sharing in their grief will have a cathartic effect on both nations. With the acknowledgement of the past history shared by the two sides until they were torn asunder by the Committee of Union and Progress government, Turks can declare that they do not share the criminal choice of the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia, which victimized all Christians, but Armenians the most.
This can be both in the form of an apology and an invitation for the restoration of their cultural heritage in Anatolia, finding the trace of their adopted children and converted women and restitution or compensation for their confiscated property.
Greatness is not a hope, it is in the deed. It starts with understanding the “other” and being righteous.