JOOST LAGENDIJK

Being right and wrong at the same time

This week Turkey is again forced to use all its power of persuasion and its political, economic and diplomatic clout to try and stop another country from meddling with Turkey's national history.

We have been here before and it is no surprise to see what the fuss is all about: the Armenian massacres in 1915 and whether or not they should be labeled as genocide. This time it is the French senate that is about to vote on a proposal to criminalize the denial of what the French state officially considers genocide. If this new legislation is adopted, everyone who explicitly disagrees with the French reading of history will be punished by a maximum one-year prison sentence or a 45,000 euro fine.

The Turkish government is fully right in trying to prevent such a ludicrous decision for two reasons. The first is that determining what happened in the past is definitively not a task for politicians but for historians. Parliamentarians should simply stay out of historical debates.

The second reason why Turkey has a good point is the fact that this new law violates the very freedom of speech the French always claim to uphold. Are these French lawmakers the heirs to Voltaire, the French philosopher who famously said: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? Or are they spineless opportunists who are willing to sacrifice their professed principles in return for some expected electoral benefits? Can you imagine the cries of indignation these same people would produce if Turkey adopts a similar piece of legislation, punishing those who disagree with the official Turkish state version of history?

At the same time, Turkey is also wrong. Wrong in thinking it can keep on bullying and blackmailing its way out of these uncomfortable situations. It is an illusion to think that in the run-up to the 1915 centenary, the pressure on Turkey will decrease. Whether or not Turkey likes it, there is a widely shared feeling among many all over the world -- including many friends of Turkey -- that the time has come for Turkey to come to terms with these dark pages in its history, both for its own good and for the sake of good relations with its neighbor Armenia.

No country wants to be forced to accept a stranger's version of its own history. That is why all these genocide recognition initiatives coming from the Armenian diaspora were never going to produce a change of mind among Turks. To the contrary, they created resentment and anger. What Turkey needs is a debate among Turks about what happened in 1915. Based on a new, unprejudiced reading of history, using all the pieces of information that have already been gathered by Turkish, Armenian and other specialists.

That is why Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan's 2005 proposal to Armenian President Robert Kocharyan to establish a joint commission of historians was such a good idea. That is why it is such a pity that the 2009 Turkish-Armenian protocols that would have led to the establishment of such a body have still not been ratified. But why should Turkey wait any longer to start something that needs to be done anyway?

Three weeks ago, during a visit to Turkey, Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister who does not see eye to eye on this issue with President Nicolas Sarkozy, came up with an offer that went almost unnoticed at the time. He said his country would be willing to host a Turkish-Armenian joint history commission meeting to at least start a dialogue on the events of 1915 that are so painful to both peoples.

It is easy to be cynical about his offer or to conclude immediately that it will never work. Yes, it won't be easy and no, there is no guarantee that such a mixed group of historians will come up with a shared vision that will convince both Turks and Armenians. But it is worth trying. Instead of constantly trying to block others, would it not be wise, clever and surprising for Turkey to respond positively and take the lead in trying to find a solution to a problem that, if kept unsolved, will keep on haunting Turkey? Why is there no Turkish delegation in Paris this week to discuss the details of his plan with Juppé?

2011-12-20