Bilgin Ayata

The Armenian Weekly intellectuals-confronting-the-armenian-genocide/
A pril 2009 Magazine

In my contribution to last year's special issue, I had argued that an
intensified Armenian-Kurdish dialogue carries the promising potential
to become an alternative approach to the ongoing Armenian-Turkish
discourse on reconciliation, which has traversed dialogue into a form
of domination and containment.

I also argued that the compartmentalization of the Armenian and
Kurdish issues into separate discussions represents a continuation
of a divide-and-rule mentality that only serves the interests of
the Turkish state and weakens the position of Armenian and Kurdish
intellectuals in these isolated debates. In order to overcome this
compartmentalization, I called for an intensified Armenian-Kurdish
dialogue, and the cultivation of an empowering alliance to confront
the atrocities of the past and engage with them as a challenge of and
for the present. One year after that last issue, I believe that such
an Armenian-Kurdish dialogue is ever more important, especially in
light of the following three developments: At the intergovernmental
level, the diplomatic traffic regarding Armenian-Turkish relations
has intensified with the election of President Obama who had pledged
during his campaign to address the Armenian Genocide as a genocide.

Second, at the domestic level, the recent municipal elections in
Turkey on March 29 paved the way for a new political beginning
in Armenian-Kurdish relations that I will discuss at the end of
this article. Third, at the societal level, I believe that the
general trend in the activities of some Turkish intellectuals and
members of civil society has further degraded the reconciliation
process from "reconciliation without recognition' to an agenda of
"reconciliation instead of recognition." The "We apologize" petition
initiated online in December 2008 illustrates such an attempt in
its timing and content, and the subsequent statements made by the
initiators of the campaign. [2] As other articles in this issue
already critically engage with aspects of the campaign, it shall
suffice to state here that the use of the term "Great Catastrophe"
(or Medz Yeghern, in Armenian) in the apology statement allows one to
talk about the genocide without acknowledging responsibility for it. I
argue that this shows a striking resemblance with the Turkish state's
strategy to deal with those issues that can no longer be denied.

In recent years, the Turkish government has proved very adept in
shifting its policy of denial to a policy of regulation in response
to international and domestic challenges, thus enabling it to
circumvent the issues at hand by introducing half-hearted formulas
to ward off further pressure and demands. [3] The recent example of
Kurdish broadcasting illustrates these insincere attempts: After many
decades of denying the very existence of the Kurds, Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself uttered a sentence in Kurdish during
his inaugural speech of the Kurdish channel 6 on state television
(TRT) in January 2009.Notwithstanding that a 24-hour broadcast in
Kurdish on state television constitutes a historic moment indeed for
Turkey, court cases against privately owned channels that broadcast in
Kurdish continue as usual. More strikingly, the speech by Ahmet Turk,
the chairman of the pro-Kurdish party DTP, that he gave in Kurdish
during a parliamentary session only a few weeks later was cut off
and censored. Rather than a promising paradigm shift in the state's
approach to the issue, initiatives such as the TRT 6 channel and other
steps [4] appear as unwilling concessions that are only tolerated as
long as the terms are set by the Turkish state.

What seems like a step forward becomes in fact two steps backwards when
the state claims ownership of a long-contested political claim (e.g.,
Kurdish broadcasting and education, for example) to merely regulate and
deplete it instead of truly fulfilling and realizing it. Unfortunately,
such a regulatory approach was also replicated in the apology
campaign initiated by a group of Turkish intellectuals. While on
the one hand, the campaign appears as a step forward, the use of the
term Great Catastrophe instead of genocide in the apology statement
takes the discussion in Turkey and elsewhere two steps back. Some
human rights activists and organizations within Turkey have already
employed the term genocide, and hence not to use the term means a
step backwards for their courageous efforts. More significantly,
the choice of Great Catastrophe reveals a great ignorance towards
those to whom the apology is expressed; after all, what was the one
political claim that united Armenians around the world if not the
recognition of the genocide? To me, the campaign looks like an act of
appeasement rather than an apology, that has taken the sensitivities
of the Turkish state into account rather than the sensitivities of
the genocide survivors. My criticism refers, of course, only to the
initiators of the campaign and not the 30,000 signatories who have
signed the petition with good intentions. The positive aspects of
raising the issue in Turkey notwithstanding, one has yet to see how
the campaign will affect Armenian-Turkish dialogue. As a contrast to
this regulatory approach, I will give examples from select actions
by Kurdish intellectuals and activists who have sought to confront
the Armenian Genocide rather differently from the current apology
campaign, in order to show how an alternative apology or confrontation
with the genocide is also possible.

A number of Kurdish intellectuals and activists articulated their
objections to the use of the term Great Catastrophe in the apology
campaign with a joint declaration that was circulated among the
Kurdish virtual community on the web. In the declaration "It's not
a catastrophe, but genocide-this is the entire matter at heart,"
[5] a dozen Kurdish intellectuals and activists sharply criticize
the failure of not calling the events genocide.While acknowledging
that the intention of the campaign contains positive goals-such
as enabling a discussion of the problem and opening up a taboo-the
failure of stating the problem by its rightful name, and the failure
to mention other communities that also fell victim to a genocide,
such as the Assyrians, Yezidis or Greeks, led them to ask:

"With such a content, are we really apologizing to our Armenian
brothers and sisters, to the victims of the genocide? Is it really then
an apology?" [6] Linking the apology campaign with the recent history
of the Kurds, the declaration states that "in fact, it is quite sad
to see that Turkish academics still upheld their regulatory attitude
when it comes to calling phenomena by their names. For instance, for
several decades they have either ignored or refrained from calling
the Kurds 'Kurds.' Instead, they have managed to use other words when
there was no way around it." The declaration calls for an open and
honest confrontation with past atrocities instead of merely circling
the issue.

Some of the signatories of the declaration had initiated a campaign
entitled "Dialogue and Solidarity with the Victims of Genocide" back
in 2004. [7] In a longer statement of this initiative, the initiators
addressed not only the role of the CUP, but also the role of Kurdish
gangs in the genocide, and called upon everybody in the region where
the genocide occurred to take an active part in confronting the past,
and to take responsibility for one's own history. The signatories
declared that they are ready for such an open and critical engagement
and expressed their apology to all victims of the genocide. Both in its
tone and content, the statement was remarkable for its self-critical
and courageous take on the issue. It was mainly circulated on the
internet, and did not reach a wide audience even among the Kurdish
community, as the initiators were all exiled Kurdish intellectuals
and activists critical of the PKK. The initiative faded away soon
thereafter without much effect. Yet, even if it did not receive much
attention, the quality of the arguments in the apology statement
serves as a reminder that for an honest confrontation and engagement,
courage may be a better source of strength than cleverness.

One key figure behind both the Dialogue and Solidarity with the Victims
of Genocide initiative of 2004 and the declaration "Great Catastrophe
or Genocide?" is the Kurdish publisher Recep Marasli. A leader of the
Kurdish organization Rizgari, he was detained during the 1980's in
the Diyarbekir prison, infamous for the brutal torture of political
prisoners. Upon his release, he began running a publishing house,
and was yet again detained for publishing books. Today, he lives as
a political refugee in Germany and has recently completed his book,
The Armenian National Democratic Movement and the 1915 Genocide,
which was published in November 2008 in Turkey. [8] In the book, he
forcefully argues that "genocide is not a matter of documentation
forgery" (evrak sahtekarligi), and criticizes the ongoing debate
about archives and documents in order to find "proof."When I met this
soft-spoken, pensive man, who still carries the physical signs of
torture and several hunger strikes, he pointed to the cover of the
book, which features a black and white photograph of an Armenian
school in Vartan (Varto) from 1913. About 100 children posed with
their teachers in front of their school building. "Neither the school,
nor the children have survived." he said. "This is what genocide is."9
The book begins with an outline of his framework for an approach to
the history of the region, which takes the pre-genocide plurality
as its main reference point. He then traces the emergence of the
Armenian National Democratic movement, explores the 1915 genocide
and analyzes the effects of Kemalist rule on Armenians, Kurds, and
other communities in the region. The book, which he began to write
in 1990 when he was in prison, is a remarkable effort by a Kurdish
intellectual to confront the Armenian Genocide and represents an
important contribution for a sincere Armenian-Kurdish dialogue.

Another Kurdish writer deserves particular attention in this
context. Berzan Boti, a Kurd from Siirt who spent 11 years in prison
for political offenses and still lives in Turkey, approached the Seyfo
Center in Sweden in 2007 after he found out that his forefathers had
unlawfully confiscated land from Assyrians in their village

who had been killed during the genocide. In an unprecedented act,
Boti declared that he wanted to return this property. As he could not
return the property to the original owners, he returned the land to
the Seyfo Center in a legal process that was concluded in December
2008. Details of this honorable act will be made public in April 2009
during a press conference in Sweden; yet Boti expressed earlier this
year in a statement that "When I found out that the properties I and
my brothers inherited from our father wasn't our own, but properties
taken from the murdered Assyrians in 1915, I felt an indescribable
feeling of guilt and shame. I've been thinking long and hard before I
have come to this decision. I tried to put myself in their position. I
have personally apologized to every Assyrian and Armenian I've met. But
this does not get rid of the crime our ancestors committed. Even if I
am personally not responsible for what happened in 1915, I felt as I
had to do more than just to apologize. Finally, I came to the decision
to give back all properties that I inherited from my forefathers to
Seyfo Center, who struggles for a confession of the Seyfo Genocide in
1915."10 In light of the fact that issues of justice and reparation are
excluded and treated as anachronistic in the dominant Armenian-Turkish
dialogue, this act by Berzan Boti not only stands out as an honorable
individual act, but shows what an apology can or should entail.

Certainly, these brief examples of critical interventions by Kurdish
intellectuals are not representative of all Kurds, nor do they stand
for a pressing urge in the Kurdish community to engage with the
Armenian Genocide. These are rare but very important examples that
deserve attention in the current debates on reconciliation. In stark
contrast to the attempt of "reconciliation instead of recognition"
in Turkish politics, those Kurdish intellectuals and activists
who call for reconciliation take the demands and sensitivities and
voices of the genocide survivors as their starting point for action,
and not the sensitivities of the Turkish state. This gives hope for
an alternative dialogue and reconciliation process that is grounded
in justice and acknowledgment.

Let me conclude with a political opportunity that may open a new page
in Armenian-Kurdish relations and foster a sincere dialogue.

News reports in early March 2009 suggested that the Armenian-Turkish
border that was closed upon Turkey's initiative in 1993 may be
reopened in April of this year. While this has not been officially
confirmed, the possibility of reopening the border gained a different
dimension with the recent regional elections on March 29, in which
the Pro-Kurdish Party DTP firmly established itself as the key
regional party in the Kurdish-populated areas in southeast Turkey,
and took over the municipality of Igdir that had been governed by
the ultra-nationalist party MHP for the past decade. Igdir is the
province that borders Armenia, with Yerevan only 40 kilometers
away from the province capital, where the population consists
of mainly Kurds and Azeris. The political atmosphere there until
recently had been extremely nationalistic and hostile toward its
Armenian neighbor, which is sadly symbolized in the 45 meter-high
Igdir "Genocide Memorial"-the highest monument in Turkey-that was
opened in the attendance of then-president Suleyman Demirel, chief
of staff Kivrikoglu, and other high-ranking officials in 1999,
with its stated aim to commemorate the Armenian massacres against
the Turks in Igdir. The monument replicates five large swords, with
their ends meeting at the top and forming the star of the Turkish
national flag when seen from above. The sharp edges of the swords are
turned outwards, to symbolize the readiness against any intrusions
from the outside. It is an aggressive, nationalistic, and outright
hostile monument that is strategically located on the road from
Igdir to the Armenian border. In light of this political atmosphere,
it will certainly not be easy for the new mayor Mehmet Nuri Gunes of
the DTP to make a new beginning in the region. However, irrespective
of whether or not the border reopens, the DTP's victory in Igdir is
a positive and hopeful development for better neighbor relations.

It is time to replace the disgraceful monument with peaceful visions
for the future