Turkey Confronts a Disputed Period in Its History

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 240

A group of Turkish intellectuals have taken a bold step to open a public debate on the disputed events of 1915, when the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were forced to relocate, leading to the death of scores of people and the beginning of what the Armenians claim was genocide. Turkey officially denies claims of genocide and maintains that both peoples suffered from interethnic conflicts. The group led by leading academics, writers, and journalists, who are known for their critical position on the official Turkish thesis, has initiated a campaign inviting the Turkish people to sign a petition to apologize for the suffering of the Ottoman Armenians.

Having first collected signatures from other intellectuals, the initiators of the campaign, including Baskin Oran, Ahmet Insel, Ali Bayramoglu, and Cengiz Aktar, started to solicit signatures from Turkish citizens on the internet on December 15 (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com). The website is named “Ozur Diliyoruz” (we apologize). The short and precise petition offers a personal apology yet falls short of demanding the Turkish state to do likewise. The text reads as follows:

My conscience does not accept the insensitivity toward and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice; and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com).
The text calls on the Turkish people to confront a controversial episode in their history. The organizers say the signatures are a demonstration of the reaction of individual to their historical responsibility. In their view, many Turks’ knowledge of the deportation of Armenians is based on hearsay, and there is an urgent need to offer people an objective account of the events. Although official history presents these events as mutual massacres, according to the organizers, the reality is much different. They believe that Turkish citizens have a right to learn history outside the official theses, and this campaign might be a step in that direction (Vatan, December 4).

Despite the organizers’ optimism, the campaign has already led to divisions in Turkish society. As soon as the news about the petition drive came out, nationalist forces, the staunchest supporters of the official theses, reacted vehemently against the organizers, as reflected in nationalist daily Yeni Cag’s headline: “Ermeni Agziyla Kampanya” (A Campaign Mimicking Armenians) (Yeni Cag, December 5). Nationalist critics questioned the sincerity of the organizers, charging them with being on the verge of hysteria. In a stark response to the organizers’ call for reevaluating the official Turkish stand on the deportation, nationalists maintained that the organizers lacked a basic knowledge of the actual course of history. For the nationalists, the real victims of the 1915 events were the Ottoman Turks. “Every house has memories of people butchered by Armenians. I regard apologizing to the Armenians as an insult to the Turkish nation. People who call themselves intellectuals have not even been enlightened about their own history,” said Zeki Ertugay, a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy from Erzurum (Today’s Zaman, December 6).

The MHP leader Devlet Bahceli was outraged by the campaign and issued a written statement. For him, there was no one to whom the Turks should apologize. “The dirty campaign” was “humiliating,” he said, and reflected the extent of “degeneration and decay” being imposed on Turkish society by so-called intellectuals working as collaborators of outside powers. Bahceli blamed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government for creating a fertile environment for this situation. He lambasted the AKP’s recent openings to Armenia, because they compromised national priorities and created inside Turkey a pro-Armenian front that worked to undermine Turkish historical heritage (www.mhphaber.com, December 7; www.internethaber.com, December 16).

Another response to the petition campaign came from a group of retired Turkish envoys who issued a counter-declaration on December 15. Around 50 diplomats, including former undersecretaries of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Sukru Elekdag, Korkmaz Haktanir, and Onur Oymen, maintained that the apology initiative was “unjust, wrong, and damaging to [Turkey’s] national interests.” Their declaration read:

Such a false and one-sided initiative is tantamount to disrespecting our history and betraying our citizens who lost their lives due to the violence perpetrated by terror organizations during the last days of the Ottoman Empire [and] into the Republican era. Although the Armenian relocation, which took place under wartime conditions, resulted in tragic outcomes, the loss and suffering of the Turkish people due to Armenian rebellions and terror attacks were no less than those of Armenians (ANKA, December 12).
The retired diplomats noted that a rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia could not be achieved by such one-sided “compromises,” but what was needed was mutual recognition of each other’s borders and suffering. They went on to challenge the organizers of the petition campaign: “Will there be an apology for the victims of Armenian terror?” Since the Turkish diplomatic corps lost some of its members to terrorism by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the envoys’ sensitivity to this issue can be better understood.

Although the apology initiative seeks to break taboos, the reactions so far indicate that it might actually re-ignite the controversy and deepen the preexisting divisions. Instead of conversing across the aisle, the parties prefer so far to fortify their dug-in positions on the 1915 events and continue to furnish contrasting “factual” accounts about what took place during that period