Liberal Turks call pogrom a ‘genocide’

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ISTANBUL | A group of Istanbul’s liberal intelligentsia clustered outside the Tutun Deposu gallery, an old tobacco warehouse in a working-class neighborhood of Istanbul to mark the anniversary of a 1915 pogrom.

Inside the renovated building, an all-female choir performed a selection of folk songs from the musical traditions of minorities persecuted during the last spasms of the Ottoman Empire.

“The reason we call what happened a genocide,” said Eren Keskin, a Turkish lawyer with a history of challenging the state, “is because the destruction wreaked on these lands was not just to the Armenians, but to their culture, too. Buildings, churches and cemeteries were razed.”

One of the most emotional issues bedeviling Turkish society today is what exactly happened in 1915 to Turkey’s Armenian minority. The Ottoman Empire was collapsing as a new republic emerged. Newly released files of Ottoman official Enver Pasha reveal the disappearance of almost a million ethnic Armenians from population records between 1915 and 1916.

The Istanbul-based think tank European Stability Initiative issued a report on the eve of the April 24 anniversary criticizing the Turkish government for spending considerable political capital on fighting pro-genocide campaigns. “This is a battle Turkey cannot win,” the report said.

The day before the anniversary, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced it was moving to end its 16-year blockade of Armenia that was imposed as a gesture to fellow Turkish ally Azerbaijan resulting from a 1993 war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

However, bad blood between Turkey and Armenia goes back further, to the Cold War that pitted Turkey against Armenia, which was then part of the Soviet Union.

During his election campaign, President Obama promised America’s Armenian community to recognize the 1915 pogrom as genocide.

He backed away from his pledge after a successful visit to Turkey in April, during which he is credited with helping to broker a breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian relations.

Turkish society has largely ignored the events of 1915, which go untaught in public schools. Children hear little about the disappearance of their Armenian compatriots on forced marches across the Ottoman Empire’s former Arab provinces of Syria and Iraq.

Inside the anniversary ceremony, black-and-white images were broadcast on a screen of some of the 250 Armenian notables detained in Istanbul in 1915, at the beginning of the persecution.

“Turkish society has been led to think that on 24 April, Armenian terrorists and criminals were arrested,” said Ayse Gunaysu, one of the organizers. “But they were lawyers, jurists, publishers, intellectuals.”

The event organized by the Turkish Human Rights Association (THRA) is only the second public commemoration of the 1915 events in the Turkish Republic’s 86-year history.

“Twenty years ago, this would have been impossible,” said publisher Rober Koptas, pointing at the activity around him. “In the long run, what we’re doing today will give us a space to talk about issues such as the Armenian question, democratization and freedom of speech.”

About 150 participants crowding into the art gallery knew well not to tread on red lines in a country where “insulting Turkishness” is a punishable crime.

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