- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2006

A few months ago, I came across an article in the Middle East Quarterly entitled “Armenian Massacres: New Records Undercut Old Blame.” Its author, Edward J. Erickson, a retired U.S. Army officer, categorically dismissed the claims of genocide perpetrated against the Armenians by the Ottomans during World War I. “In bitter internecine fighting, many civilian Turks, Armenians, and other ethnic groups were massacred indiscriminately,” Mr. Erickson wrote.

The claim of Armenian genocide is an incredibly emotional subject, fraught with political and violent undertones. Only a small number of scholars dare to question the notion that what happened was genocide. When Stanford Shaw, a pioneer scholar and former UCLA professor, disputed it in 1977, a bomb exploded in front of his house.

Recently, two researchers have debated the nature of World War I Armenian massacres, Dr. Erickson wrote. The first, Vahakn Dadrian, is director of genocide research at the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation. Mr. Dadrian wrote that Stange (a Prussian artillery officer known in records only by his last name) was the “highest-ranking German guerrilla commander operating in the Turko-Russian border” area and the Ottoman government ordered him to deport Armenians. Stange and his soldiers became principals in the Armenian massacres, Mr. Dadrian found.

But last year, Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, challenged Mr. Dadrian’s claim, concluding that Stange’s unit did not even operate in the area. “Tribal Kurds or Circassians may have deported the Armenians in the spring of 1915,” Mr. Erickson wrote.

The debate over the historical record goes on, and Turkey has finally begun to allow its citizens to engage in controversial debates. This makes one wonder what the members of the French Parliament were thinking last week when they made it a crime to question the claim of Armenian genocide. The lower house decided that the punishment for denying the genocide would be one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 Euros. It would only take effect if it passed the upper house and was agreed to by French President Jacques Chirac. According to Turkish media reports, Mr. Chirac called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and said he would do his best to keep the legislation from becoming law.

Making it a crime to dispute the idea of an Armenian genocide is so outrageous that senior European Union officials sided with Turkey. “This is not the best way to contribute to something we think is important,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. Oli Rehn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, agreed, saying, “We don’t achieve real dialogue and real reconciliation by ultimatums, but by dialogue. Therefore this law is counterproductive.”

Indeed it is. This law displays the aggressive tactics of the Armenian diaspora to prevent any objective re-examination of history. They demand that Turkey accept that what happened was genocide. But is the goal to find the truth, or to make political arguments? Mr. Erdogan offered to open the Turkish archives to study the matter, and called for Armenians to do the same. They denied his request. The other side can’t stand the idea of questioning whether what happened was genocide.

Turks have done a poor job in dealing with the claims. They let one narrative dominate the world’s understanding of the incident. They did not write about the Armenian attacks on Muslim villages. But now Turks are paying attention. They are angry. But they are not hateful like the Armenians who killed almost four dozen Turkish diplomats over “history.”

I sat down with Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy in Washington, and asked him whether the French Parliament’s vote will make it more difficult for him to deal with the resolutions likely to be presented this year in the U.S. Congress, calling for recognition of Armenian genocide. Sixteen countries have already passed legislation or resolutions to recognize the Armenian genocide, he said. “The Congress has never been affected by the decisions of the foreign parliaments,” he said. “The U.S. knows to think independently in its own democracy, and they know their own responsibilities.”

The French Parliament’s law is even more absurd than the section of the Turkish penal code that calls for Turkish citizens to be punished if they insult “Turkishness” — by accepting the genocide claims, for example. Orhan Pamuk, this year’s Nobel Prize winner for literature, was charged under that law. The charges were dropped, and no one has been punished.

But even the existence of such a law is embarrassing to a country wrestling with how to deal with freedom of expression. What Mr. Pamuk said about the Armenian genocide claims is irrelevant. What’s important is that he should feel free to say whatever he thinks. But historians should have the definitive say on the issue — and they haven’t written the final chapter yet.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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