In a recent action alert, Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) wrote that “[t]he Turkish government, which has outlawed discussion of the Armenian genocide within its borders, is exporting its undemocratic free-speech restrictions to the United States by imposing a ‘gag-rule’ on congressional consideration and adoption of the Armenian Genocide Resolution.” This kind of talk will soon - once again - dominate the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
President-elect Barack Obama will have to decide by April 24, Armenian Remembrance Day, whether he will keep the promise he made to his Armenian-American constituents to call their World War I loss a “genocide.” Congress will make its decision separately - either before or after the president’s annual statement. This issue has come before Congress many times over the last three decades, and for various reasons those bills did not pass. President Reagan used the word “genocide” once, in his 1981 annual statement. But he did not continue to use it throughout his presidency. Some think Mr. Obama will choose to follow in Mr. Reagan’s footsteps.
The issue of the Armenian “genocide” has proven to be a thorny one for all sides. Winston Churchill once said, “A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind, and won’t change the subject.” Unfortunately, this issue has created fanatics. And in such an environment, the chance for people to gain a fuller understanding of their past and hopefully begin to heal is being delayed. It’s not clear whether people are demanding an acknowledgement of past atrocities, or if they simply want revenge.
If the “genocide” bill in Congress is written with a moral duty in mind, why is it so focused on the Armenian tragedy and not those suffered by others - for example, the Ukrainians? Studies show that an estimated 25,000 people died daily at the height of the Ukrainian famine in 1933. By the end of that year, nearly 25 percent of the Ukrainian population is thought to have perished. Russia refuses to call this a “genocide.” Or, take a look at how many American Indians were killed on this land. Sen. Daniel Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, once said, population levels are 90 percent below what they were when Columbus landed. For that matter, what about North Korea? Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act almost three years ago despite significant criticism. Yet since then, Congress has not been able to use the bill as leverage, or as a tool to end human rights abuses in North Korea - because it feared that North Korea would withdraw from nuclear talks. The White House and Congress need to clarify why they believe a “genocide” bill would help people to move on, and what other good it would do.
The ANCA seems to regard all developments in Turkey as tu quoque. It is, however, no longer taboo to discuss the issue in public. But it took a long time, and many unfortunate incidents, to get to this point. The issue is now being discussed in every household, in universities and in the newspapers. Now almost everyone feels pressured to take sides. Recently, 100 Turkish academics and journalists started an Internet campaign, “We apologize” (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com), which stated that they apologize for the Great Tragedy that Armenians suffered under the Ottoman rule. So far, more than 15,000 Turks have publicly offered their support by attaching their names to this statement.
University professor Cengiz Aktar, the father of this idea, told me that since the murder of Hrant Dink, editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, he has felt a duty to start a dialogue - and to do something about the issue. “This is a private, civilian expression of our feelings about what happened to the Armenians who once lived on this land,” he told me. “This has nothing to do with the bills that are before the U.S. Congress. … If the U.S. Congress passes the bill this year, then we will think what to say about it.” University professor Soli Ozel agreed, saying, “If they were to free Turkey of the pressures [of these bills], we would be able to talk about the issue in a more desirable way.” Turkey still has issues when it comes to freedom of speech, but on this matter, it’s like a free-for-all for people to say whatever they wish. Unfortunately, that freedom hasn’t always extended to the U.S. Pressure from the Armenian community forced Georgetown University to cancel a speech to students by Archbishop Mesrob II Mutafyan, the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, last year. There was concern that the archbishop might challenge the notion that Armenians were innocent victims of the Ottomans.
If Mr. Obama’s presidency will be defined by change, his first order of business with NATO ally Turkey should not be about whether to call what happened to the Armenians “genocide.” It should be about bringing definitive clarity both to the end of World War I for Turkey, and about how Turkey and the West move forward into the 21st century.
Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.