Armenian protesters in Lyons accused Turkey of supporting Islamic rebels in an attack on Kessab, an Armenian majority town located in Syria, on the Turkish border. (Image: Benjamin Larderet/Demotix)
It is, as Zhou Enlai might have said, probably too early to tell how significant Tayyip Erdogan’s comments alluding to the Armenian genocide will be.
The Turkish prime minister seems to have broken one of his country’s great taboos. In a statement translated into nine languages, the AK leader said: “It is with this hope and belief that we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early 20th century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”
“Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences — such as relocation — during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards [sic] one another.”
According to Anadolu, Turkey’s state news agency, Erdogan also commented: “In Turkey, expressing different opinions and thoughts freely on the events of 1915 is the requirement of a pluralistic society as well as of a culture of democracy and modernity.”
This is not, you will have noticed, an apology. Offering condolence is not at all the same as expressing remorse. Though some would say it is not Erdogan’s duty to express remorse; he is the prime minister of the modern republic of Turkey, not the Ottoman Empire under which the alleged slaughter of over 1.5 million Armenian Christians in 1915 took place.
And some are utterly contemptuous of Erdogan’s statement: Reuters quotes the Armenian National Committee of America describing the statement as an “escalation” of Turkey’s “denial of truth and obstruction of justice”.
But let us assume that a) Erdogan is in a position to speak for Turkey past as well as present, and b) there is, at the kernel of this, an attempt at reconciliation with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
The very mention of the events are significant against the backdrop of the Turkish Penal Code’s controversial Article 301, which forbids insulting “the Turkish nation”. That law has in the past, effectively barred discussion of the genocide, and created a environment where simply identifying as Armenian within Turkey was seen as a provocative act.
The most famous victim of this culture was Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos who was assassinated in January 2007.
Dink saw himself as Turkish-Armenian, and his newspaper was bilingual. He was a firm believer in the potential for dialogue in bringing some reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. He also believed such dialogue could only take place in an atmosphere free of censorship, to the extent that he vowed that he would be the first person to break a proposed French law making denial of the Armenian genocide a crime (a cheap political trick aimed at both currying favour with the Armenian community in France and creating a barrier for Turkey’s proposed entry into the EU).
Ultimately, Dink believed that progress could only be made if we were able to talk freely and access historical debate without impediment or fear.
History, like science, is a process rather than a dogma. And like science, one’s interpretations of history can vary based on both the evidence available and the prevailing mood.
For a long time after the creation of the Irish state, for example, the teaching of history in schools was simple. I recall one primary school history text which seemed to consist entirely of tales of the terrible things foreigners had done to the Irish: first the Vikings, then the Normans, and finally the English. The book finished pretty much where the 1919 War of Independence began. The last page featured the words of the national anthem and a picture of the national flag.
Sympathetic portrayals of English people, and British soldiers in particular, were thin on the ground — Frank O’Connor’s tragic short story Guests of the Nation being one of the very few.
Since the late 1990s peace process, both fictional and historical perspectives on Ireland’s relationship with Britain have changed. Some of the novels of Sebastian Barry, for example, attempt to tell stories of people who were neglected and even vilified in nationalist, Catholic, post-independence Ireland. Part of the plot of Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies has a Catholic school history teacher attempting to get his pupils interested in Irish soldiers who fought for Britain in World War I. Meanwhile, a recent book by nationalist historian Tim Pat Coogan, attempting to paint the Irish potato famine as deliberate genocide rather than cruel neglect, was given short shrift, in spite of the fact that this would have been a mainstream view until relatively recently — one must only listen to the sickly sentimental lyrics of rugby anthem The Fields of Athenry, penned in the 1970s, to understand the appeal of that victim status to the Irish imagination. Wrongs were certainly done in Ireland, but the relationship between the two nations was a hell of a lot more complex than the oppressor/oppressed line that was spun for so many years.
There was no official sanction on differing views of Anglo-Irish relations, but politics permeated the debate. Likewise with the recent intervention of British education secretary Michael Gove on the issue of how World War I is taught in schools. Gove claimed that the idea of a pointless war in which a moribund (figuratively) ruling class led moribund (literally) working class boys to their graves was a modern lefty invention. He was wrong, in that that view had been common even in the 1920s, but his opponents were equally adamant in their insistence that there could only be one view of World War I. None of this discussion was accompanied by new evidence on either side.
At the extreme end of this hyper-politicisation of history are the Holocaust denial laws of many European countries, and laws on glorification of the Soviet era in former Eastern bloc.
In his cult memoir Fuhrer-Ex, East German former neo-nazi Ingo Hasslebach described how, growing up in the DDR, with its overwhelming anti-fascist narrative, nazi posturing was the ultimate rebellion. In the modern era, France’s prohibition on nazi revisionism has led some young north African immigrants, alienated from the French nation state, to see anti-semitism and the quasi-nazi quenelle gesture as the ultimate “fuck you” to the authorities.
Taboos about discussing events of the past breed bad history and bad politics. For the sake of Turkey, and the rest of us, Erdogan should be held to his words on the necessity of free speaking and free thinking.
It’s coming up to the seventh anniversary of the death of Hrant Dink. Just today, two people have been arrested in connection with his assassination.
Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, understood censorship and free speech more than most. In Turkey, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century remains taboo, and discussion of it can result in charges under the infamous article 301 of the country’s criminal code – the crime of “insulting Turkishness”.
Recognition of the genocide is an important part of Armenian identity, and many Armenians in the the country itself, Turkey, and the wider diaspora were pleased when, in 2006, French politicians proposed a law making denial of the Armenian genocide illegal. But Dink, understanding that censorious laws hurt everyone, dissented, saying:
“As you know, I have been tried in Turkey for saying the Armenian genocide exists, and I have talked about how wrong this is. But at the same time, I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law. Then we can watch both the Turkish Republic and the French government race against each other to condemn me. We can watch to see which will throw me into jail first”
Dink was assassinated, and the bill was blocked, though it reared its head again in 2012, only to be deemed unconstitutional.
One wonders what Dink would have made of president Francois Hollande’s bid to ban public performances by comic and political activist Dieudonne, inventor of the “qeunelle” gesture – an inverted Nazi salute dressed up as an “anti-establishment” gesture. Dieudonne, who ran on an “anti-Zionist” platform in the last election, says there is nothing anti-Semitic about the quenelle, a claim undermined by the spread of pictures of smirking fans quenelling near synagogues, holocaust memorials and even outside the Marseilles Jewish school where three children and a religion teacher were shot down in cold blood in 2012.
It’s important to be clear on this: the quenelle is an anti-Semitic gesture. Dieudonne’s defenders, such illustrious figures as Diane Johnstone and Alain Soral (what we might call the Counterpunch Left), will claim that it is not.
But that is because they are defending Dieudonne’s views, rather than Dieudonne’s right to free speech. It’s an important distinction. Too often, we either attempt to defend free speech by downplaying what’s actually being said (“it’s not that bad”), or claiming it’s something that it’s not (“this isn’t actually racist; it’s, er…”)
Similarly we attempt to justify shutting down free speech by saying something is not a matter of free speech, or worse, resorting to the fact of an existing law or prevalent social mores rather than making a moral argument (as Bernard-Henri Lévy did while discussing the Dieudonne case on theBBC’s Today programme).
A genuine defence of free speech demands that we look what’s happening directly in the eye.
The quenelle is anti-semitic. Dieudonne is anti-semitic. Dieudonne has a right to free speech.
With grim symmetry, French politicians are preparing to debate a law criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide just five years after the murder of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink.
Dink, editor of Agos was passionately opposed to laws restricting discussion of what happened to thousands of Armenians in 1915. In Turkey, it was illegal for him to describe the events as genocide. In France, they hoped to make it illegal to say it was not. When this law was first mooted in 2006, Dink commented:
“When this bill appeared first, we were fast to declare as a group that it would lead to bad results…As you know, I have been tried in Turkey for saying the Armenian genocide exists, and I have talked about how wrong this is. But at the same time, I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law. Then we can watch both the Turkish Republic and the French government race against eachother to condemn me. We can watch to see which will throw me into jail first…I really think that France, if it makes this bill law, will be hurting not only the EU, but Armenians across the world. It will also damage the normalising of relations between Armenia and Turkey. What the peoples of these two countries need is dialogue, and all these laws do is harm such dialogue.”
Genocide denial is not a simple issue of differing versions of history; it is a calculated insult, a degeneration of a people’s memory and history. Ultimately, it is calculated to exterminate a people by other means. As novelist Howard Jacobson put it in a magazine in 2009, addressing attempts to downplay or deny the Jewish Holocaust:
“[O]ne day, if they have their way, whoever they are, these people, there will be no Holocaust either. No Holocaust. No Israel. No Jews.”
A similar impulse is at play with the use of Turkey’s Article 301, which outlaws “insulting Turkishness”. The law is used against Kurds and Armenians, because in the Kemalist vision that shaped the country, there are no Kurds or Armenians. There are only Turks, united in a single vision and a single story.
This impulse is unexceptional, particularly in 20th century nationalism. As empire disintegrated, projecting a single vision became important. In this way, Turkish “genocide denial” may be different from Holocaust denial, driven by fierce nationalism alone, rather than the combination of nationalism, classic and modern anti-Semitism and paranoid conspiracism which drove the Holocaust. But both are driven by distrust of the other, and by seeing diversity and cosmopolitanism as stumbling blocks on the path to perfection.
But while the two may differ, there is no difference in the free speech argument on laws covering them. Proscribing speech —whether it confirms or denys historical truths — is an offence to history, a barrier to dialogue and an insult to memory.