Akcam Says Genocide Recognition is about Justice, Not Freedom of Thought

Akcam Says Genocide Recognition is about Justice, Not Freedom of Thought

The following interview with Prof. Taner Akcam, the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, appeared in Le Monde on Jan. 7. The interview was conducted by Guillaume Perrier. Below is the interview in English.

LE MONDE: What is your opinion, not about the genocide denial law itself, but about the effects it can have on the debate among intellectuals and civil society in Turkey?
TANER AKCAM: As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Although, in the short run, the French law has been very negatively received in Turkey, I believe that in the long run, the effect will be positive. Within its own borders, Turkey can try and continue to suppress, and muzzle, and deny the truth, but internationally there will be continual reminders (such as the French law) of an issue that Turkey must confront and ultimately resolve.

Even if one opposes this legal initiative, it shows that Turkey cannot escape by sticking its head in the sand. For this reason, the French initiative cannot be considered as a simple “law” in the technical sense of the term for France. For better or worse, it has become part of the international campaign to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Turkey’s hysteria, and anger, and temper tantrums will pass and some of the negative developments that have occurred will be quickly forgotten. What will remain is the heavy reality of a very serious unresolved problem. Such an outcome will, I expect, support the position of those intellectuals who assert that confronting and remembering history is strongly connected to the creation of a democratic society.

Regardless of France’s ultimate aims or intentions, Turkish society and its educated classes are once again reminded that we need to resolve this very fundamental issue. Some may object that “this should have happened some other way,” but if you don’t solve your problems on your own, often enough someone else will force a solution on you. That’s the way it’s always been in this world.

Everyone has to realize this basic fact: On the subject of 1915, Turkey has followed a politics of purposeful amnesia and delaying tactics. Turkey has swept the issue under the rug, buried it and pretended it didn’t exist, all in the hopes that everyone’s memory would be short and the whole thing would be forgotten. This is what they’ve been doing for about a hundred years.

Every year after April 24th, the commentary in most of the daily newspapers is something along the lines of “Whew, great, we got through another year of this.” With 2015 approaching, the tactic is the same. They know the subject is going to be brought up, especially abroad, and everything is geared towards getting through 2015 with the least amount of damage. That’s why there’s so much anger towards France’s law. Turkey is angry at being reminded. Such memory is a ghost that has haunted them for decades.

I’ve been dealing with the Armenian Genocide topic for many years now, but when it comes up with other Turkish intellectuals, I’ve always sensed a certain lack of interest, as if to say, “Where’d you come up with this problem, anyway? Don’t we have enough issues to deal with?” For them the subject has always seemed a bit unreal, inauthentic, and imposed from the outside.

My international colleagues speak of my “courage” to pursue this subject in the face of “threats and dangers” from Turkey. However, that has never really been my problem. My biggest challenge was loneliness. I have had a hard time trying to explain the significance of 1915 even to my closest friends in Turkey. In 1997, I wrote an essay titled, “Walking around like a leper in my own country.” That’s how I felt—like a leper, a pariah. It wasn’t a matter of “fear” and “courage.” What bothered me the most was their indifference, their lack of interest, and the resulting alienation and loneliness I felt.

When I’d depart from Turkey, since my flight usually took off at around 5 T.A.:m., I would stay up all night talking with Hrant Dink. Every one of those conversations revolved around our loneliness. We felt that no one seemed really interested in understanding and listening to us. The question that we most often struggled with was, “How can we reach our friends and acquaintances so that they see just how important this subject really is?” One of Hrant’s biggest challenges was isolation. In the end, his alienation by and from us, Turkish intellectuals, was a contributing factor in his murder.

Hrant’s death was a turning point. Turkish intellectuals took more interest in the events of 1915. We began to understand that 1915 has even more to do with today than with the past. Gradually, the connection between democracy-building and human rights, on the one hand, and remembering and confronting history, on the other, became clearer and more acceptable across a broader swath of Turkish society.

The civil-democratic activism that coalesced after Hrant’s death played an important role in this change. However, this emergent opposition is still lacking in strength. I believe that we still need much more external pressure. That is where the French law comes in.
LE MONDE: Do you think international pressure is positive or negative on Turkey? Don’t you fear it will lead Turkey to a more nationalist, defensive approach?
T.A.: I am reminded of an incident on Jan. 4 or 5, 2007. The prosecutor’s office at Sisli, in an effort to put pressure on Hrant’s legal defense, had targeted me for investigation because of an article in which I’d used the word “genocide.” After giving the prosecutor my statement, I headed over to the Agos newspaper office. Hrant and I were chatting. As in the past, he was criticizing France’s initiatives.

“Stop, Hrant,” I told him. “If France weren’t taking this initiative, no one here would be holding a microphone to your mouth. Don’t forget,” I added, “the only reason people know who you are is because France keeps up this business with the law. If people outside the country weren’t doing this you’d have a lot of trouble finding anyone willing to listen to you.”

“You’re right,” he admitted. “The only time it’s remembered is when there is outside pressure.”

This is something that the West needs to realize. It just isn’t possible to change Turkey’s position regarding the subject of 1915 based solely on internal democratic opposition. Turkish democratic and civil society activists don’t possess that kind of strength. The assassination of Hrant Dink is evidence of this weakness. Today, there’s a very genuine activist movement that goes by the name “Friends of Hrant” that has gained significant public support in Turkey, yet Hrant’s real murderers still roam the country freely.

Those countries that condone and enable Turkey’s politics of denial for their own economic, political, and strategic advantage should understand one thing: “Denial” is a structure. To understand why Turkey continues to deny what happened in 1915, you should compare it with the racist regime of South Africa: The institutions, system, and mindset of apartheid were established upon racial differences, and the denial of genocide is similar. By denying what happened in 1915, Turkey reproduces the institutions, social relations, and mindset that created 1915.

Genocide denial goes beyond the defense of a former regime whose institutions and mindset were realized as genocide in the past. Denial also fuels a politics of continuing aggression, both inside and outside Turkey, against anyone who opposes the denialist mentality. This is why Hrant Dink’s actual murderers are still at large. This is why attacks are organized against Armenians and their memorials in Europe. This is why in America campaigns of hate and hostility are organized against me and other intellectuals.

What should be clear to everyone is this: In Turkey, genocide denial is an industry. It is also a state policy of primary importance. The National Security Council, Turkey’s highest constitutional authority, established in 2001 a Coordinating Committee for the Fight Against Baseless Claims of Genocide. All of the important ministries, including the Armed Forces, are represented on this committee, which is chaired by the vice prime minister. I repeat: Denying the genocide is one of the most important national policies of the Turkish state. You need to realize that you aren’t just confronting a simple “denial,” but you’re up against a “denialist regime.”

As long as Turkey continues this state policy of genocide denial through its institutions, relations, and mentality, Ankara will be sensitive to external pressure. In fact, this pressure should be increased. What happened in Libya and Syria needs to happen in Turkey also, with regard to genocide denial, even if the content and scope of the pressure are different.

If the West is serious about democracy in the Middle East, it cannot build democracy by supporting a denialist regime. Historical denial, both as institution and mindset, is probably the greatest stumbling block to peace and democracy in the Middle East. Why do Christians, Kurds, and Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq feel intimidated by Turkey? Why aren’t they keen on Turkey’s intervention for democracy and human rights? Because they see, in today’s denialist regime of Turkey, the Unionists’ mentality that committed crimes against them in the past.

The South African regime didn’t collapse from internal pressure alone. The support of international public opinion was also very important. As long as the West allows Turkey’s denialist politics to continue, genocide denial will go on.

We are faced with the huge issue of how to prevent mass murders and genocides in today’s global community. To that end, the space for genocide denial in the international arena must be narrowed and ultimately eliminated. Turkey’s denial policy should be reconsidered within this perspective of prevention of genocide in the global world.

Yes, it’s always possible that external pressure may have negative consequences. History provides examples of this. We must remember not to go to extremes. If we take the position that external pressure is always bad, we play into the hands of dictators who would like nothing better than to perpetuate their crimes with impunity. The apartheid regime of South Africa, Latin American dictatorships, and the repressive Arab regimes have all taken this attitude. On the other hand, if we say, “It doesn’t matter what’s going on internally, we’re going to impose change from the outside,” the most disgraceful example is the invasion of IraLe Monde: So we need to stay away from either extreme. Instead of asking, “Yes or no to external pressure?”, we should be asking, “What kind of external pressure?”

The refusal to exert pressure is another position to be avoided. For example, the West (especially the U.S. and UK) have created their own kind of “external pressure” model based on their own calculations. For the sake of perceived economic, political, and military strategic interests, they turn a blind eye to a denialist regime. Their refusal enables Turkey to swagger, bully, and threaten other countries. This must stop. Turkey will not give up its denial policy without external pressure.

Actually, what I want is in Turkey’s best interest. In the end, what outcome could be better than the creation of a society that respects democracy and human rights and that confronts its history without shame? I have a hard time understanding what could possibly be negative about creating external pressure towards this end.

Opponents will counter that external pressure is not motivated by a desire to bring democracy to Turkey. They will say that the West exerts pressure in order to limit Turkey’s power. Is there a grain of truth in this outlook? Of course there is, but the remedy is simple: Don’t let others limit you. If you don’t want them to use your faults against you, then correct those faults so they can’t. Do your homework. No country has ever been hurt by democracy or respect for human rights.

I’m pushing 60 years of age, and by now, I’m sick and tired of these “external pressure” arguments. In the 1980’s, Turkey’s military regime was supported for the same reason and thousands of people were killed, tortured, or thrown in jail. Turkish generals were like the West’s spoiled brats, killing as they pleased. They hated any kind of pressure, didn’t want anyone “meddling in their internal affairs.” The same game is being played over the “denial of history.”

Moreover, the really important question isn’t even “What kind of external pressure?” We must ask how this external pressure will establish a healthy and positive relationship with the internal democratization process. The biggest problem right now is incompatibility and lack of harmony. Positive communication channels must be created between Turkey’s domestic, democratic opposition and the world beyond its borders. Real dialogue has yet to be established between internal and external activist groups that must unite in order to change the denialist regime. Looking at France, I can say that what we have here is a dialogue of the deaf.

I can’t say whether France’s indifference to Turkey’s democratic opposition has anything to do with it, but the nationalist leanings of Turkish intellectuals definitely play a role in this futile dialogue between parties who cannot hear each other. A very significant majority of Turkish intellectuals still views any foreign initiative with a great deal of suspicion and doubt. This attitude feels so natural to them that unfortunately they have no idea that it springs from a deep well of nationalist tendencies.

Turkish national identity has from the beginning been defined in opposition to the “terrible West that wants to meddle with our internal affairs from outside.” Undoubtedly, when one looks at the history of Ottoman Turks, one can hardly claim that the West played a positive role. However, the damage done by the West was not limited to meddling with the Ottomans for colonialist self-interest. On the contrary, the West committed a great error in not having interfered enough. A whole series of Western interventions against the Ottomans throughout the 19th century were critically important in the formulation of what we now call international law. In other words, we need to re-examine the idea that “all external pressure is wrong.”

During Turkey’s bid for European Union membership, Turkish intellectuals and the society, in general, softened their stance against “foreign interference.” Turkish society understood that outside pressure, especially by the European Greens or some of the other left wing parties, was not motivated solely by malice. In fact, it was accepted as a positive influence. The same kind of acceptance must be generated towards the concept of genocide recognition.

In today’s globally connected world, the whole idea of “external” and “internal” is very problematic. We must create a global awareness of genocides and their prevention without making these distinctions of “external” and “internal.” Genocide denial and the struggle against it are part of global democracy and human rights. You can’t speak of it as “external.” Recognition is an issue relevant to all of humanity.
LE MONDE: Since you published a Shameful Act, it opened a door in Turkey, there’s been an evolution on the 1915 issue in Turkey. How do you see the debate in Turkey? What’s your opinion about the different initiatives that have appeared recently [April 24 commemorations, the ozur diliyoruz campaign, the conference in Diyarbakir]? Do you hope for eventual recognition of the genocide from Turkey?
T.A.: Turkey’s domestic opposition should be taken more seriously. A group of individuals are in the thick of an honorable struggle that truly deserves more respect. Although Hrant Dink’s death was a turning point of sorts, they still don’t receive enough international support or interest. No one’s asking them, “How are you doing? What do you need?”

Even if the draft bill in France came to be as the product of differing interests, even if it is disregarded, I wish those working for the law in France would ask Turkish grassroots activists what they think of such an initiative. I would like to see this as a starting point for dialogue. This channel of communication hasn’t been opened and should be built as soon as possible.

A major reason the “bridge” hasn’t been built is the complete lack of interest outside of Turkey, particularly by the Armenian Diaspora, in Turkey’s growing democratization. Indeed, despite the pro-democracy movement’s positive aspects and successes, the struggle within Turkey will get nowhere on its own. The “denial coalition and industry” can’t be changed by domestic pressure alone, but it can be defeated if—and only if—the internal opposition joins forces with a harmonious and balanced external pressure.

Dialogue between Turkey’s civil activists and the worldwide struggle for “genocide recognition” is urgently needed. One reason it has yet to be initiated is the decades-old mutual prejudices about ethno-religious and other social attributes. Also, Turkey’s civil activists have yet to appreciate the significance of genocide recognition within their own democracy struggles. While Turkish activists perceive international demands for genocide recognition as distractions or obstacles to their own agenda, a large portion of the diaspora fails to appreciate the strong bond between genocide recognition and democracy-building in Turkey. If anything, they tend to belittle and underestimate this process.

However, I don’t want to lay too much blame on either side. In truth, the issue goes beyond mutual perceptions of malice or benevolence. An even deeper problem is actually that the sides are struggling for disparate goals.

Genocide recognition, in essence, is about justice, not freedom of expression or thought. A democratic or free society, such as France or the U.S., may still have unresolved historical injustices, for example towards Algeria or Native Americans. Turkish civil society still believes that its own problems are due to limitations on the freedom of thought. Other goals, such as justice and confronting history, are dismissed as unaffordable luxuries or deferred to some imaginary future. Hence the negative reaction to demands for simple truth and justice.

This is the dilemma that must be surmounted. Justice and confronting history can be achieved only with the establishment of a free and democratic society. The campaign for “truth and justice” and the movement for “freedom and democracy” are not mutually exclusive, nor should they result in confrontation. Quite the contrary, they are, and ought to to be, inseparable goals. The demands of the diaspora and Turkish society must be brought together. The duty to build bridges between foreign and domestic civil activism is the most urgent thing right now.


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