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From Principled Recognition to Practical Reconciliation?
 
Rami Khouri - syndicated columnist, former editor of the Jordan Times in Amman and current editor of the Daily Star in Beirut - wrote an article last week entitled Palestine to Babylon and back: The refugee key to peace...

11 July   |   2003   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... One short excerpt caught my attention in that its jaundiced truthfulness applied not only to the fifty five year old Palestinian refugee problem, but also to the eighty eight year old question of the Armenian Genocide. Rami wrote:

The vast majority of Israelis still refuse to acknowledge their country’s role in the expulsion and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians in1947 -48. Israelis are terrified that admitting historical and moral responsibility for some or much of the Palestinian refugee problem will automatically open the floodgates to millions of Palestinians exercising their ‘right of return’ to their original lands and homes … My sense is that the single most important and priority lynchpin to a resolution of the refugee issue is Israeli acknowledgement and admission of Israeli responsibility for some or much of what happened to the Palestinians in1947 - 48… Until then, the Palestinians will continue to demand an absolute ‘right of return’ for all refugees, and the stalemate will persist.

Might Rami’s words not strike a chord with those who have engaged with the Armenian Genocide? Would his paragraph not assume equal cogency if Israel were substituted with Turkey, the Palestinians became Armenians and the Palestinian refugee issue metamorphosed into the Armenian Genocide? And would the stalemate Rami alludes to in relation to Palestinian refugees not also persist in the context of the Armenian Genocide for reasons that are not too dissimilar?

In a world spun on realpolitik, I can perhaps try to understand that some politicians and governments choose not to recognise the Armenian Genocide for expedient reasons that have more to do with their vested political and economic interests or with assuaging Turkey’s irascibility than with historical truth! After all, is that not what is happening to some extent with Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK where Armenians are not being invited to participate fully in the annual commemorative events? But I fail to understand - let alone condone or accept - that Turkey buries its head in the sand and resolutely follows the example of an ostrich in danger! Surely, by ignoring the world, the world will not ignore us too!

This feeling of dispiriting frustration challenged me again last month when I read a treatise entitled Armenian Diaspora in Britain and the Armenian Question by Dr Sedat Laciner from Canakkale University in Turkey. What should have been an academic and analytical piece yielded to the all-too-frequent fallible proclivity for point scoring, aggressive defensiveness and [un]witting distortions. Such writers and speakers, bolstered by a ready platoon of apologists, often choose to pursue the rather coarse tactics of attempting to disprove the Armenian Genocide despite incontrovertible evidence endorsed by the likes of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer who coined the word ‘genocide’ and helped draft the1948 UN treaty that would ban it, and by scores of reputable historians in the UK, Germany, Israel and elsewhere.

As the Auschwitz survivor and author Terence Des Pres wrote in The Survivor, ‘Against historical crimes we fight as best we can, and a cardinal part of this engagement is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. Richard Hovannisian reinforced Des Pres’ statement in Remembrance and Denial, ‘Pretending to engage in academic enquiry, deniers make quantitative comparisons to obscure qualitative comparisons, aiming to remove the specific features of systematic annihilation and to reduce the culpability of the genocidal Government, or even fully to exonerate it.’

But let me put aside for a moment the overall body of factual proof that attests to acts of genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks against Armenians. Let me focus solely on three valuable resources, two of which are non-Armenian and less exposed to indignant accusations of ‘bias’. The first one is the vivid account by US Consul Leslie Davis in Kharpert (Harpoot) writing to US Ambassador Morgenthau in Constantinople about the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated against Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. His story, The Slaughterhouse Province: An American Diplomat’s Report on the Armenian Genocide.1915 -1917, is an unerring definition of genocide. The second one is The Light Bearers, a book published recently by Jean Hatton for BibleLands, that contains graphic and vivid accounts by the British Secretaries and missionaries of the Turkish Missions Aid Society, later the BibleLands Society, on the gruesome crimes perpetrated against Armenians by Ottoman Turks and their erstwhile cohorts. And the third one is the documentary film Voices from the Lake by Michael Hagopian, a Kharpert survivor, on his own scarring experiences.

With a blend of political desuetude and delinquent obduracy, Turkish governments maintain the stalemate by refusing to hear the primal scream of over one million Armenian Turkish victims of the first genocide in the20 th century. Indeed, the likelihood of an economic boom that could transform the whole region were it to become stable and investor-friendly is being stunted largely by Turkey’s recalcitrance to confront the painful truths of its Ottoman past. In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power - whilst interrogating a century of American history that has failed to marshal the will to stop genocide - segues powerfully, ‘A bias toward belief would do less harm than a bias toward disbelief.’ Alas, despite the vision and fortitude of those Turks, Armenians or their friends who are challenging the policies of denial let alone suggesting different paths toward acknowledgement and subsequent normalisation, the serpentine road from principled recognition today to practical reconciliation tomorrow still remains quite bumpy, full of potholes and inaccurate signage. But as Lemkin liked to say somewhat wryly, history is ‘much wiser than lawyers and statesmen’!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2003   |   11 July

 

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