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Turkey Starts To Admit It Has an ‘Armenian Question’

ICC Note:

Growing number of Turkish writers and scholars are starting to discuss the Armenian genocide, when a million Christians were killed by the Ottoman Turks during World War I, but nationalist Turks consider such discussions an insult to “Turkishness.”

by Mavi Zambak

AsiaNews (09/22/06) – Section 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it an offence to insult Turkish identity, is outdated, a leftover from a nationalist past that is still hanging, thanks in part to groups like the Grey Wolves, who are linked to the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi or MHP). It was Grey Wolves’ member Mehmet Ali Ağca who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981.

Last year famous Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk received death threats after admitting to a German newspaper that a million Armenians had been killed in Turkey . He was also charged under Section 301 with denigrating “Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, [. . .] the Government of the Republic of Turkey , the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security organizations”. Only after several postponements and Europeans grumbling about Turkey ’s commitment to freedom of expression was the writer found not guilty on January 24 of this year.

Similarly, elements within the judiciary close to the MHP tried to ban a conference entitled Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy at Istanbul ’s Bilgi University on September 24-25 2005 after it was blocked in the previous May because its scientific validity and the qualifications of its participants were challenged. Also in this case, protests in favour of academic freedom led Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to intervene and so it went ahead.

Elif Şafak, a young Turkish writer who lives in the United States , went on trial yesterday for the same reason. Charges were brought again by Kemal Kerincsiz, head of the Executive Board of the Lawyers’ Association, which pretends to defend the country against any writer, editor, journalist or free thinker opposed its own narrow-minded nationalism.

On trial with Ms Şafak was her bestselling novel The Bastard of Istanbul (50,000 copies already sold) in which an Armenian character accuses “Turkish butchers” of massacring Christian Armenians from 1915 till the end of the Ottoman Empire.

If Pamuk risked three years in prison for a historical-political statement, Ms Şafak faced the same prospect for words uttered by a fictional character in a novel that had nothing autobiographical about it. But she too was acquitted and case against her was thrown out of court. Kemal Kerincsiz lost again.

With the exception of a few nationalist lawyers who protested outside the Istanbul courthouse, no one has questioned the judge’s decision.

The writer was not present at the proceedings because she gave birth to a daughter over the weekend. But outside the courthouse nationalist protesters came face to face with her left-wing supporters. As a shouting match quickly descended into scuffles, riot police moved to stop them from degenerating.

All this is a sign that Turkish nationalism is no longer what I used to be: the ban on talking about Armenian issues is increasingly being violated.

For years, Turkey has tried to tackle its own recent history. The Armenian Question is undoubtedly one of the hardest and most painful ones. It is at the core of a process Turkish historian Altuğ Taner Akçam has called the black hole of the Turkish Republic ’s identity. Leading the charge are Turkish journalists and intellectuals.

“There is a silent revolution underway but it is largely the work of reform-minded political and cultural elites,” Ms Şafak said. “The refusal to acknowledge the genocide inflicted on the Armenian people stems from collective amnesia, a fracture point in [a people’s] memory”. Several cultural events are however underway to “give back to the Turkish people its own memory and past”.

In early 2005 an exhibit showcasing some 600 old postcards opened in Istanbul . The purpose was to allow ordinary Turkish citizens to see how important and rooted the Armenian presence was on Ottoman territory. The opening of Istanbul ’s Armenian Museum , inaugurated by Prime Minister Erdogan himself, represents another step in the same direction.

On the 90th anniversary of the genocide (1915-1916), TV stations, including state-run broadcasters, devoted several programmes to the Armenian Question inviting historians and intellectuals with different points of view to round table discussions.

With in-depth reports, interviews and editorials, print media has also begun covering the Armenian Question and modern Armenia .

The publishing industry has also started to do its part by releasing many books in Turkish on the issue.

Another element in this trend is the number of Turks of Armenian origin daring to speak out. For decades descendants of Armenians converted to Islam to escape the massacres tried to hide their shameful origins. Now, taking advantage of greater openness in today’s Turkish society, many are coming out into the open and reclaim their roots.

Lawyer Fethiye Cetin was amongst the first to do it. In her 2004 book Anneannem (My Grandmother), she tells the story of her grandmother who was born in an Armenian village in Elazig province, eastern Turkey . Based on the old woman’s recollections of her life, the tragic events of 1915, the massacre of the men of her village, the deportation of the women, her own adoption by a Muslim family and conversion come alive again. The book has sold 12,000 copies and is in its 7th printing.

What is important to Ms Cetin is that hundreds of “people in a situation like mine called to tell me: ‘Me too, my grandmother . . . always with a veil of suffering.”

“I hope that my book will be a trailblazer. I, too, was afraid to deal with this because it is so taboo,” she said. “Being called an Armenian was an insult. Armenians are seen as conspirators, but today there is process of digging out” the truth.

After her book came out others started revealing that they, too, were partly Armenian according to columnist Bekir Coskun. This set in motion a new trend as more and more people tried to stir the murky waters of their past.

Film maker Berke Bas is one of them. She set out to find out more about of her own old grandmother’s story and interviewed residents of Ordu, a town on the Black Sea, in north-eastern Turkey .

“Many people provided me with information. They remembered very well their old neighbours,” she said. “Turks in Ordu remember with sadness and nostalgia a time of peace and coexistence.”

For the young woman who learnt about her Armenian ancestry only as an adult, Turks today are better prepared to look at their past and are happy to discover a history that is different from the official version, one in which Armenians were portrayed as cruel enemies.

“In my opinion half of all Turks are of Armenian origin,” said Luiz Bakar, an attorney for Istanbul ’s Armenian Patriarchate, as she told stories of converts who talked to her.

According to Bakar, every year about 20 people or so, who lived most of their life as Muslims, come to the Armenian Patriarchate to be baptised finding their way back to the religion of their forebears before they, too, die.

In order to look at the past with courage the nationalist stranglehold over history must be broken. Only this way can the country’s painful and troubled past be brought to light without fear of losing face or one’s honour.

This is why more and more people want Section 301 of the Penal Code abolished, a step the European Union has insistently called for. Not only does it criminalise any affront to Turkishness but it also stifles freedom of thought and limits the rights of historians to freely conduct their research.

Prime Minister Erdogan himself welcomed the court’s decision in favour of Ms Elif Şafak.

He went further and said that parliament must take heart and sit down to calmly discuss abolishing or at least unanimously amending the offensive section that has forced to so many Turkish intellectuals to stand in the defendant’s box.

Still another writer, Ipek Calishar, is up for trial on October 5. She is faced with a possible five-year sentence for writing the story of Atatürk’s former wife thanks to the latter’s sister. Like the Armenian Question, the founder of the Turkish Republic is another issue, too taboo for Turkish nationalists.