Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Tale of Two Nations

The 24th of April is upon us again, and for the 97th time, that date will pass without proper acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide by the government of Turkey.

The Genocide's survivors, and their descendants are, time and again, confronted with the refrain that ‘history should be left to historians’ and that this is not a political matter. In the most general sense, those who try to divorce history from politics in so definite and absolute a manner forget that, if politics is about the making of history, history is also about the making of politics. The ways we treat issues like racism, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, war, democracy, equality, security in our times are inextricably bound with our societies’ views on the histories connected to these issues, from which their relevant discourses and practices inevitably emanate.

The continuing very political relevance of the Armenian Genocide is amplified by the politics of denial and the continuing effects these have on the two societies most directly affected. In Turkey proper (as amply documented by Turkish sociologist Taner Ak├žam in the video below) denial sustains the mythologies associated with a virulently anti-Armenian, anti-Western, paranoid ultra-nationalism that has always existed in the dark underbelly of the ‘deep’ state (which claimed Hrant Dink as its most recent victim, in 2007). Among Armenians, denial constantly re-opens the wounds of 1915, combining the traumas of victimhood into an unrealistic nostalgia for dangerous and self-destructive imaginaries, and a deep-seated fear and hatred of the stereotypical 'barbaric Turk' (one that is, incidentally, extended towards the Azeris, massively complicating a solution to the - very contemporary and political - conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh).

This is a tale of two deeply troubled nations.

On the one hand, Armenians maintain a profound sense of injustice that simple exhortations to 'look towards the future' will not dispel: attempts at extermination have a rather annoying tendency to be remembered by victims and their descendants. Almost every Armenian family’s history – including my late father's – can be traced through the sands of the Syrian Desert. The Genocide stands at the core of Armenians’ identity, and remains a rallying cry precisely because of the lack of closure brought about by this absence of recognition by the successor to the perpetrator state. It is unrealistic, and, in fact, patronising for third parties - including subsequent US and UK governments - to expect a group with such deeply held grievance to simply roll out of the way of geopolitical imperatives and give up in its quest for recognition. The core demands of Armenian lobbying groups – of recognition and contrition – are uniformly held, by Armenians in both the diaspora and Armenia proper, whatever their ideological persuasion, from the radical left to the extreme right.

On the other hand, Ankara loses an absurd amount of energy and prestige in trying to re-write what cannot be re-written in an attempt to defend the historical reputation of an Ottoman autocratic junta that shared none of the democratic values Turkey’s current leaders claim to aspire to. It reacts in an entirely irrational manner every time the issue is brought up in foreign legislatures or on international fora, a manner that is quite removed from the emerging self-view in Ankara of Turkey as a leading regional power. It pursues a blatantly absurd version of history that requires it to fall into the ridiculous at best, heartless at worst (as when it argues, without a hint of irony, that Armenians 'just died' from hunger and disease after death marches into desert concentration camps). And it ends up restricting the freedom of speech of its own citizens through article 301 of its penal code in its attempts to maintain the historiographic orthodoxy of their discourse.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, recently made statements about ‘sharing the pain’ with the Armenians on the 100th anniversary of the Genocide (naturally avoiding that term), in 3 years time. That would perhaps, just perhaps, be the suitable time for Ankara to come to terms with its past by properly - expressly - recognising that what happened in 1915 was Genocide. The odds are vastly against that happening; but anything less will leave both peoples stuck in a part of shared history that has, for too long, driven the mutual hatred and distrust of generations.

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