Entering the Centennial Year on the Wrong Foot

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

As if the scourge of our failures in the Diaspora was not enough on this very auspicious moment of history, now dissonances and discord have also surfaced in Armenia, when cooperation and harmony are most needed to face the challenge of the century.

The centennial activities thus far are confined to ceremonial affairs, symbolic gatherings and heart-wrenching memorials, which all serve as necessary catharsis for the pain built up during the last century. But if those activities are not combined with political activism, we will be condemned to live in an illusory world.

The most significant political statement would have been the completion and the inauguration of the Armenian Genocide Museum, an earshot from the White House, in the nation’s capital. That would have served as a symbol of our collective will to survive and to pursue justice. It would also have served as a reminder to the world about a century of injustice, as well as an educational forum for all to learn about the Armenian Genocide.

The failure to deliver the museum on schedule to provide substance to our memorials is one catastrophe, while yet another is the indifference regarding this failure. Where is the outrage?

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Failing to build the museum by 2015 is tantamount to delivering a victory to the Turks on a silver platter.

The indignity goes to all the parties who contributed to this monumental failure, but above all, it goes to the entire community for its lackadaisical indifference for accountability.

This much is the Diaspora’s share of responsibility.

Turning to Armenia, we have more disheartening news. The scholars who were supposed to lay the foundations of our centennial activities, especially by developing a solid body of scholarly Genocide literature, are at each others’ throats at this moment.

While there was overall concern that scholars in Armenia and the Diaspora were working at cross-purposes, labeling each other with unsavory epithets, now the disease has reached Armenia to pit prominent local scholars against each other, as well.

Some scholars in Armenia used to accuse their diasporan colleagues as agents of Turkey or the US State Department. The counter charge was that scholars in Armenia were mired in nationalistic narratives, which cannot win currency on the international market. Now, these latter accusations have also been thrown at prominent scholars living and publishing in Armenia.

During a recent press conference, Hayk Demoyan, the director of the Genocide Memorial and Museum, and the official coordinator of the centennial programs in Armenia, accused some scholars in Armenia of being agents of Turkey’s special services. He said, “During the organization of centennial commemorative events, there is a tendency to speak about righteous Turks who have saved Armenian lives, forgetting the fate of 1.5 million victims of genocide. Those who promote those tendencies are cooperating with the special services of the Turkish government. Nine out of 10 functions that they organize favor Turkey.” He added: “We are not talking only about the Diaspora. Those are high-level officials in the Republic of Armenia, who are undermining my activities as the secretary of the official centennial committee.”

Then he named another prominent scholar, Ashot Melkonian, saying the latter has tried to destroy his dissertation.

This is not the place to pass judgment on the academic merits or demerits of Hayk Demoyan or Ashot Melkonian, as the scenario is very ugly at a period when all efforts should be coordinated and directed towards organizing a successful centennial commemoration, especially when many foreign dignitaries will be converging on Yerevan on April 24. This kind of exchange of cheap shots does not augur well for a positive outcome.

Demoyan was a rising star in the academic circles when he was tapped by the government as the director of the museum. Before even beginning to deliver on his new job, he was accused of plagiarism and was severely criticized for presenting his doctoral dissertation in Russian rather than Armenian. Enter another scholar, Turkologist Ruben Melkonian, who has said that “both Ashot Melkonian and Hayk Demoyan are talented scholars, but their differences of opinion should not have moved to the public forum; they should have been confined to within the four walls of our academic institution.”

However, he went further to elaborate that there is some truth in the fact that the “grants offered by foreign sources in the organization of centennial activities mostly serve the interests of the Turkish side; let’s engage in dialogue, let’s forget the past, let’s talk about mutual pain, etc.”

Indeed, in certain quarters honoring righteous Turks has gained prominence. There has to come a time to pay due respect to Turkish individuals — who contrary to the Turkish masses and certainly risking their own lives — demonstrated humanity in saving Armenian lives. But those people were exceptions and not the rule. At this point, going after righteous Turks means to divert and dilute the issue. It is putting the cart before the horse.

The Jews have been honoring righteous gentiles but after what? After recovering their homeland and after benefitting from unprecedented compensation. Certainly they can rightfully honor the righteous individuals from a position of strength.

Ruben Melkonian further dwelt on the origins and the purposes of foreign grants by adding: “If we dig deep in the origins of those foreign grants, we may discover that they have been hatched in Turkey. I caution all Armenian organizations to refrain from receiving foreign grants, at least during this centennial year.”

One would have wished to begin the year with a salvo of positive news, but we are far from being in that kind of salutary disposition.

Speaking of righteous Turks, it is very appropriate to quote and then emulate Turkish columnist Cengiz Aktar, who has written a piece in Today’s Zaman newspaper under the title “Entering 1915.” He concludes his piece with the following: “The Armenian Genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as along as well fail to talk about, to recognize, understand and reckon with it. Its centennial anniversary actually offers us a historic opportunity to disperse with our habits, understand the Other and start with the collective therapy.”

We wish someone would prescribe the same collective therapy for all Armenians in order to put their house in order, demonstrate unity and determination so that we do not enter the centennial year on the wrong foot.