Prof. Taner Akçam of Clark University
Prof. Taner Akçam

Akçam: Fight against Denial Must Go On


The following is the speech of Prof. Taner Akçam, on April 21, at the State House in Connecticut.

Every year, I ask myself again and again the same question: Why and how should we commemorate past atrocities, such as genocide? This question is actually part of two larger questions: First, why should we remember past atrocities; in other words, why confront history? Isn’t it better let bygones be bygones? And secondly what is denialism and how do we fight it?

About the first question: There are several reasons why we need to remember past atrocities and acknowledge historic wrong doings:

The first reason is the restoration of humanity. First, we MUST remember the victims. We have to pay our respects to the dead and re-humanize them. Dehumanization is one of the most prevalent characteristics of mass atrocities. It precedes all mass atrocities known to man, because the only way you can achieve the kind of mass psychology required to motivate one group to annihilate another is to first make the “other” inhuman. This is the way to overcome the normal human revulsion against murder. Nazis categorized (defined) Jews as “bacteria or microbe/germs”; in Rwanda the Tutsis called the Hutus “cockroaches.” Ottoman Turkish rulers considered Armenians to be a “tumor” in the Turkish body that should be removed, this term was used very often by the leaders of Teshkilati Mahsusa. By depriving the victim group of its humanity, perpetrators pave the way for mass-atrocities to occur.

Commemoration is, if nothing else, an act of protest against this repulsive phenomenon. Re-humanizing the victims by honoring them and restoring their dignity is one of the most important steps to denounce the perpetrator. Without recognition, successor generations cannot properly mourn and heal. Mourning and healing are necessary for closure and can only come after the truth is acknowledged. If we fail to acknowledge it, we fall into a trap that continues to support the perpetrators and their ultimate goals. After decades of denials, Armenians need to heal and to understand that the justice they seek will prevail.

The second reason is for remembrance. By remembering, we create the foundations for co-existence. When you have two or more groups that have experienced a painful past filled with violent acts, they must engage in mutual dialogue over that history if there is any hope of living together in the future. Without this kind of ongoing and constructive dialogue, these groups will continue to view each other with suspicion and will remain victims of their tragic past.

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This might not be a burning problem here in the diaspora but there are still Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks living in Turkey, and more importantly, Turkey and Armenia are two neighboring countries which have to live together. If Turkey cannot engage in an honest reckoning with its past and enter into a serious dialogue with Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians over that past, and listen to what are deeply painful histories by these communities, the latter will never feel any measure of trust for Turkey and Turks. The only way for these peoples to live together with the Turks in peace in Turkey or as neighbors next to each other, will be if the Turkish government and the people of Turkey (Turks, Kurds, Alevites, Sunnis, etc.) acknowledge the historic wrongdoings in an honest way and accept their own responsibility for what happened. Without genuinely confronting and accepting the painful periods of this history, a common future will never be constructed.

The third reason for confronting history: We remember the past and commemorate past mass atrocities because we believe this is the prerequisite for a democratic and peaceful future. If you want to build a democratic country that respects human rights, you can’t get there without honestly acknowledging human rights violations in the past. The world you create today is built on the way you view your past. Continual denial of human right abuses in the past guarantees that disrespect of human rights and democracy will prevail today. The importance of this principle can be understood when you consider the situation that Turkey is in, and what is happening in Syria.

In the past, beginning with Armenians, the most basic human rights of all Christians were trampled on in Ottoman territories and these citizens were stripped of basic rights in the past. Their demands for equality and social justice were viewed as grave threats to the national security of Ottoman-Turkish society.

Today, the Kurds are facing the same issue. The most basic demands around freedom and justice by the Kurds are perceived to be threats against the security of the Turkish state and are met with violence. It should come as no surprise that the same violation of human rights in response to demands for basic rights that were made by Christians in the past, are now being perpetrated in a similar way when it comes to Kurdish demands.

What we see here is a basic principle that acknowledgment and recognition of past injustices is not only an act related to an event from the past but has an impact on the present and plays a very important role in establishing a democratic society today. It acts as a statement for what we as citizens value in the present.

The fourth important reason for commemoration is to raise our voices to say, “never again.” If we do not want to relive mass atrocities, we must remember! Remembering in and of itself may not be enough to prevent repetition of the past; however, it is an important pre-condition. Not remembering or acknowledging an historic wrong, carries with it the very real potential, if not probability to relive it. Denying past atrocities and historic injustices in Turkish history is a subtle way of sending the message of a readiness to commit the same crimes again. Turkish denialism of the Armenian Genocide contains the kernel of potential risk which continues to threaten different ethnic-religious groups and people in the region around Turkey. It is not an exaggeration to state that Turkey with its denialist policies is a security threat in the region.

The last important reason to commemorate past-atrocities is in order to fight denialism. To combat Turkish denialism and further the quest for truth and justice, commemoration of the Armenian Genocide is and must be, an essential part of that fight. The crux of commemoration is that it calls upon us to remember the truth. Commemoration is the effort to bear witness, over and over again, to the truth! And denialism is just the opposite; its purpose is to hide, to conceal and to erase the truth.

This brings us to my second question? How do we fight the denialism?


Fighting Denialism

We believe, for the most part, that facts differ from opinions and interpretations occupy a different place in discourse. We believe that the “truth” rests upon established facts, over which there is a consensus; as such, they are not the same thing as opinion or interpretation. We would like also to believe that the practice of “denialism” is a simple denial of the facts. On the surface it seems like opposing denialism is simply a matter of standing up to the truth and calling out lies. This is not true. Rather, there is a nebulous territory between facts and truth AND denialism germinates from this territory. Denialism marshals its own “facts” and it has its own “truth.” It actually lays claim to be another “truth telling.” Denialism is a different version, a different approach to history and for this purpose it creates its own facts. And at the end of the day, the thing that we call “truth,” is made to appear as nothing more than our own version of history. What denialism aims to do is to create an atmosphere in which two contradicting versions of history allegedly exist.

Over the past decades, those who abide by the dictum, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” have followed the public and historical debates over the Armenian Genocide with disbelief. Consecutive Turkish governments have succeeded in creating their own version of history with their own documentary evidence, selectively pulled from the Turkish archives. They raised their viewpoint to the level of reasonable historical possibility. As I showed in my latest book, successive Turkish governments have followed a three-layered strategy to achieve this goal.

First, they created their own facts and archives; today, the Turkish archives are full of documents which purport to show that there was no genocide. What happened, if you review these archival records, was a legal and legitimate act of a government to relocate its own people, nothing more. Secondly, they hid and/or destroyed materials that would have belied the “version” they are intent on proving; records that indicate the genocidal intent of the Ottoman government. The materials from the Military Tribunals which were held during 1919-1921 in İstanbul against the perpetrators of Armenian Genocide fall under this category. Until I discovered a significant number of these documents in a private archive of the Armenian Catholic Priest, Krikor Guerguerian, these materials had vanished and were lost to posterity. Over the decades, the denialists loved to repeat the argument at every occasion: “show us the originals.” And thirdly, they questioned the authenticity of some existing materials ,for example, the Killing Orders of Talat Pasha published by Armenian intellectual Aram Andonian. Until I proved otherwise, the denialists argued that all these telegrams published by Andonian were fake and fabricated by the Armenians.

With these efforts, previously the facts of the Armenian Genocide were discredited and relegated to the status of mere opinion. You often heard the argument that there are two sides to the Armenian Genocide arguments and we have to listen both sides etc. but this is a thinly veiled attempt at obfuscation on the part of the Turkish government when it comes to what happened to the Armenian people. My hope is that my latest book Killing Orders removes a cornerstone from the denialist edifice and further establishes the historicity of the Armenian Genocide. My findings represent an earthquake in the field of Armenian Genocide and will contribute enormously to the fight for recognition.

However, despite all academic achievements for the establishment of the truth, the political question remains the same. If two sides are each claiming to possess the truth, how are we going to prove convincingly that our side is the real truth? If we really believe our version then it seems like just bringing up the actual facts should be enough, but that is where we go wrong. There is another important factor that is consistently ignored by those interested in truth: it is power. It is power that can determine which version of history is going to be the ‘truth’. The biggest difference, between Holocaust denialism and Armenian Genocide denialism, is this very factor. Holocaust denialism has no power but denialism of the Armenian Genocide has power. Turkey’s denialist policies receive tremendous support, especially from the U.S., England and Israel, which ensures that denialism continues on.

For this reason, we must consider opposing denialism to be a war for ultimate victory over power. This is a power struggle and we have to win this power struggle. Commemorations are a part of this power struggle. All one needs to do to understand this is take a look at the way the American government has approached the subject of genocide. Today, hardly a single member of Congress believes that the Genocide did not happen. Almost all members of Congress will admit that the Armenian Genocide is an established fact but despite this, they deny the official recognition via a resolution in Congress. The problem isn’t believing the truth. The rationale behind this reluctance to acknowledge the truth is explained away as “a matter of national security interest of the United States in the Middle East.”

We have two set of arguments here which are brought up in opposition to one another; “National security of United States” versus or moral responsibilities or in other phraseology “realists” versus “moral fundamentalists.” The “realists” emphasize national security concerns and consider the acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide by Congress to be “against US strategic interest.” The words you hear so often are “we should not jeopardize our strategic interests in the Middle East because of a moral issue, which occurred in the distant past.” On the other side we have “fundamentalist moralists” emphasizing the supremacy of morality against “real interests.”

It is clear, US denial of official recognition isn’t based upon a denial of the facts; it’s a denialism constructed on a calculation of national interests. As a result, to combat this form of denialism, it isn’t enough to argue about the truth of what happened in the past. The arguments have to be political ones that make the case for stating that it is misguided to think you can attain “national security” this way. We must demonstrate that pitting “National interest” against “morality” as mutually exclusive is just plain wrong. In fact, any security policy in the Middle East that excludes morality cannot ultimately be a “realistic” policy that will work and that eventually it undermines national security.

Indeed, if one knows the Middle East, one would easily recognize that history and historical injustices are not just dead issues from the past; the past IS the present in the Middle East. So therefore, morality is a very real issue, and for realpolitik to be successful in the region; moral values, in this instance, the specific one of acknowledging historic wrong doings, must be integrated into a policy of national security.

The events that unfold before us, every week prove that we are right in making this argument. There is a strong interconnection between security, democracy and facing history in the Middle East. Even a passing glance at the region makes it clear that historical injustices and the persistent denial of these injustices by one or another state or ethnic-religious group is a major stumbling block, not only for the democratization of the region, but also for the establishment of stable relations between different ethnic and religious groups and the states.

Our central argument should be that a failure to confront history honestly is one of the major reasons for insecurity and instability in the region. You cannot solve any problem in the Middle East today without addressing historic wrong doings because history is not something in the past; The past is the present in the Middle East.

Putting in another way, one of the main problems in the region is the insecurity felt by different groups and states towards each other as a result of events that have occurred in history. When you make the persistent denial of these pain-filled acts a part of your security policy this brings with it insecurity towards the other. This is what we call the security dilemma: What one does to enhance one’s own security causes a reaction that, in the end, can make one even less secure. For this reason, any security concept, any policies of Realpolitik in and for the region that ignores and forgets the addressing of historic wrong doings is doomed to fail in the end.

It isn’t hard to show the strong interconnection between Turkey’s denialism of Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s domestic and regional policies today. I don’t want to repeat the recent dark developments especially after the coup attempt of July 2016, however, let me put it in numbers: Currently, there are about more than 10 parliamentary representatives and close to 150 journalists in jail; approximately 4,000 academic intellectuals have been forced to step down from universities, and Kurdish cities have been destroyed and burned to the ground. According to a report published by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human rights in 2017, a total of 158 media companies had been closed down; these include 45 newspapers, 60 TV and radio stations, 19 periodicals, 29 publishing houses and 5 press agencies. In addition to these facts, Turkey is experiencing a massive exodus of its intellectual elite – perhaps the largest one in its history. More than 1,000 academic, literary and journalist intellectuals have already fled to Europe. Turkey is galloping toward if it has not already arrived at a totalitarian regime. The primary Turkish argument in support of these policies is that the demand for more democracy and respect of human rights is a threat to the national security of Turkey and must be crushed at its root.

Aggression towards Syria is another part of this Turkish national security policy. Perceiving Kurdish demands for a democratic structure in Syria or in Turkey as a national security treat Turkey has invaded Syria. Ziya Gökalp, one of the ideologues of the Young Turks and an architect for late Ottoman policies, framed Ottoman aggression towards the East during the First World War years with the mythology of the “Red Apple.” The “Red Apple” is a symbol or belief that dates back to old Turkish lore, which is meant to reflect Turkish sovereignty over the universe. When talking about battles and victory, they would characterize it was having reached the “Red Apple” and the “Red Apple” has come to symbolize the idea of pan-Turkism, the uniting of all Turkish peoples. It is very important to be aware of this mythology in order to understand the Armenian genocide. It is extremely revealing that Tayyip Erdoğan referenced this legendary symbol just before the Afrin operation in 2018. In a speech he made on January 22, 2018, he answered the question “Where are we going?” with the response “Towards the Red Apple….yes, towards the Red Apple.”

All of these policies are conceptualized, decided and implemented by the highest constitutional institution in Turkey: The National Security Council. This supreme constitutional authority established a “Coordinating Committee for the Fight Against Baseless Claims of Genocide” In 2001. All of the important ministries, including the Armed Forces, are represented on this committee, which is chaired by the Vice Prime Minister. The only mission of this institution is to fight those who are asking for recognition of mass-atrocities, among them the Armenian genocide, which were committed by successive Ottoman-Turkish governments in the past; and it is not a coincidence that it is the same institution, that considers the democratic demands of Turkey’s opposition and regional developments in Syria to be a national security threat.

The US government should recognize that any argument here in the United States that brings up America’s national interest as the reason to reject the official acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide will result in supporting Turkey’s domestic and regionally aggressive policies. The United States needs to change its policy towards the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the security concept towards Turkey. It is my sincere hope that the most recent developments in Syria have convinced the United States how misguided it is to think that you can create security in the Middle East by supporting enemies of democracy.

Commemoration of the Armenian genocide is important and an essential element in our political fight for power. We have to fight until we make our truth the powerful one, this is the only way to respect the dignity of victims; to establish justice, to create democracy, peace and stability in the region and to stop mass-atrocities in the future.

(Prof. Taner Akçam holds the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies  Clark University.)

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