Stephan Pechdimaldji (Photo courtesy of Medium)

Oz Must Affirm Reality of Armenian Genocide

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By Stephan Pechdimaldji

As a grandson of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, the Senate race in Pennsylvania between Dr. Mehmet Oz and Lt. Governor John Fetterman holds a special meaning for me, and thousands of Armenian-Americans. For years, Armenian-Americans have fought for recognition of the genocide, when more than 1.5 million Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman Turks — a crime that Turkey denies to this day.

It is also an event that Mr. Oz has not fully addressed. When asked, his campaign delivered a meaningless statement saying the candidate “opposes genocide” and “the evils of World War I should be commemorated.” These are the kinds of euphemisms and verbal gymnastics the Turkish government has long used to deflect attention from its particular crimes.

Pennsylvania voters need to know whether Mr. Oz stands with Turkey, or if he believes that families like mine were victims of the first genocide of the 20th century.

I grew up hearing stories of how my grandparents survived the Armenian Genocide. Of how at the age of 15 my grandfather, Haroutin Toufayan, hid in a haystack for more than forty days to avoid Turkish soldiers. Of how his own father and brother were taken away, never to be seen or heard from again. Of how he fled through the deserts of Syria and made his way to Aleppo, where he worked as a welder to make enough money to eventually settle in Cairo.

His story is not a lie — but Turkey has never accepted responsibility, even embarking on a decades-long campaign to pressure the U.S. government not to recognize the Armenian Genocide. And for the most part, they had been successful, by using the cover of NATO to persuade lawmakers that recognition would not be in the interests of the United States.

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However, that all changed when Congress finally passed a non-binding resolution in 2019 that officially affirmed recognition, culminating with President Biden’s official recognition in his Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day statement last year. As a Senator, Mr. Oz would be able to either uphold recognition, or roll back years of progress made by Armenian Americans and human rights advocates.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong in taking pride in the country of one’s parents’ birth. As a first generation Armenian-American, I take much pride in my own ethnicity. But even though Mr. Oz has pledged to renounce his Turkish citizenship before being sworn in as a U.S. Senator, he has yet to do that. He has also served in the Turkish military and voted in the 2018 Turkish Presidential election — but not the 2018 American elections.

While Turkey is a NATO ally and purports to be a democracy, it is led by an authoritarian, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has disregarded the rule of law. He has used world events, including regional military conflicts like the wars in Syria and Ukraine, to reshape Turkey’s image. He has gone so far as talking about resurrecting the Ottoman Empire, while fashioning himself as a modern-day sultan. Mr. Oz has met and dined with Mr. Erdogan on multiple occasions. He needs to answer questions about his relationship with the Erdogan regime.

Further, as a senator for Pennsylvania, Mr. Oz would represent the state where Fethullah Gulen, an 81-year-old Turkish religious and intellectual leader, has lived in exile in the Pocono Mountains for the past 20 years. Mr. Erdogan has accused Mr. Gulen of masterminding the failed coup attempt against him in 2016, and has declared Mr. Gulen’s spiritual movement a terrorist organization. Mr. Erdogan has tried to pressure the U.S. government to extradite the Islamic cleric, to no avail.

Mr. Gulen’s real crime, of course, is not treason, but daring to lead a movement with principles that conflict with Mr. Erdogan’s. Mr. Oz should address whether he would represent the interests of Mr. Erdogan or his own constituent, Mr. Gulen, in this matter of international interest.

The concerns about Mr. Oz’s suitability to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate aren’t about his Turkish heritage. They’re about his apparent connections to the country’s ruling regime and ideology. Pennsylvania voters deserve better answers from Mr. Oz than they’re received so far.

(Stephan Pechdimaldji is a communications strategist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. This commentary was first published June 21, 2022.)

 

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