The Armenian Genocide: A way forward?
The Armenian Genocide: A way forward?
In the Annual Constantinople Lecture 2010, sponsored by the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association and promoted by Ekklesia, international ecumenical, political and legal consultant Harry Hagopian addresses the complex historical, political and psychological issues arising from Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1923, viewing it in relation to the Jewish and Rwandan genocides later that century. He also offers a deeply Christian perspective on the tragedy, seeing the way forward as located not just in political change but as a ‘healing process’ between peoples and nations - something that can be a source of hope for the world and for the benefit of both Armenians and Turks.
“When will the moment arrive that the crime of the annihilation of the Armenians will be recognized as fact?” - Günter Grass, German Nobel Prize winning author in Istanbul, on 14 April 2010.
Dorcy Rugamba is a Rwandan from Kigali, and most of his family were slain by the Hutu militia during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Co-author of the six-hour play Rwanda 94 that wove together survivor testimonies with music, comedy and fictional reconstructions, Rugamba, who settled in Brussels, always knew he had to wrestle with the psychological legacy of a genocide that not only killed his family but was perpetrated by an enemy that came from within the country itself.
His latest production with the Rwandan theatre company Urwintore is The Investigation, a revival of Peter Weiss’s searing 1965 German docudrama. It describes how ordinary people got caught up in the Nazi regime, and how many of them who were initially following orders later used their own personal cruelty to kill or maim their perceived enemies. Their collective and individual attitudes gave rise and credence to the chilling phrase ‘the banality of evil’ that was coined in 1963 by the German political theorist Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The banality of evil: in the same manner as Rugamba describes it in terms of his own experience, I believe that the acts of murder, extermination deportation, torture and terror perpetrated against Armenians in Turkey by Ottoman Turks and their proxies under the cover of WWI were both a result of orders given by the troika of the Young Turks’ leaders to eliminate Armenians as they were the momentum of brutality gained by blood-thirsty mobs who might well have been following orders but then exceeded them when their own primitive and homicidal instincts overtook their orders. I need only recall the infamy perpetrated by Djevdet Bey, the Vali of Van, who was known as the ‘horseshoer of Bashkale’ for nailing horseshoes to the feet of his Armenian victims. The overall result is what history has proven already, namely an Armenian population that lost well over one million of its men, women and children, and a race that was subjected to deliberate - albeit providentially unsuccessful - waves of elimination that are tantamount in law as much as in practice to sheer genocide.
“What would happen today if Germany suddenly decided that the Jewish Holocaust was not genocide: would America lobby that Germany should be allowed to get away with such a travesty?” - Robert Fisk, The Independent, 6 March 2010.
Over the past 95 years, and more pointedly in the past three decades or so, Armenians across the world have been campaigning indefatigably for an acknowledgement of their suffering and a recognition that theirs was a genocide by definition so that the evil that was visited upon them does not in fact become banal and the horrors their forebears experienced are not trivialised by the pedantic statements and hair-splitting responses of different political mouthpieces. Clearly leading the denialists is modern-day post-Ottoman Turkey that now has at its helm a reconstructed Islamist government attempting to lead the country into the EU. A new political leadership that claims to institute reforms refuses to examine the mirror of its own past. Even those few who have admitted to those crimes against Armenians attempt to justify them by deeming that Turks were under attack by Armenians. It is a way of denying genocide by claiming it was war, or as the historian Deborah E. Lipstadt wrote, turning the perpetrator into the victim as one of the latter stages of denial.
A good measure of the extent of a person’s (or a nation’s) denial is the vigour it demonstrates in defending itself and the aggression it levies against those who pry into it. It has been many years now since Freud argued that the guiltiest among us take it out on others who are the strongest. I would argue that we are no longer in a phase where we still have to debate whether the Armenian Genocide took place: the evidence is far too overwhelming and in my opinion quite corroborative. Indeed, governmental efforts - sadly such as those of the UK and USA - not to ruffle diplomatic relations with Turkey through convenient forgetfulness, shameless ignorance of the facts and staged friendliness, merely enable denialists to perpetuate their political interests and as such do a disservice to the overall normative, let alone ethical values of humanity.
Why is it that Turkey spends so much energy, diplomacy and money to militate against a truth that its leadership are quite aware of but that the people are largely disallowed from discovering for themselves? Why does Turkey refuse to accept an old reality and turn a new page in its relations with Armenia and Armenians across the Diaspora? My readers would doubtless have their own individual persuasions. However, for my part, I believe that one fundamental reason is because the Age of Empire never really left the Turkish consciousness despite the many changes that have occurred in Turkey and the world since 1915. It seems to me at times that the Turkish mentality - one that its Arab neighbours for instance, remain both aware and wary of given the renewed diplomatic and political flurry of initiatives undertaken by Turkey - is still an empire on pause, longing for a return to a reformatted sense of neo-Ottoman greatness. As Tolga Baysal, writer and film-maker in Istanbul, suggested, Turks are wilfully closing their eyes to the skeleton the Ottoman Empire had become in its final forlorn years, and so no one wants to remember the indignities visited upon the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. This might well translate into forgetfulness, or amnésie internationale (a play on words) as one commentator put it in a forum discussion last year. But it also reeks of something that is more disturbing than forgetfulness, and that is moral cowardice.
Consequently, any reference to the guilt of genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey against its Armenian citizens in 1915 as the zenith of ever-increasing massacres that started in the 19th century, has become the echo of such emaciated realities. This is indeed an emotional response, but with the Jewish Holocaust representing the baseline for genocides in the 20th century, Turkey refuses to be lumped in with this horrific event and wishes to maintain - falsely - a myth of an unimpeachable Ottoman legacy and a total disconnect with this genocide.
After all, was it not Dr Gregory H Stanton, former president of Genocide Watch, who also wrote in Eight Stages of Genocide that the culmination of genocide is denial? Or as the chartered clinical psychologist Aida Alayarian elucidated in her book Consequences of Denial, does the denial of the Armenian genocide not deprive its victims of the opportunity to make sense of their experience, as much as render Turkish society unable to come to terms with its past, and therefore with itself?
“Defending intellectual freedom is defending the possibility not only of a free academy but of a society willing to learn - and thus a society willing to see itself critically”
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, CARA Lecture, 12 May 2010.
According to Fatma Müge Göçek in Middle East Historiographies: Narrating the Twentieth Century, the dream of The Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad ve Terakki Cemiyeti) for establishing an ethnocratic empire by expanding to the east and consolidating an ethno-linguistic union with the Turks of Central Asia could have been impeded by the presence of a sizeable Armenian community in Asia Minor. According to her, the narratives of the Armenian massacres in Turkish historiography can be catalogued under three periodic headings. The first is the Ottoman investigative narrative (1915-1918) that did not question the 'facticity”'of the massacres or deaths. Instead, acknowledging that the massacres took place, this narrative questioned the reasons associated with it, and the Ottoman state published proceedings of the military tribunal that tried some of the perpetrators. In the second Republican defensive narrative (1923-present), the “deaths became distant memories” as the Armenian massacres were entirely denied. The moral blame for the incidents belonged to anybody except the Ottoman Turkish perpetrators. The Armenian victims themselves were blamed alongside the Western powers for the 1915 events. The third post-nationalist narrative (1990s-present) incorporated works that are “directly or indirectly critical of the nationalist master narrative but do not [necessarily] focus specifically on the Armenian deaths. They are “knowledge products of the emerging civil society” in Turkey.
However, a tentative public debate has begun to take shape in Turkey for the first time in decades, following the critical 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2005. According to Altinay and Turkyilmaz, this debate consisted of two main positions. The first revolved around questions of curiosity about the events of 1915-1916, whilst the second revolved around a “war of pre-defined positions” or what is called the “war of theses”. Among the ploys used by the Turkish thesis to diminish the reality and enormity of the genocide were an opposition to the use of the term ‘genocide’ and its replacement with tehcir or deportations in addition to the so-called ‘mutuality’ of those massacres, number-crunching and the question of intent - which is pivotal to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. However, over many years, historians and researchers worldwide have rebutted those undervalued claims and underlined that genocide was perpetrated against Armenians during this period. Turkish, European and American archives have demonstrated the issues of intent, numbers as well as non-mutuality. Only recently, fresh documents found in the national archives of the Foreign Ministry and the war archives of the General Staff in Sweden, as well as reports from Swedish missionaries and newspapers, confirm the view that the Ottoman Turkish government conducted a systematic extermination (utrotandet) and annihilation (utplåna) of the Armenian nation.
However, in the midst of denial, there are resonant voices or moving stories that keep coming out. There are all those righteous Turks who helped shelter Armenians during the genocide. But there are also those who worry about the impact of this chapter in Ottoman history upon their own society since coming clean should not be viewed as a salvific prize for Armenians, but rather primordially as a way of coming to terms with one’s own past - as the West has done with some of its post-colonial excesses. So I am heartened by the increasing candour of intellectuals, academics and journalists in Turkey who speak out that Turkish denial is a spurious falsehood necessary to be addressed directly sooner or later. Much as there is a blackout on any education about this genocide in modern-day Turkey, those are a number of Turks who are challenging the legal taboos by risking incarceration in questioning the horrors perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey during WWI. One powerful example that corroborates my viewpoint that this sense of political transmogrification is first and foremost necessary for Turkey itself comes in an article entitled ‘Genocide’ by Ahmet Altan in Taraf on 6th March (and I excerpt it for you):
Amongst this entire hullabaloo, my favourite comment comes from a Turkish speaker who denounces this decision: “Turkey is no longer a country that can easily be humiliated.” When a commission of the US Congress votes for “genocide”, we are “humiliated”. Do you know what humiliation is?
Turkey is not humiliated because that commission approved that resolution with a difference of one vote. Turkey is humiliated because it itself cannot shed light on its own history, has to delegate this matter into other hands, is frightened like hell from its own past, has to squirm like mad in order to cover up truths.
The real issue is this: Why is the “Armenian Genocide” a matter of discussion in American, French and Swiss parliaments and not in the parliament of the Turkish Republic? Why can we, ourselves, not discuss a matter that we deem so vital that we perceive the difference of one vote as a source of humiliation?
If you cannot discuss your own problems, you deserve to be humiliated. If you keep silent in a matter that you find so important, you deserve to be humiliated. If you try to shut others up, you are humiliated even more. The whole world interprets the killing of so many Armenians, -a number we cannot even estimate properly - as “genocide”. The history of every society is tainted with crime and blood. We cannot undo what has been done but we can show the courage to face the truths, to discuss the reality. We can give up trying to silence the world out of concern for incriminating the founders of the republic.
We can ask questions. No one dares humiliate brave people who are not afraid of the truth. If you feel humiliated, you should take a hard look at yourself and what you hide.
“Der Voghormya (Lord Have Mercy) as Gomidas sang out his own grief and emotional turmoil, asking the eternal God for comfort and solace. God, however, remained silent!”
Armenian Golgotha, by Grigoris Balakian (2009).
Gomidas Vartabed (1869-1935) is a churchman and founder of Armenian classical music. He single-handedly saved much of Armenian folk and sacred music from obliteration during the Armenian Genocide. As a young boy with a good voice who sang folk and church music, he was taken to Holy Etchmiadzin where, with Khrimian Hayrig's encouragement, he worked tirelessly at collecting, notating and arranging Armenian music and organising choirs and concerts. He was determined to save as much as he could of an endangered culture, and his polyphonic rendering of the Armenian Divine Liturgy is one of the two basic settings in use in Armenian churches world-wide.
This excerpt I just quoted of him singing out his grief with “Lord Have Mercy” can be found in the book Armenian Golgotha that was compiled by a priest, Grigoris Balakian, translated into English and published in the USA by his great nephew Peter Balakian. As Councillor Ara Iskanderian wrote in his personal blog
http://aralexanderian.blogspot.com/2009/06/review-of-armenian-golgotha-b... , this book is part testament to the fate of Anatolia’s Armenian population and part eye witness memoirs of the events of the Armenian Genocide. The book sees the Bishop narrating his arrest, deportation, imprisonment, death march, survival and ultimate escape to safety. In a nutshell, the priest finds himself in Berlin at the dawn of WWI witnessing the early stages of nationalist fervour that greeted the declaration of war in the German capital. With Europe beginning to tear itself apart, Balakian returns to Istanbul where he is included on the infamous list of Armenian intellectuals and leaders who were rounded up and deported to the prison camp of Chankiri on 24 April 1915. The eve of the Armenian genocide, 24 April 1915, is equated by the writer to Gethsemane whilst the genocide itself is written up as a long march up the hill of Golgotha resulting in the martyrdom of an entire nation - hence also the book’s title.
The book is harrowing in terms of the cruelties it depicts by an observer-sufferer. But one poignant image in the book goes a long way to explain the haunting horrors of this genocide and in fact any genocide. Balakian writes, “Without pity or human feeling, they struck the hapless and confused left and right, hitting them everywhere: eyes burst open, skulls were crushed, faces were covered with blood, and new wounds were opened up.”
This book, a haunting microcosm of the atrocities suffered by Armenians as seen by countless Christian missionaries, let alone by diplomats, photographers and other witnesses who reproduced their accounts in many books (such as that published by Bible Lands today), has raised uncomfortable questions about the real reasons behind the genocide of Armenians as well as Assyrians and Pontic Greeks during this period. Surely, those massacres did not peak into genocide because Armenians were Christian and therefore were viewed - quite wrongly in my opinion - as a potential fifth column? I rebut the philosophy of this claim but accept its political expediency. In other words, assuming there were some Armenians - albeit poorly equipped in general - who switched sides and fought with the Russians against the Turks, does this justify the wholesale massacres that were so marking that Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish jurist, used them as one example upon which he built the modern-day UN Genocide Convention of 1948? Besides, I cannot go easily in the direction of simplifying this genocide as a Muslim-Christian split when many of its survivors found succour and refuge with Arab Muslim families across the whole Middle East - from Jerusalem to Lebanon, Syria and further afield? I would re-define it as a Turkish (and ‘Muslim’ in this sense alone) attempt at re-drawing the region politically whereby Armenian and other Christian minorities stood in the way of this plan.
As happens often in many parts of the world, political enmity at times found its outlet in religious spoliation. Hence my distinction between philosophy and politics - otherwise, between a quest for the truth and an attempt at its obfuscation!
Indeed, this was recently confirmed when I came across an erudite paper by the Rev Dr George A Leylegian on the Status of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Province of Diyarbekir and specifically in the county of Palou. The Rev Dr Leylegian delivered it last month at the Scholars’ Conference hosted by the International Human Rights Law Association at the University of California entitled “Genocide and Then What? The Law, Ethics, and Politics of Making Amends”. Allow me to draw on your patience this evening in order to highlight simply four salient points he makes through his detailed research:
i) In the summer of 1915, the third wave of genocide began, but this time, not only were the churches plundered, but the people were again subjected to forced conversion to Islam or as we sadly know, extermination. The destruction of the Armenian diocese of Palou was nearly accomplished; I say “nearly” because of the 21 priests, one miraculously survived. After only 20 years and extraordinary financial efforts starting in 1896 to reconstruct the majority of the village churches, not one sanctuary was left intact. Artwork, gold and silver pieces, vestments, curtains, and even the doors and shutters were all looted. Registers and records were burned, and the few, traumatised survivors were left without any comfort of their religion. It is said that a priest from Kharpert continued to visit Palou during the 1920s. In 1929, the final phase of genocide forced the handful of remaining Armenians in the area to be expelled by the Kemalist government.
ii) The situation for the other rural dioceses in Ottoman controlled Armenia during the 19th century was sadly the same as in Palou. Research is always on-going, but at the moment, we are able to estimate that in the year 1800, in the jurisdictions under the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, the Catholicosate of Aghtamar, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, there were about 4,000 churches and chapels, with another 500 functioning monasteries. By the time that Karekin Vartabed Srvantsdiants penned “Toros Aghpar” in the mid-1880s, the forced conversion policy and sporadic pillaging had already reduced the number of churches and monasteries by 50 per cent. The pillaging of 1895-1896 further reduced the number from about 2,100 to about 1,600 churches which could be considered functioning, and reduced the number of operating monasteries to barely 100. By the armistice of 1918, of the 1,600 churches, fewer than 100 were standing, and every single monastery had been left in ruins. Today, there are fewer than 40 Armenian churches operating in all of Turkey - that is to say, just one per cent of the number at the beginning of the 19th century.
iii) Between 1800 and 1929, it is estimated that up to 10,000 Armenian priests and monks were killed in the course of forced conversion tactics and outright genocide. In the 500 or so monasteries, there were hundreds of manuscripts and thousands of pages of documents. It is estimated that over the same course of time, more than 20,000 historic manuscripts were stolen or destroyed. In addition, hundreds of priceless relics of the saints which had been venerated throughout the centuries, were stolen, destroyed, or simply lost.
iv) Where are we today? By comparison with the centuries-old objective of having one priest for every 20 hearths, the Armenian Church has truly suffered and has barely recovered in the aftermath of Ottoman and Soviet aggression. If we are to regain a statistical equivalent to the level of influence which the Armenian Church once held, we would need 50,000 married priests and 6,000 Vartabeds. Worldwide today, there are only 800 married priests and 80 Vartabeds serving an estimated Armenian population in excess of 8,000,000 - which is to say, one priest for every 1,200 hearths. Where once we had about 500 monasteries, today, there are just three functioning in Armenia, one in Jerusalem and one in Iran.
“An oil field would prove much more valuable than the fate of a small and weak Christian people” - A review of Armenian Golgotha, 20 April 2010.
It seems that there are three sets of reasons why Turkey refuses to admit its guilt. I have already indicated that the first one is a sense of overweening pride and nationalistic dignity within Turkish officialdom and across some of its grassroots which refuse to accept that the Ottoman Empire could have committed acts that are synonymous with genocide and are similar to the evils of the holocaust. The second is that Turkey also seems quite worried that recognition will ipso facto expose it to Armenian demands for legal remedies under International law - something a number of Armenian organisations or individuals and their supporters are already claiming as a natural progression of the campaign for recognition.
The third and final reason, however, is even more profound in that it has to do with the continuity of the policies pursued by the Ottomans and the Republic - in other words one that affects the whole legal jurisprudence of state responsibility today. So let me pause for two thoughts here - for me as much as for you at this stage. Mustapha Kemal Pasha based his Republican regime on the nationalist ideology of a Turkic race whereby Anatolia had to be ‘cleansed’ of all ‘foreign’ elements. Policies of ethnic, cultural, economic and social cleansing eliminated much of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek groups albeit failed to do so with the Kurds - hence the persistent Kurdish problem today. For another, some of the perpetrators of the genocide became political or administrative elites in the new Republican regime, and whilst Mustapha Kemal Pasha feigned ignorance of such facts, he benefited from them by offering them prominent positions within the Republic.
Moreover, one legal manifestation of this nationalism can be found in Art 301 (amongst others such as Art 288) of the Turkish Penal Code allowing the State Prosecutor to bring charges against anyone for ‘insulting Turkey or Turkishness’. But what does insulting Turkishness mean? Yet, renowned authors such as Orhan Pamuk, high-profile symbols of moderation such as Hrant Dink (murdered for his views in January 2007) along with reporters, writers and publishers the likes of Aris Naici, Serkis Seropyan, Aydin Engin, Karin Karakashli and Ragip Zarakolou have been charged with a breach of Article 301 and taken to court where their cases have either been postponed or they received suspended sentences. Taner Akçam is one of those eminent Turkish historians who examined Ottoman archival documentary evidence and concluded the indisputable reality of genocide. He was then gaoled under Article 301 for publishing his findings and therefore ‘insulting Turkishness’.
Yet, under International law, Article 301 also contravenes - in both its original and revised versions - the right to freedom of speech codified in Article 19 of the International Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
“If we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory” - Professor Howard Zinn, 1922-2010.
Today, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is no longer an historical moot point but a strictly political challenge. Armenians world-wide should therefore exercise their political judgment more prudently and creatively by using this opportunity to define a more consensual strategy for the future. The severe paucity of long-term strategic choices by some Armenians has been supplemented over the past 95 years by short-term tactical options and occasional sublimating paroxysms and emotive standpoints that blur the arguments. Much as this is not a sociological oddity in many communities, it would nonetheless help if Armenians were to consider cooperating under an umbrella that could define their strategies and then consolidate their efforts toward the genocide and - critically - establish its causal nexus with other political issues such as the unrelenting closure by Turkey of its border with Armenia ever since 1993 or the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In fact, one area where modern-day politics is also intersecting with history can be found in the abortive attempt for the normalisation of Armenian-Turkish relations through the signature in Switzerland last year of the two Armenia-Turkey Protocols. But despite the huge amount of excitement for and against the protocols at the time, they are what we call in the legal vernacular as dead documents because the Turkish parliament never ratified them but succumbed to pressure by Azerbaijan not to normalise relations with Armenia so long as its own territorial conflict - which has been subject to the conciliation mechanisms of the OSCE Minsk Group - had not been resolved to its satisfaction. But this is dangerous since the geopolitics of the region are shifting again, and if no further progress on the Turkish-Armenian normalisation process has been achieved by 2015, which marks the 100th anniversary of the genocide, Turkey might risk international disapprobation as more countries - possibly even the US - could move to call the killings ‘genocide’. Moreover, given the recent deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations, the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US, which used to block efforts to persuade Washington to recognise the massacre as ‘genocide’, has signalled a possible change of stance. One has to add here that the European Parliament in Brussels has recognised the genocide since 18 June 1987, but the EU Commission is missing an opportunity to re-shape the Southern Caucasus with its adamant refusal to go anywhere near the ‘Armenian Question’. However, being a pessoptimist by nature, I would still suggest that if some progress towards a diplomatic rapprochement were achieved, accompanied by the beginnings of a popular reconciliation, the 100th anniversary could provide an opportunity for both Turkey and Armenia to finally work together toward a resolution of a most difficult issue in their history and foreign relations. After all, what I am advocating - a win-win solution for a conflict-free zone that seeks ‘zero problems with neighbours’ - is also what Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, has advocated on numerous occasions as he has unfurled his theories. But his version of Pax Ottomana seems to falter in its strategic depth when it comes to Armenian issues.
GENOCIDE: it is clear that there are dire political consequences that flow from this single eight-letter word whose etymology lies in Genos for the Greek word meaning race or tribe, and cide from the Latin cidium for killing. Its power is clearly undeniable as the horrific Rwandan experience inter alia has taught the world. Yet, unlike Rwanda where the world bickered over ‘genocide’ as it was being committed, the genocide against the Armenians is a distant event, relegated largely to the history books. However, the irony is that this spatial distance might render the word even more relevant for the Turks.
When I recall the horrors of genocide, read and speak about it, or when I think of the fearful horrors that the physical excesses behind this word evoke in many souls, minds and hearts, from the Armenian experience to the mind-numbing atrocities in Darfur, I am struck by the insidious let alone subtle and hidden nature of this term. I often remember the moving portrait of the photographer Jonathan Torgovnik that represents Joseline Ingabire, a beautiful Rwandan mother embracing her daughter, which won Britain’s National Portrait Gallery annual photographic prize in 2007. On the surface, this is a gripping and healthy portrait, but it belies the ugly truth that the child is a result of the mother being raped during the Rwandan genocide.
This is the harrowing truth about genocides: not all its horrors are apparent, since there are so many underlying tiers of suffering that haunt the latter-day relatives of such victims. I acknowledge it is not easy to expect victims of different genocides - be they Armenians, Jews, Rwandans or other hapless victims - to forgive and forget the heinous crimes perpetrated against them. To reach that stage, we need to bare the human soul that provokes such aberrant behaviour and understand how genocide is used as a brutal political tool. We also need to fathom how the past would help us prevent the deformation and distortion of the future. Was it not the philosopher and essayist George Santayana who wrote that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it? This is not a glib statement, but a reality that affects Armenians world-wide today as it does many other races that have experienced attempts at extermination through the course of history.
So how should we seek the way forward?
There is an unwritten law in our country (and elsewhere) that we should not cross certain red lines with Turkey - the genocide being one of them - or else we risk forfeiting our economic interests or military assets. This fact was recently exposed yet again by Geoffrey Robertson, QC, in his published Opinion dated 9 October 2009 entitled Was there an Armenian Genocide? The barrister argued with the use of various FCO memoranda that the evidence of genocide is incontrovertible and that what prevents it from being recognised by HM Government are the political, strategic and commercial considerations with Turkey that overshadow the ethical ones. But what happens if the EU wakes up to its moral obligation and coaxes Turkey into recognising the genocide? What if our government - as well as those of the USA and Israel to mention the three main culprits - were to pass resolutions accepting the genocide and (in our case) pretty much endorsing the Parliamentary Blue Book? With very few notable exceptions, we seem to have a small number of MP’s who regularly sign EDMs but most of them do not walk the walk as much as they talk the talk. And what if churches and church-related organisations assumed the mantle of responsibility by speaking out for recognition rather than merely whispering it to Armenians? What about individuals petitioning their representatives? Could this not be done with an investment of few minutes? Or do we, severally or individually, tend at times to trade the truth for the sake of sheer power and mere interest that garb us with self-recognition?
But then, what comes after recognition on an international political scale? Much as recognition is an objective, and much as it remains an initial step toward closure of this open sore in Armenian and Turkish psyches, it is equally necessary to have a sturdy vision that goes well beyond it. Since I believe that one principal aim for the future should be the empowerment of healthy and robust Armenian new generations, I would suggest that a real prophetic challenge would lead us to explore ways in which we could overcome the trauma of the Armenian Genocide as the sole gateway to our identity. This would contribute toward healing our psychological, moral and political bruises, let alone toward tending to our broken memories.
The power of healing: such an approach today goes well beyond political and even religious orthodoxy. It is admittedly a painful one for many of us that is also much more Sisyphean than pursuing a retributive course of action that could perhaps also temporarily relieve our angst and in the process vindicate our forebears who lost their lives during those genocide-driven years. However, I would dare suggest that healing remains a co-equal necessary and ultimate way forward in confronting the sordid evils of genocide, whereby we infuse in ourselves a sense of renewal and a preponderance of life over death that refuses to be defeated by the heavy weight of genocide. In pursuing such a dual track, we will have thwarted Ottoman Turkish past designs to subdue us as a race or present-day Turkish endeavours to deny our past sacrifices. But equally importantly, it will have put us back on the road toward recovery from a trauma that can only colour our lives ands those of our families.
As some Armenians already do, we too should not only grieve for our fallen martyrs, but also stand vocally in solidarity with all victims of genocide world-wide. Whilst recognising that we have been victims of a dreadful experience, we should underline that we are also victors who have vanquished death with life. Let our present define our past: the genocide was indisputably homicidal, and well over one million victims according to the most conservative British estimates, are its perpetual reminder in Armenian psyches, but would our strength not be even greater if we also pour more of our energies into our living and thriving children, women and men? I know this is a hard choice for any people that have suffered near-annihilation, but I am confident we Armenians have the forward-looking stamina to achieve this renewal by choosing living unity over deathly disunity. In my opinion, the choice is not a stark ‘either-or’ and I would submit that this would be the sharpest riposte to Turkish spin and denial, much more pungent than solely lobbying countries for recognition, let alone a source of backing for Turkish or foreign supporters and a healthier commemoration of collective Armenian memory.
We need to do our homework as Armenians, but Turkey and its allies should also do their homework and realise that they are not doing Armenians any favour by recognising the genocide but are instead strengthening the moral fabric of their own societies and unleashing in the process the economic and political dividends that such a step might well produce globally. It might happen tomorrow, or it might not happen for another decade, since politics often checkmate ethics, but was it not the British statesman and political thinker Edmund Burke who once stated that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. It is my hope that ninety-five years after the Armenian Genocide, the world of righteous men and women would at long last stand in solidarity with the truth which is no less than an affirmation of life - not of Armenian life per se but of all life across all races and continents. In so doing, are we not in fact protecting the image of God in us?
© Harry Hagopian, 2010.
This is the text of the Annual Constantinople Lecture 2010, sponsored by the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association (www.aeca.org.uk/), delivered on 25 November at St Mary at Hill, Lovat Lane, London. It is also being made available by ACEA, the Armenian Church and Community Council of Great Britain (www.accc.org.uk) and Epektasis (www.epektasis.net).
Harry Hagopian is an International lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris, and he is a regular Ekklesia contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is a member of, and adviser to, the Armenian Orthodox Church, a Knight of the Order of St Gregory, a consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net
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