By Linda Stamato
President Biden did what he promised to do — unlike his predecessors — he declared that Turkey was responsible for the massacre of some 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. Biden called it what it was: Genocide.
On Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day last month, the 106th anniversary of the start of the massacre, the president announced the U.S. would join the more than 30 nations of the world — and Pope Francis — in acknowledging the genocide.
As anticipated, Turkey reacted with a ferocious denial and staunchly defended the nation against “the lie of the so-called ‘Armenian genocide.’”
The consensus among historians is this: Worried that the Christian Armenian population would align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials ordered mass deportations and killed nearly 1.5 million Armenians, some in massacres by soldiers and the police, others in forced exoduses to the Syrian desert that left them to starve to death.
When the German Parliament, in June 2016, adopted a resolution that formally recognized the Armenian massacre as genocide, a significant turning point was reached. The Turkish government recalled its ambassador and issued a statement intended to admonish and provoke Germany by asserting that the parliament’s action was hardly a “way to close the dark pages of your own history.”
But, in fact, “closing dark pages” is precisely not the thing to do. Rather, do what Germany has done, be open and honest about them.
German textbooks, for example, account for its history as most of us would recognize it, unvarnished, unsanitized. In Turkey, no honest accounting has been done.
The narrative that surfaces in Turkey’s history textbooks distort and demonizes: Armenians are characterized as people “who are incited by foreigners, who aim to break apart the state and the country, and who murdered Turks and Muslims;” the Genocide is referred to as “the Armenian matter,” and described as “a lie perpetrated in order to meet those goals,” and is defined as “the biggest threat to Turkish national security.”
Creating realities that distort the truth to comport with one’s desired narrative, delays the necessary reckoning, undermines credibility and legitimacy and prolongs conflict.
Biden’s move gives Turkish Americans here in the New York/New Jersey area, particularly in Paterson, home to the largest Turkish American immigrant community in the United States, and elsewhere, of course, an opportunity to lead the discussion, now, by acknowledging history and ending the negative representations of Armenians in its narratives.
Let Germany serve as an example, not as a scapegoat for avoidance. In a highly visible manner, leaders of that nation have made a concerted effort to acknowledge its past. When its leaders stood in places where Nazi evil became manifest and when they acknowledged the burden their nation bears for the wrongs done and the harm inflicted, they reached for reconciliation, and, as they did, they restored hope and advanced prospects for peace.
What an example for Turkey to follow.
In a statement issued in 1998, a group of 150 distinguished scholars and writers, while honoring the 50th anniversary of the United Nation’s genocide convention, named and condemned the Armenian genocide. They affirmed the importance of acknowledging this tragic event:
“Denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators. Denial murders the dignity of the survivors and seeks to destroy remembrance of the crime. In a century plagued by genocide, we affirm the moral necessity of remembering.”
In April 2015, the Turkish prime minister at the time, Ahmet Davutoglu, struck a chord that could still provide an opening: He offered condolences to the descendants of the Armenian victims; and while he avoided the use of genocide, he said it was important to face the past with honesty.
Perhaps, he is not alone in recognizing that the Turkish government’s refusal to abandon the “official” view of the past poisons its effort to gain credibility and standing in the world community. Indeed, the New Jersey-based Turkish Institute for Progress, which had been expending much of its energy trying to alter American textbook accounts of the genocide to bend history to align with Turkey’s narrative has begun to shift its perspective to seek reconciliation with Armenians.
To cease being imprisoned by its past, Turkey needs to face its moral responsibilities, including reconciliation with its Armenian neighbors so that together they can construct a future where there is mutual respect and regional harmony.
Linda Stamato is the director emerita of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.