By BARIN KAYAOĞLU
December 25, 2010
“The fresh blood to replace the poisonous blood emptied from the Turk exists in the great vein that will connect the Armenian with Armenia.”
With those words in 2004, the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink had called upon Armenians throughout the world to rebuild their national identity free from the trauma of “The Turk.” With those words, Mr. Dink had told his fellow Armenians to dissociate 1915 from the more important task of making Armenia a better country.
But because of those words, which weren’t really about Turks, Hrant Dink was prosecuted for “insulting Turkish identity” under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. And because of those words, a 17-year-old boy, who thought Hrant Dink had insulted Turkish people, killed him in 2007.
Together with the 2004 quote, I recalled the following lines after reading how the U.S. House of Representatives did not put the “Armenian genocide resolution” – Resolution 252 – to vote on December 22, yet again:
“I resent the use of my past history and present problems as a pretext in Europe and America. I feel a harassment; a rape beneath those kisses. I no longer accept that despicable imperialism as a referee because it tries to choke my future with my past. The real referees are the peoples and their conscience.” (Quote from Tuba Çandar’s biography of Hrant Dink, p. 446)
Following in Hrant Dink’s footsteps, we can get rid of the “poisonous” blood between Turks and Armenians only by addressing their hearts and minds.
First, Turks and Armenians should stop contesting their respective interpretations of 1915 at political bodies. All politics involves some cynicism but some more than others. For example, I don’t think Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s efforts to have the U.S. House of Representatives pass Resolution 252 had nothing to do with her desire to score points with Armenian constituents in her home state of California. Nor do I think she was oblivious to Turkey’s geostrategic importance as she swept 252 under the rug in order not to offend a critical U.S. partner in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
An alternative scenario can help to illustrate how meaningless it is to race historical interpretations at parliaments: Today, an overwhelming majority of Turks who study in the United States tend to stay and become U.S. citizens. Thus, it won’t be surprising to see Turkish Americans and Armenian Americans becoming numerically equal within the next two decades. Now, how would Armenians feel if those Turks got their representatives in the U.S. Congress to pass resolutions refuting Armenian allegations that the events of 1915 constituted genocide? Or worse, that Armenians had deserved to be deported from their homes? Are we sure that such resolutions wouldn’t pass under “the right circumstances”? The lesson for the Armenian side is to take a hard look at its lobbying efforts in Washington and think whether those efforts are serving Armenian interests.
In a similar manner, the Turkish side should stop treating the defeat of Congressional resolutions as a defeat of Armenian claims or a validation of Turkish arguments with respect to 1915. History cannot be legislated; it must be studied rigorously. As an historian who has read both sides of the argument (yet one who does not claim expertise), I do not accept the label of “genocide” for the forced deportation of nearly 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians in 1915. Furthermore, I am at a loss why the massacre of Turks and Kurds by Armenian gangs in Eastern Anatolia are never mentioned in the West.
But I also find the justification for the deportations – Armenian guerilla attacks in Eastern Anatolia in the run-up to and during World War I – as an inadequate explanation. Nor do I accept the death of nearly 600,000 Armenian civilians (as the historian Justin McCarthy, whose works have a pro-Turkish perspective, estimates) for troubles not of their making.
So, where do we go from here? How do we get some “fresh blood”?
Opening the physical borders between Turkey and Armenia could help to bring down the psychological barriers between Turks and Armenians. To that end, Armenia should move more boldly on the issue of Nagorno-Karabagh with Azerbaijan. Since 1993, the Turkish-Armenian border has remained closed because of Armenia’s occupation of Azeri territory. The closure of the Turkish border has neither contributed to Armenia’s less-than-impressive economic performance since it became independent in 1991 nor has it helped those Turks who would otherwise benefit from open borders.
But with nearly 1.5 million barrels of Azeri oil flowing to international markets through Turkey every single day, Azerbaijan is simply too important to overlook. Thus, if Yerevan can resolve its differences with Baku, Ankara can find it easier to ratify last year’s Turkish-Armenian protocols and open the border.
Opening the borders, of course, won’t solve the problem by itself: alleviating Turkish and Armenian fears will be another challenge. To that end, NGOs from Turkey, Armenia, and the Turkish and Armenian Diasporas should gather youth conferences to nurture understanding and tolerance between Turks and Armenians. Not only would such meetings cost Turks and Armenians a lot less money than what they pay for lobbyists in Washington and other Western capitals; moreover, they can help Turkish and Armenian youths to break free from the clutches of hatred that has poisoned their parents and grandparents since 1915.
Down the road, when those young men and women become adults free from the poisonous past, they can build a fresh and more peaceful future for Turkey and Armenia.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.