The Armenian Weekly
April 2009 Magazine
“My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers. I apologize to them.”
—English-language text of Turkish apology from the official website, www.ozurdiliyoruz.com.
“We feel in England that we have treated you [Irish] rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.
—James Joyce, Ulysses
In Joyce’s novel, those words are spoken by the Englishman Haines to the Irishman Stephen Dedalus. There is no further comment, and none is needed to explain the point: Haines is the voice of paternalistic British complacency. Not evil—Stephen has also just noted that Haines is “not all unkind,” and the additional irony is that Haines is an enthusiast of Irish culture and is the only character in Ulysses who speaks Irish Gaelic.He does not hate the Irish; in fact, he is actually very interested in them. But in his statement there is no acceptance of responsibility: “history is to blame.” He does not apologize, yet he feels badly for the way things are and the way they have been.
What is an apology? It is more than an expression of sorrow or sadness. This is not to say an expression of sorrow or sadness is insignificant. It just is not an apology.
An apology is an expression of remorse for wrongdoing. An apology is a way of saying, “I did something wrong and I regret the harm it caused.” I am sorry when people die in a car crash or suffer from disease. But it makes no sense for me to apologize for these things unless I have caused them or have gained from them.
I believe that one can only apologize for something one has done oneself, or by extension, for something that someone else has done from which one has derived benefit. For example, if one belongs to a group in a society that has benefited from human rights abuses against, or exploitation of, another group in that society—as white Americans historically have, for example, vis-á-vis African Americans or Native Americans—such historical wrongs should be addressed.
Being a white American means, to some extent, deriving benefits from actions taken by others long before one was born and which one finds reprehensible; but, short of leaving the country, one cannot resign one’s membership in the dominant group in American society. Thus, even though my ancestors could not have been slave owners and could not have participated in the displacement or massacre of Native Americans, I understand that I derive benefits that are a result of these injustices. Consequently, it was gratifying, if not sufficient, when in 2007 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and the Senate apologized for atrocities against Native Americans. Many corporations that benefited from these actions have also apologized.
A substantive discussion of the subject of reparations for human rights abuses such as the Armenian Genocide lies beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, an important subject and one that calls for serious discussion, both within Armenian circles and between Armenians and Turks.
Apologies cannot wipe the slate clean and they are seldom sufficient in themselves, but a frank and sincere apology can contribute to a societal process of addressing historical injustices.
Individual and non-official apologies can be meaningful on an interpersonal level, but ultimately, in most conceivable cases, such injustices, and any reparations for them, must be addressed on the state level.
Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this in the U.S. has been the government’s apology and financial reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The internment, at the time it took place, was rationalized on the premise that all Japanese were potentially disloyal, a fifth column, and would pose a threat, especially on the west coast, in the event of a Japanese attack. The action was motivated far more by prejudice and wartime hysteria than by any actual security concerns, and, in fact, many Americans profited handsomely from it. In rationale and economic impact, the internment bears comparison to the Armenian Genocide, although the results were quite different, as it did not lead to massive deaths and the almost total elimination of Japanese Americans from the U.S.
The U.S. apology came in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, “Restitution for World War II Internment of Japanese-Americans and Aleuts,” which served to:
1. acknowledge the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation, and internment of United States citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry during World War II;
2. apologize on behalf of the people of the United States for the evacuation, relocation, and internment of such citizens and permanent resident aliens;
3. provide for a public education fund to finance efforts to inform the public about the internment of such individuals so as to prevent the recurrence of any similar event;
4. make restitution to those individuals of Japanese ancestry who were interned;
5. make restitution to Aleut residents of the Pribilof Islands and the Aleutian Islands west of Unimak Island, in settlement of United States obligations in equity and at law;
6. discourage the occurrence of similar injustices and violations of civil liberties in the future; and
7. make more credible and sincere any declaration of concern by the United States over violations of human rights committed by other nations.
I do not intend to hold up the U.S. as the exemplar for the world in dealing with the dark chapters of its history. Undoubtedly it has a better record than many, but not as good a record as others. But in the “Japanese-American Apology,” I think there are lessons that might be learned.
The apology and reparations came about only after a great deal of effort on the part of Japanese Americans to insure that some measure of justice was achieved, and not merely through the good will of the government. The U.S. apology to the Japanese Americans, as one can readily detect, spoke directly about the improper actions themselves, and, of course, it was issued from the government. In addition, it offered restitution—not because the amount offered (for internees, $20,000) could compensate for the action taken against them, but as a symbolic act and as an added deterrent against other such actions.
Of course, there are significant differences between the Ottoman Armenian and Japanese American cases that preclude equating the two or using the one as a model for the other. Not the least of these is that in the four decades or so between the end of World War II and the passing of this legislation, Japanese Americans had achieved positions of prestige, influence, and power in the U.S., including key Congressional positions; furthermore, for the most part they and their descendants were still living in the country where the actions occurred—that is, the internment did not create a substantial Japanese-American diaspora. Thus, they were able to work within the U.S. system in a way that the remnants of the Armenian community in Turkey have never been able to because of their miniscule numbers and continued second-class citizen status.
Let us then look carefully at the Turkish apology, which was made public in December 2008 and has generated a great deal of discussion and media coverage. The declaration is not an official or state-sanctioned apology (in fact, it has been roundly condemned by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials), but has been presented as principally the work of four writers: Ahmet Insel, Ali Bayramoglu, Baskin Oran, and Cengiz Aktar. It is taken as a given that the authors of the apology, who are well-known public intellectuals in Turkey, are acutely aware of the effects of language, that they chose their words with great care, and thus that the apology text was not arrived at by accident or in haste. It is appropriate, then, to subject the apology to a close reading.
The following remarks ought, I think, to go without saying; yet, nonetheless, one feels obliged to offer them. Several of the authors of the apology have commented that the campaign aims at, among other things, generating discussion—and in this respect, certainly, it has been successful. Naturally, discussion involves thinking critically and not necessarily offering unreserved praise. One criticizes such an initiative as this apology campaign with the knowledge that the authors and signatories, through their participation, may be risking prosecution under Turkey’s Article 301 for “insulting Turkishness”; and one is aware, furthermore, that any apology of any kind is opposed by the most reactionary and nationalist forces in the country.
One presupposes that a serious critical discussion of the apology and the issues it raises is at the precisely opposite pole from such forces, yet one also notes a tendency among some members of the Turkish left to view any critical discussion, even when it has been explicitly asked for, especially from members of the Armenian Diaspora, as an act of ingratitude and hostility that can be equated with the efforts of the Turkish right to silence progressive Turkish voices through intimidation, violence, or assassination. If a meaningful dialogue is to take place, any attempt to monopolize the discussion—be it from the Turkish right or left, the Armenian Diaspora, the Armenian Republic, or anywhere else—must be rejected.
“My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915.”
The apology begins by expressing a non-acceptance by one’s conscience of the “insensitivity” and “denial” towards “the Great Catastrophe.”
Significantly, the apology begins by situating the matter in the realm of conscience and not in the realm of politics. The statement, for better or for worse, is not a call to action—it does not, for example, call upon the Turkish government to do anything, such as ending its massive efforts to deny history.
Nor does the apology acknowledge anything; rather, it expresses a non-acceptance of insensitivity and of denial of what it calls “the Great Catastrophe.” Yes, the Armenians were subjected to a “Great Catastrophe”—but by whom? There is a history of denial and insensitivity—but who or what has promoted and continues to promote this? That is to say, the statement might have begun: “I acknowledge the Great Catastrophe to which the Ottoman Armenians were subjected by their government in 1915, and I reject the denial of this history and the lack of sensitivity shown towards it.”
As with any piece of writing, the words that are used—and not used—are telling.
No other aspect of the apology has generated more discussion than the choice of the term “Great Catastrophe.” “Great Catastrophe” is intended to be a translation of the Armenian Medz Yeghern.
Statement co-author Baskin Oran revealed the reasoning behind this usage in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Dec. 12, 2008: “You see, ‘Great Catastrophe,’ in Armenian ‘Medz Yeghern,’ was the only definition, the only expression, used until the Armenian Diaspora discovered the PR value of ‘Armenian Genocide.’ Therefore, we use ‘Great Catastrophe.’”
Oran has written or stated on other occasions that, although he acknowledges the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I and deplores the official denial of this tragedy, “[t]he Armenian diaspora has put the term [genocide] forward for propagandistic reasons in order to pretend that this event is the same as the genocide of the Jews.” (“Ermeni diasporasi bu terimi bu olay˝n Yahudi jenosidiyle ayn˝ fley oldugunu soylemek icin propaganda amaciyla ortaya atti.” The text appeared in a summary of Oran’s positions distributed in 2007 when he ran for parliament in Turkey.) This position appears to be widespread in Turkey. The development of Armenian terminology for the events of 1915 has been researched extensively by Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian, who has given detailed presentations on this subject. Mouradian’s research, which thus far has focused on Armenian-language sources, is, of necessity, limited to publications and is not an attempt to determine what terms were prevalent in speech. He has found that although Yeghern/Medz Yeghern may once have been the most widespread term, a number of others, such as chart, aghed, and medz vojir, have also been used. While it is true that tseghasbanutiun (the Armenian calque, or loan-translation, on “genocide”) did not become normative until after 1965 and that, in English, “genocide” (rather than, for example, “massacre”) did not become prevalent until after 1965, the word cannot be dismissed as a late “discovery” on the part of Armenians motivated by “PR,” because, as Mouradian demonstrates, the word was used in Armenian newspapers shortly after it was coined, and even before the ratification of the Genocide Convention.
Mouradian writes: “Deniers of the Armenian Genocide argue that the Armenians themselves never referred to 1915 as ‘genocide’ before the 1980s . ..[T]heir argument, popular in the Turkish media and academic circles, does not stand.”Unfortunately, such arguments are also employed by others who are not generally classified as deniers, but who in some respects reproduce the rhetoric of the deniers.
At any rate, despite efforts to turn the discussion of terms into proof that Armenians (read: diaspora Armenians) are, as is often asserted, “obsessed with ‘the g-word,’” what is at issue in the apology is not the absence of “genocide” (which many Armenians would overlook, given the risks of using the word in Turkey) or objections to the use of Medz Yeghern, or chart, or aghed, or medz vojir, or other terms that have been used historically.
What is at issue are two things: The first is that to deny “the events of 1915” is to reject not only the term “genocide” but, even more importantly, its meaning—in brief, that the death of a million or so Armenians (and in addition, Greeks and Assyrians) was the intended result of a process directed and implemented by the Ottoman state.
The second is that the expression Medz Yeghern/Great Catastrophe has been appropriated and superimposed onto the discussion as if those doing so—those who have themselves only lately discovered the term—possess either the moral or the scholarly authority to assert what terms should or should not be used. It is an odd sort of an apology when the apologizer determines what the apology is for.
Although Medz Yeghern is Armenian and has had a history of use among some Armenians (while holding no special significance for English-speakers), it does not predominate among Armenians now; and if members of the dominant ethnic group in Turkey can properly impose this term on the descendants of genocide survivors, then white Americans might just as well go back to labeling African Americans as “negroes.” After all, it is a word that they themselves formerly used.
Furthermore, Medz Yeghern/Great Catastrophe has a much more recent and, for this discussion, extremely relevant history as a term used with the specific intention of dodging the word “genocide” for political purposes. This is “PR” par excellence.
Pope John Paul II, during his 2001 visit to Armenia, referred to “the call of the dead from the depths of the Metz Yeghern.” The BBC reported that “The Pope has skirted controversy on his visit to Armenia by avoiding the word ‘genocide’ in his prayers for those who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks . . . His use of the Armenian term, ‘Metz Yeghern,’ which means great calamity, to refer to the murders staved off the potential diplomatic storm which the word ‘genocide’ might have provoked from Turkey.” 
On April 24, 2005, President George W. Bush issued a statement reading, in part, “On Armenian Remembrance Day, we remember the forced exile and mass killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. This terrible event is what many Armenian people have come to call the ‘Great Calamity.’” The official Armenian-language version of the statement translated “Great Calamity” as mets yeghern.  It is unreasonable to suppose that during the reportedly two years that the apology was being pondered, the authors did not notice that Medz Yeghern/Great Catastrophe/Great Calamity was becoming the “not g-word” of choice when a political agenda disallows the ineffable g-word. Unfortunately, rather than openly acknowledge this concession to political expediency, an imaginary history has been conjured in which this usage is the only one Armenians knew before they were tainted by political agendas and started insisting on “genocide.”
Of course, as Mouradian has noted, this line of argument is common among those openly aligned with the Turkish state who wish, above all else, to cut the word “genocide” out of the picture; but, ostensibly, those who have promoted the apology campaign and who are viewed by many as working toward an acknowledgment by Turkey of the Armenian Genocide would not want to be associated with such a position that is part of the state’s rhetoric of denial.
Yet the potential synergy between the seemingly polar opposites of the perennial efforts of the Turkish state to remove the term “genocide” from the discussion and the altogether kinder and gentler efforts of the apologizers was noted by no less than apology coauthor Oran in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet: “The Prime Minister should be praying for our campaign. Parliaments around the world were passing automatically resolutions. These are going to stop now. The diaspora has softened. The international media has started to no longer use the word genocide” (Dec. 19, 2008).  This statement casts a long shadow. The sworn enemies of any efforts towards dialogue could not have done a more effective job of generating suspicion that the campaign is about quashing talk of genocide recognition rather than about facing history. At the same time, one must be careful not to attach too much importance to the assessment, since there is little reason to rely on its accuracy or, indeed, that of the international media, which has frequently, though inaccurately, described the campaign as “an apology for the Armenian Genocide of 1915.”
The point is not to excoriate the authors of the apology for not using the word “genocide” but rather to question the message that is conveyed by continuing to stigmatize people who affirm its use and to ponder the curious alignment of forces against it. As Turkish journalist Ayse Gunaysu wrote, explaining why she opted not to sign the apology statement, “we now hear some of the initiators of the campaign trying to use the apology as a means to fight the use of the word genocide and hamper the work of those who seek the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. They portray those seeking recognition as the twin sisters and brothers of the Turkish fascists, and they present the ‘diaspora’ as the enemy of any reconciliation . . .[B]y their discourse, they contribute to the demonization of those who do use the word genocide.”  Gunaysu is right, and such statements and such efforts as she describes should be repudiated. It would not be fair to ascribe such motivations to the many thousands of people who signed the apology with the sincere intention of making a gesture of kindness towards Armenians, perhaps even as a means of moving Turkey towards a recognition of 1915 as genocide, contra the intentions of the authors.
“I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers. I apologize to them.”
The apology statement then rejects “this injustice,” which could refer to “insensitivity,” the “denial,” or “the Great Catastrophe” itself, but (grammatically, anyway, since it is singular) cannot refer to all of them. It then empathizes with the “pain of my Armenian brothers” (which, in some versions, has become the more inclusive “brothers and sisters”).
The statement then “apologizes.” For what, though? For “insensitivity”? For “denial”? For “the Great Catastrophe”? For “pain”? All of these?
One could take a post-structuralist theoretical approach and note that the authors, ever alert to the openness of any text, resisted trying to impose a particular reading on the apology in order to allow the signatory or the reader to “inscribe” his or her own meaning.
Or one could say that the apology is for effects (denial, insensitivity, pain) relating to “the Great Catastrophe” rather than for “the Great Catastrophe” itself, making it a kind of meta-apology. Such a meta-apology could be seen as significant in its own right, and an apology for decades of denial and insensitivity is not to be dismissed; but it is not an apology for the thing itself—the thing that has been denied and towards which insensitivity has been shown—and should be understood as such.
One could also take the approach that an apology should, at minimum, be clear about its intentions. It has become commonplace to note that any text can and will take on meanings far beyond the intentions of the author(s), and thus one should not venture down the famously slippery slope of authorial intent. But, speaking personally, I confess that I am a little old-fashioned and a pre-post-structuralist when it comes to apologies: I want to feel that I know what the apologizers are apologizing for, and that they know what they are apologizing for.
Increasing numbers of Turks acknowledge that, as members of Turkish society, they may have unknowingly and unwillingly benefited from the extermination of the Ottoman Armenians, the confiscation of their wealth and property, etc., and some have stated that this knowledge motivated them to sign the apology statement. This stance is worthy of respect, but the very need for explanation highlights what is missing from the apology.
Moreover, such an acknowledgment can be made without using the word “genocide.” “I, as an ethnically Turkish citizen, am not guilty, but am responsible for what happened to the Armenians in 1915,” declared sociologist Fatma Muge Gocek in a public statement on April 24, 2006. “I am responsible for the wounds that were first delivered upon you through an unjust deportation from your ancestral lands and through massacres in the hands of a government that should have been there to protect you. I am also responsible for the wounds caused by the Turkish state denial to this day of what happened to you back then. I am responsible because all of this occurred and still occurs in the country of which I am a citizen.”
Though her statement did not use the word “genocide,” it was received as an honest and empathetic statement of her recognition of 1915 and as an acknowledgment, as she made clear, not of guilt but of responsibility. It helps, of course, that Gocek, though she generally refrains from using the word, on many occasions has acknowledged its applicability to 1915. One can agree or disagree with her for not using the word, but she in no way denies its appropriateness.
Apologies have also been offered by others involved as perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide: Many Kurdish groups, including political parties, NGOs, and newspapers, have explicitly apologized for the genocide of 1915 and the Kurdish role in it.
What we have, then, is an apology at odds with itself, a text that strains to express sorrow, regret—for something, one hardly knows what.
Whether someday it will be seen as a step in a process that led to an official Turkish state apology remains to be seen. With some 30,000 people having signed the statement, many of them, certainly, with the honorable intention of making some kind of positive statement—a show of empathy, an apology for 1915—one can view the petition as a landmark of sorts in the ongoing process that some call Turkish-Armenian dialogue and others call Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. But the question, then, is: What do we actually mean by reconciliation?
“Where there is a reconciliation . . . there must first have been a sundering.”
—James Joyce, Ulysses
It is hard to comprehend any reconciliation that does not address the reason for the sundering in the first place; and, for that matter, reconciliation implies a previous state that one wishes to return to, which is hardly the case unless one buys the mythology that Armenians and Turks lived in an Edenic state of bliss for the more than 500 years before 1915, instead of the reality that Armenians lived as a conquered people under Ottoman domination. Unfortunately, a number of proponents of so-called reconciliation—better, I think, to call it “conciliation”—do not want to address the cause of the sundering, which means facing 1915 squarely and seriously.
As if in deliberate contrast, one week before the appearance of the apology statement, an article by Taner Akcam was published in the Armenian Reporter that, while it has generated little discussion compared to the apology media campaign, is such a square and serious analysis of 1915 and its repercussions, and as such is almost the mirror-image of the apology and many of the comments of the apologizers.  The point of the apology, according to its authors, is to be able to “tell our Armenian brothers and sisters we apologize for not being able to discuss this issue for almost 100 years” (in the words of Cengiz Aktar) and being able “to look into the mirror every morning I get up” (in the words of Baskin Oran). There is nothing wrong with either of these motivations. But they are more focused on the apologizers themselves and really do not have anything to do with the people to whom the apology is directed.
Akcam, meanwhile, challenges his readers (the article was originally published in the Turkish newspaper Taraf) and especially many of his Turkish colleagues and peers to do something very difficult. He, too, is asking them to look in the mirror, but not in order to feel better about themselves; rather, so they can start to see their blind spots, as it were, or at least to acknowledge that these blind spots exist. Thus, he writes:
“I need to state that intellectuals who have dealt with the subject, myself included, carry a great deal of responsibility for the creation of an image of ‘good neighbor’ Armenia and ‘bogeyman and bad’ diaspora, in Turkey. Intellectuals who have been closely involved with the subject and written many articles on it have, as a body, insisted on a definition that required the diaspora to be “bad” and contributed to the creation of this image in public opinion . . .
“Instead of openly confronting the mentality that defines Armenians as ‘negative,’ ‘bogeyman,’ or ‘bad’ and instead of explaining that a desire for ‘recognition of genocide’ is a completely understandable democratic demand, [Turkish intellectuals have] accepted the main lines of the reasoning that undergirds this aggressive mentality. . .
“In other words, instead of directly stating that the problem has to do with defining Armenians as ‘the bogeyman’ and ‘bad,’ they accepted those definitions but changed the object of those definitions; instead of saying Armenians are ‘bad,’ they stated that the diaspora is ‘bad.’ In conclusion, the mentality that predominates in Turkey continued unabated in our intellectuals and continues to do so. In my opinion, the problem starts here . . . If we continue to use those adjectives, ‘bad’ and ‘bogeyman,’ to define something, we have merely slid the issue sideways; the problem will remain exactly as it was.”
In my opinion, when the mindset that Akcam so pointedly describes ceases to be seen as acceptable among the progressive, democratic circles in Turkey, that is when dialogue will begin in earnest and a more meaningful apology may emerge—one that acknowledges and renounces the mentality he has described so well. Because it is one thing to express “good feelings for the grandsons and granddaughters of the Armenians who had been massacred” (as Oran did in his interview with the CBC) and another to stop portraying them as vengeful ultra-nationalists when most of them want nothing more (and nothing less) than a proper recognition of and some measure of justice for the crime committed against their grandparents.
To end where we began: It cannot be enough to blame “history.” What is absent from the Englishman Haines’ statement and what is absent from the Turkish apology is an awareness of agency or responsibility: History is made of human decisions and actions, and to the extent that history can be changed, human actions and decisions must be acknowledged and understood. When that day comes, an apology can be made and accepted.
 BBC News, “Pope avoids Armenia controversy,”news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1564257.stm.
 See Emil Danielyan, “Bush Remembers Armenian ‘Great Calamity,’”
 The translation is as used in Ayse Gunaysu’s “Letters from Istanbul: About the Apology Campaign,” Armenian Weekly, Jan. 10, 2009, p. 11.
 “Armenia, diaspora, and facing history,” The Armenian Reporter, Dec. 1, 2008.