Critical Interventions: Kurdish Intellectuals Confronting the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Weekly
April 2009 Magazine

In my contribution to last year’s special issue, I had argued that an intensified Armenian-Kurdish dialogue carries the promising potential to become an alternative approach to the ongoing Armenian-Turkish discourse on reconciliation, which has traversed dialogue into a form of domination and containment. [1] I also argued that the compartmentalization of the Armenian and Kurdish issues into separate discussions represents a continuation of a divide-and-rule mentality that only serves the interests of the Turkish state and weakens the position of Armenian and Kurdish intellectuals in these isolated debates. In order to overcome this compartmentalization, I called for an intensified Armenian-Kurdish dialogue, and the cultivation of an empowering alliance to confront the atrocities of the past and engage with them as a challenge of and for the present.  One year after that last issue, I believe that such an Armenian-Kurdish dialogue is ever more important, especially in light of the following three developments: At the intergovernmental level, the diplomatic traffic regarding Armenian-Turkish relations has intensified with the election of President Obama who had pledged during his campaign to address the Armenian Genocide as a genocide.

Second, at the domestic level, the recent municipal elections in Turkey on March 29 paved the way for a new political beginning in Armenian-Kurdish relations that I will discuss at the end of this article. Third, at the societal level, I believe that the general trend in the activities of some Turkish intellectuals and members of civil society has further degraded the reconciliation process from “reconciliation without recognition’ to an agenda of “reconciliation instead of recognition.” The “We apologize” petition initiated online in December 2008 illustrates such an attempt in its timing and content, and the subsequent statements made by the initiators of the campaign. [2] As other articles in this issue already critically engage with aspects of the campaign, it shall suffice to state here that the use of the term “Great Catastrophe” (or Medz Yeghern, in Armenian) in the apology statement allows one to talk about the genocide without acknowledging responsibility for it. I argue that this shows a striking resemblance with the Turkish state’s strategy to deal with those issues that can no longer be denied.

In recent years, the Turkish government has proved very adept in shifting its policy of denial to a policy of regulation in response to international and domestic challenges, thus enabling it to circumvent the issues at hand by introducing half-hearted formulas to ward off further pressure and demands. [3] The recent example of Kurdish broadcasting illustrates these insincere attempts: After many decades of denying the very existence of the Kurds, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself uttered a sentence in Kurdish during his inaugural speech of the Kurdish channel 6 on state television (TRT) in January 2009.Notwithstanding that a 24-hour broadcast in Kurdish on state television constitutes a historic moment indeed for Turkey, court cases against privately owned channels that broadcast in Kurdish continue as usual. More strikingly, the speech by Ahmet Turk, the chairman of the pro-Kurdish party DTP, that he gave in Kurdish during a parliamentary session only a few weeks later was cut off and censored. Rather than a promising paradigm shift in the state’s approach to the issue, initiatives such as the TRT 6 channel and other steps [4] appear as unwilling concessions that are only tolerated as long as the terms are set by the Turkish state.

What seems like a step forward becomes in fact two steps backwards when the state claims ownership of a long-contested political claim (e.g., Kurdish broadcasting and education, for example) to merely regulate and deplete it instead of truly fulfilling and realizing it. Unfortunately, such a regulatory approach was also replicated in the apology campaign initiated by a group of Turkish intellectuals.  While on the one hand, the campaign appears as a step forward, the use of the term Great Catastrophe instead of genocide in the apology statement takes the discussion in Turkey and elsewhere two steps back. Some human rights activists and organizations within Turkey have already employed the term genocide, and hence not to use the term means a step backwards for their courageous efforts.  More significantly, the choice of Great Catastrophe reveals a great ignorance towards those to whom the apology is expressed; after all, what was the one political claim that united Armenians around the world if not the recognition of the genocide? To me, the campaign looks like an act of appeasement rather than an apology, that has taken the sensitivities of the Turkish state into account rather than the sensitivities of the genocide survivors. My criticism refers, of course, only to the initiators of the campaign and not the 30,000 signatories who have signed the petition with good intentions. The positive aspects of raising the issue in Turkey notwithstanding, one has yet to see how the campaign will affect Armenian-Turkish dialogue.  As a contrast to this regulatory approach, I will give examples from select actions by Kurdish intellectuals and activists who have sought to confront the Armenian Genocide rather differently from the current apology campaign, in order to show how an alternative apology or confrontation with the genocide is also possible.

A number of Kurdish intellectuals and activists articulated their objections to the use of the term Great Catastrophe in the apology campaign with a joint declaration that was circulated among the Kurdish virtual community on the web. In the declaration “It’s not a catastrophe, but genocide—this is the entire matter at heart,” [5] a dozen Kurdish intellectuals and activists sharply criticize the failure of not calling the events genocide.While acknowledging that the intention of the campaign contains positive goals—such as enabling a discussion of the problem and opening up a taboo—the failure of stating the problem by its rightful name, and the failure to mention other communities that also fell victim to a genocide, such as the Assyrians, Yezidis or Greeks, led them to ask:

“With such a content, are we really apologizing to our Armenian brothers and sisters, to the victims of the genocide? Is it really then an apology?” [6] Linking the apology campaign with the recent history of the Kurds, the declaration states that “in fact, it is quite sad to see that Turkish academics still upheld their regulatory attitude when it comes to calling phenomena by their names. For instance, for several decades they have either ignored or refrained from calling the Kurds ‘Kurds.’ Instead, they have managed to use other words when there was no way around it.” The declaration calls for an open and honest confrontation with past atrocities instead of merely circling the issue.

Some of the signatories of the declaration had initiated a campaign entitled “Dialogue and Solidarity with the Victims of Genocide” back in 2004. [7] In a longer statement of this initiative, the initiators addressed not only the role of the CUP, but also the role of Kurdish gangs in the genocide, and called upon everybody in the region where the genocide occurred to take an active part in confronting the past, and to take responsibility for one’s own history.  The signatories declared that they are ready for such an open and critical engagement and expressed their apology to all victims of the genocide. Both in its tone and content, the statement was remarkable for its self-critical and courageous take on the issue. It was mainly circulated on the internet, and did not reach a wide audience even among the Kurdish community, as the initiators were all exiled Kurdish intellectuals and activists critical of the PKK. The initiative faded away soon thereafter without much effect. Yet, even if it did not receive much attention, the quality of the arguments in the apology statement serves as a reminder that for an honest confrontation and engagement, courage may be a better source of strength than cleverness.

One key figure behind both the Dialogue and Solidarity with the Victims of Genocide initiative of 2004 and the declaration “Great Catastrophe or Genocide?” is the Kurdish publisher Recep Marasli.  A leader of the Kurdish organization Rizgari, he was detained during the 1980’s in the Diyarbekir prison, infamous for the brutal torture of political prisoners. Upon his release, he began running a publishing house, and was yet again detained for publishing books. Today, he lives as a political refugee in Germany and has recently completed his book, The Armenian National Democratic Movement and the 1915 Genocide, which was published in November 2008 in Turkey. [8] In the book, he forcefully argues that “genocide is not a matter of documentation forgery” (evrak sahtekarligi), and criticizes the ongoing debate about archives and documents in order to find “proof.”When I met this soft-spoken, pensive man, who still carries the physical signs of torture and several hunger strikes, he pointed to the cover of the book, which features a black and white photograph of an Armenian school in Vartan (Varto) from 1913. About 100 children posed with their teachers in front of their school building. “Neither the school, nor the children have survived.” he said. “This is what genocide is.”9 The book begins with an outline of his framework for an approach to the history of the region, which takes the pre-genocide plurality as its main reference point. He then traces the emergence of the Armenian National Democratic movement, explores the 1915 genocide and analyzes the effects of Kemalist rule on Armenians, Kurds, and other communities in the region. The book, which he began to write in 1990 when he was in prison, is a remarkable effort by a Kurdish intellectual to confront the Armenian Genocide and represents an important contribution for a sincere Armenian-Kurdish dialogue.

Another Kurdish writer deserves particular attention in this context. Berzan Boti, a Kurd from Siirt who spent 11 years in prison for political offenses and still lives in Turkey, approached the Seyfo Center in Sweden in 2007 after he found out that his forefathers had unlawfully confiscated land from Assyrians in their village who had
been killed during the genocide. In an unprecedented act, Boti declared that he wanted to return this property. As he could not return the property to the original owners, he returned the land to the Seyfo Center in a legal process that was concluded in December 2008. Details of this honorable act will be made public in April 2009 during a press conference in Sweden; yet Boti expressed earlier this year in a statement that “When I found out that the properties I and my brothers inherited from our father wasn’t our own, but properties taken from the murdered Assyrians in 1915, I felt an indescribable feeling of guilt and shame. I’ve been thinking long and hard before I have come to this decision. I tried to put myself in their position. I have personally apologized to every Assyrian and Armenian I’ve met. But this does not get rid of the crime our ancestors committed. Even if I am personally not responsible for what happened in 1915, I felt as I had to do more than just to apologize.  Finally, I came to the decision to give back all properties that I inherited from my forefathers to Seyfo Center, who struggles for a confession of the Seyfo Genocide in 1915.”10 In light of the fact that issues of justice and reparation are excluded and treated as anachronistic in the dominant Armenian-Turkish dialogue, this act by Berzan Boti not only stands out as an honorable individual act, but shows what an apology can or should entail.

Certainly, these brief examples of critical interventions by Kurdish intellectuals are not representative of all Kurds, nor do they stand for a pressing urge in the Kurdish community to engage with the Armenian Genocide. These are rare but very important examples that deserve attention in the current debates on reconciliation.  In stark contrast to the attempt of “reconciliation instead of recognition” in Turkish politics, those Kurdish intellectuals and activists who call for reconciliation take the demands and sensitivities and voices of the genocide survivors as their starting point for action, and not the sensitivities of the Turkish state. This gives hope for an alternative dialogue and reconciliation process that is grounded in justice and acknowledgment.

Let me conclude with a political opportunity that may open a new page in Armenian-Kurdish relations and foster a sincere dialogue.

News reports in early March 2009 suggested that the Armenian-Turkish border that was closed upon Turkey’s initiative in 1993 may be reopened in April of this year. While this has not been officially confirmed, the possibility of reopening the border gained a different dimension with the recent regional elections on March 29, in which the Pro-Kurdish Party DTP firmly established itself as the key regional party in the Kurdish-populated areas in southeast Turkey, and took over the municipality of Igdir that had been governed by the ultra-nationalist party MHP for the past decade. Igdir is the province that borders Armenia, with Yerevan only 40 kilometers away from the province capital, where the population consists of mainly Kurds and Azeris. The political atmosphere there until recently had been extremely nationalistic and hostile toward its Armenian neighbor, which is sadly symbolized in the 45 meter-high Igdir “Genocide Memorial”—the highest monument in Turkey—that was opened in the attendance of then-president Suleyman Demirel, chief of staff Kivrikoglu, and other high-ranking officials in 1999, with its stated aim to commemorate the Armenian massacres against the Turks in Igdir. The monument replicates five large swords, with their ends meeting at the top and forming the star of the Turkish national flag when seen from above. The sharp edges of the swords are turned outwards, to symbolize the readiness against any intrusions from the outside. It is an aggressive, nationalistic, and outright hostile monument that is strategically located on the road from Igdir to the Armenian border. In light of this political atmosphere, it will certainly not be easy for the new mayor Mehmet Nuri Gunes of the DTP to make a new beginning in the region. However, irrespective of whether or not the border reopens, the DTP’s victory in Igdir is a positive and hopeful development for better neighbor relations.

It is time to replace the disgraceful monument with peaceful visions for the future.


1. See Armenian Weekly Special Insert “Commemorating Genocide,” April 26, 2008.

2. See For a critique of the campaign, see articles by Ayse Hur and Marc Mamigonian in this issue.

3. This argument is further developed by Bilgin Ayata and Deniz Yukseker in “Inkar Siyasetinden ‘Idare’ Politikasina: Kurtlerin Zorunlu Goc u,” in Birikimdergisi, vol. 213, January 2007, pp. 42–60 [from the Politics of Denial to the Policy of Regulation: The Forced Displacement of Kurds] and Bilgin Ayata and, Deniz Yukseker, “A Belated Awakening: National and International Responses to the Internal Displacement of Kurds in Turkey,” in New Perspectives on Turkey, no. 32, fall 2005, pp. 5–42.

4. In the case of the massive internal displacement of the Kurds in the 1990’s, the Turkish government gave in to international pressure and shifted its policy from denial to regulation by engaging in an international dialogue on the issue in order to reach EU-candidacy status. Up until 2002, state representatives denied the very existence of mass-scale displacement efforts and merely conceded that less than 400,000 were forcibly moved for security reasons, whereas in reality over 1.2 million Kurdish civilians lost their homes and had to flee. In the course of Turkey’s efforts to achieve EU-candidacy status, the government launched several policy measures, including a compensation law that retrospectively enabled legal remedies for the displaced. Yet, remarkably to this day, there has been no official acknowledgement or apology regarding the depopulation of the rural areas in the region. Instead, acknowledgement and accountability were cleverly bypassed with regulatory measures of unfulfilled promises of rese
ttlement policies and some payments to a fraction of the displaced population. Since then, international pressure on the government on the issue of internal displacement has subsided considerably, while the actual living conditions of the displaced and dispossessed Kurds has hardly changed (for references, see endnote 3).

5. See

6. ibid, my translations.

7. See

8. Recep Marasli: Ermeni Ulusal Demokratik Hareketi ve 1915 Soykirimi, Peri Yayinlari, 2008.

9. My interview with Marasli, March 2009.

10. See

Bilgin Ayata

Bilgin Ayata

Bilgin Ayata is completing her Ph.D. at the department of political science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Her research interests include the politics of displacement, trans-nationalism, social movements, and migration. Her dissertation examines the displacement of Kurds in Turkey and Europe. She currently lives in Berlin.

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