Thoughts from Ahmet Altan’s Lecture at ALMA
On Saturday evening, Jan. 28, the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown hosted Ahmet Altan, the editor of the liberal Turkish newspaper Taraf, well known in Armenian circles as it often publishes material pertinent to and resonating with our cause. The event was organized by the Friends of Hrant Dink, in the memory of that seminal figure gunned down five years ago. After remarks by Barbara Meguerian and Harry Parsekian, noted historian Taner Akcam of Clark University praised the speaker for his work and went so far as to refer to Taraf as something of a political party, since it serves as a powerful outlet for the voice of the opposition in Turkey.
The talk was brief and soon gave way to an all-too-lively, sometimes overly emotional, question-and-answer and discussion session. The major take-away was that the issues surrounding Armenians and Turks remain largely emotional, and that it is the Turkish people who need to know above all about the Armenian Genocide. Altan repeatedly mentioned his desire and willingness to publish stories by Armenians—survivors and their descendants—about what happened in 1915, because the Turkish people simply do not know about it. Altan mentioned how people in Turkey today feel defensive about their ancestors. He was hopeful that the more the issue and the facts are brought up, the more people in Turkey can overcome such psychological reactions and focus on the human aspects of this matter. The more Turks are made to feel the Armenian experience themselves, he said, the more cooperation and understanding can be generated between the two peoples.
Now, there has indeed been immense social change in Turkey lately, especially over the last decade or so, since the coming to power of the AK Party in Ankara. One of the very visible shifts has been the greater degree of openness in discussing the Armenian Genocide, especially after Hrant Dink was so publicly slain, with such equally public outpouring of indignation and support that followed. It cannot be denied that the Armenian people who have suffered and continue to suffer must “find a common tongue”—as the Armenian and Turkish expression goes—in order to forge a reconciliation and look ahead together.
However, I find it important to appreciate that there is something essentially political about this matter. Yes, one can emphasize the humane and human sympathy, but I think that such an approach would ultimately do a disservice to the fact that there is indeed something meaningful about being Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Kurdish, Zaza, Circassian, Laz, Turkish, etc. These identities do not come from nowhere, after all. They mean something to the people who bear them, and some of those people who bore them had to suffer for it just because they bore them. This fact must not be forgotten.
Additionally, the Armenian Genocide was a political act committed by the leadership of a state, and it continues to be in political denial, as it were, by the leadership of the successor state. Why did Armenians take to killing diplomats of the Republic of Turkey in the 1970’s and 1980’s? Why do they pursue advocacy in order to have legislatures pass resolutions and parliaments pass laws about the Armenian Genocide? This is a political matter, and since there is no political mechanism to deal with Turkey—in part because Turkey is a state and the Armenian people have only recently re-acquired a state—the only other resorts are these secondary paths that so regularly rile up the Turks. The Turkish state as a state, in the meantime, has simply ignored the Armenian people for almost a century. Failed protocols notwithstanding, the ball has been and continues to be in Turkey’s court for the most part; it is up to the government in Ankara to initiate and take the necessary steps to undo what its ancestor, the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, did.
As far as the people go, I have never seen in my admittedly limited experience any overtly negative people-to-people interaction between Armenians and Turks. Quite the contrary: The two peoples share such a rich legacy that they easily identify on manners and customs, certainly when it comes to food, for example, as someone mentioned at the event. Even though my opinion on this point is anecdotal and not thoroughly researched, I believe that those extremist Armenians and Turks who are ready to hate the other immediately are in a minority. Altan can rest easy when it comes to that. It is the government of Turkey and the national policies of the country that are the main target of the Armenian Cause, I have always felt, even if it there is no final consensus by the leadership and people of the organized Armenian Diaspora and the Republic of Armenia on just what exactly the Armenian Cause envisions for the future. It is the continuation of those policies and their maintenance by society in Turkey that are the very cause of indignation, as one member of the audience brusquely pointed out before walking out of the gathering.
I myself asked about the advocacy work of Armenian groups in various countries—whether or not they have a positive effect for the opening up of Turkish society to this issue. Altan maintained that they only serve as fodder for the reactionaries and bring the nationalists closer together. But is it not the case that this is a political matter above all? To reach out to the people of Turkey is certainly very important, but there must be more to it than that. The larger question is, will a change in public opinion and attitudes in Turkish society result in a change in Turkish policy? Besides being not familiar with the situation in Turkey, I have mixed feelings about “people power” in general. After all, it did not quite work in Armenia in March 2008. The United States has representatives who rely on being elected by the people. There is a transparent, accountable governmental system in that country to a large degree, and so any active grassroots movement in society would have some likelihood to reach and tug on the ears of those who have offices on Capitol Hill in Washington. But if I wanted something done in Saudi Arabia, for example, I would go straight to the king and not bother with any other member of society. I do not know how things are in Turkey, or how liable they are to change, or what it would take to make any changes. From an outsider’s perspective, I would have felt—and did, in fact, feel—less than enthusiastic about the public movements in Tunisia or Egypt about a year ago, but the leadership in Tunis and Cairo was ousted in the end. How all that will turn out for society at large in those countries remains to be seen; so I guess that, unsatisfactory though this conclusion may be, it is difficult to judge and predict these things.
Regardless of the fact that Altan left mixed impressions among the audience (he was a funny man and an engaging speaker, but a lot of what he had to say seemed abstract and sometimes made light of inopportunely), it would be hard to deny that public discourse on the Armenian Genocide in Turkey is a good thing in the long run. I am just not so sure how responsive and accountable the leadership of Turkey would be to its people, especially given the fact that, as an audience member mentioned, the national policies of Turkey have been slow to respond and be accountable to our people, as well as to so many other people and peoples, whether inside or outside the country.