Thursday, July 09, 2009

Editorial: Discrediting denial in Ankara

Published: Friday July 03, 2009

Advocate acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, and you risk prosecution and imprisonment for the crime – yes, it's still a crime – of insulting Turkey. If you're Armenian and you do it, you also risk getting killed, as we learned in January 2007 when Hrant Dink was shot dead.

That said, it's also true that open discussion of the Armenian Genocide is more common in Turkey today than it has been for decades. Mainstream newspapers like Radikal write about it, and respected public figures acknowledge it – like the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who has had repeatedly to answer charges of insulting Turkishness.

Last week, a British peer, Lord Avebury, and historian Ara Sarafian set out for Ankara, a Turkish translation of the British parliamentary Blue Book on the Armenian Genocide in hand. (See story.) The stated purpose was to engage the Turkish parliament on a debate it had originated.

Four years ago, the Turkish Grand National Assembly sent a petition to the British Parliament, asking it to repudiate the Blue Book, which it had commissioned in 1916. The Foreign Office wrote back to say it saw no reason to do so. A group of British members of Parliament and peers wrote back to say the Blue Book is solid, but let's talk about it and hear your concerns.

The Turkish parliament dropped the matter. No response was forthcoming to the British legislators who had agreed to engage the Turkish legislators.

Instead of dropping the issue, Lord Avebury and Mr. Sarafian took the matter to Turkey.

Addressing the Turkish Grand National Assembly in April, President Barack Obama had urged the parliament to come to terms with Turkey's past as it relates to Armenians. He had reminded his audience of how America is better for having come to terms with some of the shameful parts of its history.

But the Grand National Assembly has yet to heed Mr. Obama's advice. And, indeed, no member of the Turkish parliament joined the foreign diplomats and other distinguished guests who attended the presentation made by Lord Avebury and Mr. Sarafian in Ankara last week. The absence even of members of the pro-Kurdish party MEP is an indication of the prevalence and extent of anti-Armenian pressure brought to bear against politicians in Turkey.

Present or absent, the members of parliament got to read about the presentation in the Turkish press, which covered it. It is perhaps an indication of the damage to the denial effort inflicted by this presentation that a retired ambassador held a news conference to denounce it.

In going to Turkey and engaging the establishment, we offer messages that are broadcast, if at all, through the filter of the Turkish media. It is not by any means an even playing field, or a safe one. And it's counterproductive to appear to engage in a debate over whether the events of 1915–17 constituted genocide. That is a contrived debate, and to their credit, Lord Avebury and Mr. Sarafian were able to avoid the appearance of engaging in such a debate.

What their modest presentation did was not simply to offer in Turkish an important resource for people who want to learn the truth about the Armenian Genocide. More importantly, it showed the bankruptcy of the Turkish denial machine.

The leaders of the denial effort had put the Turkish legislature into an embarrassing position, and that was clear: they had persuaded the legislature to denounce a book – the Blue Book – on grounds that were patently and demonstrably false. In demonstrating that the case made by deniers was dishonest and disingenuous, Lord Avebury and Mr. Sarafian helped discredit the denial effort itself. We commend them for that.

Meanwhile, this initiative may serve as a good opportunity for Armenian individuals as well as organizations to ask themselves whether they have anything to do in Turkey. The answer may not always be affirmative, but the question is certainly worth exploring.

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