With a new conference on Ottoman Armenians being planned for the autumn by Gazi University in Ankara in response to the so-called first, I thought that this week I would write my remote-controlled impressions of the Bilgi University Conference eventually held against all odds on Sept. 25-26.
At a New Year’s Eve party last year, three respected academics, Professors Zafer Toprak, Halil Berktay and Murat Belge, decided to hold a three-day meeting at Boðaziçi University to discuss the Ottoman Armenians during the declining years of the empire in the middle of World War I. The purpose was claimed to be a scholarly and historic interest to shed new light on the subject, but the initiative turned out to be a hotly political issue, widely debated as expected.
The Erdogan government had already proposed to all Armenians, of whatever nationality, including Turkish, “Let the historians get together internationally and research the matter so that the politicians can take up the issue and resolve the perennial Armenian problem.” This earnest appeal went unheeded by the Armenians in the diaspora and Armenia, although it was well received in the international media and other interested countries.
The Armenian official doctrine abroad argued that the historic facts were already established and clear, that there was genocide committed against the Ottoman Armenians by the then Unity and Progress (Ýttihat and Terakki) government of Pashas Talat, Enver and Cemal and that further research was not needed. Equally vociferous in their opposition to the suggestion were some in Turkey and elsewhere.
The three academics, as rectors of Boðaziçi, Bilgi and Sabancý Universities, wanted to discuss openly in full public glare the tragedy of the Ottoman Armenians and what really happened to them.
The official Turkish view, briefly, is that what actually happened to the Ottoman Armenians during the years of World War I was a two-way tragedy. The Ýttihat and Terakki Party government was fighting the enemy on two fronts. The Ottoman Armenians suffered badly as did the Ottoman Turks. While the Armenians were being relocated (tehcir) from Eastern Anatolia to Syria for their safety, many lost their lives en route due to cold, disease, malnutrition and inhospitable conditions, including Kurdish attacks on the convoys.
According to official Ottoman statistics, out of a previous Armenian population of 1,256,403, after the relocation this figure was reduced to 400,000. The Armenian’s official claim has consistently been that a flat 1.5 million perished, more than the official population of the time. On the other hand, how many Ottoman Turkish subjects were killed by Ottoman Armenians and their Russian allies as never been addressed by them.
To shed new light as to what really happened 90 years ago was of interest to the Turkish public only since an Armenian terror organization, ASALA, assassinated 34 Turkish diplomats and their families in the 1980s. Over the years the question of whether the actions of the Talat government amounted to genocide, or not, has become a heavy political issue with so much research being encouraged and done by the Turkish side. Despite that, no less than 14 foreign Parliaments have already decided that it was “genocide” without any knowledge of the facts, but for political reasons and pressures Some, like the French and Swiss Parliaments, went so far as to claim that “to deny the genocide is a crime” at the instigation of the Armenian side.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. The Minister of Justice banned the Boðaziçi meeting due to be held in June, brandishing the organizers as “traitors to Turkey’s national interest,” and was badly received both locally and internationally. Why should Turkey be afraid of discussing the Armenian problem? Was there something to hide from the public eye? Was not Turkey a democratic country? Could not, and should not, all views, both for and against, of any theory be discussed openly in the interests of freedom of speech? One prominent personality, Altan Oymen, quoted Voltaire two hundred years ago, “I do not agree with you but I will defend your right to state your views at any cost.”
The reaction was such that there was an apparent change of heart, a green light for the meeting to be allowed to take place in September with the participation of academics who were exclusively known to question the official Turkish view. This attracted negative attention as it was rightly bound to, but nevertheless the organizers were free to invite whomever they wanted. Next it was the local Administrative Court that intervened and decided, two to one, that the meeting could not be held.
In response to a considerable outcry from a public horrified at this decision, the minister of justice overnight overruled the court by the procedural trick of moving the meeting to Bilgi University, and there was a general sigh of relief the next morning, though instant and unnecessary damage had been done to the international image of Turkey at a sensitive time.
And so the Conference was held, but what came out from the two days of deliberations by eminent academics of contra views was mostly nothing new or earth shattering. Some 273 people attended the first day. In 2002/3 Bilgi University undertook some research into 1,200 people in Turkey and 1,000 people in Armenia and it became clear that neither the Armenians nor the Turks had a clear idea about each other. 60 percent of the Armenians thought Turks were Arabs and 15 percent of the Turks believed that Armenians were Jewish. The two peoples unfortunately do not know each other at all.
“There is trauma in the Armenians and paranoia in the Turks. Treatment is possible with the two peoples getting together,” suggested the Armenian writer, Hrant Dink, as reported in the media. Another prominent Armenian writer, Etyen Mahcupyan, said, “Turks should look at themselves over the Armenian question and we Armenians should help them.”
Zaman writer Bayramoðlu pointed out, “There had never been a negative stance against the Armenians throughout Ottoman history among the Muslims, as was the case against the Jews.” Professor Insel of Galatasaray University also shared this view. Professor Baskýn Oran underlined the fact that, “This conference proves that the Armenian question is no longer a taboo subject in Turkey. Armenia should give up the demand of territory, compensation and the recognition of genocide.”
Dr. Kuyas of Galatasaray University criticized Dr. Akçam’s view that “all members of the Union and Progress Party were responsible for the murder of the Armenians, but made a distinction among those in power who were completely opposed to the mass deportation and those who approved the idea.”
Cem Özdemir, MEP of the European Parliament, was of the view: “The realization of the conference gained a lot of prestige for Turkey abroad. If it had been cancelled it would have been used against Turkey. Now the whole of Europe is watching Turkey with interest and awe.”
A former minister, Cevat Aykan, who wrote a book on the subject, recalled that “Armenians and Turks were not living next to each other in eastern Turkey, but together. There was no animosity against the Armenians among Turks. When the deportation decision reached Tokat, male Armenians were forced to leave the town. Their orphaned daughters were married to the sons of Muslim Turkish families who adopted them as their own.
In previous conferences and meetings on the Armenian issue, and in the articles that I have written since, I humbly made the following simple proposal to end this diatribe that is poisoning Turkish-Armenian relations and is standing as a big hurdle in the way of normal relations that are to the benefit of both peoples and countries. I suggest that both sides simultaneously apologize to each other for this common tragedy. Neither side has ever answered my proposal. If there is the will to end this historic-political debate and to have closure, this is the only way. I wish this simple view had found find an echo in the Bilgi University Conference and hope that it may do so in the forthcoming Gazi University Conference, although I feel this may be hoping against hope.