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Q&A with Taner Akçam on Obama’s visit to Turkey and if Obama will use the word genocide on April 24th.

Question 1) Can you evaluate the statements that were made by Obama regarding the subject of genocide during his visit to Turkey? What kind of message do you believe he was trying to give…

Obama gave a very clear and singular message. What he said was this: “You possess the strength to play a very important role in the region and the world; I want you to play that role and support you but you must confront your history. There’s nothing shameful in doing that, in fact it’s a good thing and it will bring you to a good place. Look at me, I became the president of a country which engaged in slavery and where people like me couldn’t even vote. Confront your own history, become more democratic and you’ll see that it will bring you to a good place. This is absolutely necessary in order for you to fulfill the duty that’s been placed upon you in the region and the world. Otherwise you won’t be able to fulfill that role. If you think you can continue to treat frank discussions of history within a framework of crime and punishment, if you continue to treat the denial of historical truth and injustices as some kind of special talent and believe you’re going to play this big role in the region and the world, well I’m here to tell you. It ain’t happening.”

2) Do you believe that he will use the word genocide on April 24th?

I don’t live in the White House so I don’t know what to tell you. I’d like to continue to believe that he will use the word. He should use the word. If he doesn’t it basically comes down to a continuation of this meaningless tragi-comedy, this “Chinese water torture”. Besides, by telling the Turkish Parliament “what I think isn’t important” Obama opened the door a crack. What are we going to do if he says “It doesn’t matter what I think but I’m going to say what I think anyway”? Remind him that we’d really appreciate it if he could tell a bald faced lie?

What I keep wondering is this: If Obama was to say “I believe that what happened in 1915 was genocide but you want me to tell a lie for one day. Do you really believe that by getting me to deny what I think, your problems are going to be solved?” “Do you really believe that you can solve problems by lying about it? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone just stated what they believed and then we could get on with trying to solve our differences?”

I don’t see any point in Turkey sending Obama threats. Here’s a country that told Peres, with a straight face, “You know very well how to kill people”. What’s it going to say to Obama, “If you dare tell the truth, I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich”? I’m sorry, but this whole business is one big meaningless, absurd comedy to me. It would be a relief to everyone, if it would just come to an end.

3) If the word “genocide” isn’t used this year, does that infer it may not be used in the future?

No, if the word isn’t used this year then it means the comedy continues in the years to come. I am dead serious here: I don’t get our government’s persistence on this subject. I just don’t. It strikes me as the ultimate in ludicrousness. And frankly, it’s embarrassing too. Think about it: you have the American President and Congress before you and they all believe in the genocide. That doesn’t bother us for 364 days of the year but we insist “PLEASE PLEASE DON’T MENTION THE WORD GENOCIDE ONLY FOR ONE DAY.” And as if that isn’t enough, when the American President uses words like “total destruction or total annihilation” on April 24th instead of genocide, words that are even worse in my mind, we get happy. Let’s put an end to this nonsense. I believe Obama is ready to do that.

4) Do you believe that Turkey’s diplomatic overtures to Armenia are some kind of political maneuvering in light of April 24th? Obama said he supported both countries developing closer relations but there has been some negative feedback from the public, Karabað as a pre-condition? How do you think the American administration is going to follow the . developments…

Turkey prefers to muzzle the American Congress and President with words and threats each year. Turkey’s strategy is built on “Let’s get them to play mute this year and we’ll see about next year.” What it’s really doing is using “its military and strategic power” in the region as a source of threats. I don’t know if America is going to back down again. I don’t live in the White House. The opening of the borders with Armenia may be leveraged for the “avoidance of the word genocide”. Meaning, Turkey opens the border and Obama refrains from using the word genocide. However Tayyip Erdoðan was pretty clear about it: he said the border wouldn’t be opened without a resolution on Karabað. I believe that it’s a big mistake for Turkey to peg Karabað against the opening of the border. It’s a bad move. With that policy Turkey automatically puts itself outside the loop. If it could exercise any influence at all in Armenia, that’s going to prevent it from happening and it will be their own fault. Let’s not forget: people will listen to their friends; they don’t listen to their enemies.

5) What do you think of the fact that the “genocide” issue has been used as political fodder on policy matters?

Of course it’s going to be used that way. An act of historical injustice is inevitably going to be used for political purposes. You can’t prevent that. What’s important is what sort of “political fodder” you’re making it into. I don’t believe that a political position that doesn’t mention historical injustices, that doesn’t incorporate the honest confrontation of history and acknowledgment of past wrongs as a central theme has any hope of success in the Middle East. What I mean is that you can’t possibly create peace and security in the Middle East without mentioning the pain felt by Kurds, by Armenians, by Palestinians, without discussing the painful experiences of the past and their negative consequences, without being willing to take the steps needed to address those consequences. That is the biggest reality check that Middle Eastern politicians have to get.

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