Author Rasim Ozan Kutahyali
Turks should come to terms with the Armenian genocide, recognize the momentous step taken by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and embrace the legacy of the many Turkish officials who saved Armenians from death. A telling example is the reactions faced by Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent for The Economist and fellow Al-Monitor contributor, for sharing my article on social media. Here is what happened, in her own words, from the Turkish daily Taraf: “Rasim Ozan Kutahyali, who is known to be close to Prime Minister Erdogan, penned an article for Al-Monitor, where I also contribute, in which he called the 1915 events genocide and said that those who deny it make him nauseous. I shared his article on Twitter late on April 22 with the note ‘A good piece.’ Many people were infuriated. In their view, I had ‘betrayed’ my profession by ‘polishing up’ someone who did not deserve it. Moreover, they believed Kutahyali had written the piece on Erdogan’s orders — to dupe foreigners.”
My piece last week for Al-Monitor, “How I faced the Armenian genocide,” sparked reactions in the Turkish media, especially after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a day after my article was published — issued an unprecedented condolence message to the victims of the Armenian genocide. Turkey’s polarization has reached such an insane level that even an issue like the 1915 tragedy, which is supposed to unify, is easily overrun under its weight.
Summary⎙ Print Turks should come to terms with the Armenian genocide, recognize the momentous step taken by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and embrace the legacy of the many Turkish officials who saved Armenians from death.
A telling example is the reactions faced by Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent for The Economist and fellow Al-Monitor contributor, for sharing my article on social media. Here is what happened, in her own words, from the Turkish daily Taraf: “Rasim Ozan Kutahyali, who is known to be close to Prime Minister Erdogan, penned an article for Al-Monitor, where I also contribute, in which he called the 1915 events genocide and said that those who deny it make him nauseous. I shared his article on Twitter late on April 22 with the note ‘A good piece.’ Many people were infuriated. In their view, I had ‘betrayed’ my profession by ‘polishing up’ someone who did not deserve it. Moreover, they believed Kutahyali had written the piece on Erdogan’s orders — to dupe foreigners.”
So, Zaman came under attack for simply liking my article, which explicitly termed the 1915 events as genocide. Moreover, the people who attacked her were not some group of Turkish fascists but the very quarters who, ostensibly, are sensible over the 1915 events. In their view, I — as someone who does not belong to their political camp — was not capable of acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Being close to Erdogan, as Zaman describes me, was a big crime in their eyes.
My first article acknowledging the genocide was published by the Turkish media on Sept. 10, 2008. I was also among activists who took part in the 2008 “We apologize to the Armenians” campaign. In a television debate the same year, I had a fierce argument with a retired Turkish general who denied the genocide.
Yet, my detractors spread black propaganda that I wrote my article on Erdogan’s instructions to dupe foreigners. In fact, a writer close to Erdogan penning an article that faces up to the genocide is something that should please people who urge the Turkish state to recognize the 1915 events as genocide.
Erdogan’s condolence message, too, should have been welcomed. But unfortunately, Turkey’s leftists and pseudo-liberals are more concerned with their personal obsessions against Erdogan than the wishes of the descendants of the Armenian genocide survivors. As I wrote in my previous article, they are fine with anyone but Erdogan as Turkey’s next president. In contrast, Turkey’s two most renowned liberal Armenian intellectuals, Etyen Mahcupyan and Markar Esayan, openly support Erdogan in the Aug. 10 presidential elections, just as I do.
Now, let’s leave aside Turkey’s leftists and move on to the letters from the Armenian diaspora to the Turkish people, sent as part of a campaign by the bilingual Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos.
Armenian filmmaker and intellectual Eric Nazarian, for instance, sends the following message: “I’d like to tell Turkish society that this day of remembrance [April 24] is yours, too. Our collective recovery will be impossible as long as you refuse to join us and acknowledge this day.
Is our collective recovery possible? Through meaningful dialogue, through acknowledgement of the short- and long-term consequences of the terrible tragedy and facing up to the past and the genocide? This day belongs also to the memory of righteous Turks and the lives they saved.”
I fully agree with Nazarian. Turkish society’s recovery, too, depends on facing up to 1915. And Erdogan is the chief figure who can convince Turks to come to terms with the truth after nine decades of black propaganda by the same mindset that committed the genocide. His popularity is obvious. Political pundits agree that Erdogan will almost certainly govern Turkey in the next decade as president.
Nazarian’s emphasis on lives saved by righteous Turks is also important. Indeed, a significant number of Turkish officials defied the orders of the Talat Pasha government in 1915. Let me briefly mention some of them, borrowing from the book of Turkish academic Ayhan Aktar.
Following the Young Turks’ order for the massacres, Ankara Gov. Hasan Mazhar Bey replied, “I’m a governor, not a bandit. I cannot obey unlawful orders.”
Konya Gov. Celal Bey saved the lives of tens of thousands of Armenians, defying the decision for their deportation. A former governor of Aleppo, Celal Bey, knew that deporting those people to the Syrian deserts was tantamount to murder. The biggest support to this honorable statesman came from Konya’s sheikhs and religious scholars — those sons of the Turkish nation who displayed strong morals and virtue by resisting a deportation order that amounted to murder and flouted both Islam and humanity.
Kutahya Gov. Faik Ali Bey was another dignified man who refused to follow the deportation order. He instructed his subordinates to protect the Armenians who had managed to reach Kutahya in a miserable state after being deported from other cities. He dismissed the city’s infamous police chief who was pressing the Armenians to convert to Islam to let them stay in Kutahya or else “join the deportation convoys.” A true symbol of nobleness, Ali Faik Bey shouted in the city’s town hall, “The Turks in Kutahya have not and will never take part in the atrocities against the Armenians!” It is because of people like him that I feel honored to have Kutahya in my surname.
Kastamonu Gov. Resit Pasha, Basra Gov. Ferit Bey, Yozgat Gov. Cemal Bey, Lice Sub-Gov. Huseyin Nesimi Bey and Batman Deputy Sub-Gov. Sabit Bey were all among those honorable statesmen we are proud to have had. Some of them lost their lives, too. The Young Turk mentality did not spare them either, just as it pressed ahead with the deportations knowing perfectly well they amounted to an atrocity.
So, let’s ask ourselves this question: Do we see ourselves as the grandchildren of those noble Turkish statesmen? Are we going to erect monuments of them in the cities they served? Or are we the grandchildren of the wicked men who made a conscious decision to kill? Do we keep lauding the murderers? If we continue to shamelessly insist that “we did it and we were right to do so,” that would make us the grandchildren of the second group. So, we have to make up our mind: Who are the Turks we see as true ancestors?
In almost every Turkish city today, streets and boulevards are named after Young Turk leaders. And what about the names of the noble Turkish statesmen who listened to the voice of their conscience and humanity? Are any of them inscribed on a school, hospital or street? Not even one? These questions go to Erdogan. As the man likely to be Turkey’s president in 2015 — the centenary of the massacres — he is now expected to take even more momentous steps.
Human rights activists light candles to mourn Armenian victims in central Istanbul, April 24, 2010. (photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
How I faced the Armenian genocide
Author Rasim Ozan Kutahyali Posted April 22, 2014
Another April 24 is coming around. A landmark in Middle Eastern history, the date this year will mark the 99th anniversary of the catastrophe of 1915. Ninety-nine years ago, one of the region’s Christian peoples, the Armenians, fell victim to a great tragedy they call Metz Yeghern, or genocide. A deep, insurmountable enmity has haunted Turks and Armenians ever since, with tensions bound to reach a crescendo next year, the centenary of the genocide. This year, like those that went before, the spokespeople of various countries will repeat their cliches. The annoying nonsense will go on.
Summary⎙ Print A Turkish writer tells how he faced up to the mass killings of Armenians at the hands of Turks and how learning the truth scarred his inner world.
Today, I tell of my own mental journey and the transformation of conscience I experienced on this issue as a Turk. I speak of how I faced up to the massacres of Armenians and Christians and how the truth scarred my inner being. The road to acceptance was definitely hard, but I eventually came to terms with the truth. The Armenians were uprooted from the lands where I lived. Hundreds of thousands of them were slain brutally on the orders of Talaat Pasha’s Young Turk government. In the ensuing Kemalist era, Turkey’s Christians and Jews were again expelled from their homeland. It was an unmistakable act of ethnic cleansing, which the state I belonged to denied. Such denial, on top of everything else, is shameful.
I was in high school when I first became curious about the events of 1915. Our Kemalist teachers spoke of “Armenian allegations” and “Armenian lies.” The Kemalist education we had received in earlier grades had already instilled in me and my classmates an anti-Armenian sentiment. Then, we were shown a government-sponsored documentary according to which Turks, in fact, were the victims of genocide at the hands of the Armenians.
The documentary was a ridiculous production, devoid of quality and intellectual insight. I wasn’t convinced. On the other hand, being the child of a Turkish family, I did not want to believe that “we” slaughtered the Armenians. Turkey’s current official position — It was not a massacre, but mutual killings — was in its fledgling stages in the 1990s. To allay my own conscience, I endorsed this thesis as the most credible one.
I began to read studies that supported the government’s version of the events. Whenever the issue popped up, I insisted that there had been no massacre, only mutual killing. During my university years, I continued to read up on the issue, as it occasionally became a topic of discussion and whetted my appetite to read more. Frankly, however, I didn’t bother to read material from both sides, try to be objective or fully seek the truth. To me, the truth was already in my mind: An Armenian genocide never took place. The two peoples slaughtered each other. Thus, my only purpose in reading was to reinforce the “truth” I had already come to accept.
As the late Armenian luminary Hrant Dink used to point out, as a Turk I was simply incapable of coming to terms with anything like genocide. I could not bring myself to say, “Yes, we Turks slaughtered the Armenians.” Dink argued that the urge toward denial was in fact a natural human reaction. While on other political issues my thinking matured into libertarian and democratic outlooks, on the Armenian question I remained conditioned to insist that “It was mutual,” that “Apologies should be extended on both sides,” that “It was a time of war and there was no massacre, but mutual killings.”
Although I never read a study affirming the genocide, I gradually began to sense that something was wrong with the pro-Turkish arguments. The Turkish literature on the subject varied from “Nothing happened” to “The killings were mutual” and ultimately to “Yes, it did happen, but it was necessary.” At this point, I had a change of heart. As a Turk, I might have felt the urge to delude myself, but to endorse an argument that was more or less saying, “Yes, we did it, and we were right to do so” seemed to me cruel and simply immoral.
The American scholar Justin McCarthy, whose work I read extensively at the time, was a leading foreign supporter of the Turkish version. He had the strong backing of the Turkish state and often visited Turkey at Ankara’s invitation to make speeches here and there.
McCarthy did not deny the huge number of atrocities that resulted from deportations, but concluded that if the deportations had not taken place, the Turks would have lost eastern Anatolia. Therefore, their actions were justified. This argument offered easy vindication for Turks, most of whom might have been relieved to think it was the right thing to do, after all.
As Dink also said, denying what happened or not believing in it was, in a sense, a noble reaction. Most Turks probably harbor this sentiment today. Yet, a large number of people tend to embrace
the theory that the Turks were in the right. This is terrible and truly shameful, because it points to a cruel and immoral mindset that legitimizes murder and mass killings.
In my case, even the pro-Turkish writings I read to delude myself and relieve my conscience led me to eventually conclude that what happened was a crime against humanity. Yet, at the same time, I came to realize that labeling an entire nation as the butcher of another is no less intellectual nonsense than the perspective of seeing an enemy in each and every member of another nation. This holds true not only in the Turkish-Armenian context, but also in the German-Jewish and Serbian-Bosnian cases.
The real murderer is the mindset, not a nation, that justifies the extermination of ethnic or religious groups from an allegedly lofty purpose. It is such a revolting, results-oriented mindset that has made possible all massacres and genocides, deeming all means legitimate in achieving a purported sacred end. In regard to the events of 1915, this morality- and conscience-deprived mindset emerged in the avatar of the Young Turks ideology, embodied in Talaat, a man who saw people as mere objects in his population-engineering designs.
So, that’s my personal story. I no longer deceive myself. What happened in these lands in 1915 was a great tragedy, a genocide against Armenians, a crime against humanity. Every “but …” argument about this crime makes me nauseous.