During the Armenian genocide in 1915, an unknown number of young Armenians survived because they were adopted as daughters and sons of Muslim families. Many lived the rest of their lives with Turkish, Kurdish, or Arabic names and identities to escape the forced deportation and systematic murders of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Empire. Until recently, accounts of these survivors have largely been silenced. Professor Ayse Altinay’s ground-breaking new book on this subject, Les Petits-Enfants, focuses on these stories and on the second and third generations.
April 24 marks Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day. While the international community has long accepted the mass murder of the Armenians as genocide, this day of remembrance reminds us, too, that even today—in 2012— the Turkish government denies that historical crime. Indeed, they staunchly reject responsibility. This denialism—and the re-writing of history their stance entails— has ramifications which command our attention. It creates everyday silences that make life difficult for the generations that Altinay writes about.
Part of the denialist position by the Turkish state can be explained by the link between militarism and nationalism. Laws such as Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code make it a crime to insult “Turkishness”, and set the stage to prosecute public intellectuals, historians, and activists. Further, they contribute to the framing of how the Armenian genocide can be publicly discussed. They factor into how history text books and curriculums are written in Turkey. Who is deemed responsible? Who is regarded as “other” or non-Turkish? In the hazy upholding of nationalism and ‘national security,’ what is left off the page and out of the historical narrative?
As a Latin Americanist, I ask these questions from a comparative perspective. Denying the Armenian genocide is not just about protection of Turkish nationalism. Nor do these questions arise only within contexts of genocide. In post-conflict countries around the globe, states and governmental institutions struggle with how they write (or re-write) history in order to protect national interests. And scholars, activists, teachers, journalists, and families grapple with how to reconcile those stories with their own lived experiences.
Professor Taner Akçam at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University is an example of one such person. Akçam was the first Turkish scholar to speak openly about the Genocide against the Armenians, and to overtly challenge the moral and political stance by the Turkish government in its denial of Ottoman responsibility. He holds the only endowed Professorship in the world dedicated to research and teaching on this subject. His stance: denialism of the Armenian genocide cannot, and must not, be tolerated.
But this is a position that is still wildly contested in Turkey. Further, he along with many fear prosecution for these views by the Turkish government under Article 301. Akçam has been the target of death threats and intimidation from Turkish ultranationalists. Data released by PEN International notes that Turkey has the world’s highest imprisonment rate for journalists. By the end of 2011, according to the figures, there were 30 writers in prison in Turkey and 70 on trial.
Yet thoughtful and effective activism and scholarship continues on this subject. In October 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled favorable in the case of Taner Akçam v. Turkey, and upheld that Article 301 violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, the courts agreed that he faces risk of unjust prosecution, and ruled that his freedom of expression was violated.
Landmark human rights cases such as this matter. And they matter because they set the stage for what can and cannot be taught, and for how history is to be written. They challenge and expand what is deemed too contested, or too political. The Turkish state has obfuscated information—deliberately concealing or destroying artifacts. Hidden files, barred access, and lack of transparency make the Armenian genocide an ongoing challenge for historians and educators—and for the survivors, children, and grand-children of survivors.
Framing and terminology carry weight. Partly because they have an impact on how we teach young people, what kind of curriculum is written into text books, and the types of public scholarship and debate that are able to take place. And terminology is important because it can prompt external intervention from other countries. These are not just quibbles over language; investments to deny or re-write history are often rooted in questions about resources and political interests.
And so, on this day of remembrance, let us move the conversation beyond commemoration or even recognition. Let us confront denialism: past and present.