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.
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 would like to say to the Turkish people that this day of commemoration [April 24] also belongs to you. Without your participation and acknowledgment of this day, we cannot heal collectively. Is collective healing possible? We must try through meaningful dialogue and facing the past and the genocide openly by acknowledging the immediate and long-term consequences of this terrible tragedy 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.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article mistranslated a quote from Eric Nazarian. The article has been updated with the corrected version of the quote.
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