Moving Beyond Black and White on the Armenian Genocide

Faced with a question about the Armenian genocide while in Turkey, President Barack Obama responded deftly, saying, "My views are on the record and I have not changed views." With this formulation, he implicitly recognized the death of a million or more Armenians during World War I as "genocide" without infuriating his hosts by using the word itself. He later urged Turkey to reckon with what he called "the terrible events of 1915," before praising the ongoing negotiations that may soon bring about Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Today, as Armenians around the world commemorate the 94th anniversary of these terrible events, Obama faces pressure to explicitly refer to the events as genocide now that he has taken office. Whether he does or not, the debate has moved to Congress, where a resolution has been introduced formally recognizing the genocide.

As in past years, supporters of genocide recognition present the issue as a matter of principle versus pragmatism. They argue that we should call what happened "genocide" because it was, after all, genocide. The counter-argument is, essentially, "Yes, we agree in principle, but let's be pragmatic: It may well have been genocide, but Turkey's help is crucial to solving the problems we face in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran." Additionally, opponents add that to recognize the genocide now would destroy the considerable goodwill created on Obama's trip and poison Turkish-Armenian relations.

The one thing missing from the debate is a serious discussion of how the issue is understood in Turkey, and why it arouses such fierce passions there. Of course, if the goal is to have the United States recognize the Armenian genocide, Turkish views do not matter. If, however, the ultimate goal is for Turkey to recognize it, Turkish views cannot continue to be dismissed as nothing more than the byproduct of censorship and nationalist lunacy.

While no one would claim it is easy to discuss the fate of the Armenians openly in Turkey, the once formidable legal and social obstacles to doing so are gradually eroding. Until recently, challenging the official view of the 1915 killings was a sure way to end up in court. Now historians are debating what happened on television and columnists are doing so in print. This winter, around 200 Turkish intellectuals apologized to their "Armenian brothers and sisters" in an online petition which almost 30,000 people have since signed. Responding to demands that the authors be prosecuted, Turkish President Abdullah Gul declared that everybody was free to express their opinion. The ruling Justice and Development Party is slowly beginning to recognize and conserve Armenian architectural monuments in Turkey, and recently began Armenian-language broadcasting on Turkey's state radio.

Some Armenians have suggested that many of these steps were taken cynically, designed for use in op-eds like this one, as arguments against genocide recognition. Even if this is true, Turkey is likely to find it has shortsightedly purchased American silence at the price of a robust internal debate with unanticipated consequences.

Most Turks will merely see a U.S. congressional resolution as a tribute to the power of an aggressive, Turk-hating Armenian lobby. Rather than question deeply held beliefs, many will feel that their nation is under attack, and may be more inclined to support laws like the infamous Article 301 that claim to protect the nation by curtailing free speech.

This is not to imply that the Turkish population is simply too immature to handle the truth. Part of the problem is that many Armenians and Americans are so fixated on the egregiousness of Turkish denial that they fail to see how this denial feeds off of the biases, distortions and omissions in their own versions of history.

Perhaps because of the fear that explanation would imply justification, popular accounts of the genocide seldom delve too deeply into its historical causes. During the 19th century, Christian Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians revolted against Ottoman Turkish rule. Following their victories, they expelled or massacred the Muslims who lived in their newly created states. By some estimates over 200,000 Muslims died when Bulgaria won its independence in 1878. In light of this precedent, destroying the Armenian Christian population of Eastern Anatolia became a coldly rational -- and in the end brutally effective -- way of preserving Ottoman/Turkish control over the region and protecting its Muslim inhabitants. It is no coincidence that the men who planned the genocide began their careers as army officers witnessing Ottoman defeat in the Balkans.

Clearly this context does nothing to mitigate the individual guilt of the perpetrators. Yet to ignore it is to unfairly demonize Turkey, and it is no surprise that accounts which do so hold little appeal for Turks. As Turkish scholars gain the freedom to acknowledge the genocide while also acknowledging Turkish suffering, they will be able to write far more persuasive accounts of what happened.

Similarly, histories that over-emphasize parallels with the Holocaust further confuse the issue. The Holocaust was unique in being so irrational, unprovoked and completely one sided. Yet most Turks now see these qualities as integral to the definition of genocide. As a result, many base their genocide denial on the fact that, in the turbulent period before and during World War I, there were Armenian terrorists who set off bombs in Istanbul, Armenian soldiers who fought for Russia against the Ottoman Empire, and Armenian guerrillas who massacred Muslim children.

These events, if repeatedly overstated in Turkish accounts, are well documented. Historically speaking, they are hardly surprising. The Sudanese government's genocidal campaign in Darfur began in response to armed attacks by Fur rebel groups. The Hague charged Slobodan Milosevic with orchestrating a genocide in Bosnia while also charging Croat generals for committing atrocities against Serbs. More often than not, states commit genocide in wartime, when violence is widespread. If those who accuse Turkey of genocide ignore evidence of Armenian crimes it only encourages Turks to believe that in fact this evidence negates the charge of genocide.

In debating this resolution, Congress should recognize, as Obama did, that confronting Turks with a simplistic and hostile version of their history will not help them overcome the even more simplistic and nationalistic version they grew up with. Turkey's official history is already under assault from a new spirit of tolerance and intellectual freedom. America should encourage this spirit, for if it is allowed to blossom, it will do more to advance the truth than any congressional resolution.