April 24 is one of the most painful and troubling days for me as it is commemorated worldwide by Armenians as Genocide Memorial Day. As you read this column, millions of Armenians all around the world will be mourning and remembering their painful and tragic displacement from their homeland in the early years of the 20th century. I would like to discuss this extremely painful, controversial and complicated issue in my last column of the year.
The Armenian question is a prime example of how deeply painful human suffering can turn into cheap political material in local and international politics, into an unhealthy and destructive way of keeping one’s own identity by creating a historical enemy and a shameful collective human failure of not acknowledging responsibility, choosing instead to live in denial. An example of how an issue in the hands of irresponsible leaders can, over time, turn into a disgusting mess that people of different poles cannot manage to have a simple conversation about.
As someone who is 100 percent Turkish and grew up in Maras, a city in southern Turkey that was historically one-third Armenian, the Armenian question has always been a bleeding wound on my heart. I have deeply personal and providential connections and experiences with the question. I consider improving Turkish-Armenian relations, having more meaningful and more constructive conversations about the Armenian question, as one of the most important callings of my life. I have been involved in modest but encouraging and promising initiatives in this regard.
I will save my personal adventures for another column and will try instead to provide my own take on the very unimpressive and discouraging general picture of dialogue on the Armenian question by those parties most intimately involved. There are three main parties involved in this tragic situation and all three of them, based on their official positions, have been living in shameful denial. They have been occupied and obsessed with a childish blame game rather than tackling important issues. Please allow some sarcasm as I discuss them, it manifests the ache of my deeply broken heart and frustration with these parties.
The first party is the Turkish side. Most of what the official Turkish stand has been on this Armenian question could be read as: “We (Turks) have done nothing wrong. Millions of Armenians, after living in that part of the world for millenniums disappeared just like that, or went to a picnic in nearby countries and never came back. If there was any problem, it was Armenians themselves. They stabbed us in the back by aligning themselves with Western occupiers and invaders. It is the Armenians themselves who killed so many Turks on their way out. Turks are as innocent as angels in this case. It is the evil leadership of diaspora Armenians and a cunning West that are using this case against us ... ” There are many more versions of this denial: immature, inaccurate claims of innocence.
The second party involved in this conundrum is the Armenians themselves. Most of what the official Armenian leadership says could be rephrased as: “ We (Armenians) did nothing wrong. For absolutely no understandable reason, Turks, after living in relative harmony and peaceful co-existence with us for more than 1,000 years, turned overnight into bloodthirsty monsters and started killing us. We are more innocent than angels can be, as we did nothing to provoke such a tragedy. Death to Turks!” and so on and so forth.... By all means what has been done to millions of innocent Armenians is not justifiable and that is neither my intention nor my point. It is neither as simple, however, as Turks turning into monsters.
The third party is the one with which I am most angry and disappointed with: The Western world, especially British, French, Russian and American involvement with this issue. I am more angry and disappointed with this group because of their shameless, categorical denial of involvement with the issue all together. These actors pretend that they have nothing to do with the creation of this bloodshed through their violent colonial ambitions, missionary schools and other historical involvement in that part of the world. They therefore refuse to acknowledge even the slightest amount of responsibility. How many times have Americans and Europeans naively asked me to take responsibility of what my grandfathers did (which I am always happy to do) in the first quarter of the 20th century? When I return the favor and ask them: “ What were your grandfathers doing back then?” I am often answered with confused and emotionless facial expressions. The Western world quickly washed its hands of this issue and for the most part have been tragically using the Armenian issue as a cheap internal political game by playing Turks and Armenians against each other.
The root causes and historical settings of the Armenian issue can only be found when the shameful involvement of this third party is carefully studied. For anyone who is genuinely interested in an accurate, scholarly summary of the historical events around this issue, I very strongly recommend renowned historian David Fromkin’s masterpiece book: “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.”
Needless to say, all the official messages of these three parties are wrong and fall hopelessly short on both ethical and morel grounds. Also, I honestly have very little hope that these official lines will change in the near future. My hope is in the people of these three camps. If Armenians, Turks and Westerners can learn to say: “Enough with destructive propaganda, dirty politics and constant dehumanization of the other parties. It is time to honestly and gracefully reconcile our communities for a better future.” I pray that all involved communities can create a healthy and safe environment in order to start this much needed, and long overdue, recovery process.
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. This is his final column of the year.