Armenian issue remains the biggest taboo

Even for Turks, the country’s agenda is head-spinning and more irrational than ever in the face of the rapid march of despotism in the country, which gained unexpected speed after the massive corruption investigations of Dec. 17 and 25, 2013.

The country is more polarized than ever, and even the majority religious population is divided, thanks to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s constant hate speech against the Hizmet movement, a community inspired by the teachings of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. Surprisingly enough, this torn society in terms of its identity according to political scientist Samuel Huntington is almost united over one issue: the events of 1915 and the Armenians.

While growing up in Turkey, you learn that certain issues are taboo. For decades the official ideology rejected even the existence of a Kurdish issue, a headscarf gave illiberal secularists a heart attack, Alevis often hide their identity, Ataturk is still a sensitive personage to discuss without it leading to frowns and so on, but nothing comes close to the Armenian genocide issue. Even today, it is almost impossible and not welcomed to use the term without adding “so-called” in front of the G-word.

An average Turkish citizen grows up without even hearing the genocide debate. In high schools, a paragraph about the “forced migration of the Armenians” is told as part of the history of World War I. According to this narrative, the Armenians had to be deported from Eastern Anatolia because they had “betrayed” their state, the Ottoman Empire.

In college, unless you are curious and study the social sciences, you are still likely to remain ignorant about the issue. For instance, as a student at the country’s liberal Bilkent University, I took a course with the late, prominent historian Stanford Shaw, who called the 1915 events “mutual killings.” Such a definition coming from even a foreign historian is revealing, as it saves you from the burden of history, no matter how critical you might be of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which pursued disastrous policies, not just for the Armenians, but for all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

Only if you live abroad, in a Western country, and are also open-minded, might you start to come to terms with the scale of the tragedy of 1915. You realize how vivid the pain of the Armenians remains, as Turkey continues to underestimate the ordeal that a nation went through. As a journalist, I will never forget the story of a Turkish-Armenian, Sarkis Seropyan, whom I interviewed for Today’s Zaman (

The consequences of what Turkey portrays as “forced migration” are too painful to ignore. I ask Turkish people how they would react if someone told a Turkish Muslim woman in the heart of Anatolia to leave her home with her children and walk to today’s Syria. Although it seems impossible not to empathize with the human side of this history, I often receive responses referring to the “betrayal of the Armenians,” accusations of “defending the Armenian thesis” or even that I am talking like an enemy of my own nation. Based even just on the news reports of 1915, in terms of its consequences, the forced migration of the Armenians comes close to the G-word. Yet, Professor Baskin Oran says that it lacks the intent required to qualify it as genocide, as we do find in the case of the Nazis.

My column on April 24 for the Zaman daily, saying that calling it “so-called” is not a solution and calling for facing the tragedy received a mostly negative reaction, with the exception of certain intellectuals and conscientious readers. Thanks to the successful indoctrination of the state and the lack of debate, the Armenian issue remains taboo in Turkey. No healthy debate is in sight.

However, as Joost Lagendijk also wrote in a recent column, forcing Turkey to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide is not a constructive solution either. The more Western countries make decisions in their parliaments suggesting it should officially be recognized as genocide, the more Turks are convinced that outsiders are trying to weaken Turkey and even that they want its partition.

Denial is still strong in Turkey due to fears of the political cost of facing the issue. The wisest strategy would be to try to focus on the human dimension of 1915 and to welcome Armenians to their hometowns in Anatolia, yet not turning a complete blind eye to the sufferings of other Turks in the Balkans and by condemning the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) acts of terrorism that claimed innocent lives.

I commemorate the victims of 1915 and share the pain of their grandchildren.