On April 24, we will commemorate the centennial of two events that shaped the modern history of Turks and Armenians. The first was the Gallipoli battle where Ottoman forces gave a heroic defence of the Strait of Dardanelles to stop the European Allied Forces after their defeat in the naval war of March 18, 1915. Had the Dardanelles been passed, the fate of World War I and the future of the new republic that was to emerge in 1923, would have been drastically different.
For more than a decade now, Turkey has been commemorating April 24-25 as an international day with the participation of the United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. This year, close to 90 countries and international institutions will attend the commemoration day.
The second major event of 1915 was the decision to arrest and exile some Armenian leaders in Istanbul to Anatolia. Armenian circles consider this to be the date of the “Armenian genocide”. But the facts are different.
In April-May 1915, the Russian attack on the eastern frontiers of Turkey and the collaboration of Armenian Tashnak units resulted in the fall of several cities including the strategically important city of Van near the Russian border.
Measure of counterinsurgency
In order to prevent the collapse of the eastern front, the Committee of Union and Progress Government decided to relocate large numbers of Armenians as a measure of counterinsurgency.
This decision, combined with war-time politicking, lack of resources, and organisational ineptitude, led to an unfortunate period of chaos, unruliness and death. Turks, Kurds, and Armenians killed each other in the thousands, betraying their remarkable history of coexistence in Anatolia.
That Armenians suffered greatly cannot be denied. Innocent people were uprooted from their homes, sent to Syria and other parts of the empire, and lost their lives and their loved ones. For many years, it was taboo even to acknowledge this fact in Turkey. But things have changed.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as prime minister last year, acknowledged the pain the Armenians suffered and expressed his condolences to their children and grandchildren. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated this message of shared pain and reconciliation in his message on April 20 of this year.
But this was not genocide. The claim, promoted by the genocide industry since the 1970s, lacks two key components: historical/archival evidence and legal basis. The claim by the pope or the European Parliament that the mass killing of Armenians is “generally considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century” is presented as a fait accompli without any historical, archival, and legal evidence.
It also disregards the mass killings of Muslims, Africans, Asians and Native Americans by Western powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This double standard is not lost to many people in Turkey and around the world.
The genocide lobbyists claim that historians have provided evidence for genocide. Closer examination of the scholarly literature suggests otherwise. Such prominent historians as Stanford Shaw, Bernard Lewis, Guenter Lewy, Sean McMeekin, Justin McCarthy, Edward Erickson, Norman Stone and Jeremy Salt as well as numerous Turkish and Arab historians have written on World War I and the Armenians.
None of them has found ground for the charge of an intentional-systematic killing of Armenians or other groups that can substantiate the charges of genocide.
The same holds true in the legal area. According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, genocide involves “… acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
Furthermore, this claim must be proven in the court of law. International Criminal Tribunals, established for Rwanda and Bosnia, declared the massacres in both countries as genocide. No such ruling exists for the events of 1915. Religious sermons, political declarations or parliamentary votes do not make legal decisions.
In December 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the Perincek case that the events of 1915 differ from the Holocaust and remains a “hotly debated” topic among historians. Criminalising the rejection of the genocide claim violates freedom of expression.
Despite all this, some still disregard the work of prominent historians and conveniently avoid the absence of any legal basis for genocide claims. They repeat the same self-fulfilling story of the “generally accepted” narrative without providing any evidence.
What is worse, they seek to create the distorted impression that Armenians are being persecuted in Turkey today, that Turkish textbooks vilify Armenians, or that Turkey has not opened its archives.
None of this is true. Simple facts have never been so ignored and warped to support an industry that serves no other purpose than making Turks and Armenians enemies today.
Over the past 10 years, the Turkish government has taken major steps to improve the conditions of its Armenians citizens. Among others, it has returned their properties confiscated in the 1930s, restored and opened the Akhdamar Church which sits on an island on Lake Van, expanded their social and political rights to run for office, enabled them to open schools, run hospitals and so on.
Turkey as a whole has recognised and cherished the contributions of its Armenian citizens in such diverse fields as diplomacy, business, sports, cinema, music, arts, architecture, and literature.
Finally, it is a pity that the successive Armenian administrations have walled themselves into a distorted construction of history, refused to end the occupation of Azeri lands, which would have allowed the implementation of the 2009 Zurich protocols to normalise relations between Turkey and Armenia, and squandered numerous opportunities to have good relations with Turkey.
Erdogan’s reconciliatory declaration last year was flatly rejected by Yerevan. To this day, Yerevan has also refused to respond to Erdogan’s call, first made in 2005, to form an independent commission of international historians to investigate the events of 1915. One wonders how such a rejectionist attitude serves Armenia or Armenians around the world.
What happened on April 24, 1915 in Gallipoli and Anatolia is our shared loss. Both offer lessons of compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. Attempts to create hierarchies of pain and sow seeds of animosity are wrong and inhumane. Armenian suffering should be remembered and mourned just as the suffering of Turks and other Muslims in the Great War.
Demonising the Turks will not bring any meaningful closure. A fair and balanced view of history, free from smear campaigns and manipulation, can go a long way in acknowledging and grieving the common pain of Armenians and Turks.