Genocide, politics, and the battle over historical memory

It’s hard to debate the question of genocide in any context and leave your emotions at the door. Indeed, genocide, by its very nature, cuts to the core of what it means to be human and to build a just society. In Turkey, the question of genocide as it relates to the Armenian issue is further complicated by history. Can something that occurred several decades before the legal concept of genocide even existed be termed a genocide? What is the goal in pursuing that designation? These are hard questions to answer. What’s clear is that Turkey is losing ground in the battle over historical memory with the U.S. designation of the events in and around 1915 as a genocide. How did this happen, and what does it mean for Turkey?

Adnan R. Khan: This debate often gets mired in political machinations, losing its historical context. let’s start with history. What is the background to what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire?

Ilter Turan: If we are going to give this its proper historical context, we must go back to the French Revolution when the multi-ethnic Austrian Empire perceived the end of monarchic rule in France as an existential threat and tried to crush it and bring France back into the monarchic fold. The French in return developed ideas that would undermine the internal unity of multinational empires: thus nationalism as a liberation ideology was born which the French immediately promoted in Northern Italy.

From there nationalist ideas traveled very fast, soon reaching the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the first independence movement of the period began in Greece and proved to be successful, with significant external support from European powers, in 1831. The Ottomans spent much of the 19th century trying to ward off separatist nationalisms that were cropping up here and there within their borders. These movements had common Firstly, several nationalities competed for the same territory. And secondly, because these movements were not sufficiently strong against the imperial government, they tried to solicit the support of external powers who, engaged in a competitive game of imperialism, were only too willing to accommodate. Looking at the Greek independence movement, for example, we see that it started in Russia but was quickly taken over by the British who did not want a rival to be seen as the liberator of Greece.

Struggles such as these went on in Ottoman territories in the Balkans throughout the 19th century. In the process, as struggles for national liberation raged and countries acquired independent or semi-independent status, Muslim populations of these areas were often terrorized and forced to emigrate to areas where the Ottoman rule still prevailed.

Many lost their lives in the process of forced migration. In fact, my father’s parents were forced to run for their lives from Bosnia after the Austrians moved in following the Turco-Russian war of 1877-1878 because they had fought the Austrians. So, we have to recognize that we’re talking about a period of disorder where the existing international system was being transformed from one of multinational empires to one of nation states. In the process, many people were forced to migrate and many people were terrorized and killed.

Adnan R. Khan: Is what you’re suggesting here then that this was a period of genocides, of multiple genocides?

Ilter Turan: Rather than using the loaded word genocide, let me say this was a period of mutual killings and a period when populations claiming the same territory, often supported by an outside power, tried to get rid of each other, either by killing or by expulsion. So, we’re talking about a very harsh period in human history about which no party can take pride. And in fact, when the First World War broke out, the cruelties multiplied as groups saw in the war an opportunity to fully realize their dreams of building their nation states as the existing multi-ethnic imperial order appeared to be coming to an end.

Adnan R. Khan: Given that context, how did the term genocide come to be applied in this case and is it a legally-binding designation?

Ilter Turan: Let’s first look at it from a political perspective. For those who were forced to leave their homeland, there was a need for a central idea to rally around to maintain their identity. In that context, the Armenians who moved to the U.S. discovered the idea of genocide long after it was invented. Americans tend to be very sensitive to the demands of ethnic minorities because society is comprised of ethnic minorities. Ethnic lobbies have tried to influence the behavior of the American government to serve their own ends. The American government, for its part, has had to balance the demands of ethnic lobbies with their perceptions of broader American national interest. In some instances, there has also been countervailing lobbies that reduce each other’s influence. In Turkey’s case, its ability to mobilize countervailing lobbies is limited; it has few friends in the U.S. By comparison, the Armenian lobby in the U.S. is quite powerful.

Now, moving onto the legal front – and I’m no expert on this – my understanding is that the genocide convention necessitates a procedure through which the commitment of genocide is determined. Here, there are two considerations: one, acts that were committed before the convention went into force in 1951 cannot be prosecuted retroactively; and two, the International Court of Justice, or a special court for crimes against humanity or perhaps a national court must decide through a trial that genocide has been committed. So, legally speaking, you cannot simply have a government decide to suit its political needs that some events constitute genocide. No legal procedure has been applied to the events of 1915.

Adnan R. Khan: So, if this is primarily a political move and has no real impact on Turkey in terms of international law, what does that mean then for Turkey? What are the consequences?

Ilter Turan: There are political losses. No society likes being branded as having committed genocide. And the fact that the U.S. government is now using this terminology means that other societies that were hesitant to use it will now feel at liberty to employ it. •n the legal front, there has been talk in the U.S. about whether this designation could be used as a basis for bringing up cases against Turkey claiming reparations to people who lost loved ones or property. Again, I’m not an expert but my understanding is that Biden’s declaration does not constitute the proper basis for legal action. At the same time, as we all know, the American judicial system is deeply influenced by the country’s political mood, so we cannot completely discount the possibility of legal ramifications. Turkey does have legitimate cause for concern.

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