Recognizing the Armenian genocide: Beyond selective memory

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Photo: flickr/ MichaEli

Long overdue, Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide is necessary not only for Turkey to face and confront its past, but also to potentially help sow the seeds of trust, understanding and peace between peoples who until the early 20th century shared a long history of co-existence.

The Turkish government's recent position on this issue is to recognize the tragedy, devastation and pain the deportations of Armenians have caused, but to claim that the Ottoman state's actions did not constitute "genocide" as there was "no deliberate, knowing and willing policy" on the part of the state to murder Armenians.

Whether the Ottoman/Turkish case is more nuanced or complicated than other cases such as the Jewish Holocaust, the political debate over the applicability of the term genocide is rather misguided as the U.N. Convention on Genocide has a very comprehensive definition that goes beyond planned and deliberate physical annihilation of a group. The U.N. Convention does not restrict the meaning of genocide merely to killing of members of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. It also includes deliberate inflicting of conditions of life causing physical destruction in whole or in part; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; forcibly transferring the children of the group to another group; and imposing measures to prevent births within the group.

A debate over naming the Armenian tragedy is rather futile when the definition of the U.N. Convention on Genocide is used. The result of the Armenian deportations was mass dispossession, hunger, rapes and death for many. The Armenian population of Anatolia was reduced from 1.5-2 million earlier in the 20th century to less than 300,000 by 1921.

Non-recognition makes the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide feel especially painful for Armenians. Non-recognition turns the mourning over the loss of lives, homes, land and culture into a wound that bleeds forever, and would not heal.

Some Turkish people -- still a minority -- have started to "open their hearts" and share the pain. Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist in Turkey, contributed enormously to raising awareness of the issue in Turkish society. When he was assassinated in 2007, tens of thousands of people in Istanbul marched in Istanbul to mourn and to protest, bearing signs of solidarity "we are all Armenians." After his death, his legacy and influence remains in Turkey.

In recent weeks, a part of the Turkish print and electronic media has been full of photographs from the period and honest historical discussion. Dozens of columnists in the Turkish print and electronic media have been calling for honest attempts to face the past. Remembrance events this year are not confined to the Armenian community, but have been organized by Turks and Kurds who expressed their sorrow and solidarity.

Reflecting on genocide recognition in Canada on April 24 2015, I think that honesty over genocides is needed on a larger scale. As the Canadian mainstream media and politicians call for recognition of the Armenian genocide, there is something fundamentally disingenuous about the way they talk about genocides generally.

It is interesting that as the Canadian media and politicians call on the Turkish state to recognize the Armenian genocide, they have been silent on other genocides. Calling for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, a recent editorial in the mainstream media was very selective in its list of other 20th century genocides, in a way to them in a distance from the history and politics of the modern "Western world."

Its list included: The Jewish Holocaust (attributed to a distant Nazi past), Stalin's policies in the Ukraine, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia.

The gaping hole in this list has been the colonial genocides of the 20th century that have led to loss of millions of lives: The genocide in the Belgian Congo, which lasted from 1885 to 1908 and killed 10-15 million Congolese; genocide in Namibia 1904-1907 (through which the Germans have developed some of the techniques used later in the European holocaust), which might have killed more than 100,000; and what Mike Davis has called "late Victorian holocausts" in India in the late 19th and early 20th century which involved man-made famine through colonial policies and deaths of millions in India (in the very same periods when grain exports from India boomed).

Even more resounding is the silence on the American and Canadian holocausts on the Indigenous peoples of North America that started earlier but continued through the 20th century. As James Daschuk has recently documented, Canadian government has systematically pursued a "politics of starvation" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that involved using hunger and disease to ethnically cleanse the Prairies of its Indigenous population.

What does the omission of these genocides from public discussion and popular memory mean in terms of our notions of the worth of human lives, our notion of genocide, and our understanding of history? Are we encouraged to think of the lives of the colonized peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas as disposable as they were killed in the millions?

The point of expanding the list of genocides to correct the selective memory of 20th century genocides is not to distract attention away from remembering and mourning the Armenian genocide. Neither is it to suggest that genocidal practices have been so common that they should be normalized, considered to be an unfortunate but inevitable part of human history.

On the contrary, the point is to extend an invitation for the media and politicians around the world to honesty and sincerity, so that we recognize our genocides as well as "theirs"; so that we make sure that genocide recognition is not hostage to national pride or to international politics, hypocritical acts of condoning genocides of allies and "friendly nations" and condemning others'.

Let us recognize that the way we choose to remember and forget history says a lot about our approach to the present and the future. As George Orwell has said, "who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

In addition to being a discussion about history, the Turkish government's position on the recognition of the Armenian genocide has implications for its present approach to relations with ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey and for the possibility of democratization in Turkey more generally.

In Canada, the government and the media have belatedly recognized and apologized for the horrors of the residential school system, but have so far been unwilling to talk in similar terms about the overall dispossession, displacement, physical and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples. Genocide denial in this context may be interpreted as a determination to carry on as usual while our country's Indigenous populations continue to be treated as disposable. This is evident in the Harper government's approach to the case of murdered and missing Indigenous women; and decisions about current development projects (mining, tar sands, hydro, pipe lines), which continue to be made with no consideration of the impact on indigenous communities.

In Turkey, in Canada, and the rest of the world, if we want to be able to say "never again," "never to anyone," if we want to build a future based on justice, trust and solidarity, we owe it to ourselves, to each other and future generations to honestly confront the past.

Sedef Arat-Koc is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University.

Photo: flickr/ MichaEli

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