Türkiye'nin en iyi köşe yazarları en güzel köşe yazıları ile Hürriyet'te! Usta yazarlar ve gündemi değerlendiren köşe yazılarını takip edin.

Turks and ’Meds Yeghern’

Quite a few people in Turkey are upset with President Barack Obama these days for using the term "Meds Yeghern" to describe the tragedy that befell on Ottoman Armenians in 1915.

The term means "Great Catastrophe" in the Armenian language and it refers to the "genocide" of 1915. Some Turkish commentators unhappily argue that although Obama did not directly use the "G" word, he said what amounts to that.I, on the other hand, saw a reasonable nuance in Obama’s rhetoric. If he had used the "G" word, that would have amounted to a legal definition. Yet his choice of words shows that he didn’t want to take that step. It rather indicates that he sees the tragedy of 1915 in a way totally different than the common Turkish view, but does not wish to enforce that by bringing up a legal definition that would make Turkey politically uncomfortable.

And I think that this stance by Obama should be welcomed. His rhetoric is true to itself (because we know that Obama sees 1915 as genocide), but is also considerate to the Turkish position. What more should we expect from the American President? To deny or overlook something which he sees as a bitter historical fact? This question brings me to the other side of the issue. Most Turks, too, see a different historical fact when they look at 1915. Or, perhaps, 1917.

The latter was the year when Armenian militants committed mass atrocities in Eastern Turkey on the Muslim population to take "revenge" for what happened two years earlier. Every Turk is told about those horrific episodes, in which men, women and children were brutally tortured and slaughtered. When you mention a "great catastrophe" that took place during World War I, Turks remember this Muslim tragedy, not the Armenian one.

The reason is obvious: Every society remembers the evils done to them, rather than the evils they do. Turkish society is especially prone to thinking this way, because it hardly has a taste for self-criticism.Therefore it would be wrong to blame Turkish society for "denying" the Armenians’ Meds Yeghern. You deny something when you know it is true, but you don’t want to openly accept it for other, mostly selfish, reasons. Most Turks don’t do that, because they genuinely believe there was no Armenian genocide, and whatever happened was some form of collective vendetta during the years of war and conflict.

What needs to be done in this whole debate is to help Turks understand the pain of the Armenians, and help the rest of the world understand the pain of Turks. There are two opposite narratives on both sides, and both sides need to take steps in order to discover the narrative that it does not know.

The Turkish narrative starts not in 1915, but 1878, when the Ottoman Empire lost a great deal of its Balkan territories to newly created nation-states such as Serbia and Bulgaria. These Russian-supported Slavic nations continued to push forward, and the empire continued to shrink gradually. The big loss came during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when the empire lots all of its Balkan territories except Eastern Thrace, which continues to be the western edge of modern Turkey.

In all these lost lands the Muslim population was subject to horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Many were killed. Others fled to Turkey proper telling the horrible stories of the "Christian onslaught against the Muslims."

When Armenian nationalists started their agitations in order to terrorize the Empire and to force the intervention of Western powers, many Muslims perceived this as yet another repetition of a nightmare that they had seen before: The terror would continue until an independent Armenia could be formed and all Muslim populations ethnically cleansed. Fear was the main motivating factor in the "pre-emptive" expulsion and the massacres.

War and death
In his book on "The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922," historian Justin McCarthy says the following:

"In 1895 in Anatolia and in 1905 in the Caucasus, inter-communal warfare broke out. Prior to that time, Muslims and Armenians had supported either the Russian or the Ottoman Empires. Now the Muslims and Armenians had set about killing each other in their villages and cities. This war was not a thing of armies, but of peoples.

It had been building for almost a century, brought about by Russian invasion, Armenian nationalism, and Ottoman weakness. By 1910, the polarization that was soon to result in mutual disaster was probably inevitable. Blood had been shed and revenge was expected and desired.

Whatever their individual intentions, Muslims knew they were at risk from the Armenians, and Armenians knew they were at risk from the Muslims. Once World War I began, each side naturally assumed the worst of the other, and acted accordingly."

Let me note: This does not justify the Meds Yeghern. It just tells us that there is a Turkish side of the story, too. And the best way to make Turks more empathetic to the Armenian side of the story is to take theirs seriously as well.