Tearing away at historical taboo

Tearing away at historical taboo

ISTANBUL - An online petition apologizing for the 1915 incidents in the Ottoman Empire and a counterstatement from retired ambassadors show that Turkey is more freely and openly discussing the issue, suggesting the country is coming closer to breaking a long-held taboo on the subject

A healthy, mature mentality surfaces in Turkey as former Turkish ambassadors issue a statement Monday criticizing an initiative to apologize for 1915 incidents at the hands of the Ottomans. 

The online apology, co-written by about 200 intellectuals, opened for signature Monday and had been signed by more than 6,000 people as of yesterday. The nature of the debate shows progress in the country’s ability to discuss the highly sensitive issue.

The apology by the group of prominent academics, journalists, writers and artists Ğ which avoided using the contentious term "genocide" in the apology, using the less explosive "Great Catastrophe" instead Ğ met with a counterstatement from retired ambassadors who argued that the apology is wrong and against Turkey’s national interests. Apart from individual reactions from politicians, the statement of the former ambassadors was the most visible reaction to the initiative, certainly a clear sign that society is coming closer to breaking a long-held taboo against acknowledging Turkish culpability for the deaths.

Mensur Akgün, an academic from Istanbul’s Kültür University, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review the initiative was a first for Turkey, where for the first time a group of people showed they felt responsible for this tragedy. "In a country, where people are killed for solely being Armenian, this initiative constitutes a mental breakthrough," he said. The crucial point is the timing of the initiative; three years ago such a campaign would most likely have created a public outcry. In fact, in 2005 a crisis erupted when a group of lawyers made a legal plea to prevent a conference on the Ottoman Armenians to be held in a state university.

Professor Ahmet Evin from Sabancı University, who is one of the signatories, said the apology was an opportunity for individuals and civil society to express their view, an opportunity that would not come from political channels. "I see the possibility of rapprochement. This campaign gathers those favoring reconciliation and it would relieve Turkey of pressure from Armenian lobbies in the international arena. There is no other ulterior motive or agenda," he said.

Hugh Pope, Turkey's director of the International Crisis Group, said the campaign and the ambassadors’ statement showed there were a lot of different viewpoints in Turkey. "The discussion is becoming freer. Before, people only talked about what happened and how to define it. Now we see a more civilized discussion," he said.

Akgün said the way was paved for such an initiative by President Abdullah Gül’s visit to Yerevan and the Ergenekon investigation, in which people have been detained for alleged participation in a plot to overthrow the government. President of the International Strategic Research Organization, or USAK, Sedat Laçiner said, however, the timing of the campaign would undermine the dialogue between the two countries. "We are in a historical period. Both countries are in a hustle to make big steps out of small steps to establish diplomatic relations. However, such a move would increase tensions in Turkey, while strengthening the hand of radicals in Armenia," he said.

The counterstatement issued by more than 50 retired diplomats said the apology was wrong since it would be followed by territorial and compensatory demands. Akgün, however, objected to this, saying that according to the 1948 Genocide Convention, signatory countries could not be accused of genocide. The diplomats’ statement also emphasized that the apology did not mention the death of the Turks during the 1914-15 events, therefore was unbalanced. Retired Ambassador İnal Batu agreed that the academicians’ statement was unbalanced. "Hundreds of thousands of Ottoman citizens of Kurdish and Turkish origin were also killed. They should have expressed deep sorrow, not apology, for both massacres," Batu said.

But the counterstatement is also far from perfect, as it fails to provide an adequate alternative to Turkey’s policy on the matter, according to Batu.
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