Turkish-Armenian Relations

Would acknowledging past prevent new crimes?

Published by Today's Zaman, 27 January 2012

Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian commended the French attempts to criminalize denial that the events of 1915 constituted genocide by saying “it is a very important mechanism to prevent new crimes against humanity.”

This idea is commonly accepted in academic and public circles as plain truth. Some go even further, saying that if Turkey had acknowledged the events of 1915 as genocide earlier on, the Holocaust would not have happened. Hitler is said to have been inspired by the lack of attention shown to the fate of the Armenians as he hatched plans to exterminate the Jews.

Sadly, just as the shallow popular psychology books that argue facing your own past will always heal you is an argument that is not grounded in reality, neither is the argument that officially acknowledging historical atrocities will prevent new ones. It is only an emotive discourse.
First of all, world history is full of examples of how historical grievances and incidents have been used to justify war, violence and political domination. For example, Rwandan Hutus were mindful of the suffering they faced under Tutsis and this was used as a justification for the killing of Tutsis during what is called the Rwandan genocide. Serb nationalists regularly referred to their defeat to Ottoman forces at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to reassure themselves that the time to set the record straight had come, as they marched on, killing Bosnian Muslims.

That is why yesterday’s victims can make the best of today’s perpetrators. As soon as a particular group internalizes the feeling of being wronged, it is vulnerable to suspending all further moral considerations or responsibilities and seeing itself as a legitimate user of power that can demand more significance and rights than others. See the crimes the US has committed following 9/11.

Secondly, even though the 20th century has left a legacy of memorializations of wars and genocides, they still do happen. World War I memorial sites had “never again” and “lest we forget” inscriptions on them, yet far from preventing further war, grievances from World War I were influential factors in the lead-up to World War II. So now, World War II memorial sites stand next to those of previous wars with the same inscriptions. Similarly, even though the Holocaust became a symbol of racial hatred and violence, genocides and racial violence continued and continue to happen today.

Thirdly, there is an extremely strong case to be made for letting go of the past. On the personal level, we know that dwelling too much on the past takes away our capacity to live in the present and achieve a better future. Nietzsche refers to this as plastic energy, meaning the capacity we have to remold ourselves, and warns that an obsession with the past will stop progress. In fact, individuals and countries regularly employ collective forgetting and amnesia to be able to start afresh and move on. This is all the more so in contexts of transitional justice, where countries are only able to stop conflict and coordinate a transition into peace by passing amnesty and amnesia laws.

The past does not exist. Its fragments are evoked, constructed and represented by us in the present tense. It is a neutral bag, full of bits and pieces that can be utilized for whatever narrative contemporary actors need for their purposes. Therefore, we have every right to be skeptical of any attempt to officially endorse and enforce a version of the past.

Saying this is not synonymous with promoting an “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind,” as Alexander Pope put it. Just as one can be naive about facing the past, one can also be naive about the importance of letting go of the past.

The challenge is not simply remembering or enshrining the past today but acknowledging it in the right way in order to enable a better future. That is where the French attempt to criminalize discussions over 1915 has gone wrong. It is stifling any chance of the debate and discussion much needed for Turks and Armenians to hear each other and process the past together.

Honouring Turkish Schindlers of 1915

Picture; Industrialist Mehmet Efendi, A Turkish businessman who risked his life to save his Armenian friends. Article published on Huffington Post UK blog, 3 January 2012

In almost every memorial site dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, one finds sections honoring non-Jews who saved Jews from extermination. They are referred to as 'righteous among the nations' or righteous gentiles. The movie Schiendler's List was one account of such a story. A new book, the Lion's Shadow, recounts the story of another righteous gentile, Abdol-Hossein Sardari, an Iranian Muslim diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from a certain death.

Honouring heroism of non-Jews universalises the memory of the Holocaust and ensures that we do not simply see horrific events of WWII as an episode of evil Germans killing Jews. It helps us locate it within its historical setting and draw lessons for the future; lessons of how a continent can get carried away and lead millions of people to their deaths and how even in the most coercive settings, we human beings can rise up to a higher moral level.

Sadly, I have never seen any such section honouring Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends and neighbors in all of the Armenian memorial sites I have seen. There were, however, sections honouring non-Armenians who have helped the Armenian cause in raising the issue of 1915 massacres. Only a handful of Armenian historians mention them, often in passing. Yet, we do see their traces in almost all biographies written by surviving Armenians.
Whenever I raised this with various Armenian activists and academics, I got two main responses. The most common one was relativization; well, yes, there were very few Turks who helped Armenians, but most of them did so to make money or even adopt the young kids so as to use them as free labor. Thus, their acts or their presence in the complex web of history was placed back into the neat and clear category of the eternal perpetrator Turk.

The second most common one was refusal; as long as Turks refuse to acknowledge what happened in 1915 as genocide, no one should ask Armenians to honour or sing praises of Turks; to do so will be glorifying the Turks and victimizing the Armenians further. Sadly, the same refusal to break down the a-historical category of the 'evil' Turk we see in relativization is also at play in refusal, albeit in a morally coated discourse.

Both of these responses are fundamentally flawed. First of all, the greatest portion of Armenians who survived the massacres and deportations did so with the help of people around them, may they be Turks or Kurds . And yes, while surviving children and woman might have been remarried or as it is with every orphan or poor kid in rural life worked as part of being offered shelter, there were many who simply had no motivation other than the desire to protect innocent people.

Secondly, at the pure moral level, it is a complete moral failure not being able to thank or respect or honour those who chose to do right thing and took serious personal risks. To say that one will do the morally right thing if only when someone else do a morally right thing completely undermines and destroys the morality it demands to start with. An act is moral and worthy on its own, not because another act is required in return.

Thirdly, honouring such Turks does not take away or diminish the depth and scope of hundreds of thousands Armenians who perished during the turbulent collapse of an empire. Far from it; it enables their suffering to be part of a common human history that can be shared and mourned for and remembered by not only Armenians today, but also the entire world, including the Turks. This makes sure that history does not remain the collective memory of a particular group in conflict with another's, but an episode, which we can co-process and own.

Currently the Armenian activists seem more resolved to communicate their hurts and pasts to everyone in the world but the Turkish public. Yet, they don't realize that unless the Turkish public sees their pain and urges the Turkish government to act, no Turkish government can ever address 1915 and no amount of legislations passed at world parliaments will bring us a step closer to absolution and acknowledgement. Their misguided efforts find their mimesis in over zealous Turkish activists, who see demonizaton and judgment of an entire group of people in calls for facing the past and vehemently refuse to accept it.

It is high time to bring the conversation to Anatolia, not to Washington DC or Paris, and find ways to make the past an integral part of the story of this land. And in that process, honoring Turks who saved Armenians would be a major break through. It will depolarise an extremely intense conversation and help us to discover the deep common humanity we all share.

Please do visit the small blog where I gather such stories and do share if you know or read other ones; http://www.projectcommonhumanity.net

Wanted: Stories of Turks who saved their Armenian Neighbors

Published in Turkish Daily News, 15 September

The 20th century is full of things that we wish never happened, but they happened and nothing can undo them. Even though both Plato and Nietzsche urged us to start tabula rasa with a mighty and necessary lie that will enable the youth to forget the past completely, we know all too well that what is left in oblivion is always more present than we would ever want it to be. Forgetting is not an option, if not impossible, but mere remembering alone does not guarantee that things will happen “never again.” The battle we need to fight is not only against “too much forgetting” and “too much remembering,” both of which destroy the present and any chance of a better future, but also against how and what we remember.

“Righteous Gentiles”:

I don't remember at what age I first came to learn about the Holocaust, but I vividly remember what I felt when I read each page Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl wrote. As my academic interests took me deeper into genocides and ethnic violence, my realization that normal people like me had turned out to be mass murderers has shaken my trust completely in my own and human beings' goodness. However, it was also within the same darkness that I have come to find hope in the deep and profound human potential to love and sacrifice for the other.

Hanna Arendt recounted the story of a German soldier, Anton Schmid, who disobeyed his orders and helped the rescue of 250 Jews till his execution by the Nazis. In his last letter to his wife, Schmid told her that he “merely behaved as a human being” when he risked his own life. After sharing the effect of listening to the story of Schmid during the Eichmann trial, Arendt noted; “How utterly different everything would have been in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told."

This is exactly what Holocaust memorials have tried to do. With the Jewish concept of ‘Righteous Gentiles', Jews have found the moral backbone to not only remember the destruction and brutality but also the great courage and virtue that has been showed by non-Jews in risking their own lives to save their Jewish neighbors. There is a section dedicated to them in memorial sites, and Holocaust movies almost always include helpful Gentile characters.

While remembering the human truth in all of its beauty and darkness at the same time, the memory of the Holocaust has moved from being exclusively a Jewish memory. It is now the memory of our old race, the memory of the moment that humanity failed, not just Nazi Germany. It's because it has shifted from being exclusively a memory of ‘perpetrator Nazis' killing ‘Jews', both Jews and Germans and all of us can mourn together for what has happened.

'‘Righteous Turks':

I similarly don't remember when I first came to hear about massacres of Armenians, but I remember how I cried in the memorial in Yerevan for hours for all that has happened. I still shiver with pain each time I see pictures and hear stories of families scattered around the world. However, as I continued to read and reflect on memorial practices and sites, I have come to be increasingly worried that there were hardly any mention of ‘righteous Turks'- Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends or even complete strangers – in the literature and commemorations. This is disturbing, given that a significant portion of Armenians who survived deportations would testify to the roles played by such Turkish friends in their escapes.

Failure to acknowledge the presence of these people not only betrays the truthfulness of the recollected accounts, but also reduces a historical event to its darkest moment without showing us all of its complexities. This failure automatically prepares the ground for dehumanization and stereotyping, which would have us believe the opposite of what we all know about the human condition: the line separating good and evil goes through the heart of each individual and given the right set of conditions we - regardless of race, nationality, gender, education, class and religion – are all vulnerable to commit the most grotesque violence against our neighbors.

For this reason, I have personally begun a web-based initiative, named Project Common Humanity, or PCH, to gather the untold stories of courage, virtue and sacrifice. My humble and limited attempt is in no way meant to undermine the suffering of the victims or even getting involved in debates on whether or not what happened was genocide. My only desire is that as we remember not only the pain but also the human beauty, we will come to see what happened under the broken shadow of Ararat not in terms of ‘Armenians' and ‘Turks', but as ‘our story'.

So if you know any such story, published or not, please consider sharing it with all of us. Visit PCH's amateurish blog and send your stories in Turkish or English. And join me to celebrate what unites us in an age that is obsessed with fixing what separates us.

We need 'tamadas', not historians or lobbyists

Published in Turkish Daily News, 13 December 2007

Re-Published in French by Collectif Van as Nous avons besoin de 'tamadas*', pas d’historiens ni de lobbyistes

You don't need a PhD in rocket science to recognize the complexity of Armenian-Turkish relations and its infinite regress to the samsaric cycles of prejudice, hatred and “you act right first, then I will too” attitudes.

Within this journey to nowhere, there are two dominant voices: Those who think that if they only had more third party countries or groups siding with them, they would “win” the battle of “truth” against the “deniers” and those who think that if only they had more historical research, books and commissions, they would prove the indisputable “truth” to the shame of the revisionists.

Both of these groups presuppose that this bizarre globalized quarrel is exclusively over the “truth” of past. Yet as the dead bodies lie in silence, the ones who are fighting are present tense actors with their present tense narratives, goals, fears or anticipations. In an ironic way, the dead are still victimized by the living, who politicize and utilize their memories just as their biological bodies were politicized and utilized prior to their murders.

So, the main challenge in front of us isn't whose “truth” will get the upper hand in the international circus, but it is how, if ever, we can tease out the present politics (whether that of identity or saving the face) so that we can genuinely mourn for the dead.

No matter what one thinks, “justice” is never really met after mass atrocities, especially historical ones. Notions of retributive justice embodied by tribunals are of no use when perpetrators exist no more. In spite of the aura of “justice” which they spread, the sheer number of victims and perpetrators mean that they have to pursue a symbolic course, often only condemning key actors. Contrary to their own self-perception, they fail hard in breaking cycles of hatred and preventing future atrocities.

Similarly, cultural factors limit the effectiveness of “justice” set in the courts. For example, even though a court in the Middle East may sentence a rapist, there is a high chance that the family of the victim will not find it satisfactory and pursue a sense of a justice by ways of an “honor killing.” For this reason, wise men and women have sought to pursue culturally relevant ways of working toward justice and reconciliation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, combined the African concept of ubuntu with Christian notions of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. Tutu argued that there was no future for South Africa unless blacks and whites lived together in harmony and this could only be achieved through forgiveness.

In Rwanda, the shortcomings of Western perceptions of justice as embodied in the tribunals have been supplemented by the use of Rwandan gacaca trials. In gacaca trials, the perpetrators are reintegrated to their local communities following a traditional ceremony.

What about Armenian-Turkish relations?

There is no court system in the world that can handle this issue. To even suggest a retributive pursuit is laden with serious conceptual faults. No amount of legislation passed in third party countries will move Turks to be open to correct a past wrong doing. No “objective” history book will be able to be the final word, as collective memories, by their very own nature, remain contested and modified along with contemporary demands. So, we are in need of another solution.

Isn't there anything we can find in the Anatolian cultures that can provide us with a much more relevant way? I believe there is, though it would sound naïve to the realist and punitive “adults” reading this article.

In the Armenian culture, there is the tradition of tamadas, who are prominent men managing the procession of toasts made around a table of food and drinks. In both Turkish and Armenian cultures, sitting around a table plays an important role. It symbolizes welcoming, accommodation, fellowship and celebration. Thus, a drinking table is much more suitable for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians than a U.N. committee room.

Drinking and eating draws us together into conviviality and sharing a personal and vulnerable presence, rather than the impersonal battlefield effect of courts, commissions and assemblies. Sitting around a table with a tamada ensures that everybody's voice and wishes are heard and given equal respect.

After the third shot, one recognizes the lovability of the other enough to reach out and kiss away the personal barrier that separates us from the stranger or unwanted. The eventual procession of the toasts to a closure, when the group feels that enough toasts have been made, means that a healthy mourning process reaches freedom from a melancholic sense of loss that poisons the one trapped in the past.

To be sure, this will not satisfy those who want “revenge” or reinstatement of a mythical kingdom or lost glory or maintenance of pure and heroic pasts. Sadly, justice and reconciliation remain patchy, imperfect and limited in our clay earth. What is left to us is our humanity in its raw form.

Whether we can actualize it to the extent that we can lament together and move beyond black and white narratives of victimhood or innocence, depends not on the U.S. House of Representatives or French parliament or a scholar at Cambridge University, but only on us: Turks, Armenians and a bottle of rakı or liqueur with Mount Ararat as the background.

Rehumanizing Armenians and Turks

Published in Turkish Daily News, 12 November 2007

You are not alone if you have not heard the word ''rehumanization'' before. Unlike its twin sister ''dehumanization,'' rehumanization is not a popular tool in politics and identity construction. We would rather build identities or pursue political power by stripping the other from their humanity in order to legitimize our superiority over them. We are more inclined to demonize, discredit, and humiliate the other in order to win an argument or establish our ''rights'' over theirs. Rehumanization is restoring the other's dignity and humanity and attributing the other the same rights ''we'' have or demand. Without rehumanization, there can never be reconciliation simply because without accepting each other as human beings and acknowledging the other's voice, we can never expect that the other will hear our pain and concerns and be moved by it to act unselfishly. Dehumanization is plentiful in Armenian-Turkish relations as each side still wages war for the exclusive rights to be heard. That is why debating sides tend to channel their energy only to disprove the other's historical account in order to prove the world how ''immoral'' or ''deceptive'' the other is.

'Subversive Armenians' :

I was never interested in Armenians or what may have happened during the fall of Ottoman Empire. What I knew was what I read on the papers (just like most people in Turkey); Armenians seek to represent the issue internationally with the obvious desire to achieve acknowledgement of Armenian deaths as genocide, in order to receive financial reparations from Turkey and ultimately to claim and have some parts of eastern Turkey incorporated into modern day Armenia. To be fair, some extreme –but thankfully few– individuals or groups in diaspora have made comments which seem to prove this interpretation of why Armenians are so aggressive about the issue. When this perception was combined with our firm belief in official histories and commitment to the welfare of our nation, there was no room left to hear what Armenians were trying to communicate. Then one day, I found myself on a trip to Armenia and Karabakh. Thousands of scenarios went through my mind and none of them was about receiving hospitality. After two weeks, I found myself crying in a church in Karabakh and embracing a new Armenian friend. The same night, I remember crying more around a dinner table dominated by vodka shots and toasts for a better future. I was finally able to see who lives on the other side of Mount Ararat; not a group of conspirators with a mischievous plan, but a group of broken and hopeful people. Since then, ''Armenians'' isn't an abstract category for me. The tension between us have been rehumanized and made flesh and blood.

'Evil Turks' :

Sadly, I was also about to crush into misconceptions and blatant fantasies of some Armenians about Turks. For example, there is something profoundly disturbing about Vahakn Dadrian, a prominent Armenian scholar. He continues to hold essentialist views, which argue that there is something inherent about being a Turk and a Muslim, which makes Turks the most suitable people to commit genocide, even though social sciences have concluded unanimously that there is no ''race'' as such and that ethnic violence occurs regardless of ''race,'' religion, class, gender and education. Less sophisticated versions of such a faulty framework can be heard regularly in layman's terms. If my memory does not fail me, I do not remember seeing a section in the memorial in Yerevan like the one in Yad Vashem– the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, dedicated to ''righteous among the nations.'' The phrase refers to non-Jews who risked their lives for protecting Jews. It is a simple yet profound way of rehumanizing a past conflict by showing the humanity found in both ends of the story. Aren't there Turks who have risked their lives protecting their neighbours and friends? An Armenian friend once replied to me by saying “only a handful, most of them did so for their own benefits.” In a single stroke, whatever they have done was relativized and stripped off its humanity. Thus, we are back to the black and white narrative of ''Evil Turks.'' A narrative not limited to then but also to now; Turks as an a-historical, unchanging, monolithic entity, burning with eternal hatred of Armenians. Ironically, the same people who ascribe a deterministic and decadent ontology to Turks also demand from them an unselfish moral act to own a crime that was committed by distant actors in their history and has dire social and economic implications.

The sad fact is though each side pays lips service to acknowledging that ''some Armenians'' may have been killed or Armenians ''may have killed'' some in rebellions, retaliations and pointless and immoral ASALA terror, very few people genuinely mourn the pain we have caused on each other, not just the pain ''we'' suffered. Even though bookshelves and columns are full of words about the other, in actuality we have very little knowledge of what the other thinks or feels. A significant portion of diaspora Armenians and intellectuals have a minimum if no real contact with Turkey or any Turks. Their prescriptive comments often signal the failure of self-referential deductions they make, which do not really correspond to the complicated reality of modern Turkey. Ultra-nationalistic and at times racist comments only serve to deafen Turkish ears, and fuel nationalistic sentiments that disregard Armenians all together. After all, only a small portion of Turks has any real contact with Armenians and the complexities of different Armenian voices and how much the past continues to hurt them.

The Other Side of the Mountain

Published by the Institute for Global Engagement, Washington D.C., 7 October 2005

For me, there were two boundaries; in the West there was the deep blue of the Aegean, and in the East the shy face of Mt. Ararat smiling behind a veil of mist. Beyond these two borders there were "the others," whose names we never knew and from whom we have been separated a long time ago. Few of us really knew why or when they became the "others," even though there were many traces of them in our country, Turkey. We walked by their empty church buildings and forgotten cemeteries. Every now and then we would hear about them and what they wanted us to hear, but life was too busy and their names were so different that it would take only few seconds to forget it all.

So it was the curiosity fueled by years of mystery that pushed me to join Baroness Caroline Cox — a member of U.K. House of Lords and renowned Christian human rights activist — on a recent trip to Armenia and Karabakh. How did the mountain look from the East? Who were my neighbors, these people so close and so far away in the same time? Would I be welcomed if I were to go to their houses?

Indeed, I discovered that the mountain looked as beautiful as she looked from the West. Much to my surprise, I learned that my dignified nose, which I believed marked me as a Turk, is also an easy-to-recognize trademark among my neighbors. Our foods have much the same names and tastes and our songs carry similar tunes. (Thus there is one more competitor — the Armenians — in the never ending fight between Turks and Greeks about the origins of baklava and dolma!)

As they shared their vodka and bread with me, opened their houses for me to stay and hosted me with genuine warmth, and as I learned their names, heard their stories, and saw their pain, isolation and dreams, their voices became real. My assumptions about Armenians as "others" from a near but faraway land melted away and my ears were finally tuned into their long suffering and hopeful whispers.

The issues that surround the mountain are very complicated indeed. First of all there are the never ending arguments about the sad deaths of many innocent people during the chaotic times that followed the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Should it be called a genocide or massacre or mere collateral damage? From the Turkish point of view acceptance of the word "genocide" or even the number of people killed seems impossible. For the Armenians who still feel its immense pain as a nation, official acceptance of those deaths by Turkey seems to be the only way to forgive the past and find healing. What's more, this historic problem is an ever growing diplomatic tension for Turkey's international status and desire to be a member of the EU.

The problem has been further exacerbated by the closing of the border between Turkey and Armenia, owing to the clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. When the USSR collapsed, its policies of interdependence and relocation of various groups collapsed as well. The green and lush lands of Karabakh thereby became vulnerable in the face of newly rising Central Asian nations. The result of this for the people of Karabakh, Azerian and Armenian alike, was the loss of their homes, sons, and neighbors. The ambitious campaigns led to a war and an eventual, if not several thousand deaths late, truce. With Armenia invading a portion of Azerbaijan in order to establish a link with Karabakh, and Nagorno Karabakh establishing its own government (which had not been recognized internationally), the truce remains fragile.

While sipping slowly a hot cup of coffee (which to the west of the mountain was called Turkish and Armenian east of it), the issues seemed to me to be unsolvable. Yet the pain, ignorance, prejudice, and alienation was so imminent and real, like the bitter taste of the strong coffee in my mouth, that it was an imperative to face them. We simply cannot wait till these issues are fully resolved at the political level, since the contemporary political problems find their source in these ongoing social realities, thus creating a vicious cycle.

"Can there ever be a way to break this cycle?" I asked myself in a church that survived the war in Karabakh. The only answer that found me at that moment was the colorless tear that slowly slid down my face and landed on the dust. I wondered how many refugees, widows, and mothers cried in the same church for a miracle. Did I really have the faith to ask this mountain of prejudice, pain and hatred to move away and drown itself in the deepest ocean?

As many other questions joined more tears, I sensed a gentle hand on my shoulder. My new Armenian friend spoke of God's love and concern and power. We sat there in front of the cross holding hands; one Turkish and one Armenian Christian, who both felt uncomfortable at each others company in the beginning. The beautiful Armenian cross poured Water of Life from its center. Life came from the very symbol of human misery, wretchedness, hatred, pain and shame. That life brought reconciliation between God and human. Once the human being was forgiven and her relationship with the source of life was restored, she too was able to offer a caring hand to her neighbor, realizing the same need of forgiveness she shared with him.

During the evening I raised my toast in the proper Armenian way to my gracious and kind hosts. With the same forgiveness I found from that Water, I asked for forgiveness — forgiveness for not knowing, not paying attention, not caring and not running to their pain. What burnt my chest was not the vodka, but the tears of my new Armenian friends which sealed my prayer: no matter what the past was, through forgiveness and love there would be a future for us to be together again.

As for the mountain, it still stands as glorious as it has always been since Noah's days, but now I know who lives on the other side. Now, when I think of its snow capped summit, the sky does not end there for me. I know that I share that summit with millions of broken but hopeful people. And now in the sacredness of my room I pray daily; "Father, give me faith, so big that it would blush the face of the proud mustard seed!"

Sometimes, Forgetting is Better than Facing the Past

Published in Turkish Daily News, 29 May 2007

Allow me to defend myself ‘pre-emptively' in line with the contemporary modus operandi, before you are even offended by this article. (And who knows, may be my initial fears too will be proven to be unfounded when you finish reading this article) In actual life, I am a lot less ‘cynical' than I appear here and have rather strong opinions about how societies should deal with past atrocities. However, as the debates between Armenians and Turks still continue to present themselves exclusively in terms of ‘truth' and ‘justice' over the past, what often is muted in the cacophony of who-is-the-real-victim dogfights, is the present tense.

The problem as well as the solution lies in the present!:

As social sciences and philosophy have pointed out again and again, the present does not discover a mere ‘truth' as it is in the past. Since the past is only present to us in narratives selectively constructed by contemporary actors, one cannot separate the present from the past. By whom, why and how a narrative is constructed is equally, if not more, important than what that narrative tells. It is therefore the present that has to be scrutinized first, not the past, if one wishes to proceed beyond the haunting ghosts of the past. In Armenian-Turkish talks (or rather mutual verbal attacks) the present context is often brought onto the table in ad hominem arguments to discredit the other side; “Of course a diaspora Armenian would say this” “So and so is a Turk thus any criticism of his is ungrounded or denialist.” What I call for here is none of this: I believe that the sword that can cut the Gordian knot of a century long pain, prejudice and conflict does not lie in the past but in the present. Thus, we have to critically analyze, deconstruct and challenge the ideas, discourses and goals that dominate the present if we ever want to reach a half-baked closure over the sad episodes of history and a possible future together. So let me lead the way with casting the first stone; there is so much naivety in the public excitement and blind folded support of demands for facing the past.

Problematic promises of “facing the past”:

The arguments we hear can be summarized in two groups; utilitarian and moral. Utilitarian arguments try to convince us that a nation can be healed only when it confronts her past; that peace and reconciliation can only be achieved by official acknowledgement of past injustices; that such an acknowledgement deters repetition of similar crimes. The moral arguments centre on the themes of justice and moral debt owed the dead. They exhort us to give heed to contemporary demands, because it is moral to do so. Both of these arguments share taken for granted assumptions, which are far from unshaken solid grounds to base an argument. In contrary to the popular beliefs based upon self-help sound bites, facing the past can open the way for re-traumatization of the victim rather than healing. Human beings develop certain mechanisms to continue their lives after tragic events. Leaving it aside, not speaking about it or not acknowledging it and living as though it never happened are not uncommon strategies used by the victims. By putting them to cross-examination, pressuring them to retell the event in the courts or on TV can totally take away from them their only means of coping with life. Even Freud has warned that the patient may leave the therapy in a worse condition than before. The same danger is increased in manifold when we move from the individual victim to wider political concerns. In postconflict settings (e.g. after civil wars and ethnic clashes) or in transitional contexts (e.g. when an old dictatorial regime opens the way for democracy), the negative peace (cessation of armed conflict) can often only be achieved by negotiations of amnesty and not speaking of past evils. Demands for facing the past in these contexts can turn out to be the greatest hindrance to stop destruction and proceed to a better future.

Remembering can be dangerous!:

Similarly, remembering past atrocities can be far from deterring new ones. Serbs ‘remembered' the loss of the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 to Ottomans and made it a corner stone in the narrative of a new Serbian identity as well as legitimization for the brutal treatment of Bosnian Muslims. Hutus too had memories of Tutsi animosities towards them. Identities that are developed on being victims always run the risk of committing the worst crimes. Finally, facing the past means a life long tension as different segments of societies will run counter-memories even though a country may officially choose to face the past and move on. In a poll published in 1998, 74 percent of white urban South Africans, and 62 percent of blacks, reckoned that the operations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had done more to stir up old resentments than lay them rest. Even in the South African experience, the most famous case of ‘facing the past', the reopening of wounds have been extremely painful and incomplete. There are still survivors who are angry about the amnesties granted to perpetrators and perpetrators and beneficiaries of the system who still deny responsibility. Same thing applies to Argentine and Chile, where there are still different memories of military days and occasional tensions.

Countries that chose to forget:

Philosophers all the way back from Plato to Nietzsche have promoted forgetting the past and starting with a blank page. Aristotle tells us that after the civil war of 404 BC in Athens, peace and democracy was established by leaving the past behind. An amnesty law was passed and the remembering of past injustices became a punishable offence. The reconstruction of democracy by ways of forgetting brought a long period of stability to Athens. The wise men of the Antiquity are not alone on their decision. Modern Spain was born out of the attempts for collective amnesia, which is known as Pacto del Olvido, Pact of Forgetfulness. Only through not speaking of the evils of Franco era and granting amnesty, Spain was able to be what it is today. Mozambique was able to end a 16 years long bloody civil war in 1992 which took one million civilians and left behind memories of gruesome tortures and mutilation by deciding to allow the past to be the past. So sometimes, the only way to save people is to let the past go!

The “innocence” of moral discourses:

Much has been written on how the genuine desires of the victims or their descendants have been utilized for vote gathering in Europe and the US, so I'll spare you that. But there is more politics than meet the eye when states decide to ‘face their past'. France has undergone a significant change in her perception of the past. The myth of French resistance against invading Germans and non-cooperation in Vichy era had to be upgraded when it could no longer hold to be true in the face of the facts of the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to the arms of death. When the past can't be escaped and upright denial can no more convince anyone, the romanticism of facing the past by offering apologies become a quick way of gaining the moral higher ground once again. Switzerland too had to come to terms with the myth of complete neutrality and account/expiate for the blood gold with setting up foundations and working for ‘deterrence'. Not so surprisingly, Truth Commissions- the epitome of facing the past, have always had their share of similar political motives. They have always provided, knowingly and unknowingly, a great political legitimization to new governments and leaders over the previous ones. At times, they even highlighted the wickedness of the past when the present was not much different. Idi Amin of Uganda, known nowadays as the Last King of Scotland, had commissioned one in 1974 to inquire ‘disappearances' since 1971, which didn't stop people from disappearing during and after the commission.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind:

So there is more to it than just rhyme in Alexander Pope's poem. We expect too much from the idea of facing the past, which it can never deliver. Facing the past is a tiresome, non-conclusive, possibly dangerous process, flawed with immoral quests for legitimization and political public relations, with no ipso facto guarantees of healing, peace and reconciliation. The outcome, whether it would be destructive or constructive, depends on the actors of the present tense. Thus, we come back to what I stated in the beginning of this article; the only solution to the Turkish-Armenian question lies in the present not the past.