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.