Commentary Magazine


Topic: Armenian genocide

Should Obama Mark Armenian Genocide Centenary?

Every year, the Armenian Diaspora marks April 24 as the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Traditionally, senators representing states with large Armenian communities—California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, for example—seek to pass a formal resolution commemorating the genocide. Out of fear of angering Turkey, however, presidents and secretaries of State have traditionally avoided the word genocide.

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Every year, the Armenian Diaspora marks April 24 as the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Traditionally, senators representing states with large Armenian communities—California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, for example—seek to pass a formal resolution commemorating the genocide. Out of fear of angering Turkey, however, presidents and secretaries of State have traditionally avoided the word genocide.

As senator, for example, Barack Obama was a vocal supporter of commemorating the genocide. In 2008, he declared, “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides,” and added, “I intend to be that president.” Once he won the Oval Office, he avoided doing so just as his predecessors had, instead using the formulation “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” Likewise, as senator, John Kerry was solicitous of the Armenian community and its demands to recognize the mass murder of the Armenians as genocide, but upon becoming America’s top diplomat, let’s just say he was with them before he was against them. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was as hypocritical: Her claim to fame has been as a scholar of genocide and a moral voice castigating the United States for refusing to acknowledge genocide for diplomatic reasons. Prior to becoming an advisor to Barack Obama, she criticized American passivity with regard to the Armenian genocide and, as UN ambassador, she hasn’t hesitated to get on Twitter or issue statements that take a tougher line than Obama. But on the Armenian issue? Crickets.

The forthcoming anniversary is, of course, special: It marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. For Turkey, which seeks to prevent formal recognition abroad, it is a perfect storm. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown himself to be an anti-Semitic and corrupt dictator. And parliamentarians from his Justice and Development Party as well as Turkey’s court journalists and access-craving intellectuals have, with their blind support, shown themselves equally culpable, if not supportive of Erdoğan’s noxious vision.

And while Turkey has long been able to count on a strong lobby in Washington, there is no real Turkey lobby anymore. Some congressmen may have kept their names on the Congressional Turkey Caucus roster but, as one congressman recently put it, “that’s a nothing burger.” Ankara and its paid lobbyists understand that when push comes to shove, few congressmen will stick their necks out for Turkey.

So what should Obama do? Here things are more complicated. Genocide studies has always been more a political discipline than an academic one. Few members of that field research in the primary languages or step foot in archives. Area specialists are a bit more divided on whether what transpired against the Armenians was state-directed or spontaneous, and whether it was directed against all Armenians or just those living in areas through which the frontlines of World War I passed. While no one denies the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not more than a million Armenians, Guenter Lewy, Edward Erickson, and Bernard Lewis have all questioned the popular narrative that assumes genocide. After all, more than fifteen million people died around Europe as a result of the war.

While there will be pressure on Obama to confirm genocide on the 100th anniversary of the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul on April 24, 1915, perhaps a better question is why politicians should be in the business of arbitrating history.

While Erdoğan’s offensive behavior in recent years means that few will shed tears if Turkey suffers a rebuke in a vote few care about outside of the Turkish and Armenian communities, the very fact that contemporary Turkish politics could influence such a vote underlines why politicians should not be the judges of history. Ultimately, liberated from facing another election and caring very little for his peers of either party, Obama may use the 100th anniversary commemorations to officially put the imprimatur of the president of the United States behind the idea that what occurred in the Ottoman Empire a century ago was genocide. But, ultimately, such a statement will be meaningless to the understanding of events or the facts of the case. For that, political grandstanding and polemic will always matter far less than careful historical research and debate.

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Armenian Group “Troubled” by Hagel’s Genocide Stance

One of the country’s most prominent Armenian-American lobbying groups said today that it is “troubled” by potential defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s position on the Armenian genocide. 

“We remain troubled by former Senator Hagel’s acceptance of Ankara’s gag-rule on American honesty about the Armenian Genocide – the still unpunished crime against a Christian nation that continues to define Turkey’s present-day policies toward Armenia and much of the region,” ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian said in an emailed statement.

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One of the country’s most prominent Armenian-American lobbying groups said today that it is “troubled” by potential defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s position on the Armenian genocide. 

“We remain troubled by former Senator Hagel’s acceptance of Ankara’s gag-rule on American honesty about the Armenian Genocide – the still unpunished crime against a Christian nation that continues to define Turkey’s present-day policies toward Armenia and much of the region,” ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian said in an emailed statement.

Hagel has opposed official U.S. government recognition of the genocide, and has declined to say whether he believes the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians beginning in 1915 was in fact a genocide. 

“What happened in 1915 happened in 1915. As one United States Senator, I think the better way to deal with this is to leave it open to historians and others to decide what happened and why,” then-Senator Hagel told a group of Armenian reporters during a trip to the country in 2005.

“The fact is that this region needs to move forward,” Hagel added. “We need to find a lasting, just peace between Turkey and Armenia and the other nations of this region. I am not sure that by going back and dealing with that in some way that causes one side or the other to be put in difficult spot, helps move the peace process forward.” 

ANCA objected to the argument that official U.S. recognition of the genocide would hinder peace between Turkey and Armenia.

“As much as Erdogan and his allies might like, the ‘lasting, just peace between Turkey and Armenia’ that Chuck Hagel seeks cannot be built on Genocide denial. The U.S. and the international community must set an example by condemning the Armenian Genocide — and speaking out against all genocides, wherever and whenever they occur,” said Hamparian. 

Hagel’s record has already come under fire from the pro-Israel community, gay rights groups and Cuban Americans. The latest criticism from the Armenian-American community, which has many allies and supporters in Washington, could raise more concerns in the Senate over Hagel’s potential defense secretary nomination.

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Turkey Pushes Genocide Denial

In 1915, when stories of the systematic extermination of the Armenian minority in Anatolia by the Ottoman authorities started to surface in the Western press, Turkish diplomats were rapidly mobilized to deny the reports. “All those who have been killed were of that rebellious element,” the Turkish consul in New York, Djelal Munif Bey, told the New York Times, “who were caught red-handed or while otherwise committing traitorous acts against the Turkish Government, and not women and children, as some of these fabricated reports would have the Americans believe.”

As the sun began to set on the Ottoman Empire, its leaders–and their secular successors–laid the foundations of a gruesome template that remains with us today. Ever since the slaughter of the Armenians, each episode of genocide and mass killing has been accompanied by voices who willfully deny that such horrors actually took place. Genocide denial is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the Shoah, but it also raised its head in Bangladesh in 1971, in Cambodia in 1979, in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq during the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Syria in the present day.

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In 1915, when stories of the systematic extermination of the Armenian minority in Anatolia by the Ottoman authorities started to surface in the Western press, Turkish diplomats were rapidly mobilized to deny the reports. “All those who have been killed were of that rebellious element,” the Turkish consul in New York, Djelal Munif Bey, told the New York Times, “who were caught red-handed or while otherwise committing traitorous acts against the Turkish Government, and not women and children, as some of these fabricated reports would have the Americans believe.”

As the sun began to set on the Ottoman Empire, its leaders–and their secular successors–laid the foundations of a gruesome template that remains with us today. Ever since the slaughter of the Armenians, each episode of genocide and mass killing has been accompanied by voices who willfully deny that such horrors actually took place. Genocide denial is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the Shoah, but it also raised its head in Bangladesh in 1971, in Cambodia in 1979, in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq during the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Syria in the present day.

As the original pioneers of genocide denial, the Turks remain its most aggressive practitioners. That, perhaps, is to be expected; far less understandable is the willingness of certain countries and institutions to collude in this trampling of history and memory. In that regard, this item from Denmark’s Copenhagen Post is nothing less than astounding:

The Royal Library has attracted heavy criticism after agreeing to let Turkey co-arrange an alternative exhibition about the Armenian Genocide.

The library has complied with the wishes of the Turkish ambassador to Denmark to be involved with the exhibition, ‘The Armenian Genocide and the Scandinavian response’, which is currently on display at the University of Copenhagen.

The Turkish Embassy has been granted the opportunity to stage a Turkish version of the historical events in a move that has generated criticism from a number of circles, including politicians, historians, and the Armenian Embassy in Copenhagen.

Genocide scholars in Denmark have reacted angrily. “If you believe that all versions of history are equal, then you’ve undermined your role as a research institution,” said the historian Matthias Bjørnlund. “It was genocide and not all interpretations of this history are correct.” But the director of the Royal Library, Erland Kolding Nielsen, denied having caved to pressure from the Turkish Embassy. “One can’t pressure us, and we have not spoken about removing the Armenian exhibition. We have simply given [the Turks] the opportunity to show their alternative exhibition,” Nielsen said.

Clearly, this sets an extremely dangerous precedent. No longer does it seem far-fetched to think that an exhibition about, say, Auschwitz, or the North Korean gulags, might be “balanced” with a “counter-narrative” from the perspective of the perpetrators of these atrocities.

The current Danish controversy also speaks volumes about the extent to which Turkey is prepared to go in enforcing its state doctrine of genocide denial upon its ostensible allies. Earlier this year, Ankara temporarily froze ties with France after that country’s Senate passed a law officially recognizing the Armenian massacres as a genocide. Responding to similar efforts by American lawmakers, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told President Obama in March that he was “tired” by the constant reminders of Turkey’s historic crime, adding that the U.S. administration should “not … mistake U.S. senators, lawmakers and politicians for historians.”

For decades, Turkey has acted on the premise that Western acquiescence toward its regional bullying–whether that involves its assaults on Kurdish civilians or its continued occupation of northern Cyprus–means that it will never be obliged to reckon with the monstrous crimes committed against the Armenians. If the authors of Washington’s policy toward Turkey want us to believe that Erdogan and his cohorts share not just our strategic goals, but our core values too, then Ankara must be told that the practice of genocide denial, inaugurated by Djelal Munif Bey in 1915, is no longer acceptable almost 100 years on.

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