Greg Sarkissian lights candles together with Turkish scholar Taner Akçam at the memorial service in Etchmiadzin, April 1995.

Truth, Memory and Justice, Not Hatred

Acknowledging Turkey’s empowered society 

On April 24, 2015 we will commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and pay tribute to the memory of some 1.5 million victims of the Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire. We will also pay tribute to the memory of those few Turks, Kurds, Arabs and others who risked their own lives to help Armenians escape certain death. There are several reasons why we should remember those courageous Turks who, first and foremost, objected to the mass deportation and murder of their Armenian neighbors by their own government and countrymen. Second, they did not become by-standers. Instead, swayed by religious piety and their respect for human life and dignity, they saved some of the Armenians with compassion and care. Third, it gives a more positive basis for Turks and Armenians to look together at 1915 as part of their shared history. 

No one knows how many individual acts of courage and humanity occurred during that period of horror and death. One such person, Haji Khalil, a devoted Muslim and a righteous Turk, was my grandfather’s business partner. He had promised my grandfather he would care for his family in case of misfortune. When the disaster greater than anything either of them could have imagined struck, my grandfather, Krikor, was hung just for being an Armenian. But Haji Khalil kept his promise. He hid my grandmother, her sister and their seven children in the attic of his house in Urfa for almost a year. He fed and cared for them and saw them to safety to Aleppo. He did this knowing well that whoever saved Armenians could have shared their fate of death and destruction. 

Some twenty years ago, in April of 1995, I shared the story of Haji Khalil from the podium at an international conference entitled, “Problems of Genocide” in Yerevan, which the Zoryan Institute had cosponsored with the Armenian government. I concluded my speech by saying,  

I want to extend my hand to the people of Turkey, to ask them to remember that though at one time their state was led by mass murderers, they also had their Haji Khalils, and that it would honor the memory of the latter to acknowledge the overwhelming truth of the genocide, to express regrets, so that the healing process may begin between our two peoples. 

As a result of my speech, one of the scholars participating in the conference, Taner Akçam, approached me with tears in his eyes, hugged me and started telling me things in Turkish that I could not understand. But, I could feel his warmth and his sincerity in trying to tell me that he acknowledged and shared the trauma and the pain that I was experiencing at that moment. The next day we attended a memorial service at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. There, I took him by the hand and asked him to join me in lighting two candles, one in memory of my grandfather lit by him, and another, which I lit in memory of Haji Khalil. Then we embraced and promised each other that we would do everything possible to bring our peoples together by preserving the legacy and the memory of that righteous human being, Haji Khalil, and through him, undermine denial and promote truth and justice. 

Since that encounter in 1995, Dr. Akçam has written many well respected and influential books and articles, published in several languages, about the Armenian Genocide and the violence perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. His works demonstrate how the Ottoman government, led by the Committee of Union and Progress, inspired by the ideology of pan-Turkism and dreams of imperial expansion, carried out the planned destruction of its own fellow subjects, the entire Armenian population in its ancestral homeland. 

During the next ten years, from 1995 to 2005, numerous tentative contacts were made between Turks and Armenians. Some on an individual basis, some in academic forums, where research and scholarship was shared and exchanged between Turkish and Armenian scholars. Some, such as the Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Studies or WATS, used virtual communication to facilitate dialogue between Armenians and Turks. Some Turkish scholars visited various research centers, such as the Zoryan Institute and the Armenian Studies Chairs, to learn about the research conducted and/or to view oral history testimonies of the survivors of the genocide. Some 15 Turkish students have attended the comparative genocide course run by the Zoryan Institute with the University of Toronto some continued their studies to become recognized specialists of the Armenian Genocide. 

Some businessmen organized official forums, such as the Turkish Armenian Business Development Council, to promote trade between the two countries, hoping that trade would be the best way to bring these two peoples together. Attempts were made even by the Armenian government a few years ago, through the so called “football diplomacy” for rapprochement with the Turkish government. This was followed by the signing of the yet unratified protocols. 

All of these efforts were attempts to bring about a change in the attitudes of these two peoples, who continued to see each other through the prism of the events of 1915 as unchanging and monolithic enemies. Unfortunately, more work is needed by both Turkish and Armenian civil societies to raise awareness about the events of 1915, to encourage the Turkish state to change its narrative.  

There were strong voices that wanted to reclaim history as a legacy that needed to be recognized, and thus pressed their government to abolish all obstacles to this process. For example, the series of events since 1995, described above, led to the first public conference on Armenian issues which was organized by Turkish academics and intellectuals and took place in Istanbul on May 25, 2005, entitled “Ottoman Armenians during the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Reasonability and Democracy.” Some of the participants at this conference were scholars and intellectuals who were in continuous contact with their Armenian counterparts. The conference was condemned and criticized by the Turkish authorities. Just one day before the conference, then Turkish Justice Çiçek accused those who organized and participated in the conference of treason, calling them traitors to their country, condemning the initiative as a blow to the government’s attempts to counter a mounting Armenian campaign to have the killings recognized internationally as genocide. He went as far as stating, “This is a stab in the back to Turkish nation…” As a result, some of these Turkish scholars, intellectuals and media representatives were charged, persecuted and even jailed by Turkish authorities. 

Since 2005, the Turkish government has continued its unrelenting policy of denialism in spite of civil society wanting to know more about their own history. The policies of denial on the part of the deep state, continued by the current Turkish government, have led to hatred, discrimination and incitement of violence towards the remaining Armenians in Turkey. This policy culminated in the killing of Hrant Dink, the editor of AGOS newspaper, who had openly challenged the narrative of the government as an obstacle to democracy in Turkey. Hrant Dink’s murder by a Turkish ultranationalist impacted not only the Armenian community in Turkey, but also the Kurdish, Yezidi, Alevi and other minorities, who saw the assassination as a major blow to freedom of thought and speech and to their aspiration for cultural and religious freedom. 

Those who fear that Turkey will succeed “to neutralize the effect of the Armenian side’s preparations for the centenary of the Armenian Genocide,” do not sufficiently believe in the power of historical truth. No matter what Turkey does through its policy of denial, it cannot avoid the facts of history. Fear of Turkish penetration of Armenian society, in the diaspora and/or in Armenia, concern about causing domestic disagreements to take control of society reduces Armenians and Armenia to hapless victims rather than aware, independent individuals who are able to articulate and defend their national interest. 

All denial attempts, whether they be by distorting history or cajoling certain members of Armenian society to cooperate with them, have not helped Turkey in controlling Armenian society. On the contrary, they have only strengthened the resolve of Armenians worldwide to mobilize for acknowledgement and restorative justice because Armenians collectively are fully aware of their history and the profoundly devastating effects of genocide on their nation. 

To speak well of the Turks that saved Armenians actually helps contextualize and bring home for Turks what the Armenian Genocide was all about. One cannot talk about Turks who saved Armenians without explaining what it is they saved the Armenians from. This can only help promote shared knowledge of history and a past that both societies can talk about to each other on a common basis of understanding and without any fear of persecution. Hopefully this can lead to dialogue and eventually reconciliation. We must have hope that human values, fortified with the knowledge of historical truth, will eventually empower Turkish civil society to demand its government more effectively embrace the facts of history. Without that, there will be no true democracy and therefore no security for any individual or collective in that country. 

Such empowerment is already evident by the fact that currently two Turkish human rights organizations are partnering with the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (a division of the Zoryan Institute) to jointly submit a brief to the European Court of Human Rights in the Perinçek case—a matter of genocide denial—documenting discriminatory and racist activities and statements against Armenians in Turkey and Switzerland. Such instances of cooperation strengthen contacts between the two societies and serve as evidence of the power of shared universal human values. 

We cannot be oblivious to the changes happening in Turkey. Armenians have a role in helping Turkish society learn and understand the indisputable facts of the Armenian Genocide through education, dialogue and contacts on all levels of Turkish society. This is a critical process in order to emancipate both societies from this history of enmity, prejudice and hatred. 

Originally published in the April 2015 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.