BY ANDRANIK ISRAYELYAN
Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoğlu has proposed to solve the Armenian Genocide question by creating a “just memory.” The assessment of the concept reveals why it is simply a denialist tactic.
In 2011, then-foreign minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoğlu called on Armenians to address the Genocide question through a concept he termed “just memory.” It is “unjust” to place these traumatic events at the center of everything, Davutoğlu noted in the Turkish Policy Quarterly article. A Guardian article later insisted that Armenians (and indeed Christians) were not the only ones to have suffered during this period. “While much of western history tells of the suffering of the dispossessed and dead Ottoman Christians, the colossal sufferings of Ottoman Muslims remains largely unknown outside of Turkey.” The author went on to insist that Turkey had proposed a joint commission in an effort to allow the emergence of a so-called “just memory.”
To begin, this “just memory” concept is vague at best. It is based on Davutoğlu’s perception of the West’s incompatibility with Islam. In his doctoral dissertation, for instance, he argued, “Conflicts and contrasts between Western and Islamic political thought originate mainly from their philosophical, methodological, and theoretical backgrounds rather than from mere institutional and historical differences.” Needless to say, the effect of such extreme relativism in historiography is an altogether rejection of history as an academic field.
The reality is different, however. The Armenian Genocide is a part of world history, including that of Islamic civilization. Some of the first reports of atrocities against Armenians originated with a Muslim witness: Fayez Al Ghussein, a prominent Arab attorney, presented these accounts in Massacres in Armenia, published 1916 in its original Arabic. Three years later, Hasan Amca, an eyewitness and politician who served under Talaat Pasha, described the perceptions of ordinary Turks in a manner consistent with historical events: “If we ask a poor Turk, he would answer,—I came back from war. My neighbor, Avetis agha, Nikoghos Chorbaji and many other neighbors have been robbed; they have been driven to Arabistan or elsewhere.” Contrary to Davutoğlu’s claims, both Muslim and Turkish narratives recall what happened to the Armenians.
Another notable shortcoming of Davutoğlu’s concept is that collective memory is not a precondition for determining whether a crime in fact occurred. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as any act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The Convention does not envisage perpetrators and victims necessarily subscribing to the same narrative. Put simply, the Armenian, Jewish, Rwandan, and other genocides will not cease to be regarded as crimes against humanity should collective memories become altered in some way.
The third point Davutoğlu fails to address is whether Armenian recognition of Turkish losses will constitute a “just memory.” Imagine the Armenian government sending condolences to the grandchildren of Turks who died during the First World War. Would this recognition of Turkish suffering in wartime mitigate the gravity of the crime of genocide? These are precisely the types of questions Davutoğlu circumscribes.
Finally, Davutoğlu deliberately turns a deaf ear to the conclusions of credible historians. In a 2005 response to the Turkish government’s proposal for a Armenian-Turkish commission to investigate the truth, the International Association of Genocide Scholars warned then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that a denialist approach was tantamount to propaganda: “There may be differing interpretations of genocide—how and why the Armenian Genocide happened, but to deny its factual and moral reality as genocide is not to engage in scholarship but in propaganda and efforts to absolve the perpetrator, blame the victims, and erase the ethical meaning of this history.”
Davutoğlu’s conception of a “just memory” has nothing to do with justice or historiography. Rather, it is yet another attempt at denialism. Israel Charny, executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Israel, characterizes such efforts as “scientificism in the service of confusion,” which he goes on to define as the “manipulative misuse of the valued principle in science that facts must be proven before they are accepted in order to obfuscate facts that are indeed known.”
With no academic and legal bearing, the concept of “just memory” should be rejected as a brazen tool for genocide denial, particularly when coupled with the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s formal declaration that reconciliatory steps toward the Armenians constitute a part of the strategy to defeat the Armenian Genocide recognition.
Andranik Israyelyan is an International Relations scholar. He holds a PhD degree in World History and defended his thesis on Turkish foreign policy under the AK Party (2002-12) at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Armenia.