BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
On July 13, two days before the coup attempt in Turkey, Professor Halil Berktay of Istanbul’s Sabanci University answered six written questions on the Armenian Genocide posed by El Pais, Spain’s largest newspaper. But when El Pais did not publish his answers, Dr. Berktay decided on August 15 to post his interview on a Turkish website, Serbestiyet, under the title: “With or without the coup, genocide was and is genocide.”
Berktay, a liberal Turkish scholar, told El Pais that he has repeatedly recognized the Armenian Genocide ever since 2002. He described the genocide as “the near-complete extermination and annihilation of Ottoman Armenians.” acknowledged that for his honest views on the Armenian Genocide, “especially before 2002, and even afterwards (though no longer by the government), there has been a huge amount of informal, extra-legal pressure, blackmail, threats or other forms of psychological terror brought to bear on people like me, which I and others have all had to face.”
Answering a question from El Pais: “why does Turkey refuse to review the past?” Dr. Berktay responded: “Back in the 1980’s and 90’s… the denialism of the past was based on ancestor worship or ideological allegiance to Unionism and Ataturkism. What had happened to the Armenians in 1915 was seen as a black blot for Turkish nationalism. Also, while it was not committed by or under the Kemalist Republic, because the Republic had ended up inheriting the mantle of a territory ethnically cleansed of the Armenians, it was in the nature of an inadmissible impurity for the desired lily-white legitimacy of the Kemalist Revolution. So a taboo was placed on it; it became part of the unmentionable and undiscussable. Here and there a few academics, mostly living and working abroad, did speak up. They were lonely voices in the wilderness.” Berktay then added: beginning in 2000, “things began to change,” with an increasing number of Turkish scholars speaking out on the Armenian Genocide.
The most interesting part of Bertkay’s interview is his stated reason for the Turkish government’s reluctance to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide: “It may be that the Turkish government does not know what might happen if it were to go ahead and say yes, it was genocide. What would Armenia likely do or demand? Is it going to ask for material compensation, or even land? That is what the Dashnaks as radical Armenian nationalists have been saying all along: Three R’s, as they put it, Recognition, Reparation, Restitution (of land). Certainly the last is something that no Turkish government can possibly ever concede. It is very likely, therefore, that before they take any further step, they would like Armenia to show its hand. Conversely, as long as Armenia keeps its cards close to its chest, recognizing the genocide as genocide will have to wait.”
A careful reading of the Professor’s above statement indicates that he finds the return of lands to Armenia by Turkey not possible, but does not rule out reparations. In my view, while Armenians rightly claim their historic lands, they are willing to accept reparations as an initial step.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Berktay’s answers is his explanation of Turkey’s reasons for refusal to face its sordid past: “Faced with the peculiar challenge of recognizing the Armenian genocide, large sections of the Turkish public as well as the AKP keep asking, and will keep asking: Why us? And why only us? Are all nations being asked to atone for their past equally stringently? Or is it just Turkey? Meanwhile, what about what ‘they’ did to ‘us’ in the first place? If we recognize the Armenian genocide, will they, too, ever so slightly recognize the tragic plight of the Muslim Turks of Crete, mainland Greece, Bulgaria or Serbia? Who speaks for the Turk? Do we have any friends in the world?”
While I do not agree with some of Berktay’s explanations, I cannot expect him to have the same position on Armenian issues as I do. After all, he is a Turk, but a righteous Turk, which is not what one can say about Turkish leaders and large segments of Turkish society that still deny the historical facts of the Armenian Genocide!
Berktay has taken a great risk by posting his answers on the Armenian Genocide on the internet, particularly in the current brutal atmosphere since the July coup attempt when tens of thousands of innocent Turkish citizens have been summarily arrested and thrown into jail!