Turkey’s War with the Past

By Congressman Adam B. Schiff

As Turkey continues discussions with the European Union on accession–Europe’s Parliament again called on Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide. More than that–the European Parliament voted to make Genocide recognition a condition for accession. With all of the vital contemporary implications of Turkey’s formal induction into Europe–economic–labor–immigration–currency–human rights–some might question whether events that took place almost a century ago should play such a determinative role. They should. Europe is right.

The facts of the Genocide are abundantly clear: Beginning in 1915–the Ottoman Empire systematically murdered one and a half million Armenia’s in what is now widely recognized as the first genocide of the 20th Century. It started with the roundup and slaughter of intellectuals–artists–community leaders–military-age men–and ended with forced death marches of countless hundreds of thousands under the cover of war. The Armenia’s were killed because they were Armenian–the very definition of genocide.

So why is this tragic event in world history–so well documented and now so far receded in the past–such a timely issue in Turkey’s bid to join the EU? Like many a notorious crime–the continuing power of the issue comes not from the offense itself–but from its cover-up. Turkey has never recognized the Armenian genocide–and has fought bitterly across the decades to deny the darkest chapter of its Ottoman past.

To get a sense of just how intensely Turkey has sought to suppress even a discussion of the Armenian genocide–you might ask Orhan Pamuk–Turkey’s most famous novelist. But you better ask him quick; Pamuk stands charged with violating a law against "denigrating Turkish identity," and faces a sentence of three years in Turkish prison. In February–Pamuk had the audacity to tell a Swiss newspaper that–"thirty thousand Kurds and one million Armenia’s were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it." This simple quote was his entire offense.

Little wonder that no one dares to talk about the Armenian genocide in Turkey. Little wonder too why Europeans have questioned whether Turkey has a strong enough commitment to human rights and free expression to be a part of the EU.

A recent conference on the Armenian genocide at Bosphorus University in Istanbul–already postponed once–was abruptly canceled by a Turkish court. The conference was quickly rescheduled as government officials realized the notoriety of Pamuk’s arrest was already impairing the nation’s efforts to join the EU. The conference did eventually take place–but attendees were well aware of threats from their Justice Minister. In May–he called such meetings treasonous and a "stab in the back of the Turkish nation.” Armed with the power to bring charges like those pending against Pamuk–the Turkish legal system has been made into an instrument to perpetuate the nation’s policy of denial.

It is not only in the Republic of Turkey that the campaign of denial has been in full swing. The government of Turkey spends millions on high-powered lobbyists to prevent Genocide recognition in countries around the world. When Genocide legislation I introduced along with Congressman George Radanovich came before the International Relations Committee–Turkey’s top level team was called into action. They failed to defeat the measure in committee–which passed with strong bipartisan support–but they have successfully fended off floor passage of the bill for over a decade. Cowed by threats of retaliation from Turkey–our own State Department has been helping them.

Denial of genocide–Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has written–is a second injury. If anyone doubts the truth of that insight–let them talk with an Armenian family. Each will tell you of lost grandparents–uncles–aunts–cousins–no family is spared when an entire people is almost erased from the earth. Or imagine losing your own parents or grandparents in a crime that the perpetrator and his heirs continue to argue never took place.

The European Parliament was right to place such importance on recognizing the Genocide–and it is time for Turkey to do the same. Not only will recognition do justice to the countless victims and their families–but it will aid Turkey’s case for membership in a union of states that have their own dark histories yet the courage to confront their past.

Adam B. Schiff is a member of the House International Relations Committee and Co-Founder of the Democratic Study Group on National Security.

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