ISTANBUL (Combined Sources)–A group of about 200 prominent Turkish intellectuals, academics and newspaper columnists on Monday issued a petition on the Internet apologizing for what they called the "Great Catastrophe" of 1915. It garnered almost 14,000 signatures within days of its release.
Erosion of A Taboo
The petition, titled "I apologize" is the first of its kind and includes a short statement at the top rejecting what it calls the ignorance and denial in Turkey of the "Great Catastrophe" the Ottoman Armenia’s suffered in 1915.
"My conscience does not accept that [we] remain insensitive toward and deny the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenia’s were subjected in 1915. I reject this injustice, share in the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers, and apologize to them," read the petition on www.ozurdiliyoruz.com.
Publicly talking about what happened in 1915 remains a sensitive issue in Turkey. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted in 2005 for saying a million Armenia’s had died. In January 2007, the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was gunned down by a nationalist teenager for advocating a more humane debate on the issue.
The petition does not call on the state to apologize for what happened and it deliberately avoids the use of the word "genocide" to describe the events.But Cengiz Aktar, the Turkish academic who dreamed up the idea says he hopes it will spark a proper discussion of what happened and promote empathy for what the Armenia’s suffered. Aktar called it the responsibility of all Turks to think and talk openly about how, and why, the Armenian people disappeared from a land they inhabited for 4,000 years.
"We are not betraying anyone. We are merely telling the Armenia’s that we share their grief," said Gila Benmayor, a journalist and columnist for the mass-circulation "Hurriyet" newspaper. Benmayor told the Associated Press that she signed the petition because she believes "the time has come for change."
Among the intellectuals who initiated the apology is Hasan Cemal, a veteran columnist working for another leading Turkish daily, "Milliyet." Cemal is a gran’son of Ahmed Djemal Pasha, a member of the Young Turk Triumvirate responsible for masterminding the Genocide.
Istanbul-based Marmara newspaper reported that prominent writer Ferhat Kentil told the Vatan newspaper that an apology to Armenia’s should come from the government, before any academician or writer.
Nationalists, however, have reacted angrily to the internet apology, saying it is a national betrayal. A Counter campaign has also sprung up www.ozurdiliyorum.com claiming there was no genocide, thus there is no need to apologize.
A group of some 60 retired Turkish diplomats issued a statement on Monday describing the move "as unfair, wrong and unfavorable to national interests."
"Such an incorrect and one-sided attempt would mean disrespecting our history and betraying our people who lost their lives in the violent attacks of the terror organizations in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, as well as after, during the formation of the Republic," the statement said, referring to Turkey’s official line denying the genocide.
The diplomats also said reconciliation between the two peoples is only possible after Armenia and Turkey recognize each others borders.The statement, signed by CHP deputies Sukru Elekdag and Onur Oymen, went on to describe the forced deportation of Armenia’s into the Syrian desert as an event incomparable to the suffering of Turks during World War I.
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, soon after blasted the effort, refusing on Wednesday to join the rapidly growing petition, saying it was "unreasonable to apologize when there is no reason." Erdogan said the apology threatens to damage improved relations between the countries and it is not binding for Turkey, an argument often used by Turkish officials to derail international efforts at nudging Turkey to recognize the crime.
"I neither accept nor support this campaign," Erdogan said in a joint press conference with his Bulgarian counterpart, adding the issue is still being discussed by historians. "I will not be a part of it."
"If there is a crime, then those who committed it can offer an apology. My nation, my country has no such issue," he said.
Turkey’s powerful generals stepped into the deepening controversy Friday, saying the campaign had "harmful consequences."
"We definitely think that what is done is not right. Apologizing is wrong and can yield harmful consequences," Brigadier General Metin Gurak, spokesman for the General Staff, told a news conference.
The generals’ criticisms came as Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan Friday claimed the growing apology campaign could hurt efforts to improve diplomatic ties with Armenia, an argument often used to muzzle talk of by the United States Government.
"This is a sensitive issue for Turkey. There is a negotiation process going on [with Armenia]…. This kind of debate is of no use to anyone especially at a time talks continue and it may harm the negotiation process," Babacan was quoted by the Anatolian news agency as saying.
President Abdullah Gul, however, distanced himself from the criticism, hailing the initiative as proof of Turkey’s democratic health.
"The president’s view is that the fact that the issue is discussed freely in academic and public circles is proof of the presence of democratic discussion in Turkey," a statement from Gul’s office said on Thursday.
The number of signatories to the apology had surpassed 13,500 by its fourth day. But on Thursday the website hosting the petition went offline for three hours and returned without the option to sign the petition or the list of participating signatories.
The 73 pages that list the more than 13,500 signatories on ozurdiliyoruz.com had been deleted from the site and the option to sign the petition had been removed.
The website was back up by Friday afternoon along with the option to sign the petition and view the participating signatories.