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|Turkish Perception of the Recent US Court Ruling
By Ayse Gunaysu, The Armenian Weekly, 27 August 2009
So, how can one expect my mother to know that Talat Pasha, a member of the PUC triumvira and one of the top organizers of the Armenian Genocide, had shocked Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Ambassador to Istanbul in 1915, with his audacity when he said: “I wish, that you would get the American life insurance companies to send us a complete list of their Armenian policy holders. They are practically all dead now and have left no heirs to collect the money. It of course all escheats to the state. The government is the beneficiary now. Will you do so?”
The Turkish audience, apart from that handful of people, that received the message about the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling against the Armenians’ right to seek justice, didn’t stop to think that this was something about one’s most basic rights.
But the reason is simple: National ideology blocks people’s minds. There is a special meaning attributed to the word “compensation” in Turkey. It is believed that recognition will be followed by demands of compensation, which will naturally lead to demands of territory. So, the reference to “compensation” (to be paid to “Armenians”) in these reports is directly connected in their minds to Armenians’ claim to territory.
This is all about denial. Denial is not an isolated phenomenon, not a policy independent of all other aspects. Denial is a system. An integrated whole. You don’t only deny what really happened; in order to deny what really happened, you have to deny even the existence of the people to whom it happened. In order to deny their existence, you have to wipe out the evidence of their existence from both the physical and intellectual environment. Physical refers to the 2,925 Armenian settlements with 1,996 schools and 2,538 churches and monasteries that are non-existent now. Intellectual corresponds to my mother’s perception of the U.S. Court of Appeal’s ruling as something good for Turkey.
I watched a film on TV tonight, Akira Kurosawa’s “Rhapsody in August,” a film about an old lady, a hibakusha (the Japanese word for the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II) and her four grandchildren. Watching the film, I saw people commemorating their dead ones with great respect, taking care of their monuments with endless love, raising their children in the same spirit, observing Buddhist rituals, praying for their losses. The details showing all these were elegantly and very impressively depicted. Watching a blind hibakusha gently cleaning the marble platform of the monument with great care, I thought of Armenians of my country, who are deprived of this very basic right to publicly honor the memory of their lost ones. This ban is woven into the very structure of Turkish society, because the founders of the new Turkish Republic and their successors built a nation and successfully put into practice an “engineering of the spirit” whereby the people are convinced, made to sincerely believe, that such commemorations are a direct insult to themselves.
The outcome of such engineering, this whole complicated system of denial, is very difficult to dismantle. The Turkish ruling elite will not recognize the genocide, not in the short-term, not in the mid-term. In the long-term, maybe. But how “long” a term this will be is something unknown. The dynamic that would step up the process is the recognition from below, i.e. recognition by the people—a very slow process, but much more promising than an official recognition in the foreseeable future. People in Turkey are one by one going through a very special kind of enlightenment—meeting with facts, learning more about the near history, getting into closer contact with Armenians here and elsewhere (for example, meeting and listening to Prof. Marc Nichanian speaking in the language of philosophy and literature, hearing his words about how meaningless an apology is when what happened to Armenians was “unforgivable,” about the meaning of the “usurpation of mourning” and the “impossibility of representation” of what Armenians experienced. More and more stories are appearing in the dailies and periodicals in Turkey of our grandmothers and grandfathers of Armenian origin who were stripped of their Armenian identities, at least in the public sphere. More and more books are being published about the genocide, enabling the readers to try and imagine what is unimaginable.
This will turn the wheels of a long process of recognition from below, a recognition in the hearts of people that will inevitably interact with the process of official recognition—a must for true justice—no matter how distant it may be for the time being.