Watch Clark University Professor Taner Akçam’s speech at the Armenian Genocide Centennial Commemoration Ceremonies in Times Square on April 26, 2015.
On this, a day laden with great urgency and historical meaning, I would like to thank you for allowing me to appear with you and to share your grief and sorrow.
Today does not merely mark the centennial of the annihilation of some 1.5 million Armenians; it also marks a century of denial of this crime. The Turkish government continues to deny not merely any responsibility for the horrors inflicted upon Armenian people, but even the fact that it happened at all. As a Turk, it is from this fact that my sorrow and great shame derive.
My sole consolation is that I do not grieve alone: the nation of Turkey consists of more than simply its denialist regime; there is another Turkey, and the citizens of that Turkey are ready to face their history. It is those Turks who feel obligated to erase the black stain left by those who committed these crimes. In more than 25 cities from Istanbul to Van, the people of this Turkey have not waited for denialist government to recognize the genocide. Instead, they have been blazing a new path; one that allows them to discover their past. I am not an official representative of this other Turkey, but I know I speak for many when I convey to you, the Armenian people, my sincere apologies for both past crimes and for this century of denial.
Here, as I stand before you today, I think I can promise in name of this other Turkey to do everything in our power to finally put an end to this denialism.
Our history is not merely a chronicle of murderers. It is also a history of brave and righteous people who risked their lives to save thousands of Armenians. And it is only through the recognition and honoring of these people that we can hope to build a better future. While we should indeed today condemn those crimes committed and the refusal to acknowledge them, we must also acknowledge our debt to those who refused to participate or actively opposed them. Such persons have taught us, through their example that human decency and courage can indeed survive in times of great evil.
Recognition of my country’s historic wrongs is not simply important for the sake of historical accuracy—instead it directly concerns the kind of society that we envision for our future. Dehumanization is the most important component of all mass atrocities. In order to be able to kill, perpetrators first dehumanize their victims. Recognition of the crime is necessary for restoring that humanity, for returning to the victims their dignity! Without this recognition subsequent generations cannot properly mourn and heal. Mourning and healing are necessary for closure, and can only come after the truth is acknowledged. If we fail to do so, we inadvertently lend legitimization to the perpetrators and their goals. After decades of denials, you Armenians need to heal and to be assured that the justice you seek will be attained. Any reconciliation between Turks and Armenians will have to be built on a foundation of acknowledged truth! Without truth, there cannot be peace. And I am here to assure you in name of this “other Turkey” that we are determined to continue the struggle until the truth shall finally prevail.
To achieve a Turkey that is democratic, secure society and respectful of human rights, it must begin with a confronting of the past, an acknowledging of past wrongs.
A hundred years ago, the Ottoman government had a flawed concept of national security. They viewed the Armenians and their demands for equality and social justice as a threat to the Ottoman state and society. They targeted the Armenians for extermination. Today in Turkey Turkish and Armenian children are taught, through textbooks published by the Education Ministry, that the Armenians continue today to pose a threat to national security. These textbooks are filled with hateful and racist remarks against Armenians and are steeped in distorted narratives about “treacherous Armenians.”
It is very troubling to see that the U.S. has still not officially recognized the Armenian genocide. The justification for their position remains the same: the crucial role of Turkey in the country’s geopolitical security strategy. To raise a moral argument regarding a century-old event, they argue, would needless anger their Turkish ally and jeopardize American security interests. It is ironic that the words, ‘national security,’ continue to haunt Armenian people even here in the United States.
But juxtaposing “national interest” and “morality” is just plain wrong. Any security policy in the Middle East that excludes morality cannot ultimately be a “realistic” policy because it ultimately undermines national security. History and historical injustices are not dead issues and have very real consequences in the Middle East, where the past has always been the present. There is a strong interconnection between security, democracy, and the accurate understanding of history, and perhaps nowhere more than in the Middle East.
Historical injustices and their continual denial of them by a state or dominant group poses an obstacle to both further democratization and also for stable relations between different ethnic and religious groups. Kurds, Arabs, Alewites, Armenians and other Christians in the region perceive each other and Turkey through this flawed prism of history. If we want a successful regional policy, we have to find a way to integrate acknowledgement of past wrongs into any national security policy.
Turkey’s ongoing policy of denialism both at home and abroad is not simply a moral abomination; it threatens to the country and the region’s democracy, stability and security.
Turkey continues its denialist policies because it has yet to face serious external pressure to do otherwise. This “other Turkey” of which I spoke is determined to face up to the darker history of our country’s past and put an end to the denialist policies. All that is lacking is external pressure from international community.
The United States has thus far continued to support the denialist regime in Turkey, but how can the United States, which prides itself on its exceptionalism in supporting liberal values and human rights at home and across the world, justify a position at odds with its own democratic values? America should not uphold human rights only when it is expedient. The test of American exceptionalism is the commitment to persevere in upholding these principles even when it may seem costly or inconvenient to do so.
By officially recognizing the Armenian genocide, the United States could lend its moral and political weight to encourage Turkey to come to terms with its history, to further embrace democratization, and to contribute to its own future stability and that of the region. The citizens of my Turkey, the “other Turkey,” and the Armenians throughout the world are waiting for the US to join us in acknowledging the truth.
Again, I thank you for allowing me to address to you here on this day of both sorrow and hope. Let us remember and honor the victims, and continue to fight together.