December 25, 2011, Sunday

What dignity and self-respect require

Yes, the draft bill criminalizing the denial of recognized genocides adopted last week by the French National Assembly with only about 50 of 577 members present is in violation of freedom of speech.

Yes, as the principal competitor of President Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections to be held in May, François Hollande has stated that this bill may indeed be an “election operation” aimed at winning the votes of those Armenian citizens of France who are indignant over Turkey and of those who dislike the Turks. Yes, it is possible that Mr. Sarkozy, who opposes Turkey's accession to the EU because it is a Muslim-majority country or for other reasons may want to further alienate Ankara from Europe. He may even have thought of teaching a lesson to those members of the government in Ankara who with an overblown self-confidence approaching arrogance are giving sermons to the Europeans.

Yes, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is right. France, which recognized the Armenian “genocide” in 2001, is now (along with Switzerland and Slovenia) criminalizing its denial. This move may have the effect of fanning animosity in Europe against Turks and Turkey. On the other hand, it is possible that this draft bill will, as was the case in 2006, not be taken up in the Senate, or, as stated by its former chief, Robert Badinter, the French constitutional court may judge it in violation of free speech.

All of the above is possible, but hasn't Ankara grossly overreacted to Sarkozy's “operation” or provocation and behaved in a manner incompatible with dignity? I believe so. Governments are temporary, but peoples are eternal. France is an ally, and a major trade partner. Tens of thousands of Turkey's citizens are graduates of French schools, which have served the country for over a century. Hundreds of thousands of Turkey's citizens live and work in France; many thousands of them attend French schools. Mr. Sarkozy may well lose the coming election in May. What can Ankara expect to gain by escalating tensions with the French government? Have Ankara's reactions to “Armenian genocide” bills so far been able to avert the increasing number of parliaments adopting them? Would Ankara find other nations' governments intervening in decisions to be made by the Turkish Parliament reasonable and acceptable? Surely not.

The French government wants to criminalize denial of the “Armenian genocide.” Is it still not a crime in Turkey to recognize the “Armenian genocide”? Isn't Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) still in place? Don't other articles of the TCK and provisions of the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) grossly restrict freedom of expression and lead to the imprisonment of many of our citizens? Don't statements by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about France having committed genocides in Algeria and Rwanda imply that even Turkey may have committed similar crimes? Is it not necessary that those advisors to the prime minister who misled him to name Mr. Sarkozy's father as a witness of genocide in Algeria be immediately removed from office? And isn't it highly improper that Erdoğan refers in this context to the contemptuous letter sent by the 16th-century Ottoman ruler to the French king?

The crux of the matter is this: Whether the Ottoman government pursued a policy of annihilation of the Armenians during World War I is surely a controversial issue. But is there any controversy over the Ottoman government's decision to forcefully deport nearly the entire Armenian population to Syria in order to retaliate against Armenian insurgents seeking independence? Doesn't even the American genocide scholar acclaimed by Ankara, Guenther Lewy, while arguing that the forced deportations of Ottoman Armenians does not constitute genocide, still conclude that between 600,000 and 700,000, nearly half of all Armenians, died due to famine, epidemics and massacres by rogue elements? How can such a tragedy be forgotten?

Prime Minister Erdoğan has recognized and apologized for the massacres perpetrated against Alevi Kurdish citizens in 1937-1938. Doesn't an honorable approach oblige Ankara to apologize also for the tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians due to a decision by their government, primarily in order to reinstitute the historical friendship between Turks and Armenians, but also to avoid the issue being used to blackmail Turkey?

I entirely agree with retired Ambassador Volkan Vural, one of Turkey's most preeminent diplomats, who three years ago said the following: “What happened in history is unworthy of the Republic of Turkey. If I were in charge, I would also apologize. A state like ours has to do this. The state must tell the deported Armenians and to Greeks forced to flee the country due to events that took place on Sept. 6-7 [1955] ‘I am extending citizenship to you and to your descendants.' The Armenian problem can be resolved not by historians but by politicians. Historical facts are well known.”

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