Soli Ozel: Politicians, Stay Out of Our History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University's Department of International Relations and Political Science.]

The U.S. Congress has no moral authority to pass judgment on any other country’s history, particularly with its Iraqi invasion record in public view – nor does any other parliament or political body, for that matter. History cannot be legislated and politicians ought to stay away from trying to do so. It is not their duty.

This does not mean that historians can determine the outcome of what is essentially a political problem, either. To give something a label is a political act, which is precisely what complicates the matter. But the task of coming to terms with one’s history is the work and duty of that nation’s citizens. This was the position taken by the late Hrant Dink, the slain editor of an independent Armenian weekly, AGOS, who, on numerous occasions was treated by diaspora Armenians as a traitor or an “Uncle Tom,” or worse, because he wanted them to leave Turkey alone. Not because he did not believe what had happened in 1915 was genocide, but because he thought letting Turks come to terms with their history as their country’s democratization deepened was more valuable than scoring political points and cooling your heart with sweet revenge. (More on Dink later.)

(Eminent French historians have said as much in warning their politicians to leave history out of their legislation. In a country that happens to want to criminalize the denial of an Armenian genocide, the leadership wants its historians to judge the record of the war in Algeria.)

Foreign journalists and others these days often why the Turks care so much about a non-binding resolution about crimes committed 90 years ago by an Empire whose legacy they rejected when they founded their republic. In fact, most non-Armenian Turks had no idea Turkey had an “Armenian issue” until a terrorist organization called ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) started to kill Turkish diplomats in the 1970s. ASALA was protected by the French government until they made the fatal mistake of killing French citizens when they bombed France’s Orly Airport in 1983.

Because Turkey’s rulers had never bothered to include the Armenian issue in school textbooks, it was only under these traumatic circumstances that most Turkish citizens realized that they had to come to terms with a dark page of their history. This did not prove easy. There was no material in Turkish; ASALA’s bombing had raised emotions on all sides; and the official story was dominant. At best, that story claimed the incident was a case of mutual massacres. (The Turkish government has since proposed to form a commission of historians in conjunction with the Republic of Armenia, including independent historians, but the call was not answered – a fact that added to the suspicions of the Turkish public about the political nature of the matter.)...

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