Who remembers the Armenian genocide? This April 24, almost everyone with Armenian heritage will. The date marks the hundredth anniversary of the deportation and massacre of more than one million Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government. But most other people would probably have trouble finding Armenia on a map. If they think about the genocide at all, they might wonder why something that happened a century ago remains so controversial, or why the Armenians won’t forget about it and move on. But an atrocity can only be forgotten once it has been acknowledged. Turkey must recognize what it has denied for so long.
But do other countries have the right to call on Turkey to recognize its crime? When Pope Francis called the 1915 mass killings “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” Volkan Bozkır, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, objected that Francis’ native Argentina profited from the Holocaust and provided refuge to many Nazi war criminals. Bozkır did not mention it, but the European settlement of Argentina also displaced and killed thousands of indigenous people.
After the European Parliament urged Turkey to acknowledge the genocide, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu complained that the controversy is “a new reflection of the racism in Europe.” Would Europe be so insistent if the Armenians had been “savage” or “primitive” natives instead of white Christians? The record of western hypocrisy gives credence to this objection. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a resolution acknowledging crimes against the Native American tribes, including massacres, stolen land and the forcible removal of children from their families. But the resolution omitted the word “genocide” and explicitly preempts the legal charge of genocide by making clear that it “serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” (When it signed the UN genocide convention, the U.S. protected itself against genocide charges by retaining the supremacy of American law over the international treaty.)
Today, it is common to read that Turkey is, as the New York Times' Tim Arango wrote, “defined by its divisions, between the secular and the religious, rich and poor, liberal and conservative” yet united in its refusal to recognize its genocidal past. But is the United States, which is defined by many of the same, any less consistent in its refusal to come to terms with the past? Some might say that what happened to the Native Americans is regrettable, but the word genocide is hardly ever used.
For many Turkish people, genocide denial by Western countries justifies their own denial of the Armenian genocide. Every time the sins of the dead white Christians are swept under the rug, it becomes easier for Turkey to dismiss criticism as a mask for European imperialism.
When the charge of genocide is thrown around for political expediency, is it any wonder that so many are reluctant to face the question directly? According to a Turkish poll cited in the New York Times, 91 percent of Turks are unwilling to call what happened to the Armenians a genocide. But Etyen Mahcupyan, a Turkish government advisor with Armenian heritage, says that “many people use the word 'genocide' here” and that the government no longer prosecutes charges of “insulting Turkishness.” The problem from Turkey’s point of view is not the issue of genocide but the feeling that the country is being unfairly singled out.
But Western hypocrisy does not erase the reality of Turkish wrongdoing, nor does it make it any less important to finally acknowledge the real crimes against the Armenians. The campaign to gain recognition of this atrocity has a meaning that goes beyond one country.
This is also why we remember April 24, 1915.