Saturday, September 23, 2006

Turkey wrestles with its conscience

On Thursday Turkish prosecutors dropped charges against novelist Elif Safak (pictured), on the first day of her trial for denigrating the national identity in a case monitored by the EU as a benchmark for Turkey's human rights record. The infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code makes it an offence to “insult Turkishness”. The offence carries a three year penalty under Turkish law. Shafak was charged because she wrote a best-selling novel called “The Bastard of Istanbul” in which she described Turkey’s 1915 genocide of its Armenian population. In the book one of her characters is an ethnic Armenian says “Turkish butchers” massacred his ancestors.

The EU will include the case in a report on Turkey's progress toward membership that will be published on 8 November. Brussels has welcomed the ruling but an EU spokeswoman said the law used to prosecute Shafak still posed a significant threat to freedom of expression and those who express non-violent opinion. EU member Cyprus has also insisted Turkey recognises it as pre-condition for membership.

Elif Shafak is not the first Turkish novelist to break the taboo about discussing the Armenian genocide. Orhan Pamuk has also fallen foul of Article 301. His crime was one sentence in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger this month when he said 'Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and the nationalists hate me for that.”

The exact number is disputed, but there were somewhere between one and two million mostly Christian Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire at the start of World War One. The Ottomans were an ancient empire on its last legs. Turkey was the Sick Man of Europe. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 resulted in the liberation of many Christian areas of the Balkans from Turkish rule. The Treaty of Berlin that ended the war promised legal protection to the Christian Armenians. This led many Armenians to believe that they too could wrest self-control from the Ottoman government. Under the rule of Sultan Hamid (1876 to 1909) Turkey brutally suppressed minor Armenian revolts. In 1896 Armenian bank robbers raided the HQ of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul. In response the Turks massacred tens of thousands of Armenians.

As the First World War approached, the Young Turks seized power in a coup in 1913. Initially they won the support of the Armenians who saw them as a change for the better from the despotic sultanate. Turkey joined the war on the side of the Central Powers but was soundly defeated by the Russians in the 1914-15 battle of Sarikamis. Sarikamis is an Armenian region of the Caucasus. The Turkish leader Enver Pasha blamed the defeat on Armenian rebels attacking Turkish supply routes. He ordered all Armenian recruits in the Ottoman forces to be disarmed, and assigned to labour battalion units. Many were rounded up and executed and the remainder turned into manual slave labourers.

In May 1915, the increasingly hostile government issued new orders which called for the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands Armenians from Anatolia towards concentration camps in what is now Syria and Iraq. Many were tortured and murdered and many more died on the way to the camps. The government justified the deportations on the grounds of illusory armed rebellions in Van and other cities. During the war the British navy blockaded Turkey, including the Turkish Levant. No food was allowed in by sea. The resulting famine in Lebanon and Syria would not have become as deadly as it did had not the Turks commandeered available food supplies and refused to help the starving.

By 1917 fewer than 200,000 Armenians remained in Turkey. Armenians suffered a demographic disaster that shifted the centre of their demographic from the heartland of historical Armenia to the relatively safer eastern regions held by the Russians. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to the Caucasus with the retreating Russian armies, and the cities of Baku and Tbilisi filled with Armenians from Turkey. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres gave recognition of the Democratic Republic of Armenia but Turkey repudiated the treaty. Armenia and Turkey fought a war which the Turks won. Simultaneously the Red Army invaded Armenia from the north. Turkey and the newly fledged USSR signed the Treaty of Kars and Armenia became a Soviet federation in 1922.

Turkey emerged as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire under the strong secular leadership of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. It absolved the state from blame of the Armenian "problem" and launched a vigorous campaign of denial of genocide that lasts to this day. The political scientist R J Rummel has estimated that the Young Turks probably murdered at least 743,000 and perhaps as many as 3,204,000 people which included some 1,883,000 Armenians, Greeks, Nestorians, and other Christians. Rummel coined the term democide to describe mass murder by governments. Modern Turkey is still struggling to deal with its democide of the early twentieth century. Writers such as Safak and Pamuk are crucial in the difficult process of exorcising these demons. Repealing Article 301 would be an important next step.

No comments: