‘1915 and Beyond: Perceptions in Turkey’

Why bother penning an article on the Armenian issue when we have just passed April 24, the anniversary of the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915, without much fuss this year – something that usually means we can sleep easily on the issue until next year. But in the wake of heated debates over a new constitution, the issue of minority rights and their positions in Turkish society deserve attention.

Last week, Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM) released a report, “1915 and Beyond: Social Perceptions in Turkey,” which offers a thought-provoking snapshot of how Turkish society approaches the events of 1915, shedding light on their perceptions toward Armenians living in Turkey and Turkish-Armenian relations.

Aybars Görgülü, one of the coordinators of the project, says: “The purpose of this study was to reveal Turkish and Armenian perceptions toward the ‘Armenian question.’ In this respect, we conducted research on focus groups in eight cities. We also conducted in-depth interviews in Ankara and Istanbul. The results display deeply rooted biases among Turkish people toward Armenians and the events of 1915.”

Looking at the sincere and occasionally heartbreaking accounts of respondents, the prevalent view of Turkish people reflects the official ideology, but the overall inconsistency in their own narratives of 1915 hardly goes unnoticed.

As the study indicates, the majority of Turkish respondents believe that both sides suffered during the war and that it was the poor conditions that resulted in Armenian losses during their relocation from Anatolia.

While some blame Armenians and claim that they deserved to be killed for being traitors, others claim that Turks have never committed genocide in history, meaning that if they had been determined to do so, no Armenians would have remained left alive in Turkey.

With regard to Armenians’ status in Turkish society, the study reveals the perception gap between Turks and Armenians. Whereas Armenians feel insecure and discriminated against, Turkish respondents claim that Armenians enjoy equal rights and freedom – or even better conditions than Turks. But they openly oppose having an Armenian chief of General Staff, for instance, on the grounds that he wouldn’t be able to act objectively on behalf of Turkish national interests.

Interestingly enough, this lack of trust, which prevents intermarriage or complicates the upward social mobility of Armenians, disappears when it comes to commerce, as fairness and honesty are among the virtues of Armenian businessman stated by Turkish respondents.

Though the events of 1915 are no longer a taboo owing to the intellectual openings made in 2006 and 2008 by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), they remain a sensitive issue in Turkey.

The process which started with the AK Party’s first ever statement offering condolences to the descendants of slain Ottoman Armenians in 2014 was received positively. However, feeling empathy for 1915 has not produced further reconciliation with Armenians either at home or abroad.

The Turkish government denies that the killings amounted to genocide, claiming that thousands of people, including Turks, died as a result of war, and regards the issue as a matter of scholarly debate to be dealt by historians. Turkey’s suggestion in 2005 to form a joint historical commission with Armenia has yet to bear fruit.

Despite hopes of normalization in 2009, détente has been indexed to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to avoid alienating Baku. The current political conjuncture, particularly the recent flare-up in Karabakh, offers no hope for the resolution of the political deadlock between Armenia and Turkey as long as bilateral ties remain hostage to Azerbaijan.

The deep distrust caused by the events of 1915 has understandably led both sides to take a defensive position against the other. But as PODEM notes, there are many constructive steps that could be taken to rebuild trust among the communities, such as redesigning schoolbooks in a way to eliminate discriminatory narratives targeting Armenians or continuing to return confiscated property.

Creating consciousness has always been the first step in resolving conflicts. Perhaps the breakthrough for reconciliation is not to be found in seeking uncontested truth but in soul-searching instead.