Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Apology to Armenians" debated in Turkey

First published at

Turkish “apology to Armenians” aims to improve relations
Effort launched by intellectuals, denounced by political leaders
by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Thursday December 18, 2008

More than 100,000 Turks turned out at the funeral of Hrant Dink in Istanbul, Jan. 22, 2007. Photo by Ara Sarafian

Washington, - "My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them."

This is the English-language translation of a statement initiated by about 200 Turkish intellectuals at a web site called, "We Apologize" (, on December 15. More than 13,000 Turks had signed on to the statement within the first few days of its launch. (UPDATE: the number surpassed 27,000 by January 12.)

The Armenian Reporter asked some of the U.S.-based signers, most of them university students from Turkey, about the meaning of the statement and what they hoped it might accomplish.

"I strongly believe that Turkish and Armenian people should start understanding each other," Sanem Soyarslan, 32, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Duke University, wrote in an e-mail. And this "cannot start unless Turkish people ‘recognize' the pain and suffering of Armenian people."

"For me, it is a matter of personal conscience," Ms. Soyarslan explained. "I am sorry for the terrible things that Armenian people suffered in 1915. And I want to express that."

"I believe that Turks and Armenians can be good friends by developing mutual understanding towards each other, I mean each others' pains and sorrows," agreed another signer, Kivanc Ozcan, 25.

A graduate student at George Washington University's Middle East studies program, Mr. Ozcan added, "This petition shows that there are different opinions in Turkey towards the Armenian issue. This petition marks the rejection of state stance towards the issue."

The signatories were asked to provide their full name, occupation, and location. Most of the signers identified themselves as students or professionals - educators, journalists, lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, economists and business people who use the Internet on a daily or even hourly basis. But signers also include workers, farmers, taxi drivers, and at least one New Jersey gas station attendant.

The vast majority of the signers were in Istanbul and other large cities of Turkey. Turks living in Germany and other European countries also make up a substantial portion.

Some of the more prominent figures among the signers include journalists Ali Bayramoglu, Oral Çalislar, Ece Temelkuran, Mine G. Kirikkanat, and Cengiz Candar, writers Perihan Magden and Tuna Kiremitci, academics Murat Belge and Baskin Oran, singer Yavuz Bingöl, and leader of Germany's influential Greens Party Cem Ozdemir.

Symbolically, among the signers is journalist Hasan Cemal, a grandson of Jemal Pasha, one of the Ottoman leaders in the years of the Genocide, who was subsequently assassinated by Armenians.

Denouncements and criticisms

The statement has been criticized both by Turkish nationalists and by those saying it does not go far enough in recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

President Abdullah Gül refrained from criticizing the statement, calling it an example of "democratic discussion." But more influential Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan called the statement "irrational" and "wrong," and said that he "personally does not accept, support or participate in this campaign."

"I have not committed a crime. Why should I apologize?" Mr. Erdogan wondered when asked about the statement on December 17, EuroNews TV reported.

A group of 60 retired Turkish diplomats, some of them now parliament members from the nationalist opposition Republican People's Party, issued a statement calling the statement "unfair, wrong and unfavorable to national interests," according to The Associated Press.

Leaders of the National Action Party, a quasi-fascist opposition group represented in parliament, called the initiative an "insult to the Turkish nation."

At the same time, civil rights activist Aytekin Yildiz told Zaman newspaper on December 5 that while the statement was "a good starting point, but not enough."

"Firstly, what do they mean by ["Great Catastrophe"]? Let's name it, it is genocide. Secondly, the state has to apologize," said Mr. Yildiz.

The term "Great Catastrophe" is a translation of the Armenian language name for the Armenian Genocide, "Metz Yeghern."

Previously, President George W. Bush and the late Pope John Paul II, in apparent efforts not to stir the aggravation of the Turkish government by using the term genocide, referred to "Metz Yeghern" either in Armenian or English translation in their statements.

Armenian reaction

Most commentators in Armenia and the diaspora praised the statement.

"Such statements were inconceivable several years ago," Alexander Iskandarian of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute told The very fact of this statement shows the newly acquired level of independence that Turkish society has from its government, he noted.

Ruben Safrastian, who heads the Middle East studies department at the National Academy of Sciences, told, "the campaign reflected the Turkish public's desire to confess, clear, and dissociate itself from the sad heritage of the Ottoman Empire.

"Although it will be a hard process," Mr. Safrastian said, "Turkey needs acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide to move forward."

"This statement serves the useful purpose of educating the Turkish public that has been kept in the dark so long about the Armenian Genocide," California Courier publisher Harut Sassounian wrote in his syndicated column.

"Rather than an Armenian-Turkish historical commission [proposed by Mr. Erdogan], what is needed is a purely Turkish commission that would provide a forum for Turks to discuss and discover the mass crimes of their forefathers," Mr. Sassounian stressed.

In another unprecedented move on December 9, a group of 300 Armenian intellectuals had written to President Gül, urging him to recognize and condemn the Armenian Genocide.

Turkish debate

The statement came after and was prompted in part by comments made on November 10 by a senior member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül.

Speaking on the anniversary of the death of Turkish republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, Mr. Gönül referred approvingly to the genocidal treatment of the indigenous Armenian and Greek populations in Turkey's present-day territory.

"If there were Greeks in the Aegean and Armenians in most places in Turkey today, would it be the same nation-state? I don't know what words I can use to explain the importance of the population exchange, but if you look at the former state of affairs, its importance will become very clear," Mr. Gönül was quoted as saying by the Zaman newspaper.

With the international campaign to affirm the Armenian Genocide gaining traction around the world, the issue has increasingly emerged as a subject of public discourse in Turkey.

The January 2007 assassination of Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink brought more than 100,000 mourners into Istanbul streets under slogans "We are all Hrant!" and "We are all Armenians!"

"The day Hrant was killed was a very dark day for me and for many people in Turkey," recalled Ms. Soyarslan, one of the statement signers. "That darkness is in such stark contrast to the light that Hrant was willing to bring in." f

The statement has in a way become a tribute to "that beautiful man who devoted his life to [building] the foundation of a dialogue and understanding between the two peoples," she added. "This petition shows that we believe in the bright days that Hrant believed in."

[Lou Ann Matossian contributed to this article from Minneapolis.]

Published in December 27, 2008 Armenian Reporter:

Turkish lawmakers argue over “apology” to Armenians
President Gül attacked for not condemning the petition
by Emil Sanamyan

Calouste Gulbenkian and Abdullah Gul - could they be related?

– The petition apologizing to Armenians continued to gather support and generate more official criticism as debates shifted to the Turkish parliament, Turkish media reported.

The Turkish military described the public petition launched by Turkish intellectuals on December 15 as “wrong and [one that] will create harmful consequences,” according
to a Hurriyet translation of the December 19 statement.

Employing the language typically used against international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said the petition was “of no use to anyone especially at a time talks continue and it may harm the negotiation process” with Armenia.

Last week, Turkey’s political leaders offered different reactions to the petition. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized it, President Abdullah Gül suggested the petition was a sign of democratic progress in Turkey.

As of December 24, nearly 23,000 Turks signed the “I apologize” petition. Late last week the petition site was offline for several days after an apparent hacking.

A rival petition titled “I do not apologize” claimed to have gathered a similar number of signatures. Unlike the original petition, which had a large number of signers from Europe and some from the U.S. and Canada, none of the counter-petition signers were from outside Turkey.

A matter of education

Turkish MPs argue during December 21 session

On December 21, parliament members from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) joined the apology to Armenians and called on others to apologize.

According to reports in major Turkish newspapers, DTP’s Osman Özçelik from southeastern Siirt province referred to the Armenian Genocide during a discussion of the education budget and likened targeting of Ottoman Armenians to anti-Kurdish campaigns of today.

Mr. Özçelik said that while many Kurds participated in the Genocide his grandfather’s family living in the Mardin area provided refuge to Armenians.

The comments were blasted as “insulting” by the parliament’s presiding deputy speaker Nevzat Pakdil, as well as members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the nationalist opposition.

DTP member Sırrı Sakık from Moush in turn suggested that Mr. Pakdil, representing the previously Armenian-populated Marash area, should be familiar with the “tragedy” that unfolded in the area.

Two other DTP members, Hasip Kaplan from Shirnak and İbrahim Binici from Urfa also spoke out.

DTP is a successor of the previously banned Kurdish parties and is under permanent threat of being banned itself with leaders facing potential imprisonment.

A matter of genetics

In a reflection of pervasive attitudes toward ethnicity, President Gül filed a lawsuit against an opposition politician who alleged he was of Armenian descent, Zaman newspaper reported.

Turkish MP Canan Aritman

A parliament member from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Canan Arıtman, claimed on December 17 that Mr. Gül was not sufficiently nationalist “because of his ethnic origins.”

Ms. Aritman suggested the president’s mother’s family was of Armenian origin and his father’s family of Arabic descent, and called for the president to undergo a DNA test that she apparently believes could prove that.

The president’s lawyers argued the allegation was “based on racism and discrimination, is a heavy assault on the client’s personal and family values, honor, and reputation” and demanded Ms. Arıtman be given a symbolic fine “to identify the injustice.”

At the same time, Mr. Gül claimed in a December 20 statement to “respect the ethnic background, different beliefs, and family ties of all my citizens and see this [diversity] as a reality and also the wealth of our country with its imperial history.”

Mr. Gül insists that both his father’s and mother’s Satoğlu family from Kayseri are Muslim and Turkish.

A city with an ancient history, Kayseri (Kaisareia in Greek and Gesaria in Western Armenian) used to have a large Armenian population before the Genocide.

Ms. Aritman herself represents a constituency in previously Greekpopulated Izmir (Smyrna), Turkey’s third-largest city.

International reaction

Outside of Turkey and Armenia, there has been limited foreign media interest in the debates generated by the petition.

In Azerbaijan, reporting focused on allegations about President Gül’s mother, a familiar subject in the country where political opponents often charge one another with having ethnic Armenian family.

The most popular Azerbaijani new portal,, carried a denial that Mr. Gül was related to Calouste Gulbenkian, a prominent 20th century businessperson of Armenian descent born in Istanbul.

The same source reported over the weekend that German-born and New York–based Turkish pop star Tarkan Tevetoglu signed on to the petition. That led to Azerbaijani sponsors’ threats to cancel his upcoming concert in Baku. The singer issued a denial on December 22 via Azeri Press Agency.

In Europe, on December 22, France24 television carried a report from Istanbul in which Turks spoke in support and opposition of the petition. BBC, EuroNews, the Guardian, the Independent and the Irish Times also carried reports.

And in Canada, the Ottawa Citizen editorial on December 22 praised the petition as a “remarkably brave act” in light of recent murder of Hrant Dink and prosecution of Orhan Pamuk over their comments on Armenian issues.

UPDATE: By early January, President Gul joined the official criticism of the petition as "unhelpful" and there were reports petition organizers were under investigation by state prosecutors on charges of "insulting the Turkish nation" than both Mr. Pamuk and Mr. Dink previously faced.

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