By Khatchig Mouradian
On May 30, long-time humanrights activist in Turkey Prof. Baskin Oran receivedan email from the Turkish Revenge Brigade, a group responsible for the assassination of aprominent human rights activist in 1998. The email included a death threatand swear words aimed at Oran and theArmenians. The text was similar to theone Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink received before he was killed lastyear on January 19 in Istanbul.
Worried that this interview, con-ducted in May, could cause more problems for Oran in Turkey, I decided topostpone its publication and shelve thetranscript indefinitely. I sent it to Oran, however, with a note explaining myreluctance to publish it. These are my words, he said, and they will not change because of threats.
Baskin Oran is a regular contributorto Dink’s newspaper, Agos, and to Radikal in Turkey. Unlike Dink, he doesnot use the term “genocide” when refer-ring to the massacres of the Armenians during World War I. Yet, Oran is far frombeing a “genocide denier” and is an out spoken critic of the Turkish state’s denialof the suffering of the Armenians. He also believes that Armenian Genocide resolutions in countries like the U.S. make the job of Turkish democrats more difficult when it comes to educating the Turkish public about 1915.
Khatchig Mouradian: When talking about taboos in Turkish society, you oftenquote Sakalli Celal (Celal the Bearded), who said, “That much ignorance is only possible with education.” Talk about howeducation has promoted ignorance.
Baskin Oran: Any nation-state is cre-ated mainly by using two instruments:compulsory military service and national education. During this education, you are constantly taught this orthat and you come to believe in it because it’s very heavy indoctrination. Teaching something does not only mean teaching something, it also means not teaching something. And this is thecase in Turkey with the 1915 massacres. I heard about 1915 for the first timein the U.S., when I was 18, from a friend of mine called Bob Harabedjian. He wasa very funny guy. We were both in different cars, we stopped at the red light. We were high school students. He said, jok-ingly, “You dirty Turk, you killed my grandparents.” I said, “F*** off, bastard”and we continued our way. Of course I forgot the incident the very same day. This was in 1964. Afterwards, we came to hear about it in 1973, when the ASALA killings started. It was like being awakened at 4 o’clock in the morning not by a radio alarm clock, but by a bomb under the bed. We immediately said, “What the hell are they doing, these murderers?” This did not lead usto study what happened in 1915. On the contrary, we only felt a very strong reaction vis-á-vis the killing of totally innocent people, the diplomats.
Later, and especially after Turkey’scandidacy became official in 1999, we started reading publications by Taner Akcam and some members of the Armenian diaspora, and we came tolearn that a lot had happened in 1915–16.
But with the passing of time, the word “genocide” was so frequently pronounced that two parallel alleys developed among us: the first was learning about what happened in 1915 and the second was reacting to the word “genocide.” Because for the Armenian, “genocide” means one thing: 1915. But for the Turk, “genocide” means one thing also:1933–45. That simply means that Turk sfelt the Armenians were telling them,“Your grandfather was a Nazi.”
On the other hand, a wing of thediaspora was (and is) trying to obstruct Turkey’s candidacy to the EU. This was (and is) totally unacceptable for us Turkish democrats because this candidacy was (and is) the very occasion that had permitted us to learn things that were concealed from us until then. The laws called “EU Harmonization Packages” enacted between 2001–04 have been a benediction for democracy in Turkey, and they were made possiblet hanks to seeing a light at the other endof the tunnel. By this I mean member-ship in about 15 years.
To sum up, this is a very typical caseof dialectics: The diaspora has taughtus, the Turkish democrats, what our“grandfathers” have done, and by thesame token the diaspora has prevented (and is preventing) us passing it on toour people. People block their earswhen they here the “g-word.” I personally have no objection to the horrors of 1915 being called “crimes againsthumanity,” for instance. But this word isdefinitely counterproductive in Turkey.
The diaspora ended its terrorist tactics when the Orly bombing caused apprehension in the Western world andstarted the “Armenian bills.” Very cleverly so. But in this particular case, the diaspora was not able to change thatendless tape of “It was genocide” andreplace it with more sophisticated discourse, so it prevents us from teachingour people the facts.
Well, what about understanding the Armenian state of mind also, you would say. Don’t worry about it; we know how it is because we read about itand we learned about it from Armenians of Turkey like Hrant. We know whythis word is sacrosanct. It’s because theArmenians were not able to mourn their dead freely so this is the only wayto get satisfaction. They will never beable to get rid of a sentiment of revengeas long as the Turkish state continuesdenying the facts. I don’t know aboutthe other parts of the world but in the Middle East, mourning your deadopenly is the only way you can get itout of your system. This is a sheer fact.
But let us not forget what Hrant, themost important student of Turkish-Armenian relations, had said: “Both Turks and Armenians are sick; the former because of paranoia, the latter because of trauma.” The Muslims destroyed the Armenians (and civilization in Anatoliaas well) and now deny everything. This makes the Armenians sick. And the Armenians are right now playing an endless tape, and that makes the Turks sick.
K. M. Talk about the Armenian issuein the context of the wider problem of“silences” in Turkey.
B. O. The Turkish state and the Ottoman state have never looked for rational solutions to major problems: from 1915 on, the Armenian massacres; from 1924 on,the Islam issue; from 1925 on, the Kurdish issue; since the 1950’s, the Cyprusissue. We Turks have a habit of stuffing those dead bodies in the closet, as theFrench say, or sweeping them under thecarpet, as the Turks say. And of coursethere, they rotted and started to stink. Now, they are coming out of the closet allat once, mainly because we are trying toenter the EU and we have to face allthose issues one by one, without whichwe cannot claim that we are Europeans. But we are scared to death. At least three zombies are chasing us.
This is one of the things that the EU and the Armenian side should be ableto comprehend. In the Armenian mind, there is one issue only; but in the Turkish mind, there are several problematic issues that need to be resolved. And they are linked to each other. Once you decide to solve a problem, you have toopen your mind, and once you openyour mind, all things will enter.
This is, of course, our fault. We neversolved anything. But if Armenians, EU people, etc. don’t comprehend this, all sides will continue to suffer for a longtime and for nothing. Now, if the hawk-ish wing of the diaspora prefers tolengthen the suffering for reasons of itsown, which is understandable, it’s anoption of course. But I doubt it’s thegood one.
K. M. Talk about Turkey’s relationswith Armenia. On several occasions,you have talked about a missed opportunity in 2000.
B. O. At the end of 2000, the Ministryof Foreign Affairs, the most rationalstate structure in Turkey because it’sthe most Westernized, proposed a planto start to solve the Armenian problemin three initial stages: 1) The bordertrade with Armenia would be encouraged. Harbor facilities (Trabzon, prob-ably) and other economic benefits would be provided to alleviate Armenia’s economic hardship in order todiminish the influence of hardliners; 2)A process would be set in motion todiscuss the Armenian massacres withinan academic framework; 3) The problems of the Armenian minority inTurkey would be addressed.
Behind this was the thought of normalizing life in Armenia and thereforegetting Armenians ready to have normal relations with Turkey. And this waythe pressure on Turkey would ease.
Nationalism is the ideology of bad times. If you are enduring hardship, you become a nationalist. It’s like ananalgesic. Therefore, now both sides feel pressured, and if they have bettereconomic relations both will be betteroff. People are leaving Kars just as theyare leaving Armenia. So why not openthe border, enabling Armenia to getcheaper goods and Kars producers tomake money. This is a win-win situation. But Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit killed the proposal, saying, “Let us firstask Azerbaijan.” Of course, you canguess what Azerbaijan answered, and the proposal was killed. Now that Azerbaijani oil is flowing to Mersin it’s evenmore difficult economically.
I personally am of the opinion that any solution will start by a normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. But there are obstacles to it. I’ll just name them but will not dwellon them: 1) public opinion in Turkey; 2)Azerbaijan; 3) the Armenian diaspora.
If anyone is expecting Turkey toabide by the wishes of the Armenians ata clack of their fingers, this will not happen. It must go in stages.
I gain nothing from being an advocate of human and minority rights inTurkey. All I get is trouble…Now, I am having security cameras and barbedwire installed to my home. But if I don’t speak and write as I do now, how can I sleep? How can I look in the mirror? How can I face my wife?
K. M. Talk about the road leading to 1915.
B. O. Turks should learn about what happened in 1915 and accept the facts.On the other hand, as 1915 did not start in 1915, Armenians should learn moreabout the period from the 1850’s on.
In the mid-1850’s, the Muslim Circassians were driven out of Christian Russia upon the defeat of Sheikh Shamil. In a miserable way they took refuge in the Ottoman Empire. The easiest way for them to feed themselves was to pillage people who had something and whowere not protected, and these were the Armenians of eastern Anatolia, who also happened to be Christian.
Almost at the same era, the Kurds started doing the same. The Kurdish tribal leaders had revolted (1806–43) against the centralizing policies of the Tanzimat and were beaten at the end. The last and most powerful of them, Bedirhan Bey, was exiled to Crete. Then, the Kurds lost their tribal hierarchy and, as a consequence, started tocut the hen that laid golden eggsinstead of continuing to do what they have been doing for centuries: collectthe golden eggs once a year, meaning collect the yearly “protection money” from the Armenians who were much wealthier and much weaker than the Muslims for a variety of reasons.
Under the pressure of the emigrated Circassians and the Kurds, the Armeni-ans made their grievances known to Istanbul—to the Armenian Patriarchateand the Amira (the Armenian bourgeoisie and nobles who were in verygood terms with the administration), and to the sultan. Neither of them cared. The Patriarchate would care only after Khrimian, from Sivaz, became Patriarch (and this is why the Armenian questionis also the product of a class struggle). The sultan would have cared, but he wasin an even worse situation than the Patriarch. He could not possibly give the Kurds, fellow Muslims, the impression that he was protecting the non-Muslims against the Muslims, especially because the Muslims of the empire were already very hysterical about the egalitarian dis-course of Tanzimat. Also, the Western powers had happily started using thegrievances of the eastern Anatolian Armenians to interfere with the domestic affairs of the empire: The famous “Eastern Question” became nothing butthe “Armenian Question.”
In this mess, the Armenian petty bourgeois youth, already imbued withnationalist and also narodnik/anarchist ideology in places like Saint Petersburg, Paris, Geneva, etc., found that the only way of surviving was to set up revolutionary bands and parties, and attack Muslim villages. This further provoked both the Muslims of eastern Anatolia and the sultan. Whether or not theyintended to, the Armenian revolutionaries perfectly reminded the administration in Istanbul of the “Bulgarian Model,” i.e., the tactics of setting uparmed clashes to attract the attention of the Great Powers, and to obtain autonomy first and independence later.
Therefore, just as there is more thanone zombie for Turkey now, there was more than one specter for the Ottoman Empire: the Russians in the East (called Moskof, despised and feared); and the Western powers (each one of whichwanted to get the lion’s share from anempire destined to dismember one dayor the other). Not counting the economic problems, of course.
Under these circumstances, Abdulhamid, a master of balance, thought he could find a solution by founding in 1890 the Hamidiye Regiments to kill four birds with one stone: to suppress Armenian upheavals; render happy Muslims alienated by Tanzimat; breed rivalry between the Kurds (only Sunniand selected tribes were admitted); and also deprive the Great Powers of any excuses for intervention.
Then the real plight of the Armenians started in eastern Anatolia. Until then, the massacres were sporadic and local in nature, and also mutual, although asymmetrical. When the regiments were started, the killing was institutionalized.
The state kills when there’s an armedrising. But the Ottoman state was harsherwhen it came to the non-Muslims—especially if they were conceived as being an“instrument” of the outside Christian powers. I must remind you that the latterused the “Eastern Question” and then forgot all about the Armenians in the Treaty of Lausanne.
Everything was made even worse when the CUP entered the scene, addingits Turkist and even Touranist ideology tothese fears. Several things were workingtogether to annihilate the Armenians, starting with the panic prevalent in theminds of the CUP officials. As the resultof the Balkan War of 1912 especially, theempire had shrunk to a mere Anatoliaand “now the Armenians are selling it tothe Russians,” though the CUP officials.
To sum up: 1915 was a disgrace tohumanity. But it did not start in 1915.The period 1839–1915 must be studiedas a whole. The Turks are avoiding 1915, and the Armenians are avoiding the period leading to it. Nothing should beavoided.
K. M. For decades, you have been atthe forefront of the struggle for human rights and democracy in Turkey, against all odds. What kept and keeps you going?
B. O. My conscience, of course. Well, also my expertise on nationalism andmin orities.
But this does not mean that I was born like that from my mother. On the contrary, I was very much under the influence of Turkish nationalism (SakalliCelal!) well until the 80’s, although I became a leftist while studying at Mulkiye (Faculty of Political Science). In 1982, I think, I first started working onthe Turks of W. Thrace, Greece. Thisminority enjoyed protection under Article 45 of the Lausanne Treaty, which saidthat the rights given to non-Muslims in Turkey (Articles 37 to 43) would alsoapply to Muslims in Greece. Would youbelieve that at that time I was not awareof the situation of non-Muslims in Turkey? That’s how I came to learn slowlyabout the non-Muslims and the Kurds.
Now, for me and my democrat friendsthe circle of the “oppressed andexcluded” is even larger. We were able toput this into action during our “Common Independent Left Candidate” campaignat the parliamentary elections of July 2007. There we said at least three things unheard of before. We said, “When the left became known in Turkey in the beginning of the 60’s, it spoke only for the proletariat, the working class. In the 70’s,we hesitantly added a second oppressedand excluded element (despite our-selves, because we were staunch Kemalists): the Kurds. But after the 80’s, new categories of oppressed and excluded peoples came into being, or came to ourattention: the Alevis, the non-Muslims, the Roma, the homosexuals…Now, tobe able to say that we are leftist, we haveto be the spokes people for all these oppressed and excluded categories.”
We also said the following, which, tomy mind, was even more original: “Sofar, all these excluded and oppressed people defended their kind only. Now they have to defend not them selves but each other. This is the only way they cansave themselves from being excludedand oppressed: The socialist will defendthe Kurd, the Kurd the Armenian, theArmenian the homosexual, the homosexual the Alevi, the Alevi the Roma, etc.”I must remind you that this approach was very much in line with Hrant’s approach.
The third thing we said during the campaign (and it brings me to mypoint): “We also call upon people who are not oppressed and excluded, but who have a conscience.” That’s where the conscience comes in.
I am a white Turk. A Turk does not mean an ethnic Turk in Turkey. It meansa Muslim Turk (because the Millet system, which was legally abolished in 1839, is still prevalent in the minds of all Muslims). A Turkish WASP needs evenmore qualifications to be a maqbul Turk, that is to say a Turk that is welltrusted and liked by the establishment. This Turk has to be Hanefi (and not Shafi—most Kurds are Shafi); has to be Sunni (against Alevis); Muslim (againstnon-Muslim); and Turk (against thosewho do not say they are Turks). On topof all these qualifications, you also haveto be a secularist.
I am a white Turk, but with a conscience. All those who have a clean conscience should act like this. I gainnothing from being an advocate ofhuman and minority rights in Turkey. All I get is trouble. I was kicked out ofthe civil service four times during twomilitary coups. The first time was in 1971, and I came back in a year or so on court order. At the end of 1982, I was kicked out three times and each time I came back with a court order. Now, I am having security cameras and barbed wire installed to my home. But if I don’tspeak and write as I do now, how can Isleep? How can I look in the mirror? How can I face my wife? It’s as simple asthat, [while] defending Armenian rights in the U.S. or France is a piece of cake!
K. M. You mentioned the court. How do you feel about the courts in Turkey today?’
B. O. It’s all upside-down now. Peopleshow their real face or stance in times of hardship and fear. The judiciary in Turkey feels threatened. That was not the case during the coup in 1971. And once the effect of the 1980 coup passed,they were instrumental in bringing people like me back to their work—applyingthe laws, nothing else. Now they feel threatened by all the zombies. In Turkish we have a saying, “If the salt stinks,then there’s nothing to do.” Now the judiciary is the salt. When people like me were kicked out of their jobs, the judiciary was the last resort. Now the judiciary applies to me Articles 216 and 301/2 because I wrote a report entitled “Minority and Cultural Rights,” a report required by Article 5 of the by laws of the Consultative Council on Human Right sattached to the prime ministry. We just took our job seriously.
What I’ll say is that accusation under Article 301/2 (denigrating the judiciary) is funny (I wrote very extensively aboutit all in the Regent Journal of International Law), but 216 is unbelievable. This article was promulgated amongthe EU Harmonization Packages in order to stop hate speech against the disadvantaged…and they applied it tome (“dissemination of hatred andgrudge among people”).
Maybe you have noticed that thereis a great resemblance between the conditions in 1914 and 2008 in Turkey from the point of view of perceived fear. The subjects of the fear are ofcourse very different, but the strong perception is the same: Zombies willeat us. Zombies of “Islamism,” “Kurdism,” and “genocide” nowadays.
In a way, all this fuss is to trying tosubstitute for the fear caused by com-munism, which unfortunately is no longer there. But this is not “because of education” only (Sakalli Celal again). People on the street also strongly feel very insecure as a result of the deep economic, social, and political changein the country.
Turkey is undergoing the second modernizing revolution of its history. The first one, under the name of Kemalism, had happened in the 1920’s. It permitted a transition from a semifeudal empire to a modern nationstate, from community to nation, from the subject of the sultan to the citizenof the republic. Now Turkey is in the difficult process of completing thismetamorphosis: Making a pass fromthe monist nation-state, assimilator,and/or discriminator by definition, to ademocratic state; from an ethnicallyand religiously-defined nation to theconcept of citizenship defined by freechoice of the individual; from the citi-zen who was “compulsory” because thestate denied his infra-identity, to a citi-zen whose infra identity is recognizedand respected by the state. This is hap-pening thanks to the hope related tothe Turkish candidacy to the EU.
The most interesting thing in all ofthis is the radical change of the position of the actors: The revolution from above of Kemalists had met a religious reaction from Islam in the 20’s. Now the second revolution meets the nationalist reaction of the Kemalists under the name of Sevres Paranoia. This paranoia, I already spoke about it, is mainly characterized by Islamic, Kurdish,g enocide discourse. The CHP (People’s Republic Party) and the Turkish army are the spokes persons behind it.
Therefore, the second revolution ismore difficult than the first onebecause the Kemalists, victors of a liberation war, had no organized opponents against them in an autocratic setting. But today the sons of the then revolutionary Kemalists are trying hard to keep all things like they were in 1930.
But thanks to the emerging civil society that did not exist before, the second revolution has a lot of chances.Against some odds, of course: Some unbelievable mistakes of the Islamists,terror of the PKK, and the endless tape of a wing of the diaspora.