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No ‘Armenian’ Side or ‘Turkish’ Side to History: Turkish Scholar on Armenian Genocide and Hrant Dink

On Wednesday I attempted to summarize the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) judgment in the case of Taner Akçam v. Turkey, in which the court found that Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which concerns the denigration of Turkishness, violates freedom of expression, writes Today’s Zaman columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz.

I believe this was a landmark decision and will force Turkey to eliminate this law in the future. I asked Akçam (pictured) what he thinks about the decision and about Article 301, whether he feels more comfortable after receiving this judgment in the case, and whether this decision will help Turkey confront its past. Akçam sent me some thought-provoking responses to my questions and remarks on the importance of confronting the past in general. I would like to share Professor Akçam’s comments with you:

“This ruling will in fact work in Turkey’s favor. The decision helps the country take a step forward on a matter which is a problem everyone’s been aware of for years now. There’s this law out there but the executive branch obstructs its implementation and enforcement. In other words, they [the government] are behaving as though the very law they created doesn’t exist. Could this situation get any more ridiculous?

“We [Turkey] act like this with every single issue. We know there’s a problem but instead of really resolving it, we act ‘as if’ we are solving it. We wait for a ruling from the ECtHR even with respect to a simple and ordinary application on freedom of speech and the rule of law. Was that really necessary? For this reason alone, I cannot take any joy in this decision.

“But let me draw your attention to a much more important aspect of this issue: The ruling is historically important because the court points out the close relationship between discourse on history and democracy. Very simply said, in 1915, around 1 million Ottoman Armenian citizens were annihilated. I know that just saying these words outrages many people, and actually it’s this anger that has fuelled the government’s equating historical discourse with ‘crime’ under Article 301. Even our newspapers prefer to refer to ‘the historian who defends the Armenian side’s arguments’ rather than ‘the historian whose freedom of speech has been impeded’ when covering news on this case. What we need to realize is this: If you cannot speak freely on history, you cannot call your country a democracy and you cannot create a society and a future that respect human rights. There is no ‘Armenian’ side or ‘Turkish’ side to history. To discuss what really happened in history is to speak freely and openly about it, without legends or myths. Today, no one refers to a ‘German version’ or a ‘Jewish version’ when they’re discussing the Holocaust.

“Turkey has made huge progress in democratization by way of the Balyoz and Ergenekon investigations in recent years. It has acted to reduce the influence of the military’s guardianship regime. But democracy won’t be achieved solely by taking the military out of politics. Everybody needs to focus on this connection: Those who organized hatred against Armenians and Christians in Turkey, those who staged smear campaigns against Hrant Dink and myself, and those who ran the campaigns against the ‘genocide lies’ by defending the murderers of 1915 are basically members of the Ergenekon circle. Article 301 is essentially a law propounded by the Ergenekon circle. Now the pro-Ergenekon figures are locked up in prison, but their law, Article 301, is still in effect. Let us not forget that it was the pro-Ergenekon figures who criminalized speaking about history and equated it to treason and insulting Turkishness. They were the ones behind all the cases filed against Hrant and it was because of them that I initiated the application process to the ECtHR. If we do not want Turkey to fall under the influence of the military guardianship once again, if we do not want to revive Ergenekon, we have to learn how to speak about what happened in 1915 and admit that a grave injustice was done in the past. The ECtHR reminded us of this fact with its ruling.

“Now we, as a nation in the midst of creating a new constitution, need to rid ourselves of those bits of law which are the final remnants of Ergenekon. There is a direct link between denying what happened in 1915, accusing those who want to talk about it of being ‘pro-Armenian’ and ‘traitors,’ and being pro-Ergenekon. I know it is hard for many of us to accept this, but this is the crux of the matter. We are either on the side of Article 301 and those who accuse others of being traitorous when they discuss history freely, or we are people of free conscience who are part of a free Turkey that speaks freely about its own history and views the future with confidence, while condemning the murders of the past. We have no third option.

“I consider myself a part of Turkish civil society and will continue together with it to do whatever I can to make sure that Article 301 is removed from the TCK. That article was the murderer of Hrant Dink. This murderous provision must be removed immediately. Turkey is better than that. I am dedicating the court’s ruling to Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek. In the past, he has expressed support for this murderous provision. Now it is up to him to clear up the mess. This is his duty to Hrant Dink and all victims.”