On April 24-25, I gave a commemoration lecture in Istanbul and then spoke at a conference in Ankara on the Armenian Genocide and its consequences. Speaking to an audience of predominantly Turkish intellectuals and activists during both events, I emphasized the importance of the work they are doing—right in the heart of denial—to create awareness of the Armenian Genocide.
In our critique of the discourse of progressive intellectuals in Turkey, as we sit in the comfort of our offices and homes and community centers in the diaspora, we sometimes forget the circumstances in which they are saying what they are saying, and the kind of audience they are “trying to convert.”
Which is why it was important for me to go Turkey and speak there. This was not a one-time event to make a point, however. I will do it again and again. As I spoke in Istanbul and Ankara, I started by saying that even when I make my arguments in Turkey, I am nowhere near as vulnerable to the pressures and threats as they are. After all, I am a tourist—I say what I want and leave the country. I do not need to live every day with the consequences of my words.
These consequences do no make the issue of intellectual responsibility any less important, however. Intellectual responsibility is crucial when talking about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey not despite the pressures, but exactly because of them. Regardless of what tactics progressive intellectuals use to generate a healthy discussion in Turkey, care should be taken to not get carried away by the tactics (generally based on concessions) and forget the goal.
One such issue is the framing of 1915 as a matter of democracy and freedom of speech in Turkey today. This is, of course, a good way of engaging otherwise uninterested people in the struggle of memory against amnesia and denial in Turkey. But the Armenian Genocide is first and foremost an issue of justice. An entire nation was not uprooted, murdered, and dispossessed so that 100 years later, those events are used to bring democracy and freedom of speech to Turkey.
The argument I repeatedly made in Turkey on April 24-25 was: Yes, we should be invested in defending democracy and freedom of speech in Turkey. But not at the expense of justice.