Below is the full text of a speech delivered by Armenian Weekly columnist Ayse Gunaysu during a panel discussion at the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, on Nov. 10. For more about the event, click here.
I thank the Grotowski Institute for inviting me, and for their generous hospitality. And I thank you, dear audience, for taking the time and coming to listen to us. I feel privileged to be here with you.
I’m a Muslim Turk by birth. In other words, a descendant of the perpetrators of the Genocide of Ottoman Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. I’m not a historian, nor a scholar, or a writer. Just a human rights activist. So I can only share with you my feelings and my views about post-genocidal Turkey.
Now, I ask you to imagine that I am a German woman, coming from Germany.
But imagine that Germany was not defeated in the World War II; that, on the contrary, it was victorious and, therefore, not caught red-handed in the crimes it committed: The world never had the chance to see the film footage of the gas chambers and the heaps of dead bodies. And imagine that Germany used all of the technology and industrial power it had to cover up and deny the Holocaust. Imagine that the Holocaust/Shoah is denied in Germany officially, publicly, socially, and culturally, in every sense.
Of course, denial is not only saying, “No, that did not happen”; imagine that the whole state apparatus and the social life are organized around this denial. Text books, the mainstream media, academia, civil society, the internet–all say the same thing, trying to justify the extermination of the Jews and others. They say it was not without reason. That it was inevitable. That it was for the survival of their nation. Moreover, that it was not they who butchered the Jews, that the Jews butchered us.
Imagine that museums, encyclopedias, and exhibitions in Germany all told these lies. And, what’s much more terrible, that almost all of the German people believed the government wholeheartedly, never doubting what they were told.
Imagine that the remaining Jews are targeted by German racists, and hate speech against Jews is a normal occurrence in Germany.
With such a Germany, and such a denial of the Holocaust, would Europe be the same? Would Poland be the same? Would there be a Grotowski Institute?
I asked you to imagine this to once again think about how the denial of a genocide can change life itself.
In such a scenario, objective reality means nothing. Just nothing. Objective reality doesn’t count at all. What determines life is the subjective reality, that is, what people sincerely believe.
This is exactly the case with Turkey in the context of the Armenians and the Armenian Genocide. This is the Turkey that I come from.
Recognition, repentance, humility, and feeling shame makes one a human. In the absence of this, a people, a country, is liable to commit new crimes, to normalize violence, to in fact make violence a way of life. This is the case with Turkey. In the absence of these emotions, there is no room for a sort of catharsis, repentance, or cleaning oneself of guilt. This has been the case with Turkey since the genocide. And successive governments have committed, and continue to commit, new crimes.
Now a few words about me. I hope my story will offer some kind of insight into the reality of Turkey. I was a Marxist-Leninist, a Communist, a secret member of the outlawed Communist Party of Turkey between 1970-85.
We were devoted anti-imperialists, particularly anti-American. For us, Turkey was under imperialist oppression and exploitation. So national independence for our country was one of our top priorities. In other words, the “evil” was outside of us. We didn’t see the evil within our country. The enemy was far away; so cursing and shouting slogans against the far-away enemy was much easier and more convenient than fighting the evil right beside us. Despite our outspoken internationalism, we were surely nationalists without being aware of it.
We were anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, believing in class struggle, but we became anti-fascist only after the para-military, government-backed ultra-nationalist mobs started to kill us in the streets, in our homes, in factories, and at schools in the late 1970’s.
But fascism was for us an anti-communist movement. We never awoke to see that fascists were racist Turks, as well, reflecting the racist essence of the Turkish state, the extension of the genocidal Ottoman Empire.
Oh yes, we, the Turkish left, were undoubtedly, surely, and vehemently anti-racist.
But which racism? The racism in the United States and in South Africa, which were far away from us. Racism had nothing to do with our country! We were totally blind to the very racist environment we were living in. Denial of the genocide, hate speech directed against Armenians and non-Muslims in general, discrimination, portraying non-Muslims as potential traitors, these were all around us, and yet we didn’t see it! We were like fish living in a sea of racism without being aware of it.
Our blindness was so great that we didn’t even think of campaigning against the Nazi-like “oath” children were made to chant every morning at school. Generations of children started (and are starting today) classes every morning with that “oath,” chanted together as loud as they can–that we are proud of being Turks and we are ready to sacrifice our own existence for the sake of the existence of Turkishness! Every morning! Together with a handful of our non-Turkish and non-Muslim classmates: Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds!
This has gone on and on for decades. None of our “international,” Marxist-Leninist selfless comrades, including myself, initiated a campaign against this Nazi-like practice at schools.
OK, we were “internationalists.” But what kind of an internationalism was it?
We would give our lives for the national liberation wars in Africa and Asia. We sang Latin American revolutionaries’ songs, memorized their slogans, shed tears for Angola. But we were unaware of what was happening under our nose. We knew nothing and said nothing about the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians–tiny communities, the children of genocide victims doomed to live in a racist environment. And we knew nothing of the Kurds in Kurdish provinces who were subjected to different legislation, under a permanent state of emergency law.
We were masters of the history of the Soviet Communist Party, knew every detail anpit Trotsky’s fight against Stalin, the history of the Vietnamese fight against America, but we didn’t know the true history of our own country. But why?
Because of a very successful disinformation and manipulation of the Turkish republic’s founding ideology and the founding myths. The history re-written by the Kemalist leadership, in a totally misleading way. Let’s not go into details; it will take a lot of time.
What happened to Turkey after 1915? Turkey found no peace after, no real democracy, no real development. The once-developed and urban Western Armenia, with its colleges, theaters, and rich cultural life, became a barren land, a land of blood and tears. Kurdish uprisings followed one another, repressed with huge bloodshed and forced displacements.
Military interventions also followed one another. The one in 1980 was a disaster. Tens of thousands of people were jailed, unimaginable methods of torture were used, many died in prison, and 36 people were executed. Despite a formal restoration of democratic institutions, the constitution in force today is essentially the constitution adopted by the military rule.
Now a war is going on in the southeast of Turkey, in historical Western Armenia and Kurdistan. It is estimated that 50,000 people have died, most of them Kurds. Currently 10,000 Kurdish human rights activists, municipal workers, politicians, and citizens engaged in a totally peaceful struggle are in jail. And a massive hunger strike is under way.
Genocide denial is the destruction of all collective values, all ethics, sense of justice–in brief, the hearts and minds of the entire nation.
You may hear that things are changing in Turkey regarding the Armenian “issue,” as they say. Yes, but very slowly, very irregularly, and very disappointingly.
Thank you for listening to me.