Why is it that Turkey is still unable to recognise the atrocities committed against the Armenians? Furthermore, why is it that the EU is entirely antagonistic towards the idea of Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, recognising their genocidal past? Last July, I reported to The Brussels Journal on the unjust suppression of the freedom of expression in Turkey. The most high-profile case pertained to the trial of Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk in December 2005 after the author had claimed in a Swiss newspaper that 30,000 Kurds and one million Ottoman Armenians were killed in Turkey yet nobody in the Turkish population would dare talk about it. The trial was dismissed by the Turkish Ministry of Justice at the beginning of 2006.
Two previous reports had also scrutinised the legal proceedings against the novelist, Elif Shafak. Shafak, author of Bastard of Istanbul, faced charges of “insulting Turkishness” under the primitive legislation. Subsequent to an earlier dismissal, the seventh High Criminal Court revived the charges made by Kemal Kerincsiz’s nationalist jurist group, ‘The Unity of Jurists.’ Fortunately, in the final week of September, Shafak was immediately acquitted although it is difficult to determine whether the acquittal arose because of EU pressure (threatening Turkish membership) or because the text truly did not “insult Turkishness” according to Turkey’s dated legislation.
The suppression of free expression has occurred for authors such as Shafak and others like her, precisely because of the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, prohibiting “insulting Turkishness”. The legislation was passed in 2005 as a measure of harmonizing Turkish law with Copenhagen criteria of the European Union.
Interesting in both the cases of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak is how these novelists came to represent such a gigantic insult to Turkishness. Both novelists had referred to their mass killing – or genocide – of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire. It is those references to the Armenian genocide that led charges to be made by Kemal Kerincsiz’s Unity of Jurists. The Turkish government still denies the conceptual definition of the Armenian genocide.
However, the acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide has now become a central issue for the Turkish government. It is so important that the EU Commission spokesperson, Krisztina Nagy, commented after the acquittal of Shafak trial that Article 301 “continues to pose a significant threat to freedom of expression in Turkey and all those who express a non-violent opinion.” Accordingly, EU member-states have considered reform of Article 301 as important as the Cyprus issue, tackling minority rights and social violence, in order for the EU to properly consider Turkish accession.
However, has the EU’s request for reform of Article 301 missed the point? After all, the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has already hinted at an acceptance to change the legislation. Should the EU, instead, as a condition of EU entry demand that the Turkish government acknowledge the Armenian genocide? In both the cases of Pamuk and Shafak – and eighty or so other authors – many of the legal proceedings against Turkish writers have arisen as a result of references to the Armenian genocide. That is the real obstacle for the Turkish government and frankly, its revisionist approach to the nation’s history is not at all suited to a future of diplomacy. It is essentially denying a holocaustal error of its past. Furthermore, all other national governments across the globe (other than Turkey) have classified the Armenian events that occurred between 1915 and 1917 as genocide. International authorities recognise the event as the Armenian genocide, a direct set of policies that led to the persecution and death of 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians. It cannot be named something else. It cannot be ignored. Neither can it be understood from the Turkish historical perspective as a ‘civil war.’
That is why I paid strong attention to the French President, Jacques Chirac’s words on 30 September. In a visit to Yerevan, the French President declared to news agencies: “Should Turkey recognize the genocide of Armenia to join the EU? […] I believe so. Each country grows by acknowledging the dramas and errors of its past. […] Can one say that Germany which has deeply acknowledged the holocaust, has as a result lost credit? It has grown.”
It is certain that Chirac’s desire to enforce the acceptance of the mass-killings as genocide amongst other EU accession conditions has not been aligned with that of other European nations. Other EU member-states seem to be fairly relaxed in letting Turkey off the hook on the genocide issue. The last MEP interim report on Turkey’s EU accession removed the request for an acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide. More worryingly, the MEPs removed the condition of EU accession out of fears that Turkish nationalists would be incited into aggression against this.
It is never a good sign that a major political sanction should be removed from a country simply out of fear of reprisals. Yet, that is exactly what has happened. In brief, Europeans have decided not to ask the Turkish to recognise the Armenian genocide simply because it is scared that the Turks might actually bite. And, if the Turks do bite? Well that can only be a result of a troubled national Turkish culture – largely unable to confront significant genocidal errors – and not because Europe has asked the wrong question. There are rumours that the French will continue to push the ‘genocide recognition rule’ as a condition of EU entry, but if they are alone on that effort, then there is very little that can be done to ensure it will be among the requisites for EU entry. It might also be thought that Chirac could not afford to push the condition too far, since it may bring substantial damage to Franco-Turk relations before Turkey has even begun to attempt its progress towards European harmonization. Whether the European harmonization process is a good and worthwhile path for either Turkey or Europe will always remain unclear.