Two Rights and A Wrong: On Taner Akçam
Many had hoped the situation would be otherwise in a Turkey governed by Erdogan’s AKP, and it seems that Taner Akçam, author of The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity and one of the few Turks who speaks openly about the Armenian genocide, still does. Some observers reasoned in the wake of the AKP’s meteoric rise during the first decade of this century that if Erdogan could shift the focus of Turkish nationalism away from the secular Kemalist legacy and toward an emphasis on Turkey’s Islamic heritage, the state might also make peace with its Muslim Kurds. But Akçam’s optimism regarding current trends in Turkish politics is likely based less on embracing Islam and more on the belief that secularism offers no guarantee that the more shameful aspects of the Turkish past will not be repeated. He has vehemently attacked those who suggest that the secularists represent the left in Turkey—including his own brother, Cahit Akçam, who spent eight years in prison for his left-wing activism in the 1980s. After Erdogan’s party won a 2010 referendum with nearly 60 percent of the vote, Cahit declared in the socialist daily BirGün (One Day) that the results were a clear indicator that the other 40 percent of the electorate was leftist. In a heated exchange conducted via the Turkish press, Taner argued that not everyone opposed to the AKP was on the left, and that “leftists” were not above genocide, citing the example of Serbia’s Slobodan Miloševic. The same could happen in Turkey, in his view. The original Turkish edition of Akçam’s book, published in 2008 under the title The Armenian Question Is Solved: Policies Toward the Armenians During the War Years According to Ottoman Documents, was dedicated to the late Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor of the weekly newspaper Agos. In 2005, Dink was charged with “denigrating Turkishness” for speaking openly about the “Armenian genocide” and tried under Article 301, a law that had been added to the Turkish penal code that year. In January 2007, he was assassinated by a young Turkish nationalist.
Though it remains unclear who orchestrated Dink’s murder, in the preface to the English edition of his new book, Akçam leaves little doubt about whom he holds responsible for his friend’s death. Dink’s name, along with Akçam’s own and the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s, was found on a “hit list” allegedly compiled by “the ultranationalist terror organization” known as Ergenekon. The list was seized in a police raid conducted by the Erdogan government in February 2009. A few hundred suspected members of Ergenekon—mostly military officers of the Kemalist old guard—are now on trial, a development that some have characterized as the AKP’s attempt to crack down on its secular-nationalist opposition in the Turkish military. Akçam has openly applauded the move, however: he was among the 300 intellectuals to sign a declaration of support for the investigation, which praised the government for catching “one of the arms of the octopus”—meaning the Turkish shadow state—and urged it to go after “the rest of the arms and the body” in the interest of “our democracy and future.”
Akçam seems to hope that the Erdogan government’s investigative zeal can prompt a re-evaluation of the Turkish position on the Armenian genocide. “With the disappearance of the Armenian Genocide and other mass violence from public discourse,” he writes, “a prevailing mind-set that makes future mass crimes possible has also been granted tacit support. Today, Turkish society is confronting the source of all its democracy and human rights issues.... Everything—institutions, mentalities, belief systems, creeds, culture, and even communication—is open to question. The time has come—in fact, it is passing—for the social sciences to contribute to the development of democracy and civic culture in Turkey.” Buried in a footnote describing the “indignities” that scholars researching the genocide have endured when seeking permission to view archival material is Akçam’s assertion that such indignities are now a thing of the past. This spirit of optimism pervades his book, down to its final sentence, which notes the “surge of democratization” that makes recognition of the truth about Turkey’s history more likely. Perhaps by asserting this, Akçam hopes to make it so.
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