On the morning of Friday, April 24, 2015, there was a mathematics talk at Bosphorus University that I wanted to attend. I was used to taking the bus to the university from Mecidiyeköy; but the bus could be packed, and traffic could be slow. I had read recently that Istanbul was second only to Jakarta in having the world's worst traffic. However, a new subway line to Boğaziçi Üniversitesi had just opened that week. Thus I was able to travel as swiftly as a car would on empty roads.
It seems people are willing to overlook notional losses of freedom if a government can improve their physical conditions. In Turkey lately, a student has been given a ten-month prison sentence, reduced from a year for good behavior during the trial. Her supposed crime was retweeting a link to a satirical article ridiculing the thin-skinned President and an appointed provincial governor. It may or may not be important to point out that the sentence was actually suspended, provided the student would commit no similar offense in the next five years. Since in my view the student had committed no offense in the first place, the five-year probation is still an unjust restriction on her freedom. This is only one example of what official Turkey can do to you if you say things it does not like. Yet in the coming parliamentary election, the plurality of the vote, if not the absolute majority, will probably go the AK Party, which currently rules Istanbul and the country. The party is seen to have improved people's lives—as for example with Istanbul's beautiful and growing subway system.
On Friday evening, at 6:30 p.m., that is, 18:30, a march was planned on İstiklâl Caddesi from Galatasaray Meydanı up to Taksim Meydanı. At least the march would proceed as far as the Institut Français near Taksim. This was where I had attended a commemoration the previous year. I believe there was no march then. In 2015, on our way down İstiklâl to Galatasaray, Ayşe and I passed a group already gathered at the French Culture Center. The most significant time to be there would be 19:15. In 1915, on April 24, around 240 Armenian intellectuals were deported from Istanbul; most of them were ultimately killed. In 2015, possibly some of the people gathered to commemorate the event did not approve of a protest march. Nonetheless, Ayşe and I continued on to Galatasaray for the march. We used side streets, since İstiklâl was crowded: crowded with police, and with all of the people whom one would expect on a Friday evening in spring.
In Turkey there is great official resistance to referring to the deaths of as many as a million and a half Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. And yet the event is called a genocide in Turkey today. Thus the banner at the head of the march read Soykırım sürüyor, “The Genocide continues.” Like the word “genocide” itself, soykırım (or soykırımı) is a neologism meaning slaughter (kırım) of a race (soy). The slogan of the march banner could allude to Turkey's continuing loss, if only by attrition, of its minority populations (who by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty are Armenians, Jews, and Greeks, but many other groups could be named). I assume most of the faces pictured on signs in the march were of victims of the 1915 events; but Hrant Dink (killed January 19, 2007) and Sevag Balıkçı (killed this day, April 24, in 2011) were also pictured. I assume too that the Armenian text above the faces has the meaning of the Turkish buradayız below: “We are here!” Thus the march slogan can mean that we remember the Genocide: in this sense then, the Genocide was unsuccessful.
Some people in Turkey now use “Armenian Genocide” ironically, as in the banner in the middle of Halaskargazi Caddesi that I noticed on April 26 (though we had probably passed it on Friday). The banner reads:
We did not commit genocide, we defended our fatherland
We are killing the “Armenian Genocide” lie from the root
Instead of “killing,“ one can read “ending”; the basic sense is this. In any case, the first person is used, as if the speaker were alive a hundred years ago. A demonstration was announced for 14:00 at the same place on the same day that our own march would begin. The announcement is attributed to what I would call the Fatherland Party, though the English part of the party website calls it the Patriotic Party. Apparently the party was created on February 15, 2015 as the continuation of the Worker's Party as led by Doğu Perinçek. I saw several party banners announcing the demonstration; some of them had the word “lie” crossed out by a graffitist.
On the preceding Wednesday, April 22, along with almost four thousand other people, Ayşe and I had attended a concert, “In memory of the Armenian intellectuals sent to their deaths in 1915.” The concert program is in Turkish and Armenian, and it describes the arrest of the Armenian intellectuals in the early hours of April 24. The ensuing treatment of the Armenians of Anatolia is called soykırım. (I cannot read the Armenian.) The concert itself lasted almost four hours and featured a number of performers, mostly Armenian, whether from Turkey, Armenia, or elsewhere in the diaspora. One performer was a rock singer from Lebanon called Eileen Katchadourian; she told the audience in English that she was proud to be in the country from which her ancestors had been driven in the Armenian Genocide, in which one-and-a-half million people died. She was applauded.
At the march on Friday, behind the banner at the front were a mass of people with signs, and then another mass without signs, and then police. The usual foot traffic of İstiklâl made its way along the side.
The program from the concert on Tuesday suggests that if the Armenian Genocide had been dealt with properly (hesaplaşılsaydı), then certain later atrocities might not have occurred:
- the suppression of the Kurdish rebellion in Dersim in 1937–8;
- the Maraş Massacre of 1978, directed at Alevis;
- the Sivas Massacre of 1993, also directed at Alevis.
Unfortunately the list can be added to:
- the Varlık Vergisi or “Wealth Tax” of 1942, applied discriminatorily to minorities;
- the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955, directed at Greeks;
- the Roboski Massacre of 2011, killing 34 Kurdish civilians.
I specifically refer to the Kurds killed in Roboski (or Uludere) as civilians, lest one think they were guerillas. Supposedly they were thought to be this when they were bombed by a Turkish military plane. They turned out to be smugglers; but some Turks apparently thought that meant it was the Kurds' own fault for being killed.
Is there a solution to the problem of ethnic enmity? Perhaps I myself have had only glimpses of the dimensions of the problem in the first place. But I am not sure it is productive to try to force official Turkey to accept the word “genocide” for what happened in 1915.
The question brings to mind what I say of mathematics: that it is both universal and personal. It is universal, because it expects that everybody will agree on its truths. If there are mathematical disagreements, they are resolved not by fighting, but by calm rational discussion. Thus nobody can force us to accept a mathematical truth. The power of deciding what is true in mathematics lies in each of us individually.
Turkey is trying to force other countries not to use the word “genocide” for the 1915 events in Ottoman Anatolia. Turkey has had some success at this. A big example is President Obama of the United States, who has not officially used the G-word, despite campaign promises. He has however described the 1915 events in equivalent terms, as by referring to Raphael Lemkin, who, using 1915 as an example, coined the term “genocide” in the first place.
It might be possible to force Turkey to use the word “genocide” as Lemkin intended it. But what is in a name? Progress will come when people choose to acknowledge the horrors that they are capable of.
Americans are certainly capable of horrors, going back to the genocide of the original inhabitants of what came to be called America. The genocide of the American Indian is ongoing, as through the United States government's presumption to decide who counts as an Indian in the first place. I take the example from Ward Churchill, Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Expropriation in Contemporary North America (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1993, pages 51–52):
As historian Patrick Nelson Limerick frames it: “Set the blood quantum at one-quarter, hold to it as a rigid definition of Indians, let intermarriage proceed as it has for centuries, and eventually Indians will be defined out of existence.” Such assertions are based on solid statistics: In 1900, about half of all Indians in this country were “full bloods”; by 1990 it stood at about 20 percent and is dropping steadily. Among certain populations, such as the Chippewas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, only about 5 percent of all tribal members are full-blooded Indians. One-third of all recognized Indians in this country are at the quarter-blood cut-off point. Cherokee demographer Russell Thornton estimates that, given continued imposition of purely racial definitions, Native America as a whole will have disappeared by the year 2080.
All of this—suspension of treatymaking, extension of federal jurisdiction, plenary power and “trust” prerogatives, blood quantum and allotment, and the imposition of citizenship—was bound up in a policy officially designated as being the compulsory assimilation of American Indians into the dominant (Euroamerican) society [reference omitted]. Put another way, U.S. Indian policy was carefully (and openly) designed to bring about the disappearance of all recognizable Indian groups, as such.
A note at this point (the text being on page 75) reads:
This is a clinically genocidal posture within the meaning of the term offered by Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined it: “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killing of all the members of a nation. It is rather intended to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objective of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and the lives of individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is the destruction of the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity but as members of the national group;” see Lemkin, Raphael, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace/Rumford Press, Concord, NH, 1944, p. 79.
I ordered Churchill's book from the Common Courage Press flyer that I received when the Press was just starting out. Then the Press asked me for a loan, of anything from a hundred dollars on up to thousands, to be repaid in two years. I gave the minimal amount and was later repaid. I suppose this was an early form of crowd-funding, conducted by snail mail. Churchill became controversial after September 11, 2001, and he seems no longer to be in the Common Courage Press catalogue. But his conclusions about United States policy seem sound (and a second edition of his book has another publisher). Meanwhile, September 11, 2001, led to another great crime of the United States: the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
When Turks take offense at the term “Armenian Genocide,” supposedly they hear themselves being accused of the deliberate slaughter of innocents as in Nazi Germany. Of course nobody alive today can be accused of a crime committed a hundred years ago. Neither does Lemkin's definition require a genocide to be directed at innocents. A genocide is directed at a race, a nation: something to which the notions of guilt and innocence do not apply. For the same reason, Turks as such are guilty of no genocide. A genocide is aimed at people for something they have no control over. This however is a delicate point, since I have heard somebody disingenuously claim that attacking Judaism is not anti-Semitic, since Judaism is a religion, and religion is something you choose to follow.
In any case, as noted, many Turks—Turkish citizens—do acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. A recent tweet from the English account of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP), the Peoples' Democratic Party (and note the position of the apostrophe)—the tweet features the words of “Our Co-Chair Demirtaş”: “With no hesitation, I admit that 1915 was genocide.” One can say this is politics; but Demirtaş is not likely to be seeking just Armenian votes, since these are few.
In Istanbul, on İstiklâl Avenue, as far as I can tell, cars are not strictly forbidden; their use is simply impractical, because of all of the foot traffic. During the march on Friday however, an ambulance needed the road, and so the crowds gave way. Over the ambulance loudspeaker, thanks was expressed.
İstiklâl is more and more the province of large commercial interests. There is a new shopping mall whose façade apes the 19th-century baroque (or neoclassical) façades around it; its construction damaged the mosque next door. In front of the mall, a man started shouting angrily at the marchers. I could not understand anything, but Ayşe caught a reference to the Crusades.
Marchers shouted back at the man. Fortunately nobody went to beat him up. He could possibly have been an agent sent to provoke violence and thus justify police intervention. I had heard that police had broken up a pro-Armenian demonstration at Istanbul University earlier in the day. But demonstrations on İstiklâl do seem generally to be tolerated, unless they are on the order of the Gezi Park Protests of late May and June, 2013.
Actually I think the scale of those protests was due to the banning of a May Day demonstration in Taksim that year, despite the peaceful May Day demonstration of 2012. Taksim was sealed off by the police in 2014 too, and apparently the plan is to do the same again this year, despite a court's having ruled what is obvious: people have a right to demonstrate.
Members of a leftist group applauded the march from the base where they distribute their literature. I assume they were different from the nationalist leftists that later came up behind our march, but were kept away by police. That group thought the Armenian Genocide was an imperialist lie.
I cannot assess the ethnic composition of the marchers. I assume there were Christians and Muslims and Jews, at least nominally; some or many might call themselves atheists. But at least one woman wore a headscarf in the style that seems to indicate devotion to Islam (and not a village tradition).
A red-haired woman was filming the march, and at one point she asked, with a British accent, if anybody spoke English. I indicated myself, and she asked me some questions. I doubt if she can use what I gave her, since I do not easily give quick answers, especially on camera. When the camerawoman asked what I thought the marchers were chanting, I said,
I know what they are saying: “The murderous state will pay the price!” and “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!”
I forgot “Long live the fraternity of peoples!” These were standard slogans, which I knew from other marches. The camerawoman told me her name was Emily West, and she was preparing a documentary associated with a book involving the Armenian Genocide.
Later Emily West found somebody who was probably a better subject for an interview. By chance the interview happened in front of an advertisement for a coming concert featuring a Turkish pianist with an Armenian surname.
At the last cross street before the French Culture Center, there were police on both sides.
Once all marchers had arrived, the police were going to set up barricades behind us.
Many people sat down. There were speeches in both Turkish and English, but the amplification was too soft for me to understand anything.
At some point people started to stand up again, probably because of shouts in the distance, from the nationalist leftists (possibly with the Vatan Partisi) whom I mentioned. Their red flags behind a cordon of police could barely be seen. These were party flags, featuring in yellow what was probably the hammer and sickle (or something like it), and not the white crescent and star of the red Turkish flag. These demonstrators too chanted, “Long live the brotherhood of peoples!” I suppose they believed in the brotherhood of all of those peoples who could get behind Atatürk's slogan, Ne mutlu Türküm diyene!—“What happiness for the one who says I am a Turk!”
Mustafa Kemal's slogan can be given a favorable interpretation. It is not about the person who is a Turk by blood. Turkishness is to be understood not as genetic, but as a state of mind, a belief in the country where we live, a will to support it. Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian; Greek, Arab, Jew: in the Turkish Republic, all could be understood as united by the new Turkishness. If it was a noble dream, then not all who were charged with realizing the dream could share its nobility. The understanding of Turkishness in many people's minds seems to have reverted to a question of blood.
After the 1999 Düzce Earthquake, the Turkish Minister of Health “allegedly” said the country did not want any donations of blood from Greeks or Armenians. Actually, the government's inept response to the earthquake may have allowed Tayyip Erdoğan's AK Party to rise to power. But then, in 2014, during his campaign for President, Erdoğan complained of having his Turkishness questioned: apparently somebody had suggested his family were “really” Georgian or, even worse, Armenian.
“Militarism kills” reads the slogan in Turkish (and I assume Armenian) beneath the image of Sevag Balıkçı. He was murdered by an ultra-nationalist fellow soldier while the two of them did their compulsory military service. “We are here” reads the other sign.
Ayşe and I had dinner at the nearby Black-Sea restaurant whose name, Hayvore, is said to mean “I am here” in the language called Laz from the Kartvelian family, the family that includes also Georgian. Apparently the restaurant owner had left another Black-Sea restaurant, called Sisore, “Where are you?”
A cat wandering down İstiklâl, looking for an open door, eventually found one at a clothing shop.