Orhan Cengiz

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Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a Turkish journalist and publicist.

Regarding Dersim: What About 1915?

Nov 24 2011

Today's Zaman

There is a question I have heard countless times from Westerners and other foreign diplomats visiting Turkey: "Why is it so difficult for Turks to discuss the Armenian situation?"

Some would query in a more sophisticated manner: "All nation states have histories marked with a variety of wrongdoings; why are the Turks still unable to talk about this topic, despite all the time that has passed?" And really, why is it that we are unable to talk about this?

This is a question about which I have spent much time thinking.

America, France, England, the Netherlands and other countries all carried out their "massacres," not only in the lands they occupied, but at other locations as well. As for us, we killed our neighbors.

For those people who came to North America, the Native Americans seemed very "primitive" and alien people. To the British, Indians were a people who lived all the way over on the other side of the world.

But for us, the Armenians were our next door neighbors. I believe it is for this that the massacre of the Armenians has left much deeper scars on our society than the massacres carried out by the Europeans and Americans.

Another factor that prevents us from discussing this issue is the fact that "modern Turkey" and the "Turkish identity" are founded upon a sort of "exclusiveness." Those who founded Turkey actually defined Turks as those who were not the non-Muslims. And there are even more painful factors, some of which have been pointed out by Taner Akcam and other writers. Some of those who played active roles in the massacres of the Armenians were also part of the founding cadres of the Turkish Republic. Thus, facing up to the past also means that we may lose our founding "heroes," and have them turned into a series of "murderers" to be embarrassed about instead.

It is now clear that we in Turkey have constructed an identity on top of this whole denial mechanism. Looking at this situation from this perspective, many things suddenly become clear.

The Canakkale War was a very painful time in history for Turkey. It was a war that saw us bury tens of thousands of the nation's youth.

Despite the pain that Turkey experienced at this time, we can tolerate monuments to the Anzacs (New Zealand or Australian soldiers who tried to invade Turkish lands) that stand on our soil, as well as the descendents of these soldiers who come to Turkey every year to have "sunrise services" in commemoration of the Anzacs. So why is it that while we manage to pull this all off successfully, we are unable to shed a single tear for our Armenian neighbors, or build a single monument in their memory? When people face up to their pasts, and reckon with what has happened, they contribute to the evolution of their societies. But when we deny what has happened, mistakes from the past become greater than just those mistakes, they actually turn into a part of the society's identity.

These days, the Turkish agenda is dominated by another missed opportunity for us to face up to the past. There is an open debate in the Turkish press at this point over documents that indicate that Ataturk and his military comrades gave the orders for the massacres in Dersim themselves. We may be talking about the Dersim massacre for some time to come. This is because the ruling party thinks that a certain political path in this country is responsible for Dersim, and that the "mud" that surrounds it will never splatter onto them. But this same government does not wish to discuss the events of 1915. They are unable to approach 1915 in the same manner. When the truth of the matter is that in fact Dersim is nothing other than a repetition of the same sort of "problem solving" mentality that we saw at work in 1915.

At the time when the Dersim massacre took place, the Republican People's Party (CHP) was in power. If the CHP is actually able to face up to Dersim, there will be more to come. There is the "Ä°zmir fire," the "Ä°zmir assassination," the "Ä°stiklal Courts," and many other events which our official history retellings have managed to skew. Of course, because the CHP was the "state founding" party its list of events to face up to is the longest. But as the people begin to face up to the past in Turkey, no doubt there are factions of society and political parties, which will encounter embarrassing and painful incidents from the past. The "ulkuculer" or "idealist" factions have never faced up to any of the many massacres that mark their pasts.

Devout Muslims have never been able to face the fact that they were used by the deep state as forceps when it came to events such as the Sivas massacres, the killing of Alevis, and so on. The left refuses to look at its violence-filled past. And we in this country continue to live amongst unburied bodies and mourning periods that were never held. Will these debates, sparked by the Dersim topic, be a turning point for Turkey? Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has apologized for the Dersim massacre, and this is of course a very important development, but can we really speak of a genuine facing up to the past if we never touch on what happened in 1915, and simply cherry pick certain events from our history to focus on?

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Why is April 24 so important for Turkey?

When I started to write this article I saw that the Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos had already run a piece that said all I want to say on this topic.

I absolutely agree with Agos that recognizing 1915 is not only about the past, but also about the future of this country. It is also about seeking justice for the endless victims of the tragedy. As Agos indicates, the solution lies in dialog between Turks and Armenians -- not in declarations from third party politicians, who only exploit this matter for their political interests. As Agos stated, Turkey is already in the process of confronting its past crimes through the coup and Ergenekon cases. But without recognizing what happened in 1915, this process could never be called complete. I respectfully bow before the Armenian victims who suffered deeply and those who lost their lives in 1915, and I leave the floor to Agos and their meaningful piece:

“The reason why we don’t want to forget the things that happened 97 years ago is not only a matter of paying our tributes to the innocent souls that were lost, but also because of our firm belief in another future… The deeper meaning that lies in the prominent minstrel Hovhannes Tumanyan’s words “Abrek yereğek, payts mez bes çabrek” (Live long children, but don’t live like us), refers to the responsibility of building a peaceful future. Attaining a firm cognition on how the people, the nature and the civilization were all exterminated in 1915 is a sine qua non for such a responsibility.

“While remembering 1915, we take strength not from our desire for punishment or revenge, but from our wish to collectively get rid of the chains of the past. For what will eventually emancipate us is the truth. They intimidate people by saying, “They call our grandfather murderers!” but those who bear responsibility are not Turks, Muslims or Kurds. For it is not people who commit genocides, but the mindset. Just like the Nazis, the İttihat mentality, did actually sacrifice both the victim and the perpetrator; the ones who lost their lives were gone, but those who remained became sick. What made the successor governments an accomplice to this deep-rooted crime has been the systematic policy of forgetting and denial.

“In fact, we are not any longer debating what happened in 1915 in Turkey. Everyone debating on this subject knows that, in this very dark year and the ensuing years, hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and were never able to return, with a great majority of them lying somewhere in some corner of Anatolia or in Syrian deserts without a tombstone. They also know that many people had to convert their religions to be able to survive and sought shelter in Muslim families... Nowadays, these facts are only countered by the obdurate argument, “No one can ever dare to say that we committed genocide!” As if, the use of any other word could lessen all that happened...

“As 2015 drawing near, we witness some efforts that are made to drag Turkey to a more nationalistic ground and we are concerned about it… As long as Turks and Armenians fail to see how the third parties hypocritically exploit this issue and fail to make a collective effort to solve their problems together, we will have to live with all these concerns for a very long time. It’s inevitable.

“Turkey remembers the truths about her republican history, though very late and with strings attached. Turkey is settling her accounts with the coup d’état, massacres and the crimes committed by the state. The Ergenekon trial, the Sept. 12 trial, the Feb. 28 investigation, the inquisition of what happened in Dersim in 1938. Each and every one of those bears historic importance. Should these cases be handled in due process, they all have the potential to take the country on a brand new path. When we take a closer look to these trials and investigations to better understand their significance, we can see that all groups in Turkey -- Turks and Kurds, Muslims and Alevis -- has fallen victim to the practices of the state. Even though each group maintains its tendency to put forward its own victimization, a holistic look into politics indicates that it is the founding ideology that lies beneath the root cause of all these victimhood.

“…Without securing cognition about what happened in 1915, we may get as close to the doorsteps of the new Turkey, but we cannot get through it.”


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1915: Heroes And Murderers

Cihan News Agency (CNA) November 2, 2012 Friday Turkey

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- "Heroes are totalitarian." It has been a long time since I first read the book "Cehenneme Ovgu, Gundelik Hayatta Totalitarizm" (Prisoners of Ourselves: Totalitarianism in Everyday Life) by Gunduz Vassaf, but I still remember this sentence from it.

Whenever I hear the word "hero," I cannot help but affix "totalitarian" to it.

Vassaf narrates how we escape from freedom via heroes and recreate the order again and again. Heroes are presented to us as men of sacrifice who show courage and no human weakness. They are leaders, military servicemen, religious clerics, revolutionaries, freedom fighters and others.

Every group of people has their own heroes. As we try to become like these heroes, we turn into men which the order we are in desires. I recently explored a hero who is not totalitarian. This hero does not look like the others. And we, the people of Turkey, do not know him because knowing him requires going through an unusual cognitive and spiritual process, remorse and a huge confrontation.

There is a huge paradox there. If we get to know him, we will become richer and our souls will become more at ease. However, to become familiar with him, we first have to go through a spiritual turbulence and a state of discomfort. We know that he exists thanks to foreign movies. Watching "Schindler's List" by Steven Spielberg or "Hotel Rwanda" by Terry George, we actually witness his life. However, the culture we grew up in prevents us from getting to know him better. We do not know the meaning of rejecting to participate in a campaign of murder based on individual remorse and conscience while society and the state were committing a huge crime and that crime was becoming a part of daily life and the symbol of a new status quo.

We have Hollywood Schindlers, but movies have not been made for them in this country. Their names are not in history books. From the perspective of our formal history, they are traitors. I believe that one of the big losses associated with our failure to confront the 1915 tragedy is being deprived of not knowing them. In fact, we hold a sense of guilt in our subconscious. But we do not know the stories of those people who did not participate in heinous acts while the entire community was being involved, who refused to comply with orders and harbored their Armenian neighbors in their houses.

We do not know them. We are not aware of how Urfali Haci Halil, who hid his Armenian neighbors in his home for one year, bought bread for eight extra people, what he felt about the outer world when he closed the doors of his home, how his relations with the community changed or how he was afraid of the death decrees for those who harbored Armenians in their homes. For us to know and feel all these, we should first address the lies in our history and feel the atmosphere of massacre and tragedies in this country.

If we could pass these stages, we will know about not only Haci Halil but also the Ottoman bureaucrats who did not obey orders to deport Armenians and were executed or exiled for non-compliance. Konya Governor Celal, Ankara Governor Hasan Mazhar, Kastamonu Governor Resit Pasa, Basra Governor Ferit, Yozgat Governor Mehmet Cemal Bey, Kutahya Governor Faik Ali Ozansoy, Muntefek Governor Bedii Nuri, Lice District Governor Huseyin Nesimi Bey and Batman District Governor Sabit Bey will all guide us on the path towards spiritual purification and serenity.

If we could bear the anguish and look at our history honestly, the religious people of this country will promote the honorable tradition of Muslims who strongly opposed the murder of Armenians in Bogazlayan, stressing that there is no killing of innocent people in the Quran. If we could look at 1915 honestly and talk openly about everything, we will start to meet the real heroes. Of course, this will come after huge pain and mourning. They will be our real heroes.

After so many years, we have made some progress towards confronting the past but there is still a long way to go. I think that these heroes will guide us on this journey. I bow to them with great respect.


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Will Non-Muslims Return To Turkey?

AL-Monitor April 2 2013

By: Orhan Kemal Cengiz for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse. Posted on April 1.

Omer Celik, minister of culture of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, has made repeated calls recently in which he invited non-Muslims to come back to Turkey. In his most recent TV interview on March 29, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan himself repeated this call and he said their government is calling non-Muslims back to Turkey. Do these calls have any potential to create a mass return of non-Muslims to Turkey? Has Turkey made profound changes in the way it handles its non-Muslim citizens?

I do not think that these questions have simple yes-or-no answers.

Before I try to give my own answers, I have to give little bit background to illustrate to what extent Turkey's non-Muslim policies have changed.

Modern Turkey was based on the exclusion of non-Muslims from Turkey.

You can understand this by simply looking at the percentages of non-Muslims in the population in Turkey. Before 1915, 25% of Turkey's population consisted of non-Muslims. With the current population of 70 million citizens, we should have 17 million non-Muslims. But today, all non-Muslims (including Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Assyrians) just barely exceeds 100,000. So the current rate is well below 1%.

Some of these people certainly had fallen victim to massacres in 1915 and onward. Some had left the country in population exchanges with Greece, and some went to Israel. But during the whole Republican era, non-Muslims continued to leave the country to escape from the endless suffering they were subjected to. In 1934, Jews were targeted in the Thrace region, their homes and shops looted. In 1942, the so-called "wealth tax" dealt a huge blow to all non-Muslims who had to sell everything in their possession to pay these extremely arbitrary fees.

In September 1955, Istanbul's Greek and Armenian residents fell victim to a two-day brutal pogrom. In 1974, with an extremely arbitrary judgment by the Supreme Court of Appeals, non-Muslim foundations lost all properties they had gained since 1936, as a result of legal tricks created by courts which made their acquisitions illegal.

I do not want to suffocate you with all the details of this extremely complicated history. But all these pogroms, financial tricks and attacks were different applications of a fait accompli strategy to get rid of every single non-Muslim from Turkey. This strategy's application started in 1915 with the massacres of Armenians by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and continued during the whole Republican era by so-called deep-state elements which inherited the its traditions.

Here we come to one mind-boggling element which makes it extremely difficult for outsiders to understand Turkey. The people who were trying to create a nation-state by getting rid of non-Muslims were the same who modernized the country. But this secular elite was also the one who oppressed pious Muslims for not fitting the "ideal citizen" role they wanted to create in Turkey.

It is obvious that the AKP, which consists of conservative and pious Muslims, is not an inheritor of this tradition. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that non-Muslims of Turkey have been going through their most comfortable period, relatively, since the beginning of Turkish Republic in 1923.

However, not coming from the CUP tradition does not mean that the AKP is immune from this nationalist virus which created a hell for non-Muslims in Turkey.

For example, when Erdogan cites different ethnic identities to show how heterogeneous Turkey is, he never adds non-Muslims to his long list of Kurds, Turks, Circassians and so forth. His government has never considered making an apology for 1915. On the contrary, they continued the old denialist attitude of the former elites when it comes to the Armenian genocide.

The AKP put an end to the deep-rooted fait accompli strategy against non-Muslims, but they were not able to create a profound change in this area. All improvements remained unfinished, uncompleted. For example, they allowed non-Muslims to use their historic churches in different parts of the country; however, this permission was only given one single day a year. The government has restored some churches, but it did not returned them to their historic owners, instead recognizing them as "museums." The government changed the law of foundations to allow non-Muslims to gain new properties, but they gave back only limited numbers of the properties that were taken from these foundations. The Halki Theological School is still closed. It is this government that interfered with the election process in the Armenian patriarchate to get their favorite candidate chosen.

When the Assyrian people started to return their traditional lands in southeast Turkey, feeling assured by the policies of this government, the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel monastery faced a devastating legal struggle, in which the treasury claimed to be the owner of its lands.

The treasury won the case, and the Assyrian community, whose faith in the government has been shaken to the ground, is now planning to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The essence of this story is this: This government has ended the hostile and devastating policies of the secular nationalist elites, but they could not create a new paradigm to reassure everyone that there will be no return to the past and that a new Turkey, as far as non-Muslims are concerned, is established. We are not there yet.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz (born in 1968) is a human rights lawyer, columnist and former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a respected Turkish NGO that works on human rights issues ranging from the prevention of torture to the rights of the mentally disabled.


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