Sunday, December 04, 2005

Good News From Turkey (Maybe)

An article by Stephen Kinzer in today's NY Times offers some encouragement regarding Turkey, its relationship to Europe, and it belated soul-searching about the Armenian Genocide. While there is still a long, long way to go, apparently the Turkish desire to join the EU is finally breaking down their nationalistic stone-walling about the Armenian genocide.

The immediate beneficiary is the Turkish government's restoration--in the absolute brink of time--of the 10th-century Armenian Orthodox Church on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van, located in far eastern Turkey. Since the expulsion and genocide of the Armenians in 1915, this achingly beautiful architectural gem has stood vacant--at the mercy of looters and vandals--all the while maintaining silent testimony that the former residents of eastern Turkey were, well, Armenian Christians. As Kinzer noted, "its condition symbolized the abysmal relations between many Armenians, who believe their ancestors were victims of genocide in 1915, and the Turkish Republic, which rejects that claim."

Kinzer goes on to observe "that there is a new sense of freedom taking hold in Turkey," to the horror of the nationalists. The old prohibitions against admitting a Turkish genocide of Armenians seems to be falling. Yet old ways die hard; a newspaper editor and Turkey's most prominent author have been indicted for making comments "disrespectful to our Turkish ancestors," or similar charges. And of course the land border with Armenia remains firmly sealed.

One of the more interesting recent developments invovled the academic conference in Istanbul, challenging official Turkish nationalist denial of the Armenian genocide. Postponed twice, and banned from two universities, the conference finally convened at a third. Attendees had to run a gantlet of protesters outside the conference. But once convened, the speakers were free to speak their minds. One paper was aptly entitled, "What the World Knows but Turkey Does Not." The conference generated a tremendous amount of news coverage and launched weeks of public discourse and analysis. One newspaperman noted that "it felt like we were making history, like something incredible had suddenly happened."

While this progress is minimal, it is at least something. Lets hope that this new openness to reassess "official" Turkish history in light of actual Turkish history may indeed open the door to the re-evaluation of other thorny issues. And by this I don't mean just the obvious Kurdish question, but perhaps Turkey's treatment of its vanishing Greek Orthodox population, as well. On a final note, Kinzer cautions that this new openness may also open the door to a more engaged political Islam in Turkey.

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