Every year, the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organisations in France (CCAF) honours personalities for their merits in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Turkey and worldwide. This year, the historian Prof. Taner Akçam, one of the leading scientists on the Armenian genocide, was the guest of honour at the 7th annual dinner of the Coordinating Council in Paris.In addition to French President Emmanuel Macron, the event was attended by some 500 personalities from the media and business, as well as several local and national political leaders. Taner Akçam, professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is one of the first Turkish historians to historically reappraise and openly discuss the Armenian genocide. While most historians agree that the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman forces during the First World War constituted genocide, official Turkey vehemently denies this.
Taner Akçam, whose latest book has just been translated into French, was praised by the audience for having worked for more than 30 years for his country’s recognition of the 1915 genocide.
President Macron praised the Turkish historian’s struggle and his passion to „denounce“ the „denial“ of the Turkish state.
Here is Taner Akçam’s speech of appreciation during the award ceremony. By the way, his latest book „Killing Orders“ has also been published in German since last autumn.
President Macron, Esteemed Guests,
Allow me to first thank the organizers for inviting me for this very meaningful event, and to thank them very much for this meaninful award that you are bestowing upon me this evening.
This is not only a great honor for me, but also an important turning point in my life.
It is all the more humbling—embarrassing, even—in that I know I do not fully merit it.
This is not false modesty. There is nothing special in my labors to earn this medal and, on some level, I suspect many of you know this. The work I do is nothing flashy or extraordinary—it’s mundane almost to the point of boring. I simply attempt to speak the truth: the truth, and nothing but the truth…
And speaking the truth is not—or at least should not be—an action meriting such extraordinary praise.
If so, then why am I here? And what is the reason for the interest and admiration you have shown for me and for the truth?
Ironically, the reason I am here is the Turkish government and their policy of denial. In the face of Turkey’s long-standing and increasingly ridiculous denialist policies, an act as mundane as simply telling the truth somehow becomes exalted to the level of public recognition and prize-worthiness!
So, the question is what can we do so that telling the truth becomes mundane, that it becomes nothing more than a casual act which merits no price.
Yet, I know this is not so simple. If you’re from Turkey, there is often a very steep price for speaking the truth, sometimes, the price is your life.
My dearest friend, Hrant Dink, was murdered for precisely for this reason.
And Hrant was simply asking for very harmless, simple things. He wanted that historical truths be known and acknowledged, and that he, as an Armenian citizen of Turkey, could live in his own country unquestioningly, enjoying the same legal and civil rights as other citizens. Hrant also dreamed that one day the walls of mistrust and hatred between countries of Turkey and Armenia—between Turks and Armenians—would come to an end, that the border be opened. that Turkey and Armenia live side-by-side as friends and neighbors.
As a close friend of Hrant, I repeatedly ask myself: What must we do to realize his vision?
He fought against the darkness, a darkness that Turkey’s century of denialist policies has caused to enshroud their nation and obscur its people’s vision. But it is not only eyes that have been blinded by these policies: hearts have been hardened, as well. What Hrant did was to create a small opening in the wall of denial, an aperature through which rays of light could reach blinkered eyes and closed hearts.
And it is in this that I found the answer to my question: my task—the one to which I have set my hand—is to widen that small breach, to allow in ever more light. I see myself as obligated to struggle against the genocide denialism that blankets Turkey and obscures the details of Hrant’s murder.
There are two important misperceptions regarding genocide denial–and Turkish denialism in particular, misperceptions that create major obstacles to fighting it, and in the process preventing its reoccurance. First, denial is often regarded as an acceptable, albeit mistaken ideological attitude toward mass atrocities. The second misunderstanding is related to the first and assumes that confronting denial is about establishing a “moral” attitude towards a single crime, one that has long since receded into the pages of history. Any connection with the present is effectively walled off. These misperceptions are a logical consequence of what I call temporal compartmentalization: the tendency to place the past and present into different boxes and to ignore their interconnectedness. In truth the ties between denial and contemporary political problems are strong and cannot simply be ignored.
This is something that most European and North American politicians fail to understand and is the reason most Western states pay lip service to recognition of the Armenian genocide, while simultaneously continuing their business-as-usual relationship with Turkey. It reminds me a little bit of Mafia bosses who attend church every Sunday—perhaps even genuinely repenting their sins, yet continue their criminal activities the moment they exit the building. That is not simply hypocritical. It is wrong and must change.
Denial is not only about an ideological approach to the past, nor is the demand for recognition of historical crimes merely an expression of a moral conviction regarding past events.
Denialism is a structure, one that cannot simply be relegated to past atrocities. The denialist structure has produced and continues to foster real state policies in the present day.
In this regard, it would be appropriate and reasonable to compare Turkish denialism with the racist Apartheid regime of South Africa. The system, mindset and institutions of Apartheid were constructed upon racial differences; denial of the Armenian genocide has similar roots. It was built upon the discrimination and exclusion of ethnic-religious minorities and considers the democratic demands of these groups to be a national security threat that must be eliminated. One of the principal reasons that Turkey cannot solve its domestic problems related to democracy and human rights and that it continues to follow an aggressive foreign policy towards its neighbors is this very denialism.
Ending denialism and recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not merely an academic judgment, nor is it simply a “moral” issue on a historical event. Rather, it is a precondition sine qua non of the realpolitik that is to be pursued in the Middle East. Acknowledging the genocide is vital for Turkey, since such acknowledgment is necessary for the development of a truly democratic and free society, one in which the regime is obliged to recognize the civil rights of its citizens.
Turkey’s acknowledgment of the crimes of its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, is a precondition for its people to be able to live in peace and tranquility, not only with one another, but with the other peoples of the region. As long as the Turks continue to deny the genocide, the Arab, Kurdish, Christian, and other peoples of the region will continue to look upon them as the unrepentant and potential perpetrators of new “ethnic cleansings.” Turkey’s denialist policies are a regional security threat, plain and simple.
If we truly desire peace and stability in the region, if we truly desire to see democracy flourish in Turkey, if we wish to see Turkey and Armenia maintaining friendly, neighborly relations, if we wish to see Armenians and Muslim Turks living as full and equal citizens within Turkey, if we ever hope to see a Turkey where Hrant Dinks are not murdered in the streets, then we must elevate the fight against denialism to the realm of current and real political problems, just as any other comtemporary problem.
For me, this is the meaning of this special award that you’ve bestowed upon me: a recognition of the fight for truth and justice against denialism. This is the only way to respect the victims including my dear friend Hrant Dink, open the way for closure, and secure a future of democracy and peace in the Middle East.
I am deeply honored, grateful, and humbled that you have seen me worthy to receive this award. Thank you.
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