Armenian Representation in Turkey?

“No Assimilation could be achieved merely by
surrendering one’s past but ignoring the alien past.
In a society on the whole hostile to the Jews… it is possible
to assimilate only by assimilating into anti-Semitism also.”1

This year, again, the Armenians of Istanbul were confronted with theheavy duty of responding to the dominant atmosphere of political and social hatred against them in the country where they live. The reason was the bill intending to criminalize genocide denial in France. In Turkey, a political campaign to generate public consensus against the bill was successfully initiated and reached its peak with a demonstration on Feb. 26, organized jointly by Turkey and Azerbaijan, in the center of Istanbul—and what was nothing other than a rehearsal of the Sept. 6–7, 1955 events. Beginning in December 2011, anti-Armenian campaigns were run in the Turkish media with the participation of politicians, academics, and public opinion makers, both on the local and national level.

In crisis situations, Armenians in Turkey have been called to represent their community. In the absolute absence of political representation—prohibited from having a political organization as an ethnic group—Armenians have always been requested to react politically and be representatives of their community. The media, politicians, and public intellectuals pose this request incessantly, all of a sudden feeling the need to “give a voice to the voiceless.” However, the response should also meet the needs correctly: You are not expected to be a conscious pariah in Arendt’s terms—that is, “accepting the challenge and responsibility of being an outsider even among one’s own people”2; rather, you are expected to assimilate into anti-Armenian campaigns, which also entails hatred against and dehumanization of the Armenian Diaspora. As an Armenian still living in Turkey, then, you are offered to take part in and reproduce hatred against your sisters, brothers, uncles, or aunts living in other parts of the world. In this way, you are expected to become an enemy of your own past, of your own biography, and reject your own present.

“Forcing Armenians to react” in situations of crisis has a historicity. For instance, from 1941 onwards in Turkish newspapers, news items and articles started to appear regarding Armenians being a “fifth column”3; accused of supporting the Germans, Armenians in Istanbul were asked to give a necessary reaction to these accusations. Without having any politically representative body, the community was required to respond to such war politics, and during a time when Turkey was still selling chrome to the Nazi government. On Jan. 5, 1946, the famous article by Zaven Biberyan, “Enough Is Enough,”4 was published in the Nor Lur Armenian newspaper, and was in direct defiance to these allegations as well as the Turkish public opinion makers. Biberyan argued that these public opinion makers (specifically Asım Us in this case) were implicitly trying to put the blame on Armenians, whereas actually a broad segment of Turkish society—but not Armenians—had been pro-German. We can read this of course as an attempt to shape public opinion in a way that would rescue the image of Turkey and the consequences of Turkish-German alliance in the international arena during the post-WWII period. Time and again, it is impossible not to remember Biberyan, since the Armenian community in Istanbul is in such a fragile situation, and yet is expected to be a political actor, in order to rescue Turkey from the probable consequences of the criminalization of genocide denial in France. The text entitled “Turkey wants to have the right to denial,”5 with all its shortcomings, was still an important reaction given by the handful of Armenians remaining in Turkey to the politicians and public opinion makers. Nevertheless, neither the mentioned text, nor the open letter of businessman Ishak Alaton calling on Turkish intellectuals to stop denial, seem to have influenced the public intellectuals in Turkey. It was only after the Hodjali hate rally that the public intellectuals comprehended the degree of rising racism, and saw how denial fuels this racism, how it could all be organized on the state level, and how easily “human resources” could be generated for its implementation.

PROCESS OF STRUCTURAL ERADICATION

Beginning in 1840, the Armenian community had de facto administrative institutions. In 1847, an election system was introduced for these institutions.6 The Armenian constitution (Nizamname) of the 19th century was a legal guarantor of these processes. During the first decade of the republic, however, these electoral systems were abolished as a result of systematic state politics. First, the Patriarchate could not withstand the pressures and paved the way for the abrogation of the Civil Assembly, which was in charge of civil affairs. Later, in 1938, a second electoral process on the district level was abolished. The practice of electing administrative bodies with the participation of a district’s inhabitants to administer the properties of the given foundations was replaced with a “single trustee” appointed by the government. The period 1938-49 was marked by difficulties created by the “single trustee” (tek mütevelli dönemi) system within the minority communities. Elçin Macar’s article on the issue has some very valuable information about the period.7 State policy regarding the appointment of these representatives was extremely arbitrary; people who had nothing to do with the communities were appointed as trustee.8 Not being able to collect regular revenue from the properties meant not being able to finance community organizations, such as schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, and orphanages, as well as people in need.

During the Single Party years between 1924 and 1946, stateorchestrated intimidation policies, legal pressures of various kinds,9 and normalized daily racism in society10 were all part of the systemic policies that encouraged the remaining Armenians to leave. The loss of elected Civil Assembly in the case of the Armenians, and the introduction of the single trustee system, endangered and discouraged public participation in the administration during those years. Although the practice of electing representatives to administer the properties of foundations had to be re-established in 1949, the right to have an elected council to deal with civil issues has never been restored. As a result, a practice that was established over one hundred years was extinguished within the first decade of the republic. Had the Civil Assembly not been abolished, would it be enough today to meet the needs of the community when confronted with situations loaded with heavy politics, such as the recent French law criminalizing genocide denial? Perhaps not, but it would have given us an organizational model with over nearly two centuries of experience, with its pros and cons—a good reference point to begin with.

Arendt’s remark on the price of being a Jew in Europe in the 19th century is still relevant for Armenians in Turkey today. For, they are not only asked to surrender their past but are expected to ignore their past, which encompasses everything from their social, legal, cultural, and political rights to their very existence, as well as the annihilation of their ancestors. This is the only way offered to survive in a state of denial. Armenian representation under these conditions is and can only be a political one, because the hostile attitude against Armenians in Turkey has been one of the longest lasting political attitudes in the country.

ENDNOTES

  1. Hannah Arendt. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman. HBJ Publ. 1974, p. 224.
  2. Richard Bernstein. Hannah Arendt and The Jewish Question, MIT Press, 1996, p. 18.
  3. Rifat Bali. II. Dünya Savas¸ında Gayrimüslimlerin Askerlik Serüveni: Yirmi Kur’a Nafıa Askerleri. (Istanbul: Kitabevi Yay. 2008), p. 31.
  4. Nor Lur. Jan. 5, 1946.
  5. “Türkiye inkar hakkının pes¸ inde,” Dec. 22, 2011
  6. For more, see Hagop L. Barsoumian. The Armenian Amira Class of Istanbul, American University of Armenia, Yerevan, 2007, pp. 112-119.
  7. Elçin Macar. “Bas¸bakanlık Cumhuriyet Ars¸ ivi Belgelerine Göre Tek Parti Döneminde Cemaat Vakıflarının Sorunları” (see www.istanbulrumazınlı˘gı.com), 2007; see also Macar, Cumhuriyet Döneminde Istanbul Rum Patrikhanesi ( stanbul: letis¸ im Yay 2003).
  8. Macar. “Bas¸bakanlık…”
  9. Settlement Law (1934), 20 Kura Askerlik (1941), Wealth Tax (1942), Law prohibiting professions for non-Muslims, etc.
  10. Campaigns like “Citizen speak Turkish,” hundreds of cases filed against non-Muslims under the law “denigrating Turkishness” (for more, see Cemil Koçak. Ayın Karanlık Yüzü in Tarih ve Toplum Yeni Yaklas¸ımlar. No:1, 2005. pp. 147-208; and Koçak, www.stargazete.com/yazar/cemil-kocak/gayri-muslimler-ve-turkluge-hakaretdavalari-ayin-karanlik-yuzu-haber-375966.htm.

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