April 24th marked the 95th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, the systematic annihilation of more than 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman-era Turkish authorities. On March 4, 2010, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted in favor of Resolution 252 to recognize the Genocide. The next step is to achieve recognition in the full House of Representatives. The Armenian Genocide, the first of the 20th Century, included massacres, deportations, and death marches where hundreds of thousands were herded into the Syrian Desert to die of thirst and starvation. Without final rites, the remains of these victims lay strewn across the desert in testament to a horrific demise.
Modern-day Turkish authorities sadly have chosen to deny this chapter of Turkish history and have sought every opportunity to discredit the findings of legitimate genocide scholars. Notable scholars and historians who recognize the Armenian Genocide include the International Association of Genocide Scholars and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity whose opinion is supported by 53 Nobel Laureates. Yet, in the face of all the evidence, Turkey presses on, exporting a legacy of Genocide denial - a legacy ruthlessly enforced within its own borders. In Turkey, anyone who uses the word "genocide" to describe the massacre of the Armenians is subject to criminal punishment under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The late journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted under this article, and after being marked as an "enemy of the state," was slain in 2007 by a 17-year old Turkish nationalist. In 2005, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's first Nobel Laureate, was charged with the crime of insulting Turkishness, because he too made mere reference to the Armenian Genocide during an interview. Thankfully, an international outcry spared him from full prosecution.
Affirmative denial of the Armenian Genocide - as well as denial of similar aggression directed in the past at millions of Greeks, Assyrians and other religious minorities -- compromises Turkey's ability to tell the positive story of its economic and political progress in recent years. It also reinforces international perceptions that Turkey is still governed by a repressive impulse - one that continues to be directed at those of its peoples who do not comply with a rigid definition of "Turkishness." For years, Turkey has discriminated against its largest ethnic minority by outlawing the Kurdish language, suppressing the Kurdish culture, and officially classifying Kurds as Mountain Turks, or Eastern Turks. Even the religious liberties of Turkey's Muslim majority are subjected to discriminatory state controls.
In Congress, there is significant support for recognizing the Armenian Genocide, but sponsors of a resolution to do just that have been thwarted by Turkey's relentless lobbying campaign. Threatening all manner of retaliation should the resolution pass, Turkey has convinced some members that such action would imperil Turkish-American relations. The United States should be confident enough about the mutual stake both parties have in their relationship to know otherwise. Furthermore, the experience of other nations suggests there is every reason to believe that America's recognition of the Armenian Genocide will ultimately enhance, not damage, its relations with Turkey. The European Parliament and the legislatures of more than twenty countries including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia, have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. Turkey has not halted its attempts to join the European Union, and its political and economic relationship with each of these countries has only grown since their Genocide recognition.
By speaking candidly to our ally, we can encourage Turkey to face the dark chapters of its past and abandon the destructive ventures of its present, such as the ongoing state-sanctioned discrimination against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the continued occupation of the Republic of Cyprus and the disenfranchisement of the Kurdish minority. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide can serve as a catalyst in securing Turkey's status as a European democracy worthy of full European Union membership.
I have heard the common refrain: "It's just not a good time." That excuse - and it is only an excuse - can always be trotted out based on one or another issue that may be pending between the United States and Turkey. But that excuse ignores the moral imperative to recognize the Genocide and misunderstands that such recognition will actually enhance Turkish-American relations and advance America's strategic interests.
For the sake of its core values and in true furtherance of its strategic interests, the United States must take a deep breath, look its ally Turkey in the eye, and recognize the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide to be an unambiguous fact of history.