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Yavuz Baydar

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Paris's Folly

Posted: 01/26/2012 3:44 pm

The French Senate's passing of the bill which criminalizes the denial of the mass deportations and massacres of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 is simply an act of folly.

Let us first ignore the disproportionate and questionable (in principle) reaction of Ankara, which seems to echo the folly at new heights. Regardless of that, the vote on Monday night will serve nothing good, other than the short-term interests of the French politicians. But, in the mid- and long-term perspective, it will set a negative example of how the French decision-makers attempt to limit the area of free speech and cause delays in Turkey's social process of reconciliation of the disaster and bringing it to a closure.

To begin with, the text of the law is problematic. Both of the terms used to describe the 'crimes' ('outranciere' -- 'outragous' and 'minimiser' -- 'to minimize') -- defined as 'genocide.' These terms are, to say the least, ambiguous, and open to interpretation.

And, I am inclined to believe, the law contradicts the Article #34 of Constitution of France. Namely the part, that goes: '... civic rights and the fundamental guarantees granted to citizens for the exercise of their civil liberties; freedom, diversity and the independence of the media; the obligations imposed for the purposes of national defense upon the person and property of citizens...' It seems doomed to bounce from the Constitutional Council.

It is surely a domestic matter for the French to take the issue further, but I have an inkling it will flare up only after the presidential elections. But what happened is exactly as described in the Anatolian proverb: "A madman throws a stone into a well, it takes 40 [sane] men to take it out." What happens, say, if Turkish, German or Russian military archives (still fully coiled or with strictly limited access) offer new aspects in the future for academics to question the thesis of "Armenian Genocide?" It may be a weak prospect, but what if? No doubt, the current law already puts a great strain on the freedom of French scholarship on the subject.

What unites Turkey and countries like France is their willingness to restrict freedom of speech in the matter of genocide. True, in many cases, the denial of crimes of this nature can fall into the domain of racism and sheer hatred, thus offending the victims' kin, but more often it is used worldwide to exercise skeptical views, doubt, nuances and civilized objections.

In Turkey, there are many such examples of people who fall into the latter category, separate from Armenian-haters or nationalists, and their restraint in calling it genocide is based on the lack of proper debate, and French-like laws -- such as Article No. 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) -- which scare them from debating freely. Therefore, many of us here fight firmly to have Article 301 fully abolished so that more and more Turks can be informed and reach their own conclusions. The more they have access to diverse views, the more revived their conscience will be to face the Great Pain of the Armenians. The less third-party interventions by legislating history and through memory laws, the easier the process. Thus, Paris has only hit the brakes on this one.

The immediate effect of the folly is the mutual political instrumentalization of the tragedy. As described spot-on by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian newspaper, ("In France, genocide has become a political brickbat," Jan. 18): .

.. a tragedy which should be the subject for grave commemoration and free historical debate, calmly testing even wayward hypotheses against the evidence, is reduced to an instrument of political manipulation, a politician's brickbat. The corpse counts of yesterday are parlayed into the vote counts of tomorrow. You accuse me of genocide, I accuse you of genocide.

The Armenian diaspora in France and elsewhere may feel (with justification from their perspective) relieved, and many Turks -- still not fully aware of the crimes of humanity in their past -- feel outraged, but what brings them together is the usage of their lack of closure by outside actors. They are abused. France is not, and will never, be on the high moral ground on this one.

A good sign, after all, is the reaction by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. By underlining "patience and calm," he seems to have chosen the right track to reduce the tension. Where does he stand on 1915? Not so clear, but he is the one that initiated the Turkish glasnost 10 years ago -- a process that moves in slow motion and hits bumps on the path. The awakening is now a fact, and irreversible.

The process of Turkey's glasnost is based on taking into account the bloody tradition of the Young Turks and the Committee of Union and Progress, which set the patterns 100 years ago through a series of erratic moves and crimes against humanity.

If anything, Erdoğan knows what he is up against and who in Turkey supports him if he aims for historic closure.

 

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