A prominent Turkish scholar says President Obama today gave a tactful but powerful push to the Turkish government to confront the question of whether the killings of Armenians in 1915 were the first genocide of the 20th century.
Taner Akcam is a longtime advocate for human rights for minorities in his native Turkey, as well as an academic authority on Turkey's handling of the genocide issue. He is a professor in genocide studies at Clark University in Worcester, and author of the 2006 book, "Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and The Question of Turkish Responsibility."
Akcam said of Obama's speech to the Turkish Parliament in Ankara: "I think he really pushed the borders, in a very positive and very smart way."
Obama stopped short of using the word genocide, but applauded the Turkish government for its willingness to improve relations with neighboring Armenia, which necessarily requires dealing with the sensitive genocide issue.
Akcam said Obama went as far as any president could go in addressing a foreign country's legislature. During the presidential campaign in 2008, Obama said that the killings of the Armenians amounted to genocide. Before addressing the Turkish Parliament, Obama said that he had not changed his views, which were "on the record."
In today's address, he did not address the issue directly, but encouraged Turkey to to resolve its dispute and reopen the border with Armenia, adding: "Reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future."
Obama went on to say: "I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive."
Akcam said that Obama had in effect said, "'it is not important what I think -- which is a clever way of saying I believe it was genocide -- but I encourage you to talk to your neighbors, and am happy that you are developing your relationship with Armenia.' More than that, one could not expect."
Akcam said it was especially effective for Obama to note that the United States had also worked through contentious and vexing issues including slavery. "It was very clever because he put the United States in the center. He said, 'look, I am coming from a country where even people like myself couldn’t vote. And we have our history of mistreatment of native Americans. But now I am speaking as a president."
But Akcam said that words alone from the new US president won't be enough to overcome years of mistrust of American administrations. He said Obama would need to take specific actions to encourage Turkey to treat its minorities with greater respect, including the Kurds -- whose alphabet still cannot be used in Turkey. Akcam also said Turkey needs to repeal the law making it crime to insult "Turkishness."
Akcam himself was investigated in 2007 under that provision of the Turkish penal code when he aligned himself with the late Hrant Dink, the assassinated Turkish activist who had recognized the Armenian genocide. No charges were filed then. But Akcam had been jailed in several times in the 1970s. He escaped from prison in 1977 after serving one year of a nine-year sentence, and received asylum in Germany. He taught in Minnesota before moving to Clark.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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