‘Cove tutti sono colpevoli nessuno e colpevole.’ (Sicilian saying)
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s award winning film, Taste of Cherry, is about a man in mid-life crisis, determined to commit suicide but is in desperate need of a helping hand because of the peculiar way that he chooses to do it.
After a long search around the suburbs of Tehran, and after being refused by two candidates – a soldier from Kurdistan and a Muslim cleric of Afghan origin – the suicidal character finally finds the man he has been looking for. This collaborator turns out to be a wise man with a repertoire of stories around the theme of death instinct, one of which is about a Turk:
‘A Turk goes to see a doctor. He tells him: “when I touch my finger on my body, my body hurts. When I touch my head, it hurts; my legs, they hurt; my belly and my hand, they both hurt.” The doctor examines him and says: “Your body is fine but your finger is broken!”
Then comes the ‘moral of the story’: ‘My dear man, your mind is ill. But there is nothing wrong with you. Change your outlook!’
Taken out of its cinematic context, this story can be taken as a useful metaphor of what is innately wrong with the Turkish identity: the ‘broken finger, that is, an essential problem circled around and around, but is still lacking appropriate articulation, since with this very broken finger, the Turkish subject is unable to touch the epicenter of his discomfort.
Clearly, the appropriate signifier of this broken finger is ‘genocide’, which was pronounced most recently by the US president Joe Biden on April 24, 2021. Although the US has thus become the 33rd country to recognize the Armenian genocide, after 106 years of denial, this seems to have made no impact on the Turkish attitude towards recognition.
Government and the parliamentary opposition united, except for the pro-Kurdish HDP, to condemn the US president.
Auschwitz survivor Thomas Bürgenthal questioned this attitude back in 2001: ‘I don’t know why the Turks can’t admit it, express sorrow and move on. That’s the worst. You do all these things to the victim and then you say it never happened. That is killing them twice’.
The second murder literally happened in recent months with the Turkish military involvement in the Karabagh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azeri president Aliev’s picture with killed Armenian soldiers’ helmets and mummied bodies, which was reported in the Turkish media with national pride and enthusiasm, documents this act of killing twice.
Bürgenthal’s point is certainly not limited to such literal repetition of the genocide, but the continuity of its results both on its victims and perpetrators. Focusing on the perpetrators’ side, what needs to be clarified at the outset is the definition of the actor, which, in Biden’s recent speech for instance, was emphasised as the Ottoman state. There are others who tend to narrow this definition even further to the Young Turk regime (Ittihatçılar), who were in power at the time, or to a specific man, Talat, who issued the order of ‘deportation’ and supervised its execution. Such attempts are flawed because they exaggerate the rupture and overlook ample evidence indicating the economic, social, political and ideological continuity between the old regime and the republic.
If the continuity of the state’s responsibility is agreed upon, then the address of Bürgenthal’s question becomes obvious as the contemporary Turkish state. This is still a narrow focus given the popular participation in the chain of massacres and the immense amount of land and property extraction and reapproriation in the event’s aftermath.
The continuity between the ancient regime and republic, and the intertwined responsibility of the official and popular realms in the context of genocide can best be observed in an address by the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal, to Cilicia farmers in 1923:
“Armenians have no place in this noble country. Your country is yours, it belong to Turks. This country was the Turks’ land in history and therefore it is Turkish and it will remain Turkish to the eternity. (…) This fertile land is purely Turks’ country.”
Inherent to this statement of denial is an authoritarian call to collective amnesia that denies both the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of the past and the genocidal event that destroyed it. As a psychic defence mechanism originating from castration anxiety, denial was defined by Freud as follows: ‘The ego rejects the incompatible idea with its affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all’. Turkish identity, as a national-popular belief system, compels the Turkish subject to persistently behave as if the historical existence in Anatolia of Armenians, Greeks and other Chrisitian communities had never occurred at all. Denial, therefore, is the innate defence mechanism of Turkish political psyche.
The fact that the Turkish identity constituted itself in an antagonistic perception of the ‘Christians within’ explains what is referred to as the ‘continuity of genocide’ by which the survivors have been subjected to official discrimination and popular intimidation throughout the republican history.
The Kurds would argue that not only the continuation but the repetition of genocide and denial needs to be talked about. Once denial became the distinctive omen of Turkishness, the republican authority extended its scope to invite the Muslim/Turkish population to forget their ancestral memory traces. In 1925, in the aftermath of the first Kurdish rebellion against the republican authority Mustafa Kemal stated:
“There are citizens and members of our nation inside the political and social entity of contemporary Turkish nation, to whom the propaganda of the ideas of being Kurdish, Cyrcassian and even Laz are attempted. But these misnomers failed to have any influence on any members of the nation.”
Kurdish resistance to Turkification did not end with the quelling of this uprising nor did the violent reaction and sustained denial by the Turkish authorities.
In fact the day president Biden called his Turkish counterpart, Erdoğan, to communicate his determination to pronounce the word ‘genocide’ the next day, a new cross-border Turkish military expedition against the Kurdish ‘Medya defence territory’ was underway. The first Monday that followed the ‘genocide day’, 26 April 2021, has become the day when the trial of the pro-Kurdish HDP politicians about Kobane demonstrations. The trial was tailored specifically as a way to avoid compliance with the European Court of Human Rights’ decree to release the party’s founding leader Selahattin Demirtaş from prison. Demirtaş, along with the leading cadres of HDP, has been jailed since 2016 on allegations of committing various political ‘crimes’.
The Kobane trial, along with many of its kind, which aims to silence the Kurdish political opposition to the policies of the Turkish establishment, is a typical case of what the Kurds call ‘political genocide’. On 24 April 1915, the genocide began with the arrest and deportation of 250 Armenian intellectuals, parliamentary deputies and politicians in Istanbul. On 26 April 2021, 108 Kurdish intellectuals, parliamentary deputies and politicians are standing trial for calling public to demonstrate against the jihadist aggression on the Kurds in Syria in 2014. HDP is the only political entity in Turkey which calls the Turkish state to recognise the Armenian genocide.
Genocidal process began 106 years ago with an attack on the heads of the targeted victims.
One possible answer to Bürgenthal’s question regarding the Turkish insistence on denial can therefore be that denial, as a psychological defence mechanism, is the constitutive core of Turkish identity, and as such if it is left aside the whole identity perception would be at stake. Paradoxically, without taking this risk it is impossible to imagine an alternative perception of collective identity for the citizens of Turkey in the 21st Century. The first step of such imagination has to be the recognition of collective guilt along with developing remorse and empathy for the victims.
As Selahattin Demirtaş argues, ‘Without the Armenian problem being solved, an agreement between the Republic of Turkey and the Kurds will be a shaky compromise based on the blood of other peoples.’
The Turk’s ‘broken finger’ needs to be plastered before dreaming of any collective future, which is any better than the past or the present.