Turkey’s Problem with Itself: The Sayfo Genocide and Structural State Denialism

On 15 June, Syriacs all over the world commemorate the Sayfo, the Syriac genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire and allied Kurdish tribes during the First World War.

By Marcus Yalcin Beth Shao

On 10 December 2020, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the following statement during a military ceremony in Baku celebrating the victory in the Karabakh war: “Today, may the souls of Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha and the brave soldiers of the Caucasus Islam Army rejoice.’’ The Turkish president makes a reference here to the Ottoman armies that invaded the Caucasus during World War I. Enver was the leader and Minister of War during the Syriac genocide. Nuri Pasha — Enver’s brother — led the forces that occupied Baku in 1918, leading to more pogroms and massacres. Given the fact that these statements were made by Erdoğan a century after the Syriac, Armenian, and Greek genocides, and that he made those statements in Baku, what does this tell us about the value of recognizing, prosecuting, and punishing genocide wherever it occurs?

What is Denialism and Recognition of Historical Wrongdoings?

Erdoğan’s statements in Baku make one thing very clear: denialism is not confined to deny an event that happened in the past. Denialism continues in our time and has a current meaning. According to historian and Armenian Genocide expert Taner Akcam, there is a basic misconception regarding both denial and recognition. Akcam calls it temporal compartmentalization. It has two aspects and works like this:

  • Firstly, we think that denial is a tolerable mistake towards mass atrocities.
  • Secondly, it assumes that confronting denial is establishing a moral attitude towards a single crime that we forgot to mention in the pages of history. Any connection with the present is not made.

Erdoğan’s statements remind us that there is a strong connection between denialism of an event in the past and current policies.

In the past, Syriacs were targeted and exterminated because of racial thinking. They were excluded because of their religion and ethnicity and were considered a security threat to the Ottoman government while what they were asking was very simple: equality. They wanted to live as equal citizens with their Muslim neighbors. Nothing more. The Syriacs, together with the Greek and Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire, were denied this right.

Let’s look at today’s Turkey and what is happening to the Kurds, Alevis, and Syriacs. They are denied their basic rights of citizenship. You can hardly imagine a Syriac becoming president in Turkey, even though they are “equal citizens” of Turkey on paper. One can hardly imagine a Kurdish citizen who is the president of Turkey and proudly and publicly states I’m Kurdish. These are signs that there is a strong connection between denialism of past crimes and current policies. So, if we want to fight denialism, we should understand that we are not dealing with an issue solely of the past. Denialism is a structural and ideological attitude, a mindset that reproduces the same policies in our current time.

Relating it only to past events produces the mindset among Western governments that, Yes, the genocide was a mistake but today we have more ‘important’ and ‘real’ problems like Ukraine and China and we have already recognized the genocide, so what do you want from us now? This “realpolitik” way of thinking sees mass atrocities and the denial of genocide as a moral question of past events but makes no connection to contemporary politics.

I think this must be changed by recognizing the connection between the past and the dangers composed to current generations.

Are the People and Government of Turkey Ready to Live with “Minorities” as Equals?

Let’s zoom farther in, focusing on the legal process against the Turkish Parliamentarian of Armenian descent, Garo Paylan (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP).

MP Paylan has introduced a bill designating 24 April, which marks the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, as a national day of commemoration. One of the things MP Paylan said was that, “This bill urges Turkish citizenship be granted to the descendants of the Armenian Genocide survivors who were forced to leave Turkey.” He talked about how, “recognizing, condemning, and compensating for the crimes as Turkey transitioned from an empire to a republic will allow for the construction of a peace minded memory and therefore society that can live together. […] I seek justice in Turkey, in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.”

In order to answer the aforementioned question, we can look at Apartheid in South Africa, which was based on racial differentiation, or racism in today’s America. Racism is a structural problem because it goes back to slavery. Slavery was embedded in the administrative and legal structure of the United States. So, there is a structural continuity from the past to the present.

So why does the Turkish government want to investigate MP Paylan? It’s because he asks nothing more than equal citizenship, the right of equality of every member of society, and he asks for the remembrance of 24 April as the day of extermination of the citizens of the Ottoman Empire.

I doubt whether the Turkish government is ready to accept the rule of equality. There was an opening during the first years of 2000 and after the assassination of journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. Turkey was opening and getting closer to the EU and Turkish society was hoping for a full democratization of the country. After 2013, however, Turkey went back to its default settings.

Turkey’s Default Settings

The US example is telling: racism in the US today is embedded in its systems of governance. In Turkey, too, the non-equality of its non-Muslim citizens is, today, embedded in the Turkish administrative and political system. Therefore, it’s difficult today to achieve equality in Turkey if we do not start talking about the founding principles of Turkey.

The Turkish Republic was founded by excluding its Christian minorities.

In 1914, the percentage of Christians in the Ottoman Empire was around 25%. In 2014, that same figure was roughly 0.5%. What happened to the other 24%? The Turkish Republic was established on a principle of one people, one nation, one religion. Denial of the rights of Christians fit within this ideological framework and the country’s political and legal systems functioned in that way. So, if we do not critically approach the founding principles of Turkey and recognize historical wrongdoings, I do not think it can be a truly democratic country.

In the case of MP Paylan, it was not only the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) but also the opposition parties who attacked Paylan. The reaction from opposition parties like Good Party (İyi Parti) and Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) raises serious questions about how democratic they are, how much they respect freedom of expression, and the rule of law. The reaction to Paylan’s proposal shows what critical levels political culture in Turkey has receded to. There is not a big difference between the position of Kurds today and Syriacs and Armenians in 1915. It is the same logic.

This is also a critique for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as MP Paylan stood alone with his bill. None of his Kurdish colleagues supported and signed the bill with him. As if there is an Armenian issue and this should be dealt with through an Armenian. This isolates the Armenian issue as if it is their issue and no one else’s. Kurds should understand that this is their problem as well because Garo Paylan’s bill is not only related to 1915, his bill is directly related to Turkey’s democratization today and the rights of citizenship for every Turkish citizen.

Another Default Setting

During his visit to Uruguay in April 2022, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made the sign of the pan-Turkic extremist organization the Grey Wolves to protesting Armenians. The president and foreign minister of Uruguay condemned the behavior of Turkey’s top diplomat and summoned the Turkish ambassador over the incident.

This is the effect of continuing denialism. It is the denial of rights and justice which manifests in new forms. The central question is what holds a society together?

What Holds a Society Together?

There are several reasons why people in a society live together. One central answer to this question is that we have a common story or myth about ourselves, and this story holds us together. It doesn’t matter whether this story is absolutely true, the important thing is that people believe this story and see a part of themselves in that story.

What denialism is doing today is destroying the existence of society because by showing the Grey Wolves sign and by denying the basic rights of his fellow citizens, the Turkish foreign minister and the broader state deny a common history of Turkish society. Turkey’s officials cannot hold the society together by excluding the story of others. This goes for the Syrian Arab regime as well.

In the US, a society has been established based on principles laid out by the Founding Fathers: liberal democracy and fundamental individual freedoms, like the freedom of speech, which were ideologically described in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Bill of Rights. In that story, the role of civil right groups — who fought to extend these unequally applied principles and laws in later centuries — is not represented. However, the story itself was such that it who it included could be expanded. A significant problem in Turkey today is that there are members of society that cannot find themselves in Turkey’s founding story. If Turkey does not include the pain and suffering of those who are an important part of Turkish society, Turkish society will not hold together.

Turkey’s rulers should understand that if they are interested in holding society together, they should include the story of the Syriacs, Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, and Alevis in its founding story. Turkish leaders wrongfully think that they can only hold Turkey together by excluding these stories. They are, however, dooming themselves.

Where Should the Transformation Come From?

In my first article about the Sayfo, I argued that transformation of Turkish society and politics should come from the “bottom-up”.

It is about the extension of identity which cannot be imposed from the top. Identity is a mental attitude towards ourselves, our fellow citizens, and the country’s founders. If we define ourselves as individuals only with those who have established the Turkish Republic and do not expand our identity which allows us to put a distance between “us” and the founders, we cannot develop a democratic society. The change must come from the society itself.

This is also a critique towards some part of the Syriac diaspora. They think that the democratization of Turkey is not important: “I don’t care whether Turkey is democratic or not. They should just recognize Sayfo and return of our historical lands and be done with it.”

I think this is the wrong approach. A real conversation should be had with and between members of Turkish civil society. The strong connection between freedom of speech, freedom of cultural identity, democracy, and the rectification of historical wrongdoings must be central in contemporary Turkish society. We can only correct wrongdoings when there are democratic conditions in Turkey. Democracy itself does not solve historical injustice, it requires more than that, but it is the ticket to the stadium to fight for justice.

What Can Syriacs Do?

I would say that the era of recognition of Sayfo has been partially established. Using international relations to pressure Turkey to accept Sayfo is to pray for something that would never happen, simply because Turkey plays an important role in NATO, Europe, and the Middle East.

I think rectifying justice or reparation is on the agenda. It is a part of American domestic policy. With the formal and symbolic recognition by the US executive branch, it may pave the way for reparations. The US legal system allows its citizens to file lawsuits in US courts against countries and companies who have committed crimes in the past and have profited from them. Therefore, Syriac individuals and organizations should come together, set up a research center, and put the issue of reparation as an important domestic political agenda. This is doable and we can learn from the Jewish experience.