Open letter rekindles Turkish debate on Armenian massacre


ANGRY DEBATES fuelled by an online initiative inviting individual Turks to apologise for the ethnic cleansing of Armenians during the first World War showed no signs of fading this week, as Turkey's president took an opposition deputy to court for an alleged racial slur, writes NICHOLAS BIRCHin Istanbul

Lawyers for Abdullah Gul announced on Monday that he was seeking symbolic compensation from Canan Aritman after she hinted his mother had Armenian roots.

"Gul should be president of the entire Turkish nation, not just of those sharing his ethnicity," Ms Aritman said on December 17th. "Look into Gul's roots on his mother's side, and you'll see."

Her outburst followed Mr Gul's description of the initiative, which has attracted 20,000 signatures since it was launched on December 15th, as compatible with a democratic society.

"My conscience does not accept the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915," the open letter reads. "I reject this injustice . . . and empathise with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers. I apologise to them."

Mr Gul's doveish tone was characteristic of a man who, in September, became the first Turkish statesman to visit Armenia, triggering hopes of a rapprochement between the two countries after nearly a century of enmity.

Turkey and Armenia remain at loggerheads over what exactly happened in 1915. Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but insists they were victims of interethnic conflicts that claimed more Muslim victims.

For Armenians, and most western historians, the ethnic cleansing that killed at least 600,000 Armenians amounted to genocide.

Ten years ago, openly debating 1915 in Turkey was all but impossible. Today, universities organise conferences on the issue, and bookshops sell books by western and Armenian historians, alongside texts defending the official Turkish thesis.

Journalist Semin Gumusel ascribes the new openness to a general change in attitudes in Turkey. "In the past, Turks used to listen to the big men and nod their heads obediently," she says.

"But the days of blind obedience are over. People ask questions now."

Others attribute the initiative to the shock that followed the murder of the Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink. A leading advocate of a more humane debate on the Armenian issue, Dink was gunned down by a nationalist teenager in January 2007.

"When he died, it was as if a veil had been torn from the eyes of the democratic-minded citizens of this country," says Nil Mutluer, a feminist activist who signed the letter. "People realised there was no time to be lost."

The road ahead looks hard. The chief organisers of the 1915 massacres continue to be commemorated in street names across the country.

Ms Aritman has not been the only public figure to criticise the open letter.

Senior generals said it damaged the country. Prime minister Tayyip Erdogan was contemptuous: "[The signatories] must have committed genocide themselves since they are apologising," he said last Friday. "The Turkish Republic does not have such a problem."

Met with nothing worse than a mild slap on the wrist from her party, meanwhile, Ms Aritman upped the ante on Monday.

"These days, scientists use DNA tests, not family trees, to identify ethnic identity," she said, referring to Mr Gul's insistence he was of Turkish stock.

"My slogan is 'happy is he who says I am a Turk'," she added, using a well-known slogan of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.

Managing editor of Radikal, a liberal daily, Erdal Guven describes Ms Aritman's party's failure to sack her as "a disgrace".

"It is a pity too that Gul didn't make it more clear that it would have made no difference if his granny had been an Armenian."