On Saturday, November 9, the Armenian National Committee of America – Eastern Region (ANCA-ER) honored Dr. Taner Akçam, Chair of Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, with the Freedom Award during its 13th annual banquet in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Armenian Weekly Editorial Board has chosen to publish Dr. Akçam's poignant formal remarks below.
Good evening. Before all else—and for reasons that will be explained later on, I would like to read you a portion from a letter I received on Thursday.
"Dr. Akçam. I write you this letter to thank you for all you have done and continue doing for the good of my people in specific and for all humanity in general. I like to start by saying the following: You are Turkish and I am Armenian. You are my brother. I have attended many of your lectures and speeches, whether it was on April 24th in New York City, N.Y., or whether it was at the Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, or elsewhere. And every time we met, we have had extensive discussions right after you delivered your speech. It is unfortunate that I am not going to be able to attend the festivities this... Saturday ... However, I want you to remember, that while the reward is being bestowed upon you, I along with the other thousands of avid listeners ... will be applauding you, cheering you, celebrating you and sending you our sincere appreciations for all you have done, because we know that no one is more deserving to receive this than you. We love you so much, and please don't forget that your name will be engraved in the hearts of all Armenians."
Just to be clear, I am not reading this to sing my own praises. Rather, I would like, as the author of this letter did, to open my heart to you too...
I must acknowledge that I feel myself greatly honored by this prize and utterly smothered in your love. It is all the more humbling—embarrassing, even—in that I know that I have not and do not fully merit these. Indeed, every time you look at me and I see the love in your eyes, when you open your hearts to me, I almost die of embarrassment, I am so ashamed.
My works, upon which you heap so much praise, and which you receive with boundless enthusiasm... they're nothing special—and deep down, you know this. The work I do is nothing extraordinary—it's mundane almost to the point of boring. I speak the truth. The truth, and nothing but the truth, because there is—or shouldn't be—any particular praise reserved for simply speaking the truth.
Indeed, speaking the truth must not be seen as deserving of extraordinary praise. Speaking the truth should not be seen as an exemplary act of courage; speaking the truth should be the most ordinary, everyday thing one does.
And so, in being chosen as the recipient of this praise, of this love, I am both humbled and embarrassed—angry even, and cursing the fact that we find ourselves in a state of affairs in which the simple act of "saying what's right" is somehow deemed both praiseworthy and prize-worthy.
I would call on you to join me: let us together create a world in which this doesn't happen.
There is often a price to pay for speaking the truth. You are all well-aware of the fate of Hrant Dink, who was murdered in 2007. But he wasn't killed merely for speaking the truth; he was killed for being an Armenian.
In truth, all Hrant desired were very simple things: that historical truths be known and acknowledged, that he could openly state that he was an Armenian in Turkey, and to be able to live in Turkey unquestioningly, with the same legal and civil rights as other citizens. He wanted this, and the dream one day be realized that the walls of mistrust and hate between Turkey and Armenia and their peoples be one day toppled. That the border be opened. That Turkey and Armenia live side-by-side as friends and neighbors.
As a close friend of Hrant, I ask myself over and over: What must we do to realize his vision? Hrant fought against the darkness, a darkness with which Turkey's century of denialist policies have blanketed their nation and obscured its people's vision. But it is not simply their eyes that have been blinded. Their hearts have been sealed as well. What Hrant did was to create a small opening in the wall of denial, an aperture through which rays of light could reach blinkered eyes and closed hearts.
And this is the answer that I found to my question: my task—the one to which I have set my hand—is to widen that hole, to allow in even more light. It is for this reason that I see myself obliged to struggle against genocide denialism in Turkey.
The darkness that enshrouds Turkey, Hrant's murder: these are both, in the broader sense, products of the longstanding denialist policies of successive Turkish regimes. We can liken this denialism to the former apartheid regime in South Africa, a regime in which the principles of equality, democratic rights and freedoms were trampled under foot, a regime that was at constant war with its neighbors.
There is an authoritarian regime in Turkey today. The country's intellectuals are either persecuted and hunkered down or obliged to flee abroad. And Turkey finds itself today struggling with its neighbors.
The principal reason for this state of affairs is the country's inability or unwillingness to confront its own history. A nation that fails to come to terms with its own history and acknowledge its crimes is more liable to repeat its own errors, its own crimes. Thus, the trauma experienced by the Armenians has the potential of being repeated with the Kurds.
This is something that most Americans—first and foremost American politicians—fail to understand. It is generally assumed—to the extent that the matter is even raised—that the question of the now-century-old Armenian Genocide is simply a moral one. The United States has its own national interests in the Middle East. "By acknowledging a certain historical truth we put our interests at risk," they say, preferring to ignore any potential "national interest" contained in taking a moral approach toward an historical event from a century before and...thus, for many decades the United States Senate and White House have refused to officially recognize the truth of the Armenian Genocide, claiming "national interest" as the grounds for doing so.
This has been the greatest error of all. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not simply an academic judgment on a historical event, nor is it simply a "moral" issue. Rather, it is a precondition sine qua non of the realpolitik that is to be pursued in the Middle East. Acknowledging the Genocide is most necessary today for Turkey, since such acknowledgment is necessary for the development of a truly democratic and free society, one in which the regime is obligated to recognize the civil rights of its citizens.
Turkey's acknowledgment of the crimes of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, is a precondition for its people to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other peoples of the region. As long as the Turks continue to deny the Genocide, the Arab, Kurdish, Christian and other peoples of the region will continue to look upon them as the potential perpetrators of new "ethnic cleansings." Turkey's denialist policies are a regional security threat, plain and simple.
In other words, genocide acknowledgment is not simply an Armenian moral demand. İt is necessary for the future of peace and democracy in the Middle East. By definition, that makes it a "national interest" of the United States.
If we truly desire peace and stability in the region, if we truly desire to see democracy flourish in Turkey, if we wish to see Turkey and Armenia maintaining friendly, neighborly relations, if we wish to see Armenians and Muslim Turks living as full and equal citizens within Turkey, if we ever hope to see a Turkey where Hrant Dinks are not murdered in the streets, then we must struggle for this acknowledgment.
For me, this is the meaning of this special award that you've bestowed upon me: the recognition of the struggle for truth and justice against denial. Truth is the concept, the "magic word" that has the power to solve a multitude of problems.
I am deeply honored, grateful and humbled that you have seen me worthy to receive this award. Thank you.