Wednesday, 21 March 2012

History as a political weapon...

Just before Christmas, the French government passed a law that made it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks in 1915. Anyone caught breaking the law will be fined 45,000 euros and be sent to jail for a year. As a result, Turkey withdrew their ambassador to the French government, immediately cutting ties with officials and preventing some French military flights. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan then accused France of committing genocide in Algeria. He also stated that the law would stir up hatred towards Turkish Muslims. This is not the first time the law has caused controversy, back in 2006 similar legislation was debated in the French Parliament but it was forgotten in the wake of a Turkish backlash.

The conflict began when the Turks deported thousands of Armenians from Eastern Anatolia, and over one million died of starvation or disease. The Turks claim this number is exaggerated, the figure is more likely 300,000. (Which is still a HUGE number.) Over 20 countries have stated the conflict amounted to genocide. Genocide was defined in 1948 as acts intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group". This could include physical or attempted acts of violence, as well as religious or cultural genocide in which one group was targeted because of their beliefs. Historians debate whether the deaths in Armenia were ‘intentional’, the crucial argument to refute the label of genocide. But another part of the genocide definition is creating the conditions in which genocide can occur, i.e., the Turks forced the Armenians into starvation and death. It is difficult to claim whether the Turks ordered a systematic killing of Armenians, but creating these conditions ultimately led to genocide.

In Turkey, Article 301 of the penal code states that punishment will be carried out to those who use the term genocide to describe the conflict against the Armenians. It states that anyone who violates this law would be “insulting Turkishness”. This is not a new campaign, indeed the war against recognising the genocide has been waged since the 1920’s. More than anything this shows us that history is not confined to the past, and its legacy can be dangerous. The Turkish example indicates that arguments about genocide challenge the very nature of Turkish identity – a nation does not want to admit to a horrific past, as it threatens the patriotism and honour of the country and the people within it.

The problem is free speech. It sickens me that people continue to deny the Holocaust, but should there be a law stating, as in France, that Holocaust deniers should be punished? Involving politics in historical memory is dangerous, because eventually, where do you draw the line? What about other massacres? What about atrocities committed by the French? Is it likely that the French government will issue a law making it illegal to deny genocide in Algeria? While the genocide should be admitted, it is ironic that the laws in both Turkey and France have the same outcome – they restrict free speech.

Using history as a political weapon is far from over, but this example shows we cannot hide from the past – otherwise, it can only haunt us, like a shadow.

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