A leading U.S. specialist in genocide studies sees this year’s “virtual commemorations” of the Armenian genocide conditioned by the need to cope with the spread of a deadly virus as potentially a new additional way for reaching out for a stronger global recognition in the future.
Henry Theriault, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Worcester State University and President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, spoke to RFE/RL Armenian Service Director Harry Tamrazian on the eve of April 24, which Armenians in Armenia and around the world mark as an anniversary of World War I-era killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
Leading international scholars and more than two dozen governments in the world recognize the killings of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies any planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate Armenians, ascribing the deaths that it claims were on a much lower scale to the consequences of civil strife, disease, and starvation.
Instead of holding traditional annual mass events commemorating the genocide victims, including hundreds of thousands of Armenians’ marching towards a hilltop genocide memorial in Yerevan known as Tsitsernakaberd, Armenia’s authorities this year limited the remembrance events to ceremonies involving only officials. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Armenians sent text messages to a designated telephone number and their names were projected on the slabs of the memorial on April 24-25 night. The night before, in conditions of the stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus epidemic, street lights were switched off and church bells pealed across the country in memory of the victims.
“I don’t think that one year of changing the form of remembrance of the Armenian genocide will have a very strong impact. Quite the opposite. I think that in fact it will allow Armenians to recognize and remember the genocide in a different way from how it was before and that will be a positive change,” Theriault said.
“And I think also more practically it will help Armenians develop new ways of out-reaching regarding the Armenian genocide particularly in using electronic media in ways perhaps the community has not used before around the world, and that those tools will actually become very useful in the future. The idea of having very strong virtual commemorations alongside, I hope next year, very strong in-person commemorations will actually perhaps double the impact of the commemorations and allow for an even stronger global recognition of the Armenian genocide,” he added.
Last year the U.S. Congress almost unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
Theriault thinks it took the United States decades to adopt the resolution because of the political and military influence that Turkey had had in Washington as well as due to “a lack of commitment generally in the United States and elsewhere around the world for human rights issues.”
“That changed, I think, as the equation in the region in which Turkey sits has changed. Turkey has become less aligned with the United States in many ways. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has become more of a wild card and has pursued his own agenda at times with some animosity towards the United States. So, I think that that widened the gap between the U. S. political and military interests and Turkish political and military interests which opened the door to the possibility of this change,” the scholar said.
Theriault believes that Turkey’s denial of the genocide today “does not have the power that it once did.” “People are not naive about denial anymore and so the effect of the Turkish government and its allies on efforts to stop passage of this bill, to deny the genocide in popular and academic circles really has decreased and so I think with all those factors together the time was right last year finally for passage of this resolution,” he said.
Theriault believes that Ankara’s denial has two dimensions. “One is the obvious political and economic interest in preventing recognition because of fear, in my opinion, of reparations. I think Turkey is very afraid that if it admits the Armenian genocide, there will be legal consequences particularly around expropriated Armenian wealth… But I think at the same time – and this has actually become worse in the last five years – denial of the Armenian genocide is unfortunately tied very closely to a fragile Turkish national self-image, an image that often presents Turkey in an impossibly positive light. No country is free from human rights violations, but Turkey presents itself internationally as this incredibly untainted and perfect country. And the glaring truth of the Armenian genocide undercuts this image that it presents and its own self-image,” he said.
In the scholar’s opinion the annual letters that the Turkish president sends on April 24 to the Armenian spiritual leader of Istanbul and in which he regrets the 1915 Armenian deaths but stops short of admitting they were part of a premeditated and concerted effort of the Ottoman government to exterminate are “a subtler form of denial.”
“I think it’s impossible to outright deny that Armenians suffered significantly in the late Ottoman Empire and in the early Turkish national period. I think that the historical record is so clear, so the best that Turkey can do to try to look credible in denying the Armenian genocide is to take the kind of line that Erdogan has taken, which is to try to relativize suffering to try to recognize without actually going as far as recognizing this as a case of one-sided mass violence by a government against the minority group that clearly qualifies as genocide,” he said.“I think Erdogan is a very shrewd politician. He knows that if he gave a naïve, extreme form of denial it would be apparent to everyone and he would not be able to have any credibility. So, he adopts a subtler approach… I still think it’s not very effective, even that subtler approach is not very effective at this point.
Official Ankara on Friday reacted angrily to the statement by U.S. President Donald Trump in which the American leader, while not using the word “genocide”, described the 1915 Armenian killings as “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.”
Theriault said, however, that as an American he was relieved that “Trump wouldn’t be the first sitting U.S. president to recognize the Armenian genocide.”
“I think that would carry some baggage for Armenians because his record on human rights both within the United States and internationally is extremely poor,” the genocide scholar said. “I think the fact that he does not recognize the Armenian genocide actually in one strange way is a confirmation of the importance of this case and the legitimacy of this case.”