I have never discussed Dutch politics on this blog and I hardly ever discuss the Armenian genocide, but today I will discuss both as the genocide suddenly started to play a big part in the run-up to the Dutch parliamentary elections on November 22. And no, this time it has nothing to do with Turkey’s possible accession to the European Union, nor with Orhan Pamuk or the French genocide law. In fact, this issue has been going on for a few weeks now, and I have been itching to write about it (especially since Nebahat Albayrak’s statement – see below), but as usually I didn’t have the peace of mind and the time to sit down and put my thoughts into writing. Sorry Simon, for being so late.
Things started rolling some time late September, when both the Christen-Democratic party CDA and the labor Party PvdA (the two largest political parties in Holland, the CDA is part of the current government, the PvdA is the largest opposition party) removed in total three people of Turkish descent from their lists of candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections because they denied the Armenian genocide, contrary to both parties’ official lines. The Dutch parliament unanimously recognized the Armenian genocide in 2004, i.e. the MPs of Turkish descent voted in favor as well. None of the three who have now been removed are at present or were at that time MPs.
Erdinc Sacan, the politician removed from the PvdA-list was apparently one of leaders of a group of Dutch-Turkish politicians denying the genocide. He also runs a website with an internet forum where the genocide is actively being denied. Osman Elmaci and Ayhan Tonca, the two CDA-politicians, initially acknowledged the official point of view of their party recognizing the genocide, but denied this one or two days later in an interview with a Turkish newspaper. As a result they were also removed from the party’s list of parliamentary candidates. Tonca has been the chairman of the organization that runs the Turkish state-mosques in Holland for years and in this capacity he had more than once called the Armenian genocide ‘a lie’. This organization is connected to the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, in one of the articles I read it was described as “the Dutch leg of the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs”.
After their removal from the party-lists, the Turkish parliament awarded the three the title of ‘honorary parliamentarians’ [link in Dutch].
These events started a discussion in Dutch media, raising some important points. First of all, I think it opened many eyes to the large influence the Turkish authorities apparently have on politicians of Turkish decent in other European countries (at least in Holland, but my guess is that it won’t be much different in for example Germany). All three removed candidates have been active in local and provincial politics for years. It also raised questions about possible double loyalties of MPs of Turkish descent and the collision of such double loyalties: Holland or Turkey?
Finally, a lot of criticism was directed at the political parties involved, CDA and PvdA. The impression I got from the Dutch media is that the removal of the candidates itself is not being questioned. But the fact that these parties had put them on their candidacy-lists in the first place seems to be considered a big error of judgment by the party leaders and the party-committees that selected the candidates. In their quest for the votes of ethnical minorities living in Holland (read: mostly Turkish and Moroccan people), they were blind to anything but the non-Dutch name of the person, the parties didn’t look too hard at who they were actually selecting.
Nebahat Albayrak’s statement
Logically, the question was raised what the opinion on the Armenian genocide was of other MPs and candidate-MPs of Turkish descent. Attention was especially turned to Nebahat Albayrak [link in Dutch], MP for the PvdA since 1998 and the number two on the list of candidates for the upcoming elections. At first she seemed to try to avoid having to express an opinion at all, but eventually she came up with an essay in Trouw newspaper in which she appears to state that indeed a genocide of the Armenians took place. However, when you read the text closely, not much is left of this at first sight rather bold statement for a politician of Turkish descent. As I couldn’t find any links to an English translation, I will paraphrase the article extensively.
Albayrak doesn’t deny that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed during World War I: the exact number doesn’t really matter, whether it is about threehundred thousand (as the Turkish government claims) or up to 1.5 million (as the Armenians claim). So if we talk about what happened / is happening in Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia as a genocide, than we can surely use the term for the killings of Armenians, because the scale and magnitude were the same if not bigger. Albayrak doesn’t see a problem in the use of the word genocide as a colloquial term. That is about as far as she goes in her acceptance of the word genocide. She does not acknowledge the use of the legal term genocide, as the intent to destroy the Armenian people has not been proven beyond doubt (intent of the perpetrators is part of the legal definition of genocide). Because of this, Albayrak continues, the Turkish state has every right to fight against the use of the legal term genocide.
Albayrak does think that the continuous refusal of the Turkish authorities to conduct independent and thorough research into the killings of Armenians undermines the position of the Turkish government. She insists that things are changing now in Turkey and that the start of independent research is becoming inevitable and this moment getting nearer. Armenia’s refusal to cooperate in such independent and thorough research is something the European Union should not take for granted. Such an investigation into history is even more necessary, because all the sources, both Turkish and Armenian, are ‘contaminated’: “Everything Armenians state is denied by the Turkish and the other way around”. Only through independent and thorough investigation can be verified whether there was a predetermined plan for the mass killings or whether things got out of hand and the deportations of Armenians to Syria made many more victims than expected. Such an investigation is also needed to find out the truth regarding the Turkish statement that Armenians collaborated with the Russian enemy during World War I.
All in all, I was not too impressed with Albayrak’s statements, she doesn’t take a clear position. Besides, her statements come rather close to what denialists keep repeating. This was also the gist of several reactions to Albayrak’s statements, most notably that of Ton Zwaan of the University of Amsterdam, an expert in genocide-studies. Although his essay was written as a reaction to Nebahat Albayrak’s essay, Zwaan’s text touches on many of the standard arguments used by denialists. As he wrote an excellent reply to Albayrak’s statements, I will not pick at her text myself, but I will leave that up to Zwaan. Again, unfortunately no English translation as far as I am aware, so I will give an extensive summary.
Zwaan posits that Albayrak’s statements about the Armenian genocide show not only ignorance (or rather: lack of knowledge; Albayrak herself has indeed admitted that she was not very familiar with this part of history), but at times also a very questionable interpretation of events past, which come rather close to the current official Turkish-nationalist denialist policy. Zwaan questions whether Albayrak is actually aware of indeed how close.
Zwaan starts out briefly explaining the three main components of Turkish denialism. The first is the total denial of the Armenian genocide: it just didn’t happen. Another way of denial is a partial acknowledgment combined with doubting to a very large extent the seriousness of the events and doubting the historical sources. A third way of denial is diffusing the distinction between victims and perpetrators, for example by claiming there was a civil war going on or by turning things upside-down: claiming that the victims were the perpetrators and the perpetrators the victims. Zwaan then claims that Albayrak’s statements come very close to the second and third variants of denial and he goes on to counter them in more detail.
Even though most independent scholars estimate the amount of people killed in the genocide as between 800,000 and 1 million, Albayrak states that numbers are not the most important thing and takes a low estimate of about 500,000 victims. Zwaan considers this playing down the facts and showing a lack of respect for all those men, women and children who fell victim to the killings.
Next, Zwaan takes on Albayrak’s statement that “all sources about the genocide are contaminated”. Her emphasis on ‘all’ makes all sources about the genocide suspicious, including the many archival sources that have been freely used in historical research. Zwaan mentions as an example the archives of the German foreign service. During World War I, Germany and the Ottoman empire were allies and many German diplomats, military staff and others were present in the Ottoman empire at that time and wrote detailed reports and eye witness accounts about the deportations and mass killings.
Another generalizing statement from Albayrak that Zwaan takes on, is that “everything Armenians say, is being denied by the Turkish and the other way around.” This is way oversimplifying things, according to Zwaan, if only because several excellent Turkish historians (Taner Akcam being one of them) have in recent years added their voices to the debate. Apart from this, most of the historical research about the genocide, has been done by historians who are neither of Turkish, nor of Armenian descent. Among these historians a large consensus exists on the most important facts. Despite the fact that continuing and more detailed research into the events is highly recommended (just as much research is still being done into the Holocaust), Zwaan continues, denying the genocidal character of the mass killings of Armenians is out of the question considering the current state of historical research.
Finally, Zwaan takes on what he calls “the most questionable of Albayrak’s suggestions” about the research she considers necessary into the possible collaboration of the Armenians with the Russian enemy. Zwaan is extremely indignant about this statement: “Does she really want to make [people] believe that all those hundreds of thousands of murdered Armenian children, women and old people were fighting on the Russian side? And that because of that they might have been justifiably killed?” I would like to add: not only Armenians from what is now eastern-Anatolia, relatively close to the Russian border at that time, were killed en masse, but also Armenians who were living on the other side of the empire on the Mediterranean coast and near the Syrian border. And what about the boatloads of people that were drowned in the Black Sea? How would they have been able to collaborate with the Russians?
In short, Zwaan doesn’t leave much of Albayrak’s statements, he pretty much tears them to pieces. However, I have the impression that she got away with it and that her position as the running mate of PvdA’s leader Wouter Bos is not in danger.
As a result of the removal of the three candidates, many Dutch people of Turkish descent are now considering boycotting the elections in November because they feel ‘betrayed’ by their parties. Most of them traditionally vote for the PvdA. Some PvdA-politicians of Turkish descent have been ‘threatening’ that such a boycott could well cost the party several seats in parliament in the elections, leading to a statement from Dutch prime-minister Jan-Peter Balkenende urging Dutch-Turkish people to vote. Apparently, the boycott has been called off: Turkish-Dutch voters will vote, but ‘strategically’. I assume this means they won’t vote for CDA or PvdA. Over the last week or so, things seem to have quieted down a little.
Trouw’s file about the issue is still accessible here. NRC Handelsblad had a special section about the issue, but it seems to be accessible only after subscription by now, most of De Volkskrant‘s articles seem to be available for pay only (for non-Dutch speakers: these are the three best newspapers in Holland, not just in my opinion ). Elsevier magazine has an open archive of relevant articles here. All in Dutch.
The Federatie of Armeense Organisaties in Nederland (FAON – Federation of Armenian organizations in the Netherlands) has links to many more articles that have recently appeared in the Dutch press and they also contain some of their press releases on this issue. English translations of some of the newspaper articles and of their own press-releases can be found here. This is the organization that played a big part in getting all this started in the first place.
Update: This blogpost has been translated into French and published on Yevrobatsi. You can find the text here.
[edited to delete dead links]