By Chris Bohjalian
The Washigton Post
It sounds like the set-up for a joke in a late-night talk show host’s opening monologue:
“So, Kim Kardashian and the pope were the biggest news stories last Sunday.”
But it’s no laughing matter. Kardashian and Pope Francis made headlines in recent days in ways that were poignant, powerful and — speaking as an Armenian American and descendant of survivors of the Armenian Genocide — game-changing. Last week, Kardashian, easily the most famous Armenian American, along with husband Kanye West and daughter North, visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, and on Sunday night, Kanye gave a free concert at Swan Lake in the city center. This week, during Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope called out the Ottoman Empire’s systematic annihilation of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians as “genocide,” and went on to say that “Concealing and denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
Now, I hope President Obama follows their lead and takes the opportunity, at last, to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise and do the same. Because for seven years, he’s put realpolitik before righteousness, avoiding the word “genocide” in an effort to appease an American military ally — Turkey — that offers very little in return.
For most of the world, the Armenian Genocide is — to paraphrase a character in one of my novels — the slaughter you know next to nothing about. But every year on April 24, Genocide Remembrance Day, we Armenians remember the injustice of a crime that is rarely acknowledged and often flatly denied. It was April 24, 1915, when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities — and almost all of them executed. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire killed three of every four of its Armenian citizens. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of the few survivors.
And for the last hundred years, Turkish leaders have endeavored to deny the genocide by falsifying the historical record, despite the fact that the International Association of Genocide Scholars unanimously calls it genocide. In February, a Kurdish member of the Turkish Parliament, Ahmet Turk, acknowledged his Kurdish ancestors’ role in the killing and apologized to the Armenians for the “blood on their hands.” Even the first postwar Turkish government convicted the three architects of the genocide for their crimes against the Armenians in 1919 and sentenced them to death in absentia. It wasn’t until the second postwar government took over in 1924 — the government led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — that Turkey began to rewrite the history of this atrocity.
They’ve gotten away with it, in part, because many Western nations viewed Turkey as the last stop against Soviet expansion during the Cold War, and later as a moderate ally in the Middle East. The United States has certainly been an enabler. Washington is so fearful of Ankara that we’ve never passed a resolution here condemning the Armenian Genocide. While campaigning in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama said, “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president.” As a U.S. Senator, he supported passage of an Armenian Genocide resolution. But for the last six years as president, every April 24, he finds a euphemism for the “G” word to avoid angering Turkey.
But it hasn’t helped him. Turkey, a NATO member, won’t authorize American military flights from the U.S. Air Force’s Incirlik Air Base for strikes against ISIS. ISIS black market oil flows through Turkey. It is atransshipment point for weapons going to al-Qaeda affiliates, while becoming a new hub for Hamas. Internally, Turkey has cracked down so hard on journalists that Reporters Without Borders ranks them 149th on the World Press Freedom Index — below Myanmar and barely above Russia.
Turkey’s leaders bristle when it comes to discussing the Ottoman Empire’s crimes. Immediately after Pope Francis spoke, Turkey recalled its Vatican ambassador, and its foreign minister raged, “The pope’s statement, which is far from historic and legal truths, is unacceptable.” But the truth hurts, and decades of scholarship about the genocide, sometimes by Turkish scholars, has illustrated this painful truth. So has the activism of Armenians around the world, frustrated by the way our ancestors were massacred and our homeland was taken from us. Now we’re a century from the start of the genocide, and we must no longer enable Turkish efforts to sweep this mass murder under the rug. Most years, April 24 passes without much recognition beyond Armenian communities. But not this year. It is the centennial, the world has taken notice of this grim milestone and Turkey has proven itself to be an unreliable ally.
In a year that both the most visible leader in the Christian faith and the ubiquitous face of the Kardashian empire both stood up to demand accountability, the world, including our country, has to recognize, mourn and condemn this atrocity.
My hope today is that the president will cement his legacy as a statesman possessing an accurate moral compass, speak what has previously been unspeakable, show the same courage as the pope and call our tragedy what it is: genocide.