Author assailed for acknowledging Armenian massacre
ANKARA, Turkey - When a leading Turkish novelist said earlier this year that 1 million Armenians were murdered in his country during World War I, he broke a deep taboo.
Three lawsuits were filed against Orhan Pamuk, accusing him of damaging the state. ''He shouldn't be allowed to breathe,'' roared one nationalist group. In Istanbul, a school collected his books from students to return to him. On a news Web site, the vote ran 4-1 against him.
Turkey's mass expulsion of Armenians during World War I - which Armenians say was part of a genocide that claimed 1.5 million lives - is a dark chapter rarely discussed in Turkey or taught in its schools.
But slowly the veil is being lifted. One reason is that Turkey is more open and democratic today, another is its ambition of joining the European Union; French President Jacques Chirac has said Turkey must first acknowledge the killings.
Turkey is also eager to counter Armenian diaspora groups that are pushing European governments and the United States to declare the killings genocide. And the approach of April 24, the 90th anniversary of the date Armenians mark as the start of the killings, is focusing attention on the issue.
''We are mutually deaf to each other,'' said Yasar Yakis, head of parliament's European Union Affairs Committee, who invited two ethnic Armenians in Istanbul to address his committee.
''Perhaps if we can create a climate in which we listen to what the other side has to say, we might meet in the middle,'' Yakis said.
Turkey has long denied the genocide claim, saying the death toll of 1.5 million is wildly inflated and that both Armenians and Turks were killed in fighting during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turks who describe it as genocide have on occasion been prosecuted, and Turkey often gets into diplomatic tussles with governments it suspects of taking the Armenian side. It's one of the reasons Turkey and neighboring Armenia don't have diplomatic relations.
Turkey also fears that if the genocide claim is recognized, Armenians will use it to demand compensation - either money or lost land.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul insists that to call it genocide is ''pure slander,'' and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that all countries should open their archives to scholars to examine whether the event was genocide.
A Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Committee, partly funded by the U.S. State Department, first met in 2001, bringing together leading Turks and Armenians, while intellectuals such as Pamuk, whose novels have won critical acclaim in the United States, are playing a key role in opening up the debate.
For Turkey, the issue goes beyond the killings of Armenians to the whole trauma of losing its once mighty Ottoman Empire.
As the Muslim empire faltered, minority Armenian Christians began asserting their identity. During World War I, amid fears of Armenian collusion with the enemy army of Christian Czarist Russia, Armenians were forced out of towns and villages throughout the Turkish heartland of Anatolia and many died.
''The Armenians were relocated because they cooperated with the enemy, the Russians, and they . . . killed Ottoman soldiers from behind the lines,'' Yakis, the lawmaker, said.
Armenians, however, say the killings were part of a planned genocide.
Volkan, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, said that after the war, the new Turkish republic ''wanted to look forward and not backward.''
Pamuk dropped his bombshell in February in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger, talking of Armenians as well as Turkey's modern-day Kurdish minority.
He said that ''30,000 Kurds have been murdered here and 1 million Armenians and nobody dares to mention that. So I do it. And that's why they hate me.''
The reaction to Pamuk was largely hostile, but a few newspaper columnists defended his freedom of speech.