ISTANBUL // In an unprecedented move, a group of Turkish intellectuals yesterday started an online campaign to express publicly their apology over the Turkish massacres against the Armenians during the First World War, an issue still considered a taboo by many of their fellow Turks. "My conscience does not allow me to accept that the 'Great Catastrophe', which the Ottoman Armenians were exposed to in 1915, is met with a lack of sensitivity and is denied. I reject this injustice, and I, for my part, share the feelings and the pain of my Armenian brothers, and I apologise to them," reads the intellectuals' short message on the website www.ozurdiliyoruz.com. "Ozor diliyoruz" means "We apologise" in Turkish. The message is to stay online for one year, and participants hope to gather as many signatures as possible within that time.
Until Monday evening, more than 2,000 people had signed the petition, among them many prominent academics, journalists and human rights activists. The Turkish-born co-chairman of the German Green Party, Cem Ozdemir, also signed. Although the text does not mention the term genocide, the group's initiative attracted criticism even before it went public. In a country that sees itself as the successor of the Ottoman Empire and where public talk of Turkish massacres directed against the Armenians can result in a jail sentence even today, a public and joint apology of this sort is ground-breaking. The group's statement implies that something went very wrong in Turkish history, a notion that is rejected by many Turks and that has provoked the ire of nationalists.
Armenia and several countries around the world as well as many international experts agree that the Ottoman Armenians became the victims of genocide in 1915 and that up to 1.5 million members of that Christian minority were killed in massacres and death marches. Turkey rejects the term genocide and says the deaths were the result of a relocation initiative under wartime conditions and that many Muslim Turks were killed by Armenian militias. Supporters of the apology say that it is time to ask what really happened in 1915. Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University and one of the leading members of the group, said it was the aim of the initiative to address "the silence that envelopes this question". According to Mr Aktar, some of the reactions that started to flow in since the group announced their project two weeks ago showed that the initiative has hit a nerve. "We got plenty of messages of gratefulness." He compared the initiative to efforts in Germany after 1945 to face up to the Nazi era.
Some observers think the very fact the group has been able to publish its apology is a sign of Turkey's growing democratic maturity. "In the old Turkey that we knew, an effort like this would have been banned, the leading people would have been threatened and someone would have tried to open investigations against them," Mensur Akgun, a columnist in the daily Referans, wrote yesterday. "At the moment at least, the situation is different in today's Turkey. There have been no credible threats." Still, nationalists have begun to criticise the group. "There is no crime for which we should be ashamed of and for which we should apologise," Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the right-wing opposition Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, told a party meeting this month.
"First of all let us say that just like no one has the right to apologise on behalf of the Turkish nation, an initiative like this that smells like provocation will not benefit anyone," Yigit Bulut, a columnist, wrote in the daily Vatan. Mr Bulut accused the intellectuals of doing the bidding of George Soros, a wealthy businessman whose Open Society Institute is seen by Turkish nationalists as a tool to undermine the Turkish state. The Armenian initiative follows a period of an increased and at times violent debate surrounding the events of 1915 that started when Orhan Pamuk, a writer and later Nobel laureate, was put on trial in 2005 for saying that one million Armenians were killed by Turks. In Jan 2007, radical nationalists killed the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who had called on Turks to face up to their past. Only last month, Mehmet Ali Sahin, the justice minister, gave permission to put another writer, Temel Demirer, on trial for publicly speaking of an "Armenian genocide". He could not allow the state to be called a killer, the minister said. With their apology, the intellectuals are trying to move the discussion away from the word 'genocide' and towards a broader level of coming to terms with the past. "Something was done" in 1915, the sociologist Ferhat Kentel, who also signed the text, told Vatan. "There were one million Armenians in this country. Today, 60,000 Armenians are left. That means [the Armenians] are no longer there. We Turks are here. So are the Kurds." He added: "Call it genocide if you like, call it something else. One million people were destroyed, were relocated, were killed, were sent to the deserts, this is a truth." Leaders of the initiative have declined to give a concrete target number of signatures they hope to gather. Mr Aktar said the best possible outcome of the initiative would be to get "meaningful figures" of signatures and "reach as many people as possible in Anatolia". firstname.lastname@example.org