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Genocide, diplomacy and terrorism

Leaders of an umbrella group for Turkish-American groups stopped by The Times recently to discuss the debate over the Armenian genocide, Turkey's membership in the European Union and quashing Kurdish separatism in northern Iraq. Below are highlights from that meeting.

Armenian genocide

Tim Cavanaugh: The L.A. Times is on record as supporting the term genocide to describe whatever it is that happened in the early part of the 20th century. We'd be interested in hearing your views on that.

Nurten Ural, president, Assembly of Turkish American Associations: Sure. Well, as far as the events of 1915, of course we do not like to call it a genocide because it was not a genocide. We do agree that many Armenians died at that time; we feel very bad about that, but many if not more Turks and Muslims died at the time. It was a time of war, and in war, people die. But we really think Turkey's position on this is — Turkey has opened its archives, and they say, let's get all the historians, open up all the archives, let them dive into the archives, research what really happened, and everybody will accept whatever happened.

What we don't like is having the politicians make history or set history when they're not that knowledgeable about history. If the historian part doesn't work, let's take it to court — have the international court get historians or whatever to see what happened in those days. As Turkish Americans, we're very strong on this, that, you know, as far as the fact, let's find out what the real facts are instead of what we want them to be or what others want them to be …

Cavanaugh: What kind of discussions do you have with Armenian groups, Armenian-American groups in particular?

Ural: Well, we try to have discussions … We invite them always to debates; in fact, some of my best friends are Armenians. Secretly, they come to us; openly, publicly, they refuse to come to us … To us, we have the same culture as the Armenians: We have the same music, we have the same foods — we should get along … We need to get this out into the open, we need to get past it, we need to go on.

The thing that personally … upsets me about this whole thing is teaching children hatred. In this time in the world, we don't need that. We need to teach them peace and to get along with each other.

Cavanaugh: They can come in and make their own case … but just as a question: What you hear from Armenian groups is, you know, when you say debate, the response to that is, "Well, we don't ask Jewish groups to come in and debate German groups about whether the Holocaust happened. And why should we be subject to that … sort of self justification?"

Ural: It has been proven that the Holocaust happened; it has not been proven that the genocide has happened …

Ahmet Atahan, president , Association of Turkish Americans of Southern California: If you're talking in the streets [to] an Anatolian-born Armenian or American-born Armenian, their views reflect, I think, a little bit different than the political side of the whole issue. So when you say Armenians, yes, we do talk with Armenians. Yes, we do work with them, we live with them, we entertain ourselves with them. But when it comes to the political angle, some sectors [are] driving the whole issue. It's different than the common Armenian that's really thinking in a different wavelength …

Cavanaugh: We had the Armenian prime minister in a few months back, and he suggested … we're talking about Armenian Americans, right? Because … the prime minister's discussed the idea that this is something that gets people exercised more in the diaspora than it does in Armenia itself …

Allison Block, advocacy director, ATAA: There's no question about that. In fact, there are more [Armenians] living outside of Armenia than in Armenia proper. In fact, Armenia proper is suffering incredibly because of this. As you are aware, the border between Turkey and Armenia is closed right now. It was closed for obviously a different issue, but such political tension has caused Turkey to keep the border shut … Should this issue be brought to Congress and decided upon in Congress, that indeed the United States recognizes this is genocide, I think you'll find that the border will stay shut and Armenia itself as a country will suffer even more. Turkish businesspeople and Armenian businesspeople are already trying to find ways to cooperate because … there is no question that this is a diaspora issue …

Cavanaugh: How does this impact you guys as Turkish Americans? These are international issues that are for other people to settle, so where do you come into this?

Ural: Personally, my niece came from school crying — well, my brother had to go get her from school — when an eight-year-old girl tells my niece, "Your grandfather killed by grandfather," and my niece has no idea what they're talking about … That is what we don't like to see, when our children [are] attacked in school for no reason whatsoever, for a reason that they're not even aware of … That should not be encourage by parents; that should not be taught by parents …

Cavanaugh: Is this formed to some degree by the fact that the United States at the time was among the few patrons the Armenians had? … Is that something that sort of structurally works against you guys, that there is this long history of sympathy?

Block: I wouldn't necessarily say that's a factor.

Atahan: There's a couple details there … Don't label the whole thing 1915 events, because when you look at history, you have to look at … a much wider time period to see the real reasons and kind of why things happened … because there are events after 1915 that Armenians don't talk about that [are] actually against them …

You cannot just look at a narrow timeframe. When you look at … the end of the 18th century, you'll also see that there are a lot of religious missions and activities. So when you look at the American point of view, there [are] some religious-influenced events that show sympathy …

Ural: Also, events such as the Armenians taking and being allies with the Russians fighting against the Turks. Like I said, it's a time of war; that's why many of them died, just as well as Turks did. There's a lot of complications … It's not just a thing saying, you know, Turks killed Armenians and it's a genocide.

Atahan: Forget old times, come to today. When you look at Iraq today, there are a number of deaths, a number of people dislocated and everything. When you look at it, so does that mean, a few years down the road people can easily say, "Americans caused the big loss in Iraq, so that was a genocide"? Or, you look at it in a more logical way … and you look at the reasons and say … "This is a war time, this is what happened …" But if you put the emotions on the table, and don't look at the realistic end of it, of course the picture's going to be totally different …

Cavanaugh: Why would [Armenian Americans] push the issue?

Ural: Land. Money.

Atahan: Not just land … but also, if you're able to get an 18-year-old kid today have certain feelings because he's an Armenian. So you lose that hatred as a tool to keep an identity, you use it for other purposes, and you need to keep on going for financial gain [and] for other purposes. But is that the reality? Who knows — that's a different issue. With Turks, it was overcome. We had losses; bury it, get over it …

I had my relatives die. My grandparents and family, the whole village vanished. But I don't feel hatred for anybody because of it. It was a war time, it happened, period. My life is different …

Turkey and the European Union

Cavanaugh: Turkey is perpetually trying to get full EU membership … What do you do on that issue?

Ural: In my personal opinion, I think Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. To me, it doesn't matter if Turkey is a part of Europe; I think it would be better off if it wasn't …

Atahan: The identity situation comes in there … We want to stay as Turks. Yes, economically, we may do certain things — joint venture-type things — but identity should be kept in a way. Even today, I can see that between Germany and France, I mean, you cannot just label them one country like [the] U.S. is, between Texas and, you know, New York. A New Yorker is a New Yorker, a Texan is a Texan …

Cavanaugh: What's the hold up? Why does Europe still argue over this? And who would like to see Turkish accession, and who wouldn't?

Block: There are several different factors, in my opinion, that come into play. First of all, you have Nicolas Sarkozy, who is very much opposed to Turkish EU accession, primarily because in his own country, he's seen as a nationalist and wants to preserve the purity of the European Union as this Christian club, et cetera. Before Angela Merkel was elected, she was very much opposed to full membership for Turkey. But since she's been in office, since her visit to Turkey, in fact, she's come around quite a bit. The U.K. has obviously been quite supportive of Turkey's accession …

Many of the other acceding countries into the European Union haven't been held under such scrutiny as Turkey has. For example, Turkey was one of the first countries that they were actually talking about having a full referendum in every state on Turkey accession, which would be the first time any acceding country has been held to that standard. So of course Turkey's going to be upset and say, "Hey, you're holding us to a completely different standard ..."

The bar keeps shifting for Turkey, whereas for Croatia, for example, they're much more, I guess, lenient in some of those terms … When Ireland came in as one of the members, their economy was horrible … and still they were allowed in. Their economy grew and flourished, and now they're a very functional, contributing part of the European Union. Another issue, for example, Poland: Many in the union were afraid of the Polish Plumber, all of these manual laborers coming from Poland into the European Union and taking all of the other Europeans' jobs. That was, in fact, not the case. Many Europeans, in fact, went to Poland to find work …

They fear that all of the uneducated, unemployed laborers from Turkey will come rushing into the European Union. In fact, I don't think that's the case. Turkey has an incredibly young, educated population that would benefit Europe …

Kurdish separatism and terrorism

Block: I'm sure you're aware of Turkish cooperation in Afghanistan, with [the International Security Assistance Force]. I think it's amazing that Turkey is the only country that has controlled the ISAF three times as a member of NATO and is the only Muslim country that has controlled ISAF in Afghanistan. And, you know, Turkey is a partner in fighting terrorism in those terms, and I guess that's what Turkey expects from the United States in turn.

And we've seen that more recently with the cooperation, the military intelligence sharing against the PKK in northern Iraq. Another point I'd to make about northern Iraq is, all of the construction and development that's going on in northern Iraq is primarily Turkish companies — I'd say, 90% of the construction that goes on in northern Iraq.

Cavanaugh: When we're talking northern Iraq, are we talking about Kurdistan?

Ural: There is no Kurdistan.

Block: Northern Iraq — the northern part of Iraq, which, yes, there is a Kurdish population there, but primarily the companies that are doing all of the infrastructure development there are Turkish companies …

For a while, I guess maybe it was almost a year ago now … when the area was starting to get less controlled because of the PKK violence, there were numerous Turkish truck drivers that were killed in northern Iraq because of PKK violence. This is before … the recent incursions of the PKK coming into Turkey. There was violence already in northern Iraq against Turkish truck drivers that were helping them, you know, rebuild that part of the country …

Cavanaugh: If there were a Kurdish national home developed [in Iraq], would you guys take a position against that?

Block: Absolutely.

Ural: Absolutely.

Block: Because of the PKK issue precisely … Turkey has suffered under PKK terrorism for about 20 years now, and more than 30 to 35,000 people have been victims of PKK terrorism within Turkey alone … Primarily 20 years ago it was … the PKK … carrying out attacks in Turkey mostly to fight for rights that they had been denied, and Turkey has come to terms with that. Many of the freedoms that were denied to Kurds in the past have been granted — the ability to speak their language, the ability to educate in Kurdish, the ability to broadcast in Kurdish — a lot of those freedoms have been granted.

So now primarily the Kurdish terrorist organizations are working in northern Iraq and operating there because the United States kind of protects them there. So they come into Turkey and carry out their attacks … primarily now to establish their own territory. So what that means that they're fighting for is their own Kurdish state, which would carve out a piece of Turkey, Iraq and Syria, and parts of Iran.

Now you'll see that the Kurdish terrorist organizations in northern Iraq are starting to cooperate more with other Kurdish terrorist organizations, for example, in Iran, because of this desire to carve a Kurdish nation out of those areas.

Ural: So it would be bad, not only for Turkey, but I think for the United States if they did create a Kurdistan.

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