Two hundred Turkish intellectuals last month launched an Internet signature campaign for an apology to Armenians for the 1915 massacres. "My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Armenians were subjected to in 1915," the brief statement reads. "I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them."
Within a month, more than 26,000 people signed on, a significant number in a country where the fate of the Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire has been largely unmentionable for decades. To those long frustrated by Turkey's intractability on the issue, this campaign may appear an inadequate gesture. But it has immense value, educating many Turks about the violence done to Armenians for the first time and enabling those who are ready to come to terms with it.
The official Turkish position on 1915 has shifted over time. It was a fight between local Turkish and Armenian bands. Or it was a forced resettlement -- a march on which hundreds of thousands of Armenians were sent to Syria, but most never arrived. Historians and politicians also have argued that it was actually Armenians who massacred Turks and that talk of an Armenian genocide was an international conspiracy. In contemporary Turkey, novelists, journalists, historians or other intellectuals who call the events a genocide or even mass murder can face trial under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which outlaws insulting Turkey, its government or its people.
Organizers of the "I apologize" campaign notably shied away from the word genocide, opting instead for "the Great Catastrophe," a phrase initially used by Armenians. Still, Turkish nationalists were quick to condemn the project and launch multiple, counter we-want-an-apology campaigns.
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, quickly dismissed the apology movement. "These Turkish intellectuals must have committed the genocide," he said mockingly, "since they are the ones who are apologizing." Opposition parties in the parliament, other than the Kurdish-inclined Democratic Turkey Party, have all condemned the campaign as well. The Nationalist Action Party, for example, issued a statement that said, in part, "There is no single page in the honorable history of the Turkish nation for which we should be embarrassed, and no crime for which we should apologize. No one has the right to smear our ancestors by deviating from history, declaring them guilty, and ask them to apologize."
Granted, 26,000 signatories to the campaign means Turks interested in apologizing remain few and far between in a nation of 70 million. Still, this is a very significant development in Turkey. In the last 10 years, several Turkish scholars began studying the Armenian massacres outside the official Turkish framework, and some of them, such as Taner Akcam, have openly acknowledged those events were a genocide. Turkish and Armenian scholars organized joint workshops to discuss what happened to Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire. When Hrant Dink, a prominent journalist of Armenian background, was assassinated by a nationalist thug in Istanbul two years ago, 200,000 Turks marched in the streets carrying banners that said, "We are all Armenian."
Critics will certainly reply that these modest activities do not compensate for the original crime nor the suffering caused by its denial for almost a century. They will complain that the current signature campaign does not use the word genocide. Yet the significance of this campaign cannot be understated.
I grew up in Turkey in a politically engaged, educated and reasonably liberal family in the 1970s and the 1980s, and I had only a vague idea about the animosity between Turks and Armenians. It wasn't until I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan, one of the most important centers of Ottoman and Armenian studies in the United States, that I learned about the unacceptably sad end of the Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
Turks growing up today surely are better informed about the history of the land they inhabit. Even those who accept the nationalist line have to be aware of the sudden end of the centuries-long Armenian presence in Anatolia. Regardless of the terms they employ or the specific amount of responsibility they willingly shoulder, this next generation of Turks is already in a much better position to face the darkest aspect of their national history and develop a more responsible relationship to it.
It may appear a small gesture now, but the initiators of the "I apologize" campaign have introduced a ray of hope for reconciliation between Armenians and Turks before the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe comes around.
Esra Özyürek is an associate professor of anthropology at UC San Diego and the author of "Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey" and "Politics of Public Memory in Turkey."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times