Two Sides of the Controversial Genocide Bill Debate The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a resolution this week that calls the 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide. The White House has opposed the measure and it has angered the Turkish government.

Two Sides of the Controversial Genocide Bill Debate

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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

We start today's show at the increasing friction between Turkey and the United States. The House is considering a resolution that states Turkey committed genocide against Armenians way back in 1915.

COHEN: The resolution is already been passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Over the weekend, Turkey's chief general said that if the full house approves it, military relations with the U.S. will take a serious turn for the worse.

In a moment, we'll hear reactions to the debate from Armenian-Americans living here in Southern California. But first, we're joined by Nigar Goksel, editor in chief of the Turkish Policy Quarterly. Welcome to the program.

Ms. NIGAR GOKSEL (Editor-in-Chief, Turkish Policy Quarterly): Thank you. It's good to join you.

COHEN: No, my understanding is that Turkey doesn't necessarily dispute that a large number of Armenians, likely more than a million people, were killed by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago. The concern is whether or not the word genocide is the appropriate term. Can you explain how do people in Turkey understand what happened?

Ms. GOKSEL: Sure, that's exactly the case. I mean, the tragic events of 1915 are not denied and I think that's very important for most Armenians to know because the way it's twisted, it was in Armenia, is the Turks deny that anything ever happened and that their relatives were ever there.

The point is the word genocide, and somehow, the word genocide is seen in Turkey to be wanted as meant to discredit Turkey, to stay in Turkey's image, to make everybody think of a Turk as a barbarian.

The word genocide is also argued against because of the systematic nature of killing that it implies. What the Turks claim is that Armenians were collaborating with the Russians for the - in the First World War and the Turks try to deport those that's, that were causing a threat to Turkey. Of course, in this context that of a crumbling empire, the Ottoman Empire, things got out of hand. Was it a systematic effort to eliminate a race? That is what the Turks say it wasn't.

COHEN: If this resolution is, indeed, passed, how do you think that will affect relations between the U.S. and Turkey?

Ms. GOKSEL: There's already strong - a lot of tension in Turkey towards America, a lot of anti-Americanism is - we could see in recent polls on the street everywhere. It says a lot to do with our America's Middle East policy and more recently, more sort of on the surface, is the terror that's emanating from Northern Iraq, which PKK terror that America's seen to be ignoring, in a sense, not sort of cracking down on it more strongly.

The Armenian genocide, I mean, the - if such a resolution were to pass, this would've finally puts - changes the definition of Turkey-America relations. For many years, the relationship has been defined as a strategic alliance and in the last couple of years, it's been questioned. Is it? Is not? Do we have a share of interest? Do we really stand up for each other in the world sort of arena? And this would be the final blow where Turks would say, okay, we're not.

COHEN: Turkey is, of course, a neighbor to Iraq and there is an airbase in Eastern Turkey that's used as a transfer point for military supplies. Do you think that the conflict over this genocide resolution will affect the operations of that base?

Ms. GOKSEL: I could very well, yes, because that seem to be an assistance Turkey provides to the States despite not believing in the Iraq war being a good idea.

COHEN: There's news today that the Turkish government is looking for authorization from parliament to send troops into Northern Iraq to fight the Kurdish rebels there. The U.S. has said it opposes the idea of this sort of cross-border operation. Do you think the parliament's decision will be affected at all by the debate over at this genocide resolution?

Ms. GOKSEL: Yes. The militant Turkey has been affected so there's, I think, there would be less concern about upsetting America. The mind set is - if America didn't show the sensitivity about the genocide resolution that was so important for Turkey, then why should Turkey go out of its way to be sensitive about America's needs in Iraq? And that's the simplistic mindset, by within public opinion, it's very strong.

COHEN: Nigar Goksel is editor in chief of the Turkish Policy Quarterly. Thank you so much.

Ms. GOKSEL: Thank you.

COHEN: There may be geopolitical ramifications but in local Armenian-American communities, the genocide resolution is playing well.

From member station KPCC, Doualy Xaykaothao reports.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Panos Pastry is a popular Armenian bakery where elders and young alike get their daily dose of sweets.

Norik Shahbazian runs the place. He greets me with wet hands and a warm smile. When we start to talk about the resolution, he reaches for a table napkin.

Mr. NORIK SHAHBAZIAN (Partner, Panos Pastry): (Armenian Spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: The baker, now in his 60s, says he's heard too many heartbreaking stories about the massacre of loved ones by Ottoman Turks but he shares this story from his childhood.

Mr. SHAHBAZIAN: I was a young boy. In the classroom, I teach about teaching how they survived, how they fight the Turks. All these years (unintelligible) somebody recognize. So this is a historical moment for us, to remember and to celebrate, at least, the soul of people who - going to rest in peace.

XAYKAOTHAO: Shahbazian can't believe that Turkey continues to deny the World War I era killings, and he says there is so much evidence of the massacre. This is his wish for Turkey.

Mr. SHAHBAZIAN: Break that wall, break that silence and befriend the neighbor. Live together peacefully. But keeping grudge and teaching false history to their kids, doesn't solve the problem.

XAYKAOTHAO: Customer Alice Cargadorean(ph) is observing the interview. She is moved by her baker's words and tears. She shakes her head and says it's important the resolution passed because genocide continues today.

Ms. ALICE CARGADOREAN (Customer, Panos Bakery): It's happening again and nobody is doing anything in...

Mr. SHAHBAZIAN: In Darfur.

Ms. CARGADOREAN: ...Darfur, in Darfur, and nobody is thinking, nobody doing anything about it. So at least when they expect this, they will go ahead and try to hassle secret over there. That will go into history, too.

Dr. VIKEN YACOUBIAN (Principal, Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School): The history of Armenians is the history of displacement. It's a history of up rootedness.

XAYKAOTHAO: Viken Yacoubian is principal of the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School, just a few blocks away. He oversees the education of more than 800 Armenian-American students.

Dr. YACOUBIAN: My grandparents were survivors of the genocide, basically had to leave Armenia because of the genocide and they ended up all over the world.

XAYKAOTHAO: His own family came to America in 1976 from Beirut, where he was born. He says for Armenians everywhere, the resolution is significant.

Dr. YACOUBIAN: For us, it's not an issue of 90 years or 100 years, but it is part of the fabric of our cultural identity. We don't feel like this is something that has happened to our grandparents. We feel that this is something that has happened to us. Part of the reason for that is the denial, actually.

XAYKAOTHAO: Raffi Hamparian of the Armenian National Committee in nearby Glendale, says when he heard President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other oppose the resolution, he thought for sure that Armenian-Americans lost the fight to get this recognition. But when it passed...

Mr. RAFFI HAMPARIAN (Chairman, Armenian National Committee of America): It was the day I was perhaps proudest to be an American.

XAYKAOTHAO: A House vote is expected on this measure sometime before Thanksgiving.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao, in Los Angeles.

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