Truth and Reconciliation: Is It Possible with Turkey?

Handshake with Turkish flag

Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission concluded its mandate in 2015 of making public the ugly truth of the Indian Residential School System and the commission’s report and recommendations. The long road to reconciliation with indigenous peoples is only beginning, but it is beginning. As Canada seeks to improve, I’ve been wondering lately how other countries reconciled with people they had wronged. And considering my work on Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, I’ve been wondering if it’s possible for Turkey to acknowledge the truth of the genocides of the late Ottoman Empire, and reconcile with Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks.

March for Justice - Turkey July 2017

March for Justice, Turkey, July 2017, reposted from The Economist

I would have said, No, it’s not possible in the foreseeable future, after Turkish President Erdogan’s guards attacked peaceful protesters in Washington in May. But today, on the 22nd day of the March for Justice from Ankara to Istanbul, I say, You never know what is possible tomorrow. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 68-year-old leader of Turkey’s Republican People’s Party, organized the anti-government protest after one of the party’s deputies was sentenced to 25 years in prison for allegedly leaking a video to a newspaper that showed “illicit Turkish arms shipments to Syrian rebels in 2014.” There is no denying that Erdogan is powerful, having jailed more than 50,000 people and fired more than 110,000 from their posts. But clearly, he faces strong opposition within Turkey.

Of course, this opposition is not about the genocide, but it is a reminder that circumstances can change in a very short time—and change drastically and unpredictably. The world witnessed this with the election of Donald Trump as the American president in 2016, and the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. I wrote about the swift radical reforms introduce in Turkey by Atatürk to modernize the country after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Change can happen quickly.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are sanctioned by governments, as are official apologies and financial compensation. But as we all know, there is a difference between the state and the society. However, who is the state, except a collection of people that has been given, or has acquired, power? Change occurs with the actions of people, and actions are preceded by thoughts.

Noted Turkish scholar Dr. Taner Akçam presented a very eloquent outline of the difficulties for Turks to confront the truth of how their country came to exist, and what a challenge it will be for them to acknowledge the genocide, let alone affect reconciliation. “The central question is not why Turkey denies the genocide,” he said, “but whether we the people of Turkey are ready, as a state and as a society, to deny our present state of existence. It seems that the only way we can do that is by repudiating how we came to be and by creating a new history of how we came to exist. Are we capable of doing that?” I believe they are capable. They created a new state and history in 1923. Perhaps they’ll do it again, only better, in 2023?

This summer, I’m going to explore how some countries—and individuals—handle truth and reconciliation. Maybe we can all learn something from their stumbles and their successes, and make a better future.

To quote Canada’s Commission, “Reconciliation is not only about the past; it is about the future that [we] all … will forge together.”

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