New student movement protests 100 years of Armenian genocide denial

University of California students held a #StainofDenial silent protest on February 5. (Twitter / CSUN-ASA)

University of California students held a #StainofDenial silent protest on February 5. (Twitter / CSUN-ASA)

April 24, 2015 marks the centennial of the first genocide of the 20th century, when 1.5 million Armenians were systematically annihilated under the Ottoman Empire in what is sometimes referred to as a prototype for the Jewish holocaust. Due to a century of active denial and censorship by the Republic of Turkey, successor state of the Ottomans, much of the world remains ignorant of the existence and history of Armenia and its people.

Recently, however, the issue has been receiving unprecedented amounts of international attention. Earlier this month, television star and half-Armenian Kim Kardashian traveled to Armenia for the first time with her family and husband Kanye West. George and Amal Clooney also plan to travel there for the centennial. Last week, Turkey’s denial was the subject of a New York Times cover story and editorial. Turkey also withdrew its Vatican ambassador in a fury over Pope Francis’ use of the word “genocide” to describe what happened 100 years ago.

As happens every April 24, various events take place around the world to both remember and combat the lack of common knowledge surrounding this issue. Such annual events include a march in Los Angeles and a gathering in Times Square. Other activities are scheduled this year to specifically mark 100 years, including a campaign that launched in January called 100 Days of Action and a joint Armenian-Turkish effort called Project 2015, which will fly hundreds of ethnic Armenians to Istanbul for a commemoration.

Going beyond these commemorative events, however, is a campaign organized by the Armenian Students Association, or ASA, at the University of California and the grassroots community organization Armenian Youth Federation – Western Region, or AYF. Following in the footsteps of recent campus boycott and divestment campaigns — which have targeted everything from the fossil fuel industry to Israel to Sudan to the school-to-prison pipeline — comes #DivestTurkey. Since late 2014, UC students have been demanding that the university withdraw the more than $70 million it has directly invested in the Republic of Turkey.

Unlike similar campaigns targeting unjust policies, #DivestTurkey does not include a consumer boycott of Turkish-made goods. The campaign is focused on protesting the modern-day Turkish government’s perpetuation of the erasure of Armenian history and identity through its denial and censorship of past crimes. It is also protesting Turkey’s lack of progress in making reparations for these crimes.

The commonly referred-to launch date of the genocide is April 24, 1915, when about 250 Armenian community leaders and intellectuals living in Constantinople (today Istanbul) were rounded up and executed. It is said to have lasted from then until 1923, though there had been massacres since the 1890s. The 1.5 million Armenians killed constituted three quarters of the population at that time. There were also other victimized minorities in the region such as Greeks and Assyrians.

What makes this markedly different from other major genocides is the ongoing aggressive denial by Turkey despite extensive evidence and press coverage from that time. It has been erased from their memory and replaced with the story of just another World War I conflict with deaths on both sides. In reality, the word “genocide” was coined with the actual events in mind — yet it is precisely this word that is made taboo.

Today in Turkey, which is no stranger to censorship in general, it is illegal to raise the question of the genocide. Doing so is a codified crime of “insulting the Turkish nation” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. One prominent example of this is the case of Hrant Dink, a journalist who was prosecuted and then assassinated by ultra-nationalists in the streets of Istanbul just eight years ago. In a similar and more recent act of censorship, a German photographer was denied entry to Turkey after flying there earlier this month to cover the centennial.

The stalemate and misrepresentation of history is enabled by major governments such as the United States and Israel, which have not officially recognized the genocide — although 43 U.S. states, 24 countries, the European Parliament and various regional governments have passed their own proclamations labeling the genocide as such. While often coming close, with empty campaign promises from President Obama and an Armenian Genocide Resolution waiting to be passed in the House of Representatives, the United States has routinely caved to Turkish pressure in order to protect their strategic relationships.

Today, there is a tiny, extremely poor, very Christian, landlocked Republic of Armenia in the Caucasus. Its post-Ottoman borders were drawn with the help of the United States and then re-drawn after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had annexed it during its rule. The country’s modern-day territory does not include the majority of what Armenians consider to be their homeland from which they were ethnically cleansed. That land remains painfully visible on the horizon yet untouchable due to closed borders. For some, territorial reparations are even more significant than recognition of the crime, especially the holy Mount Ararat, which remains one of their most prominent cultural symbols. Most of today’s ethnic Armenian population is diasporic, with one of the largest communities residing in California, where the #DivestTurkey campaign is underway and spreading.

The first student government vote for #DivestTurkey took place at UCLA in January. As UCLA-ASA president Mikael Matossian recalled, “After doing research into UC’s investments, we were shocked that over $70 million was directly invested in the Republic of Turkey’s government. As many of our members, including myself, have family who were affected or killed by the genocide, we took offense to the fact that our tuition dollars were going directly towards the government that actively denies and therefore perpetuates the Armenian genocide.” That’s when they decided to launch the campaign.

UCLA-ASA made a proactive effort to reach out to the groups they sensed might oppose their proposal: the Turkish Cultural Club and the Muslim Students Association, which includes some Turkish-Americans. In safely administered discussion groups, they went through each clause of the resolution. Many students who were hearing about the resolution for the first time came out in support of it. According to Matossian, “They realized the problematic nature of the investments.” But at the next student government council meeting, some members of the Turkish Cultural Club, which was not usually very active on campus, “made a presentation in which they unfortunately denied the genocide outright, [stating] that they did not believe there was enough evidence. Others did acknowledge it, but stated that the Turkish government should not be held responsible [for the Ottoman Empire’s actions], even though it actively denies it.”

Following another presentation by ASA at the next student government council meeting, the resolution was approved unanimously. According to AYF Central Executive Board member Gev Iskajyan, opposition to the campaign comes from a few Turkish students, but not the majority. Perhaps more problematic, he explained, is the Turkish Vice-Consul requesting and holding a meeting with various student leaders across the UC system, encouraging them to oppose the resolution. The vice-consul reportedly reached out to both Turkish and non-Turkish student organizations, but has not yet reached out to any Armenian students. “[This] is obviously of some concern,” Iskajyan said, adding, “not just to us, but to anyone who sees foreign government intervention in our universities as a problem, especially when they are pursuing an agenda of genocide denial.”

Despite opposition, the students’ second proposal for divestment was approved at UC Berkeley in February. The vote was again unanimous, as it had been at UCLA. Helping the cause in both cases was the decision to revise the original proposal — which in some ways was inspired by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign targeting Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights — to call only for divestment of the more than $70 million directly invested in the Turkish government. This decision, they believe, will keep the campaign focused on stigmatizing the policies and those who make them, rather than those who live under them.

While some may still see divestment as a divisive tactic, UCLA-ASA argues that it’s the university’s investments that are divisive. According to Matossian, it’s “ethically incorrect” for a world-renowned academic system such as the UC system to “invest millions in a government that denies historical events that are actively taught and researched at universities like UCLA.” Matossian and the rest of UCLA-ASA feel it is a campaign for all students who value human rights to get behind, not just those of Armenian descent — and this is evident by the fact that both votes have been unanimous.

So far, Matossian explained, the most significant achievement of #DivestTurkey has been raising awareness and holding university officials accountable for investments made with the tuition dollars of students who were never consulted. “At this important stage of [university students’ lives], right before they enter the professional world,” he said, “initiatives like these can educate people, help them realize the horrible nature of crimes against humanity like the Armenian genocide, and hopefully inspire them to fight against denial of past genocides, and ultimately prevent the start of future genocide.” Ultimately, he argued, the educational impact has been and will likely remain far greater than any financial impact — an argument that could also be shared by other divestment campaigns, like BDS or Fossil Free. But ultimately, he does hope to induce financial pressure on the Republic of Turkey once #DivestTurkey has spread to enough UC schools that they can then take their cause to the UC Regents.

In the meantime, students will continue to organize, raise awareness and hold their institutions accountable with what Matossian said should be viewed “as a legitimate tactic to place nonviolent pressure on entities that offend or marginalize students, whether they be Jews, Palestinians or Armenians.” Following UCLA and UC Berkeley, the third vote will take place this month at UC Davis, though they would like to keep their organizing efforts out of the public eye until after the vote. The recent explosion of mainstream attention, however, may only strengthen their cause, as #DivestTurkey spreads throughout the universities of California.

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