Why Cenk Uygur Is Getting Confronted about the Name “The Young Turks,” and Why It Matters

Politics Features The Young Turks
Why Cenk Uygur Is Getting Confronted about the Name “The Young Turks,” and Why It Matters

What’s in a name? The Young Turks (TYT)—a popular progressive media network known for working without corporate funding—has recently come under fire, again, for its name, which is linked to the murky, controversial history of the Armenian Genocide.

When Cenk Uygur created TYT in 2002, he named it after a seemingly innocuous colloquialism. The phrase “young Turk” has come to mean a young radical who fights the status quo. It was popularized after the eponymous Ottoman political group rose to power in the early 20th century; a trio of Young Turks (“Jön Türkler,” in Turkish) led the Ottoman government during the First World War. Few users of the expression realize what they’re referencing—Americans typically know little about this war, and even less about the Armenian Genocide, which occurred simultaneously in the Empire.

It’s not a clear-cut history to learn. Scholars have dramatically different interpretations of the limited sources, which include survivor testimonies, court records of post-war trials, reports from eyewitnesses, and records of official Ottoman communications. Most Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire’s rural and isolated eastern provinces, out of which came incomplete records and documentation. Some documents that did exist are missing; some are in closed Turkish archives. Forged documents, flawed scholarship, and political motives tangle up the evidence we do have.

Essentially everyone agrees that thousands of Armenians died from massacres and hazardous deportation marches. During these marches, Armenians faced starvation, disease, and often wholesale slaughter. Turkey, however, claims that these events were an unfortunate byproduct of war and do not constitute genocide. According to Turkey, the deportations were necessary to prevent the Armenians from uprising or joining en masse with the encroaching Russian front, and the mass murders weren’t authorized by the government but instead perpetrated by independent actors. Turks generally estimate the number of Armenian victims to be around half a million.

Scholars outside of Turkey usually place the figure between 1 and 1.5 million, and almost all of them apply the genocide label (though the U.S. government, to avoid angering its ally Turkey, does not). In their typical explanation of the events, an already-incendiary climate between Muslims and Christian Armenians intensified as Ottoman fortunes in the war declined, paranoia spread, and the scapegoating of Armenians took a systematically violent turn. Some argue that the murders were explicitly ordered by the Ottoman government. Others argue that they were a result of local-level radicalization.

In any of these versions of the events, the Young Turks should be considered complicit in the carnage: they ordered, at minimum, the forced deportation of civilians in a dangerous, volatile environment. For many, this culpability comes to mind when the phrase “young Turks” is used.

At a Nov. 9 symposium TYT held at California State University, an audience member tried to bring up this issue. “The rise in anti-immigrant sentiment,” the young man began, “brings back memories in history of other leaders of other groups, people that rose to power and have done much worse, such as the Young Turks.” Before he could finish his question, the TYT hosts—led by John Iadarola—cut him off, silenced the subsequent audience agitation, and moved to a break. Many have rightly criticized TYT for this reaction, which is particularly hypocritical since the network markets itself as a bastion of transparency in the media.

Should TYT’s response or choice of name affect our consumption of its politics coverage? Some go so far as to claim that calling an organization “The Young Turks” is like calling it “Hitler Youth.” For many, concerns about the name are exacerbated by the fact that Cenk Uygur—who was born in Turkey and moved to the U.S. at age 8—wrote an op-ed for his college newspaper in 1991 denying the Armenian genocide. He has since retracted those words, but not in favor of a new stance; he has instead opted to “refrain from commenting.”

Many Americans, understandably, hear “genocide denier” and think “evil.” But the case of the Armenian Genocide is not so simple, and does not warrant the frequent comparisons with Holocaust denial. First of all, the German government, unlike the Turkish government, acknowledges its genocide. German law mandates that Holocaust history be taught in schools; popular Turkish history books at best relate a biased version of Ottoman-Armenian history, and at worst include elements of total fabrication. Turks who aren’t indoctrinated by pervasive genocide denial are forbidden to speak against it under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which declares it illegal to “insult the Turkish nation.” The journalist Hrant Dink is among those who’ve been prosecuted in recent years for acknowledging the genocide; shortly afterward he was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist. Almost all of those who grow up in Turkey, even liberals and those opposed to the authoritarian AKP government believe that their country has been unfairly condemned for crimes it didn’t commit against the Armenians.

It makes sense that Uygur, a product of this environment, grew up denying the Armenian Genocide. It’s important that he’s at least apologized for his decades-old statements, and it’s important that he didn’t intend to reference that history when he named his network after the colloquialism “young Turk.” In this case, however, impact matters more than intent.

Though he didn’t intend it, TYT’s name causes offense. The young man at the California State symposium is hardly alone in feeling aggrieved; TYT is regularly chided for the name. In 2012, the chairman of the Western Region of the Armenian National Committee of America issued a statement saying, “Mr. Uygur’s decision to use this highly offensive and hurtful moniker for his news program has been a source of continued pain for the Armenian community in the United States and abroad.”

Uygur argues that the name “is in no way a historical reference,” as he made clear in a five-paragraph response to a request for comment. “No matter how often we explain the actual meaning of our name, some critics will never be appeased. Their true intent is not to help Armenians, but to attack us by any means necessary. It’s sick that they use such an important issue for their own political purposes. For those who have legitimate questions about our name, we hope they understand the true meaning of the phrase and our intent in using it so that we can work together to knock down the political establishment that’s keeping all of us down and relentlessly fight to make our country better.”

There may be opportunistic critics of TYT’s name, but this backlash isn’t some right-wing conspiracy. This is a university student asking a question; this is a representative of an Armenian-American nonprofit expressing concerns; this is an Armenian explaining her displeasure in an op-ed for The Armenian Weekly. The TYT hosts aren’t trying to reference history, but they don’t need to try—unavoidably, the name has a history. It is part of history. They can’t be the arbiters of who takes offense to it.

And this issue goes beyond offense. TYT’s coverage of the Redskins controversy suggests that they know the responsibility that comes with controlling the name of an influential brand. As “the world’s largest online news network,” TYT exercises enormous power. The phrase “young Turk” is only seen as an apolitical colloquialism because history has been whitewashed. Americans should be aware of the Armenian Genocide and those who had a hand in it, just as they are of the Holocaust. Though America responded to reports of the massacres with widespread outcry during WWI, the country slowly forgot about it until “young Turk” became, to many, just a bit of rhetoric without context. Continuing to use it as a colloquialism only helps perpetuate this ignorance. As with “gypped,” “Indian givers,” “vandal,” and countless other phrases, the victors of history have again neutralized language.

If Uygur will not change the title, at minimum he must change his narrative about it. A current statement on the network’s website denies the name’s historical link. Uygur should replace these remarks with a more respectful explanation, as well as a clearly defined position on the genocide. It’s not enough to “refrain from commenting”—willful ignorance is unacceptable when it comes to TYT’s own name. An improved website statement could read, for example, “We understand why many people are offended by our network title. We strongly condemn the Armenian Genocide, as well as the Turkish and U.S. governments’ refusal to recognize it. Though we will keep our name because our brand recognition helps us advance the progressive cause, we are also committed to engaging in open dialogue about the name and its history.”

That dialogue is essential. TYT must not silence those who question the name or write off all critics as opportunists with “their own political purposes.” TYT also shouldn’t rest complacently upon the fact that it employs an Armenian American co-host, Ana Kasparian, who herself has family members who were victims of the genocide. Kasparian may be at peace with the name, but other Armenians feel differently.

Like it or not, TYT took a name with a history (as did, it should be noted, a record label and other organizations, all of which should also reckon with the genocide connotations). If TYT wants to be an accessible network for all, it must be more forthright about that history. It must hold itself to the same standard it holds the rest of the media: that of addressing difficult issues with unflinching honesty, even when doing so is inconvenient. TYT is generally good at this; I hope they’ll step up here.

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