On fairness, justice and the rights of the disabled…

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One man’s story and the system that failed him.

A native of Turkey, Cüneyt Özveren was never a religious soul. But back in college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), every time his good friend Tanju Çataltepe woke up at the wee hours for the Ramadan fast, Özveren never failed to keep him company. It was just the kind of person he was…kind, considerate and caring, as most would agree in his wide circle of friends. Today, some forty years after those tender years of youth, Cüneyt says his belief that God doesn’t exist has only strengthened. “Now I can explain it scientifically,” he says, sitting in his home in Istanbul, Turkey where he relocated in 2013. For 33 years, Özveren had called the United States his adopted home, where he led a stellar career in information technology and business, reaping the rewards of an equally stellar education from MIT that led him to a life of comfort and wealth. That is until December 15, 2011…when Özveren’s life was to change forever, one fateful night, in his perfectly posh home in Saratoga, California.

“I always wanted to return to Turkey…” he says wistfully, “just not this way…” That’s because tragedy struck Özveren, 7 months shy of his fiftieth birthday when he suffered a massive stroke, leaving him paralyzed, in what is medically known as a “locked in syndrome” where one’s eyes are the only things that can move. Özveren’s health crisis was so severe and his health care costs so obscenely high (hovering around $100,000 dollars a month) that the decision was made to move him to his native Turkey where his health care costs were brought down considerably.

The story of Özveren is not only the story of a life-changing health crisis but also one that sheds light on the conservatorship system, a seemingly simple and yet complicated legal system, put in place for those who cannot physically and/or mentally make and execute life decisions for themselves. And that’s exactly what happened to Özveren – except that there is nothing wrong with him mentally. Recently divorced, Özveren was surrounded by a large group of caring friends following his health crisis. His sister and mother flew from Turkey to California to look after him as soon as they possibly could. At the time of his stroke, Özveren had considerable assets and savings that needed the attention of someone who, unlike his sister or mother, could easily navigate through the nooks and crannies of the American system of finance, banking, trusts and taxes – both individual and corporate. Further complicating the picture were the remnants of his messy divorce and ongoing child custody matters. No friend volunteered for the job at hand, so the decision was made and a conservator was appointed by the California probate court system. Starting on January 23, 2012, Özveren became a conservatee in a system which basically turned over the control of his “person” and his “estate” to (for lack of a better word) a stranger. The latter was Bonnie Burdett, a professional fiduciary from Los Altos, California.

Today, with the conservatorship finally over, nearly 3 years after the first attempts at termination were initiated,[1] Özveren holds steady in his belief that his conservator, albeit qualified enough on paper and certified in the state of California, was simply a “stranger” to the intricacies of his case and that as a consequence contributed to the considerable and unnecessary loss of his financial assets. “I knew that Bonnie could not do this job when she could not produce the expense worksheet that I wanted. I realized that she tried to be my conservator without knowing the details of my expenses…Someone with the experience to manage millions of dollars could have been better” he says.

Burdett has repeatedly declined to answer any questions for this article. Özveren’s closest living family member is his sister Şeyma Özveren-Öner who maintains that Burdett was simply doing her job as best as she could, all the while bombarded by the additional demands of her brother’s exceedingly demanding ex-wife. A close friend of Özveren was Nuri Dağdeviren who helped the family (the sister and the mother) initially set up the conservatorship. He thinks there may have been some disagreements among family members over the direction of it in the following years. Regardless of family dynamics, one overarching reason why there exists no true consensus on Burdett is that, during the initial months following Özveren’s stroke, it was his precarious health status that was utmost on everyone’s mind and not the details and direction of the conservatorship. That said, a close look at some of the basic facts will reveal that in this specific case, the conservatorship system failed Özveren because it is a flawed system, prone not only to the individual judgment and skill of the conservator, but also open for conflict of interest in the form of duplicated charges and excessive fees. According to a White Paper published by CEDAR (Coalition for elder and adult rights) in September 2015, “California’s conservatorship system is alarmingly repressive and devoid of oversight or accountability.”

Here are a few basic facts about the way Özveren’s affairs were handled: There was the court-appointed conservator (Burdett) (whose hourly rate varied between 135 to165 dollars an hour); working alongside Burdett, and covering all of the significant legal hurdles for which she was not qualified, was an attorney (Richard Gorini) whose hourly rate stands at $425.  In only the first accounting period, the professional service charges for Burdett were $102,130.92, for Gorini $73,260.00.  In this set up, it was a common occurrence that both Burdett and Gorini would be charging hefty sums of money while attending the same court hearing on the very same day.[2]

Also in the mix of this costly stew was Özveren’s divorce lawyer (Mia Mosher) working with Burdett over the handling of child custody issues since Özveren and his ex-wife have a young daughter, a minor throughout the entire conservatorship period. All three people, the conservator and two attorneys were being paid out of the very estate the conservator was assigned to manage. Basically, the foxes were all in charge of the henhouse.

Between January 23, 2012 when Burdett took over as conservator, and May 16, 2016 when the conservatorship was officially terminated, Özveren’s original assets of about 6 million dollars shrunk to a mere 2 million, leaving his financial future uncertain at best. The reason for this uncertainly is quite simple: Severely disabled (basically a quadriplegic), Özveren is in need of 24 hour nursing care. He is completely dependent on paid staff to stay alive while he cannot work and cannot earn any income. The severity of Özveren’s health crisis is marked by two life-saving brain surgeries following his brain stem stroke, followed by 3 months in intensive care, then a period of 7 months when he was literally fighting for his life, in between several hospital stays including one during which a code blue[3] was called. After his status became more or less stable, that is between September 2012 and May 2013 when he relocated to Turkey, Özveren lived in his home in CA with 24 hour nursing care, with an average monthly cost of forty-thousand dollars. Managing these health care costs, in addition to his personal and professional finances as well as the routine interruptions from various family law issues all fell on Burdett: A tall order for any conservator. But here is the catch: Özveren is no ordinary conservatee. This is a man whose brain continues in full-function, basically outrunning his failing body. His cognition is completely intact despite the fact that he suffers from dysphagia and cannot speak. A highly intelligent scientist and entrepreneur, Özveren has 5 MIT degrees under his belt. He is not only an electrical and computer engineer, he is also a graduate of the Sloan school of Management. Between his last year of schooling in 1989, and the tragedy of his life-altering stroke in 2011, Özveren had put his mark on 6 different corporate ventures. By his mid-thirties, Özveren was making a name for himself not only in Silicon Valley where he worked, but also in his native Turkey. Özveren’s professional acquaintances describe him as “a visionary and a hard charging CEO.” In 2004, one of his brainchildren, LeapTag Inc., was a stealth start up in the Internet application space. In 2008, he was the main force behind Intelligent Papers, a digital textbook company. His business partner in this last venture was İsmet Müstecaplıoğlu who describes his friend of 43 years as “very hardworking, at times domineering, but always committed to being good at what he does and being successful in business.”

Today, sitting in a wheelchair in front of his special computer and under the watchful eye of his caregivers, it takes Özveren a painstaking half hour to write a decent paragraph to email a friend. Since he cannot use his hands, his eyes are his most important assets right now. Using eye-recognition technology, he moves his eyes across the computer keyboard, and points to the right letter to form the right word, then the right cluster of words and finally the full sentence. When he thinks of the myriad emails that were written on his behalf by his conservator, he is often overcome by anger and frustration. Knowing all that he knows about numbers, about money, about running a business and making the right decisions for all that’s involved, he cannot help but feel outraged. Whenever he questions a particular charge on the conservator’s yearly accounting summaries, he is told that every single penny spent from his estate was officially approved by the probate court judge. After hearing the same refrain repeatedly, he cannot help but wonder how the judge can possibly approve every single charge without having all of the pertinent information that may be involved while he, as the conservatee, does not have direct access to the judge. When he thinks about the bank accounts the conservator was handling on his behalf, he obsesses over every single interest rate she missed. When he thinks about a corporate return she signed, he is irritated because he knows she signed the papers without truly understanding the content. And when he asks her not to do something on his behalf and when she does exactly the opposite, he is simply incensed.[4]

To an outsider, Özveren’s complaints may sound like the frustrated fits of fury of someone who feels helpless. Yet, for those who know and work within the system, there does exist a clear level of skepticism about the U.S. legal system that oversees conservatorships and family law. In Özveren’s case, there is reason to believe that someone of his cognitive and intellectual capacity should have had better access to the standards and procedures about the conservatorship system. It wasn’t until December 9, 2015 (4 years into the conservatorship) that Özveren received a standard “rights” documents in an email attachment from Burdett. In that email, she promised to send in the original document specially drafted for his particular case, but that promise never quite materialized. To this day, Özveren maintains that his rights as a conservatee were never clearly explained to him until he requested the documents in 2015 – nearly four years after the start of the conservatorship. Despite the erratic nature of his recovery, with varying degrees of consciousness in the first year following his stroke, Özveren was nevertheless observed and described as being able to “process and understand complicated subjects as early as January 2012.[5]  And yet, when asked if Özveren was given the information regarding his rights as a conservatee, neither the sister nor his close friends are able to recall with any clarity if and when that occurred. This fact alone leaves the door open for possible gaps in the way the conservatorship was understood and accepted by the one person for whom it mattered most: the conservatee, in this case, the highly intelligent stroke victim whose cognition and intelligence has simply outrun his paralyzed body.

In addition, whenever Özveren inquired about terminating the conservatorship (in his repeated requests between 2015 and 2016), he was told that he could not ask Burdett to withdraw as he had been doing and that she would have to resign. However, the Notice of Conservatee’s Rights as stipulated under the Probate Court in California states that: ”The conservatee keeps the right to ask a judge to replace the conservator; ask a judge to end the conservatorship.” [6] It is worth noting here that all three people hired and paid by the Özveren estate, were still charging by the hour for their services during the entire timespan of 2015/2016. Furthermore, just as Özveren’s assets were diminishing by the hour, the conservator’s accounting summaries were being filled up by a myriad of mundane tasks billed at unreasonable levels: A half hour exchange of documents between Burdett and attorney Gorini: $45.00; Burdett reviewing and approving invoices (which are meant to be reviewed later by a judge) for 0.8 hours: $108.00; a single email with family law counsel regarding child care for 0.1 hour: $16.50 and the list goes on…

Caught in a seemingly repressive system which was eating into his life saving, Özveren decided on a more dramatic route in the summer of 2015 and hired the Geragos law firm to check into his conservatorship. The investigation’s purpose was to dig in and find out if his conservator or any other third party was at least at fault, if not entirely guilty of outright surcharge actions or any malpractice emanating from simple incompetence. The Geragos investigation lasted about a year but could not reveal any such proof. And yet the fact remains that the Özveren story was no ordinary case.

A simple google search among the top 15 controversial conservatorship cases in California reveals not one case similar to Özveren’s. Among the 15 cases, 7 are related to individuals with mental issues, 2 deal with complications arising after an elderly conservatee’s death, the rest with various issues ranging from post-death scenarios to those conservatees who happen to be minors or sexually dangerous individuals.

So where does this leave Özveren and his stubborn belief that he was wronged by the conservatorship system? With the approval of the judge and the probate court system, the conservatorship ended in May 2016. A U.S. bank account kept the funds for his daughter’s private school tuition and the rest was wired to him in Turkey. Fighting the system any further is nearly impossible. It is too late to request an appeal or a motion to reconsider without spending large amounts of money…money that Özveren needs preserve in order to stay alive while making sure he keeps his promise to pay for his daughter’s education. “The system is set up wrong” he says, “you can’t use the same person, judge or conservator, for everyone,” summarizing what may well be the crux of his problems. Özveren is a rare breed: A conservatee with severe physical limitations, and yet whose brainpower perhaps exceeds that of the people assigned to work on his behalf combined. And there is nothing anyone can say or do to make him change in mind about the system he was thrown into following his life-altering health crisis.

Whether he was the wrong man in the right system, or the right man in the wrong system may be an open question for some. But not so for this ex-conservatee. Özveren is more than convinced that the conservatorship and the court system that oversees it simply failed him, even though “the court is to be guided by what appears to be for the best interests of the conservatee.”[7] Of this he is certain, just as certain as he used to be when answering the most complicated math questions back in middle school. “Everything was easy in school but I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to intimidate them.” he says. Too modest to speak out back then, Özveren wants to speak out loud and clear today. And even though he cannot physically speak, he will make sure he will be heard, with or without his vocal chords working.


[1] The conservatorship of the person was terminated on July 23, 2013. The conservatorship of the estate was terminated on May 16, 2016.

[2] One of many such examples: Both Burdett and Gorini attended a January 17, 2013 court session of 2.7-2.8  hours with Burdett charging $378.00 and Gorini $1,147.00

[3] Code blue: An emergency situation announced in a hospital or institution in which a patient is in cardiopulmonary arrest, requiring a team of providers (sometimes called a ‘code team’) to rush to the specific location and begin immediate resuscitative efforts.

[4] According to email exchanges between January through March of 2015, Özveren repeatedly asked Burdett not to speak to the IRS regarding his corporate returns without consulting him and the banks. She never complied.

[5] Post on January 3, 2012 (3 weeks after the stroke) on the Google Group formed by friends to exchange visitation notes and observations. Quotation from friend on Googlegroup “Get Well Cüneyt” dated January 3, 2012.

[6] Form adopted for mandatory use by the Judicial Council of California. (Probate-Guardianships and conservatorships)

[7] From West’s California Jurisprudence 3D. Volume 35A (Government Tort Liability to Guardianship and Conservatorship, page:1042

Two steps forward and one step back

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It has been a decade since I started immersing myself in the subject of the Armenian Genocide, a subject of utmost controversy and tension around the world, especially surrounding the date of April 24. That is when the world’s Armenians remember and commemorate their ancestors who perished under the Ottoman Empire, during the horrific events leading up to and during the year 1915. And just when I thought I had said everything I could possibly say on the subject – from my non-academic yet educated position of a Turkish-American – enter the quirky pages of Turkey’s Ülkü takvimi, an old-fashioned daily calendar found in bookstores all over the country. It is filled with everything from interesting quotes, to family recipes, to prayer schedules, not to mention “this day in history” notes about certain important dates in the nation’s history. Here’s what I read in 2014 on April 24:

“Osmanlı Hükümeti, Ermenilerin Türk halkına yönelik saldırılarının artması üzerine, Ermeni Komitelerini kapattı; masum insanları katleden 2345 komitacı tutuklandı. Dışarıdaki Ermenilerin her yıl “Ermeni soykırımı yıldönümü” diye andıkları 24 Nisan budur.” Translation: “In light of the increasing attacks by the Armenians against the Turkish people, the Ottoman government closed down the Armenian committees and arrested the 2345 committee members who had slaughtered innocent people. This is basically what the “Armenian Genocide commemoration” comes down to, the date of April 24, memorialized by those Armenians who live abroad.”

I remember reading this at the time and thinking of writing a pithy little article about the offensive evasiveness of this historical tidbit.  But waiting for the year 2015 made more sense, especially since the Turkish government and its leaders had been speaking about a vision of reconciliation with our Armenian brothers and sisters. And so I waited for April 24, 2015…when much to my surprise, I found not a word about the date of April 24. “Oh good” I said to myself with an innocent naivete, “somebody at the Ülkü calendar headquarters is thinking hard about what to write in here next year.”  And so here we are in 2016, and on April 24 I find that the “this day in history” quotes: the exact same passage as two years ago! With not a single change!

Speaking of quotes, here is one Turkish expression I find most appropriate to use at this time: “Sıfıra sıfır, elde var sıfır.” (zero times zero makes zero). And here’s another one: “İki ileri bir geri (two steps forward and one step back).  So what happened to Turkey facing its history? The government’s new vision towards reconciliation with their Armenian brothers and sisters? Seems like any vision of reconciliation has taken more than a few steps back in Turkey and the backwards direction doesn’t seem to be limited to those who write for the Ülkü calendar.

Burdened by the Syrian refugee crisis and its ambition to hold on to power, the Turkish government has single-handedly maneuvered a repeat election, held onto its majority in the Parliament, and basically chose the national security narrative over that of a true and honest reconciliation.  Aided and abetted by a nationalist discourse (bordering on outright racism at times), and the heavy hand of the military, it has concentrated on eliminating any challenge to its authority in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast…not only by demolishing people’s homes, seizing places of worship such as the Armenian Surp Giragos church, but also by crushing the hopes of those who were clinging to the possibility of lasting and effective change in the way the Turkish state was hard-wired to act from day one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

April 24

Armenouhi Der Avedisian Basmajian (1898-1938) survived the Armenian Genocide but later died of disease at the age of 39. She never knew she was quite the poet when she wrote this at the age of 22:

Viravor Daree

Mayrig ays kisher

Toon mtnshaghin

Aghpyour chkatsir

Luys vosgi chooren

Nor loosakhpyuren

Goojov chi perir

Aghchigus katsi

Khoong mom varetsi

Gatil choor chi gar

Tsamker er aguh.

Toors nayir mayrig

Tsuyn kami mrrig

Inchbes g’arshaven

Ayt o?v e goo lay

Hoveroon mechen, drdoom yerkelov

Ayt hovn e grgin

Dzovn e artsoonkin

Ayt khotsn e verkin

Potsn e areevnin

Des mer yertikin

Tsoobkim tsayrin

Ardziv muh tarrer

Des ir gdootsin

Gatil muh areevn

Gatets mer semin

I?nchoo areevn gatets
mer tran semin
A’kh hayrut zargin!
Kirgus yego’d, hokeeag…

 

 

Wounded Year (Translated by Nairi Hakhverdi)

Mother, at dusk,

You did not

Go to the spring.
You did not bring
In a jug
The limpid gold water
From the clear new spring.

My daughter, I went
To light incense and candles,
But there wasn’t a drop of water.
The spring had dried up.

Look outside, Mother,
How the snow, wind, and storm
Are bursting in!
Who is that crying,
Dolefully singing, in the wind?

It’s that cool breeze again,
It’s the sea of the teardrop,
It’s the stab of the wound,
It’s the fire of the blood.

Look up at our skylight.
An eagle perches
On the edge of the roof.
Look, from its beak,
A drop of blood
Fell on our doorstep.

Why did a drop of blood
Fall on our doorstep?
Oh, they shot your father!
Come into my arms, my little darling..

 

CONVERSATIONS ON ARMENIAN-TURKISH RELATIONS

PROF. TANER AKCAM is the Kaloosdian/Mugar Professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, MA. Born in Ardahan by the Georgian border of Turkey, Prof. Akcam is the first Turkish scholar who has openly recognized, and written about the Armenian genocide. He comes from a political family of modest means. Both parents were teachers; his father was a writer, journalist and an activist. It didn’t take long for Akcam to become involved in Turkey’s revolutionary youth movements of the seventies. Prior to his arrests and subsequent imprisonment in 1976, Prof. Akçam was the editor-in-chief of Devrimci Gençlik (Revolutionary Youth), a student-run journal.

So what would be the first thing on the agenda for you at the time? What did you want to accomplish? Our first goal was of course a “democratic university”, where we, the students, would have our voices heard, and where we would be represented in the universities’ administrative structures. In order to achieve this goal, we organized democratic elections throughout Ankara universities based on a grassroots model, and we created a student platform with the representative from each university, a thoroughly basic democracy… In my own university (ODTU-Middle East Technical University), we created a list of demands following several meetings and discussions including all departments. For example, science students developed a list of the items that were missing from the labs. In short, we wanted to have the right of official representation and wanted to be part of the decision making process…We were distributing fliers, organizing boycotts and I was arrested during these activities. …And later, I was arrested in March 1976 because of the articles I wrote as editor-in chief of Devrimci Gençlik. I was writing about the social and political issues of Turkey at the time, basically freedom of speech, the Kurdish question and the like.  I was sentenced to eight years, nine months and 20 days of imprisonment. After sitting in prison for a year, I escaped and ended up in Germany.

 

I want to ask you about something that I read in one of your articles. You said that it had taken you—as in, Taner Akcam, who most everyone knows as the first Turkish scholar to actively recognize the Armenian genocide—a few years to actually use the term “genocide.”  Can you explain what this means?  There is a very simple reason: Fear… Fear on two different levels. First, regardless of how critical you are of your government, as a Turk, living with the Turkish state’s bombardment of denialist propaganda, you always want to keep a margin, saying, “Who knows? Maybe it is not indeed a genocide? Better be careful with this term…. Who knows?” Basically this is the fear of not knowing what really happened. The second level is the psychological atmosphere in Turkey; it was a big problem speaking out about the Armenian issue let alone using the G word. Because of this fear, I never used the term genocide until 2000; I was using it however in my German publications without any hesitation.  If you ask me, I call this the psychological threshold period of Turkish intellectuals. Everybody goes through this but I myself never theorithized this issue. I mean, I called it as I saw it: fear! What I really hate is that some Turkish intellectuals have turned their psychological fears into some general theories. They have tried to give a deep meaning as to why the term genocide cannot be used or cannot be applicable to the Armenian case. They have all kinds of stupid arguments such as “if they were to use the term nobody would listen to them” etc…Well, what we have actually seen over the years, and especially after 2005, many Turkish journalists started using the term genocide freely and by doing so, they were able to lift that mystical layer that academicians had developed over the word genocide. Had those journalists not accomplished this, we still would have been stuck at having these stupid arguments about exactly why we should not be using the word genocide.

 

What about the differences between the government and the average person when it comes to assessing the state of a conflict. How does that apply to Turkey do you think? The average person is a construct. Nobody knows who the average person is… but the important issue is, after Hrant Dink’s assassination, the psychological atmosphere in society has changed. I know that from my own experience. Those critical intellectuals, we were dragged from courtroom to courtroom, we were threatened. I was the target of a hate campaign. I was getting death threats. Look at today. All that has ended and nobody attacks us anymore, we have now become well-respected people in the society. I firmly believe that if the state acknowledges something regarding 1915, it would also be acknowledged by society without too much difficulty. If President Erdoğan wakes up tomorrow morning and says, “You know I had a dream and this was genocide or a crime against humanity” then everybody will say, “Yeah, we knew it was genocide.”

What is the problem now then for the government in Turkey? I guess the problem is that Turkey knows what happened in 1915 was a crime but it is not ready to face the consequences of acknowledgment. The consequences are unclear and they are scared of the potential repercussions of acknowledgment. Let me give you only one example; if you start with just one human rights abuse of the past, where are you going to end? If you start with the Armenians, then the Greeks will come, then the Assyrians… After the Christians, the Jews will come. After the Jews, then the Kurds will come. After the Kurds, the Alevites and then the leftist movement will come. There is no end…

Let me add another important psychological factor, which is very well known. Every nation needs heroes. Every nation-state was founded by its founding fathers. They are role models for the society, for the individuals… In the case of the Armenian Genocide, if we discuss what really happened, then we have to accept that an important number of our founding fathers were either directly involved in the Genocide or that they somehow participated in the enrichment process. This tears down your national heroes; you have to turn your heroes into villains.  This means you have to destroy your national identity, it is destructive and not easy to do. You can only do this if, as psychologists explain, you extend your identity into a new democratic identity. It’s what we have here in the United States. The society still has its founding fathers but Americans can in fact accept or talk about their founding fathers having been slave owners, and that some of those founding fathers ordered the extermination of the Native Americans.

So you’re saying the Turkish nation hasn’t quite gotten over that threshold? Exactly.

We spoke earlier about how there is not “one” Turkish person and that the average Turkish person is a construct. Do you think the same applies to Armenians and the various groupings among them?  Of course… there are so many different Armenian organizations, and what they really want from the Turkish government varies from political group to group… But let me tell you a general observation that I have made among Armenians over the years. In the heart of every single Armenian, Ani and Ararat have a special meaning. They really identify themselves with these places. Even the most moderate Armenian, if you ask them he/she would tell you, “It would be so great if Turkey gave us Mount Ararat and the Ani ruins as a gesture, because this is part of our Armenian identity.” These places were their historic homelands. Not that this should be discussed in “realistic terms.” This is Armenian psychology; it must be accepted as it is.

Could you speak a bit about the subject of “inevitability” when speaking about 1915 and whether the Armenian genocide was basically inevitable from the start, as in the Turks were bound to slaughter and kill Armenians from day one? It is true that among Armenian scholarship and especially among the Armenian people there is a widely accepted view that the “Turks” have a propensity towards violence and have strong feelings of hatred and animosity towards Armenians. This hatred and tendency to use violence have stemmed from religion (Islam). The religious ideology took secularized forms and in the proceeding years turned into nationalism and/or racism. These extremist ideologies (Pan-Turanism and Pan-Islamism along with hatred of Armenians) are part of Turkish identity and also the reasons for Genocide. What you have here is an abstract, ahistorical Turk, with certain cultural propensities, who travels throughout history and whenever he thinks it is possible, massacres the Armenians. This way of thinking is called the essentialist approach meaning that you have one single agent, and one actor of history and you explain the entire process based on the motives and intents of this agent.

Now of course, I am not talking about the other extreme, which is very dominant in Turkey even among the critical intellectuals, according to whom there is not much continuity in history and what happened to the Armenians was a kind of accident; a derivation from the normal course of history.

What do you think? Well, I don’t think we have a grand theory to explain the Armenian Genocide yet. This would be my next project to work on… There is no doubt in my mind that there is a strong interrelation between 1894 (Abdul Hamid period of massacres), 1909 (Adana) and the 1915 Genocide. There is a continuity out there! However, what is this continuity, how do we explain it, this is a serious challenge. I cannot share the essentialist approach and explain the entire process with the “agent Turk” and its motives and intents. My suggestion would be to try to look at the entire period as a genocidal process that had certain genocidal moments. This genocidal process had to be explained with the involvement of many actors (including the great powers as well as the Armenians), and of course certain structures and contingencies etc… The problem for the new scholarship is: what are these elements of continuity and rupture in this genocidal process? I would like to highlight one point for example; in our macro model we should not consider the victims (Armenians) as simply passive receivers as they were active elements of the process with their social, cultural and political organizations. Of course, the denialists would love this “victims as active actors of the process” argument in order to blame them. Needless to say this should not scare us into declaring that Armenians were passive receivers, sitting in their corner and waiting on the decisions of perpetrators about their destiny. My argument is related to understanding the perpetrators’ mindset because the victim groups’ attitudes and responses to certain policies were also important factors in shaping the perpetrators’ actions and decisions. We should understand this interaction, which was a dynamic process. Same can be argued for the role of the great powers. That said, all of this cannot and should not be used to trivialize the heinous act of genocide by the Ottoman-Turkish ruling elite and society.

What are your expectations regarding the Turkish government on the eve of 2015? I don’t have any expectations because there are general elections in June 2015. You can’t make concessions before the elections which can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. You’ll lose the elections. AKP’s major fear is MHP –the Turkish Nationalist Party, and they know that with any gesture towards Armenians, they will get a backlash from the MHP and they’re very careful. They don’t want to make any concessions before the elections, and after 2015 there might be some minor changes.

My guess is that denialism is so hardened and so calcified, and has so obfuscated the Turkish psyche that it is really very hard to make changes. I mean if today, you still teach the kids in your schools (including the Armenian kids in Istanbul) that the Armenians are the number one threat to national security of Turkey, I wonder how you can change anything. In such a situation, I really don’t care who you have as your chief adviser[1] as long as the books are there; and these textbooks are full of hatred and discriminatory language towards Armenians.  This is basic racism. The government should change the textbooks first!

One last question: way back when you were younger, did you think you would be here in Massachusetts, having the title you are now holding at Clark University? No…it was basically coincidences that made me work on this topic. And the second reason was the Turkish state; they kind of kept me working on this topic! I mean, they came after me; they attacked me, they didn’t let me move onto some other topic. I was of course scared like any other person; there were moments when I went to my corner and covered myself up.

You were really scared? Yes of course! I have been scared a lot… this is very human!

Are you scared now? No, no, no. Not now. I mean it’s over. It might come back, nobody knows….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] In reference to Etyen Mahçupyan, an ethnic Armenian who was appointed chief advisor to Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in October 2014

HALF A LEGACY…

Half a legacy simply won’t do!

Today is January 19. It’s Martin Luther King Junior Day in the United States. Across the Atlantic, in Turkey, today marks the eighth anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink. MLK and Dink are incontestably two great men who have left indelible marks on their respective countries’ human rights records. Two men with lasting legacies. But while MLK is being remembered with a day dedicated to his legacy, I am disturbed by the fact that Turkey and most Turkish people are splitting Dink’s legacy in half: by honoring the portion that may be easier to swallow than the rest. Let me explain.

It’s no secret that both Turkey and its citizens went through a transformation after the murder of Hrant Dink. Thousands marched in the streets with signs proclaiming they were all “Hrant Dink.” And an increasingly robust civil society has been working tirelessly, and making strides, to fulfill Dink’s dream of a more democratic, enlightened Turkey. In the years following his assassination, most of these dedicated individuals and groups followed the unfinished trail of the Dink investigation. And millions (including myself) got acquainted with exactly what this Turkish citizen of Armenian ancestry was trying to accomplish through his writings and presentations.

Most of us are still dissatisfied by the opaque process that characterizes the failure to solve Dink’s murder. [1] But we can’t deny that his assassination marked a unique opening in the way the Armenian genocide and other related subjects are being discussed and dissected in Turkey, where taboos once ruled the day.

This all may seem positive and inspiring, yet I can’t help but detect a willingness to ride the wave of only half of Dink’s legacy. Starting in my own environment of Massachusetts, with its ever-growing population of Turks, I have observed many people who, justifiably, fell in love with the notion of Dink’s call for a “dialogue” among the conflicted communities of Armenians and Turks around the world. In my conversations, observations, and meetings with several Turkish people, I’ve had the sense that most were more than ready to simply “get” to that phase of holding each other’s hands and riding into the sunset for the sake of peace and reconciliation . . . at the expense of jumping over a big clump of history that has yet to be acknowledged and accepted. For the record, I admit that I have used a few of those Dink quotes calling for a “dialogue” instead of a “monologue” in some of my own writings and videos.[2] Yet today, on this eighth anniversary of his brutal killing, I believe it’s high time to examine just how this concept of a dialogue among Armenian and Turkish people came to be.

So the question to ponder is this: “Why was Dink speaking about a dialogue in the first place?” (Answer: Because of the history of the Turkish Republic, a history that includes the Armenian genocide!) To understand the answer, we need to dig deeper.

Would Dink have become the man he was by the time of his murder—a symbol of the shared history of Armenians and Turks and their native land of Anatolia—if the nightmare of the 1915 genocide had not occurred? Would he have led Agos, and made it a unique newspaper that exposed countless stories of Armenians who never had the chance to speak out, and of others who discovered their Armenian ancestors? Probably not!

So what first sparked the fire in Dink and made him such an outspoken Turkish Armenian in Turkey? It was the Armenian genocide, or the “events of 1915” as the official Turkey calls it. If the nation-state of Turkey had not gone through its war of independence with the firm belief it should Turkify whatever land it could in order to remain a viable power; if it had not pursued a committed policy of making Turkishness the law of the land and Turkish the official language; if it had not created taboos around identifying its war crimes during WWI and accepting the rights of the country’s Kurdish population; if someone of Dink’s ethnicity hadn’t needed to be known as Fırat (instead of his actual name, Hrant) to make life easier; if discussing the events of 1915—and worse yet, if using the term genocide—hadn’t been a criminal act until very recently in a country that calls itself a democracy . . . If all these things hadn’t happened, Dink would not have been the man he was, and he would not have been speaking about our shared histories and the need for dialogue.

So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that because we all make similar dolmas and köftes in our kitchens, and because Turkish and Armenian musicians can hum the same melodies together, and because hope-filled films are being made by a collaboration of Turkish and Armenian filmmakers, and because books with the word soykırım (genocide) in the title are now freely being bought and sold in Turkey, the legacy of Hrant Dink is being justly respected in Turkey. As I write these words, I’ve been informed that a newly minted PhD candidate in political science from a prestigious university in Turkey was barred from using the term genocide in her dissertation. The head of the committee overseeing her defense made it clear that she simply could not sign off on her PhD unless she removed some of the provocative language!

As Dink said time and time again, what Turkey needs most of all is idrak (the dictionary translation may say comprehension, but I prefer to translate this as internalization). Until every Turkish person living inside or outside of Turkey can reach a point where the word genocide rolls off the tongue without hesitation, apprehension or fear, Dink’s legacy will remain half of what it should be. Because not only Dink himself, but all of Turkey’s people deserve no less. Facing our history, whether on an individual or national level, requires us to swallow a bitter pill. The word genocide is that pill, and it’s time for all Turkish people to start the process of getting its bitter taste down with a big tall glass of idrak.



[1] For those who can read Turkish, a thorough analysis of the flawed process marking the investigation of the Dink murder can be found in Utanç Duyuyorum (I am ashamed) by Fethiye Çetin, Metis Yayınları, 2013, Istanbul.

[2] One such quote out of many is: “We have lived together on this land for a very long time and therefore possess a common memory. And yet we have transformed this common memory into a string of one-note memories. We are speaking to our own choirs. Isn’t it time we changed these monologues into a dialogue so that we can work on reconstructing our common memory?”

 

CONVERSATIONS ON ARMENIAN-TURKISH RELATIONS III

PROF. GERARD J. LIBARIDIAN Retired in 2012, Professor Gerard J. Libaridian held the Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History and was director of the Armenian Studies Program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Dr. Libaridian was a co-founder of the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation, as well as the editor of the Armenian Review. His most recent work, Modern Armenia. People. Nation. State was released in 2008. He is currently working on a new volume, Anatomy of Conflict: Nagorno Karabakh and the New World Order.” From 1991 to 1997, he served as adviser, and then senior adviser (foreign and security policies) to the first President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian. Starting in 1992, Prof. Libaridian was Armenia’s chief negotiator with Turkey for five years. It was during that time frame that Turkey agreed to the transfer of essential wheat to Armenia through its seaport of Trabzon. Turkey discontinued the deliveries later in 1993 but the help to Armenia remains significant at the time, since the country was hit hard by an extremely harsh winter, exacerbated by the effects of the Abkhas-Georgian war.

 Part 1

Did you have a particular approach when you were heavily involved in diplomacy between Armenia and Turkey in the early nineties?

There was the simple truth that I presented. There’s an Armenia and it has neighbors. The neighbors are not gonna move away, neither are we. So, where does security come from? Security comes from having good neighbors. The security is either with good policy, solid policy, or, it’s Russia. If it’s Russia, then you don’t have independence. That’s all there is to it. Now, the question is can you trust Turkey? Well, maybe I don’t know that, but what I say and do matters as to what Turkey says and does, that I know.

I would not have become independent if I didn’t think that we had a chance. But we have to create those chances, we have to create those options. And, and we need to work with Turkey and the Turkish people and the Turkish government. All of them, all of the parties we have to work with them because then, we are agents in our own history. Otherwise we don’t have history. Otherwise we have victim‑hood and those damn Turks will kill us…if that’s what you think, as some do, then forget about independence and then Armenians can become a diaspora, or Armenia can become a small theme park for tourists…You should have seen what was written about me when I first went to Ankara, first official visit to start negotiations on a protocol for normalization relations, October 1992. You should have seen what was written about me in the diaspora…I was the devil incarnate. Some people called me a Turk. Some people said, “Who says he’s Armenian?”

So they hated you for that? Who exactly were they? Those are people whose religion is simple black and white, who feel comfortable as victims and as moralizers against those who victimize them. I have basic strong moral principles but I do not do politics and politically assessments on the basis of morality. Good, bad, right, evil, angel. I don’t do that. I look at what exists and where we want to go, where we could possibly go. First I go after the possible, which doesn’t mean I don’t take chances, but I work very hard to create possibilities and go after them.

For example, Armenia’s foreign policy should be aimed at creating options…Armenia cannot have certainty. Not only because of Turkey, but because of Russia, because of everyone, and because of who we are, how we run what we have to govern. So that uncertainty is the necessary precondition to be able to function. And then at the same time, the ability to see opportunity where there were none, to create opportunities there. And this means really thinking. And some people don’t like thinking. Some people like certainties and they seek sudden things in the moral sphere. We are this, they are that. It’s the simple thinking… and you hate, because you don’t have the perspective, you don’t the software to go somewhere in between. And it becomes a matter of threat, it’s a threat.

Could you speak to the question of “inevitability” in the context of the Armenian genocide…as in was it inevitable, was it going to happen no matter what?

Was it preordained? Were there no other options? Two things: One is what happened and we characterized it. And we saw the enormity of it. We started to think that it was inevitable…And if it’s the victim that we are cherishing, then we must also accept the inevitability because if we were political, or victims of political ploys then, we are not saints. Sainthood comes from saying the Turks were going to do this regardless, it is in the character of the Turk to do this, if it’s in the character of the Turks to do this, then we don’t need historical explanations. Right? History doesn’t matter. It’s in the character!

I mean it is genocide, but how do I interpret it? I interpret it as not just an ethnic or religious thing, but also a political thing. That Armenians, through the Dashnaktsutiune and Hnchakian represented the left wing of the Ottoman political spectrum…So if the Ittihad decided the Armenians are too left‑wing, it wasn’t enough to kill the leaders. You’d have to get rid of the whole grassroots because of their vision of what Turkey should look like after the war as a minimum if they lost, as a maximum if they won…And getting rid of Armenians was a political decision as much as anything else, not just ethnic. All right? Not just ethnic. Most people focus on the ethnic. What I’m saying is that there is something beyond the ethnic.

Part 2 

The Libaridian family’s roots go back to Knight Libarid, the last commander-in-chief of the King of Cilicia, the medieval Armenian kingdom. They moved from the Cilician capital of Sis to Tarsus where Prof. Libaridian’s father was born in 1907. His mother’s family comes from Urfa, a major Armenian settlement extending back several centuries. He and his five siblings all grew up in Northern Lebanon.

 

Do you think the way Armenians think about their relationship with Turks or Turkey changes depending on their personal background, profession or education? Of course it changes. It changes whether you’re really involved in the community or not. Whether you have relations with Turkey, it changes with generations, it changes with experience in life…Meeting a Turk or not, and most of them have not. I remember when I first met a Turk. He was a good friend of my father’s. Selami Bey. He had been an Ottoman bureaucrat in Beirut and he stayed in Beirut. And he used to come to our house with his fez. We loved him. He would come and advise my mother and he would advise my father, and he was, you know, the non‑involved but trusted man in the family…so people have these experiences…And I think there has been a process of humanization of the Turk. And that’s because people have actually gone there.

When we talk about Armenian-Turkish relations over the past decade, where or how would you place the role of WATS (Workshop on Armenian Turkish Scholarship)? I was a participant…it was a small group, maybe 13 people…It was very nervous at the beginning. Already, without people knowing what was going to happen, were strong reactions from both the Turkish side and the Armenian side. What are these guys doing? Can you imagine? This is 2000. Most of us were saying we need to develop a framework, a context within which to discuss the issue of the genocide in a way that will encompass the best of the minds…And we all agreed that it was necessary to have intellectual integrity and respect. Whether you use the term genocide or not, it’s not the main issue. The issue is: Do I trust you that when you don’t call it genocide, you do it for good historical, scientific, intellectual reasons? And then we can talk about it…And those who might have, in other forums, used the insulting terms would not do it because we had set a pattern. I mean, you go into a club and you live by the rules of the club and that had a beneficial impact. It encouraged young scholars, both Armenian but certainly Turkish scholars, the young generation, to find a place where they could talk about this.

How important do you think the intra-group relations are when it comes to discussing Armenian-Turkish relations? The variety of opinions within the respective communities? In a way it’s healthy, but I’m not sure that we have discovered or really focused on the tools that make it constructive. We’re finding it the hard way, because neither Turks nor Armenians have a forum where they can think these things through. Where the different positions could be crystallized, characterized, and say, “OK, these are now the differences, and let’s talk about it, and we should talk about it, and we should come together to talk about it.” There are so many differences, both within the Turkish spectrum, and the Armenian spectrum.

How would you describe the Armenian spectrum? I mean, you can have an Armenian family come from Beirut…where everything’s Armenian, and Armenianness is concrete, and daily, and then another family may come and in ten years have no relevance to anything Armenian, and no relationship for different reasons…Now, one other observation that is as deep as this issue of the genocide and the corollary relations with Turks and Turkey is that, for most Armenians, this is a sideshow.

How so? I’m not talking about Armenia, but here in the Diaspora it’s a sideshow. Very few people are employed by anything Armenian. Doesn’t relate to their family security. It has nothing to do with your taxes, nothing to do with the way you get married or get divorced…The big decisions in life are not related to this…so what has happened is that some organizations and outfits have tried to capture this issue. The question, the issue of the recognition of the genocide has become a principle of community organization and the principle of legitimation of power…This doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen and that we’re creating it as some Turkish colleagues want to interpret, that we needed one and created it. The fact that Israelis and Jews used the Holocaust doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen…So a lot of what is happening in this community is the visceral, reflexive response which is being strengthened every time the Turkish state makes a damn mistake. And then organizations and media exaggerates this is what Turkey is. And people don’t have either the opportunity or the reason to start changing their views. Change does occur and has occurred, but it’s so goddamn slow until it seeps down into the deep consciousness where you say how do I look at this?

What’s your expectation for 2015 and why? Nothing. I don’t have expectations…What most Armenians expect will not happen. That is Turkey will not recognize what happened as genocide…I’m more worried than hopeful. It doesn’t matter to me what Obama says, and what Hollande says. What I’m worried about, is the let down for most Armenians after April 24 passes. Some conferences will continue, some books will continue coming out, probably will be a video, film and whatever. All of that will happen, but the fundamental issue will not be resolved.

 

 

 

CONVERSATIONS ON ARMENIAN-TURKISH RELATIONS II

PROF. TANER AKCAM is the Kaloosdian/Mugar Professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, MA. Born in Ardahan by the Georgian border of Turkey, Prof. Akcam is the first Turkish scholar who has openly recognized, and written about the Armenian genocide. He comes from a political family of modest means. Both parents were teachers; his father was a writer, journalist and an activist. It didn’t take long for Akcam to become involved in Turkey’s revolutionary youth movements of the seventies. Prior to his arrests and subsequent imprisonment in 1976, Prof. Akçam was the editor-in-chief of Devrimci Gençlik (Revolutionary Youth), a student-run journal.

So what would be the first thing on the agenda for you at the time? What did you want to accomplish? Our first goal was of course a “democratic university”, where we, the students, would have our voices heard, and where we would be represented in the universities’ administrative structures. In order to achieve this goal, we organized democratic elections throughout Ankara universities based on a grassroots model, and we created a student platform with the representative from each university, a thoroughly basic democracy… In my own university (ODTU-Middle East Technical University), we created a list of demands following several meetings and discussions including all departments. For example, science students developed a list of the items that were missing from the labs. In short, we wanted to have the right of official representation and wanted to be part of the decision making process…We were distributing fliers, organizing boycotts and I was arrested during these activities. …And later, I was arrested in March 1976 because of the articles I wrote as editor-in chief of Devrimci Gençlik. I was writing about the social and political issues of Turkey at the time, basically freedom of speech, the Kurdish question and the like.  I was sentenced to eight years, nine months and 20 days of imprisonment. After sitting in prison for a year, I escaped and ended up in Germany.

I want to ask you about something that I read in one of your articles. You said that it had taken you—as in, Taner Akcam, who most everyone knows as the first Turkish scholar to actively recognize the Armenian genocide—a few years to actually use the term “genocide.”  Can you explain what this means?  There is a very simple reason: Fear… Fear on two different levels. First, regardless of how critical you are of your government, as a Turk, living with the Turkish state’s bombardment of denialist propaganda, you always want to keep a margin, saying, “Who knows? Maybe it is not indeed a genocide? Better be careful with this term…. Who knows?” Basically this is the fear of not knowing what really happened. The second level is the psychological atmosphere in Turkey; it was a big problem speaking out about the Armenian issue let alone using the G word. Because of this fear, I never used the term genocide until 2000; I was using it however in my German publications without any hesitation.  If you ask me, I call this the psychological threshold period of Turkish intellectuals. Everybody goes through this but I myself never theorithized this issue. I mean, I called it as I saw it: fear! What I really hate is that some Turkish intellectuals have turned their psychological fears into some general theories. They have tried to give a deep meaning as to why the term genocide cannot be used or cannot be applicable to the Armenian case. They have all kinds of stupid arguments such as “if they were to use the term nobody would listen to them” etc…Well, what we have actually seen over the years, and especially after 2005, many Turkish journalists started using the term genocide freely and by doing so, they were able to lift that mystical layer that academicians had developed over the word genocide. Had those journalists not accomplished this, we still would have been stuck at having these stupid arguments about exactly why we should not be using the word genocide.

What about the differences between the government and the average person when it comes to assessing the state of a conflict. How does that apply to Turkey do you think? The average person is a construct. Nobody knows who the average person is… but the important issue is, after Hrant Dink’s assassination, the psychological atmosphere in society has changed. I know that from my own experience. Those critical intellectuals, we were dragged from courtroom to courtroom, we were threatened. I was the target of a hate campaign. I was getting death threats. Look at today. All that has ended and nobody attacks us anymore, we have now become well-respected people in the society. I firmly believe that if the state acknowledges something regarding 1915, it would also be acknowledged by society without too much difficulty. If President Erdoğan wakes up tomorrow morning and says, “You know I had a dream and this was genocide or a crime against humanity” then everybody will say, “Yeah, we knew it was genocide.”

What is the problem now then for the government in Turkey? I guess the problem is that Turkey knows what happened in 1915 was a crime but it is not ready to face the consequences of acknowledgment. The consequences are unclear and they are scared of the potential repercussions of acknowledgment. Let me give you only one example; if you start with just one human rights abuse of the past, where are you going to end? If you start with the Armenians, then the Greeks will come, then the Assyrians… After the Christians, the Jews will come. After the Jews, then the Kurds will come. After the Kurds, the Alevites and then the leftist movement will come. There is no end…Let me add another important psychological factor, which is very well known. Every nation needs heroes. Every nation-state was founded by its founding fathers. They are role models for the society, for the individuals… In the case of the Armenian Genocide, if we discuss what really happened, then we have to accept that an important number of our founding fathers were either directly involved in the Genocide or that they somehow participated in the enrichment process. This tears down your national heroes; you have to turn your heroes into villains.  This means you have to destroy your national identity, it is destructive and not easy to do. You can only do this if, as psychologists explain, you extend your identity into a new democratic identity. It’s what we have here in the United States. The society still has its founding fathers but Americans can in fact accept or talk about their founding fathers having been slave owners, and that some of those founding fathers ordered the extermination of the Native Americans.

So you’re saying the Turkish nation hasn’t quite gotten over that threshold? Exactly.

We spoke earlier about how there is not “one” Turkish person and that the average Turkish person is a construct. Do you think the same applies to Armenians and the various groupings among them?  Of course… there are so many different Armenian organizations, and what they really want from the Turkish government varies from political group to group… But let me tell you a general observation that I have made among Armenians over the years. In the heart of every single Armenian, Ani and Ararat have a special meaning. They really identify themselves with these places. Even the most moderate Armenian, if you ask them he/she would tell you, “It would be so great if Turkey gave us Mount Ararat and the Ani ruins as a gesture, because this is part of our Armenian identity.” These places were their historic homelands. Not that this should be discussed in “realistic terms.” This is Armenian psychology; it must be accepted as it is.

Could you speak a bit about the subject of “inevitability” when speaking about 1915 and whether the Armenian genocide was basically inevitable from the start, as in the Turks were bound to slaughter and kill Armenians from day one? It is true that among Armenian scholarship and especially among the Armenian people there is a widely accepted view that the “Turks” have a propensity towards violence and have strong feelings of hatred and animosity towards Armenians. This hatred and tendency to use violence have stemmed from religion (Islam). The religious ideology took secularized forms and in the proceeding years turned into nationalism and/or racism. These extremist ideologies (Pan-Turanism and Pan-Islamism along with hatred of Armenians) are part of Turkish identity and also the reasons for Genocide. What you have here is an abstract, ahistorical Turk, with certain cultural propensities, who travels throughout history and whenever he thinks it is possible, massacres the Armenians. This way of thinking is called the essentialist approach meaning that you have one single agent, and one actor of history and you explain the entire process based on the motives and intents of this agent.

Now of course, I am not talking about the other extreme, which is very dominant in Turkey even among the critical intellectuals, according to whom there is not much continuity in history and what happened to the Armenians was a kind of accident; a derivation from the normal course of history.

What do you think? Well, I don’t think we have a grand theory to explain the Armenian Genocide yet. This would be my next project to work on… There is no doubt in my mind that there is a strong interrelation between 1894 (Abdul Hamid period of massacres), 1909 (Adana) and the 1915 Genocide. There is a continuity out there! However, what is this continuity, how do we explain it, this is a serious challenge. I cannot share the essentialist approach and explain the entire process with the “agent Turk” and its motives and intents. My suggestion would be to try to look at the entire period as a genocidal process that had certain genocidal moments. This genocidal process had to be explained with the involvement of many actors (including the great powers as well as the Armenians), and of course certain structures and contingencies etc… The problem for the new scholarship is: what are these elements of continuity and rupture in this genocidal process? I would like to highlight one point for example; in our macro model we should not consider the victims (Armenians) as simply passive receivers as they were active elements of the process with their social, cultural and political organizations. Of course, the denialists would love this “victims as active actors of the process” argument in order to blame them. Needless to say this should not scare us into declaring that Armenians were passive receivers, sitting in their corner and waiting on the decisions of perpetrators about their destiny. My argument is related to understanding the perpetrators’ mindset because the victim groups’ attitudes and responses to certain policies were also important factors in shaping the perpetrators’ actions and decisions. We should understand this interaction, which was a dynamic process. Same can be argued for the role of the great powers. That said, all of this cannot and should not be used to trivialize the heinous act of genocide by the Ottoman-Turkish ruling elite and society.

What are your expectations regarding the Turkish government on the eve of 2015? I don’t have any expectations because there are general elections in June 2015. You can’t make concessions before the elections which can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. You’ll lose the elections. AKP’s major fear is MHP –the Turkish Nationalist Party, and they know that with any gesture towards Armenians, they will get a backlash from the MHP and they’re very careful. They don’t want to make any concessions before the elections, and after 2015 there might be some minor changes.

My guess is that denialism is so hardened and so calcified, and has so obfuscated the Turkish psyche that it is really very hard to make changes. I mean if today, you still teach the kids in your schools (including the Armenian kids in Istanbul) that the Armenians are the number one threat to national security of Turkey, I wonder how you can change anything. In such a situation, I really don’t care who you have as your chief adviser[1] as long as the books are there; and these textbooks are full of hatred and discriminatory language towards Armenians.  This is basic racism. The government should change the textbooks first!

One last question: way back when you were younger, did you think you would be here in Massachusetts, having the title you are now holding at Clark University? No…it was basically coincidences that made me work on this topic. And the second reason was the Turkish state; they kind of kept me working on this topic! I mean, they came after me; they attacked me, they didn’t let me move onto some other topic. I was of course scared like any other person; there were moments when I went to my corner and covered myself up.

You were really scared? Yes of course! I have been scared a lot… this is very human!

Are you scared now? No, no, no. Not now. I mean it’s over. It might come back, nobody knows….

 



[1] In reference to Etyen Mahçupyan, an ethnic Armenian who was appointed chief advisor to Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in October 2014

 

Conversations on Armenian-Turkish Relations

An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole

(As published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, Dec. 11, 2014)

FATMA MÜGE GÖÇEK (Part 2)

Born, raised and educated in Istanbul, Turkey, Fatma Müge Göçek is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on the comparative analysis of history, politics, gender and collective violence. Her last book entitled Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 came out in November 2014 from Oxford University Press. Prof. Göçek was a friend and colleague of Hrant Dink. Led by Dink’s unique vision and character, Göçek and a growing circle of Turkish intellectuals had nurtured high hopes for a more democratic and inclusive Turkey, a dream that was shattered with the assassination of Dink on January 19, 2007.

What would you say to those who claim that Hrant Dink was murdered simply because he was yet another public intellectual in Turkey? No, I think he was assassinated because he was an Armenian. He was the weak link among all of us. The rest of us were all white Turks. He was the only one who wasn’t. And, what I felt then, as well as after, is that I’m constantly interrogating myself. “Oh my God, did we lead him on?” I mean did we lead him on to thinking that this was possible. In a way, we would all be guilty then for this death, you know, if he didn’t realize that he was not like us in the sense that he was not a white Turk. But people said, “Oh no, you’re making this up.” I don’t think so. I think that there definitely is that element, and I will always feel guilty for that.

How would you describe some of the intra-group splits within the communities of Armenians and Turks in the U.S? Armenians that migrated from Turkey itself have a very different conception of Turks because they’ve had Turkish friends, in addition to the experience of prejudice and discrimination. They know that not all Turks are the same. But if you don’t have that experience of actually having met and hung out with a Turk, then you think that they’re all of the same, all filled with hatred and you don’t want anything to do with them. I think that is probably the most significant.

Within the Turkish community, there is a generational difference. And there is also the difference of when they migrated to the United States. When you start talking to Diaspora Turks, you literally can tell from their political views when they came here and what was going on in Turkey at the time. So they do not update their perceptions. It’s an identity they can’t mess with because it’s become ossified. It’s so ossified that if you mess with it, it’ll break apart!

Since we are on the subject of differences of opinion, would you say you have some philosophical differences with other academicians in the field, take Prof. Taner Akçam for example? What he’s done is extremely important in the sense that he was the first one to bring up this issue (Armenian genocide). But I feel that when he sits down to write something, he already knows what the end result is going to be. And, in a way, to him, it’s much more important to document and demonstrate the violence and the intentions to almost prove that this was genocide. Even if, you know, he may not have needed to…whereas when I started, my issue was not, to prove or disprove anything. So I was probably exploring to see where things would take me. I mean, I had some idea where they were going, but I probably approached materials much more flexibly and openly.

Does this kind of difference in approach have an effect on Turkish‑Armenian relations? If so, why?  I think so. Because people feel much better if you approach them first as human beings…But if you are there with a political agenda or if you’re there with a set intent, I think that colors everything.  It reduces and narrows the possibilities of the relationship that you have. And then again, this may also be the consequence of the fact that I am not a political activist.

So you think someone like Akçam is more of a political activist? I think so. I mean we both want Turkey to be democratized. There we agree, there’s no doubt about that. But, for example, he writes articles in the newspapers, he has a column. He has no problem talking to all the interested parties in different places. I never talk to anyone except in university or academic settings. I would never go and try to negotiate anything with anybody. I mean, you know, what is a scholar? What I can do is research, generate and then disseminate information. I’ve drawn my boundaries much more differently than he has. And you probably need both. But I don’t think he’d be happy doing what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t be happy doing what he’s doing.

Do you have any expectations related to Turkey’s approach to 1915 come 2015? Ten years ago, I did. But now, I realize, after spending the last 12 years, that social change is very slow, you know, in a glacial way.

Do you think the current government is capable of making the right kind of apology to Armenians regarding the genocide? Not this government, no! In a way, they are very nationalistic. Our nationalism has never been questioned, because we didn’t go through the Second World War and we didn’t have to come to terms with the Holocaust and things like that. So, we never had any critical self‑reflection…as a consequence, that nationalism has become so ingrained in us that it is very hard to shake it off. And I thought that Islamists, because of their adverse experiences, would have been more tolerant, but it turns out, rather than becoming more tolerant, they have become even more judgmental and dismissive…I mean, Islam in politics is just as bad as secularism in politics. So, the next 20‑30 years are going to be tough in Turkey, but then, if we survive, the rest will be much better.

 

 

 

 

Conversations on Armenian-Turkish relations I

An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole

(as published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, Dec. 6, 2014)

FATMA MÜGE GÖÇEK (Part 1) Born, raised and educated in Istanbul, Turkey, Fatma Müge Göçek is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on the comparative analysis of history, politics, gender and collective violence. Her last book entitled Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 came out in November 2014 from Oxford University Press. Prof. Göçek was one of the founding members of The Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship (WATS), an unprecedented program that brought together Armenian and Turkish academics in a series of workshops starting in 2000.

What was the biggest challenge for you and your colleagues when you started WATS? One thing we had to develop in the first run was that we didn’t even have a common language, a language to discuss these things. And there were initially some problems because we didn’t use the same words to mean the same things. People attributed very different meanings to it. For example, I said in one context, “Well history is complex, it’s never clean…and things are not black and white, they are gray.” I just meant social reality itself is gray, I hadn’t at all thought about genocide. I mean there was no reference to genocide whatsoever. But because it was, you know, so much in their minds, they took me to task and said, “What do you mean?” So I had to explain what I meant, which is fine. The major contribution of WATS was to create a new space, a more neutral space, where people felt they could talk about these things and share knowledge and information. And that not all Turks, you know, were puppets of the Turkish state. And of course, during the last 10 years, things really changed and transformed.

How important was terminology, specifically the use of the word genocide in your work and research? From the beginning I myself did not want to use the word ‘genocide.’  Not because it’s not a genocide, it certainly is, but I said, drawing on my own life experience, “Look, I had no idea what happened until I started looking into it…At that point if somebody comes to me, if I have no knowledge and says your ancestors committed genocide, I mean, my first reaction would be, no. It will be not because I’m denying what happened…but I have no idea” So I said, “I’ll call it a genocide once I work on this, and I produce that body of knowledge.” So, because of that, of course some of them were upset. I mean, it was at the time, so politicized. If you said that, half of them wouldn’t listen, if you didn’t say it, the other half wouldn’t listen.

Did you make a conscientious decision not to say genocide in the title of your latest book? Yes, my issue is not genocide. What always fascinated me as a sociologist was not whether it was genocide or not, because I already know it was. So, I mean, to me, that didn’t matter. What I was interested in as a sociologist is why didn’t people acknowledge it? I mean, the denial of it was, for me, the more interesting part. And that’s why I wanted to look at denial of violence. And if you only look at genocide, I mean, in 1915, ’17, or ’22, however you picture it, what’s interesting is that, that’s not when the violence starts. I mean, that is the epitome of the violence, the high point. But there is violence in the 1894, ’96 massacres before then. So if you think about what happened afterwards, it still continues. It’s not like, it seizes with the violence against the Armenians. So, I said, this is just one part of it. I want to see the whole picture. Where did it start, when did it end? And that’s why it became 220 years.

Besides the point that it encompasses 220 years and it took you 12 years to finish it, what was the hardest part of doing this latest book? I felt like I was an onion. I sort of had to strip my layers all the way through, because until then, I had taken for granted and naturalized my position in Turkey’s society. I had not realized that I too was an ethnic Sunni‑Turk, you know, who was part of the dominant majority, who on top of it came from the upper‑class. And that had given me advantages and a sense of security that I took for granted.

Because of my belonging to the dominant majority, a lot of my parents’ friends and others, including academic friends took a virulent stand against me. They said, “How dare you put the interest of humanity before the interest of Turkey?” So as a consequence, I lost a lot of friends and that made me much more aware.  And I had to constantly ask, “Am I favoring one group over, over another? Am I being too understanding towards Armenians? Am I being too harsh towards Turks? And then, I was told of course, to stop working on it because they said it was dangerous…But then again, why are we academics? We’re academics because we want to find answers to the questions we ask, and if I can’t do that I might as well go and work on Wall Street, you know, or do something else.  (To be continued)

A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Gonca Sönmez-Poole is the founder of TAWA (Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance), a grassroots alliance of Armenian and Turkish women based in and around Boston.  A native of Turkey, Sönmez-Poole spent two decades working for WCVB-TV’s “Chronicle” program, followed by 13 years managing her own non-profit organization.

 

 

Believe it or not…

Today is International Peace Day…feel free to add to the list:
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Christianity)
“Shall I tell you what acts are better than fasting, charity, and prayers? Making peace between enemies are such acts; for enmity and malice tear up the heavenly rewards by the roots” (Islam)
“To the counsellors of peace is joy” (Judaism)
“When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love” (Baha’i)
“He heals divisions, and cements friendships; seeking peace, and ensuring it, for in peace is his delight, and his words are ever the words of a peacemaker” (Buddhism)
“The noble minded dedicate themselves to the promotion of peace and happiness of others–even those who injure them” (Hinduism)