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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The time to speak is now…

This is a short summary of the interviews conducted with some of the participants of the Boston-based group TAWA (Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance) between September 2012 and May 2013. The group was led by Gonca Sönmez-Poole who is responsible for the one-on-one interviews conducted apart from the group’s own, private meetings. More to come…

Comments on “When They Died…” II

Wanted to share the comment below…in response to the article I had written a few months back:

Dear Gonca,
After reading your article, it occurred to me that I had an experience
similar to yours. During a 1979 visit to the Los Angeles Consulate to get
an extension on my Turkish Passport I met Turkey’s  Consul General
Mr. Kemal. Mr. Arıkan, a kind, good natured “Babacan” gentlemen who
after signing my passport, asked me questions and was interested to hear if
I was able to cope working and going to school, and that I could call if I
needed help, and he was proud of my accomplishments. Every year I
looked forward to visiting the TR Consulate, getting my passport signed,
drink the çay and tell the consul general how I was promoted to a project
engineer and how everything was just great and so on and so forth. The last
stamp I received on my passport was January 27, 1982.
The next day, our Kemal Bey was shot and killed.
Harry Sassounian took his revenge for the crimes committed long before
our Kemal Bey was born. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation
supports Sassonian as a hero to this day. How does one deal with this?

First of all you stop all thoughts for a while and just get on with life. Next
step is to disassociate the underdeveloped individuals from the ethnic
group they belong.
Today, I enjoy the company of my good friends Agop Bey and Corina
Hanım, the owners of the Armenian restaurant Shiraz in Worcester. I have
completely disassociated the killer of Kemal Arıkan from my Armenian
friends. Similarly, my Armenian friends appear to have disassociated me
from the revolutionaries who murdered our citizens and destroyed our
empire.
Going forward, what can we do to soften the anger Armenians feel towards
the Turks and the seeming lack of compassion Turks exhibit towards
Armenians?   Frankly I don’t think there is a lot we can do. Since 1915
mankind has evolved, however not enough for the majority to value a
human being for what he or she is, rather than clutter the equation with
gender, age, race, religion, nationality, etc.

Gonca, we have both been subjected to ultra nationalistic and downright racist
primary education, I have begun to question things ten years ago after turning fifty,
and having read your article, you are obviously well ahead of me and at an earlier age. I truly admire your sense of right thing to do.
Ahmet Erkan

 

 

What does dialogue look like?

My answer: it depends on what you mean by it. For those of you in an around the Boston area, here is my attempt to get some dialogue going between Turks and Armenians in the next few weeks. I encourage my Turkish friends to show up at one of these events and see if they can strike up a conversation. Go ahead and try it, you may make a few new friends and maybe participate in a history lesson as an added bonus.

Street fair in Watertown. Friday, July 20 through Sunday, July 22

http://www.boston-kermesse.org/index.php

Book talk and signing by Chris Bohjalian for his new book “The Sand Castle Girls” at the Armenian Library and Museum of America. Visit naasr.org for more information.

And for those of you who missed this morning’s Labyrinth Walk at he Armenian Heritage Park, there will be two more of those coming up in the fall. Check out: ArmenianHeritagePark.org

Comments on “When They Died…”

It’s been nearly two months since I wrote an article about Armenian-Turkish relations which can be found on this site in English, Turkish and Armenian. Today, I’d like to share a sample of the comments I have since received from across the United States.   Here in no particular order are a few of the reactions to “When They Died….”

Gonca,Was in the middle of something, started reading and could not stop.  And then started crying as went on.  Thank you for sharing,                                             Anonymous

Dear Gonca, Your article challenged me to keep talking, keep questioning, keep learning and not pull back from both the Genocide or from people whose nationality is Turkish. Not to hide behind my own racism or hatred or what I think my community expects of me. A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion about Armenian folk tales and folk music. The artist was from Armenia describing the traditions that have come from before Christianity in stories, lessons, fables, music and dance. She asked what songs our families, our grandparents sang  in the house. And then the conversation turned very dark. Someone said “our families were deported, there was no music in my childhood home.” Someone else got up and said, “this is the other side of genocide, not just the loss of life, but also our music and our folktales, our language, our food and our our heritage because this part of culture isn’t written down, it is shared and taught generation to generation.” He called it the white genocide, the loss of more than just life, but everything that is Armenian. That made me grieve, but it also made me think, we shared villages then, perhaps we also shared music and stories and so much that was suddenly broken apart in 1915.  Somehow if we can bring out those familiar threads- in Turkish folklore/folk music a story that is similar in both of our languages, a tune of a song, a fable or lesson on values….. But we have to start the conversations, and it starts with our own selves. I am grateful for your clear voice and your bravery to start this and put it out to the world. I will still keep thinking and talking. Tsoleen Sarian (political campaign consultant)

 

What a profound and heartfelt message you have created and sent around to your inner world…  There are many conceptual experiences that we share in your story.  Individuals like Orhan Gunduz and Hrant Dink live or have lived among us through time.  Their intense commitment to their beliefs were similiar.  Who knows if their ancestry is shared at some point in the past?  The more we observe and freely discuss these issues (hopefully not sparked by another death or unfortunate event), the closer we become to facing the truth together, and the healing can begin and the anger slowly dissolved… I wonder that if things from the past could ever be somewhat settled, many of us (Armenians, Turks, Kurds, etc.) would indeed be freer to reflect on the ‘common memories’ we shared together along with the same land, food, culture and friends before the Genocide occurred.  Your personal reflection certainly deserved a response of gratitute, appreciation, acknowledgement and compassion from me.  Sincerely,                                                                                                                          An Armenian friend

Merhaba Gonca, I like what you have written.  This is the sort of piece that appeals to both open-minded Armenians and the open-minded Turks who are thankfully becoming less and less silent.                                                                                   Nareg Seferian (Graduate student of international affairs)

“Gonca,You have said so much here. We can all understand more clearly through your eyes. If I may, I would like to use this in Sunday School with our teens tomorrow.”  Laura Bilazarian Purutyan (Educator)

 

Dear Gonca Sonmez-Poole,                                                                                               I was deeply moved by reading your sincere inner feelings on such a sensitive subject. It takes great courage and humaneness to express your thoughts on the Armenian Genocide in such an open manner.                                                                              Harut Sassounian (Publisher, The California Courier)

Dear Gonca, I just sat down and read your essay and was moved to tears by it.  I am so grateful for the deepened personal reflections in this piece and your account of how very difficult it was to travel the distance you have travelled. Your honesty feels like a balm.  On my side (and I don’t know if I’ve expressed this to you already), I feel something like a yearning, a need, to make a connection with Turks—this began happening to me as I worked on the play.  In talking to you, in talking to Ahmet and Ayşe, and other Turks I’ve met, there’s a kind of release, I don’t know from what!  There’s some kind of freedom, some kind of balm.  Freedom from censorship in myself? Freedom to know Turks as human beings, as friends? Not to have to be walled off?  I think about how we all have a common wound. We are bound together by the past, by the attempt to divide us—we are all wounded by it, and that connects us. Joyce Van Dyke (Playwright)

 

Dear Gonca,Very heavy soul searching yet it seems like you are free at last in your search.  We had to choice as to how we were to enter this world, but once here, seek truth and have empathy along the way.  As you had said from the very beginning, above all, “I am a human being.” Thanks for sharing your inner feelings with me    Harry Parsekian (Retired businessman)

 

Gonca, this is so well written. I did not know of your personal journey.  Part of me is always sympathetic with Turks that it must not be easy to admit that one’s grandparents (not all, of course), did something horrific. It takes courage to acknowledge it. I will circulate this widely.  It brought tears to my eyes.                                                      Anna Ohanyan, PhD (Academician)

 

Gonca,  I am especially grateful to you for sending me your very sincere article…yes when they died…we all had tears gushfull tears for Orhan Bey whom my mother knew well and Hrant…right when I gave birth to my second child Orhan Gündüz was a victim of our horrendous conflict…was he not friend of Armenians?..of course he was!  Yet he was also a representative of Turkish government and he could not accept the genocide officially apropos to his officials…he was so helpful to  my mom whenever she wanted to go to Istanbul he arranged everything—we always visited him at Topkapı at Central Square I even brought gifts from Turkey to him…my mom and him had many friendly conversations and I felt deep grief of his assassination I wanted to turn my back to all these issues—just deny everything and not talk and be apathetic to all these…can I? …no…if I have in my family many  members killed only because they were Armenians…I have close friends who are Turkish…we are all people of that land… Varteni Mosdichyan (Artist/painter)

 

Gonca,Thank you for this. I see hope!                                                                          Kay Mouradian, EdD (author/health and physical education specialist)