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.