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Turkish Scholars and the Armenian Question

"It would certainly be wiser for the Turkish government to come to
terms with its history."


Turkish Scholars and the Armenian Question
An Interview with
Dr. Fatma Muge Gocek

By Aris Babikian

In the last few months many righteous Turks have began to challenge the 
Turkish Government policy of denial on the Armenian Genocide. The Istanbul 
Conference, in Bilgi University, was a turning point in breaking the taboo 
of discussion on the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. By challenging their 
government, these Turkish historians and intellectuals have provided an 
opportunity for the Turkish people to hear a more balanced version of their 
history, very different from what successive Turkish Governments have 
maintained.

Those courageous and honourable Turkish intellectuals have been vilified, 
threatened, blackmailed, intimidated and labelled traitors by some 
nationalists, paramilitary and governments circles. Among the pioneering 
intellectuals are Elif Shafak, Taner Akcam, Halil Berktay, Orhan Pamuk, 
Ragip Zarakolu and others.

Dr. Fatma Muge Gocek is another one of these honest and righteous Turks who 
have stood up to the might of the Turkish Government and establishment.  We 
had the opportunity to meet her and provide our readers some of her 
thoughts, feelings, and insights on the Armenian Genocide, the 
Armenian-Turkish dialogue and how to bring reconciliation to our nations.

Aris Babikian - Can you tell us about your background?

Fatma Muge Gocek - I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey.  After 
receiving my B.A. and M.A. at Bogazici University and spending some time at 
the Sorbonne learning French, I came to the United States for my Ph.D.  I 
received another M.A. and a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and 
then started to teach at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; I received 
tenure some time ago.  I specialize on social change in the Middle East in 
general and historical sociology of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish 
Republic in particular.

AB - What motivated you to get involved in the Armenian Genocide issue? To 
be such an outspoken person and to take a stand against the Turkish 
Government's policies?

FMG - There are two trajectories that led me to focus on the Armenian 
question, one intellectual and the other personal.  Intellectually, my 
initial academic work was on the history of Westernization in the Ottoman 
Empire.  My dissertation analyzed the inheritance registers in the Ottoman 
archives with the intent to trace the eighteenth and nineteenth century 
diffusion into the empire of Western goods, ideas and institutions.  That 
analysis alerted me to the significance of the Ottoman minorities (Greeks, 
Jews and Armenians) in the empire in negotiating relations with the West; it 
also emerged that these minorities formed the first Ottoman bourgeoisie.

Yet because they were structurally separated from the Muslims in such a way 
that it was difficult for them to cooperate in forming this news social 
class: my subsequent work on the dynamics of nationalism revealed how those 
minorities were then tragically replaced by a Turkish Muslim bourgeoisie.

Personally, I was most struck by how, when I was in Turkey, I had not even 
been aware there was an Armenian question; we were not taught anything about 
it in school. When I came to the United States for my dissertation work, the 
opposite held true: I was constantly confronted by Armenians who were often 
hostile to me for having killed their ancestors.  The sociologist in me 
wondered why there was so much silence on this issue in one country and so 
much voice in the other.  Then this question combined with another, namely 
why there existed in Turkey so much prejudice against the minorities (that I 
had personally witnessed throughout my life there) and so much state 
rhetoric that this was not the case as all Turkish citizens were equal 
regardless of religion..

All these factors combined and led me to the study of the Armenian question.

Historical sociology enabled me to study how past events played themselves 
out in the present, so I decided to focus on the Armenian question both as 
it transpired in the past -- especially in 1915 - as well as how it played 
itself out in the present.  As I studied the available archival documents 
and memoirs, I realized that the official Turkish stand had many problems 
and discrepancies all of which suggested that the work done had not been 
academic but rather political. Hence I did not set out to take an explicit 
stand against the Turkish state; such a stand emerged as my research 
findings contradicted those reached by the state.  My outspokenness in the 
context of the Armenian question thus emerged gradually as I attempted to 
communicate what I had found; I think what I did was to merely take an 
ethical and scientific approach to the Armenian question as opposed to a 
political one.

AB - Can you tell us about the recent developments in the aftermath of the 
Istanbul Conference? What effect did it have on the Turkish society and 
intellectuals?

FMG - The Istanbul Conference was symbolically very significant because it 
challenged the official stand of the Turkish state on the Armenian question 
for the first time in Turkish Republican history.  It did so by bringing 
together a group of like-minded scholars and intellectuals of Turkey who had 
formulated an alternate reading and interpretation of the Armenian question.

The immediate effect of the conference was its ability to demonstrate that 
there had developed in Turkey a significant civil society, one able and 
willing to challenge the hegemonic interpretation of the state.

AB - Did the organizers achieve what they were aiming at?

FMG - The main aim of the organizers was to demonstrate that they could 
indeed hold such a conference in Turkey and that they could bring together 
an adequate number of scholars to develop an alternative narrative on the 
Armenian problem.  The organizers were indeed able to create such an 
academic space and create a community of like-minded people of Turkish 
origin.  I think they succeeded in both of these endeavors, but it took a 
lot of political struggle to get the conference off the ground: it was 
postponed the first time and it was almost not held the second time due to 
pressures from nationalist segments of the state and the government.

AB - During the last year we have witnessed an unprecedented activism by a 
number of Turkish intellectuals, writers and journalist who have challenged 
successive Turkish governments' line on the Armenian Genocide. What drove 
these people to stand up to the establishment within Turkish Government, the 
military, and the intelligence apparatus?

FMG - The increased level of education in Turkey, the growth of civil 
society especially after the 1980s as well as the visions of the generations 
of the 1960s all coalesced around the aspiration to make Turkey a more 
democratic country, one where human rights superseded the concerns of the 
state.  Even though there had always been such intellectuals throughout 
Turkish Republican history, the intellectuals who led this movement finally 
reached a critical mass that the state could not suppress -- the end of the 
Cold War and the subsequent shift of focus from national security and 
stability to democracy also supported their stand.  As a result of all these 
developments, the stronghold of the state over society started to fracture.

AB - We have noticed that even though righteous Turks are speaking against 
the Government line they still refuse to use the term "Genocide" to describe 
what happened to the Armenians in 1915. How do you explain this 
contradiction?

FMG - The term genocide has become an increasingly politicized term; it is 
so politicized at this point that I think it does not foster research and 
analysis but instead hinders it.  The sides polarize their positions as they 
either employ or refuse to employ the term. The Armenians rightfully insist 
on its usage as they believe this term that best reflects the tragedy they 
experienced in the Ottoman Empire especially around 1915.  Yet the Turks not 
only refuse to use the term, but they have also suppressed the dissemination 
of  the tragic events of 1915 as a consequence of  which there formed 
generations of Turkish youth whose experiences and knowledge were totally 
devoid of 1915.  Given this dramatic epistemological discrepancy in relation 
to what happened in 1915, even though what happened in 1915 certainly fits 
the definition of genocide as defined by the 1948 United Nations convention, 
I find it more heuristic and strategically more prescient to employ instead 
the term kital (large scale massacres) that the Ottomans themselves employed 
when referring to this tragedy.  I personally think that both Turkish 
society and the state would be more willing to listen and engage in 
constructive dialogue that would eventually lead to recognition if what 
happened in 1915 was discussed at first in and of itself.

AB - I have noticed that the Turkish Diaspora is more hardline on the issue 
of the Armenian Genocide than Turks in Turkey. This phenomenon is puzzling 
since Turks outside of Turkey in contrast with their compatriots in Turkey 
are free of intimidation and pressure to pursue the truth and speak their 
mind. Do you have any thoughts on this puzzling situation?

FMG - The more conservative stand of the diaspora in relation to those in 
the country of origin has puzzled scholars for some time.  The explanation 
in the literature is that those who migrate to a new country bring with them 
the political framework of their country of origin at that particular 
juncture: hence time in their country of origin freezes for them at the 
moment of their departure.  Unless the immigrants are scholars who have the 
chance to update their political standpoint, they get stuck at that 
particular time in the past.  Even though these immigrants may indeed 
experience no intimidation and pressure to pursue the truth and speak their 
mind, they are incapable to apply these principles of their host society to 
their society of origin.  Another factor that fosters this conservative 
stand of the diaspora is positively correlated to the degree of anxiety and 
insecurity they feel in the host society: the diaspora tries to compensate 
for this insecurity and lack of self confidence by adhering to the norms and 
values with which they have arrived.

In the case of the Turkish diaspora, these norms and values are often 
nationalist ones that they had been socialized into by the state.  Starting 
at their point of arrival, the members of the Turkish diaspora reproduce 
these norms and values of the Turkish state at a level of intensity that is 
directly related to the degree of their unsuccessful social and cultural 
adaptation to the host country.  In my personal interaction with the Turkish 
diaspora, I have often been struck by two things: (i) how their image of 
Turkey is totally out of date in that they think Turkey is socially still 
like when they had left it, and (ii) how unaware they are of the social 
conditions of the host country, in this case the United States, that they 
live in.  Let me give you an example: When my colleague Ron Suny then at the 
University of Chicago and I organized in the year 2000 the second 
Armenian-Turkish workshop at the University of Michigan where I teach, a few 
organizations of the Turkish diaspora came together and wrote a letter to 
the president of my university protesting our workshop because they had 
heard that the term 'genocide' was employed by some of the workshop 
participants.  It turns out the Turkish Consulate in Chicago had contacted 
them and asked that they protest; they enthusiastically did as they were 
told without even bothering to contact me first, a Turkish citizen living in 
the diaspora like themselves, to find out what was going on.

One could argue that by writing the letter of protest, they were exercising 
their right to freely express their views; they indeed were, but the content 
of the letter also demonstrated how out of touch with the U.S. academia they 
really were.  In the letter, they went on to instruct the president of the 
University of Michigan as to who should have been invited to the workshop 
instead.  Anyone who knows anything about universities in the United States 
is aware that the faculty has total intellectual independence in organizing 
workshops -- they invite whoever they wish to talk on whatever topics they 
want to discuss - and that this intellectual independence from social and 
political pressure is held sacred by all, especially the university 
administration.

Why did the conservative Turkish diaspora engage in such self-destructive 
behavior?  The universities in Turkey often function as extensions of the 
state apparatus; faculty is often treated like civil servants of a state 
that finds in itself the right to control the thoughts and actions of 
faculty.  The Turkish diaspora organizations took this Turkish reality and 
assumed that is how things worked in the United States as well: this shows 
how out of touch with American society and educational institutions they 
really are.  Needless to say, not only were they totally ineffectual, but I 
as a Turk was embarrassed by what they had done because the university 
administration rightfully formed a very negative impression of them.  I know 
that many of their efforts to promote the Turkish state view in the United 
States are just as ineffectual.  Interestingly enough, rather than blaming 
their own actions for this failure, they keep blaming others, namely either 
the Armenian diaspora which they claim is so strong that it renders the 
Turkish one ineffectual or, in a very nationalistic move that reifies their 
rigid stands even more, that American society and/or the West is out to get 
Turkey and is therefore unwilling to understand what Turkey is all about.  I 
have been trying to get them to be self critical but have had no luck 
whatsoever, especially with the older generations.

AB - In a follow-up to my earlier question, we have witnessed that outspoken 
Turks like Elif Shafak, Taner Akcam, Halil Berktay, yourself and many others 
have been threatened and labeled   traitors. Do you think this attitude is 
widespread in Turkish society?

FMG - The threats and stigma we all experience is a natural consequence of 
the nationalist rhetoric that dominates and hegemonizes Turkish society and 
state.  The media, public opinion as well as popular culture in Turkey have 
all been very successfully controlled by the state up until now.  It is hard 
to know how many individuals and groups go along with this control because 
of their personal beliefs along the same lines; my hunch is that many do so 
because they do not know otherwise and they have often not had the option to 
think otherwise.  Yet the internet is a very significant mode of 
communication that enables such conditions to alter dramatically, and it has 
indeed started to do so among especially the Turkish youth.  It is hard to 
know how widespread this critical stand against the hegemony of the Turkish 
state is, but I can tell you that it is definitely on the rise.

AB - Some Europeans have been using the Armenian Genocide to undermine 
Turkey's image and thus scuttle Turkey's attempt to join the European Union.

Wouldn't be it wiser for the Turkish government to come to terms with its 
history and thus remove the Armenian Genocide from the accession 
negotiations?

FMG - I agree with you that it would certainly be wiser for the Turkish 
government to come to terms with its history and thus remove the Armenian 
question from the accession negotiations.  Yet coming to terms with history 
will be a long, arduous process for Turkey because the Turks have, in 
addition to the Armenian problem, many other silences in their history that 
they would need to confront.  Also, the continuities between the Ottoman 
Empire and the Turkish nation-state especially in relation to the treatment 
of the minorities needs to be further studied.  Added to this is the 
necessity to make Turkish state and society aware of how the lack of 
accountability for past injustices in history has actually sanctioned the 
use of violence by the state against society: only when this dimension is 
further developed can the people in Turkey understand why the resolution of 
the Armenian question is so crucial not only for the Armenians, but also for 
the well-being of all the citizens of Turkey as well as for the health of 
Turkish democracy.

AB - Do you think the Turkish government's strategy to leave the issue of 
the Armenian genocide to historians and forming a historians' commission to 
investigate the issue, especially after the International Association of 
Genocide Scholars open letter to Prime Minister Erdogan, is a failed 
strategy...trying to avoid the unavoidable?

FMG - Even though I fully support the opening of the archives in Turkey, 
Armenia and the Armenian diaspora so as to enable the historians to fully 
study the events surrounding 1915 in detail, I concur on this point with the 
Ottoman historian ޵kru Hanio��that such a move in and of itself would not 
solve the problem.  This is so because all documents are socially 
constructed so historians can therefore come up with many varied 
interpretations of the same document -- debates surrounding varying 
interpretations could take decades to settle.  This is so because the 
principles of academic research are not political in nature; scholars do not 
approach documents with the intent to settle international disputes or to 
formulate policies, but rather to get closer to understanding historical 
events: the former falls into the field of other experts.

Also, such a strategy totally overlooks the human dimension; what is most 
important for me as a human being, for instance, is the emotional relief 
that the recognition of the tragedy of 1915 shall bring to both the 
Armenians as well as the Turks.  The Armenians can then finally start, with 
the support of the Turks, the much needed grieving process.  The Turks in 
turn can assume responsibility for their past injustices and commence to 
live, as a consequence of such recognition, in a much kinder, gentler 
society where they tolerate those who are different from them.

AB - Why do you think that despite over whelming historical evidence the 
Turkish state remains so intransigent in its recognition of the Armenian 
Genocide?

FMG - Why the Turkish state remains so intransigent in its recognition of 
the Armenian tragedy in spite of the overwhelming historical evidence is 
actually the topic of my next book I am working on at the moment.  What I 
have observed in my analysis is a 'layering of denial' that spans from the 
last decades of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish nation-state to the 
present, so at first this layering has to be deconstructed.  Then the 
Turkish state needs to recognize the continuity between the empire and the 
republic, both in terms of social actors as well as their actions.  Such a 
reorientation would in turn lead to a rewriting of the official nationalist 
history to include the narratives of all its minorities, past and present.

The emerging portrait from this endeavor will end up discrediting many 
individuals and institutions to destabilize the existing power structure in 
Turkey.  So the end result would be much less glorious than the Turkish 
nationalism that exists today to legitimate the status quo; even though the 
ensuing Turkish state and society would be much more healthy and democratic, 
I think the reservations I discussed explain why the Turkish state is so 
intransigent.

AB - We have seen conflicting messages from the AKP government on the 
Armenian Genocide. What is your evaluation of the Islamist government's 
position on this issue?

FMG - The position of the AK Party government on this issue - as on many 
issues other than the economic ones that they seem to handle most ably - is 
not at all fixed but rather in flux depending on the vagaries of political 
events.  Yet I should start off by noting that I am actually delighted that 
it is not fixed, for all previous Turkish governments had very fixed 
nationalist stands on the Armenian issue and such stands are much harder to 
engage in negotiations than a fluctuating one.  Probably the most 
significant interconnected foreign policy matter that has put the Armenian 
issue on the agenda of AK party is Turkey's accession talks with the 
European Union.  AK Party very much advocates such membership because the 
political survival of the party itself is predicated on it.  This 
interconnection had not yet become clear when AK Party initially joined the 
Republican People's Party in signing the letter sent from the Turkish 
parliament to the British one asking that the contents of the Blue Book 
regarding the Armenian massacres of 1915 be dismissed as mere propaganda.

This embarrassing move was followed by the postponement of the Istanbul 
conference in May 2005 when the Turkish Minister of Justice Cemil Cicek made 
in the parliament the unfortunate remark that the participants of the 
Istanbul Conference were 'stabbing the nation in the back.'  Though the 
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdo��and the foreign minister Abdullah Gul, 
both out of the country at the time, immediately stated that Cicek's remarks 
were personal and did not at all reflect the stand of the government, it was 
evident at that juncture that there was no set party policy regarding the 
Armenian issue.  Still, they went ahead and stated the conference ought to 
take place because Turkey was a country where all such issues could be 
freely talked about.  Such a stand in and of itself was distinct and more 
progressive from the nationalist stands of all other political parties in 
that AK Party agreed the conference ought to take place and also did not 
insist that the official state position be represented at the conference.

When September 2005 came around , AK Party expressed its desire that the 
postponed conference ought to actualize before the EU accession talks on 
October 3rd.  Foreign minister Gul stated to the conference organizers that 
he would have personally attended the conference himself had he not been at 
the UN right around that time.  Such tacit approval was not sufficient to 
actualize the conference, however, since some ultra-nationalists filed a 
lawsuit to stop it once again.  The initial tacit approval then became 
public as all of the social actors of AK party including Cemil Cicek came 
out and expressed their support of the conference.

AB - When do you think the Turkish state will finally come to term with the 
historical facts and recognize the Armenian Genocide?

FMG - I personally wish they would do so by 2015 because that year would be 
the centennial of 1915.  Getting there is going to require a long and 
difficult journey, however, because there is so much that the Turkish state 
has to come to terms with before reaching that stage.  In this context, I 
should note that a lot of responsibility is going to fall upon the Armenian 
diaspora due to the conditions of the other two political actors, namely the 
Turkish and Armenian states.  Turks never learned about the historical facts 
of 1915 because of the suppression of the Turkish state in the name of 
nationalism; ironically, the Armenians in the Armenian Republic likewise 
have not had a chance until very recently to research and generate 
scholarship on 1915 because of the Soviet influence that discouraged such 
research for fear that it would generate nationalism.  As a consequence, the 
only community that was able to remember and research 1915 was the Armenian 
diaspora.  Most of the Armenian diaspora also reside in the lands of two 
major world powers, namely the United States and the European Union that are 
both very interested in the resolution of this conflict in a way that 
satisfies all parties, including the West.

The Armenian diaspora will need to work with both the Turkish and Armenian 
states and societies and hopefully help both sides shed their nationalistic 
stands on this issue to eventually reach reconciliation.  Yet the current 
situation is not yet at this point of development: the foreign policy of the 
Turkish Republic is still staunchly nationalistic with some glimmers of hope 
for a more reconciliatory stand as there is some informal discussion as to 
what recognition, compensation and the like ought to entail - the 
possibility of Turkey's accession to the European Union also very much 
accelerates such constructive discussions.  The foreign policy of the 
Armenian Republic used to be much less nationalistic in relation to 1915 
under Ter Petrossian, but seems to be becoming increasingly so, especially 
after the Karabagh standoff.  The political stand of the Armenian diaspora 
is likewise unclear; while there are many progressive elements that I am 
most in touch with, I am also told that there are some very nationalistic 
segments that might resist and therefore hinder the negotiations as much as, 
of not more than those elements in the two republics.  And an additional 
factor that is going to complicate matters is that the diaspora is scattered 
throughout the world with many organizations that claim to represent it; 
this situation makes its dynamics much more politically volatile and harder 
to comprehend.  Yet I believe that we can work through all these obstacles 
altogether once we develop a clear vision of what we want to see 
accomplished.

AB - During the UCLA conference you mentioned that around 2 million Turkish 
citizens might be of Armenian origin. Can you elaborate on this topic? What 
were the circumstances which forced them to become Turks? What do they feel 
about their dual identities? What role can they play in bringing our two 
peoples together...etc?

FMG - The large number of Turks of Armenian ancestry was for me the most 
interesting discovery of the Istanbul conference.  We did know that there 
had been in 1915 many Armenians who were forcibly converted, daughters 
forcibly married off, and many babies and children taken in by Turkish 
Muslim families, but there were no public accounts provided by such people 
(this is understandable given the silencing that went on for so long in 
Turkey regarding these matters).  We do not know how many Turks there are of 
Armenian descent, but I can tell you that Hrant Dink of Agos newspaper is 
especially interested in this matter; the 1-2 million figure I mentioned is 
based on my conversations with him.  I just learned that it was Etyen 
Mahcupyan, the prominent Turkish Armenian intellectual, who estimated that 
there are probably 1.5 million such families.  Ay?Alt?f Sabanc?versity just informed me that she, along with some other colleagues, has 
started to interview such families and has conducted 16 in-depth interviews 
so far.  She noted that each and every one case reveals very stunning 
insights; you can reach her through her-email address posted on the Sabanc?versity website.

The other information I have on this matter is anecdotal.  I met at the 
Istanbul conference with Fethiye Cetin whose very moving account about 
discovering in her late twenties the Armenian identity of her maternal 
grandmother was recently published in Turkey under the title Anneannem (My 
Maternal Grandmother).  I asked her as to whether she knew of any other 
people of similar ancestry and she told me she is contacted by at least 100 
such people a month; she is also working with Ay?Alt?n the 
research project I mentioned above...  At the conference, Halil Berktay also 
remarked that there were quite a number of people attending who had recently 
discovered their Armenian ancestry and who therefore wanted to attend to 
learn more about their silenced past.  I personally met two of them there 
who contacted me because they wanted me to help them trace their relatives; 
they stated they felt enriched by the knowledge especially since they were 
now able to trace relatives they did not know they had and, as a 
consequence, had very moving reunions.  As you can imagine, they are 
particularly upset by the stubborn stand of the Turkish state on this issue.

I told them that they, as individuals who concomitantly belong to two 
communities and who are therefore able to move beyond the restricting 
nationalisms that exist in both, could play a very significant role in 
spearheading recognition and reconciliation.

Aris Babikian is a journalist, lecturer, Human Rights activist and member of 
the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada. He is also on the 
Board of Presidents of the Canadian Ethnocultural Council of Canada

The above interview appeared in the year end (2005) edition of the 
tri-lingual Horizon Weekly. Horizon is the largest Canadian-Armenian paper.

It is published in Montreal and distributed Canada wide.

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