"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 Governments 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 Turkeys image and thus scuttle Turkeys attempt to join the European Union. Wouldnt 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 governments 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 ήόkrό Hanioπlu 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 governments 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 Turkeys 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 Peoples 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 Ηiηek 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 Erdoπan and the foreign minister Abdullah Gόl, both out of the country at the time, immediately stated that Ηiηeks 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 Gόl 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 Ηiηek 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 Turkeys 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. Ayώe Gόl Altύnay of Sabancύ University 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 Sabancύ University website.
The other information I have on this matter is anecdotal. I met at the Istanbul conference with Fethiye Ηetin 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 Ayώe Gόl Altύnay on 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 Montrιal and distributed Canada wide.