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Scholarly Studies on the Armenian Genocide: the Damages of Academic Dogma


Standpoint of Turkey 

Scholarly Studies on the Armenian Genocide: the Damages of Academic Dogma

Ayda Erbal


Ayda Erbal

Department of Politics, New York University

This essay discusses the responsibilities of scholars in a field of study where not only Turkish but also American business and state interest groups have been aggressively involved in sustaining a scholarly regime of untruths, half truths, omissions, passive silencing, obscurantism, and denial in a systematic and institutionalized way.The worst damage has not necessarily been in the field of genocide studies itself, where in the last fifteen years especially a number of scholars have debunked the major tenets of denialist literature, but in Ottoman and Turkish studies. Blind historically to the late Ottoman genocides, the field is also one where genocide denial has become normalized as a discourse and thus has been the source for pervasive moral ambiguity among scholars with or without their full knowledge of the issues or their approval of the silencing strategies.

In the introduction of his review of Donald Bloxham’s The Great Game of Genocide, the late Donald Quataert timidly and with utter care confessed the state of the field of Ottoman Studies in his lifetime. In between the lines he hinted at the power structures embedded in the field—particularly in North America, where its gatekeepers excelled in the art of governing without giving the impression of governing: a perfectly governmentalized field.

In the late 1960s (when I entered graduate studies), there was an elephant in the room of Ottoman studies—the slaughter of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915. This subject continued to be taboo for a long time to come. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever suggested that the so-called “Armenian question” not be studied. Rather, a heavy aura of self-censorship hung over Ottoman history writing. Other topics—as diverse as religious identities, or the Kurds, or labor history - were also off limits. The Armenians were not alone as subjects of scholarly neglect and avoidance, nor as victims of state-sanctioned violence and discrimination within the Ottoman Empire.

Twenty-one years after he and sixty-eight other scholars, the majority of whom had no involvement in genocide studies, signed the infamous letter—an advertisement in the New York Times and Washington Post designed to help defeat House Resolution 192 in 1985—voicing their reservations about the term “genocide” in the context of Turkey and the annihilation of Armenians, Quataert spoke out. For this he paid the price by being forced to leave his position as Chair of the board of the Institute of Turkish Studies. Board members Marcy Patton, Kemal Sılay, Resat Kasaba, and Birol Yesilada resigned, and Fatma Müge Göçek said she would resign. The Middle East Studies Association’s Academic Freedom Committee also intervened by sending a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and others. However, these three actions took issue not with the normalized denial of the Armenian Genocide in the field at the time, but with the violation of Quataert’s academic freedom. Scholars and graduate students alike could continue not to see the elephant in the room without any moral, ethical, or political repercussions. In the context of the Armenian Genocide, denialist speech is nearly always seen as lesser than outright racism, despite the fact that some tenets of denialism, such as dehumanization, callousness, neglect, downplaying the extent of criminality and/or power asymmetry, not accepting the subaltern’s sources as legitimate, or downplaying the historical connection of institutional and elite racism in contemporary Turkey to the original sin, are from the toolbox of racism. Unlike the Holocaust, it was and is acceptable to deny the Armenian Genocide so long as those speaking about it are not punished.

As is often the case, the gatekeepers of the field also penned its history: historians of the field Heath Lowry and Howard Reed were also the drafter (Lowry) and signatories (both) of the 1985 letter. Just as the field has been built on the tacit approval of the denial of Armenian Genocide, its own history also involved the denial of the denial and all strings attached to it. Of their two respective accounts of the growth of Ottoman and Turkish Studies in the United States, Lowry’s is a jewel for those who can read between the lines and grasp his omissions. Notwithstanding the descriptive merits of Lowry and Reed’s works, they are utterly incomplete without Speros Vryonis’ meticulous account of the connection between the Institute for Turkish Studies and Turkish and American business interests, and of the cause-and-effect relationship between the development of the field and US foreign policy priorities vis-à-vis its NATO ally Turkey, and without Roger W. Smith, Eric Markusen, and Robert Jay Lifton’s article on the Heath Lowry affair (the scholarly scandal that erupted when the Turkish Ambassador Nüzhet Kandemir inadvertently sent to Lifton a memorandum and a letter drafted by Heath Lowry for the ambassador’s signature, further proof of the Institute of Turkish Studies’ and scholars’ collusion with Turkish state interests). The publication of this article in Holocaust and Genocide studies instead of a Middle Eastern studies outlet is also indicative.

My own dissertation deals with one of the main agencies of an ever-adjusting dynamic of denial: the intellectuals of Turkey’s old establishment. I argue that in the past as in the present the sustenance of denial has been secured not only by the state’s official historians, but also by scholars of Ottoman and Turkish studies as a class in and outside of Turkey. From the late 1950s to the early 2000s there has been a Parsonian normative solidarity between the state and civil society actors, a pact of silence that guarded the extent of periodic race crimes during the Ottoman and Republican eras –that is, the Thrace events of the 1930s against Jews, the Dersim Genocide, the Kurdish deportation in the late 1930s which included the deportation of “the remnants of the sword” (the leftover Armenians), the Wealth Tax on Minorities, Twenty Class Conscriptions of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish soldiers, the Istanbul Pogrom of 6–7 September 1955, the 1964 Greek Deportation, the Corum, Maraş, and Şivas massacres, and the internal displacement of Kurds due to the Turkish-Kurdish war over the last thirty years. The challengers of the field forced the gates open not from within but from without. Vahakn Dadrian, Taner Akçam, Raymond Kevorkian, and Donald Bloxham, to name a few, are not Ottomanists. There are a few exceptions to this rule, most of them from Europe, such as Hans Lukas Kieser and Erik Jan Zürcher indirectly. An indication of the timidity of most mainstream Ottomanists may be seen in the fourth volume of the prestigious Cambridge History of Modern Turkey, in which some of these “controversial” issues are finally covered, but only minimally and at times very problematically. For example, the Armenian massacres (not, of course, the “Armenian Genocide”) are mentioned in passing in one short paragraph by Sükrü Hanioglu as “one of the most tragic events of the war.” Hasan Kayalı uses the same amount of space to narrate the assassinations of Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmad Cemal. “Armenian” and “some Turkish allegations of Genocide” are dealt with in a footnote by Kemal Kirisçi, and again by Hamit Bozarslan very briefly in the main body of his chapter. The Syriac and Pontic Greek cases are not mentioned.

In light of a general survey of both the academic and popular discursive fields that I conducted for my dissertation, I argue that the civil society actors active in building the discourse on the Armenian Genocide in the last fifteen years have put in place more sophisticated discourses of genocide denial which often resort to governmentalizing minorities both in and outside of Turkey. This is carried out through doublespeak; by denying or ignoring the power asymmetry between themselves and their interlocutors both in Turkey and the diasporas; by ruling over scattered Armenian intellectuals while themselves enjoying the benefits of a consistent national intellectual space and language; by behaving in total majority entitlement as owners of the playfield, categorizing Armenians into typically racist categories of good (Armenian citizens of Turkey), bad  (politically assertive diaspora Armenians), and poor (citizens of Armenia), or instrumentalizing them in their own conflicts with the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) or Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), depending on their place in the political spectrum. I also criticize state versus civil society literature for not taking into account the internally colonizing, ethnoreligiously extractive and distributive capabilities of the postcleansing state, and thenceforth its establishment and sustenance via national education of an exclusionary and segregated civil society. These state’s and civil society’s boundaries and functions are different than in modern production/capitalist states, especially in their being states and societies of massive primitive accumulation, not from class to class, but from Christians and Jews to Muslims. Neither liberal nor Marxist theories of state capture this ethnoreligious constitutive function of such an internally colonizing state. I also analyze three recent cases of encounters between mainstream left/liberal intellectuals of Turkey and Armenians, demonstrating, on the one hand, the pervasiveness of sophisticated genocide denial and, on the other, the complete lack of analysis of the racial dimension of contemporary encounters between majority intellectuals and minorities, and majority intellectuals and members of diasporas.

On the occasion of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and almost a decade after Quataert’s confession, Eric Jan Zürcher posted a declaration on the Facebook page of the University of Leiden Turkish Studies department, which was soon reblogged by Research Turkey and translated into Turkish. Zürcher first gave a bird’s-eye view of the field’s recent past, and then methodically went over some of the changes he went through during his studies, particularly in regard to his thoughts on and framing of Turkey’s history. He also discussed at some length the non-sustainability of further denial both ethically and as the basis of legitimate historical inquiry. But denial of genocide is not just a matter between the Armenian and Turkish sides alone, and it has been sustained all these years for other political and strategic reasons concerning the region. Moreover, as is evident from the Quataert-ITS controversy, the later Keith David Watenpaugh–MESA CAF letter, or the sheer lack of research done in the field on this aspect, scholars do not engage with Turkish state denial abroad unless denial actively results in attempts at curtailing somebody’s freedom of speech.

Another factor Zürcher does not take into account is the existence of two parallel worlds of scholarship within Turkey. Most of the recent literature, including my dissertation, only takes into account a scholarly corpus produced mainly at established metropolitan universities in Turkey and the almost natural extension of those scholarly circles abroad. The work of this Istanbul- and partially Ankara-based academic establishment, which does not generally take into account the material produced elsewhere, does not undo the fact that there is a widespread denialist publishing industry within Turkey that Istanbul intellectuals have neither relation with nor power to change. When scholars as well as journalists write about the publishing and academic scene in Turkey, they pretend this parallel universe does not exist at all, and give the impression that all scholarship is changing in a positive direction. No matter how unscholarly we may consider their work according to our standards, they have a widescale presence within the country through research centers, journals, magazines, and publishing houses. In that sense the material conditions of the Turkish state’s sustenance of these—mostly state—universities and scholars has not yet changed because the state’s policy is still one of active genocide denial both domestically and abroad, even though it has been retooled differently since 2014.

Moreover, the constellation of scholarly and popular books that have been produced over the last fifteen years on the recent history of Turkey clearly reflects the damage that denial, trivialization, and obscurantism have done to “Middle East history and politics” college textbooks. This is where the spillover effect of the Ottomanists’ centennial silence, downplaying, and footnoting can be observed most. Among the top five Middle East history textbooks assigned at colleges, none mention the Armenian Genocide without reservation. William Cleveland gives some context and detail but glosses over the genocide debate; Mehran Kamrava briefly mentions the death toll at 1.5 million but then uses “Armenian Genocide” in brackets in an endnote while challenging Lord Kinross’ figure with that provided by Bernard Lewis. This literature, widely assigned in colleges, is saturated with symmetrical narratives where genocide claims are equated with claims of denial, as in “Armenians claim, Turks claim,” with no proper context.

However, one should not get the impression—certainly not from this essay—that what is truly lacking in the field can be reduced to a discussion of terminology. There are “taboos within the taboo” that could have been studied. Scholars could have guided their own or their students’ research or structured their syllabi around these subjects without using the term genocide. One such subject is the fate of Armenian property and that of other Christians. Until recently this has been the least addressed subject. True, the Ottoman land registry archive is closed despite the fact that it was digitized in 2005. But the lack of research on the economic aspect of the destruction cannot be solely attributed to this closure since historians know a number of ways of reconstructing evidence at the local level.

Another major issue in Ottoman studies has been the exclusion of the empire’s languages from the curriculum—sources written in Armenian, Greek, or Ladino/Hebrew are not institutionally part of either imperial history or the history of Turkey. Additionally, on the rare occasions when historians have given some account of Armenian massacres, they rely exclusively on sources written by non-Armenians—Carter Findley’s tokenistic reference to Armenian-American historian Ronald Suny’s Looking Toward Ararat does not override his neglect of Armenian-language sources or even Western-language sources that give a very different interpretation than the Turkish sources he privileges. Vryonis explains in great detail the politics behind the exclusion of the Greek and Armenian languages from the field of Middle Eastern studies, as they were not included in the Title VI Area Studies Program. However, an in-depth analysis of how this factor has shaped (or distorted) the fields of Turkish studies, Armenian studies, modern Greek studies, and so forth is still needed.

There are also general issues of relevance that social science and humanities fields face today—for example, the erosion of the classical intellectual type and its replacement by pop writers and op-ed columnists. Scholars are bound by a structural limitation unless they contribute to mainstream outlets with some regularity: Taner Akçam, for example, is a regular press contributor on a number of issues including but not limited to facing history. Although it is very difficult to assess their reach, we can safely say that, unfortunately, their popular writings are more widely read on a day-to-day basis than their academic work. In a way, this is reminiscent of Adorno’s radio programs on dealing with the Past and his written contributions to Frankfurter Allgemeine and weekly Die Zeit, and may indicate alternative venues and pedagogies to tackle the issue. Although Adorno was critical of the radio media “as an arm of the reified ‘culture industry,’” upon his return to West Germany he contributed to the German sociopolitical sphere with over one hundred radio programs, almost one-third of them dealing with the question “What Does Coming to Terms With the Past Mean?” In these programs Adorno tried not only to inculcate in the audience an interest in what the past meant but also to address them from within a pedagogy emphasizing the necessity of self-reflective thought and political autonomy. This brings us to the other very difficult question of pedagogy and scholars’ role in it. Coming to terms with the Past requires an interest in not only the many facets of the history of the late Ottoman genocides, but also comparative philosophical work on responsibility. Because facing history will happen in a majority Sunni Muslim setting, scholars will also have to think about how what has been addressed from within a predominantly Western  politico-philosophical tradition encompassing Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Walter Dirks, and others, needs to be addressed in this context

pedagogically speaking. This is also an area that has been neglected or reduced to scholars’ self-congratulatory stories about how they came to terms with use of the “G” term. Lacking is any profound discussion about what responsibility is in the here and now for citizen and non-citizen scholars, the relationship between justice and democracy, elite racism, and the grammar of inter-ethnic relationships.

Armenian genocide : recognition and reparations


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