Sociologist Traces Roots of Collective Violence in Turkey Against Armenians

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Titled “Deciphering Denial: Modernity, the Turkish State and the 1915 Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009,” the event drew an audience of about 40, including students, faculty and members of the Turkish and Armenian communities.

Following a brief introduction by Cemal Kafadar, professor of Turkish Studies, Goçek used a PowerPoint slideshow and a historical chart to illustrate her investigation of collective violence against Armenians in Turkey. “The violence against Armenians was the first instance of collective violence in Turkish history,” Goçek said. “I’m a sociologist and when I began to explore this topic, I realized I had entered a political minefield. The nationalists on either side, Turks and Armenians, said I couldn’t be a Turk.”

She continued, “I wanted to explore the contested memoirs of 1915. On the one hand, we have the Armenian Diaspora, which argues that this was the first genocide of the 20th century and that it killed between 800,000 and a million-and-a-half people. The Turkish state, on the other hand, denies that the events were a genocide, calling them reciprocal massacres and claims there was nothing intentional in them. Turkey sets the number of deaths at 400,000, both military and civilians.”

She added, “Most scholars agree that the events were a genocide. Then the question is, why do the Turkish state and society still deny it? This is not just a significant issue for a sociologist; it is a significant issue in Turkey today.”

To explore the historical roots of collective violence, Goçek said it is necessary to study social pressures. “Even if there is tension in a society, it doesn’t necessarily translate to violence.”

Studying government documents, interviews with survivors or descendants of survivors and Turkish memoirs can provide evidence of certain patterns. “If you look at Ottoman history,” said Goçek, “you can see that violence was always there, even as far back as 1789, the time of the French Revolution. There were the massacres under Abdul Hamid in 1894 to 1896, and the pattern of violence continued in the Turkish Republic with forced military recruitment in 1941-42 and the forcible removal of the Greek population in 1964.”

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In reading the memoirs of Turkish Muslims, Goçek said it was possible to discover patterns of attitudes and emotions expressed towards Armenians and other minorities. In one striking account by a Turkish Muslim couple, published in 2004, the wife acknowledged seeing Armenians dying and being deported. However, her husband, who was a participant, asserted, “I would have done it again.” Goçek said, “Under the milliyet system, there emerged a divide between Muslims and non-Muslims that was kept under control by the state or local leaders. One can see in these memoirs a social polarization. There were certain instances used by the state and society to rationalize violence.”

Goçek sketched the differences between the Western-Armenian communities, which traded with Europe and were more affluent, and the Eastern, more rural and provincial communities, where land was the most important possession.When land reform efforts did not ameliorate conditions, in 1830, Armenians in the Eastern provinces mounted protests against injustices.

Goçek pointed to the attempted takeover of the Ottoman Bank in 1895 by Armenian revolutionaries as an attempt to get the attention of the rest of the world for their suffering. The bank manager actually escorted the revolutionaries to his yacht to take them to France.

“This was the first instance in which the Western powers took any interest in what was happening in Armenia,” said Goçek. When the Young Turks took over the Ottoman Empire, there was a marked social polarization amongst the Turkish Muslim majority. The reformists wanted to transform the empire while the traditionalists hoped to sustain Ottoman rule.

With the formation of the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), a policy of ethnic cleansing ensued, said Goçek, exacerbated by the Balkan Wars. This was a period of rising nationalism and fear on the part of Turks about whether they would have a place to call their own. In order to claim the lands of Anatolia, the massacres and deportation took place.

“This was a period when Turkey felt that the Western Europe ignored the plight of the Muslims and led to the idea that the Turk had no friend but himself,” she added.

After 1919, said Goçek, the violence before 1923 was not discussed — the subject was banned from the educational system. The trials of the perpetrators were declared illegitimate and many of them escaped. The Armenian issue was considered closed.

Said Goçek, “Of all the deputies in the First Turkish Assembly, 25 percent had been involved in the massacres, but many were promoted to important government positions.”

The period of 1975 to 1986 saw retaliatory efforts by individual Armenians who assassinated Turkish diplomats. These acts introduced Turkish society to its own history, yet Armenians were defined and labeled as revolutionaries and terrorists.

 

While Goçek does not employ the word “genocide,” she said, “It is important to acknowledge the suffering.” She views what happened to the Armenians, and to other minority populations such as the Greeks, the Assyrians and the Circassians, as part of “the end of a great complicated empire that broke up over the period of the 19th century. Outsiders were involved in this breakup and the story of the Armenians needs to be put into that nuanced context.”

Goçek pointed to the fact that the Genocide has received more discussion since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For example, she said the Kurds, in the last five to 10 years, have acknowledged what they did to the Armenians. She added, “When I attended that important conference at Bilgi University in Istanbul in 2005, there were granddaughters there who had discovered from their grandmothers that they were Armenian. And it is often the women who pass on this knowledge.”

The event was sponsored by the Harvard Center of Middle Eastern Studies and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. The next seminar, scheduled for Wednesday, November 30, is titled “Turkey and Its

Neighborhood Foreign Policy,” to be given by Prof. Kemal Kirisci of Bogaziçi University.

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