An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole

The first part of this interview appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator. Gonmez-Poole is interviewing a series of Armenians and Turks regarding the Armenian Gencoide and the Turkish approach.



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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 a friend and colleague of Hrant Dink. Led by Dink’s unique vision and character, Göçek and a growing circle of Turkish intellectuals had nurtured high hopes for a more democratic and inclusive Turkey, a dream that was shattered with the assassination of Dink on January 19, 2007.

What would you say to those who claim that Hrant Dink was murdered simply because he was yet another public intellectual in Turkey? No, I think he was assassinated because he was an Armenian. He was the weak link among all of us. The rest of us were all white Turks. He was the only one who wasn’t. And, what I felt then, as well as after, is that I’m constantly interrogating myself. “Oh my God, did we lead him on?” I mean did we lead him on to thinking that this was possible. In a way, we would all be guilty then for this death, you know, if he didn’t realize that he was not like us in the sense that he was not a white Turk. But people said, “Oh no, you’re making this up.” I don’t think so. I think that there definitely is that element, and I will always feel guilty for that.

How would you describe some of the intra-group splits within the communities of Armenians and Turks in the U.S? Armenians that migrated from Turkey itself have a very different conception of Turks because they’ve had Turkish friends, in addition to the experience of prejudice and discrimination. They know that not all Turks are the same. But if you don’t have that experience of actually having met and hung out with a Turk, then you think that they’re all of the same, all filled with hatred and you don’t want anything to do with them. I think that is probably the most significant.

Within the Turkish community, there is a generational difference. And there is also the difference of when they migrated to the United States. When you start talking to Diaspora Turks, you literally can tell from their political views when they came here and what was going on in Turkey at the time. So they do not update their perceptions. It’s an identity they can’t mess with because it’s become ossified. It’s so ossified that if you mess with it, it’ll break apart!

Since we are on the subject of differences of opinion, would you say you have some philosophical differences with other academicians in the field, take Prof. Taner Akçam for example? What he’s done is extremely important in the sense that he was the first one to bring up this issue (Armenian genocide). But I feel that when he sits down to write something, he already knows what the end result is going to be. And, in a way, to him, it’s much more important to document and demonstrate the violence and the intentions to almost prove that this was genocide. Even if, you know, he may not have needed to…whereas when I started, my issue was not, to prove or disprove anything. So I was probably exploring to see where things would take me. I mean, I had some idea where they were going, but I probably approached materials much more flexibly and openly.

Does this kind of difference in approach have an effect on Turkish‑Armenian relations? If so, why? I think so. Because people feel much better if you approach them first as human beings…But if you are there with a political agenda or if you’re there with a set intent, I think that colors everything. It reduces and narrows the possibilities of the relationship that you have. And then again, this may also be the consequence of the fact that I am not a political activist.

So you think someone like Akçam is more of a political activist? I think so. I mean we both want Turkey to be democratized. There we agree, there’s no doubt about that. But, for example, he writes articles in the newspapers, he has a column. He has no problem talking to all the interested parties in different places. I never talk to anyone except in university or academic settings. I would never go and try to negotiate anything with anybody. I mean, you know, what is a scholar? What I can do is research, generate and then disseminate information. I’ve drawn my boundaries much more differently than he has. And you probably need both. But I don’t think he’d be happy doing what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t be happy doing what he’s doing.

Do you have any expectations related to Turkey’s approach to 1915 come 2015? Ten years ago, I did. But now, I realize, after spending the last 12 years, that social change is very slow, you know, in a glacial way.

Do you think the current government is capable of making the right kind of apology to Armenians regarding the genocide? Not this government, no! In a way, they are very nationalistic. Our nationalism has never been questioned, because we didn’t go through the Second World War and we didn’t have to come to terms with the Holocaust and things like that. So, we never had any critical self‑reflection…as a consequence, that nationalism has become so ingrained in us that it is very hard to shake it off. And I thought that Islamists, because of their adverse experiences, would have been more tolerant, but it turns out, rather than becoming more tolerant, they have become even more judgmental and dismissive…I mean, Islam in politics is just as bad as secularism in politics. So, the next 20‑30 years are going to be tough in Turkey, but then, if we survive, the rest will be much better.

(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. )



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