Standpoint of Turkey
Güven Gürkan Öztan and Ömer Turan
Teachers at the University of Istanbul and Bilgi
In the last years many books and articles have been written in Turkey about the Armenian Genocide. On the other hand there is little if any work about the genocide denial going on for a century. Güven Gürkan Öztan, lecturer at Istanbul University and Ömer Turan, lecturer at Bilgi University study the moves of the State’s apprehension on Armenian Genocide since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey until today. We interviewed Öztan and Turan on denial in Turkey. Ozkan and Turan’s book, İnkarda Ortaklaşmak (United in denial) will be published in the coming months from Iletişim Publishing. In this conversation, they explain in particular how the denial of the Armenian genocide played an important part in the building the Turkish state. That denial, they say, developed in the form of a sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit contract between the State and the Turkish society. By analyzing Turkish nationalism, they reach the conclusion that its main function is to secure the properties and wealth accumulated after various massacres. Finally, although both authors are optimistic in relation to some changes that occured in the Turkish civil society, they tone down their enthusiasm by concluding that only some significant mutation could possibly change the rules of the game. According to them, "Turkey needs to deal with Armenia and accept that the Diaspora is a legitimate party."
Interview by Lilit Gasparyan
You work on Armenian Genocide denial in Turkey. Why did you choose this topic?
GGÖ: The denial of 1915 is in fact one of Turkey’s foundation codes. We think that during the creation of nation-state and also later, denial marked the political repertory and social consensus going beyond the Turkish identity; we think that this wasn’t one-dimensional but a multifaceted interaction, this took place in institutional terms via the restructuring of the state and this being reciprocated socially. What we actually try to find out first is why there was such a huge alliance for the denial of 1915. Why the genocide denial is so capillary? That was our starting point. Therefore we have used a series of conceptual tools including political sociology, collective memory works and also literature on nationalism. In this context, we have discovered the continuities, the main pillars carrying that denial. The works we mention here are the pre-studies of the book we are about the finish. We do a research on the centurial genocide denial. We try to have within a conceptual frame a holistic approach to the institutions, actors, opinion leaders, parliament discussions and historiography technics. We continue our studies within the partnering for denial concept. Partnering for denial tells how actors and groups from different political positions converge on a similar ground when it comes to 1915 denial.
ÖT: Our purpose is not studying what happened during the 1915 genocide. We make an effort to do the political sociology of Turkey’s actual political and social system since 1918 until today. One of our starting points for our study is that the system we live in has been structured in fact during the 1912-1922 Great War period. As a consequence of these complex relations, a partnering for denial regime had been built in Turkey.
What is the main emphasis of your work?
GGÖ: We wanted to underline for the denial issue that there are from time to time some conflicting strategies and that the main tendency is this attempting to silence and make forget policy. We mention that denial is an action in accordance with the ‘republic is a new start’ thesis but that a series of legislative regulations including derelict concerning the traces of 1915 continues to be done. The generation from the era of the foundation of the republic had some live memories with regards to the genocide. But they preferred not to talk about it. The following generations developed a political position from what has been made forgotten. As of the end of 70’s and beginning of the 80’s the official actors started to follow a systematic policy for the denial. We tried to show that a denial strategy with arguments that conflict with one another from time to time has been applied.
ÖT: On one hand we try to use a conceptual frame and we try to see how the raison d’état worked on this denial issue in different periods of history. While doing this, “Partnering for denial” is an important focus for us. On the other hand the society we live in has been shaped with the denial culture. But we also claim that this denial culture should not be analyzed with culturalist explanation. Yes, part of denial creates a culture. It determines the feeling and sensitivity of the people. But this culture generated by denial should not make us assume that denial is ahistorical, as if it existed all the time. What we try to do is to show how the denial had been built step by step with raison d’état and relations between the state and the society sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit. For that reason we concentrate an important part of our work on the Armistice era. Within that period, we include in our analysis the remembering forms concerning the 1915-1917 period. We also elaborate on how the deportation was addressed on political platforms as well as the efforts of the governments of current period to establish a partial justice. One other thing we try to say is that the raison d’état is not independent from international equations. Another important argument of ours is that partnering for denial is an important thing for raison d’état as it allows the state a certain capacity production.
So one of the things feeding the present raison d’état is the partnering for denial. Are there other things you can enumerate? How can the raison d’état continue so strong its existence?
GGÖ: At that point we should not only be satisfied to use the raison d’état conceptualization but we also need to mention the founding contract and the relation between the two. Because the founding contract isn’t something that’s done once and then removed, it is being renewed continuously and is in fact more comprehensive then Turkish nationalism. Yes, Turkish nationalism is a political position and has a link with the founding contract. But this contract is beyond taking a stand; it is in fact a series of preliminary acceptance including the state of knowing/not knowing, feeling/not feeling. It includes skepticism against the West as well as a myth of a collective sense of being oppressed that we also try to underline.
You mentioned nationalism, denial is an issue of Turkish identity, then where in this denial do you place nationalism?
GGÖ: The studies of the last twenty years criticizing Turkish nationalism inform us about the intellectual development of nationalism as well as its players but don’t tell us how this nationalist project had been adopted by people or why it has so many supporters. Working on 1915 provides some concrete information on that matter. Masses didn’t become nationalist because they followed the nationalist leaders. They embraced Turkish nationalism in order to protect the gains obtained following the massacres and slaughters.
ÖT: Here are the three fundamental characteristics of nationalism: 1) Distinction between us and them; 2) the thought structure mainly acknowledging “us” as the one being right; and 3) Threat perception. We see all of these during the reproduction process of denial. This distinction placing the “us” ,the position of being right is in fact defining Turkey’s official position. It is possible to talk of two fundamental strategies that the official thesis in Turkey has adopted. First, taking into consideration the relations between the Armenians and Muslims during the Ottoman period and say that everything was very optimistic for long years and pass off somehow the 1915-1917 period. Second is to bring often the Armenian guerillas’ revenge activities after 1918 to the fore and ignoring deportation and massacres of 1915-1917. Together with denial, they see the truth request for the year 1915 as a threat. We see the echo of Turkey’s official position in the press very clearly. When we were scanning the newspapers of the 1980’s we have noticed that 1915 commemorations in Lebanon, in Brazil were considered as a serious threat in Turkey.
As for the second matter: In fact at the end of this ten year 1912-1922 war Muslims of this geography were well aware of this when they were starting a new life: Muslims here were affected and took advantage of this deportation process. Being affected and taking advantage of it imposed them a new need about this in a new framework. They needed a legal basis, a guarantee for them to continue this state of taking advantage. The Republic was founded with the Treaty of Lausanne, by granting this guarantee. One of the things provided by the Treaty of Lausanne is the guarantee that people who left this geography wouldn’t come back. Denying was a way of not loosing the gains.
Do the Kemalists and members of AKP use the raison d’état the same way? What are the similarities or differences?
GGÖ: There are two important points. First, does AKP’s criticizing position against Republic’s founding ideology include 1915 or other massacres and slaughters of the Early Republic years. That’s the starting point, because since the first days of AKP’s ruling there has been a criticism of Unionism and early Republic that went through different phases. This has its place in Milli Görüş, National Vision Movement’s tradition. In addition to that AKP made such a move in order to get the support of liberals that had a criticizing approach to the great sins of that period. Therefore, there was a ‘much more optimistic’ situation for the place of 1915 in these calculations as this settling accounts issue seemed to include 1915 too. But then it came out that what they really wanted to do for the process they didn’t do it through recognition-confrontation, it was a continuation of a strategy, main part line of the state’s strategy, they tried to implement since 2001, in other words since the triple coalition period. The official denial kept its permanence in many areas such as archive issues, historians committee, using of international balance of power. There is a shift from unionism hostility to “our civilization won’t commit a genocide” line.
ÖT: AKP has a problem since 2002 with the nation-state project. Furthermore, AKP has a problem with unionism… We are talking of an organism that sees itself identical with the movement Unionists suppressed. In 2000’s the atmosphere created by AKP’s ruling contributed to the widening of fractures of partnering for denial regime in Turkey. There are many examples to it. One of the most obvious is the conference organized in 2005 at Bilgi University. What we call the raison d’état is not singular it can be used by different players in many different ways. AKP acted with the perspective of democratization and improvement of relations with the EU and we should acknowledge the difference it made. We need to emphasize the condolence messages published in 2014 and 2015. These are steps that are outside of classical raison d’état framework in Turkey and for the first time Turkish Republic declared it is actually legitimate to have an official commemoration for those who lost their lives during the deportation.
On the other hand, we see that during AKP ruling, the raison d’état didn’t get rid of its classical reflexes. Here also we have many examples. The most important one is Hrant Dink’s assassination. As the followers of this murder case, we came into knowledge of some information step by step but where we are today, the most critical information we know is that while Dink was shut, there were six gendarmerie intelligence officers around the gunman. The intelligence services in Turkey had always seen Islamized Armenians as a threat and monitored them. We see a huge change as for the expression style about 1915-1917. Agos has a big influence on that but it’s obvious that Agos’ influence had cost a lot. With its distance to nation-state AKP, ideologically lies its back to civilization apprehension. Within the scope of the apprehension AKP leader can from time to time say “Our civilization doesn’t commit a genocide”. Or they can embrace the “genocide equals holocaust” discourse. But of course these don’t have any convincing power.
You see the condolence messages, the “common pain”, “fair memory” notions mentioned by Davutoğlu as the elements of raison d’état. These fit with creation and dissemination of a new language, which are the last of the four elements creating the raison d’état you mention in your studies. Is it possible to say that AKP continues the same denying raison d’état in a different language.
GGÖ: There is a serious continuity as for the raison d’état. What’s important here is that the sustainability characteristic of classical denial discourse had lost of its capacity as of the year 2000. This has to do with Turkey’s internal dynamics and foreign policy balance but the criticizing studies in the academic literature has also an impact. There are new researches shaking in academic terms Turkish scholars works. So if there were another player instead of AKP, it would be impossible for that player to continue with the denying arguments known up to now. That’s why the strategy of not acknowledging 1915’s genocide has continued through some nice sounding concepts like ‘fair memory’, ‘common pain’. For the last five-six years they put forward denying arguments with a different aspect than the past during this process of creating a new language. The oppressed nation narrative is in its place and they continue this through Islam but not Turkishness anymore.
ÖT: The 2015’s condolence message was much more stronger than the 2014 one’s content wise. But we notice that the dual discourse is in here. Erdogan made a very unfortunate sentence. He said for the commemoration event in Yerevan “they are dancing to their own tunes”. This year Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım qualified this tragedy as ‘an ordinary event’. That is exactly what we try to tell in the book. The sentence ‘an ordinary event’ is the reflection of the partnering for denial because saying this is equal to what a man of letters saying ‘We haven’t slaughtered Armenians out of the blue’.
Of course we need to look at what state officials’ said for the conflicts that resumed in 2015. In this new fire consuming Turkey, the word Armenian used by gendarmerie special operation and police special operation officials using with regards to Armenians is defamation. These officials made announcements such as “Armenian Bastards” in cities where Kurdish people live, they wrote those defamatory expressions on city walls. They see Armenians as a category they can criminalize and according to them anybody revolting against the state is linked to Armenians.
GGO: When you look at Turkey’s recent history, you can notice that Armenians and other non-Muslims have been used as a sort of hostage on international political arena. We see this a lot for the Turkish Greeks concerning the Cyprus issue. But for 1915 matter the state has policies requiring continuity. One of it is to try to tell how Armenians in Turkey live happily. The other one is to make a distinction between the “good and bad Armenian”. Trying to collect people from Armenian Community that could support the official thesis… And the final one is the threat; the official sources say, “stop giving us a hard time or we’ll send away the Armenians in Turkey’.
ÖT: There is also a language game used here as they are deliberately ambiguous on who they will deport, Armenia citizens or Turkish Armenians.
Alongside the continuity there is also this method of creating doubt. This method makes the encountered events during the genocide period as ambiguous and suggests discussing ambiguous things… According to you why this method didn’t last long and why did they opt for other methods? How successful was it in terms of denial?
ÖT: One of the important tactics was to use the “that cannot be known, archives are closed, let us first open the archives” discourse. What Turkey’s official attitude doesn’t want to see here is the following: Most of the things that need to be known are already known and there won’t be anymore things that could change the internationally acknowledged frame’s main lines. But let us underline this: Not all action of state’s intelligence create the desired result. According to that tactic, Turkey had opened its Ottoman archive to users from all countries. The important pieces of criticizing literature on that matter are based on the Ottoman archives.
In one of your interviews you say “denial had been solved at the least on April 24, 2015”. What exactly do you mean by that?
ÖT: We are a generation born in a very conservative denial environment. But at where we are today there are many Turkish books on this matter, many meetings are being organized. And not only in Istanbul, for example within the framework of Kurdish movement’s sensitivity to the matter, the municipality of Bitlis and Diyarbakır can host these kinds of meetings. This subject is not anymore that unspoken. For instance in April 24, 2015 Cumhuriyet newspaper headline was in Armenian. In fact that’s what I mean when I mention the fracture in the partnering for denial. But we shouldn’t exaggerate all of this…
GGÖ: Turkish society’s confrontation report card is not a good one, this is due to the very pragmatic, anxious and functional look at the events. For many people confrontation with history is a package that comes on the table with its costs. Therefore, behind this ‘it’s been a century ago, why are we still talking about it’ attitude there is this fear of paying the price. Breaking with the past is both a glue keeping together people from different political backgrounds and a shield protecting the slippery self-esteem from wearing off. Whereas the state of not settling accounts is on top of things causing the social conscience corrosion. But of course we should not forget that no confrontation practice was done automatically, settling accounts took place when a historical momentum where internal and external dynamics partnered arose. The main reason why this is delayed in Turkey is that these two momentums cannot function simultaneously. Genocide decisions of the parliaments cannot mobilize such a dynamic as the internal dynamic is on the opposite direction. That is why a new and efficient confrontation process beyond the reactionary position doesn’t start.
How can raison d’état change in Turkey, by itself, with internal social dynamics or with international pressure? What do you foresee?
ÖT: It can change with different elements coming together. The analysis we try to develop here sort of aims to analyze without differentiating internal and external dynamics. Therefore if there is going to be a change in Turkey it is not going to be only with international conjuncture, nor independent from external dynamics. If there is going to be a change, it will for sure be possible with Turkey’s political structure reaching a more democratic level. In terms of authoritativeness we face the darkest days of AKP ruling. It is of course easier to talk about the collective violent events or traumas of the past in an environment more democratic where rule of law principle has farther reel responses. This is valid for Dersim, for September 6 and for Armenian Genocide. Turkey’s state of intelligence transformation will happen with general democratization.
GGÖ: Confrontation with 1915 genocide, commemoration and the players that come together of that… There was a situation close to that between 2012-2015; if there is going to be a confrontation this will be possible with the inclusion and accounting of those who define themselves with Muslim identity. We can only obtain a solution if they are part of this process.
First of all we need to eliminate things preventing confrontation. We need to create a new language that could be associated with the oppressed and victims of this process and not with the perpetrators. Even if this cannot be done in short-term period, there is an effort to do so. Different actors within the Turkish society have such a quest. But let us remember, we are talking of a society staying silent nowadays when other massacres are taking place.
Within that context, what will be the impact of the decisions taken by Germany and Australia? What is the significance of these decisions?
GGÖ: The subconscious of the official narrative in Turkey has this tendency to blame someone else. For instance, saying that massacres were not organized by the state, that it was something done by local actors and accuse regional actors and especially Kurdish people. Regional actors had of course to do with it but this is only one side of the picture. There is also this tendency to accuse Germans, the ally during the First World War. Therefore Kurds’ and Germans’ critical reaction on this matter make more impact. The law that is passed in Germany, compared to other similar texts put the official denying position in Turkey into a more difficult situation. First of all when Germans qualified 1915 as genocide they didn’t deny the uniqueness of Holocaust. Including in the text the uniqueness of Holocaust was an important approach because Turkey had always proceeded with this thesis. Second important point is the fact that Germans had accepted its complicity on this matter although in soft wording and show Unionists as the main perpetrator. These elements made the text even stronger. If some of the actors among the Turkish public opinion reacting to the law would have read the text it is probable they have question marks with regards to the official position.
ÖT: I believe that the effort of the diaspora to bring up the issue on different countries’ parliaments has an impact internationally. This is not an easy tool as it is a tool that can be used when real politic coincides with the idealist side of international relations. It might be problematic to position external actors as referee but it’s an efficient tool to bring it up to the agenda. The law adopted by Germany has another important aspect: In terms of real politic, Germany has taken such a decision at a time when she needed cooperation with Turkey to solve the refugee crisis in Europe. And all parties supported that decision. The text is not similar to the two paragraph texts of American presidents. It is a very comprehensive without ignoring various sensibilities of Turkish public opinion.
Turkish press wrote a lot about the law after its adoption. Let us do a comparison. For example we go back to the 90’s as for the Kurdish issue. Can we say the same for the Armenian issue? This issue is part of the agenda only when needed. The last time the issue was evoked was April 24, 2015…
ÖT: It is an important question, in fact when general democracy level deteriorates, talking about 1915 has its share. But I am also for not underestimating the impact the 2000’s created. Until mid 90’s Turkey’s official historians had the monopole for this subject and they would express themselves within that monopole. They didn’t have a strong voice against them. The opposite voice was raised in politics, these non-academician people would write about history. But now we have critical historians working very hard on this subject. The developments in the literature and its reflection on the public opinion identified many things. The publishing especially of Talat Paşa’s Dead-Letter provided us a picture that was opposite to the one’s told by official history with regards to the dead toll of this tragedy. In 90’s conjuncture it wasn’t that easy to have a 24 April commemoration in different parts of Istanbul.
GGÖ: When we talk of the return issue, we need to make a distinction between the actors. The main argument for criminalizing the issue in the 80’s was the existence of ASALA. Then the state continued to criminalize Armenians through ASALA-PKK continuity thesis. Currently there is a tendency to hold responsible in a political context and therefore although it is an official discourse looking to old habits, they cannot criminalize that fast and get the support they want from the society. That’s important. Armenian diaspora, Armenia and Armenians in Turkey should think about it on a political line. An important job is done and the denial wall is cracked now. But we should not exaggerate just because we have what we didn’t have in the 80’s as what we have now are not as strong to demolish the denial wall. When it comes to 1915, the situation in Turkey is very serious because 1915 means confronting a century long process and that’s not easy job. We should not be that optimistic. If we have moved one step higher it’s because we have majorly paid the price for it.
What will be the next stop for the denial? Are there any more bullets left to use?
GGÖ: According to me there aren’t any more tactics to invent or a capacity to implement it. All tactics and methods have been used. Only if there were a huge upside down effect then a different play can be set. But for the developments to be more sincere Turkey needs to consider Armenia as first interlocutor. Only then one can start a new level. Within the framework of 1915 it is important to gather with a political agenda…
ÖT: There won’t be a change on short-term period, it will continue like that. In the current conjuncture Turkey is not that trapped… Yes Turkey needs to deal with Armenia and accept that the diaspora is a legitimate party. The diaspora exists because of the 1915-1917 deportations and massacres.
There is a diaspora politics reality…
ÖT: When Turkey will give up instrumentalizing dialogues on the issue some things might change. When targets are not too big then dialogue is a positive mechanism.
What does it mean that the fact that you can write such articles, you can talk and academicians like yourselves exist?
GGÖ: Turkey is a difficult country in terms of liberties. It is especially very risky to produce academically on subjects that are considered as taboo. But there is a new generation thinking that it’s their academic duty to do researches outside the official narrative in accordance with the academic principles and they are ready to pay the price for it. This generation lives on anterior pioneer works and tries to go beyond it. Nowadays despite all the pressures, the existence of academicians continuing to work on subjects considered taboo is very important in terms of confrontation with history. These works can go beyond the academic walls only with the help of civil society.