Where do We Go from Here? Rethinking the Challenge of the Armenian Genocide and Progressive Turkish Politics

The Armenian Weekly
April 2009 Magazine

In previous Armenian Weekly magazine articles, I have raised objections to some of the reigning views of Turkish progressivism. In “Post-Genocide Imperial Domination” (“Controversy and Debate,” The Armenian Weekly, April 21, 2007), I argue that, contrary to the prevalent view that Armenians and Turks could enter a mutual dialogue toward better future relations, underlying all aspects of Turkish-Armenian relation was oppression that had been maximized through the Armenian Genocide and that rendered all Turkish- Armenian relations dominance relations.

Only through changing the dominance relation could Turkish-Armenian relations improve in a meaningful way. I highlighted the ways in which this dominance relation, with its imperial roots, infused even the attitudes and actions of many progressive Turks, and that this was difficult to see only because such Turks were evaluated against the extreme cases of hyper-evil genocide perpetrators and morally bad genocide deniers, not against objective standards of ethics. In “From Past Genocide to Present Perpetrator-Victim Group Relations” (“Commemorating Genocide: Images, Perspectives, Research,” The Armenian Weekly, April 26, 2008), I argued that the prevalent view that the democratization of Turkey would lead to an end to anti-Armenian attitudes and institutional structures in Turkish state and society was, in fact, wrong; that democracy was consistent with oppression of an outgroup and that the Armenian Genocide and the dominance relation it maximized needed to be addressed explicitly in addition to democratization efforts in Turkey. I maintain the soundness of the arguments, within the context of Armenian-Turkish relations, and believe they represent important interventions in ongoing efforts to improve these relations. But it is possible to look at the progressive movement in Turkey not against an objective ethical analysis of the proper response to the Armenian Genocide, but against other societies that share similar pasts. This brings into relief positive elements of progressive Turkish politics that deserve recognition.

An important limitation of almost all discussions of Armenian-Turkish relations and Turkish democratization is that they occur within a conceptual and historical vacuum.

That is, they are not informed by the experiences of other societies who have faced or who face similar challenges as the Turkish state and society in facing the contemporary challenge of the Armenian Genocide. On the one hand, this is laudable: Progressive Turks do not draw attention from that challenge by discussing other cases, as deniers of the Armenian Genocide (and other genocides, such as the Holocaust, Native American

Genocides, the Nanjing Massacre, and many others) do. But it also means that complex critical insights by innovative theorists (I cited a number of such theorists for my 2007 article in this regard) who have addressed U.S. race relations, for instance, are lost to the discussion, and the resulting ideas about Armenian-Turkish relations often subject to obvious criticisms based on those critical insights. Similarly, the Armenian Genocide and the situation of contemporary Turkey is rarely—especially in Turkish discussions—put within a comparative context with other genocide perpetrator societies, and there are dozens of major perpetrators who would qualify for this. Again, this is positive in so far as progressives keep focus squarely on the Armenian Genocide rather than diluting it with discussion of other genocides as a way of giving comfort to Turks who are uncomfortable with a direct engagement with their own history; but it also means that important conceptual and historical resources for understanding are not available in discussions and reflection.

The situation is not much better from an Armenian standpoint. While some rudimentary comparative attempts are made, usually to the Holocaust, few genuine attempts to contextualize the Armenian Genocide in a comprehensive history of genocide and other mass violence are made. By extension, with certain noteworthy exceptions (such as the Armenian National Committee of America), there is little commitment among Armenians to serious engagement with the genocides and other mass violence suffered by other groups. A little lip service at commemorations does not count.

I have been using the term “Turkish progressive” without definition so far. With regard to the Armenian Genocide, this term applies to politically active Turkish individuals who (1) fully recognize the Armenian Genocide and (2) recognize the link of the Armenian Genocide to (a) the politics of the Turkish republic, including the repressive nature of some social and political institutions and human rights practices, and (b) the future of Turkish politics, particularly regarding the possibility and obstacles to full democratization. In this sense, Turkish progressives—perhaps the most outstanding being Ragip Zarakolu, Hrant Dink’s close friend, who has been charged with such things as “insulting the Turkish state” merely for publishing the truth about the Armenian Genocide—are doing more than courageously challenging the status quo of genocide denial and domination in Turkey, and that at great risk to themselves. They are setting an important example for other perpetrator states.

Specifically, they have recognized and proclaim publicly that the Armenian Genocide is a fundamental part of the formation of the Turkish Republic and contemporary Turkish national identity. Improving that identity and the state requires directly engaging the role of and benefits from the Armenian Genocide and reworking them away from the genocidal elements in their roots. Can one say (as I have) that some or even all have particular agendas that are not necessarily only concerned with justice for the Armenian Genocide? Certainly, the improvement of Turkish society is paramount for many. Is there a significant limitation in their approach because it typically bars even consideration of territorial reparations? Just as certainly, the preservation of the Turkish claim to the land in question is a confirmation of the attitudes driving the Armenian Genocide in the first place, the rendering of that land “Turkish” rather than “Armenian.” And yet, even given these points, what these progressives are attempting and the vision and ethical commitments that motivate it are impressive and important. They are also rare, even when compared with perpetrator societies with much stronger freedom of speech guarantees. These Turkish progressives have been willing to confront the foundations of their society against tremendous pressures from all quarters, out of a commitment to the truth and to a just social and political order.

Perhaps the closest case would be the movement by progressive scholars and activists in Japan to push for full, unequivocal recognition of Japanese atrocities during the Pacific War, including especially the Nanjing Massacre (a genocide) and the horrific Comfort Women system of sexual slavery; an official state apology for these acts; and proper reparations to their victims. The commitment of some has been tested by threats of and actual violence from rightwing extremists, and is tied to a deep ethical commitment to non-aggression through the prevention of the re-militarization of Japan, which is the goal of many deniers of these atrocities. The struggle of textbook contents in Japan, which has been an international issue for a decade and more, is a central aspect. What is promising in Japan is that a high percentage of the population supports this recognition, despite powerful and well-organized denial campaigns with support from some government officials.

What is striking against the Turkish example is the United States and our own genocidal and other mass violence history, which is virtually unknown by the general population, is utterly marginal as a political issue, and is allowed to continue through various political institutions and practices, such as the “School of the Americas,” noteworthy as a U.S. training base teaching torture techniques to Latin American military personnel.

One can begin with the aggressive wars we have pursued. The 1836 Mexican War was a classic war of conquest, through which we acquired huge swaths of territory from Mexico, from Texas, through the southwest, to California. It is safe to say that without this injustice, which was protested by that great American Henry David Thoreau, resulting in his imprisonment, the United States would be radically different and radically less than it is now, and Mexico much more powerful and stable. The 1898 Spanish War is another example, as are dozens of military invasions on behalf of corporations such as United Fruit in Central American, Caribbean, and South American countries over the course of the 20th century, punctuated by such crimes as the U.S.-backed Chile coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende—begun, coincidentally enough, on Sept. 11, 1973 (the first September 11, which eventually left at least 9,000 Chileans dead and how many thousands tortured)—the Panama Invasion, both Iraq Wars, the Vietnam War, the illegal mass civilian killing bombings of Cambodia and Laos, and beyond.

One can add our support for human rights-abusing and mass killer regimes and rebel blocks the world over, from Nicaragua and El Salvador to South Africa, Iraq, the Shah of Iran, and Indonesia, just to name a few of the more publicized examples. And let us not forget the U.S. role in genocides, such as our active support of the Guatemalan genocide of the Mayans to the East Timor Genocide—and on and on. Should we not add the “free fire zones” used in the Vietnam War as genocidal acts fitting the United Nations definition of genocide? Unfortunately, one could go on.

And above and ahead of all this, beneath it and behind it, is the genocidal process that has since its beginning involved and implicated every aspect of the United States: the Native American Genocides. (For a full account of what I reference here, see Ward Churchill’s important A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present [San Francisco: City Lights, 1997].) Statistics are shocking and yet convey only the most abstract sense of the wonton destruction: In 1600, there were on the order of 10 million indigenous people in what would become the continental United States; by 1900, there were 237,000 remaining. From George Washington on, U.S. governments pursued a policy of deportation and destruction of Native American groups, through direct massacre; destruction of food supplies to impose conditions of starvation; deportation into harsh environments such as deserts, making survival difficult; forced removal of Native American children from families and cultures; forced sterilization of Native American women; and more—acts falling only too neatly into the UN definition of genocide.

The dominant ideology of American expansionism of the 19th century, institutionalized in our territorial boundaries in the 20th,“Manifest Destiny,” was genocidal at its core: the continent for Americans of White European descent, for the United States. The Native Americans were in the way. They had to be destroyed or, if the numbers got low enough, interred on reservations where conditions were often genocidal as well.

The most fundamental—and the most fundamentally obvious, for anyone looking with some kind of basic objectivity—fact about the United States is that our country was formed territorially through genocide. Basic ethics today requires calling into question the legitimacy of the very formation of the United States, but most people in the United States who are not Native American or a minority that has suffered similarly forsake a simple, honest ethical analysis in favor of preserving nationalist identity and a host of benefits built on denial and fabrication—denial and fabrication that are still the core of what we teach our children and discuss publicly today (fantasies about the Puritans, for instance, who were as thirsty for indigenous blood as Chivington’s Third Colorado Volunteer Cavalry Regiment).We still fail to deal with real recognition, even of the conditions of Native Americans now, the racism and violence against them, the imposed poverty, the resource thefts, etc. Most of us refuse to confront the truth and cannot even conceive the question of what we must do to repair the damage.

The U.S. Armenian community reflects the broader society on this. Yes, there are some Armenians who advocate for recognition and reparation for Native American Genocides (I have often had Armenian audiences take up the issue with seriousness and commitment), but they are relatively few and their voices dampened. It is certainly our duty to advocate for recognition and justice for the Armenian Genocide. As the progeny of its victims, absent our Armenian activism, the world beyond us would know and care little about the issue. But it is just as much our duty not to stop at recognizing injustice when our people are its victims: We must also recognize it when we are its beneficiaries.

And we are the beneficiaries of Native American Genocides, enjoying land and power and American identity all secure and strong. It is our duty to recognize and to challenge our society and government to recognize and repair.

And here we can look to those in Turkey who are doing just that. We have an absolute duty to do more than we as Armenians are doing now, that is, to follow the example of Turkish progressives: However uncomfortable and even dangerous, we must stand up for what is right in our own country.

How to start? During the March 13, 2009 symposium in Washington, D.C. on “Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policy Makers,” a report by the Genocide Prevention Task Force co-chaired by Madeleine Albright and William Cohen (and sponsored by “Genocide Studies and Prevention,” the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and the Zoryan Institute’s International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies), I presented a critique of the report for its failure to acknowledge the true U.S. relationship to genocide, aggressive war, and other mass violence. The report presented genocide as something others—especially Africans—do somewhere else. My argument was simple: If we want to prevent genocide, we should start by changing our relationship to it, so that we no longer support it or the kinds of regimes that perpetrate it; to do that, we need an honest appraisal of the way genocide is a part of our society and political culture. I proposed that this honest appraisal could be done by a high-profile, well-publicized United States Genocide Truth and Responsibility Commission (TRC), which would document and present to the public all the regrettable details of our history with genocide, as well as recommend meaningful reparations, including territory returns if deemed appropriate. I amend that here to a U.S. Human Rights TRC, which would encompass military aggression, slavery, and other human rights violations, along with genocide.

I call on Armenians in the United States to join the movement for a true appraisal of U.S. history and a taking of responsibility for it. The USHRTRC is one possible avenue that might deserve specific support, but the broader need is for Armenians to make a practice of recognizing the realities of this history, starting with Native American Genocides, and supporting efforts to secure acknowledgment and justice for them. In the face of such historical wrongs, advocacy on the Armenian Genocide without advocacy against U.S. injustices becomes hypocrisy.

Henry Theriault

Henry Theriault

Henry C. Theriault, Ph.D. is currently associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Worcester State University in the US, after teaching in its philosophy department from 1998 to 2017. From 1999 to 2007, he coordinated the University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights. Theriault’s research focuses on genocide denial, genocide prevention, post-genocide victim-perpetrator relations, reparations and mass violence against women and girls. He has lectured and appeared on panels around the world. Since 2007, he has chaired the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group and is lead author of its March 2015 final report, Resolution with Justice. He has published numerous journal articles and chapters, and his work has appeared in English, Spanish, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, French and Polish. With Samuel Totten, he co-authored The United Nations Genocide Convention: An Introduction (University of Toronto Press, 2019). Theriault served two terms as president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), 2017-2019 and 2019-2021. He is founding co-editor of the peer-reviewed journal Genocide Studies International. From 2007 to 2012 he served as co-editor of the International Association of Genocide Scholars’ peer-reviewed Genocide Studies and Prevention.

1 Comment

  1. You will also have to acknowledge the Kocaly Genocide and ethnic cleansings (genocide) of Azeri Turks in Irevan, Goyce and Zangezur Khanates of West Azerbaijan

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