The event, organized by Bentley University’s Global Studies Department, Bentley’s Multicultural Center, and the Armenian Review, featured panelists Dr. Ugur Umit Ungor (University of Sheffield, UK), Bilgin Ayata (Johns Hopkins University), Dr. Henry Theriault (Worcester State College), and Dr. Dikran Kaligian (Regis College). Dr. Asbed Kotchikian (Bentley Unversity) moderated.
In his opening remarks, Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian talked about why the panel discussion was organized. He noted that in recent months, Turkey-Armenia dialogue has been under the spotlight, but that profound and broader issues about the power dynamics between Turks, Kurds, and Armenians have rarely, if ever, been seriously addressed. Without dealing with the core issues, Mouradian noted, no resolution can be achieved.
“Usually around these times, there are a lot of events where the issue of genocide through the bilateral perspective of Turks and Armenians is discussed,” said Asbed Kotchikian, after welcoming the audience and thanking the organizers. “This panel, however, inserts a third dimension into an already complex issue… It will examine the factor of the Kurds in the overall issue of Armenian-Turkish relations from a historical perspective, getting all the way to the possibility of including Kurds in the Turkish-Armenian dialogue.”
In his talk, Dikran Kaligian noted that the two most important issues concerning Armenians and Kurds in the late Ottoman Empire were the return of the lands taken from Armenian peasants, and the raids and assaults by some Kurdish tribes on Armenian villages.
He noted, “The Kurdish and Turkish deputies from the eastern provinces and the aghas and large landowners whose interests they represented, were the most significant obstacles to land reform and restitution.” Kaligian pointed out that the use of economic mechanisms to first impoverish and then dispossess peasants was not applied to Armenians alone. Kurdish and Turkish peasants were subject to similar extortion by local aghas.
“The foremost security issue was curbing attacks by Kurdish tribes on Armenian peasants and many such assaults were curtailed merely by the ascension to power of the CUP and its public commitment to equal status for all citizens,” Kaligian explained. “The abandonment of the commitment to equality restored a sense of impunity for the Kurds and other Muslims who had resumed their depredations on Armenians.”
Ugur Ungor talked about three aspects of the Armenian Genocide: the role of the government, the conduct of local elites, and the economic factors. He noted that one important question in genocide studies is the relation between central decision-making processes and the regional, local outcomes. “Why is it that some genocides demonstrate regional heterogeneity?” he asked. “[O]lder models of genocide dealt with the dynamics of the center and explained the genocidal process from a top-down perspective,” he noted, but this theory has been criticized by genocide scholars who have conducted research on the local aspects of genocide. These scholars argue “that the local elites can fundamentally shape the genocidal process” by expediting, intensifying, or delaying and sometimes even resisting the genocidal process, Ungor explained, citing research on the Holocaust, regional studies in Eastern Europe, and Rwanda.
Ungor argued that the role of the local elites was also an important factor in the Armenian Genocide, and presented the case in the Diyarbekir province to make his point. He said that the genocide in Diyarbekir was qualitatively different than in most other areas, because there were large-scale massacres in situ—instead of deportations to Der Zor. He also noted that there was a quantitative difference: Based on Talaat’s own statistics from his recently published Black Book, “61 percent of Armenians in Konya disappeared without a trace, this percentage in the Afyon province in the west is 72 percent, while Diyarbekir has a staggering 97 percent of Armenians that are not accounted for.”
The genocide was so severe in Diyarbekir, Ungor argued, because of the role local Kurdish elites and local families played. Talking about the Diyarbekir governor, Dr. Mehmed Reshid, he said that there are countless reports in the German archives, and even in the Ottoman archives, “on the fanaticism in and his devotion to the destruction of the Armenians.”
Ungor went on to talk about the role played by three very influential, local, and competing Kurdish families and their leaders in shaping the genocide in the province. “The competition between these families was often decisive in provincial politics,” Ungor argued, noting that during the genocide, the Young Turk regime exploited this competition, asking these families to collaborate with the center in order to be rewarded. Two of these local families played an important role in the killing of Armenians, while the third protected them.
Talking about the economic aspect of the genocide in Diyarbekir, Ungor gave the example of the confiscation of an Armenian-owned silk factory by a Kurdish family, which still owns the factory today. He highlighted the importance of conducting more research on the economic aspect of the Armenian Genocide.
Henry Theriault spoke next, and stressed the importance of proposing an alternative understanding of the relations between Turks, Kurds, and Armenians. “The standard conflict resolution model doesn’t really work” when it comes to issues like the Armenian Genocide and the treatment of the Kurds in Turkey, he said. This model “is not complicated enough, nuanced enough, and ethically and politically sophisticated enough to really deal with what the realities are on the ground and to really give us a foundation to build on for the future.”
Theriault noted that Armenians and Turks, (and Turks and Kurds, when it comes to the “Kurdish problem”) are presented as people who have “long-standing conflicts over historical events that happened roughly a century ago. And the way to deal with this issue is to get these people to sit at the same table, talk about their problems, and somehow negotiate some way of changing their relationship.” He argued that there are some “obvious assumptions” that go with that kind of model. The most significant of those assumptions is that “there’s a kind of equality among the parties” and that through such meetings, “you can negotiate out of genocidal legacies.”
“There is no overnight solution, there’s no paper anybody can sign, there’s nothing anyone can say that is going to fix things in a short period of time,” Theriault said. If you listen to politicians in the U.S., Turkey, and even in Armenia, they talk as if we can just “fix this” with a few agreements.
Talking about the power asymmetries between Turks, Kurds, and Armenians, Theriault noted that the assumption that the sides are equals at the negotiation table doesn’t take into account “what the Armenian Genocide has done and what the treatment of Kurds has done in the years since the genocide.” He explained, “The problem is not that the Turks and Armenians hate each other. The problem is that the Armenian Genocide and what came before it put into place a dominance relation that continues to this day, and continues to benefit some Turks and the Turkish state to this day. … The end of the Armenian Genocide did not end the dominance relationship,” he noted. “All it did was in some sense fix it.”
Bilgin Ayata prefaced by talking about the religious homogenization in Turkey, which resulted in the reduction of the percentage of Christians in the country from 40 percent during the later years of the Ottoman Empire to 1 percent during the establishment of the Turkish republic. What followed later, Ayata noted, was the violent suppression of Kurdish demands and uprisings, and a project of ethnic homogenization in Turkey. “The very existence of Kurds was denied for decades,” she said. “They were referred to as ‘mountain Turks.’” She said that Turkey tried to maintain homogeneity by implementing a policy of denial regarding the Armenian Genocide and the existence of the Kurds.
In her critique of the way the Armenian and Kurdish issues are discussed in Turkey, Ayata said that the Armenian issue is dealt with as a problem “in the past,” whereas the Kurdish issue is looked at in the context of the last 30 years alone. “This artificial compartmentalization is very problematic because it prevents us from seeing certain continuities,” she noted.
“Kurdish-Armenian dialogue carries a very promising potential for reconciliation that is very much open to the issues of truth-seeking and justice,” she said, which are often absent in Turkish-Armenian dialogue.
In the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish republic, “there was also a transition of the Kurdish subjects.” Kurds were perpetrators and complicit with the Turkish state during the Armenian Genocide, but then they themselves became victims. This point, Ayata argued, can allow Kurds and Armenians to address, in their dialogue, issues that are not discussed yet in Turkish-Armenian dialogue.