Semerdjian: What do Google and the Protocols Have in Common?

By Elyse Semerdjian

The protocols signed by Armenia and Turkey on Oct. 10 engage in denial of the Armenian Genocide on several levels. Not only are the injustices of the past ignored, but those injustices, rather than be acknowledged as a condition of peace, are relegated to an undesignated commission that will pursue “an impartial scientific examination of the historical records.” This statement is in effect a call for a commission to bury the issue of the Armenian Genocide once and for all by reducing it to a “historical dimension” rather than a genocide, a massacre, or any source of conflict for that matter.

An exhibition in Istanbul at the Grand Cevahir hotel on May 16, 2008. The display focuses on "atrocities committed by Armenians against Turks."
An exhibition in Istanbul at the Grand Cevahir hotel on May 16, 2008. The display focuses on “atrocities committed by Armenians against Turks.”

To begin, the term “impartial” indicates that the protocols are written in state language, not the language of historians. In the field of history, we have come a long way towards realizing that impartiality doesn’t exist. Many of us in the field concede that it is impossible for a historian to put aside their subjectivity while researching and writing history. Historians choose their archives and their sources. That selection process, although it can be based on a balanced scientific method, can on many occasions alter the results. Most importantly, impartiality is called into question when we recognize that the historian’s ability to write history is greatly impacted by the sources in their possession. I often imagine the following scenario: After World War II, Germany provides only controlled access to its archives and releases only documents relating to Jewish uprisings, for example the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. With limited sources, a history much like the “provocation thesis” popular in Turkey today would have taken shape in Germany. The thesis goes: Armenians rebelled, Turks defended themselves, and the result was mutual death, a civil war not a genocide. This kind of history could easily be written based on scientific and “impartial” methods, especially if a historian thought they had covered all sources available. Many of us in the field of history are familiar with the kinds of sources made public regarding the Armenians that emphasize the moments in which Armenians rebelled against orders of deportation; these sources are easily found in Turkish publications that line library bookshelves and are sometimes placed on exhibition.

What the commission proposal fails to recognize is that although historians can sometimes agree upon the facts of history, debates often multiply once historians answer the “how” and “why” questions. Historians may be settled on facts of history (for example, “the American Revolution happened”), but how or why it happened is another matter. How would a commission, as part of a dialogue between nations, manage the multiplicity of historical interpretations? How would Turkey, a state that currently legally bars any discussion of atrocities committed against Armenians in World War I according to Article 301 of its penal code, be a trustworthy partner in any dialogue? Currently, Turkey threatens intellectuals who dare to speak out (Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk currently faces yet another trial); how could it, at the same time, allow freedom of expression on such a commission?

Freedom of speech issues aside, as a history professor, I struggle against attempts to homogenize history, especially as many incoming students are taught with high school textbooks that present history as fixed, while in the academic world history is much more complex. I point to this tendency existing in students, but truth be said, most people want a one-dimensional answer to complex historical issues—and states most certainly do. The internet, particularly Google, is a place people go to get those easy, one-dimensional answers. One student came to class having searched the internet on that day’s subject matter and asked: “So, I was surfing the internet last night and saw that according to the web the Armenian Genocide didn’t really happen even though your syllabus frames it as though it did. What’s up with that?” Although our reading that day covered the issue of genocide denial, explaining how the Armenian Genocide had devolved from a historical reality to a “debate” in history, it was the Googleability of the subject that took precedent that day because it offered the “one fixed answer.” Of course, Google is based on algorithims, rather than the truth of claims found on one website versus another. It can’t replace science; it is no oracle of Delphi. But none of this reasoning can undermine the fact that a first hit is often interpreted as the most important answer; and in cases it’s not, it is usually the first link clicked on. On Google, where the Armenian Genocide is concerned, it is a historical “debate” next to global warming and Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The protocols, like Google, treat the Armenian Genocide as a debate by avoiding the admission of guilt and by reducing the complexities of history into a singular answer in the service of the state. Imbedded in the logic of the protocols is the notion that if we are scientific and impartial enough, we can find the one answer to our unnamed problem. If there is to be any future commission, even if it does result in one uniform statement, it is not the end of a debate, as there will still be independent historians writing different histories. However, the commission’s ruling will be presented as the new golden rule, Google’s first hit—the one singular answer to the historical question of genocide. This answer will be cited by journalists and students alike as a definitive study because it was balanced and mutually agreed upon. Outside historians will be marginalized as the commission will be “impartial,” whereas historians working independently will not have the same weight, for they will be biased and partisan.

The idea of a commission is a concession granted to Turkey that indicates there really will be no scientific process at play. History-by-commission in itself is a partial process. It will begin with the premise that the genocide needs to be proven, putting Armenia in the weakest possible position even as a majority of scholars agree that a genocide occurred. By signing the agreement as currently worded, Armenia has taken the minority position of denial over the majority position of acceptance.

The idea of a commission is nothing new. South Africa had its Peace and Reconciliation Commission, Rwanda has its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission that is working on intercommunal dialogues, as well as the writing of a new national history that would cover the Rwandan Genocide. These projects were initiated because states tend to need uniformity of historical interpretation, and new national histories need to be agreed upon to salvage the state after the collective traumas of apartheid and genocide. There are two differences with these projects: First, they acknowledge that violence happened, and even with that acknowledgement there is a lack of satisfaction from victims who in some cases feel they have not been given due justice. Second, they deal with a national rebuilding project, and part of that includes a rewriting of the events of history, a sculpting of the common memory, if you will. None of these elements are present in the protocols. No recognition. No purging of painful memories of genocide. The fact that there are two nations at stake begs the question: Can history-by-commission serve two masters?

Historians who are selected to work on the commission agreed upon by Armenia and Turkey will be part of a bogus endeavor—stooges in a commission geared to write history for the victor under the pretense of democratic exchange. The protocols’ use of “impartial” also gives the underlying denial a sanitized, scientific feel. A 2004 study by Jules and Maxwell Boykoff found that the use of balanced language by journalists to discuss global warming was biased because it gave the impression that there was a debate in the scholarly community over its existence, while international conferences on the subject have presented a virtual consensus. Creating the impression of a debate implies a 50/50 split among the experts. Analogous to the protocols, a similar balance of denialists and affirmers of the Armenian Genocide on a future commission would presume that experts in the field were split half and half, when to the contrary a clear majority of scholars affirm that this event happened. This is the way in which innocuous terms like “balance” can produce bias as a way of consolidating a position—in this case genocide denial—rather than starting with a position of admission of guilt. The bottom line, as I see it, is that the protocols put Armenia in the weakest possible position, whereby it will become a collaborator in a bogus commission geared towards propagating the denial of its own genocide. This is disconcerting as both an Armenian and a historian.

Historians are always searching the dusty recesses of the past for lessons; I have chosen Greek epic for some insight into the protocols. Homer chose to end his epic with a bloodbath: The hero Odysseus slaughters the suitors who defiled his home. Through Zeus’ divine intervention, the memory of the slaughter is erased from Ithacan minds in order to protect Odysseus who would otherwise be endangered under the rules of blood vengeance; after all, the relatives of the suitors had a right to revenge according to custom. The gods choose to obliterate the communal memory in order to create a peace without justice. If we move forward to the present, a very different peace is created in the protocols. Rather than wipe out the memory of injustice committed against Armenians, the signatories have chosen to ignore issues of communal memory and justice altogether. In fact, they have chosen to not even name the source of conflict between the two parties in an attempt to assure collective amnesia. We learn from the ancient Greeks that absolute denial of justice may have only been possible through divine intervention; for, if left to societal norms and intact memories, Odysseus would have surely been punished for his actions.

Elyse Semerdjian is associate professor of Islamic World history at Whitman College.

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Elyse Semerdjian

Elyse Semerdjian is Associate Professor of Islamic World/Middle Eastern History at Whitman College. A specialist in the history of the Ottoman Empire and Syria, she authored “Off the Straight Path”: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo (Syracuse University Press, 2008) as well as several articles on gender, non-Muslims, and law in the Ottoman Empire. She received her M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University. Semerdjian is a two-time Fulbright awardee to Syria. She currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies and as a book review editor for the International Journal of Middle East Studies. In the Spring of 2013, she was the Dumanian Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies in The Department of Near Eastern Cultures and Languages at the University of Chicago. She was awarded a Cornell University Society for the Humanities Fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year to support her new book project, Remnants: Gender, Islamized Armenians, and Collective Memory of the Armenian Genocide. Semerdjian is also an occasional contributor to the Armenian Weekly.

11 Comments

  1. Excellent article.  

    Turks on the joint commission will be deniers and will always prevent a unanimous decision of genocide.   You would think that supporters of the protocols would realize this simple fact. 
    No, Turks are simply shopping around for one study that will not come out with a decision aht 1915 was genocide.  You think you’ve been shocked by the protocols?  Just wait for the joint commission.

    Even if there are neutral historians on the commission, they may take a “midway” position to attempt to be “fair.”  For example, they may say “‘Yes, there were murders, but no document has been found in which Talaat explicitly wrote ‘I hereby order you to kill all Armenians.'”  Or the neutral historians will feel heat from the universities at which they teach to come to a decision that is highly politicized.   Even if they have tenure, they are afraid to speak out lest their university offices be relegated to the basement and they are denied grant money in the future.  Academia doesn’t work that way, huh?

    I have no doubt too that Turks will work behind the scenes to threaten neutral historians with  unpleasant repurcussions.

    The Turks will also attempt to show that it was Armenians who committed genocide, not Turks.  Armenia hasn’t the slightest idea what it has let itself in for.  

    To show you how politicized the process can be, take the TARC/ICTJ genocide study of a few years ago.  It was rigged, probably by moderator  and former US Defense consultant David Philips, so that it would grudgingly give Armenians something (a half-hearted acknowledgement of genocide) and Turks something (that Armenians can’t get reparations or land).  I even heard David Philips speak at NAASR one night in which he tried to  foist the idea of “you can’t get land or reparations” onto the audience of mostly aging, non-politicized Armenians.  (You would think that NAASR would have balanced the talk with an Armenian who opposed TARC).  I know someone who went up to Philips afterward and  asked him about reparations and Philips said “What, you want  reparations?”  There is a continual attempt by the US and Europe (EU Parliament, 1984) to get Armenians to accept a half-baked genocide acknowledgment in return for giving up all other claims.

    And yet some Armenians love the Philips.  AAA loves the guy because it does  not care about reparations and territory.

    Speaking of reparations, I heard Samantha “Please Vote for Saint Obama” Power talk at Tufts a few years ago, and she also disparaged the idea of reparations by telling the mainly student audience that “Oh, you don’t want a check from the Turks, do you?”   She has really never understood the issue of reparations.   By the way, she hasn’t been heard from since she got a NSC job with Obama and the latter nominated her hubby, Cass Sunstein, to be regulatory czar. 

  2. Professor Semerdjian, I couldn’t have said it better. In fact, I attempted to in a letter to the editor of the Washington post last night around 3:00.  Do you think you can shorten this article to 200 words and submit it the Washinton Post? If you are too busy I would be willing to take a crack at it for you.
    My letter was in reply to “Opening a Border” in the Wednesday, October 14th edition of the Washington Post.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/13/AR2009101302798.html
    Best Regards,
    Grant Izmirlian
     

  3. It is a shame the moderators have chosen to block my posts here numerous times, so this is my last attempt.

    Semerciyan explains elequently how real facts and figures,and a close scrutiny of the relevant history can risk the myths constructed painstakingly over decades.

    She is right.

  4. This is in response to Grant’s request.  I am not sure if I can wield it into another op ed.  I read the guidelines and you cannot cut and paste, the Washington Post wants original pieces.  If I can get a breath from teaching this week, I can try to draft something new.  Thank you all for your comments.
     

  5. It’s very nice of you to consider it, Prof. Semerdjian, but believe me, the national media is currently pushing the state department’s agenda. No OpEd was published in any major newspaper disagreeing with the protocols in any shape or form. I forwarded your OpEd to my non-Armenian friends with whom I was having a discussion on this the other day. It was appreciated very much…

  6. Profesor Semerdjian, ( Elyse)  Your Blog on a subjuct I know little about. I found very interisting. It sounds like a lot of politics  that are simular to many other historic happenings…as you mentioned in your last paragraph as well as many more modern happenings.  congrats. on your success. . ( mom sent it to me, I thank her). Dennis or Dr J.

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