It was an unusually hot and very exciting day. It would be the first time that critics of Turkish intellectuals’ discourse about the “Armenian issue” would voice their arguments at a public meeting in Turkey, that a face-to-face, open discussion would take place around topics hitherto hotly debated mainly in email groups and other social media channels.
As part of the two-day Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop titled “Silenced but Resilient: Language and Memory in Anatolia and Neighboring Regions,” organized jointly by Sabanci University in collaboration with Anadolu Kultur on May 27-28, a panel discussion was held on the Apology Campaign. The panel was moderated by historian Fikret Adanir, with the participation of Ferhat Kentel, and three resolute critics of mainstream Turkish intelligentsia on the Armenian issue: Ayda Erbal from New York University, Seyhan Bayraktar from the University of Zurich, and Bilgin Ayata from John Hopkins University.
In recent years I have found myself developing a mental picture of certain high-profile Turkish critics of the official thesis on the Armenian issue as a community communicating and interacting within a closed micro-cosmos. The main characteristics of this micro-cosmos appear to be self-complacency—naturally resulting in a lack of receptiveness to the signals coming from the outer world—intolerance to criticism, and when faced with any criticism, a strong reaction of indignation. Their reaction has reminded me of the outrage of those who feel themselves victimized by the ungratefulness of those for whom they put themselves at risk “in a country like Turkey”—referring to the backwardness of Turkish society and the risks in the face of overwhelming ultra-nationalism. (That’s not to say that these Turkish intellectuals who criticize the official Turkish thesis on 1915 do face risks: Some of them are being prosecuted and some are continuously receiving death threats. But this should not grant anybody immunity from criticism.)
So, this was the first time critics of certain Turkish intellectuals would speak in a public gathering in Turkey. Word was circulating that there had been an attempt by Prof. Baskin Oran to prevent the participation of the above-mentioned three academics in the workshop. Then came the news that the organizers had rebuffed the attempt. Therefore the mere fact that the panel would take place was in itself a declaration of the commitment by the organizers to a sound academic stance.
Bayraktar: ‘Reproduction of the nationalist discourse’
When the time came for the panel discussion, the room was already packed with an audience eager to listen to what the three voices had to say.
Seyhan Bayraktar spoke first. Her presentation, titled “Politics, Memory, Language: Changes, Continuities, and Breaks in the Discourse about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey,” was a critical review of how the political and public discourse about the annihilation of Armenians developed from the 1970’s until 2005. Her main argument was that despite the increased visibility of the Armenian issue in Turkey, which indicated a liberalization of the public sphere, a critical discourse about the nation’s past had not replaced the denial of the systematic extermination of the Anatolian Armenians. “In contrast,” she said, “I argue that the former denial discourse has turned much more sophisticated today. The state has adopted new strategies to block genocide acknowledgments while discourse patterns that served denial purposes have turned out particularly pervasive and resistant even under different political and social contexts.”
Based on an empirical analysis of media texts, Bayraktar noted that despite relative liberalization, dominant nationalistic discourse frames have survived over time and are carried by a broader range of social and political actors than they were in the 1970’s and 1980’s. “This robustness of discourse frames under different political contexts has led to the paradoxical outcome that even critics of the Turkish state’s politics of the past use discourse frames that have originally been invented by state actors as argumentative tools to relativize and deny the genocidal character of 1915 in Turkey’s foreign relations.”
Bayraktar gave as an example the alternative Armenian conference organized in 2005 at Bilgi University, which was “the first attempt in its kind to critically address the Armenian issue within Turkey.” The conference, reminded Bayraktar, coincided with a change in the Turkish government’s Armenian policy. While the traditional approach was reactive, developing a strategy in reaction to international genocide resolutions or other events, the official policy has, in the past decade, become proactive, mainly due to pressure from Europe. In anticipation of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government started to take steps to counter outside pressure. The Turkish government’s direct contact with Armenia to set up a joint historical committee and the Turkish National Assembly’s letter to the British Parliament to denounce the “Blue Book” as a collection of fake documents, were the two milestones in this process.
Giving a brief account of the heated debate over the conference, Bayraktar referred to the most common accusation used by the right-wing conservative front, namely “backstabbing” and “treason”—accusations that were most vehemently rejected by the accused party, the left and liberals. However, while strongly reacting against the accusations as a manifestation of excluding everyone questioning the dominant discourse, the accused used the same “national interest” discourse to defend themselves. They mainly argued that they, in fact, were the ones who upheld the interests of the nation. Said Bayraktar, “Although the counter-discourse blamed the nationalist and exclusivist approach of traditional elites using ‘traitorship,’ it was itself very much built on a deeply nationalist logic and rhetoric. The attempt was to turn the table round and claim that it was the sympathizers of the conference who were seeking for the ‘real’ good of the nation. Thus the alternative and liberals voices did not challenge the nationalist approach to the history of 1915 in essence and its fundamentals. Instead, liberals, who criticized the state and state actors for not confronting the Armenian issue as openly as necessary, themselves reproduced and legitimized the central points of the nationalist discourse.”
Although Bayraktar explicitly acknowledged the significant progress in Turkey regarding public discussion on the topic, her presentation was an impressive warning to Turkish intellectuals against the use of the same discursive patterns while objecting to the dominant official ideology about what happened in 1915. “Despite the immense dynamics of the Armenian issue in the public arena of Turkey, the examples above have tentatively shown the deficits of the developments: Turkish public intellectuals have not been able to set up a counter-discourse stressing the need for coming to terms with the past and reconciliation as such. Instead, by giving in and using the same rhetoric strategies, they have reproduced and legitimized nationalist discourse frames,” she concluded.
Erbal: An apology?
Ayda Erbal started her presentation by acknowledging that the intellectuals’ attempt at an apology was a remarkable but at the same time problematic process. Reminding the current meaning of an apology (“an encounter between two parties, offender/offended,” where the offender acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance and expresses regret or remorse to the aggrieved party), she gave a brief account of how the “apology” concept had been dealt with by scholars, making references to various writers such as Nicholas Tavuchis, Aaron Lazare, and Nick Smith. She said the general tendency in the literature in this field was to make a binary distinction based on certain established criteria between apologies and non-apologies. In the case of the Turkish apology campaign, following Nick Smith’s work, Erbal said she is also interested in meanings transferred, notwithstanding whether Turkish intellectuals’ apology satisfies the requirements of a categorical apology. Referring to the criteria suggested by Aaron Lazare, which are (i) explanation of the offense; (ii) expression of shame/guilt/humility/sincerity; (iii) intention not to commit the offense again; and (iv) reparations to the offended party, she said of the Turkish apology campaign: “This one would not be an apology even if it were formulated to solve a personal problem between two individuals, as it meets none of the criteria of a categorical apology, even failing short in correctly identifying the offense itself and the offender,” explaining that in order for it to be a categorical apology it had to satisfy all requirements, in addition to what was needed/asked for by the aggrieved party. Moreover, she noted that the lack of clarity in language, lack of agency (the drafters had not mentioned who perpetrated the crime, nor its deniers), and finally the usage of the passive voice reminded her what Haaretz journalist Amira Haas called “language laundromat,” when language becomes a means to white-wash institutional crimes and responsibilities. She also added the usage of the “G-word” did not matter in this case; that even if the intellectuals had used the word (genocide), the text would still not have satisfied a categorical apology. She did, however, emphasize that the choice of the Armenian term “Medz Yeghern” was significant regardless of whether the text could be regarded as an apology or not, because among many Armenian words describing the 1915 events, its Turkish “translation,” Buyuk Felaket, was a term thatwas the most vague and ambiguous—a term that conveniently left the agency (the entity who committed the crime) out.
Erbal also maintained that the campaign was Jacobinist in nature and in its approach to both the offended and the offender party. In the case of Turks, the Jacobinism lied in the fact that it was dictated from above without any attempt to broaden the base of participants in drafting or pre-apology deliberation, and that it didn’t care for inclusiveness and involvement of as many people as possible—unlike the very horizontal experience of “Sorry Books” in Australia where many took part in an apology campaign personally by writing their own apologies in empty notebooks. These were ordinary Australians who wanted to do something in response to the federal government’s refusal to formally apologize to the Stolen Generations. Regarding Jacobinism towards Armenians, which Erbal said was worse, the organizers didn’t make any effort to get in touch with representative bodies of the Armenians, to gain an insight into what they really want or need from an apology, or whether they need an apology from individual Turkish citizens. Instead, by mandating the term, hence normalizing the discourse, freezing it around the term “Medz Yeghern,” they left no space for any input from the offended party. By preempting an apology on whose terms the offended and the “offender” did not agree, the campaign organizers created a de facto setting where if the offended party (Armenians) rejects the “apology,” they would look bad and end up being portrayed as the hostile and aggressive party, despite the fact that the preemption of this kind is a symbolically violent endeavor to begin with.
Erbal also discussed the organizers’ justification of the choice of the word. One argument was that the word “genocide” had been overly politicized, and the other was that the Turkish public felt threatened by the term. She said the first was in fact a “non-argument” in that the politicization of the term was irrelevant, as the genocide was itself a political phenomenon and over-politicization or over-usage would not necessarily mean it would lose meaning. Certainly instrumentalizing a very dear, very private term people use to express their pain also means politicizing it, so in that sense, it’s not politics or politicization that’s the problem here; the problem is rather a particular politics of genocide recognition. The second, she commented, was what they call “non-sequitur” in logic—which means lack of any connection between the assumption and the conclusion. “Even if the assumption that the ‘G-word’ frightens Turkish citizens was correct, this cannot be used as the reason to chose the term ‘Medz Yeghern‘ amongst numerous words used by Armenians to describe what happened in 1915,” she said.
Erbal made one passing comment that I value and attach great importance to. She said that sincerity, good intentions, emotions (which, many believed, was an important reason to support the campaign) were all irrelevant for her work as a political scientist. She said that despite the fact that she understood people’s sincere attachment to the issue and their feelings, and that she did not feel herself in a position to question the sincerity of 30,000 people, friendship and brotherhood/sisterhood discourse did not mean much in terms of citizens’ demand for institutional commitments. She added that she had been hearing these since her childhood and nothing had changed in the institutional mindset of the state in terms of its perception of minorities. She still doesn’t feel herself equal and her actual condition as a non-equal citizen is the reason why we should talk about truth and justice in equal terms, preferably not adding insult to injury by dictating the terms of an apology from above. Hence without justice, on whose terms parties should agree, no one can be equal since the Armenian is still ingrained as the fifth column in the state’s institutional mindset because of the exact same painful history.
Ayata: ‘Absolute denial replaced by a policy of regulation’
Ayata started with the argument that the discourses on reconciliation occur as separate and isolated themes for the Armenian, Kurdish, Alevi, Dersim issues, arguing that this compartmentalization is a central weakness of the reconciliation process. According to Ayata, this compartmentalization was not accidental but reflected a continuation of a divide and rule mentality, which effectively contributed to an existing power asymmetry by consolidating Turkish intellectuals and interlocutors as the main reference point while the marginalized/excluded groups’ position remained precarious single cases.
Looking into the case of “compartmentalization” closer by giving examples to how the Kurdish, Alevi and Dersim issues were dealt with, Ayata drew attention to the fact that the politics of total/absolute denial in Turkey was “crumbling.” She continued by saying: “Because the costs of crude denial have become too much for the state in the course of the increased internationalization of politics. However, this shift away from crude denial has not lead to a politics of acknowledgement. Instead there is a shift from a politics of denial to a policy of regulation.”
As for some intellectuals in Turkey, Ayata argued that they had chosen a role to navigate the state out of the mess that denial had caused. Instead of problematizing the solutions and the regulatory approach of the state, she commented, their actions were in compliance with the regulatory approach that were often justified with the argument that “Turkey was not ready for more”. “Their concern with nation’s least collateral damage prevails over the quest for justice, acknowledgement and truth seeking,” she said.
Ayata acknowledged that now it was more possible to talk about not only the Armenian genocide, but also on the displacement of Kurds than 10 years ago, and this was without doubt an important improvement. “Yet at the same time,” she continued, “there are strict limits to the discourse: for instance, it is possible to talk about the Kurdish issue, but the term Kurdistan can hardly be used, except it relates to the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Similarly the term genocide continues to be a highly controversial term, that can be used without restriction when talking about Palestine, but is to be circumvented at all costs when talking about 1915, or 1938.”
Criticizing the apology campaign, Ayata said the choice of the term “Great Catastrophe” was a “great ignorance” towards those to whom the apology is extended to. “After all, what was the one political claim that united Armenians around the world if it was not the recognition of the Genocide?” she asked and continued: “The reason often given by progressive intellectuals for this discursive limitation when talking about the events of 1915, is that the Turkish society and politics are apparently not ready for more at this point. This marginalizes and delegitimizes those who already have been using this term.”
Ayata questioned the reason for the mainstream Turkish intellectuals to systematically refuse the use of the term Genocide. “It is worthwhile to remember that since the Jewish genocide, the entire development of German and European philosophy more or less evolved around questions how and why the Holocaust was possible, and what its responsibility entails for mankind,” she went on. “On a political level, it entailed for German intellectuals and politicians almost an unconditional commitment and feeling of responsibility for the Jewish Diaspora. In Turkey, instead, some intellectuals have even actively participated in Diaspora bashing, in which the Armenian community in Turkey are portrayed as ‘good Armenians, our Armenians’ as they are perceived harmless, while the Diaspora Armenians with their claims for justice and recognition of the genocide are ousted as hawks and ultra-nationalists. This is not too different when targeting some Kurdish politicians also as hawks. One should not forget that the line between sahin [Turkish word for “hawk”] and hain [Turkish word for “traitor”] is highly thin.”
An explosion of indignation in the face of criticism
While listening to them I was also observing the audience, how they listened to these criticisms and how they took it, as nearly half of them were the ones who either initiated, or actively supported the apology campaign and some took part in the organization of the alternative Armenian conference at Bilgi University. I could see only half of the room applauded the three women academics. When it was time for the question and answer session, the first to speak was Prof. Selim Deringil, a prominent Turkish historian highly appreciated by many because of his questioning the official theses, one of the organisers of the alternative Armenian conference in the Bilgi University and also one of the first supporters of the apology campaign. He sounded deeply offended and agitated, spoke indignantly, and said Seyhan Bayraktar had insulted them, the intellectuals who were criticized in her talk, by portraying them as the “state intellectuals.” He said she was unfair and offensive towards them, completing his intervention with an incredible comment: You were writing your papers abroad while we did everything here by taking all the risks!
But, for me, one of the most striking moments of the whole event was when a high-volume exclamation of reproach rose from the audience across the room. That moment was a consolation for me after the embarrassing statement by Deringil. My consolation was consolidated by Prof. Fikret Adanir’s reproach to Deringil. Adanir said that this was a scholarly meeting where such subjective comments should not be tolerated. Deringil’s words were a very good example of what I said above about the connection between the indignation and ungratefulness.
Others asking questions and expressing their own views on the topic during the question and answer session were by no means as aggressive, but many expressed disappointment at what they viewed as a lack of appreciation of their efforts.
It was a significant experience not only for me and for those who agree with Bayraktar, Ayata and Erbal, but, I believe, also for many others who disagree with them. I know—based on my post-conference encounters—that even many of those who felt offended by their criticism were impressed, or at least felt themselves in a position to take into account a very different perspective. Mine was a fulfillment of hearing in a public discussion arguments which until then had been suppressed because of various concerns—concerns such as seeing it a duty to support every attempt, even the slightest ones, that would hopefully undermine the official ideology.
There is a lot to discuss as the matter needs a much greater mental freedom on the part of us, those who live and work here in Turkey to elaborate in greater depth on how to fight back the powerful denial mechanism in Turkey. Furthermore, truth is not monolithic, on the contrary, it is very fragmented, many times, paradoxical. There may be truth in opposing arguments and more than one opposing argument can carry truth in itself. For example I believe the mainstream Turkish intelligentsia whom we criticize most do play a part in the sluggish change that Turkey has been undergoing (in fact the part they play is much greater than that of the marginal elements such as myself and our Human Rights Association). When we think of the terrible ignorance and deeply rooted commonplace nationalism of millions of people in Turkey, we can better see the dialectics of life, I mean, how even the most inadequate and poorly formulated attempts contribute to the change we long for.
My confused thoughts in a very confused environment of Turkey often come to a conclusion that the laws of life will have their own say in the historical process of change. On the one hand, there will be the timid and conciliatory criticisms aiming to trigger question marks in the minds of onlookers and bystanders, but at the same time reproducing the official discourses, hence slowing down the process. On the other hand, quite simultaneously—and thankfully—there will be Bayraktars, Erbals, and Ayatas who will ask for more, and pave the way for an uncompromising fight against lies and denial. I feel that it will be these contesting forces that will turn the wheels of change.