Study the Armenian Genocide with confidence, Ara Sarafian suggests

by Ara Sarafian

Published: Thursday December 18, 2008

Sir:

On November 26, 2008, Hurriyet Daily News published an article based on an interview titled, "Sarafian: Focus on the Diaspora." This interview followed a conference I participated in organized by the International Hrant Dink Foundation at Bosphorus University, Istanbul, on Adana in the late Ottoman period.

The Hurriyet Daily News article caused anxiety in some Armenian circles because of the apparent harshness of my statements as they had been rendered in the Turkish press. The most forceful response came from my detractors in Internet chat groups.

Given the interest created by the Hurriyet Daily News article in some Armenian circles, I would like to disclose the substance of my interview for your information. Below are the key points:

1. Context: Turkey today

Turkey is going through a period of change. It is true that many of the old anti-Armenian voices are still around, and one can still see restrictions on free speech in Turkey. However, there are also significant alternative voices being heard from academics, journalists, lawyers, diplomats, and ordinary people. This multiplicity of voices seems to be part of the democratization process of Turkey.

Twenty years ago Turkish state intellectuals were denying the Armenian Genocide by saying that nothing happened in 1915; if there were killings, they were Turks killed by Armenians; that Armenian Genocide allegations were the product of Armenian terrorism or a Soviet conspiracy to destabilize Turkey. The official Turkish thesis on the Armenian Genocide was prescribed by the state with no alternative voices or dissent allowed.

Today, the Armenian Genocide debate has already shifted inside Turkey. It is now quite normal to hear that "terrible things happened to Armenians in 1915", that Armenians were poorly treated, that there were massacres, etc. Turkish citizens are also more and more aware of the contribution of Armenians to Ottoman-Turkish identity and culture. Most of the protagonists making a case for the gradual rehabilitation of Armenians are Turkish liberal intellectuals. This change has been part of a process that is still in progress.

Armenian intellectuals can play a positive role in engaging Turkish-Armenian debates as they open up by setting the tone for better understanding of a shared past, including practical ways to address the legacy of 1915. A sensitive Armenian approach can foster a positive outcome in Turkey, while a coarse response will close minds and play into the hands of Turkish chauvinists.

2. Diaspora-Armenia scholarship

Over the past 25 years, practically all cutting-edge scholarship on the Armenian Genocide has taken place outside of Armenia. A good part of this work was done by diaspora Armenians, and many non-Armenians were nurtured or benefited by the efforts of diaspora Armenians. The diaspora is at the core of the Armenian Genocide debate. If Prime Minister Erdogan's government is looking for an engaging strategy to resolve the Armenian Genocide issue, it has to address the diaspora as much as the Armenian government.

3. Partisan scholarship, prosecutorial approach

Our understanding of the Armenian Genocide has been influenced by partisan scholarship because a number of academic institutions and political parties in Armenian communities, such as in the United States or Great Britain, have nurtured a prosecutorial approach to the subject. Consequently, some important elements of the events of 1915 have been distorted. The main thrust of the prosecutorial approach has been the assertion that the genocide of Armenians was executed with the thoroughness of the Nazi Holocaust, and that all Turks and Kurds were involved in the genocidal process. This approach is best exemplified by Vahakn Dadrian's The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus.

4. The Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust

The Armenian Genocide is not the same as the Holocaust. The Young Turks did not have the apparatus to carry out a genocide on par with the Holocaust. It is also a fact that many Ottoman officials, including governors, sub-governors, military personnel, police chiefs, and gendarmes saved thousands of Armenians during the Genocide. Most Armenians from the province of Adana, for example, were not killed. This very basic fact is elided in the works of prominent Armenian historians. There are other examples too. The "Holocaust model" of the Armenian Genocide is fundamentally flawed.

5. Archives

Key "Armenian archives" on the Armenian Genocide remain closed to critical scholars. This matter concerns all scholars and should be subject to scrutiny. The most important examples are the archives of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, which include materials from Ottoman Turkey related to the Genocide. Partisan scholars have used these archives in their work, though their assertions can not be checked. In the 1980s the Zoryan Institute collected the private papers of individuals in the diaspora, yet the materials have remained under lock and key. Such standards should not be acceptable within our communities. We should object to them as we object to any manipulation of Ottoman archives in Turkey today.

6. Diaspora and Turkey

As Turkey continues to examine various taboos, more and more Turks are discovering their human, material, and historical ties to Armenians. If Turkey continues to develop in this direction, with freedom of thought and expression, there is no reason why diaspora Armenians cannot be brought into public and academic debates in Turkey. The Armenian diaspora is historically rooted in Turkey.

7. Playing the victims of the Armenian Genocide

The present generation of Armenians cannot assume the victim role when discussing Turkish-Armenian relations. Given the seriousness of the subject, academics and community activists should be expected to be well informed about their subject matter and give fair consideration to all parties. The Genocide issue is not a simple question of justice for Armenians, but a case of justice for everyone. This attitude is essential for the peaceful resolution of past differences. There is no room for ignorance and bigotry.

8. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression in Armenia

Recent events have shown once more that freedom of expression is not something that is universally respected in Armenia. In the past weeks we have heard of the brutal beating of Edik Baghdasaryan, chief editor of Hetq and the president of the Investigative Journalists' Association of Armenia. His beating was preceded by attempts to harass and intimidate him with impunity. This is not the first time that people have been intimidated and beaten for their critical views in Armenia. In my opinion this lack of freedom has restricted critical research in Armenia on the Armenian Genocide.

9. Joint commission

Prime Minister Erdogan has suggested that a commission of historians should be formed by the Turkish and Armenian governments to examine the events of 1915. I would propose an alternative as follows: (1) Relevant archives in Turkey should be open to researchers, with special procedures to allow them ready access to records; (2) Independent groups of specialists from different disciplines should be funded to collaborate on specific projects related to 1915; (3) The work of such groups should be open to the scrutiny of third parties; (4) Academic excellence should be the governing criteria in putting research teams together, not ethnicity, citizenship, or horse-trading among Turkish and Armenian bureaucrats; (5) The examination of archival records should not be limited to Ottoman records but include other archives outside of Turkey.

Very truly yours,
Ara Sarafian
London

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