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New Texts Out Now: Fatma Muge Gocek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009

[Cover of Fatma Müge Göçek, [Cover of Fatma Müge Göçek, "Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009"]

Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Fatma Müge Göçek (FMG): I wrote this book to understand why my country of origin, Turkey, could never become truly democratic. Realizing that violence had been naturalized and normalized in both Turkish state and society, I decided to trace back the point of origin of when such collective violence first occurred. I surmised that violence would be normalized into social practice if its perpetrators were not held accountable for the crimes they committed. My research led me to the Armenian Genocide as the foundational violence of the Turkish Republic. Yet this tragedy was not by any means the first or last instance of the unaccounted violence committed against the Armenians, so I moved back in history to the origins of Ottoman modernity in 1789 and forward to the present to 2009. I analyzed the collective violence committed against the Armenians during these 220 years in four distinct historical phases, with each phase generating another aspect of the ensuing public denial of violence.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

FMG: Most scholars employ Ottoman state documents to “prove” or “disprove” the Armenian Genocide. To me, that was a non-issue: the Armenians who made up about twenty percent of the Ottoman population in the 1890s only comprise 0.02 percent of the population of Turkey today. This dramatic decline fits perfectly the UN definition of genocide. What interested me more was why both Turkish state and society denied the collective violence committed against the Armenians during this time period. To capture the meaning-making process embedded in society, I decided to systematically read and review contemporaneous memoirs published in Turkey in Turkish since the 1928 Latin Script Reform. By doing so, I captured a significant source of meaning-making on minorities and violence that had been available to society at large. I ended up with the accounts of 310 memoir writers—and it so happened that most belonged to the social group of state officials and officers, thereby enabling me to literally capture the standpoint of quite a number of perpetrators. I specifically figured out how deniers build their discourses by systematically silencing materials that contradict their arguments, how such public denials build upon each other through history, and how nationalism, gender, and life experience contribute to the creation—or destabilization—of such denial.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

FMG: In my work, I seem to be time traveling through Ottoman and Turkish history. My earliest sole-authored book East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century—which I wrote when I was a graduate student—analyzed the cultural encounters between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe through Ottoman ambassadors’ reports. My second sole-authored book Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Demise of Empire: Ottoman Westernization and Social Change—which was also my dissertation thesis—delved further into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to study the introduction of Western goods, ideas and institutions into the Ottoman Empire. My main empirical source was contemporaneous inheritance records (tereke) from the imperial capital located in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul. I found out that the local use of Western goods was most prominent not among the elite, but instead those with middle income living at the capital—literally enabling me to capture the emergence of the Ottoman bourgeoisie!

I realized a fundamental divide within this nascent bourgeoisie, however: the commercial bourgeoisie was primarily non-Muslim whereas the bureaucratic bourgeoisie was prominently Muslim. At the end of the empire, the Ottoman non-Muslim trade bourgeoisie mostly comprising Greeks, Armenians, and Jews was systematically destroyed with the aid of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie through violence. They were replaced in the Republican period by the state with a secular yet also Sunni Muslim national commercial bourgeoisie. I wondered how this violent past impacted the present, which led to my book The Transformation of Turkey: Redefining State and Society from the Ottoman Empire to the Modern Era, which comprises my essays on the tension between the past and the present in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. My current book continues this trajectory of analyzing the past and present in a systematic manner through the vantage point of minorities and through significant themes such as violence, nationalism, and identity formation.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FMG: I hope this book is read by all those who are interested in understanding how and why states and societies fail to democratize; I argue that denying past violence is a very significant factor in the dearth of democracy. The book attempts to make three contributions to the field: 1) how violence and denial, two very emotionally charged constructs, can be analyzed sociologically through history; 2) how this analysis could be conducted methodologically through the employment of an unconventional source like memoirs; and 3) how such studies of denial of violence may eventually help achieve social justice. Additionally, I hope that Armenians reading the book would observe how denial, often argued to be the last of genocide for keeping the wounds of the past open and bleeding, works throughout history, and that Turks reading the book would realize how their collective denial keeps the Turkish state and society in a condition of permanent violence, making any efforts at democratization null and void. So the impact, I would like to see, is in terms of contributing to the possible future reconciliation between Armenians and Turks for a better future for all.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

FMG: I am next set to study the other minority in Turkey who, after the destruction of the Armenians, experienced collective violence by Turkish state and society next, namely the Kurds. I am interested in the process through which the Kurds were “other”ed, first in the Ottoman Empire and later in the Turkish Republic. Of particular significance are specific historical events that the Kurds experienced, such as their forced settlement in the empire in the 1850s, their recruitment into the Hamidiye regiments and militia from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the beginning of the Turkish Republic into the 1920s, and their continuous resistance against the Turkish state since then. Hence I will try to work out how the Kurdish experience of collective compares to the preceding Armenian one.

Excerpt from Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009

From the Introduction

To this day, the Turkish state officially denies that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was genocide. Based almost exclusively on official state documents located in Turkey as well as a few select oral histories and foreign documents, it instead claims that what occurred then was the mere relocation from the eastern warfront to other regions of seditious Armenian subjects threatening military security. It also contends that Armenian revolutionary committees caused this turn of events by forming armed bands that killed substantive numbers of Turks, the total number matching and sometimes even exceeding that of the Armenian deaths. Ultimately, the current official Turkish state narrative asserts that approximately 300,000 Armenians perished during the relocation in 1915 not because of genocidal intent, but primarily due to unfavorable conditions of war that also caused the deaths of at least a million Turks. Every year, the Turkish state spends millions of dollars throughout the world, making many international political, economic and military arrangements and compromises to sustain and promote its official narrative. Such an official stand is also strongly supported by the majority of Turkish society.

The Western scholarly community is almost in full agreement that what happened to the forcefully deported Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was genocide where approximately 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians perished. They in turn base their interpretation on the oral histories of the survivors, eyewitness accounts of Western travelers, journalists, missionaries, professionals, and contemporaneous reports of European state representatives. They often embed this case in comparative studies of collective violence across time and space. In order to impede the recurrence of this first instance of a crime against humanity, the same community also advocates world-wide acknowledgement of moral responsibility as well as political, economic and legal accountability for this violent act. Their stand is in turn strongly supported by many Western states and societies.

Those representing the official Turkish state position often rely on official documents from the Ottoman archives including the contemporaneous confiscated documents of Armenian revolutionary committees, formal state and government correspondence, as well as some Western sources that support, or at least do not challenge, the official Turkish state position. Since these sources are interpreted in a manner that backs the official denial, current Turkish state and government as well as most members of Turkish society continue to refuse to recognize this past historical act as genocide. Because of this partial use of sources, Western scholarly community finds the ensuing Turkish official discourse unscientific, propagandistic and rhetorical. It therefore does not at all address or engage it. As a consequence, the Social Science Citation Index does not, for instance, contain a single reference to the works of those advocating the Turkish official stand. Interestingly enough, the official Turkish state discourse likewise totally fails to acknowledge the stand of Western scholarly community on totally different grounds: it defines such discourse as Euro-centric, imperialist and self-serving.

Yet denial has been and still is extremely costly for all concerned. Internationally, the Turkish state annually spends millions of dollars to prevent other countries from employing the term ‘genocide.’ In doing so, the economic concessions it makes often extend to military ones. In the case of the United States, for instance, when the U.S. President delivers his annual genocide commemoration speech on 24 April 1915, he often ends up not employing the “G” word as a consequence of last minute concessions negotiated with the Turkish state. In addition, the border between the Turkish and Armenian Republics remains closed since Turkey has the non-recognition of the Armenian Genocide as one of the pre-conditions for re-establishing relations and opening the border. The closed border saps economic and social growth in Armenia, Turkey's eastern provinces and the entire region, leading to political instability. Additional pressure is also brought by Turkey’s possible European Union membership, one that would necessitate Turkey to come to terms with its violent past, including a re-examination of the Armenian issue. As the Turkish state fails to confront the past and the violence contained therein, denial remains normalized, reproducing itself throughout Turkish state and society. True democracy therefore remains a constant challenge for Turkey as its failure to acknowledge the collective violence embedded in its past keeps reproducing such violence in the present.

Likewise, many Armenian Diaspora organizations annually expend millions of dollars to promote Armenian Genocide recognition throughout the world. They do so while the one country, Turkey, whose recognition would actually enable Armenians to start healing, adamantly refuses to do so. In addition, the Armenian Republic cannot focus on its own domestic and international issues because Armenian Genocide recognition constantly complicates matters, including its domestic and foreign policy. As a consequence, the Armenian Republic cannot strive toward a true democracy either. In the meanwhile, the Turkish denial prevents all Armenians scattered throughout the world from adequately mourning, grieving and thereby eventually coming to terms with their own tragic past. Remaining emotionally trapped in the violence of their past, none can move onto the present or have confidence in a better future, losing hope in humanity during the process. Hence, Turkish denial traps both Turks and Armenians, reproducing the cycles of violence in different ways: Turks steadily refuse to remember that past while Armenians continually refuse to forget it.

Yet such denial and its subsequent cycles of violence are not limited to Turks and Armenians alone. Many states and societies throughout the world struggle with similar issues, such as, for instance, the United States in relation to the scope of violence committed against Native and African Americans, Great Britain with respect to the various massacres in India, Kenya and the like, France's collective violence in Algeria, Japan's stand in relation to what happened in Korea and China during World War II and, unfortunately, many others, including contemporary practices such as the violence in Bosnia and Chechnya. So the question posed is not specific to Turkey alone, but a more general one. The vast spectrum of such empirical instances as well as variations in meaning and the larger context explain why it has been so difficult to develop a social science theory of denial.

This chapter comprises three parts. In Part I, I discuss the complexity of denial as a concept, highlighting its public display through silence, secrecy and the subversive. I then develop and alternate approach to the denial of collective violence, one that conceptualizes denial as a process generated through the intersection of structural and affective elements. In Part II, I move onto the use of 310 memoir writers' accounts of what transpired during the two-hundred-twenty years of history from 1789 to 2009 that I cover. For the contemporary period, I also include my own memories, growing up in Turkey to becoming a social scientist studying Turkey. Memoirs enable me to traverse the undue emphasis on the state as the major actor of denial, bringing in social groups in society including the minorities on their own terms. Part III applies the theoretical framework I develop to the empirical case of the Ottoman Empire and contemporary Turkish Republic, where I demonstrate that denial of collective violence is layered through history, covering the imperial, Young Turk, early republican and late republican periods with each contributing yet another dimension to the denial of the collective violence committed against Armenians. As such, my main argument comes in three parts. First, the denial of collective violence against the Armenians is not restricted to the 1915-1917 period of genocide that many scholars focus on, but actually has a much longer span from 1789 to the present. Second, the historical construction of denial varies in relation to the particular interaction of structural and affective elements, constituting, in this particular empirical case, four distinct periods of collective denial. And third, denial persists across time for more than two centuries because it involves the interaction of state and society, becomes multi-layered across time, and keeps on selectively and successfully drawing on events for legitimation. Let me finally reiterate that even though the Ottoman Empire and contemporary Turkey form the empirical case here, I think the analytical framework can be employed to especially understand the persistence of autocracy and the lack of democracy throughout the world.

[Excerpted from Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009, by permission of the author. © 2015 Oxford University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.] 

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