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Wednesday, March 22, 2006


The Jurists, the Laws, and the Outlaws: Thoughts from Turkey on a Conference that Finally Took Place

The following essay was first published, in a significantly different form, in the Greek journal Synchrona Themata (number 91, October-December 2005). translated and updated it for our current edition. Both this essay on the conference, Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy, and the preceding one, “The Historian, the Philologist, the Minister, and the Traitors: Thoughts from Turkey on a Historical Conference,” were translated by Mary Kitroeff.

In late September 2005, when the date of the already-postponed conference, Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy, drew near, the atmosphere was charged. This time, however, there were neither media interviews nor a battle of words between the two sides. There was a feeling that a consensus had been reached, and that everything would go smoothly. This, however, was only the calm before the storm, which broke out two days before the conference. The news exploded like a bombshell on Thursday, September 22: the Fourth Administrative Court in Istanbul had ruled in favor of the appeal of the jurists’ association, which summoned the organizers to account both for their sources of funding and the participants’ academic credentials. Pending submission of the required information, the event was put on hold. Thus, absurdly, a conference that was supported not only by an entire world of academics and intellectuals but also (for its own reasons) by the government itself was postponed yet again on the orders of a court of common pleas, whose decision, moreover, had been taken by a mere 2-1 majority, since one judge had argued that the action lay outside the court’s jurisdiction. Which it did. That evening, the university rectors who had organized the conference were not alone in condemning the decision: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself said that it violated academic freedom and freedom of speech. Even many who had previously criticized the conference for being politically motivated and unscholarly, such as Deniz Baykal, leader of the parliamentary opposition, agreed. Finally, all this was happening just two weeks before October 3, when it was expected that Turkey would be given the green light for opening negotiations for accession to the European Union.

It was so gross and laughable for a civil court to rule on the academic credibility of a university conference that it produced a highly emotional climate. Those who had orchestrated this farce ensured that the decision was made late enough to preclude the universities responding in time. The next day, however, as organizers met to decide how to proceed, it became clear that the jurists’ association had made a critical mistake. It had acted against two of the universities involved in the conference, Boğaziçi and Sabancı, but not the third, Bilgi. So, when authorities were asked if there was any objection to holding the conference there, they responded in the negative. Consequently, the gathering was finally held at Bilgi, with the three-day program compressed into two days.

The following morning (Saturday, September 24), when people started arriving at the conference—by invitation only, since it was closed to the public—they found it guarded by security forces. Those who got there early had no problem. A small crowd had, of course, already gathered, but this was chiefly made up of journalists with cameras—or so we supposed—and the curious. Those who arrived later, however, such as the veteran politician Erdal İnönü (son of İsmet) or the journalist Cengiz Çandar, became targets of “outraged” citizens who clearly disagreed with the conference and expressed that fact with eggs and tomatoes.

At this point, we may be forgiven a digression. For the two days that the conference lasted, it was the lead story on most TV news, with extensive reporting and interviews. In this reportage, interest centered not so much on what was being discussed as on what was taking place outside the venue of the meeting: protest marches, fiery speeches, slogans, eggs, tomatoes, threats from the extreme right, or from organizations such as the jurists’ association that was clearly linked to it. But these groups could no longer mobilize large crowds. Indeed, three weeks earlier, an exhibition had been held of photographs of the anti-minority (and specifically anti-Greek) attacks in Istanbul during September 6-7, 1955, known in both Turkey and Greece as the “September Events.” These images had been donated to Turkey’s Economic and Social History Foundation (Tarih Vakfı) by the judge Fehmi Çoker on condition that they be exhibited after his death. Last September, on the fiftieth anniversary of the violence, the photographs were exhibited for the first time, together with a study of them by the historian Dilek Güven, and various articles and programs devoted to them in the media. The exhibition opened on the anniversary itself, September 6, at the Karşi Sanat gallery in Beyoğlu, with a considerable crowd and cameras that had already found material in the protests of a woman bellowing that what the photographs depicted was nothing compared to what the Turks had suffered in Cyprus and Western Thrace. The same cameras were also quick to pick out a group that at some point had entered with Turkish flags and to follow it into the central exhibition hall. There, while we were trying to imagine what VIP had drawn the cameras’ attention, the group began to shout slogans such as “Turkey belongs to the Turks” and, then, to throw eggs at the photographs and tear them down. At that point, of course, the police, who were positioned exactly opposite the building, awaiting orders from the show’s organizers, intervened. The event did not end there, however. It was truly tragic to see Greeks who had lived through September 1955 standing dumbly in front of the photographs lying on the floor. But the footage of the Gray Wolves howling and tearing down the photographs went round the world, sending a very negative message about what was changing—or, rather, not changing—in Turkey. Nevertheless—and this is what I want to stress—the issue does not conclude with the striking vignettes recorded by the cameras. As the organizers of the exhibition pointed out later, 100,000 people took part in the violence of 1955, but only seven or eight in that of 2005.

So, many things have changed. The same is true of the protest meetings held recently in front of the ecumenical patriarchate, in which no more than 150 people thundered forth that they had collected “millions” of signatures calling for the patriarchate’s expulsion from Turkey. The media in Greece presented this marginal movement as an expression, more or less, of public opinion, or even as being engineered by the Turkish government. The same holds true for the Armenian conference. I shall never forget the image in a conference hallway of a woman, who had constantly intervened on the first day and obviously disagreed with the conference’s aims, winning her 15 minutes of fame in front of a dozen cameras at the very moment that next to her, Halil Berktay, a leading figure at the conference, was being interviewed in front of a solitary camera.


Let us now come to the substance of it all. It could be said, of course, that the fact that it was finally held was the substance of this conference. When all of us, particularly the few non-Turks invited because of our academic credentials, saw the host of intellectuals, university professors, and journalists gathered together that morning, we naturally felt that we would rarely again have such an experience. That is why, before I deal selectively with some of the papers, I would like to make some general remarks, the first of which is that the importance of this conference, and the reactions it provoked throughout the entire period leading to it, rallied people who differed widely from one another, and had been divided by various dissensions and rivalries, around a common objective. They sat next to each other at the same meeting and, like the old friends they were, delivered the message of a common cause.

Second, contrary to what many in the media maintained, this conference was not held to acknowledge the “genocide” of the Armenians. The approach to the events of 1915, as well as the entire debate on the term “genocide,” is now so debased that, in the end, it could only serve as a starting-point: a reality stressed by Halil Berktay in his introductory remarks. The objective was, in fact, to overcome the impasse of how to describe what had happened and to attempt to throw light on the events as such, and on the political and social terms by which these events can be discussed. Above all, the conference was about what this debate meant for the democratization of Turkey today.

This is because (and this is my third observation), while the conference’s ostensible subject may have been the Armenians of 1915, in the end, first and foremost, it was about contemporary Turks. It was a conference about the Turkey of today and tomorrow, able to face the past, without neuroses or panic, of the peoples and history it has inherited. It was ruefully pointed out by Etyen Mahçupyan that, in the end, it is not the Armenians who are in need of support and help in order to get over what happened to them, but, rather, the Turks, who have ignored their own history completely until recently and are discovering it now in a traumatic way. Furthermore, in their summations, the organizers sent a clear message on behalf of all those who have striven or are striving to rid this country of the shadow of the 1980 coup: namely, that this was the first truly free conference to call into question the mechanisms and structures of the Evren junta, which, to some extent, continue to function even today. Some organizers described to us the enthusiasm, and the sense of collective action and solidarity, that had been created among them by an atmosphere that, I suppose, is reminiscent of the intense politicization in Greece of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It would be impossible to deal with all the papers that were read separately. If, however, I was to attempt a very rough categorization, I would say that there were those of a chiefly historical character—including, among others, the papers by Selim Deringil, Edhem Eldem, Taner Akçam, Erol Köroğlu, Meltem Toksöz, Fikret Adanir, Aykut Kansu, and Ayhan Aktar—and those whose point of departure was the manner in which the problem is handled today. This latter category was more numerous and comprised the presentations of Murat Belge, Ahmet İnsel, Etyen Mahçupyan, Melissa Bilal, Baskın Oran, and Fatma Müge Göçek.

Undoubtedly, the most overwhelming presentation was by Hrant Dink. He and Etyen Mahçupyan are two of the most important figures today among the Armenians of Turkey. As the publisher for 10 years now of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, he has inspired many Turks and Armenians with his writing, but has also annoyed the Turkish political establishment. Indeed, he was recently subjected to a kangaroo court for an article that allegedly “insulted” the Turkish people and their “national identity,” and given a six-month suspended sentence just a few weeks after the conference. In his article, Dink actually urged Armenians to move beyond their hatred of Turks and recreate their national consciousness in a less traumatic manner. His conviction—based on an enormous, and deliberate, misapprehension—became front-page news, stirred up a storm abroad, and had, for those who sought it, the opposite results from those they had anticipated.

A much more poignant misapprehension in which he was directly involved was related by Dink at the conference. To begin with, he argued that, regardless of the term used to describe the events of 1915-1916, nothing changed in the end because those who had experienced them and transmitted their memory to the generations that followed were not going to alter their feelings because of a particular word. (This observation reminded me of the indignation with which a refugee, then over 100 years old, reacted in a program commemorating the anniversary of the Asia Minor disaster that I saw last summer on Greek television. When faced with the “dilemma” of whether the events of 1922 should be described as genocide or “simple” memory, to be preserved, she had responded: “neither genocide nor memory, because we know…”). But the climax in Dink’s address was still to come. He recounted how an aged Armenian woman had visited her birthplace somewhere in Anatolia and breathed her last there. A local notified Dink, who in turn relayed the news to the dead woman’s daughter, who lived in Paris. When the daughter came to Istanbul and called the person who had found her mother, she burst into tears. This person had suggested that the body not be taken to Istanbul, but should be buried where the old woman had died, in Anatolia. She would be buried as one of our own, in our (Muslim) cemetery, the person had added, so she could finally stay in the soil on which she had been born and had grown up. Dink concluded: “They’re afraid that if the genocide is recognized, we shall have our eye on compensation and the return of land. Well, yes, we do have our eye on that land, but not to have it returned; rather, to be buried deep within it.”

Dink’s address was the climax of the conference. I don’t think there was anyone in the room who could restrain his tears. It is worth noting here that one of the nodal points of the conference was the way in which one can or should deal with emotion. Historians such as Oktay Özel stressed that we have no right to ignore the emotions of the subjects or groups we study. All we can do is try to understand the role that these play in human relations and in their resulting conflicts. In the event, emotion was present at the conference, both as methodological tool and collective expression. Participants were unafraid of either tears or memory, both of them forms of timely redemption. Dink’s address stood out for an additional reason: the game of misapprehensions played by those who took redemption as their starting-point. Oral Çalişlar, a well-known journalist for Cumhuriyet, in speaking precisely about journalists’ responsibility for spreading false information and shaping public opinion, told us that, coming into the conference hall, he had run into a young colleague who notified him in alarm that the Armenians had admitted their designs on the land of Anatolia!—which is what this young journalist had understood from Dink’s talk (and which would have been comic were it not so tragic).

Speaking of the press, moreover, well-known and important journalists such as Yavuz Baydar of Sabah and İsmet Berkan of Radikal, spoke about the terminology used by their newspapers. Of interest was the disclosure that, until recently, no one was concerned about any term in particular since all terms, and their underlying concepts, were dictated by the government’s press releases. Two notorious examples of this “wordsmithing” are provided by sözde, which can be translated as “supposed” or “alleged,” and kökenli, which we would translate as “by descent.” The former term, especially, used endlessly to qualify the word “genocide,” has been the object of unusual abuse. Thus, citizens who protest against the state’s policies have been described at times as “supposed citizens,” while, of course, the intellectuals who took part in this conference are “supposed intellectuals.” As to kökenli, it was stressed that journalistic discourse is trying to rid itself of the practice of calling someone a “Turk of Armenian descent” instead of, simply, an “Armenian Turk.”

I will now turn to some other papers. The well-known writer, Elif Şafak, spoke of Zabel Yesayan, an Armenian feminist writer at the end of the Ottoman empire whose critical attitude toward Ottoman authority, her own community, and the authorities in what became Soviet Armenia, where she took refuge after the events of 1915-1916, brought her into conflict with everyone and ultimately condemned her to marginalization. This woman’s story was not only part of the histories of the feminist movement and the Armenian community in Turkey. It was a bright page in Ottoman history. Şafak did not hesitate to acknowledge how much poorer Turkish history had become without these excised and forgotten pages. For his part, Taner Akçam—whose varied activities (including his book, From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide) acknowledge the Armenian genocide and, for that reason, subject him to many attacks—presented an important aspect of the tragedy through the transcripts of the trials held in 1918 for the various crimes of the members of the Committee of Union and Progress. Ottoman officers and local officials were dismissed or even executed because they refused to obey the government’s orders. Clearly, the trauma of these events, not only for relations between Christians and Muslims, but also among Muslims themselves, go very deep.

In two other papers, Fethiye Çetin, author of the novel Anneannem (My Grandmother), which became a bestseller in Turkey, and Dr. İrfan Palalı told the story of their grandmothers, who had been converted to Islam, as were thousands of others: children in the vortex of the disaster. It is interesting that in the days following the conference, similar stories sprang up constantly in the newspapers. One had the impression that Turkish society had begun to realize the self-evident: that all those Christians who were not privileged enough to emigrate to a country with a population of their co-religionists, such as Greece, but managed to escape the slaughter and hardships, were perforce incorporated into Turkish society, changing their religion and identity. And this is a gain for many contemporary Turks who feel no disgrace in acknowledging ancestors whose origins were not necessarily in Central Asia. For some, of course, it continues to be a source of shame. These are not easy matters. In spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the audience at the conference was ready to accept such views, there were also reactions. Apart from the woman who constantly interjected and finally stated that she was deeply moved by the sufferings of all the populations, Christian and Muslim, a retired dean of a school of dentistry accused the organizers and speakers of not showing the same sensitivity to the massacres and persecutions suffered by Turks in Bulgaria, Greece, and elsewhere in the Balkans, and of not protesting when Turkish intellectuals were prosecuted in Europe for denying the Armenian genocide.

Nevertheless, the polemics over the conference continued in the newspapers for a number of days after it was over: university resolutions condemned the court decision postponing the conference and articles were critical over matters of substance. For example, Haluk Şahin, who was in other respects favorably disposed toward the conference, in a series of articles in Radikal systematically attempted to refute the arguments on genocide made by Taner Akçam, who, in Şahin’s view, misrepresented the archival material. The most striking text, however, bore the signature of Murat Bardakçı, an amateur historian who for years now has been brandishing in a threatening manner the personal journal of Talat Paşa, which, however, for various reasons he has not yet published. The day after the conference, Bardakçı denounced the conference participants in Hürriyet for knowing nothing about archives, and made them a “gift” of a list in which Talat set down the numbers of the local Armenian populations before and after the expulsions. The difference between the two censuses is 800,000 human beings, for whom the only conclusion to be drawn is that they were “lost” during that period. In other words, this was an extreme example of a fetishistic obsession with archives that can blind one to the fact that the archives may in the end actually prove the opposite of one’s own position. Moreover, it would be ludicrous for a conference in which well-known Ottoman scholars such as Fikret Adanir, Edhem Eldem, and Selim Deringil took part to be accused of contempt for archives. Indeed, Deringil (whose paper had the eloquent title, “Seizing the Document by the Throat”) expressed his surprise at such an accusation as he is normally regarded, as he jokingly remarked, as an archives fetishist.

The reverberations from the conference have not died down even now. It is worth noting that an e-mail list created after a series of Turkish-Armenian workshops in the United States organized by Fatma Göçek and Ronald Suny (see my previous essay, “The Historian, the Philologist, the Minister, and the Traitors: Thoughts from Turkey on a Historical Conference,”, December 27, 2005) was expanded to include all those who had taken part in the conference and anyone else who was interested, thus providing an international forum for dialogue. Göçek and Suny were recently awarded a special prize by the Middle Eastern Studies Association in the US for their work.

In Turkey, meanwhile, this particular conference forced supporters of the official line to respond with their own series of conferences. The first was held at Ankara’s Gazi University and provided an opportunity to its organizers to “strike down their ignorant opponents.” The interesting thing is that some of these opponents were also invited, and two, Baskın Oran and Fikret Adanir, accepted and took part. In recent weeks, there has again been a great deal of activity centering on these issues. Inter alia, prosecutions were initiated against five journalists over articles during and after the Armenian conference. In addition, the controversial trial of Orhan Pamuk was finally begun, adjourned, and then summarily canceled and all charges dropped. Pamuk had been accused of insulting Turkish national identity by maintaining in an interview in a Swiss newspaper last year that “in this country [Turkey], one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds lost their lives and nobody talks about it but me.” Whatever one may think about Pamuk as a writer and a human being—and there are very many who accuse him, wrongly in my view, of having stirred up all this fuss in order to win the Nobel Prize in literature—it is impossible not to recognize another link in a chain of dramatic moments in which what is at stake is Turkey’s ability to disengage itself from the morass of the past and confront itself and the world with greater self-confidence. The story, in other words, doesn’t end here.

Vangelis Kechriotis teaches history at Boğaziçi University.
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