A Response to articles in Asbarez and the Armenian Weekly
BY JIRAIR LIBARIDIAN
I read with much interest Mr. Ara Khachatourian’s article titled “Armenian Scholars at the Center of Genocide Denial” (Asbarez, June 5, 2013, reproduced in the Armenian Weekly) and “The Case Against Legitimizing Genocide Deniers: Scholars Speak Up” by the staff of the Armenian Weekly (June 7, 2013), reproduced in Asbarez.
The fundamental point raised in these two articles and by the five scholars quoted in the latter is the following: By participating in an academic conference in early June in Tbilisi organized by a denialist academic, Professor Hakan Yavuz, and sponsored partially by the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA, an organization accused of being at the forefront of denialist efforts in American academia), Armenian scholars are legitimizing the denialist position of that scholar and organization.
I happen to have been invited to the conference in question as a keynote speaker. After much deliberation that considered such concerns, I accepted the invitation. (That I was unable to attend the conference due to a health problem is irrelevant. I stand behind my decision to attend.)
Leaving aside the sensationalism of the first article and the lack of professionalism of the second, I appreciate the concerns that underlie both. I hope that what began as a series of blind criticisms may be turned into the beginning of a shift in our methodology of discussing, debating and inquiring on issues critical to academia and to the wider community.
I have taken on the challenge presented in Mr. Khachatourian’s piece to argue the case for accepting the invitation to participate in that conference. My first attempt at a full response to the above mentioned articles amounted to no less than a booklet. Leaving such a text for a more appropriate venue, I would like to bring the attention of your readers to the following:
First on the question of methodology:
1. In preparing and publishing these articles in the Asbarez and the Armenian Weekly, the authors/editors never contacted me to inquire into my reasons for accepting the invitation, even if such a query might have served the purpose of better assaulting my decision. There is also no indication in these articles that these authors contacted any of the other scholars who had also accepted the invitation to participate. This omission may be understandable in the case of Mr. Khachatourian’s almost-libelous piece. But the contravention of such simple professional standards in journalism by the authors and editors of the Armenian Weekly, in an article based on interviews with five respectable academics, is less understandable.
Opinion articles are, professionally speaking, based on independent factual reporting. Neither the Asbarez nor the Armenian Weekly printed or produced an article that informed the public of the basic facts and the essence of the controversy. Opinion articles would then follow, but meanwhile the reader has a basis of facts and conflicting positions by which to assess the opinion pieces.
Wasn’t it possible for the editors of these newspapers to imagine that another writer could produce quotes by another five scholars or more whose opinions regarding participation in the Tbilisi conference would be the opposite of what five protagonists quoted in that article had to say?
2. To my knowledge, the five scholars who were critical of those who accepted the invitation to the Tbilisi conference did not and have not shown any interest in finding out my reason(s) for having accepted the invitation; nor is there any evidence in that article that they inquired with others for their reasons.
Two of the five scholars in question were in contact with me long before the conference was to convene in Tbilisi and certainly prior to the publication of the article in the Weekly. (At least two others could have been, if there was a question in their mind, since they know me personally.) Neither academic was interested in the reasons for my decision. An air of absolute certainty seems to have covered this issue.
Indeed, I suggested to both scholars in contact with me that a workshop be organized where academics and scholars of various opinions could meet and discuss the pros and cons of participating in the conference. Even if we emerged without a consensus, at the least we could have mutual respect and understanding for the positions we have taken. There was little or no interest in such an exchange on the part of the two scholars in question. I have also not seen any evidence that others in the same group or supporting the position of that group ever thought about such a forum.
3. I have great respect for all five of the scholars quoted in the Weekly article, as scholars. But being a good scholar does not qualify anyone to be the sole source of political wisdom and strategic judgment. I would not trust the political judgment of anyone who is not at least interested in the logic of someone who disagrees with him/her. But I need to point out that we are dealing with the politics of Genocide recognition and the factuality of the Genocide to accept at face value the assessment of good scholars.
At the end, we are not talking about the factuality of the Genocide; rather we are looking at the politics of Genocide recognition.
Second, some questions regarding the logic of our detractors:
1. Why is the assault against the participants directed against scholars of Armenian origin? Are they the only ones who would have “legitimized” the position of the denialists? Is such legitimation by Armenian scholars the most important? How about the few dozen non-Armenians who accepted to speak at the conference or to present papers? How about the President of the most important professional association in the field, the Middle East Studies association, who addressed the conference, also as a keynote speaker?
2. Are boycotts the best method to deal with such situations? Where is the research to back that assumption? When are boycotts, indeed, effective? And, are there not other options that should be considered?
3. Will the denialists disappear if we boycott their conferences? Is a conference best left to denialists?
4. Does it matter or not what one says or does at such conferences? Does the intent of participation have to be limited to trying to “convince” the other of the factuality of the Genocide? Isn’t it possible to take an opportunity, offered for whatever reason, and have sufficient self-confidence to use it to one’s own advantage?
5. Are Armenians in the same situation regarding the international recognition of the Genocide as Jews are regarding that of the Holocaust? Can Armenians afford to act with the same cavalier fashion regarding denialists as Jews can, as suggested by Professor Dwork? Would we care what any scholar or politician or parliament thinks about the usage of the term genocide if Turkey had recognized that crime as Germany has done with its crime?
6. If by merely attending a conference is sufficient for a scholar to have a legitimized the program and approaches of a cosponsoring organization, then are we to assume that when Armenian or other scholars attend conferences sponsored by institutions and scholars—Turkish or otherwise– who do not use the term genocide they are legitimizing the non-use of the term genocide?
7. Can we be sure that Turkish or other scholars who share our pain but do not use the term genocide or who do not agree to reparations are less “dangerous” than those who openly oppose the use of the term?
8. Are Turkish scholars—or, for that matter any others– legitimizing territorial demands against Turkey by participating in events sponsored by Armenian political parties that have placed such demands at the forefront of their programs?
9. Should the position of a scholar or organization on the recognition of the Genocide be the only criterion to be considered when considering Turkish-Armenian contacts and relations?
The list of questions can continue and be expanded but I will stop here for now and get to the reasons for my accepting the invitation to speak at the Tbilisi conference:
1. This was a conference on “End of Empires” that allowed participants to explore contexts of specific issues, including those of interest to Armenians. The Genocide could be placed in its larger context, which often makes it more understandable for those who have a certain resistance to its acceptance.
2. There were no limitations on what and how I could discuss and no request was made, nor could one be accepted, for prior approval of my talk. To my knowledge that was also the case for other Armenian scholars who were invited to participate.
3. The conference was being held with the co-sponsorship of the most important university in Georgia, a critical neighbor of Armenia, with the participation of many scholars and others from that country and elsewhere who would have heard only a denialist position had Armenian scholars not participated.
4. The conference was “legitimized,” with or without Armenians, with the participation of not only Georgian institutions but also the president of MESA and others whose credentials cannot be questioned and cannot be judged solely by their position regarding the Genocide or its recognition.
5. Genocide recognition is now primarily a political process, which requires a presence wherever possible, especially where denialists appear.
6. Genocide recognition is not the only factor that affects Armenian-Turkish contacts and relations. That observation is valid even for the Diaspora. The proliferation of contacts and discussion groups over the last 15 years is evidence of that. But that observation is certainly true as far as relations between the two states of Armenia and Turkey are concerned. One can reduce relations between Armenian and Turkey to Genocide recognition only at the expense of the security—in the widest yet most realistic sense of that term– of Armenia and of its people. Armenia and Turkey face not only security concerns—traditionally defined bilateral and regional–but also environmental, human trafficking, and other dimensions that cannot and should not be endangered by rigid policies that do not help resolve these issues. Some Armenians and “pro-Armenian” others may find this or that Turk unworthy of Armenian contact or even dangerous to contact. Have we forgotten that once all Turks were deemed dangerous? That many of these same scholars opposed sitting down with any Turkish scholar who did not accept the term Genocide, and similar charges of legitimizing the position of such Turks were leveled at those of us who initiated such contacts?
7. Turks of all shades and convictions, particularly the ones who work for the government or are closely associated with it, are part of the decision making process and/or constitute an important segment of the public opinion that sustains/opposes the government and its policies, for different or even opposing reasons. Given the historical nature of our most fundamental difference with that government, academics have come to play an inordinately significant role in the formulation, exteriorization, and management of that conflict.
Thus deciding to boycott such a conference would be closing one’s eyes to the reality that we are involved essentially in a political process, and not just a simple moral dilemma. Not attending would indicate that we refuse to be involved in the political process.
8. Turkey and the Turkish world represent a complex reality. Turkey or Turks cannot be seen as good or bad. The country represents a spectrum, like most others. We must learn to deal with all. There was a time when all Turks were bad. Then we started accepting a few, then a few more. We learned to talk to Turks who do not use the term genocide but share our pain and do not actively oppose the use of the term but still, are not too far from those who reject it, in political terms. What we should have learned is that seeing people as good versus bad has not been a useful paradigm to deal with this complex world. Despite the experience of the past, some still insist on acting and formulating policies based on old reflexes that have long proven to be less than relevant.
In other words, one cannot engage in these processes expecting to achieve a desired goal by arbitrarily defining safe moral/intellectual limits for oneself, leaving out what may disturb one’s comfortable scholarly and quasi-political world. One can decide not to enter that world but that does not give anyone the right to criticize others who see the field and the issues in a different and wider context.
I do not wish to make this article longer than it need be and abuse the good will of the editors of the Asbarez and the Armenian Weekly. But there are two points I must add.
First, What would be the implications of the position taken by my five colleagues, if we were to boycott activities sponsored by institutions that advocate or defend the denial of the Genocide?
I believe it was in the 1980s that the Academic Senate of the University of California at Los Angeles defended the teaching of denialist history when it insisted—against arguments presented by Profess Richard Hovannisian– on the right of Professor Stanford Shaw to teach Ottoman history any way he wanted. UCLA—and by extension the UC system and any self-respecting academic institution in this country– is a much more important institution than TCA and Professor Shaw has been a much more influential scholar in the filed than Professor Hakan Yavuz. Should Professor Hovannisian have resigned his position because the University he was working at had now legitimized denialism? He did not, of course, and he went on teaching in the same system and in the same department as Professor Shaw for many years.
I am glad he stayed, even though by the logic he and the other four scholars offer doing so was tantamount to legitimizing denialism.
Second, a word on the workshop I suggested should be organized to discuss these arguments and others that are best discussed outside these pages. As indicated above, I made that offer early and had no taker. A third party colleague has accepted the idea and may still organize one in the fall. It will be too late for this conference but the proper way to deal with this issue is, still, to have a face-to-face discussion at leisure on the issues that have already been raised, and discuss dimensions that are not appropriate for a newspaper format. We may or may not reach a consensus; but I do hope, we will develop a more enlightened view of things based on mutual respect.
The question is: Will the Armenian Weekly and the Asbarez, and our five colleagues and others insist that their position is incontestable, irrefutable, incontrovertible, that somehow they have managed to find the ultimate truth, the ultimate value and the ultimate morality in the politics of Genocide recognition, and that they do not need to listen to other, opposing views?
One final question: Is an assault on colleagues who have a different approach than theirs the issue around which five scholars concerned with Genocide recognition should come together? Can we assume that these five and all others are laboring ceaselessly and gathering all their—and our–resources in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Genocide? Or was this the shot intended to divert our attention from the utter paucity of any large scale strategizing to face 2015?