WATERTOWN, Mass. (Armenian Weekly)–The protocols signed by the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers in Zurich on Oct. 10 contain a clause that states the two sides agree to “implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.”
In the past few years, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) has issued several statements against the historical commission proposal. Most recently, the letter from the organization’s president William Schabas to Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that “acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide must be the starting point of any ‘impartial historical commission,’ not one of its possible conclusions.”
In turn, Roger Smith, the chairman of the Academic Board of Directors of the Zoryan Institute, sent an open letter to Sarkisian that considered the commission “offensive to all genocide scholars, but particularly non-Armenian scholars, who feel their work is now being truly politicized.”
Several academics in Armenia have also expressed their views on the sub-commission through comments and interviews to local media outlets, with very few coming out in support of it.
In this document, compiled and edited by Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian, Diasporan Armenian scholars who are among the most prominent in the field of modern Armenian history and social sciences share their views. These scholars closely follow developments in Armenian Genocide scholarship, and some are prominent in producing that scholarship. They, more than any politician, millionaire businessman, or showbiz personality, would know the problems associated with the “impartial and scientific examination” of the already established facts of the Armenian Genocide. This document gives the microphone to them.
Hovannisian: Recognition, then commission
Prof. Richard Hovannisian, the chair of modern Armenian history at UCLA, wrote:
International commissions have significant value in easing historical tensions and promoting mutual understanding. Such commissions, presently at work in Central Europe and elsewhere, have registered noteworthy progress. But these commissions are based on acknowledgement of particular human tragedies and injustices. They could not function if one of the parties was a denialist state, intent on obfuscating the truth and deceiving not only the world community but also its own people. The record is too long and too well tested for there to be any doubt about the intent of the denialist state in advocating such a commission. It is a snare to be avoided and rejected. The proper order must be recognition of the crime and only then the formation of commissions to seek the means to gain relief from the suffocating historical burden.
Balakian: Integrity of scholarship is at stake
Peter Balakian, a professor of the humanities at Colgate University and author of The Burning Tigris, wrote:
A “historical commission” on the Armenian Genocide must proceed from the unequivocal truth of the historical record on the Armenian Genocide. The historical record shows conclusively that genocide was committed by the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915. This is the consensus of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and is the assessment of the legal scholar, Raphael Lemkin, who invented the concept of genocide as a crime in international law, and who coined the word genocide in large part on the basis of what happened to the Armenians in 1915.
Because Turkey has criminalized the study and even mention of the Armenian Genocide over the past nine decades, it should be impossible for Turkey to be part of a process that assesses whether or not Turkey committed genocide against the Armenians in 1915.
If there is a need for an educational commission on the Armenian Genocide in order to help Turkey understand its history, such a commission should be made up of a broad range of scholars from different countries, but not denialist academics or a denialist state.
The international community would not sanction a commission to study the Holocaust that included denialist scholars, of which there are many, nor would it invite a head of state like Mr. Ahmadinejad and his government to be part of such a commission. The integrity of scholarship and the ethics of historical memory are at stake.
Kevorkian: Chances of successful historical research in Turkey are close to null
Dr. Raymond H. Kevorkian, the director of Bibliothéque Nubar in Paris who has authored and co-authored several books including Le Genocide des Armeniens , The Armenian General Benevolent Union: One Hundred Years of History, and Les Armeniens, 1917-1939: La Quete d’un Refuge, wrote:
Although the mission entrusted to the “historical” sub-commission in the protocols does not explicitly raise the genocide issue, it is clear that it will be discussed within that framework one way or another. In an effort to delay qualifying the events of 1915 as genocide for a few more years, Ankara has tried to make it seem like this was an adoption of the previous Turkish proposal to establish a “committee of historians.” By assigning this issue back to the undertakings of a sub-commission, which is itself operating within the context of official bilateral relations, and by avoiding a direct reference to the genocide, the Armenian “roadmap” negotiators have clearly attempted to anticipate the bitter criticism of their opposition. They must have been persuaded that they had to avoid entering the wicked game previously proposed to Armenia, which put the 1915 genocide in doubt. On the other hand, it was inconceivable not to discuss the genocide—or rather its consequences—within the bilateral context.
The question is to determine whether the aforementioned sub-commission will deal solely with the genocide file—as it is, in essence, not empowered with the mission to look into the political aspect of the file—or if the latter will also be on the negotiation table of the bilateral commission, entrusted with the whole set of issues to be settled.
Insofar as this sub-commission has at least partly lost its initial mission to throw doubt on the facts of 1915, exchanges can prove to be useful, provided that the required experts are competent and of an adequate level. Its formation and working methods should be subject to scrutiny.
A historian’s work should by no means depend on the state. If historical research has made some progress, it does not owe it to official “initiatives.” Not surprisingly, the reasons this progress has been achieved outside of Turkey until now are obvious: If there were a true will to grasp the genocidal phenomenon developed by the Turkish society in the early 20th century, Turkish authorities should have promoted a training program for experts worthy of being called experts. This means amending Turkish legislation and encouraging young researchers to contribute to this very particular field of history: the study of mass violence.
The aforementioned elements show that the probability of a successful work in Turkey is, to this day, close to null, because the prerequisites to progress are not guaranteed. There has not been a cultural revolution that would release Turkish society from the nationalism that is poisoning and forbidding it from seeing its history in a lucid way. Thus, right from the start, the sub-commission bears an original sin: its dependency on the authority of the state.
Sanjian: The sub-commission is a victory for Turkey’s Kemalist establishment
Dr. Ara Sanjian, associate professor of Armenian and Middle Easter
n History and director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, wrote:
Agreeing to the formation of a sub-commission on the so-called “historical dimension” of relations between Armenia and Turkey is a concession, which I am afraid Armenian diplomacy will come to deeply regret. At present, I have no reason to share the optimism of President Sarkisian and his entourage that this sub-commission will indeed increase international awareness of the Armenian Genocide. Recent statements by Turkish leaders give no indication that Ankara will alter its denialist posture any time soon. We should expect the current Turkish government to fill its allotted share in the sub-commission with proved and experienced deniers. Assisted by an army of diplomats, as well as American and other public relations firms on Ankara’s payroll, these Turkish representatives will in all likelihood use the sub-commission to engage the Armenian side in protracted yet unproductive exchanges. Their objective—to give to the outside world a false impression that Turkey is not afraid of investigating the truth and that it is committed to an ostensibly serious endeavor in this regard—is unlikely to change. Ankara will use the sub-commission to continue to discourage outside parties from taking a principled stand on the Armenian Genocide issue and to delay indefinitely any meaningful discussion with Armenians on the legal, political, social, economic, and cultural repercussions of the genocide. Because of these Turkish tactics, professional historians have long been extremely careful not to get dragged into direct exchanges with deniers, and thus provide the latter with undeserved academic legitimacy. The protocols negotiated by the authorities in Yerevan have unfortunately lent Turkish state-sponsored deniers this long-sought opportunity. We should expect Ankara to use the sub-commission card effectively in its persistent quest to keep this unsavory episode from the late Ottoman era solely within the realm of a supposed academic dispute. Even if the protocols do not eventually go into force and the Armenia-Turkish border remains closed, Turkish lobbyists will constantly refer to the concession by Yerevan. Moreover, even in the unlikely scenario of President Sarkisian being forced to resign under pressure from the opposition in Armenia, we can expect pro-establishment Turkish activists to aggrandize Sarkisian as a pacifist supposedly overwhelmed by extremist Armenian groups, and all this as part of continuous official Turkish attempts to avoid facing the full consequences of the World War I genocide.
I do not place any hope on the possible participation of Swiss and other international experts in the workings of this sub-commission. In this highly charged politicized atmosphere involving many nations, independent-minded experts from third countries will either prefer to stay away or Ankara will try hard to exclude them, perhaps with the tacit support of fellow western governments, which maintain deep strategic, military, and financial interests in Turkey. Those who will end up on the sub-commission will always be under constant pressure from their respective foreign offices to be extremely careful of the political ramifications of what they say, both during the meetings of the sub-commission or outside, and not incur Ankara’s ire.
The formation of the sub-commission is a victory for Turkey’s Kemalist establishment. It will probably use the sub-commission not only to impose its denialist posture on the international scene as a supposedly legitimate “alternative view,” but it may get encouraged further and tighten the noose—through a more vigorous use of Article 301 of the penal code and other means—against various Turkey-based challengers of Kemalist myths, including issues well beyond the confines of the Armenian Genocide. Within this context, growing exchanges between Armenian scholars and activists and Turkish opponents of rigid Kemalism should continue, irrespective of the protocols.
The protocols may eventually be ratified, paving the way for the sub-commission. While listing the reasons behind my personal opposition to its formation was not difficult, the issue of how to handle this unpleasant entity, now that it has been imposed on the historians’ profession, remains to me more problematic. Should Armenian and non-Armenian experts of the 1915 genocide serve on this sub-commission and provide unwarranted legitimacy to deniers likely to represent Turkey? However painful such a climb-down may be to universally acknowledged genocide experts, the alternative may see less competent figures, either seeking undeserved celebrity status or unable—for one non-scholarly reason or another—to refuse President Sarkisian a favor, arguing the genocidal nature of the Armenian atrocities inside the sub-commission. From this angle, the establishment of the sub-commission and the opposition it has generated among established genocide scholars seem to have created a win-win situation for deniers.
Simonian: One signature offers what Turkey couldn’t achieve in decades
Hovann Simonian, the co-author of Troubled Waters: The Geopolitics of the Caspian Region and editor of The Hemshin: History, Society and Identity in the Highlands of Northeast Turkey, wrote:
The recently signed protocols between Armenia and Turkey create a sub-commission “on the historical dimension” that aims at conducting “an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives.” The creation of this sub-commission can be considered a major success of Turkish and other deniers of the Armenian Genocide. It brings to fruition their long-held objective of casting a shadow on the objectivity and quality of the historical works affirming the veracity of the Armenian Genocide. Unable to discredit these works with their own studies, despite the large financial resources at their disposal, deniers will from now on hide behind the sub-commission and insist on waiting for its conclusions to block any discussion of the Armenian Genocide in international forums.
Another constituent that will be comforted by the creation of this sub-commission includes the waverers and bystanders of all sorts who, rather than bothering to read the authoritative literature published on the topic, claim to adopt a neutral or objective stance, stating that there are “two sides to the story”—the Armenian version and the Turkish one.
By agreeing to the establishment of the sub-commission on the historical dimension, the Armenian government has with one signature offered the Turkish state what the latter had failed to achieve in decades, in spite of enormous financial expenditures and political efforts.
Semerdjian: Protocols engage in genocide denial
In an article written for the Armenian Weekly titled “What do Google and the Protocols have in common?” Dr. Elyse Semerdjian, an associate professor of Islamic world history at Whitman College, wrote:
The protocols signed by Armenia and Turkey on Oct. 10 engage in denial of the Armenian Genocide on several levels. Not only are the injustices of the past ignored, but those injustices, rather than be acknowledged as a condition of peace, are relegated to an undesignated commission that will pursue “an impartial scientific examination of the historical records.” This statement is in effect a call for a commission to bury the issue of the Armenian Genocide once and for all by reducing it to a “historical dimension” rather than a genocide, a massacre, or any source of conflict for that matter.
To begin, the term “impartial” indicates that the protocols are written in state language, not the language of historians. In the field of history, we have come a long way towards realizing that impartiality doesn’t exist. Many of us in the field concede that it is impossible for a historian to put aside their subjectivity while researching and writi
ng history. Historians choose their archives and their sources. That selection process, although it can be based on a balanced scientific method, can on many occasions alter the results. Most importantly, impartiality is called into question when we recognize that the historian’s ability to write history is greatly impacted by the sources in their possession. I often imagine the following scenario: After World War II, Germany provides only controlled access to its archives and releases only documents relating to Jewish uprisings, for example the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. With limited sources, a history much like the “provocation thesis” popular in Turkey today would have taken shape in Germany. The thesis goes: Armenians rebelled, Turks defended themselves, and the result was mutual death, a civil war not a genocide. This kind of history could easily be written based on scientific and “impartial” methods, especially if a historian thought they had covered all sources available. Many of us in the field of history are familiar with the kinds of sources made public regarding the Armenians that emphasize the moments in which Armenians rebelled against orders of deportation; these sources are easily found in Turkish publications that line library bookshelves and are sometimes placed on exhibition.
What the commission proposal fails to recognize is that although historians can sometimes agree upon the facts of history, debates often multiply once historians answer the “how” and “why” questions. Historians may be settled on facts of history (for example, “the American Revolution happened”), but how or why it happened is another matter. How would a commission, as part of a dialogue between nations, manage the multiplicity of historical interpretations? How would Turkey, a state that currently legally bars any discussion of atrocities committed against Armenians in World War I according to Article 301 of its penal code, be a trustworthy partner in any dialogue? Currently, Turkey threatens intellectuals who dare to speak out (Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk currently faces yet another trial); how could it, at the same time, allow freedom of expression on such a commission?
Freedom of speech issues aside, as a history professor, I struggle against attempts to homogenize history, especially as many incoming students are taught with high school textbooks that present history as fixed, while in the academic world history is much more complex. I point to this tendency existing in students, but truth be said, most people want a one-dimensional answer to complex historical issues—and states most certainly do. The internet, particularly Google, is a place people go to get those easy, one-dimensional answers. One student came to class having searched the internet on that day’s subject matter and asked: “So, I was surfing the internet last night and saw that according to the web the Armenian Genocide didn’t really happen even though your syllabus frames it as though it did. What’s up with that?” Although our reading that day covered the issue of genocide denial, explaining how the Armenian Genocide had devolved from a historical reality to a “debate” in history, it was the Googleability of the subject that took precedent that day because it offered the “one fixed answer.” Of course, Google is based on algorithims, rather than the truth of claims found on one website versus another. It can’t replace science; it is no oracle of Delphi. But none of this reasoning can undermine the fact that a first hit is often interpreted as the most important answer; and in cases it’s not, it is usually the first link clicked on. On Google, where the Armenian Genocide is concerned, it is a historical “debate” next to global warming and Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The protocols, like Google, treat the Armenian Genocide as a debate by avoiding the admission of guilt and by reducing the complexities of history into a singular answer in the service of the state. Imbedded in the logic of the protocols is the notion that if we are scientific and impartial enough, we can find the one answer to our unnamed problem. If there is to be any future commission, even if it does result in one uniform statement, it is not the end of a debate, as there will still be independent historians writing different histories. However, the commission’s ruling will be presented as the new golden rule, Google’s first hit—the one singular answer to the historical question of genocide. This answer will be cited by journalists and students alike as a definitive study because it was balanced and mutually agreed upon. Outside historians will be marginalized as the commission will be “impartial,” whereas historians working independently will not have the same weight, for they will be biased and partisan.
The idea of a commission is a concession granted to Turkey that indicates there really will be no scientific process at play. History-by-commission in itself is a partial process. It will begin with the premise that the genocide needs to be proven, putting Armenia in the weakest possible position even as a majority of scholars agree that a genocide occurred. By signing the agreement as currently worded, Armenia has taken the minority position of denial over the majority position of acceptance.
The idea of a commission is nothing new. South Africa had its Peace and Reconciliation Commission, Rwanda has its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission that is working on intercommunal dialogues, as well as the writing of a new national history that would cover the Rwandan Genocide. These projects were initiated because states tend to need uniformity of historical interpretation, and new national histories need to be agreed upon to salvage the state after the collective traumas of apartheid and genocide. There are two differences with these projects: First, they acknowledge that violence happened, and even with that acknowledgement there is a lack of satisfaction from victims who in some cases feel they have not been given due justice. Second, they deal with a national rebuilding project, and part of that includes a rewriting of the events of history, a sculpting of the common memory, if you will. None of these elements are present in the protocols. No recognition. No purging of painful memories of genocide. The fact that there are two nations at stake begs the question: Can history-by-commission serve two masters?
Historians who are selected to work on the commission agreed upon by Armenia and Turkey will be part of a bogus endeavor—stooges in a commission geared to write history for the victor under the pretense of democratic exchange. The protocols’ use of “impartial” also gives the underlying denial a sanitized, scientific feel. A 2004 study by Jules and Maxwell Boykoff found that the use of balanced language by journalists to discuss global warming was biased because it gave the impression that there was a debate in the scholarly community over its existence, while international conferences on the subject have presented a virtual consensus. Creating the impression of a debate implies a 50/50 split among the experts. Analogous to the protocols, a similar balance of denialists and affirmers of the Armenian Genocide on a future commission would presume that experts in the field were split half and half, when to the contrary a clear majority of scholars affirm that this event happened. This is the way in which innocuous terms like “balance” can produce bias as a way of consolidating a position—in this case genocide denial—rather than starting with a position of admission of guilt. The bottom line, as I see it, is that the protocols put Armenia in the weakest possible position, whereby it will become a collaborator in a bogus commission geared towards propagating the denial of its own genocide. This is disconcerting as both an Armenian and a historian.
Historians are always searching the dusty recesses of the past for lessons; I have chosen Greek epic for some insi
ght into the protocols. Homer chose to end his epic with a bloodbath: The hero Odysseus slaughters the suitors who defiled his home. Through Zeus’ divine intervention, the memory of the slaughter is erased from Ithacan minds in order to protect Odysseus who would otherwise be endangered under the rules of blood vengeance; after all, the relatives of the suitors had a right to revenge according to custom. The gods choose to obliterate the communal memory in order to create a peace without justice. If we move forward to the present, a very different peace is created in the protocols. Rather than wipe out the memory of injustice committed against Armenians, the signatories have chosen to ignore issues of communal memory and justice altogether. In fact, they have chosen to not even name the source of conflict between the two parties in an attempt to assure collective amnesia. We learn from the ancient
Greeks that absolute denial of justice may have only been possible through divine intervention; for, if left to societal norms and intact memories, Odysseus would have surely been punished for his actions.
Arkun: Historical record clear, political solution needed
Aram Arkun, a New York based scholar who has conducted archival research and published material on various aspects of modern Armenian history and the Armenian Genocide, wrote:
An intergovernmental commission dealing with the consequences of the Armenian Genocide would indeed be a useful body if set up properly. A politically appointed historical commission, on the other hand, can end up as quite problematic, and even disastrous, under present conditions.
First, presumably one of the parties directly involved in the appointment of the historians would be the Republic of Turkey. This is a state that still can legally punish reference to the Armenian Genocide by its citizens, whose high government officials have repeated stated their clear opinion that no such genocide took place, and whose state-sponsored scholars and scholarly bodies continue to publish works intended to justify the actions of the Ottoman Empire during World War I concerning the Armenians. This does not promise well in terms of the freedom of action and opinion of the Turkish scholars appointed by the government.
Secondly, as part of a political process, this historical commission would not be, per se, a scholarly commission, but rather a tool for settling political issues. The Turkish and Armenian states, as the involved parties, are not equals in terms of their power and influence. The former is much more powerful than the latter, and so would have a much greater opportunity to both exert pressure on the workings of the commission and on the interpretation of its results. Furthermore, the United States and the other large states involved do not necessarily have any stake in a historically “correct” outcome. All they appear interested in is a resolution of any kind of the Armenian Genocide issue, which causes them periodic political headaches. Thus, if this commission is considered to be a type of “reconciliation commission,” it may not be in the position to act in a pragmatically just fashion.
Thirdly, the very creation of such a historical commission will both divide Armenian communities in Armenia and throughout the world, as well as give cover to those in academia and politics who would for non-academic reasons prefer to see the genocide recede as an issue. Already, Western media coverage is reverting back to a troubling “neutral” description of the events of 1915 which, contrary to all the extant archival evidence and widely accepted scholarly analyses, characterize the genocide as an unresolved matter. A “split decision” by this commission could indefinitely prolong such a vacillatory approach.
In sum, there is sufficient scholarly work extant on the Armenian Genocide to understand its basic nature as genocide without an intergovernmental commission, and there even exist some nongovernmental structures in which both Armenian and Turkish scholars can operate. Further academic discussion is, of course, necessary and commendable if done in a scholarly framework, but the problematic potential format of this commission would make both its scholarly and political conclusions suspect. Furthermore, the political consequences of such a commission will be both durable and enforceable irrespective of the truth of its conclusions. Armenia and Turkey have to live together as neighbors, and for this reason (and of course many others), a political solution has to be reached on the issues connected to the Armenian Genocide. But it does not seem as if the time is ripe for this yet. Hopefully, in the meantime, basic issues such as open borders and trade can be resolved to the benefit of those living on both sides of the border.
Kaligian: Commission’s mere existence will be exploited by the Turkish government
Dr. Dikran Kaligian, the author of Armenian Organization and Ideology under Ottoman Rule, 1908-1914 and managing editor of the Armenian Review, wrote:
The proposal to have an “impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives” is dangerous on a number of grounds. Firstly, no matter the composition of the commission or how its mandate is framed, its mere existence will be exploited by the Turkish government in its genocide denial campaign. Turkey will ensure that the “examination” drags on for years, and neither the U.S. Congress nor any other legislature will consider recognizing the Armenian Genocide while there is an “ongoing examination.” Likewise, Turkey has ensured that the genocide will not be raised during its negotiations to join the European Union. This replicates what happened in 2001, when the European Commission—citing the formation of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC)—excluded all mention of recognition of the genocide from the resolutions on Turkey’s accession to the EU.
Secondly, the decades of research and dozens of books already written on the Armenian Genocide will be immediately discredited as “biased and unscientific” because the “impartial and scientific” examination will have begun. The consensus among all genocide scholars, as embodied by the statement of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), will thus be undermined. Those few Turkish scholars who have bravely tried to educate the people of Turkey about their own history can be tarred as “agents of the Armenians,” and their lives once again endangered because the Armenian and Turkish governments have agreed that their work was “biased.”
Thirdly, because all the past genocide research has been discredited, all past decisions made based on it will be brought into question. There will not be a a state board of education that includes the genocide in its curriculum, or a newspaper that changed its policy and began allowing its reporters to use the words “Armenian Genocide,” or a university that hosts a panel or a course that includes the genocide, that will not be pressured by the Turkish government and its lobby to reverse its position because even Armenia agrees that the issue needs more study.
Panossian: Take commission seriously, but don’t lose sleep over it
Dr. Razmik Panossian, the author of The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars, wrote:
Many Armenians in the diaspora are dead against a historical commission. They assume that it will question the very existence of the genocide. This is a correct assumption insofar as Turkey’s intentions are to use the commission to deny the Armenian Genocide—or at the very least to use it to minimize international pressure for recognition.
But this does not have to be the case, and the denial of the genocide is not an inevitable outcome of the commission. Commissions do not work if there is no political will on all sides to make the
m work. Armenians must come to the commission with the starting point of the reality of the genocide. The questions they should put on the table must therefore center on the effects of 1915 (e.g., the legal, political, and cultural ramifications of genocide). The Turkish side will naturally want to examine a different set of questions. If there is no common ground for discussion, so be it. A commission can easily be rendered irrelevant, it could be dragged on and on; in short, it could fail.
All eggs do not have to be put in one basket. The genocide issue must not be reduced to the commission. It might be in the interest of the Armenian and Turkish republics to focus on the commission, but this does not meant that the diaspora (i.e., certain elements of it) must follow suit. It is quite legitimate for diasporan organizations to have their own “foreign policy” that does not necessarily mirror the foreign policy of Armenia. There is historical precedence for this kind of “duality” in Armenian politics. Hopefully such a “dual track” approach will be somewhat coordinated and mutually reinforcing. In concrete terms, this would mean that while Armenia deals with the commission, the diaspora—as citizens of various host countries—can and should continue its various recognition efforts irrespective of the commission. Yes, this will be more difficult, but the efforts must continue, as must the efforts to engage with progressive Turkish civil society and academics.
The debates around the protocols and the commission highlight once again the emptiness of the oft-repeated but fictitious notion of national “unity” as applied to politics. The diaspora and the republic have certain commonalities, but also differing interests and needs. Their means of dealing with the genocide can legitimately be different as well. This is not a problem, but a healthy reality. In fact, the genius and strength of the Armenian nation is contingent on its multilocality and its differences—as long as these are more or less complementary and articulated reasonably and peacefully.
Let Armenians and Turks not be afraid of the commission—and both sides are afraid of it—but engage with it based on their multiple (and contradictory) interests. Let’s take it seriously, but not lose sleep over it. If it succeeds, fine. If it fails, that’s ok too.
Der Matossian: Involvement of governments defies the basic tenets of writing history
Dr. Bedross Der Matossian, a lecturer in the faculty of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote:
The inclusion of the historical commission as part of the Armenian-Turkish protocols is one of the most serious blows to the historical research of the Armenian Genocide. From the perspective of a historian, the establishment of a joint commission by two governments in order to investigate the events of 1915 as part of their “normalization package” contradicts the craft of historianship. The involvement of governments in initiating and promoting this kind of understanding defies the basic tenets of writing history. In this instance, the victimized group agrees to establish a historical commission with the “perpetrator” group in order to examine the veracity of an event that has long been accepted by international scholars as the mass murder of the indigenous Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian Genocide is a fact; it can neither be subject to a historical compromise nor be the victim of a Machiavellian diplomatic plan.
In addition, attempting to question the veracity of the research conducted thus far is itself a travesty of colossal magnitude that mainly aims at serving the regional interests of international powers. This does not mean that the motives, processes, and factors that led to the genocide cannot be the subject of an honest academic discussion by all historians, regardless of their ethnic background. I say regardless of their ethnic background because in the past decade the meetings between Turkish and Armenian historians have resembled a soccer game in which a third party always gets involved as the mediator. Historians who are interested in debating the history of the Armenian Genocide should participate in conferences and workshops by first representing themselves as historians and not as Armenians or Turks. Ethnicity should not be a criterion for their historianship in venues where they talk as “Armenians” or “Turks,” thereby recreating the fixed identities and contributing to the political interests of the “perpetrator” group. On the other hand, a dialogue that does not address the power asymmetry between Turks and Armenians, and the politico-historical reasons for the current powerlessness of the Armenian position, serves the needs of the more powerful entity in the equation.
The aim of the Turkish government in this initiative is clear: to reach some kind of a historical compromise about the Armenian Genocide that satisfies the Turkish side. A sincere discussion of the Armenian Genocide requires the involvement of honest scholars who treat their material with utmost professionalism, integrity, and sobriety in their understanding of the historical, political, legal, and ethical dimensions of several shades of state-sanctioned denialism—anything from relativization to the outright distortion of facts and chronology under the cloak of “scholarship” and “dialogue.”
Theriault: Sarkisian and Nalbandian have rescued the failed Turkish denial campaign
Dr. Henry Theriault, a professor of philosophy at Worcester State College and author of several articles on genocide denial, wrote:
The notion of a “historical commission” to bring together the “points of view” of Armenians and Turks on their “common history” is not new. It is a variation of the denialist tactic of presenting the opposition of falsified history (the Armenian Genocide did not occur) to historical fact (the Armenian Genocide did occur). After the Turkish government’s suppression of global awareness of the Armenian Genocide began to fail in 1965, and the truth started coming out in compelling primary documents and powerful scholarly analyses based on them in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Turkish government shifted its approach to denial and presenting “the other side of the story.” The tactic was simple: All it had to do was get its false version of history taken seriously as a mere possibility alongside the true facts of history, to rob those true facts of their rightful certainty. The deniers turned the actual situation of falsification against fact into the appearance of one perspective against another. This appealed to those with embedded commitments to “open-mindedness,” “fair play,” and even freedom of speech. Indeed, the Turkish government and its denialist functionaries in the United States and elsewhere intentionally played on those laudable commitments in presenting a perversion of critical thinking that violates the very basics of sound evidence evaluation.
“Historical commissions” consisting of those who assert the truth and those who assert falsehood, in equal balance, became a way of further legitimizing the false as a valid “perspective” on history. A historical commission has two functions. First, because there is no way for those who are committed to truth and those committed to falsity to come to a consensus, this method can permanently forestall a “decision” on whether the Armenian Genocide occurred, which is what the Turkish government will happily settle for. After all, if there is no official, universal fact, then no acknowledgment need happen and no reparations made. Second, it establishes the philosophically nonsensical method of determining truth by splitting the difference between opposing views, rather than looking at the evidence and coming to the conclusion determined by that evidence. History becomes a power play between competing interests, not a matter
of what really happened as it has been captured in documents that, in the case of the Armenian Genocide, are as unambiguous as they are numerous.
The danger here, by the way, is not just limited to the Armenian Genocide. Denial of this sort quite literally is an assault on truth, as Israel Charny has written. This crude weapon is something of an intellectual nuclear bomb. Not only does it effectively deny the Armenian Genocide, but it advances the notion that all truth is just a matter of splitting the difference between fact and falsity. Do you hate Jews and want to stop recognition of the Holocaust? Just say it didn’t happen and people will start to think the truth is in the middle of “what Jews say” and your denialism. Upset that African Americans are recognized as oppressed by the legacy of slavery? Tell everyone that, contrary to “abolitionist propaganda,” U.S. slaves actually had it better than Africans in their time. Sooner or later, people will start to think the truth is in the middle. Don’t like the effect recognition of global warming is having on your oil company’s profits? Just fund some scientists to say there is no global warming. People will get confused and start to think the truth is somewhere in the middle. And so on. Even if it is intended for a “surgical strike” against Armenians, this weapon’s blast radius ends up taking out the very possibility of truth in history, science, and ethics. It renders evidence and logical inference based on it meaningless—or no more meaningful than groundless assertions and wild accusations. It undoes hundreds of years of philosophical and scientific progress. Fact becomes impossible. Critical thinking is replaced by what I have termed “academic relativism,” in which every claim, no matter how ungrounded on evidence, is considered perpetually legitimate.
The catalysts of that progress were quite clear about what real critical thought and evidence evaluation are. Descartes certainly doubted everything he could think—virtually every thought he had—just as deniers want us to do of the historical facts of the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, U.S. slavery, Native American Genocides, and on and on. But deniers want this to be the endpoint, the stopping point of thought. For Descartes, it was the beginning: It happens in Meditation 1, not 6. The rest of the Meditations consist of a carefully building of certainty as Descartes digs himself out of the morass of absolute skepticism. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, this building process has already occurred. Deniers forced it in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. And, after decades of intense, evidence-based research, scholars have constructed an unassailable castle of truth regarding the Armenian Genocide. By the 2000’s, rational people who studied the evidence simply had to recognize the veracity of the genocide, as Samantha Power and so many others new to the issue did not hesitate to. The process suggested by J. S. Mill actually worked: A true idea was challenged by a false one in a manner that spurred greater research and reasoning to establish the true idea on an even firmer foundation than would otherwise have been produced.
Indeed, because of the aggressive, well-funded, geopolitically supported Turkish denial campaign that has lasted for decades, those establishing the facts of the Armenian Genocide have had to meet such almost impossibly high standards that the result has been the establishment of the truth—not just beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond the shadow of a doubt. The evidence of the Armenian Genocide has been tested against the harshest challenges and most dishonest tactics, and it has come through with compelling truth intact. It has been confirmed again and again, against assault after assault. The “doubts” that still exist are a testament to the great extent of the financial, political, cultural, media, and academic resources of Turkish propagandists and the great geopolitical force behind them, not a weakness in the evidence or scholarly analysis of it. Despite all the resources and power arrayed against it, the Armenian Genocide is recognized by objective scholars and others around the world.
This is significant, because another feature of the historical commission model is that somehow the difference over whether the genocide occurred is an ethnic tension between Turks and Armenians. This is as false as denial of the genocide itself is. On the side of truth are Armenians to be sure, but also countless non-Armenians whose sole motivation is witnessing the truth and countless Turks who have had enough of their government’s lies. On the other side is merely a portion of the Turkish population, together with a few academic and political mercenaries acting out of obvious interests and motives. The notion of a Turkish-Armenian historical commission suggested by the protocols, as an inter-ethnic negotiation process, is inconsistent with true demographics of the manufactured “conflict” over the truth of the genocide.
The Turkish denial effort has failed. The latest version of the historical commission ploy is a desperate attempt to undercut the final victory of the truth. It is not unlike Ataturk’s “revolution” to rescue Turkish genocidal ultra-nationalism from its defeat in World War I. Let us not forget how successful this unjust movement was. Nothing betrays more obviously the resilience of this anti-Armenianism than the refusal by Turkey to include recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the protocols and its reinsertion of denial into Armenian-Turkish relations. As Israel Charny has written, denial is the celebration of the denied genocide and the mocking of the victim group. It is the threat of renewed genocide and the assertion of the power of the perpetrator group over the victim group.
As after 1918, the great powers have again lined up against Armenians—complete with another decisive reversal of U.S. policy toward Armenians, now in the form of President Obama’s flip-flop on Armenian Genocide recognition. But even this pressure is not enough. Too many good souls around the world understand too well what is going on to be manipulated by recycled denialism. What is necessary to open the door again to denial and to undermine four decades of decisive progress is a few Armenians in key positions turning the knob. If Armenians acquiesce in denial, suddenly all the evidence becomes irrelevant: Armenians themselves recognize that the issue is not settled and that a new inquiry—balancing deniers with those who claim genocide—is needed. With the inclusion of the historical commission in the protocols, a four decade-long process by historians, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, literary scholars, philosophers, and more, which has proven the Armenian Genocide beyond a shadow of a doubt, is dismissed. Now the real process will begin—complete with a fully legitimate denialist perspective.
Few stop to question exactly which Armenians are legitimizing denial with their signatures, whom they represent—and do not represent—and why they have come to accept a process legitimizing denial. They are Armenian and that is enough. Even many supporters of Armenian Genocide recognition are confused. And so the current Armenian government, led by Serge Sarkisian and Edward Nalbandian, has done what no one else could have—not a legion of Turkish diplomats or squadrons of deniers. Sarkisian and Nalbandian have rescued the failed Turkish denial campaign.
Mamigonian: Historical facts are not negotiated, they are studied
Marc Mamigonian, the director of academic affairs at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in Belmont, Mass., wrote:
It is understood that states such as Armenia and Turkey must resolve their differences through political processes of negotiation. In scholarship, however, historical facts are not negotiated but studied. And while new research continues to expand and enrich our understa
nding, the basic historical facts of the Armenian Genocide are well established.
It is difficult to have confidence in a historical sub-commission established as part of a political negotiating process—let alone one that involves two states with as palpable a power discrepancy as the one that exists between Turkey and Armenia.
Furthermore, a “scientific examination” of the history of the Armenian Genocide, such as the protocols appear to call for, has been conducted by researchers for decades; and the large and continually growing body of scholarship and documentation testifies to this.
Thanks to the documentary and analytical work that has been done by the first generation of professional scholars of the Armenian Genocide, the scholarship has moved beyond “proving the genocide” and entered into more sophisticated considerations, even though aggressive genocide denial continues unabated.
Whatever relations are negotiated between Armenia and Turkey as states, the way forward for Armenians and Turks everywhere is through an honest recognition of historical events, including but not limited to the Armenian Genocide. Everything else proceeds from that starting point.
Khatchig Mouradian is the editor of the Armenian Weekly. He is working towards a Ph.D. in genocide studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
The Armenian Weekly thanks Nayiri Arzoumanian for copyediting and Houry Tontian for the translation from French of Prof. Kevorkian’s comments.