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08 May

Free press is needed to challenge apologetic arguments

An interview with Dirk Moses, co-editor of Journal of Genocide studies and Professor of Modern History at Sydney University


The 1915 genocide of Armenians took place in the Ottoman Empire under the government run by the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihat ve Terakki)-- but is the denial of genocide in today’s Turkey a continuity of that policy in another guise or a different phenomenon altogether? What light can genocide studies shed on the ultra-nationalist and anti-global movements of today which have in their sights refugees and migrants? How potentially violent are contemporary rightwing politics focused on an exclusive national unity and which declares as enemies those who do not share their views.
 
These are issues which P24 discussed with Dirk Moses, co-editor of Journal of Genocide studies and Professor of Modern History at Sydney University.
 
Q. Professor Moses, Turkey today explains 1915 as an isolated confluence of historical forces and no genocide. Explain what motivates that denial. Is it a continuation of the genocidal mentality or a cover up of the expropriation of Armenian capital or something completely different?
 
DM: Although the Republic of Turkey marks a historical rupture with its secularist agenda in the 1920s, we know that significant continuities of personnel and policy linked the Ottoman and Republican regimes. Regarding the latter, the assertion of state sovereignty against European powers was an enduring and understandable imperative. The internationalization of the Armenian question since the late nineteenth century meant that Ottoman elites regarded Armenians and other Christians as security threats because they were linked to foreign powers. That way of thinking persists even if the geopolitics has changed. What remains is a security paranoia about the integrity of the state that criminalizes minorities as such and propels a general radicalization. This dynamic is not limited to Turkey; it’s an attribute of revolutionary regimes in particular.
 
Q. Why is Turkey so concerned to prevent other nations recognizing the Genocide and why do some nations respond to that pressure. Should international organisations be more engaged? After all, there are still mass graves to uncover.
 
DM: There is no doubt that successive Turkish governments have reacted allergically to the genocide question when it is raised in international society. The German parliamentary resolution is a case in point. Great capital is invested in lobbying states—the USA for example—not to use the genocide term. The question is one of foreign policy because it has a geopolitical—not just moral—dimension regarding the border with the Republic of Armenia, reparations, and so forth.  
 
As Donald Bloxham showed in his book, The Great Game of Genocide, the Western turn to Turkey, soon after its foundation, as an anticommunist bulwark meant that the Armenian question was deprioritized: strategic considerations prevail. Everyone knows the reasons why the USA, Israel and even Australia won’t officially recognize the genocide even though the scholarly communities and public opinion in those countries do recognize the genocide. Unless the strategic interests change, activism by international civil society will have only limited effect. Again, this is not unique to Turkey.
 
 That said, I of course support public airings of research findings that tell the truth about history, such as the article in the New York Times on Taner Akcam’s important research findings on the genocide. Scholars have an important role to play in establishing the evidentiary basis of traumatic events like genocide. Such scholarship can serve as the basis for public discussion. That is why it is important for archives to be open and uncensored.
 
Unfortunately, many politicians, who don’t have time or inclination to read, will either ignore uncomfortable facts and choose to cite historians sympathetic to their views. And historians are not immune to nationalist political emotions. The main thing is debate in the free press so that self-serving and apologetic arguments can be challenged. One has the impression that a free press is precisely what the current government opposes.
 
In the security paradigm I have already mentioned, the lack of control of the press is experienced as a threat to national security because it could be a vehicle to criticize the government, and the government has convinced itself that only it represents the common interest.  In liberal societies, the common interest is subject to genuinely democratic deliberation by many parties, not only by the state. But, as I have suggested, revolutionary regimes (even successor ones) are constitutively paranoid.
 
Q. Do you think Turkish identity in 1920-23 was constructed on the decimation of Armenians and others? Is it historical practice to build nations or identities on top of annihilation?
 
In some respects, the Turkish case resembles the settler colonial ones that I have studied more closely: namely, the historically common pattern of one society replacing another by conquest and settlement, extermination of some natives and absorption of the others. That is what happened in Australia, in the Americas, and parts of southern Africa.  Settlement practices occurred in the Ottoman Empire as well although in different circumstances. From the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman state settled Muslim refugees from new Balkan Christian states in regions where they wanted to dilute Christian concentrations. Later, the practice was outright substitutionary as Ottoman Christians were held to be vicariously guilty for the suffering of the Muslim Balkan refugees. Also, like indigenous people in the settler colonial cases in which frontier conflict raged, Ottoman elites saw Christians as a security threat to be criminalized, murdered, and deported. Their property was seized and given to citizens considered loyal and reliable. In this respect, the modalities of destruction through pacification and substitution are shared by these cases.
 
Q. Can we say that being a minority means not only being fewer in number but also being the object of state violence?
 
We know that the minority question became fractious in the nineteenth century, as it did in interwar Europe when new states founded after the collapse of the Ottoman, Habsburg, and Romanov empires contained significant minorities. Not trusting some of these states to treat their minorities well, the Great Powers at Versailles imposed minority protection treaties on them as the price of statehood. In some respect, these treaties internationalized the issue like the Armenian question decades before in the Ottoman Empire.
 
In other respects, the fears about minority repression were understandable. Nationalist movements had won control of state apparatuses and were animated by ethno-national visions of cultural homogeneity rather than pluralism, which they coded as weak and a regrettable legacy of the former empire that they thought inhibited their national flourishing. Minorities were also regarded as disloyal when they were affiliated with enemy neighbours, especially in border regions.
 
Given that revisionist powers in Europe wanted to overturn the postwar borders that they regarded as unjust—especially Hungary, which lost two thirds of its territory, with many Hungarians now “stranded” in neighbouring states—the geo-politicization of the minority question is hardly surprising, with the attendant state aggression against minorities. But we know of other geopolitical circumstances in which minorities are not so readily coded as disloyal: like West Germany. Of course, the West German state had learned the lesson from the catastrophic example of the Nazi regime that aggressive ethno-nationalism is tantamount to racism and not a model for a stable state that claims to represent human values. And leader of the small minorities there were not seeking to revise borders either. Revisionist environments are inimical to minority security.
 
Q. What can be the reason, in your opinion, for some to deliberately ignore that there were Assyrian and Yezidi victims of 1915? Did they get in the way of an attempt ot create identity based on common trauma? Is it similar to the way homosexuals and Roma were for years not regarded as central victims of the Holocaust?  


It is always regrettable, if understandable, when victims of trauma argue among themselves for recognition. Certainly, some, like Hannibal Travis, have asserted that Armenian advocates have overlooked the Assyrian case, indeed monopolised attention to the detriment of other Ottoman Christians. I have seen Greek advocates make the same argument. They never mention the Greek invasion of Turkey in 1919. That said, a number of scholars and activists have suggested the idea of a general Ottoman genocide of Christians, but it has not caught on, in part perhaps because of the ethno-centrism of the advocacy groups. I have seen the same Armenians who mock Turks for denying historical crimes and claiming their “historical homeland” engage in the same moral and mental calculus regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Ethno-nationalist blind-spots are not limited to Kemalists and Turkish Islamists. For my part, publishing scholarship is the little contribution I can make, such as a new book on the Assyrian case in a book series I co-edit.
 
Q. Do genocide studies possess a coherent, legitimate methodology? Is there any other methodology which will allow us to do comparative historical work?


When genocide studies started as a tiny field in the 1980s, it was known as “comparative genocide studies,” usually comparing the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Most of the scholars were social scientists who used a general model of genocide to compare cases that bore no a relationship to one another except as instantiations of the definition. Since then, historians have joined the field and introduced notions of entanglement as well as plain narrative that links genocides more closely together in time and place. I myself have suggested, inspired by Mark Levene, one of the preeminent thinkers about genocide, to relate local to global processes of state formation and economic development.  
 
Genocide Studies is a field, not a discipline, so it’s characterized by methodological pluralism, as you can see from the many genres of scholarship we publish in the Journal of Genocide Research. Incidentally, it’s difficult to accuse the journal of advocacy in view of our publication of a forum on the Torossian debate in which various Turkish voices can be heard.
 
Q. You identify 1850-1950 as a distinct period. Are we on the edge of another identifiable period with the popularist-oppressive governments of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, and Orban? Are we entering another era where exclusion of non-wanted aliens, might provoke state violent practices? Are the “walls” (of Trump and Orban for now) metaphors for a new racial period?
 
You are referring to an article in which I wrote about the “racial century,” roughly between 1850 and 1950. It would be foolish to deny that the fear of outsiders, especially refugees and “disloyal” minorities, has increased in many countries. The correlation with globalization is significant. The racial century was marked by intense globalization—including migration and refugee flows—until the anti-globalization of the world wars and Cold War. Although migration and refugee flows continued throughout of course, they were accompanied in the latter stages by assertive states that were simultaneously responsible for these population movements just as they sought to shield their states from their effects.
 
The post-1990 era of globalization that is coming to an end is likewise signaled by nativist reactions.  Whether they are articulated in state policy depends on local circumstances. So far the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria have resisted although large parts of the population would welcome a local version of Orban, Trump, Putin or LePen. Populations are split roughly down the middle as we see in the US and in the recent referendum in Turkey. Only a quirk of the US electoral system saw Trump defeat Clinton, who won far more votes.
 
Those who vote against globalization combine its economic and demographic dimensions, meaning they blame the loss of manufacturing jobs on recent migrants and refugees. The perfidiously clever confidence trick of rightwing pundits is to convince so many people of this proposition. Capital is not blamed for capital flight. This mental operation, which is emotionally underpinned by appeals to national solidarity, has been enabled by the failure of neoliberal elites, who drove along globalization, to ensure more equal outcomes, and generally to promote hope and social security.
 
 Some economies may be richer overall but the benefits have been unevenly distributed to say the least. It is a commonplace now that globalization’s “losers” have been mobilized to support movements that will benefit some of its winners. Inequality has increased under Putin as it is likely to under Trump.
 
The challenge for social democrats is to thread the eye of social solidarity though the needle of ethnic diversity. To meet this challenge, they will need to offer people the sort of hope that is not defined by ethnic exclusivism. The Istanbul-born political theorist, Seyla Benhabib, proposes the notion of “cosmopolitan federalism” as a regulative ideal to mediate the tension between popular sovereignty and human rights in an age in which the nation-state cannot control demographic flows (and thus homogeneity) but the democratic imperative of self-governance persists. I don’t think she’s referring to the neo-Ottomanism that some see in the current Turkish government’s nostalgic cultural projects and expansive foreign policy. 

Tags: zeynep kocak , dirk moses , armenians , genocide

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