Conversations On Armenian-Turkish Relations: Ohannes Kılıçdağı
An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole
Ohannes Kılıçdağı undertook his doctoral studies at the department of history at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul after first receiving his BA degrees in sociology and political science. He was a research fellow at the Near Eastern Studies of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2012-2013. He received his PhD in 2014, based on his dissertation titled “Socio-political Reflections and Expectations of the Ottoman Armenians after the 1908 Revolution: Between Hope and Despair”. Between 2003 and 2017, he lectured at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Sociology Department, concentrating on the social and political history of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. From 2017 to 2019 he was a post-doc fellow at the Center for the Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University. He was appointed as Nikit and Eleanora Ordjanian Visiting Professor at Middle Eastern South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS) at the Columbia University for Spring 2020. Meanwhile, he was a research affiliate at the history department of MIT in 2019-2020 academic year. He was Kazan Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies at California State University, Fresno in Fall 2020, and Dumanian Visiting Professor at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago in Spring 2022. His areas of interest include the history of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, intercommunal relations in multi-ethnoreligious societies, citizenship and minority issues, the history of citizenship and military service, historical sociology, philosophy of history. Since 2011, Kılıçdağı has been a regular columnist for Agos, a bilingual weekly newspaper published in Armenian as well as Turkish, founded in 1996 by the late Hrant Dink in Istanbul.
(Kılıçdağı’s interview excerpts as translated from the Turkish by Sönmez-Poole)
Do you think the conundrum of the Turkish denial regarding the Armenian Genocide is a political or a moral issue? And who or what is to blame for the century old silence and/or denial narrative?
If we are talking about whether the issue is a moral or a political one on the denialist side…it is both. The denialists in Turkey have different motivations for practicing denial. Not that we can give exact numbers within each, but we can speak about two different groups.
One group is in denial because they truly do NOT know. And not only do they not know about 1915 and the following years, but they do not know about Armenians. They are clueless about the place of Armenians in the history of the geography that is Turkey today. And so, you cannot accept something you simply do not know or at most, you could kind of say that it doesn’t exist. Now the individuals in this group (let’s call them the “don’t know” group) are not equally distributed within the country of Turkey…as in geographically. This particular group is mostly concentrated in the west of the country whereas the population more to the east of the country know a lot more. That’s because there exists a generational transfer of stories, memories and history. The subject of 1915 does live within their collective memory and so there is less of a denial.
Now the second group is the one that denies based on a political motivation. Ironically, this is more of an “educated” group, primarily those in the state apparatus…not that we can clearly identify who knows what exactly at exactly which level. But there is a political as well as a moral dimension to the denial. On the moral issue…there are those who say “why is it my problem, why am I held responsible for something that happened a hundred years ago, why am I treated as the guilty one?” In reality, there is hardly anyone left that we can actually accuse and/or hold responsible for the crime of genocide back in 1915. That said, it is in his or her approach to 1915 and the ensuing years that we can hold someone morally accountable today. If you are disinterested, if you are denying, or if you are not contributing to the free exchange of ideas on the subject, that IS your responsibility today. It is not the actual act of genocide itself that today’s individuals can be held morally accountable for, but it is the way in which that historical event is handled, examined and treated. Being disinterested falls into that responsibility. Because when you are not interested in the subject, you are not only helping the denialist cause, but you are providing it indirect support. Now as to who is to blame for this hundred year old event? Clearly that falls upon the state itself since it is the state and its deliberate political decisions that have created this deliberate, this intentional ignorance…this “not knowingness.” And it is not only the Armenians, but also all the other non-Turkish/non-Muslim minorities that the state has deleted from its history. Specifically, regarding the Armenians, children are taught the thousands of years of Anatolian history with not a single mention of Armenians. Then in the 19th Century, suddenly, the Armenians come into play and now they are referred to as traitors, villains and the like. They were absent from the previous picture and now suddenly, they have entered the picture as the quintessential villains in the manner of those evil Yeşilçam (Turkey’s Hollywood) characters. This is what the state has created! And it is not limited to education…it did it via other means such as through the media, using certain newspapers and then using certain TV channels…that was the story told and retold to generations of Turks. This has become part and parcel of a particular narrative and right now, even if there came a miracle and the state suddenly came out and proclaimed, “yes this was a genocide,” it can no longer convince its own people. It created this Frankenstein and it is no longer under its control…so that any administration that may attempt to say “okay there was such a thing as the Armenian genocide, we will face up to this and even pay reparations,” that administration cannot hold onto its position….In Turkey this denialism is a very big, ossified institution, it’s a huge thing and as I said, even if those who have created it were to let go of this narrative, the public will no longer believe them.
When it comes to the activism for genocide recognition, what do you think is the major difference between the small population of Armenians who currently reside in Turkey, and the much larger population of Armenians in the United States? And if you see a marked difference, what kind of effect does that have in the interpretation or understanding of the “G” word?
There obviously are some marked differences between these two groups and those differences exist for not only the Armenians in the US, but also for those in other parts of the world. In a general sense (and I should emphasize in an overall sense since there may be exceptions) apart from those Armenian Americans who have totally assimilated and have basically become Americans…..for the Armenian Americans in the US, the genocide is all about memory, it is about remembering…as in the commemorations, meetings, workshops etc…It’s an ongoing activity as well as a culture that has become a large part of their identity…all of it based on the remembrance of their native lands, their homeland and what they called “home.” And this is not limited to the examination of genocide…they have formed social groups, organizations based on the villages their ancestors came from…and so they can relate and retell those memories to the third or fourth generations to come.
For the Armenians in Turkey on the other hand, currently, as well as historically, it is the exact opposite, it is all about forgetting…not that they chose this route gladly or willingly…this “forgetting” approach is the direct consequence of Turkey’s political atmosphere that has given birth to this “survival strategy.” The Armenians there try not to remember, not to think about, or at least NOT to freely articulate and remember those events in the public arena.
You used the term “activism for genocide recognition” in your question, for Armenians in Turkey, there has never been something that can be called “activism” for recognition. Especially nothing of the kind until the late nineties…and after that time, nothing that can be called a systematic activism on that front. What happened at that time is that there was a bit of a softening atmosphere and so those who wanted to say the word genocide did so for a while…but that has once again changed over the past five years, with more pressure and more censorship…typical of that country…as in two steps forward and one step back. And so, uttering the word genocide regarding 1915 has become problematic once again. To put it in another way, the Armenian question is like a barometer with which to gage the current political atmosphere in Turkey. The Armenian question proceeds, changes and adapts to the climate, depending on the level of nationalist fervor and militant chauvinism. If the Armenian question is being discussed and exposed more freely, it points to more democratization. If it is not, we can easily say that the atmosphere has become hardened and more radicalized. The genocide question is such a barometer, measuring the amount of pressure exerted upon the society.
Just as an example…Koç University in Istanbul was going to publish a book (more precisely a collection of articles) titled “Seeds of Power: Explorations in Ottoman Enviromental History.” They decided to ask the editors to retract a portion that mentioned the Armenian Genocide. When the editors refused to do so, the publication was cancelled. And so once again, the term genocide has become a problem in Turkey. Now I myself do write about the genocide in my columns in the Agos newspaper…they don’t interfere with Agos…maybe because the paper already paid too high a price…its editor having been assassinated…there is such an exception, but I honestly don’t know how long that will go on… Now getting back to the differences between Armenians who live in Turkey and those who live in the diaspora…their approach to what Turkey is differs greatly…which I believe is understandable…The Armenians in Turkey know what it (Turkey) is, it is clear, it is not an abstract thing…whereas Turkey is a bit of an “mirage” in the minds of the diasporan Armenians…some of that mirage/image may be correct and some of it may be wrong but it is an image nevertheless…The Turkish Armenian comes from there, and he/she knows there is not one single image of a Turkish person…and so it is expected that the approach of these two groups is very different. It really is about being familiar, being acquainted with the Turkish culture. For example, I listen to Turkish music and songs…it comes naturally to me, I was born into it and grew up with it. On the other hand, a Lebanese Armenian may listen to Arabic music and that wouldn’t be a problem but a Turkish Armenian listening to Turkish music it presents a bit of a problem…as in why are you listening to the enemy’s music?? If it’s something you have grown up with, songs that you have listened to as a young man, you can’t just shun that because it is in Turkish…that would be denying your own existence, your identity. And it may be easy for those in the diaspora to say “what kind of an Armenian is this, listening to Turkish music??” But if the same Armenian let’s say came from France for example…born and raised in France and then immigrated to the US…if he were to listen to French music, NOT a problem!
On the importance of the “G” word…there have been several experts and/or legal minds who have been writing about the necessity of looking beyond the word genocide. Two people come to mind: One is Dirk Moses who writes about the importance of exposing all kinds of large-scale human rights violations without the pressure of making sure those violent acts correspond to the legal narrow definition of genocide. Another legal authority/writer is Philippe Sands who writes about the danger of emphasizing violence against “groups” (instead of against “individuals”) because this may lead to an “us” versus “them” situation that would in turn clash with the very reason why Raphael Lemkin invented the word genocide in the first place. What are your thoughts on these?
Let’s start with Dirk Moses…here is what that thinking is interpreted as or in a way translates into in Turkey….something akin to “well, as long as it is not genocide, and that is not what it’s called, then no problem!” As an example, I always like to give the following…remembering a speech Efkan Ala (a former interior Minister) gave some years ago in the city of Kars. He proudly proclaimed from the podium: “they say we have committed genocide, no no, what we did was tehcir/relocation, okay we did tehcir.” And so, it is only tehcir…even if not one person was killed, what he is referring to…and this is confirmed in Talat Pasha’s own diary records…is the relocation of one million people, men, women, children, elderly and the sick, you pick them up from their homes within a week, put them on the road, you make them walk miles and miles for weeks…let’s just assume you haven’t actually killed one person…..but as long as that is not called genocide, the fact that countless people died of hunger, starvation or disease, and that some of them were attacked by a bunch of thugs…oh well…What Moses is saying don’t get stuck on just the vocabulary of that one word “genocide” from a moral as well as an analytical and academic perspective. But this does not mean that very concept, that word is not important. That concept is not unimportant but should not be the center of every debate and discussion. The fact is, from an analytical and academic perspective, it is always good to widen the scope and diversity of any and all questions. If one were to limit the analysis to whether this is “genocide” or not, that becomes a one-dimensional thing with a limited run. It will run its course after a while and it does…one must open it up to a variety of directions, instead of just one. But again, from a morality perspective, that should never become a situation where the narrative is “no genocide, no problem” as in the narrative of the former minister. Now I must point out that there is a particular type of group, even more radical than Mr. Ala…we cannot even call them denialists as they do not deny it. Their narrative is that of “we did it and we will do it again….Don’t get us mad, if you anger the Turk or if you threaten our nation, you know what is in store for you, look it up and remember it.” I honestly consider these people to be more honest because we don’t have to take the time to explain anything to them, no need to tire ourselves out with that, no need for proof…they’re basically saying “yes we did it and we would do it again.” The others (as in the denialists) there is ignorance, there is hypocrisy and we’re trying to explain something to them! Not that one is good and one is bad. The radical group needs to further explanation, he is saying “we did it and we will do it again.” There’s nothing we can say…the only thing we can do is to fight with whatever tools, whatever means we have at our disposal.
Which group do you think President Erdoğan belongs to?
For starters, I don’t think he has read as much and has been interested in the subject matter as much as yourself for example…his denialism is basically political…he denies because that is to his advantage…but I don’t think he knows a whole lot either…if one were to ask questions, his answers would probably be limited to a few clichés. He has been doing the condolence messages on April 24 since 2014. This may be a small step for humanity but a pretty big one for Turkey. But if you were to examine the wording of the condolence message, it is basically still denialist. The usual narrative of “shared suffering, shared pain, tough times for all” etc…The point here is that Turkey’s past dealings with this issue have been so exceedingly bad that even this type of a condolence makes a big difference because the precedent is so very abysmal.
Now the question regarding Philip Sands…I cannot comment on the totality of his thoughts and writings because I don’t know enough on that…But just on the question that you are raising based on a particular part of his writings, it is a bit problematic. He is talking about creating more of an “us” versus “them” situation by exposing or discussing the violence (such as genocide and others) against groups. But the problem is that the discrimination against groups precedes that violence. The individuals are subjected to violence precisely because they are part of a specific group. It is because of their belonging to that group that their subjection to violence is easier, can be legally justified and even defendable. So the violence against groups is not happening because we are emphasizing violence against groups (as Sands seems to think) that violence already exists…the “us and them” already exists.
I believe he is speaking about the periods and the approaches following mass atrocities…about some form of groupthink and whether this creates more of that?
Well then you have to explain how that should be done…about the importance of the right kind of vernacular, the right language to use…as in not to practice anti-Turkish racism when speaking about the Armenian genocide for example…not to say things like “the genocide happened because of the devil, the evil inside the Turk, the evil that lives inside all the Turkish people” or some such thing…Otherwise, you obviously have to speak about what actually happened, the genocide, otherwise what are you gonna talk about? That IS the event. So talking about de-emphasizing the violence perpetrated against a particular group if meaningless since that is exactly what the issue is! And this is not exclusive to the Armenian genocide issue…Take the Turkish-Kurdish issue for example. Some guy kills a total of 8 or 9 people from a single Kurdish family. There will be some who will claim that this is not a racist and/or discrimination issue…that it is simply an inter-family issue. Not so! The reality is that if a member of one of the families belongs to a group of people who have systematically been subjected to systematic racism, bigotry and harassment, the other person in the conflict will know exactly what to say or insinuate about that particular group….he will find a way to bring the matter down to that person’s Kurdishness, or Armenianness or whatever ethnicity is in play there…and by doing so, he will be on the winning side of the so-called “inter-family” issue…be it “your fox got into my chicken coop” or “your son looked askance at my daughter.” That person will know how to bring forth that one person’s Kurdishness, or Armenianness or Aleviness etc…and so it is not so easy to pick apart those various issues from the racism and discrimination that already exist in that one society…they are so tightly wound, so intertwined together!
I understand that you didn’t speak Armenian until you started attending an Armenian school in Istanbul. Your parents didn’t speak Armenian at home. Can you elaborate more on that and speak to the significance of language within the context of minority rights.
Neither my mom nor my dad spoke Armenian and neither did their parents…they were the first generation following the genocide…born around 1923-24…their grandparents knew Armenian but my parents and their parents lived in a rural area…where following the genocide, there is no school in which to learn Armenian……So the parents of my grandparents did not teach their children any Armenian for fear that they would get in trouble for it…you know if they were to speak Armenian they would be known as Armenian and therefore that link (the language link that is) was broken at that time. After they emigrated to Istanbul around the mid-fifties, my mom and dad were about 15 or 16 years of age, they were beyond the age of learning Armenian. So I am the first generation that was born in Istanbul once they came to Istanbul and I learned Armenian when I started pre-school…as if learning a second language you know starting with the a,b,c’s….that’s me and my sister, reconstituting the chain if you will…but now with Arden (Kılıçdağı’s 9 year old son who has been living and attending school in the US since he was 4) the chain will be broken yet again…and it has already…a common phenomenon for most Armenians, be they in Turkey or the US…there is in fact a problem of sustaining the Armenian language…as I say all the time “you cannot run a mill on carried water.” For a language to continue, to live, there needs to be a social life behind that language, there needs to be a political life behind it…one must think in that language, one must argue and fight in that language, one must fall in love in that language and more…In Turkey’s case, you can attend Armenian language classes, they give you an article in Armenian, you try reading it…The emotional life of the Armenian language is missing whether here in the US, or in Turkey…not that we should accept and let it go completely. We can try as best we can to make it live…but there are limitations. In Turkey, someone can take Armenian language classes, the children attend it for four hours, when they have their recess they speak Turkish! That is their social life! This of course is related to the level of assimilation…as in more assimilation corresponds to more loss when it comes to language.
You attended an Armenian school in Istanbul from about 6 to 17 years of age…did you have friends who were not Armenian during those years?
I have to think about that now that you asked…but no, not really, maybe just a couple…children of the concierge/groundskeeper or something…once you start school, you basically go to school and then come home, not much of a social life at that age…
So it all changed when you started college?
Yes it did…at college, there were almost no Armenians! Not only Armenian, no Kurdish, no Albanian or whatever, obviously no such clubs or anything…And of course, Armenians have always been a bit more “special” in that way…
When you were little, playing out on the streets whatever, did you ever have any idea about the “othering” issue? Or when did you first start to be conscious of the issues that you are dealing with in your professional life? How old were you and to put it in another way, what stage of your life were you at?
Basically around high school…I should note that those years were the ASALA (1) years….when TV and radio reports basically referred to Armenians as “villains,” “traitors,” “dogs” etc…followed by the first Karabagh war (2) in the early nineties…and so one would have had to be unconscious NOT to be conscious about the “othering” process. And so our generation’s youth corresponds to the period where negative attitudes and actions towards Armenians were in full force and we most certainly were aware of it…in middle school and then in high school. There was also the very common warnings by our parents or elders advising us NOT to speak Armenian outside the house, so as not to attract attention…you know mothers telling their children “don’t call me mama out on the street” kind of situation…And so we knew…we knew that something was off…something was strange…and that there was a lack of true freedom, and a sense of being stuck somehow…if all you hear was “don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t say this or don’t say that,” you knew something was amiss…
That said, I have to say that despite all of that, despite all of the current negative attitudes, we are now in a better period than before. There exists a portion of the Turkish population that is a lot more educated on the subject than they were back in the eighties. The softening around freedom of speech issues over the last 15/20 years have certainly had an impact and that cannot be discounted…there is no turning back on that. And yet, the tide seems to be turning back once again with today’s growing nationalism and chauvinism and this includes some in the intellectual and academic circles. Those same people who used to use the term “genocide” freely when it was fashionable to do so during the softening years…when they wanted to be in the circle of the “good and righteous intellectuals” are today changing their discourse….in a way getting a bit closer to the official state narrative. Why? Because the political atmosphere has hardened. What is sometimes referred to as “the spirit of the times” is real! The politics have sharpened up and so speaking in more nationalist and chauvinistic tones gets you more points. In that previous period empathizing with the Armenian cause–as in “those poor Armenians”–was in fashion…today, more Turkishness–as in “Turks are the true victims”-is in fashion…… This has to do with one’s intellectual integrity obviously…when the winds are blowing towards more freedom, more liberalism and such, certain people will be “liberal,” when the winds go by the way of militant nationalism and/or war mongering, those same people will be “nationalist.” That’s because it’s easy that way. It’s harder to sail against the wind than to go towards it…it’s easy, risk-free as well as cost-free…and that is what bothers me the most…what has happened to this particular intellectual class…forget the state itself…that has always been the same, that has always been “the state.”
Do you think you would have chosen a different career path if it wasn’t for your knowledge and background regarding the history of Armenians of the Ottoman Empire and beyond?
I have to say that my biggest motivation in my current occupation is my absolute resentment against injustice! What motivates me is “anger.” I do what I do, I write what I write because I get truly incensed in the face of deliberate and repeated injustice…that truly makes my blood boil. In a way, I am not so much of an academically oriented person, as in wanting to write this and this many articles and this many books…in a way that opportunity may be already lost anyway after moving here after 40/45 years of age…I was never limited by the academic side of the issue, I was always more interested in the politics of it…It is precisely because the political issues have made my blood boil that I became interested in these subjects….so I’m not much of a careerist that way.
Have you been interested in getting into politics?
Let me put it this way. The official, formal politics has become quite corrupt. And I think there is more than one way to contribute to politics. Speaking about the Armenian genocide, speaking about all of the various injustices practiced by the Turkish state (not limited to Armenians), speaking about the history of these subjects, teaching about it…all of this is actually contributing to politics…sending a tweet on those subjects contributes to politics. Not that I claim that these are some great big actions that will bring greater positive change of anything…that what I say is going to change something overnight…but by me talking, by you talking, by him or her talking, a discourse will be created and THAT is what politics is.
Can you elaborate on that particular motivation that makes you angry and makes you react against injustice…?
Basically denial…not only denial of the genocide but of you, you as an individual, your actual identity and existence. This is a heavy burden to carry. It’s like you are in a certain environment where someone or some people are talking about you, with no regard to the fact that you are actually there…like here you are sitting with a few other people and those people are speaking about you as if you are not even there…and in negative terms to boot! It’s like “excuse me, do you not see/know that I am here???” I’m giving examples on a personal level obviously, it may not apply to the collective version….But those also exist…during the Karabagh war…graffiti on the walls “Karabagh will be the grave of the traitor Armenian.”
So in a way they write that freely because they have no qualms about it…?
Of course and they write it so you see it! And that is why so many people (Armenians) left around that time…the Asala period and the following initial Karabagh war…I think if my parents had had the resources, had some kind of accumulated language and culture, a vision for a better future, they too would have left…but not so, they had arrived to Istanbul from their village and they stayed…
What would you hope your son would take away from the work that you do?
About Arden…we initially thought we would be here (in the US) for a limited amount of time but now that we are living here, Arden is basically from here…he was 4 when he first arrived here and now he is 9..when we ask him about Turkey, he remembers very few things about it. So there are certain things that are missing from my relationship with my son…there are certain things, certain memories, so clear to me from Turkey that don’t mean much to him….certain Turkish sayings and expressions…he cannot understand those…so in a way, I don’t have a high expectation on that front regarding Arden.
It may change as he grows older don’t you think?
That would require some amount of intellectual accumulation…but in terms of his daily life, the Armenian genocide or the events surrounding 1915 etc…those subjects do not and most likely will not resonate with him…the way they do for Tulay (his wife) and myself. As a matter of fact the way he puts it “My mom is Turkish, my father is Armenian and I am American.” What else is there to say…
Maybe much later not so much in an intellectual level but as time goes on…?
If I am still around for a while and as those subjects continue to be discussed and talked about in our home…not that I would sit him down and tell him “I am now going to tell you about the Armenian genocide” not like that…but when he is a bit older…he will see the books that are around, hear what I explain and teach to people…he may start to wonder what it is that I am talking about…and so Arden may show an interest and learn something. On the other hand, I am not in favor of what the Armenian Americans have done since day one for their offspring…as in making sure they learn about the genocide from a young age…being taught about what “Turks are like/what they did.” I think young children should be left alone for a while, they have time to learn about these things, and they will if they want to learn…And I am not saying this strictly because it may be right or wrong politically or otherwise, I just think it is not a good way to raise a human being…In a way, the Armenian schools in Turkey are better at this…learning the Armenian language and all is good but some subjects are put aside when it comes to young children. Maybe it is social and political pressure leading the way here but in a way it leads to a better outcome. So the point is to find the right balance…between complete apathy versus instilling those cut and dry/black and white ideas into young minds…finding the right timing from a pedagogical perspective would be best.
How important is it that he speaks Armenian and that he knows the history as it relates to his father’s ancestors?
From an emotional/spiritual perspective, I know this has significance but I also know that it will that happen…..Arden attends language classes at AGBU (3) but I think he partly goes there because I want him to. In his mind as a child, he is thinking “why am I working on something that is SO hard.” In fact Armenian language IS quite difficult…and in his mind the child is right…it just doesn’t have a place within the child’s emotional makeup. He takes an online class on Thursday and on Friday they go in person for playtime. When I ask him whether they were speaking Armenian with the other kids, he says “no.” They basically do their playing in English. There you have it! But it’s okay…at least he gets to meet other children with Armenian names…a Sarkis or an Arshaluys…a bit of familiarity but as I said, that language does not “live” in the here and now, it is practically lost!
 ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) was a militant organization founded with the aim of forcing the Turkish government to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and to pay reparations as well as to cede territory considered to be the homeland of Armenians. It was active between 1975 and 1990 and was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, having organized more than 50 bomb attacks and murdered 48 people around the world, most of them Turkish diplomats. The “Asala years” refer to the period during which the actions of ASALA fueled the fire of anti-Armenian extremism and hatred in Turkey, leading many Armenians to flee the country as a result.
 AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union) https://agbu.org