Conversations on Armenian-Turkish relations: Fatma Müge Göçek

An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole

First published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, December 6, 2014.

FATMA MÜGE GÖÇEK  Born, raised and educated in Istanbul, Turkey, Fatma Müge Göçek is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on the comparative analysis of history, politics, gender and collective violence. Her last book entitled Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and the Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 came out in November 2014 from Oxford University Press. Prof. Göçek was one of the founding members of The Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship (WATS), an unprecedented program that brought together Armenian and Turkish academics in a series of workshops starting in 2000.

What was the biggest challenge for you and your colleagues when you started WATS? One thing we had to develop in the first run was that we didn’t even have a common language, a language to discuss these things. And there were initially some problems because we didn’t use the same words to mean the same things. People attributed very different meanings to it. For example, I said in one context, “Well history is complex, it’s never clean…and things are not black and white, they are gray.” I just meant social reality itself is gray, I hadn’t at all thought about genocide. I mean there was no reference to genocide whatsoever. But because it was, you know, so much in their minds, they took me to task and said, “What do you mean?” So I had to explain what I meant, which is fine. The major contribution of WATS was to create a new space, a more neutral space, where people felt they could talk about these things and share knowledge and information. And that not all Turks, you know, were puppets of the Turkish state. And of course, during the last 10 years, things really changed and transformed.

How important was terminology, specifically the use of the word genocide in your work and research? From the beginning I myself did not want to use the word ‘genocide.’  Not because it’s not a genocide, it certainly is, but I said, drawing on my own life experience, “Look, I had no idea what happened until I started looking into it…At that point if somebody comes to me, if I have no knowledge and says your ancestors committed genocide, I mean, my first reaction would be, no. It will be not because I’m denying what happened…but I have no idea” So I said, “I’ll call it a genocide once I work on this, and I produce that body of knowledge.” So, because of that, of course some of them were upset. I mean, it was at the time, so politicized. If you said that, half of them wouldn’t listen, if you didn’t say it, the other half wouldn’t listen.

Did you make a conscientious decision not to say genocide in the title of your latest book? Yes, my issue is not genocide. What always fascinated me as a sociologist was not whether it was genocide or not, because I already know it was. So, I mean, to me, that didn’t matter. What I was interested in as a sociologist is why didn’t people acknowledge it? I mean, the denial of it was, for me, the more interesting part. And that’s why I wanted to look at denial of violence. And if you only look at genocide, I mean, in 1915, ’17, or ’22, however you picture it, what’s interesting is that, that’s not when the violence starts. I mean, that is the epitome of the violence, the high point. But there is violence in the 1894, ’96 massacres before then. So if you think about what happened afterwards, it still continues. It’s not like, it seizes with the violence against the Armenians. So, I said, this is just one part of it. I want to see the whole picture. Where did it start, when did it end? And that’s why it became 220 years.

Besides the point that it encompasses 220 years and it took you 12 years to finish it, what was the hardest part of doing this latest book? I felt like I was an onion. I sort of had to strip my layers all the way through, because until then, I had taken for granted and naturalized my position in Turkey’s society. I had not realized that I too was an ethnic Sunni‑Turk, you know, who was part of the dominant majority, who on top of it came from the upper‑class. And that had given me advantages and a sense of security that I took for granted.

Because of my belonging to the dominant majority, a lot of my parents’ friends and others, including academic friends took a virulent stand against me. They said, “How dare you put the interest of humanity before the interest of Turkey?” So as a consequence, I lost a lot of friends and that made me much more aware.  And I had to constantly ask, “Am I favoring one group over, over another? Am I being too understanding towards Armenians? Am I being too harsh towards Turks? And then, I was told of course, to stop working on it because they said it was dangerous…But then again, why are we academics? We’re academics because we want to find answers to the questions we ask, and if I can’t do that I might as well go and work on Wall Street, you know, or do something else.

What would you say to those who claim that Hrant Dink was murdered simply because he was yet another public intellectual in Turkey? No, I think he was assassinated because he was an Armenian. He was the weak link among all of us. The rest of us were all white Turks. He was the only one who wasn’t. And, what I felt then, as well as after, is that I’m constantly interrogating myself. “Oh my God, did we lead him on?” I mean did we lead him on to thinking that this was possible. In a way, we would all be guilty then for this death, you know, if he didn’t realize that he was not like us in the sense that he was not a white Turk. But people said, “Oh no, you’re making this up.” I don’t think so. I think that there definitely is that element, and I will always feel guilty for that.

How would you describe some of the intra-group splits within the communities of Armenians and Turks in the U.S? Armenians that migrated from Turkey itself have a very different conception of Turks because they’ve had Turkish friends, in addition to the experience of prejudice and discrimination. They know that not all Turks are the same. But if you don’t have that experience of actually having met and hung out with a Turk, then you think that they’re all of the same, all filled with hatred and you don’t want anything to do with them. I think that is probably the most significant.

Within the Turkish community, there is a generational difference. And there is also the difference of when they migrated to the United States. When you start talking to Diaspora Turks, you literally can tell from their political views when they came here and what was going on in Turkey at the time. So they do not update their perceptions. It’s an identity they can’t mess with because it’s become ossified. It’s so ossified that if you mess with it, it’ll break apart!

Since we are on the subject of differences of opinion, would you say you have some philosophical differences with other academicians in the field, take Prof. Taner Akçam for example? What he’s done is extremely important in the sense that he was the first one to bring up this issue (Armenian genocide). But I feel that when he sits down to write something, he already knows what the end result is going to be. And, in a way, to him, it’s much more important to document and demonstrate the violence and the intentions to almost prove that this was genocide. Even if, you know, he may not have needed to…whereas when I started, my issue was not, to prove or disprove anything. So I was probably exploring to see where things would take me. I mean, I had some idea where they were going, but I probably approached materials much more flexibly and openly.

Does this kind of difference in approach have an effect on Turkish‑Armenian relations? If so, why?  I think so. Because people feel much better if you approach them first as human beings…But if you are there with a political agenda or if you’re there with a set intent, I think that colors everything.  It reduces and narrows the possibilities of the relationship that you have. And then again, this may also be the consequence of the fact that I am not a political activist.

So you think someone like Akçam is more of a political activist? I think so. I mean we both want Turkey to be democratized. There we agree, there’s no doubt about that. But, for example, he writes articles in the newspapers, he has a column. He has no problem talking to all the interested parties in different places. I never talk to anyone except in university or academic settings. I would never go and try to negotiate anything with anybody. I mean, you know, what is a scholar? What I can do is research, generate and then disseminate information. I’ve drawn my boundaries much more differently than he has. And you probably need both. But I don’t think he’d be happy doing what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t be happy doing what he’s doing.

Do you have any expectations related to Turkey’s approach to 1915 come 2015? Ten years ago, I did. But now, I realize, after spending the last 12 years, that social change is very slow, you know, in a glacial way.

Do you think the current government is capable of making the right kind of apology to Armenians regarding the genocide? Not this government, no! In a way, they are very nationalistic. Our nationalism has never been questioned, because we didn’t go through the Second World War and we didn’t have to come to terms with the Holocaust and things like that. So, we never had any critical self‑reflection…as a consequence, that nationalism has become so ingrained in us that it is very hard to shake it off. And I thought that Islamists, because of their adverse experiences, would have been more tolerant, but it turns out, rather than becoming more tolerant, they have become even more judgmental and dismissive…I mean, Islam in politics is just as bad as secularism in politics. So, the next 20‑30 years are going to be tough in Turkey, but then, if we survive, the rest will be much better.

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