Conversations on Armenian-Turkish Relations: Taner Akçam
An interview series by Gonca Sönmez-Poole
First published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, February 21, 2015.
PROF. TANER AKÇAM is the Kaloosdian/Mugar Professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Born in Ardahan by the Georgian border of Turkey, Prof. Akçam is the first Turkish scholar who has openly recognized, and written about the Armenian genocide. He comes from a political family of modest means. Both parents were teachers; his father was a writer, journalist and an activist. It didn’t take long for Akcam to become involved in Turkey’s revolutionary youth movements of the seventies. Prior to his arrests and subsequent imprisonment in 1976, Prof. Akçam was the editor-in-chief of Devrimci Gençlik (Revolutionary Youth), a student-run journal.
So what would be the first thing on the agenda for you at the time? What did you want to accomplish? Our first goal was of course a “democratic university”, where we, the students, would have our voices heard, and where we would be represented in the universities’ administrative structures. In order to achieve this goal, we organized democratic elections throughout Ankara universities based on a grassroots model, and we created a student platform with the representative from each university, a thoroughly basic democracy… In my own university (ODTU-Middle East Technical University), we created a list of demands following several meetings and discussions including all departments. For example, science students developed a list of the items that were missing from the labs. In short, we wanted to have the right of official representation and wanted to be part of the decision making process…We were distributing fliers, organizing boycotts and I was arrested during these activities. …And later, I was arrested in March 1976 because of the articles I wrote as editor-in chief of Devrimci Gençlik. I was writing about the social and political issues of Turkey at the time, basically freedom of speech, the Kurdish question and the like. I was sentenced to eight years, nine months and 20 days of imprisonment. After sitting in prison for a year, I escaped and ended up in Germany.
I want to ask you about something that I read in one of your articles. You said that it had taken you—as in, Taner Akçam, who most everyone knows as the first Turkish scholar to actively recognize the Armenian genocide—a few years to actually use the term “genocide.” Can you explain what this means? There is a very simple reason: Fear… Fear on two different levels. First, regardless of how critical you are of your government, as a Turk, living with the Turkish state’s bombardment of denialist propaganda, you always want to keep a margin, saying, “Who knows? Maybe it is not indeed a genocide? Better be careful with this term…. Who knows?” Basically this is the fear of not knowing what really happened. The second level is the psychological atmosphere in Turkey; it was a big problem speaking out about the Armenian issue let alone using the G word. Because of this fear, I never used the term genocide until 2000; I was using it however in my German publications without any hesitation. If you ask me, I call this the psychological threshold period of Turkish intellectuals. Everybody goes through this but I myself never theorithized this issue. I mean, I called it as I saw it: fear! What I really hate is that some Turkish intellectuals have turned their psychological fears into some general theories. They have tried to give a deep meaning as to why the term genocide cannot be used or cannot be applicable to the Armenian case. They have all kinds of stupid arguments such as “if they were to use the term nobody would listen to them” etc…Well, what we have actually seen over the years, and especially after 2005, many Turkish journalists started using the term genocide freely and by doing so, they were able to lift that mystical layer that academicians had developed over the word genocide. Had those journalists not accomplished this, we still would have been stuck at having these stupid arguments about exactly why we should not be using the word genocide.
What about the differences between the government and the average person when it comes to assessing the state of a conflict. How does that apply to Turkey do you think? The average person is a construct. Nobody knows who the average person is… but the important issue is, after Hrant Dink’s assassination, the psychological atmosphere in society has changed. I know that from my own experience. Those critical intellectuals, we were dragged from courtroom to courtroom, we were threatened. I was the target of a hate campaign. I was getting death threats. Look at today. All that has ended and nobody attacks us anymore, we have now become well-respected people in the society. I firmly believe that if the state acknowledges something regarding 1915, it would also be acknowledged by society without too much difficulty. If President Erdoğan wakes up tomorrow morning and says, “You know I had a dream and this was genocide or a crime against humanity” then everybody will say, “Yeah, we knew it was genocide.”
What is the problem now then for the government in Turkey? I guess the problem is that Turkey knows what happened in 1915 was a crime but it is not ready to face the consequences of acknowledgment. The consequences are unclear and they are scared of the potential repercussions of acknowledgment. Let me give you only one example; if you start with just one human rights abuse of the past, where are you going to end? If you start with the Armenians, then the Greeks will come, then the Assyrians… After the Christians, the Jews will come. After the Jews, then the Kurds will come. After the Kurds, the Alevites and then the leftist movement will come. There is no end…
Let me add another important psychological factor, which is very well known. Every nation needs heroes. Every nation-state was founded by its founding fathers. They are role models for the society, for the individuals… In the case of the Armenian Genocide, if we discuss what really happened, then we have to accept that an important number of our founding fathers were either directly involved in the Genocide or that they somehow participated in the enrichment process. This tears down your national heroes; you have to turn your heroes into villains. This means you have to destroy your national identity, it is destructive and not easy to do. You can only do this if, as psychologists explain, you extend your identity into a new democratic identity. It’s what we have here in the United States. The society still has its founding fathers but Americans can in fact accept or talk about their founding fathers having been slave owners, and that some of those founding fathers ordered the extermination of the Native Americans.
So you’re saying the Turkish nation hasn’t quite gotten over that threshold? Exactly.
We spoke earlier about how there is not “one” Turkish person and that the average Turkish person is a construct. Do you think the same applies to Armenians and the various groupings among them? Of course… there are so many different Armenian organizations, and what they really want from the Turkish government varies from political group to group… But let me tell you a general observation that I have made among Armenians over the years. In the heart of every single Armenian, Ani and Ararat have a special meaning. They really identify themselves with these places. Even the most moderate Armenian, if you ask them he/she would tell you, “It would be so great if Turkey gave us Mount Ararat and the Ani ruins as a gesture, because this is part of our Armenian identity.” These places were their historic homelands. Not that this should be discussed in “realistic terms.” This is Armenian psychology; it must be accepted as it is.
Could you speak a bit about the subject of “inevitability” when speaking about 1915 and whether the Armenian genocide was basically inevitable from the start, as in the Turks were bound to slaughter and kill Armenians from day one? It is true that among Armenian scholarship and especially among the Armenian people there is a widely accepted view that the “Turks” have a propensity towards violence and have strong feelings of hatred and animosity towards Armenians. This hatred and tendency to use violence have stemmed from religion (Islam). The religious ideology took secularized forms and in the proceeding years turned into nationalism and/or racism. These extremist ideologies (Pan-Turanism and Pan-Islamism along with hatred of Armenians) are part of Turkish identity and also the reasons for Genocide. What you have here is an abstract, ahistorical Turk, with certain cultural propensities, who travels throughout history and whenever he thinks it is possible, massacres the Armenians. This way of thinking is called the essentialist approach meaning that you have one single agent, and one actor of history and you explain the entire process based on the motives and intents of this agent.
Now of course, I am not talking about the other extreme, which is very dominant in Turkey even among the critical intellectuals, according to whom there is not much continuity in history and what happened to the Armenians was a kind of accident; a derivation from the normal course of history.
What do you think? Well, I don’t think we have a grand theory to explain the Armenian Genocide yet. This would be my next project to work on… There is no doubt in my mind that there is a strong interrelation between 1894 (Abdul Hamid period of massacres), 1909 (Adana) and the 1915 Genocide. There is a continuity out there! However, what is this continuity, how do we explain it, this is a serious challenge. I cannot share the essentialist approach and explain the entire process with the “agent Turk” and its motives and intents. My suggestion would be to try to look at the entire period as a genocidal process that had certain genocidal moments. This genocidal process had to be explained with the involvement of many actors (including the great powers as well as the Armenians), and of course certain structures and contingencies etc… The problem for the new scholarship is: what are these elements of continuity and rupture in this genocidal process? I would like to highlight one point for example; in our macro model we should not consider the victims (Armenians) as simply passive receivers as they were active elements of the process with their social, cultural and political organizations. Of course, the denialists would love this “victims as active actors of the process” argument in order to blame them. Needless to say this should not scare us into declaring that Armenians were passive receivers, sitting in their corner and waiting on the decisions of perpetrators about their destiny. My argument is related to understanding the perpetrators’ mindset because the victim groups’ attitudes and responses to certain policies were also important factors in shaping the perpetrators’ actions and decisions. We should understand this interaction, which was a dynamic process. Same can be argued for the role of the great powers. That said, all of this cannot and should not be used to trivialize the heinous act of genocide by the Ottoman-Turkish ruling elite and society.
What are your expectations regarding the Turkish government on the eve of 2015? I don’t have any expectations because there are general elections in June 2015. You can’t make concessions before the elections which can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. You’ll lose the elections. AKP’s major fear is MHP –the Turkish Nationalist Party, and they know that with any gesture towards Armenians, they will get a backlash from the MHP and they’re very careful. They don’t want to make any concessions before the elections, and after 2015 there might be some minor changes.
My guess is that denialism is so hardened and so calcified, and has so obfuscated the Turkish psyche that it is really very hard to make changes. I mean if today, you still teach the kids in your schools (including the Armenian kids in Istanbul) that the Armenians are the number one threat to national security of Turkey, I wonder how you can change anything. In such a situation, I really don’t care who you have as your chief adviser as long as the books are there; and these textbooks are full of hatred and discriminatory language towards Armenians. This is basic racism. The government should change the textbooks first!
One last question: way back when you were younger, did you think you would be here in Massachusetts, having the title you are now holding at Clark University? No…it was basically coincidences that made me work on this topic. And the second reason was the Turkish state; they kind of kept me working on this topic! I mean, they came after me; they attacked me, they didn’t let me move onto some other topic. I was of course scared like any other person; there were moments when I went to my corner and covered myself up.
You were really scared? Yes of course! I have been scared a lot… this is very human!
Are you scared now? No, no, no. Not now. I mean it’s over. It might come back, nobody knows….
 In reference to Etyen Mahçupyan, an ethnic Armenian who was appointed chief advisor to Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in October 2014