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Not guilty, but responsible: A Turkish scholar researches the Armenian genocide

March 2, 2015
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An Armenian refugee found dead in a field in Syria during the genocide.

An Armenian refugee found dead in a field in Syria during the genocide.

ANN ARBOR—When Fatma Muge Gocek came to the U.S. for graduate school, she was introduced to a student who was Armenian. He smiled and asked where she was from. When Gocek said, “Turkey,” the grin disappeared and his face became full of intense hatred.

His next question was: “Why did you massacre my grandparents?”

A bit shocked, she responded, “I have not massacred anyone to my knowledge. Neither have my parents.”

The exchange left Gocek feeling uneasy and perplexed. She had no idea what the man was talking about. The Turkish history books she grew up with made no mention of any massacres of Armenian civilians. And they still don’t.

She could have reacted the same way many other Turks do: shrugging off the Armenian allegations as the crazy rantings of enemies of Turkey. But Gocek was different. She began to question whether the version of history she was taught was missing something major.

“I had to come here to the U.S. to learn my own history,” said Gocek, now a sociology professor at the University of Michigan.

Fatma Muge Gocek, U-M professor of sociology, has written a new book about the Armenian genocide.

Fatma Muge Gocek, U-M professor of sociology, has written a new book about the Armenian genocide.

The angry Armenian man was referring to the mass killing, rape and deportation of Armenians that began 100 years ago on April 24, 1915 throughout the Ottoman Empire. At least 1 million people—mostly Armenians—died in the state-sanctioned violence, one of the first acts of genocide in the 20th century.

Gocek said Turkey still argues it wasn’t a genocide. Its official position is that reciprocal massacres killed 100,000 to 400,000 Armenians and at least 1.5 million Turks.

But Gocek said that the 1.5 million Turkish deaths were mostly soldiers killed during World War I. In other words, Turkey is equating the deaths of civilian Armenians by their own state with the wartime deaths of Turkish soldiers by enemy soldiers, she added.

Turkish authorities have worked hard to try to cover up the genocide. During her graduate school years, Gocek said she received letters from Turkey’s Ministry of Education offering her a full scholarship if she did a dissertation proving Turkish innocence with the Armenian issue.

“I said, ‘What kind of job would I have after that?'” she said. “I just threw it to the side.”

As Gocek learned more about the genocide, she became interested in why states and societies deny violence. She tackles the question in her new book, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and Collective Violence Against the Armenians 1789-2009.

Writing a book about such a politicized, highly charged issue involves a lot of hardship, sacrifice and risk for a Turk. Gocek has lost friends and received death threats. She could be sentenced to prison for three years in Turkey because it’s illegal to challenge the state’s position on the Armenian issue.

Her research has also prompted people to question her ethnicity.

“The Armenian side tells me I must have some Armenian blood in me unbeknownst to me. They say, ‘Deep down you are a very civilized person, so there must be some Armenian blood in you that makes you so civilized,'” she said.

“The Turkish nationalists have the same reaction,” she added. “They say there must be something wrong with you. You cannot be pure Turkish. Your blood must be tainted by Armenian blood, and that is why you are saying the things you’re saying.”

Although she does not believe she is personally guilty of genocide, Gocek feels responsible for it.

“I am responsible in that the Turkish state and society to which I belong still does not acknowledge what went on and because of that I personally apologize to all those Armenians,” she said.

Gocek’s book argues that a number of events and factors make up a complex “collective layer of denial” that keeps Turkey from acknowledging the genocide. The events include land disputes, failed Ottoman reforms, the humiliating loss in the First Balkan War and a willingness to view Armenians as proxies for enemy Western powers.

“This continues until this day,” Gocek said. “If something unsettling happens in Turkey, the first culprits are always in the West.”

When she began working on her book 15 years ago, Gocek was certain that the Turkish state would acknowledge the genocide. There has been some progress. More liberal Turkish scholars have taken a stand against the denial, and the Kurdish minority in Turkey has publicly acknowledged its role in the genocide.

Gocek’s next project will be researching the violence against the Kurds. After the Turkish state annihilated the Armenians, she said, they used the same people and methods against the Kurds.

Next year, she also plans to teach a course about terrorism, torture and violence.

“People argue that denial is the last stage of genocide in the sense that by denying what happened, you prevent healing from happening,” she said. “We need that healing to happen not only for the Armenians but for the Turks by taking responsibility.”

Related links:

Fatma Muge Gocek’s bio

Armenian Studies Program at U-M

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