Goçek Talks at MIT on Violence of Denial


Gocek flyer violence-of-denial-poster_0

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Prof. Fatma Muge Goçek gave a lecture titled “The Violence of Denial: Turkish Women’s Memories of Armenians, 1789-2009,” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on November 3. Formally, it was the McMillan-Stewart Lecture on Women in the Developing World, with the co-sponsorship of MIT’s Women and Gender Studies Program, but what made it unusual was the other two cosponsors. This was one of the rare instances in the United States where an Armenian and a Turkish student association cosponsored a talk pertaining to the Armenian Genocide, and it was well attended, with at least 50 in the audience in the late afternoon.

The event was moderated by Lerna Ekmekcioglu, McMillan-Stewart Career Development Assistant Professor of History at MIT. Ekmekcioglu introduced the leaders of both student groups who spoke about their organizations briefly. She said, “To my knowledge this is the first event that the two societies have cosponsored. I think it is quite remarkable that they are doing this on a topic that continues to divide their peoples back at home. I’m quite inspired and encouraged by this unique example that they set for the rest of the MIT community and humanity. They expand the meaning of heritage — this is how I read their participation in this event — to include not just food and dance and sharing, but also other not so positive things, that include violence, the heritage of violence, which is being acknowledged…This is another proof that MIT is brave, visionary and innovative in humanities and humanity in general, not just in technology and science.” Goçek later added that when either Turkish or Armenian student associations invited her to speak she would state that she could accept only on the condition that the other group on campus invite her too, but this was the first time in 12 years that this has actually occurred.

The lecture itself was an introduction to Goçek’s new book, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (Oxford University Press), presented from the perspective of gender with some additional information on the Turkish women writers covered in the volume. (The title of the MIT lecture was a play on the book title.) Goçek, as Ekmekcioglu pointed out in her introduction, is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is a prolific author of many books and articles.

Goçek declared that she has been working on the book for 12 years, adding that “this book took a very long time because this is a very political and politicized topic.” She continued, “As I always say, this is a common pain, and a common suffering for both sides. This is why I wanted to work on this topic and understand what was going on in Turkey.”

Goçek first was planning to work on the Islamist movement in Turkey, but the Turkish government in the 1990s pushed her to work on the military instead. She said, “That got me thinking as to why in our society in Turkey we are so inured to violence….We welcome military interventions instead of being upset about them, for that in itself is a sort of violence. Violence must be somehow naturalized and normalized in society…There must be a foundational violence that somehow we have not accounted for, and that led to the normalization. I went back to 1915-17 and the Armenian Genocide. That is how I came to study that.”

Her interest was not in the violence per se, but why it was not acknowledged. She said she felt that, “for the democratization of Turkey, it is significant for Turkish society to confront its past and repair the moral fabric that unfortunately became frayed and destroyed as a consequence of this denial.”

As Goçek plunged into her work, she said, “I found myself in this struggle one way or the other. I also had a trauma because my best friend and colleague Hrant Dink was assassinated. That was for me an extremely difficult event to process.” This is reflected in the fourth chapter of Goçek’s book, wherein she focuses on her personal memories in the context of violence and the topic she was studying.

At an event she organized for the 75th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, which had among others a Turkish official as a speaker, an old Armenian lady with tears running down her face asked how Turkey could ever become a member of the European Union after massacring her grandparents. Goçek said she dissipated the tension among the Armenians in the audience by declaring she understood how difficult this pain was, and asked what she could do to help. This incident led her to understand that the lack of acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide did not allow victims to heal.

At the 2005 Bilgi University conference in Turkey, a “youngish” man told Goçek he found out his grandmother was Armenian, but she refused to tell him her original Armenian name. He broke down crying, exclaiming how much pain we must have inflicted on her for her not to be able to even tell her name. The 2007 Hrant Dink assassination was another important emotional turning point for Goçek.

During her investigative process, she decided to focus on contemporary Turkish memoirs published in the Latin alphabet, not state documents, in order to capture better the cognitive and non-rational aspects of violence and denial. She divided denial of violence against the Armenians into four stages encompassing the Hamidian, Young Turk, Republican and late Republican eras, each mirroring a different stage of Ottoman/Turkish modernity.

Of the 315 memoirs she used, only 17 were by women. This was due to the fact that in general, women’s experiences rarely make it into print, and they are often not seen as worthy of being published. In this particular instance, however, Goçek said that she was actually delighted that there were so few women’s works because that is further evidence that violence is most often perpetrated by men.

These writers span a wide period of time, from Melek Hanim, born in the 1830s, to Liz Behmoaras (a Turkish Jew) born in 1950. The first group belongs to the upper class and is connected to the Ottoman palace. They are mostly from the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of the Turkish Republic Halide Edip Adivar is one of the best known of this group. She participated in the Turkish independence movement alongside Mustafa Kemal, but later opposed his regime. The second group of writers, from the later Republican people, are fewer in number. Minorities like Armenians had been more and more excluded from society and consequently are discussed less in memoirs too. The women writers, aside from those in the upper class, included intellectuals and educators, and later people who have been marginalized in one way or another.

Goçek concluded by reading some excerpts from the memoirs of Nermidil Ener Binark. Her mother traveled to Antep (Aintab) in 1915 to join her husband who was the local governor. She saw the sufferings of Armenians in the deportations. Her father was a perpetrator who even late in life, when 84 years old, said that if he were to be born again, he would have done everything the same way. Memoirs like this allow a very different interpretation of events than the official narrative of the state. Gender theory aided Goçek in relating this story.

After the formal lecture, a number of questions were asked about the lecture. Among other things, Goçek explained that a Turkish translation was being planned, while so far there was no Armenian translation in the works.

In response to a question on the degree of change in Turkish academia on the Armenian Genocide, Goçek declared “I am not an outlier. … There are many people, many academics who do work [on this topic]. They are still the minority nevertheless. Most of the academics in Turkey work in state institutions. They are seen more as public officials and cannot take a stand on this.” However, those in private institutions can take oppositional stands, and there are many who do. There has been a lot of translation, including Armenian memoirs, by private institutions.

Goçek concluded, “I think that in another decade or two, things are going to change, but I don’t expect the change to come from the state—it will come from civil society.”