Society for Armenian Studies Washington DC Conference on Armenians in the Ottoman Empire


SAS Part II Final panel

Part II

By Aram Arkun

WASHINGTON — Society for Armenian Studies (SAS) Vice President Bedross Der Matossian welcomed guests back on November 22 to the final session of the conference “Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th-20th Centuries.” Like the second panel of the session of the previous day, it was devoted to the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath.

Dr. Carina Karapetian Giorgi, visiting assistant professor of sociology at Pomona College, was the first speaker. Her 2013 dissertation from the University of Manchester is an examination of the lives of Armenian women migrants to the US from 1990 to 2010. She found this migration to be an unexamined growing phenomenon, which she felt, constitutes a disruption in conventional gender relations within Armenia. Her current research project is examining the Armenian matrilineal ritual and tradition of tasseography or coffee grounds reading from a queer theoretical and quantum physics perspective. Her conference paper was called “Critical Reevaluation of the Historiography of the Armenian Women during the Armenian Genocide.”

Giorgi reexamined from the feminist gender queer perspective Armenian memoirs of genocide. She felt that a void existed on the large role gender played in survivor experiences, as in her opinion, the focus of mainstream Armenian scholarship has been refuting denialists. Her presentation combined two future separate articles on visual and written accounts of Armenian women.

Giorgi argued that a myriad of simplistic gender constructs are found within the literature on the Armenian Genocide. In the works of writers like Vahakn Dadrian or Taner Akçam, she contended, women often are depicted as helpless as children and objectified as lost possessions, while men are active in resistance.

Survivors faced male control, violence and stigmatization from both Turkish and Armenian men, she stated. On the other hand, Armenian women fedayi fighters in military uniforms disrupted the traditional view of femininity, with passive women as victims. Victoria Rowe’s work on Zabel Yesayan, a key observer of Armenian massacres, showed how it is necessary to interrogate history once more.

Giorgi has collected and is studying between 50 and 75 accounts of women’s lives pertaining to the Armenian Genocide. She also intends to compare experiences of male to female rape, including the aftermath, and who experienced difficulties returning home.

The second speaker, Dr. Richard Hovannisian spoke on “Armenian Genocide Denial 100 Years Later: The New Actors and Their Trade.” Professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History and past holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hovannisian is also a Distinguished Chancellors Fellow at Chapman University, adjunct professor of history at USC (to work with the Shoah Foundation), and a Guggenheim Fellow. A consultant for the California State Board of Education, he is author or editor of more than 35 books, including the four-volume Republic of Armenia.

Hovannisian expressed skepticism over statements that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide has been achieved, so that it is time to move on to the next phase of reparations. Denial of the Armenian Genocide took place from the very beginning, and then during the Republic of Turkey attempts were made at the suppression of memory. The hope was that any mention of genocide would just pass from the scene, he noted. The best example was the successful Turkish suppression of the film version of the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, with the complicity of the US government. In the US, the Cold War alliance with Turkey also aided in the acceptance of Turkish efforts.

Post-1965 Armenian activism and even violence led to the return of active deniers. After efforts at suppression came a phase of relativization and rationalization. Great suffering and deaths were not dismissed but instead put into context. The arguments in the 1985 book of retired Turkish diplomat Kamuran Gurun 20 years later were almost parroted by American denier Gunter Lewy.

Hovannisian spoke about contemporary deniers like Dr. Hakan Yavuz at the University of Utah, who is funded by the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), which itself has aggressively pursued legal action (such as its lawsuit against the University of Minnesota) against entities showcasing the Armenian Genocide. Yavuz organizes international conferences, runs a publication series and writes directly on the subject, depicting Turkey as the victim of Western Orientalism. Yavuz even insisted that it was the Soviet Union that was the first to use the term genocide concerning the Armenians due to Cold War propaganda value, and that Raphael Lemkin was untrustworthy because he was an employee of the US government.

Among other contemporary deniers of the Armenian Genocide, Hovannisian finds Edward J. Erickson, relying on Ottoman documents and military despatches, might appear solidly academic to some. Yet he portrays Armenians as distinct from Ottomans, as evidenced in his book title Ottomans and Armenians: A Study in Counter-Insurgency (2013). Gunter Lewy adopts a similar approach. Both use modern Western methods of scholarship and have extensive citations and bibliography which make their works appear scholarly.

Hovannisian concluded that logical argumentation does not succeed with such deniers. For example, historian and denier Stanford Shaw just corrected the factual errors that Hovannisian pointed out in his work in a second edition, while leaving the approach and conclusions the same. Denial is still enormously dangerous, and little is being done despite new scholarship by serious scholars, including young Turkish ones. One further problem is that on the Internet, denialist websites often come up first in searches for materials on the Armenian Genocide.

The third panelist, Dr. Keith David Watenpaugh, spoke on “The Practical Failures of the League of Nation’s Interwar Humanitarian Project for Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Origins of International Human Rights.” Watenpaugh is Associate Professor of Modern Islam, Human Rights and Peace at the University of California (UC), Davis, where he directs the UC Davis Human Rights Initiative. He recently finished a year as an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, and Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, and Colonialism and the Arab Middle Class (Princeton 2006), along with many journal articles.

Watenpaugh prefaced his formal presentation with some remarks on his own experience as a target of threatened lawsuits from the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, and commented on similar high-pressure tactics employed by the TCA. He felt that any time scholars make substantive claims about groups or individuals engaged spreading denial of the Armenian Genocide, the threat of legal action should be expected as an attempt to suppress criticism. Some scholarly periodicals which privately agreed with Watenpaugh’s views rejected his articles out of fear of legal hassles. Watenpaugh suggested that it was important to shelter junior scholars from such threats and attacks, and that funding of scholars should be increased by Armenian organizations and groups to prevent the replacement of Armenian scholarship by denialist literature. Watenpaugh also mentioned the publication of the memoir of Karnig Panian in English translation (Goodbye, Aintoura: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide) by Stanford University Press as an example of a book that, with the ratification by publication of a major university press, can be used in classes on comparative or modern genocide, unlike the prolific denialist literature.

In his official talk, Watenpaugh showed some “iconic” pictures on the post-Genocide period and Armenians as he discussed what the international community did after failing to create a state for the Armenians, who were seen as the most deserving of all the peoples after World War I, and how this contributed to the contemporary humanitarian regime and discussions on human rights. The first decade of the League of Nations saw the abandonment of Armenian national aspirations. Shifting League policies nevertheless affected the status, position and even survival of Armenian refugee communities, and sometimes even individuals. The League formulated a sui generis humanitarianism for Armenians, with an emphasis on Armenian communal survival instead of just assimilation.

Armenians and Russians received refugee status not because of individual persecution but because they were part of a group that no longer had national protection. The Nansen passport was developed as a partial solution. It was not an actual passport but an internationally recognizable identification document that would allow obtaining visas and travel. Armenians could thus move on, but these documents made no provision for any civil or political rights, and host countries had no binding obligations toward the Armenians. In essence, Turkey was relieved of responsibility toward its citizens which it had turned into refugees. These documents, Watenpaugh states, constituted an early international juridical notice of the permanence of the exile of the Armenians.

The final speaker was Dr. Gregory Aftandilian, adjunct faculty member at Boston University and Northeastern University, and an associate of the Middle East Center at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Aftandilian had been policy advisor for Congressman Chris Van Hollen and Senator Paul Sarbanes, as well as foreign policy fellow to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. He worked 13 years as a Middle East analyst at the US Department of State. He is the author of several works on Middle East and Armenian politics, including Egypt’s Bid for Arab Leadership: Implications for US Policy, Looking Forward: An Integrated Strategy for Supporting Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt, and Armenia, Vision of a Republic: The Independence Lobby in America, 1918-1927.

The title of Aftandilian’s talk was “The Impact of the Armenian Genocide on the Offspring of Ottoman Armenian Survivors.” While some work has been done concerning survivors, much less is known about how their offspring, now in their 80s and 90s, have been affected. Aftandilian found that the extensive scholarship on transmission of trauma to children of Holocaust survivors is relevant for Armenians too, though denial in the Armenian case is an additional exacerbatory element.

The survivors themselves in the US formed a highly traumatized community, with even bachelors who came prior to World War I suffering from survivor guilt. Those who did go through the events would often recount stories about them later. The poor socioeconomic status of the US Armenian community in the 1920s and 1930s compounded the ordeal of the survivors, along with local discrimination. Nonetheless, there was an attempt to transmit provincial or local identities to the next generation through the creation of a closed ghettoized world.

The general absence of grandparents, children being named after murdered relatives, and overly protective survivor parents made life more difficult for the new generation. Children even when shielded came to understand the grief or depressive state of mind of many of their parents.

World War II became another great traumatic event for the parents, who had to send off their first sons to the war. Aftandilian interviewed some veterans who broke down in tears not about what they witnessed in combat but about the stress caused to their parents when they left home.

Prof. Simon Payaslian served as the discussant for this final panel. Holder of the Charles K. and Elizabeth M. Kenosian Chair in Modern Armenian History and Literature at Boston University, he is the author of United States Policy toward the Armenian Question and the Armenian Genocide; Political Economy of Human Rights in Armenia: Authoritarianism and Democracy in a Former Soviet Republic; International Political Economy: Conflict and Cooperation in the Global System (with Frederic S. Pearson); and The History of Armenia: From the Origins to the Present.

Payaslian suggested that more context and use of existing literature would be helpful in Giorgi’s work. He agreed with Hovannisian’s views on current Armenian Genocide denial. He pointed out for Watenpaugh that the origins of modern international human rights began with slavery and the abolitionist movement, and the post World War I League of Nations efforts were contributions to the development of international human rights. Finally, he wondered whether the disintegration of Armenian communities in places like Worcester, Mass. could be connected to the transfer of trauma resulting from the Armenian Genocide.

The panelists then defended their approaches and answered further questions from the audience, after which Barlow Der Mugrdechian, Treasurer of the SAS, thanked all organizers, participants and audience members and closed the conference. He said that Armenologists did not have the opportunity to interact in this open manner in many other places, so this conference was a useful contribution to the furtherance of Armenian Studies.