Interview with Ara Sarafian

The following interview with historian Ara Sarafian, director of the Gomidas Institute (London), was published in the July 2012 issue of the French Armenian magazine "Nouvelles d'Armenie."
"Nouvelles d'Armenie": Going against the Vidal-Naquet doctrine, you believe that we should have a dialogue with deniers of the Armenian Genocide. Where are we in this issue? Where does this contradictory dialogue stand today?
Thank you for your forthright question. I will respond accordingly. I do not accept the basic premise of your question, as your reference to Naquet suggests, that deniers are all powerful, while their opponents are powerless and voiceless. Such a premise flatters deniers and masks the failures of their opponents. It provides us with a facile excuse to avoid critical scrutiny of our own work. Nor do I accept the view that engaging deniers bestows upon their views legitimacy that those views would not otherwise have enjoyed.     In Turkey today there is a long-awaited opportunity for open debate on the treatment of Armenians. There’s a perhaps unprecedented chance to publicly challenge the state orthodoxy. To squander this opportunity to educate Turkish society would be a great shame. 
Q: Turkish leaders propose the creation of a mixed commission of historians on the genocide issue. In which ways does your approach differ from such a proposition?
Turkish leaders are partisan on the Armenian issue. They are behind the Turkish state and quasi-state institutions that promote a vigorous denialist programme in Turkey and abroad. My approach does not deal with the Turkish state -- nor, for that matter, with the Armenian state -- but focuses on academic work. It critiques denialist paradigms as well as presents new work that goes to the heart of the Armenian issue.    Just to give you an example, I recently had an article published in Agos focusing on the Armenian political prisoners who were arrested on 24 April 1915 and sent to Ayash (near Ankara). My analysis used a range of sources, including Armenian and Ottoman records, and argued that, of 85 or so prisoners sent to Ayash, around 15 were released, while around 71 disappeared. I also discussed how various sources accounted for these disappearances in terms of two major massacres. My article also noted the lack of records in Ottoman archives on the fate of these men, and the manner in which the head of the Turkish Archives, Yusuf Sarinay, in an article called "What Happened on 24 April 1915” masked the shortcomings of Ottoman archives and proceeded to give a false account that claimed that the political prisoners in question actually survived and were released in 1918. I believe in this type of academic engagement to understand the Armenian Genocide in critical terms. I believe this type of research and analysis is the way forward.

Q: Are Turkish historical research studies on the Genocide still dominated by deniers? Is the climate in the Research Centers or Universities still oriented towards denial? Are there any other tendencies?
Yes. Deniers still have a great deal of power and influence in Turkey. However, there is an expanding circle of people who question the official Turkish denialist position. This is why we should encourage alternative voices in Turkey.

Q: Does the international recognition movement have any impact in Turkey?
Yes, because it keeps the Armenian issue in the public eye. Deniers would prefer to bury it. 

Q: Is there still something to learn from the Turkish archives, or have they been totally "cleansed"? Are the traces of the cleansing visible?

Turkish archives have many gaps in them. We can wonder how they got there. Turkish authorities do not discuss them. However, even in their current state, Turkish archives are an important source of information. They contain a great deal of detailed information on the Genocide alongside alternative sources at our disposal. For example, Turkish archives show that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were ‘relocated’ to a resettlement zone around Der Zor in 1915, yet these same Turkish archives cannot show that hundreds of thousands of such people were actually resettled there (or elsewhere). Turkish records thus corroborate alternative sources, including Armenian ones, that entire communities were deported, but they provide insufficient information on the fate of these deportees. Several years ago Murat Bardakci published a document from Talaat Pasha’s private papers, claiming that it proved that there was no Armenian Genocide. I looked at this document, as well as Ottoman archival records - something he had not done - and found that Talaat’s report was actually a report on the Armenian Genocide. I published my findings in a booklet. Bardakci had an ugly outburst against me in a Turkish newspaper column, without responding to the content of the study. Other Turkish historians remained silent. The Gomidas Institute proceeded to translate the study into Turkish, released it in Istanbul, and invited a response. The subsequent silence of Bardakci and official historians historians is a sign of the intellectual weakness of their position.    

Q: According to you, which group, institute, institution or person has the greatest potential in Turkey to change the mentalities on the genocide issue?
Today there are alternative voices heard in Turkey, including academics, journalists and some institutions. I believe that Agos and the Hrant Dink Foundation do very good work. However, I would also like to see the Gomidas Institute set up a real presence in Turkey and pursue a vigorous program of addressing the Armenian issue on a day to day basis – working with Turkish academics, undertaking research projects, organising seminars, conferences and exhibitions, publishing in Turkish, responding to Turkish audiences. Such a development is entirely possible and we are looking for sponsors to back us.

Q: Talking about Turkey and the recognition of the Genocide, in your opinion, in which domains should Armenians apply their efforts? What are some of the weaknesses and strengths?
Armenians should learn from their past mistakes and back new cadres of competent researchers, key centres of academic excellence, as well as a more engaging and forward looking research agendas. Armenians are not powerless and the genocide issue is not a lost cause.

Q: According to you what are the next steps of the Turks on the "Armenian question"?
I expect the denialist camp will continue as before and gradually lose face as a new generation of Turkish historians and activists increasingly speak out. Official Turkey may then try to disassociate itself from its rather crude position and adopt a more refined one, probably somewhere between a tokenistic acknowledgement of "the terrible events of 1915” and a more sincere and open admission of guilt and liability. At the moment, official Turkey is rattling a big stick, holding Armenia as hostage, and offering a few tokens for a forced resolution on its own political terms. 


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