Interview with Jirair Libaridian about Turkish Conference in Tbilisi

Asbed BEDROSSIAN (GROONG): We have a sense of a brewing controversy related to a conference on Turkish studies in Georgia this month. We understand that you will be participating in that conference; indeed you will be the first keynote speaker. Can you tell us something about that conference?
Jirair LIBARIDIAN: Sure. This is the fourth conference of the University of Utah Turkish Studies Project. They have held others in different parts of the world before. This one will take place with the partnership of Tbilisi State University, in Tbilisi, early June. The theme of the conference is quite intriguing: "The Caucasus at Imperial Twilight: Nationalism, Ethnicity and Nation-Building (1870s-1920s)." There will be some 80 papers presented by known and upcoming scholars.
I was invited to participate in these series for the first time; after much thought, deliberation and consultation with some colleagues, I accepted the invitation.

Q:        Why did you need so much thought and deliberation to make your decision?
A:        First, I was not very familiar with the main organizer, Professor Hakan Yavuz of Utah University. I knew of his position on the Armenian Genocide; he is, what we call in the field, a denialist. The conference will not focus on the Genocide, although that historical event and circumstances surrounding it will have to be considered. I had to decide whether I could accommodate what I have to say on the subject of end of empires as they relate to the Armenian Genocide. I decided that I did have something significant to say.
Second, I had some discussions with colleagues who reacted rather strongly to the possibility of my participation or, later, my decision to participate. I had to look at their arguments against my participation or, for that matter, the participation of any Armenian scholar carefully. Some of our colleagues argue that there is a direct link between the Turkish state and its denialist strategy and Professor Yavuz.

Q:        Is there such a link?
A:        There does not seem to be, nothing direct or evident. But at the end that does not matter. The question is that, even if we assume that there is some kind of Turkish state interest or involvement in this conference, the forum is a forum, and it is a big one. We should be there, regardless. We should be there especially if there is a connection to the Turkish state. We should not leave the field open and without our presence. After all, if we do not talk to denialists and address the next generation of scholars, we will end up talking only to those who recognize the Genocide or are inclined to do so.
If it is the Turkish state we are confronting, then we have to think of the appropriate strategy to respond.
At the end, though, we have to consider that Professor Hakan Yavuz is an academic, like many of us, and teaches at a credible university, like many of us. He has his views and perspectives. Professor Yavuz has published extensively and it is wrong to judge him strictly on the basis of his position on the Genocide. There is a large number of academics who approach the issues of concern to us from a very different perspective, a perspective that ends up denying the Genocide.
As we have discovered in other cases, the characterization of Ittihad ve Terakki Party policies toward Armenians as genocide is a journey. That journey is both intellectual and emotional. For some that journey is a short one. For others it may never come.

Q:        Who are the colleagues you refer to who have argued against your participation in this conference?
A:        There is no need, at this point, to name names. If need be, I will do so in the future and consider the elements of their faulty logic individually and collectively.
Q:        What has been their argument?
 A:        Essentially that the participation of Armenian scholars would provide a legitimacy to the conference and, by extension, to the denialist position that Armenian scholars should not provide.

Q:        That seems to make sense, doesn't it?
A:        It makes sense, of course, but it makes sense within a certain, limited logic. It may not be so obvious if we free ourselves from the reflexive reaction to events, reflexive reactions that we may be confusing with strategies.
I may be within a minority to think that our issue is one of (a) benefitting from existing possibilities or (b) creating new ones. In this sense it is possible to think of a number of scenarios on the significance of my participation and then come to a different conclusion than our colleagues who find my participation or the participation of other Armenian scholars, now of the younger generation, abhorrent.
My participation in that conference is based on a different logic than the one used by our discontented colleagues.

Q:        What are these other strategies you refer to?
A:        There are some that I have thought of, but that I think should be left to a different forum. I think Armenian scholars from Armenia and the Diaspora should have and do have something to say at a major conference in the region. Especially on a theme that is so relevant to what happened to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the waning years of that state.
That was the first level of response. Such conferences will come and go. But there is a larger issue here, and that is, how do we decide what is right and what is wrong in such instances. And who decides? And on what basis?
It is essential for all our colleagues to understand that no one single person, scholar or otherwise, or group of persons or scholars have the right to determine what is the right strategy without proper consultations and thorough examination of possible strategies.
At the next level, then, what we need to develop is a process of thorough examination of these issues and strategies.

Q:        What are you suggesting concretely?
A:        No more than what I suggested to two of my colleagues who have been in contact with me on this issue, trying to persuade me to not to accept the invitation to this conference.
For some colleagues to expect that I or any other self-respecting scholar would decline to attend a conference because by their logic acceptance would harm the “Armenian” position indicates that they give themselves the sole right to determine what is the best way to proceed on such matters.
I suggested to both of my interlocutors that to resolve this issue, or at the least to understand each other, a workshop be convened where the logics of varying strategies could be examined in consultation. That means there is no hierarchy or orthodoxy. That means we think together first, before we determine that one's own thinking must be adopted by others, just because its assumptions are taken for granted.
At the end, we need to ask a simple question: when did reflexive and conventional answers provide answers to issues in our history?
It is possible some people feel uncomfortable talking to denialists or confronting the Turkish state. But personal or scholarly discomfort should be the last factor on the basis of which one should make decisions on such issues. As for legitimation of the individual position of the main organizer regarding the Genocide, it would be useful to remember that the most important university in our neighboring Georgia is the cosponsor of the conference and the president of the largest professional association of Middle Eastern specialists, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is another scheduled keynote speaker. The question is whether an “Armenian boycott” is the best way to deal with this situation. Because at the end this is what is being suggested. As if previous boycotts have worked.
At the end, we have to consider whether we are approaching this conference as an academic or political event. In fact it is both, and more. That is why a thorough discussion is what we need. Meanwhile, there is no reason for me to accept someone else's orthodoxy. I have seen and battled too much to now accept any orthodoxy.

“Groong / Armenian News Network,” May 15, 2013

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