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Is There a Single Answer? Notes on Denial, Legitimacy, and the Tbilisi Conference

Vartan Matiossian
The Turkish Studies Program (TSP) at the University of Utah, directed by M. Hakan Yavuz,(*) organized a conference in Tbilisi (June 5-8, 2013), entitled "The Caucasus at Imperial Twilight: Nationalism, Ethnicity and Nation-Building (1870s-1920s)." As it is known, we owe to the Utah Series in Middle Studies (Yavuz himself is the Series Editor) the publication of three works with many disputable theses: Guenter Lewy's "The Armenian Massacres in the Ottoman Empire: A Disputed Genocide" (2005), the same author's "Essays on Genocide and Humanitarian Intervention" (2012), and Justin McCarthy et al.'s "The Armenian Rebellion at Van" (2006).

Among the seven sponsors of the conference was the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), a self-defined educational, advocacy, and charitable organization whose website offers a revisionist version of history: "The Armenian Diaspora claim of genocide is a one-sided assessment of the inter-communal war between Ottoman Armenians and Ottoman Muslims in 1915, and it prejudices Turkish and Armenian rapprochement. Over 1.1 million Ottoman Muslims perished as the Armenian Revolt (1885-1919) and inter-communal attacks aimed to carve out an ethnically and politically pure Armenian state from the eastern Ottoman Empire, even though demographically they were a minority." You may couple it with the following excerpt of a secret report recently published by the Turkish newspaper Radikal, signed by General Kenan Evren, Chief of Staff and leader of the September 12, 1980 coup, weeks before its launching: "During World War I, the Ottoman government found itself in a difficult predicament as a result of the betrayal by Armenians and their continued crimes, thus there was the imperative to transport Armenians to far away places away from the war. This decision corresponded with norms of the time and was legal, as well as a justified decision. It needs to be taken into consideration that these actions were taking place on Ottoman territory, which belonged to Turks” (Asbarez, July 16, 2013). Historical research, whether under a self-elected dictatorship or a government elected by vote, seems to have weighed little on the Turkish "mainstream" over the past 33 years.
The announced presence of Armenian scholars in the conference program triggered a critical reception, to say the least, as showed by Asbarez editor Ara Khachatourian's "Armenian Scholars at the Center of Genocide Denial" article (Asbarez, June 5; The Armenian Weekly, June 5),(**) a letter to the editor by George Aghjayan (June 6, in both newspapers), and the views of five scholars "speak[ing] out against legitimizing genocide deniers" (The Armenian Weekly, June 7; Asbarez, June 7).
From a total of ten Armenian scholars listed in the Tbilisi program, however, four hailing from Armenia had already withdrawn at some time between May 2 and June 5 (Armenpress, June 6, 2013).(***) The presence of Asbed Kotchikian, one of the members of the organizing committee, and Gerald J. Libaridian, one of the keynote speakers, as well as of Richard Antaramian, a presenting scholar on the program, all from the United States, was not reported. The articles available to us from Armenian and Turkish sources only mentioned two presenters: Ara Papian ("Woodrow Wilson’s Arbitral Award on the Turkish-Armenian Boundary") from Armenia and Garabet K. Moumdjian ("Armenian-Young Turk Relations, 1895-1914: Trying to Explain Issues Pertaining to the ARF 'Aye' & the Hnchag 'Nay'") from the U.S.

Elephant(s) in the Room
The main arguments of critics were the rejection of engaging in a dialogue with known deniers--as it would provide them with legitimacy--and/or the possible benefits that such a dialogue would bring, as well as skepticism about the ability of those participants to counter denialist theses at such conferences. For the sake of discussion, let's concede that organizers may dictate the terms and the framework of a conference, and that denial has many subtle nuances.  
What about sponsors? A list of sponsors usually includes organizations or people who give a grant, underwrite expenses, offer the venue, or simply lend their name to give more weight to a conference. Some research should have been done to find out whether the TCA, besides funding the Turkish Studies Program, had fulfilled any concrete task as guardian of denial during the conference. This is why its press release, as part of a counterattack against the two Armenian newspapers, was born after the conference; a similar piece of denialist rhetoric could have been issued even without any involvement in the conference whatsoever, since as an organization "fostering understanding of Turkish American issues through public education," the TCA will always be there for you, wherever and whenever the need for such "public education" arises.
A note on the margin, but not a marginal one: there are a few elephants in the same room. One may only wonder, for instance, whether there would have been a fallout if the conference had enjoyed the sponsorship of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan (another of the seven sponsors), but not of the TCA. The sponsorship by the former, perhaps paying for the expenses of its six participating researchers, was left essentially unmentioned. People tend to forget that this academy has been a hotbed of historical falsification on Karabagh since the 1960s, with the leadership of late historian Ziya Bunyadov, one of its vice-presidents and long-time director of its Institute of History. Incidentally, the conference program included two papers about Karabagh, one of them by a researcher at that Academy, and one paper on the Armenian genocide. 
Since the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan does not seem to have been directly involved, to the extent of our knowledge, in Azerbaijani anti-Armenian propaganda in the U.S., one comes to the assumption, however unreasonable it may be, that its sponsorship did not matter in this conference and would not matter even if it stood alone.(****) Should we be also forced to assume, however unreasonable it may be again, that the Medz Yeghern, the Armenian genocide, is the only issue of Armenian modern history that matters to the Armenian American community--exception made of concerned scholars--at large? 
The chair of the keynote session and one of the presenters was Peter Sluglett, professor of History at the University of Utah and current president of MESA (Middle East Studies Association of North America, 2011-2014). Sluglett also happens to have coedited the book War and Diplomacy: the Russo Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin with Hakan Yavuz (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011). Going a little further into this game of reductio ad absurdum, let's put together the following syllogism: the president of MESA participates in the Tbilisi conference; the Tbilisi conference is organized/sponsored by deniers; then, the president of MESA is a denier.
If the conclusion were true, one of our overzealous superpatriots lurking in chat rooms, social networks, or the online comment section of Armenian American newspapers should suggest that the Society for Armenian Studies, which organizes its annual meetings and also sponsor chairs under the aegis of MESA, skips (= boycotts) its conferences until the end of 2014 at least, along with  individual Armenian Studies scholars. By the same token, isn't their participation legitimizing denial?

Who Legitimizes Whom? 
Armenian Studies and, in particular, the study of the genocide had their coming of age in the past three to four decades. Turkish academic denial, particularly fostered and financed at a quasi-state or state level, has accompanied that coming of age in the same environment. We are confronted with a paradox: deniers have been already legitimized by a varnish of academic respectability, regardless of the attitude Armenian scholars have adopted towards them. 
The example of Shoah (Holocaust) denial brings together a small, yet significant caveat: normally, those deniers do not have positions in academia, particularly in the United States. The few ones who have them--usually in an unrelated field--avoid talking about the issue on campus, probably fearing reprisal. Refusal to engage deniers and/or denial is only logical, given than there is a complete mismatch of academic and societal weight versus the background noise of what is usually called the "lunatic fringe" in America.(*****) While the First Amendment protects their freedom of voicing denialist opinions, European law has moved forward to punish Shoah denial in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, and Switzerland, for instance.
Meanwhile, deniers of the Armenian genocide in this country, whether Turkish and non-Turkish, did and do have academic positions, including Ivy League universities, and even forceful denunciations of their unethical practices and their collusion with non-academic and state entities have not prevented them from becoming tenured professors.(******) Whether we like it or not, such people, unlike their partners in Shoah denial, are noticeably positioned within the same mainstream that Armenian academics enjoy.
Denunciation of Turkish denial, while always critically important and necessary, will not end the problem per se and will not even reduce it to background noise level any time soon. Parallels with refusal by Jewish academics to engage deniers are moot; this refusal has been consistently and powerfully backed by the effort of media, academia, and public to exclude such "debate" from the mainstream.
Regardless of whether Armenian participation in conferences organized and/or sponsored by Turkish deniers confers legitimacy or not, it is logical to think that the latter have been already legitimized by their American employers, partners, and colleagues, who may regard the entire business--if and when they care at all about it--as a "this one says, the other one says" issue, as well as university presses, academic publishers, and peer-reviewed academic journals that publish and/or review their books and articles on an equal foot with Armenian scholarship.(*******) What "this one says" or "the other one says" needs to be backed up by academic consistency and integrity, indeed, but how many people take the time to check those "minutiae"? 
According to the Tbilisi program, there were sixteen papers whose titles addressed various Armenian issues from the 1890s to our days, at least some of them with a critical, negative, or anti-Armenian denialist point of view. Turks, Azerbaijanis, or Western scholars routinely deliver similar-themed papers at any professional conference, from MESA to ASN (Association for the Study of Nationalities), where Armenian American scholars are usually present (in comparatively very small numbers), and sometimes both sides have engaged in debates. If you attend any of those conferences knowing that you may engage in debates about denial, the central difference between them and the Tbilisi conference is the acronym of the organizer. One way or another, the TSP is operating within a U.S. university ranked #125 (out of a total of 280 national universities) by U.S. News and World Report in 2013.
Whether the potential participants in the Tbilisi conference intended to engage in any exchange or simply let their own evidence speak for itself, we do not know. Denialism is a nitpicker; whatever anyone said or wrote or did in the past hundred years is enough to create a balloon of "facts" and the impression of a legitimate historical controversy. Do you leave it alone? If you leave it alone, the balloon will grow. Do you puncture it? If you puncture it, new "facts" will come to patch and inflate it again to start the cycle anew. If you do puncture it, is it better to do it privately, through an article, a review, or a book, or to do it publicly, through a speech, a debate, a conference?
Is the whole issue of engaging denialists a matter of one choice or the other, or one and the other?
What Did They Actually Say?
Khachatourian had stated in Asbarez (June 5) that "these Armenian scholars who are participating in these conferences should be accountable to the public and through the Armenian press must report on their efforts to 'counter' Genocide denial in these forums." Three days after the end of the conference, the Armenian Public Radio  interviewed both participants. Artak Barseghyan reported:
"The conference made no reference to the Armenian-Turkish relations, and only one of the 71 reports was dedicated to the Armenian Genocide. Therefore, the conference was more of scientific nature, Ara Papyan said. At the same time, he did not rule out that the sponsors pursued the aim of denying the fact of the Armenian Genocide yet again.
Ara Papyan said it's necessary to step from the campaign for recognition of the Armenian Genocide to compensation claims.
Garabet Moumdjian noted, in turn, that the issue of reimbursement should become the main target ahead of the 100th  anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
The historian considers that the issue needs diplomatic and legal solutions, without bypassing the scientific aspect. He added that the judicial proceedings demand a huge preparatory work" (www.armradio.am, English text, June 11, 2013). 
Turkish columnist Burak Bekdil wrote eight days later:
"The Armenian scholars powerfully defended why the events of 1915-1920 constituted genocide. One scholar even demanded territory from what is today Turkey or, to him, what is western Armenia. Another argued that changing the current border would be easier if genocide had been recognized.
But they were engaged in honest debate with Turkish scholars who agreed or disagreed, even with Turkish diplomats. Those on both sides of the huge, invisible divide line seemed to be vigorously carving out a common mental map of mutual understanding. And the reward came without much delay: The Armenian scholars were accused of high treason!" (Hurriyet Daily News, June 19, 2013).
In an interview in Armenian with the website Ermenihaber.am on the next day, Ara Papian, who happened to be Bekdil's "one scholar," declared: "I have to say that I have not been subjected to any pressures by anyone about my participation or not participation. I am a free man and I decided what to do and what not to do. I found and I find that the conference organized by the University of Utah was a good opportunity to voice our territorial rights in front of almost a hundred scholars, which I did." He added: "The conference was not devoted to the Armenian Genocide, neither to the Armenians in general. Therefore, only one of the 71 papers was related to the Armenian Genocide. The conference was on Turkish Studies and Caucasian Studies in general." 
Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu, an analyst at the Turkish think-tank Strategic Outlook, argued that the debates were very fruitful: "The participation of intellectuals like Garabet K. Moumdjian and Ara Papian—both open to compromise—helped make this meeting ideal. Discussions on the Armenian issue and the arguments surrounding it all took place in a very democratic atmosphere. There was listening as well as criticism. The wide range of participants--including of course Turks, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis--included some who used the word 'genocide” and others who chose not to, but the main point was that all sides listened to one another respectfully" (Today's Zaman, June 19, 2013).
Regardless of what Oztarsu meant by "open to compromise," it seems that the Armenian scholars did not understand those words in the same sense that he sought to convey, judging from the tone of Papian's statements. The latter explained: "I argued, showing documents and maps, that the Arbitral Award of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson is in force until today; therefore, although Turkey maintains the usurpation of a major part of the territory of the Republic of Armenia, the given territory is de jure territory of the Republic of Armenia. I have to say that, although there were some attempts to oppose or to deny my viewpoint, but they were ineffective, as it is hard to deny something grounded in international law. Perhaps the Turks expected me, as usual, to beg recognition, but instead I spoke about our rights and our fair and equivalent reparations." He also acknowledged: "There was no restriction of expression for the Armenian side. Moreover, there were continuous and strong discussions after my paper. Among the participants were not only scholars, but diplomats of the Turkish embassy in Tiflis and diplomats of the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Turkey to the level of deputy head of the Research and Analysis Board."

Wanted: Information
Despite the fact that outlets in Armenia interviewed Papian at least twice, in Armenian and in English, and Moumdjian at least once, an editorial of Asbarez has recently insisted that "incidentally, none of the participants have answered Khachatourian’s call as of the date of this publication" (Asbarez, July 31, 2013). It is possible that the two scholars effectively participating were not willing to take the "call" to "be accountable to the public and . . . report on their efforts to 'counter' Genocide denial in these forums"; they may have taken exception with the string attached to it: a charge that "the participation of some of the Armenian scholars on the roster of the Tbilisi conference is not surprising as they 'sold out' a long time ago" (Asbarez, June 5, 2013). Neither the identity of those "some Armenian scholars" nor the nature of their "sellout" have been disclosed as of the date of this writing. As the legal principle has said since Roman times, "the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges."
Overall, it would have been interesting to expect a report on the conference, namely, to go after the news instead of waiting for the news to come. We assume that the newspapers called themselves into a two-month silence waiting for Gerald Libaridian's promised response (The Armenian Weekly, July 30, 2013; Asbarez, July 31, 2013), to which they attached simultaneous counter-responses in the shape of editorials. None of those three pieces constitutes, regardless of their intrinsic analytical value, the reporting we are talking about; Libaridian, who was absent from the conference because of a health problem, could not have been expected to be a source of first-hand information.
Nevertheless, editorials and op-ed pieces are just a bonus. Aren't readers entitled to have the facts presented in an adequate format, before and after, and to reason by themselves? Such elementary rule of journalism would have helped  figure out whether this particular incident was a tempest in a teapot caused by excess of editorializing, a settlement of accounts thinly veiled behind the storm of words, an attempt at a call for a serious conversation on the real issues, or none of the above.

Grist for the Turkish Mill
The same as the TCA, Turkish columnists also exploited the criticism of Armenian American newspapers. Going past Bekdil's title, "Intellectual Bullying," Oztarsu wrote down a blatant misrepresentation of the facts: "The Armenian Weekly, which has called on Armenian authorities to move against Turkey's attempts to make peace, was successful in putting a high level of pressure on Armenians who were planning to attend the conference by publishing the names of prospective speakers on the program--which prevented them from coming to Tbilisi."
However, the "names of prospective speakers on the program" had been posted by M. Hakan Yavuz on H-Net (h-net.msu.edu) on May 2, 2013, and therefore were in the public domain a month before the conference. Gerald Libaridian's interview with Asbed Bedrossian of the "Groong" Armenian Network was posted on May 15. It took three weeks to the Armenian American newspapers to make a move: Khachatourian's article appeared in Asbarez and The Armenian Weekly on June 5, the first day of the conference, with a link to the program posted on H-Net, while The Armenian Weekly closed the issue with its survey of five academics on June 7, the third day of the conference. Additionally, "Armenpress" reported the almost complete absence of scholars from Armenia on June 6, the second day of the conference. 
The only conclusion is that, with Asbarez and The Armenian Weekly making a link to information in the public domain when the ship was about to sail, namely, when they were boarding their planes, trains, or buses, or were already half-way to Georgia, people decided to cancel their trips, because they felt that such a link was a threat to their intellectual and/or physical integrity. Total lack of logic and fact-checking, to say the least.
Additionally, Oztarsu has interpreted the negative criticism of the Tbilisi conference as "efforts to leave Turkey without any interlocutors on this issue." The analysis is overblown, as Turkey, as a state, is just engaged in role playing a dialogue: otherwise, the section "Controversy Between Turkey and Armenia about the Events of 1915" of the website of its Ministry of Foreign Relations, would not include, among others, the falsification-ridden pamphlet "Hitler and the Armenian Question" (Ankara, 1989), one of many publications from an academic denialist of paleontological stature, Turkkaya Ataov (professor emeritus at the University of Ankara) (********). This section has probably been there for the entire tenure of FM Ahmet Davutoglu, who "progressively" proclaims to "understand [Armenian] pain" while instructing diplomatic representatives worldwide to repeat the official line as if they were living on the eve of the military coup of 1980.
Turkish analysts want to believe that two or three articles in a couple of outlets were/are sufficient  to "block the way forward, even putting heavy pressure on Armenians who want to participate in these programs," and to prevent intellectuals "from joining in the general process of compromise and solution-finding" (Oztarsu dixit). They may even try to convey the impression that, in this case, those articles were remotely comparable to, for instance, the universal Turkish outcry against Hrant Dink when he wrote about Sabiha Gokcen's Armenian roots, widely known to have been one of the several factors leading to his assassination.
They are free to believe it, indeed, and we are free to laugh out loud at such a belief too.
Oztarsu has spoken of "unbreakable taboos" which "continue to hang over the heads of the Armenians like the sword of Damocles." One should not speak of the noose in the house of the hangman, however: aren't there the logs in Turkish eyes enough to leave the Armenian specks alone?

Back to Square One?
It seems to have been forgotten that the Turkish Historical Society, well-known as the bulwark of Turkish "official" history since its inception by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1930s, organized the 11th Turkish Congress of History (Ankara, 1990) and invited several Armenian historians to participate. (The list of those who were invited, who did not answer, who declined, and who were unable to attend may be found in some Turkish denialist websites.) Only Levon Marashlian, then an associate professor at Glendale Community College, accepted the invitation and delivered a paper, "Economic Influences on U.S. Policies Toward Turkey and the Armenians, 1919-1923," published in the proceedings of the Congress in 1994 and as a book, in Turkish translation, by Belge Publishers in 2001. 
Marashlian's presentation and lively exchanges with many Turkish and non-Turkish scholars, including deniers who were announced as presenters in Tbilisi twenty-three years later, were reported in a press release published in five Armenian American newspapers, including Asbarez and The Armenian Weekly,(*********) and also in Armenian translation in the most influential newspaper of the Diaspora at the time, the Paris-based Haratch. It would be interesting to find out whether the newspapers that addressed the Tbilisi conference were equally critical of Marashlian's participation twenty-three years ago. 
The denialist nature of the organizers of the history congress in Ankara--the Turkish Historical Society was presided by professional denier Yusuf Halacoglu for fifteen years until 2008--and the conference in Tbilisi does not seem to have been overtly different, except that participation in the former may have been seen as a walk into the lion's den in 1990.
Today we are still in square one.
Too many questions lead to the same issue: Do all the roads lead to Rome, or just one?

(*) Hakan Yavuz, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science of the University of Utah, has laid out the latest course of action of genocide denial in a recent lengthy article: "genocide" is a legal term that has no relationship with historical science and just blocks its development in the Armenian case (M. Hakan Yavuz, "Contours of Scholarship on Armenian-Turkish Relations," Middle East Critique, 20:3, 2011, p. 231-251). Middle East Critique is a peer-reviewed journal published by Taylor and Francis.
(**) The article was translated in the Armenian section of Asbarez (June 6) and reprinted by Aztag, the Armenian daily from Beirut, on June 19. A string of errors was attached: where Khachadourian had written "(...) convened its fourth conference on Wednesday," Asbarez translated it, accordingly, into "last Wednesday" (June 6 was Thursday) and Aztag, without fact-checking, added "(May 29)."
(***) The program did not list Tigran Sarukhanyan, who apparently had withdrawn even before. Armenpress mentioned him as having "turned down the invitation to take part in the aforesaid conference."
(****) "The European-Azerbaijan Society" launched in 2012 a three-volume, 2,000-page collection in London called The Armenian Question in the Caucasus: Russian Archive Documents and Publications. The project behind this massive publication is spearheaded by a researcher at the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, Professor Kerim Shukurov, who declared: "The Azerbaijani position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is supported by the publication of these books, which prove that Armenians were systemically relocated to the Caucasus during the time of the Russian Empire" (see www.karabakh.co.uk). One may reasonably believe that the market for this book, and for Azerbaijani denial propaganda in general, is not limited to the United Kingdom
(*****) "Unsurprisingly, denial is often compared. While Holocaust deniers are a lunatic fringe, Armenian-genocide deniers have the backing of Turkey and the tacit acquiescence of Israel" (David B. MacDonald, Identity Politics in the Age of Genocide: The Holocaust and Historical Representation, New York: Routledge, 2008, p. 133).
(******) See Richard Hovannisian, "Scholarship and Politics," Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, vol. 2, 1985-1986, p. 169-185; Roger W. Smith, Eric Markusen, and Robert Jay Lifton, "Professional Ethics and the Denial of the Armenian Genocide," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 9:1, 1995, p. 1-22. Heath Lowry, the "hero" of both articles, became the Atatürk Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University from 1993-2013, and served as the Director of its Program of Near Eastern Studies from 1994-1997.
(*******) For instance, Michael Gunter, who repeated his denialist stance most recently in his book published by Palgrave Macmillan --the same editorial that published Simon Payaslian The History of Armenia-- with assistance from the TSP, reviewed Guenter Lewy's deeply flawed The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey, in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the flagship journal where  Vahakn Dadrian published his 1986 study on the Naim-Andonian documents. 
(********) Among a series of anti-Armenian propaganda pamphlets published by Ataov in the 1980s and distributed everywhere in the world in several Western languages, the only piece of information that merits some attention is his point about the ''photograph" of a supposed pile of Armenian skulls in the desert being a reproduction of Russian painter Valentin Vereshchagin's 1871 painting, "The Apotheosis of War" (collection of the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). This was also underscored by Tessa Hoffman and Gerayer Koutcharian in their 1992 photographic essay in Armenian Review. Interestingly, according to the website of the Tretyakov Gallery (www.tretyakovgallery.ru), Vereshchagin had initially intended to call the painting... "The Triumph of Tamerlane." As it is well known, the Turkic bloody conqueror of the fourteenth-fifteenth century was infamously known for leaving piles of thousands of severed heads behind the cities he ravaged, including Armenia.
(*********) Available at gcc.glendale.edu/marashlian/Webs/lectureinAnkara1990.htm.


  1. Turks love to sponsor conferences on how nationalisms supposedly "clashed" during the general period of the Armenian Genocide.

    The reason that Turks have pushed this particular topic for many, many years is that they want to fuzz up the facts of that era by showing that all the peoples of the region were supposedly fighting each other and - golly, gee-whiz - the Armenians were one of those "fighting" nationalities and got killed (not genocided) just like everyone else.

    Hence, what happened to Armenians was just "war", and they are no more a victim than anyone else, including Turks.

    I am saying that the whole conference was a setup to draw people into discussing the subject - a subject that is based on denialism. The Turks don't admit it, and academicians don't care.

    They'll discuss anything anywhere since they have nothing better to do. I'm serious.

    "Respected" academicians attend these conferences because, let's face it, what else do academicians have to do except present papers - any papers - wherever and whenever they can?

  2. Thanks Dr. Matiossian for an informative article that even I learned from...It seems that even though I was one of the participants of what transpired into "a tempest in a cup of tea," I had to wait for someone like you to put some sense into the matter and make it understandable to all!!! I really appreciate your effort in illuminating some points that had remained moot for me...