Commemorating Genocide in a Post-Genocide Denialist Habitus

Ayse Gunaysu
Dilara Balcı, in her book that gives a detailed account of how non-Muslims were represented in the Turkish film industry until the 1980’s, tells an anecdote that elucidates a great deal the environment in which Armenians, the descendants of genocide survivors, in Turkey led their lives.
In 1979, the late Nubar Terziyan, one of the veteran actors in Turkish cinema, put an advertisement in several newspapers to express his condolences for the death of Ayhan Isik, another Turkish star famous for his good looks. The advertisement read: “Ayhan, my son, the world is ephemeral, death is the fate of us all, yet you will never die, because you will always live in our and in millions of others’ hearts. This is a blessing for you. … Your uncle, Nubar Terziyan.” It was not long before the family of Ayhan Işık gave a counter-advertisement to the press, meant as a public announcement. It read: “An important correction: There is no connection whatsoever between the advertisement undersigned ‘Your uncle, Nubar Terziyan’ and our beloved Ayhan Işık. … We regretfully announce as we see it necessary.” (http://www.radikal.com.tr/hayat/rumlar_fahise_ermeniler_pansiyoncu_yahudiler_tuccar-1149673)
As in many cultures, “son” is a term of endearment in Turkish, used by elders when addressing a beloved youngster. And “uncle” is its counterpart, used by a youngster in addressing a close and dear elderly person. Despite this very well-known fact, the slightest possibility that someone could take it seriously and think that Ayhan Işık indeed had a family relation with Terziyan terrified (and at the same time, infuriated) Işık’s family to such an extent that the deep sentiment originally expressed was forgotten, and replaced with a public display of racism.
‘Geography of genocide and denial’
Nubar Terziyan’s humiliation and the Işık family’s response were only one of the numerous daily manifestations of life in a “post-genocide denialist habitus,” as Talin Suciyan calls it in her Ph.D. dissertation at the Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich. The thesis aims to “to write a post-genocide history of Armenian existence in Turkey that remained in the geography of genocide and denial: The crime continued to be reproduced by denial and victim and witness continued to live side by side along with the perpetrators. The testimony of both victim and witness was silenced and denied, and as the perfection of the crime proves, their memories, their testimonies were turned upside down.”
As Suciyan strikingly proves, based on primary Armenian sources, this was when those Armenian households that still remained after the genocide, dispersed throughout the various provinces in Asia Minor, were systematically removed from the region and concentrated in Istanbul where, it was thought, they could be more easily and directly controlled. They were doomed to lead their lives in an “ordinary, banal reality of the post-genocide denialist habitus,” which is the “more invisible rumbling social and political context, the everyday realities.” This habitus was the setting against which anti-Armenian policies, practices, and actions throughout the Republican era in Turkey took—and continue to take—place. This “defines the legal, cultural, social, and economic life of non-Muslims, in general, and the life of other ethnic and religious or political groups whose conflicts with the state remain unresolved,” writes Suciyan, referring to the anti-Armenian campaigns that “have served to reproduce anti-Armenianism in the country, to keep the voices of the victims of genocide away for decades, and to silence those who remained in Turkey.” She continues, “Calling Armenians to represent themselves in an anti-Armenian atmosphere not only meant to ignore the annihilation of their parents, but also to ignore the fact that they were the children of survivors themselves. Thus, Armenians in Turkey were expected to become parts of the denialist habitus by operating within the framework of the same habitus.” Suciyan questions the relevance of the “minority-majority” formula used in defining the issue in Turkey: “It is not a matter of merely legal condition, but the denialist habitus that plays a decisive role, although not only in the production and generation of apparatuses of exclusion; it also constitutes a model of citizenship and, consequently, a social reality embodying an affective attachment to this denialist formation.”1
This “habitus” is diametrically opposed to the post-Holocaust social, cultural, and intellectual environment in Germany, where you cannot walk through the streets of Berlin, for instance, without being reminded of the Holocaust.
Istanbul: scene of crime
How, then, should a truly meaningful commemoration of genocide look like in such a habitus of denialism? In what ways should it be different from genocide commemorations held elsewhere in the world?
Istanbul—where the Armenian Genocide has been commemorated indoors since 2005, and outdoors since 2010—was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and the crime scene of the Armenian Genocide and the genocide of other Christian peoples of Anatolia. Now it is the biggest city and business center of the country, and it is still a crime scene—this time, of the denial of the genocide.
Given the post-genocide denialist habitus, there is a categorical existential difference, indeed contrast, between the Armenians and Sunni Muslims in Turkey. We, a handful of people organizing these commemorations, are the members of the perpetrator group, no matter how conscientious, righteous, or even courageous we feel. The existential difference can never be erased even by the most selfless efforts we, Turks and Kurds, make against denial, with the best intentions and cleanest conscience. We do what we choose of our own free will and by conscious choice; and the moment we cease to do what we do now, we will be safe. But the families in Samatya, in Feriköy, and in other quarters of Istanbul, where the diminishing Armenian population is concentrated—regardless of their political stance, what they choose, what they do—are under constant threat just because of their names, because of what is written on their birth certificate, because of what they are. They are under constant bombardment of ugly denialism radiating from all sorts of media, and are exposed to hate speech showeredfrom TV channels, the internet, even their neighbors and the taxi driver (as in the case last year when an Armenian woman was beaten by a taxi driver in Istanbul, just because she was Armenian). The existential reality of Armenians in Turkey is well described by Ayda Erbal in her article, “We are all oxymorons!” which she wrote after the assassination of Hrant Dink: “Either you chose to stay relevant and become politically involved and risk getting killed because of your involvement, or you choose to be reduced to total irrelevancy in another country—which is, of course, a subtle way of being killed. Especially if you are an intellectual, journalist, artist, or writer, this second version of being killed over and over again during all those years of undoing and redoing yourself in different, strange, and sometimes hostile cultures, is the only thing that you share with the other lucky (!) Armenians from around the world. Your ability to survive in partial-death situations connects you to your fellow Armenians, especially if they are from the Middle East.”2
Recognition starts on the personal level
There is currently an ongoing debate, within a rather closed circle of people who are involved in the so-called “Armenian Question,” if ordinary Turks and Kurds today should feel guilty over the genocide and shame for being a member of the perpetrator group. It is argued that one cannot be accused and considered guilty of what his/her ancestors have done.
But is personally committing a crime a prerequisite to feeling guilty? Are we only responsible for those actions we carry out ourselves, especially if it is not an isolated case of murder but a genocide, if it is a crime against humanity with an immense, unimaginable scale of atrocities, irreparable losses, and repercussions that will be felt forever by the descendants of the victims, transmitted from generation to generation against the murderous setting of denialism?
An enormous amount of wealth was plundered, and none of us can be sure whether or not there has been any ill-gotten property in our family history. Even if our families are thoroughly clean in this respect, we are the members of a group who reproduced, proliferated, and reinforced its dominance as a majority in the absence of the Armenians and other Christian peoples annihilated just for this purpose. In other words, we became, were made, the agencies that enabled the genocide to serve its purpose. The simple fact is that they were exterminated, and we are here to live and to prosper.
Above all, the crime was and is still being committed in our name, and on our behalf, in the name of Islam and “Turkishness,” which we have naturally, if not voluntarily, inherited, and which we—again, regardless of whether or not it is our own choice—enjoy the privileges of, as non-Armenians and non-Christians. In this way, we inevitably, many of us unintentionally, contribute to this post-genocide denialist habitus. Recognition of the genocide, then, should first begin on a personal level on the part of the members of the perpetrator group, by willingly bearing the responsibility and feeling the shame of the crime committed in the name of the ethnic and religious identity we are attached to, and for the good of the system we are a part of.
A multi-layered responsibility
As for the Turkish left, especially those who lead the efforts for genocide recognition and commemoration, we bear a specific responsibility. Until recently (in historical terms), we—very self-confident in our progressive role, the vanguard of the revolutionary forces—started the history of socialism in this country in the 1920’s with the founding of the Communist Party of Turkey, comprised of Turkish intellectuals, who were completely unaware of the earlier Dashnaktsutiun and Hnchak Party legacy, as well as the Greek and Jewish labor movements. We were internationalists, in solidarity with the oppressed masses of Latin America, Africa, and the Far East, but unaware of the “zone of genocide” we were living in the middle of, unable to see the oppression of the non-Muslim neighbors and Kurds (along with Alevis) under our nose. We were anti-racist, but racism was far away from us—in the United States, in South Africa, and elsewhere in the world. We were totally blind to the very racist environment we were living in. Denial of the genocide, hate speech directed against Armenians and non-Muslims, in general, discrimination, portraying non-Muslims as potential traitors, these were all around us, and yet we didn’t see it for many decades. In this way, we contributed to the denialist habitus. Many Turkish intellectuals refer to the “hundreds of thousands of people marching at Hrant Dink’s funeral” with a visible note of pride. Hrant Dink had to be assassinated for those hundreds of thousands to wake up from their long sleep and stand up.
As the ones who have undertaken the responsibility to commemorate the genocide, our responsibility is further multi-layered and multi-dimensional.
Given the unique circumstances in Turkey, both on the part of the descendants of the victims and the perpetrators, extra and deliberate attention and sensitivity should mark our efforts in Turkey—if, that is, we truly aim to accomplish a meaningful commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on the scene of crime.
There are several important prerequisites for this. First, what is crucial is that Armenians in Turkey as a community, under the above-mentioned existential circumstances, have never been able to collectively commemorate, throughout the decades of denialist habitus, their own dead. They have been and are still deprived of the most essential right to pay homage to and pray for their victim ancestors on April 24of each year. In this sense, the commemorations that were organized over the past several years were not “their” commemorations. They only took part individually as “participants.” The fact that Turkish human rights activists and anti-racists were the ones who started these events is, in itself, another manifestation of the denialist habitus. How and under what conditions the Armenians in Turkey are allowed to lead their lives in this denialist country should be one of the fundamental concerns while developing the manner and the content of the commemorations.
Secondly, the organizers should keep in mind the deep existential gap that exists between the two sides when deciding on how to commemorate. The two sides involved, the Armenians and Turks/Kurds, are not and should not be conceived or presented as equals, and they should not be called on to form a united body of commemorators, to embrace each other as a step towards so-called “reconciliation.”
A true genocide commemoration is not an “event,” a “demonstration,” or a “political protest” that gives us, the offspring of the perpetrators, the opportunity to feel a certain kind of fulfillment or catharsis, or to be satisfied for performing our “duty”. The duty will never be fulfilled, as genocide is something irreversible, irreparable, unrecoverable, and unforgivable. The commemoration can also not be conceived as a reunion, a mutual embracing of Turks and Armenians, a display of the so-called “sharing of pain and suffering” that would lead to a sort of reconciliation. Because it is not one and the same—it is the Armenians’ pain and suffering, and the Turks/Kurds’ shame and responsibility, on the part of the Muslim peoples of Anatolia, the descendants of the perpetrators.
Therefore a true commemoration of the genocide victims has to lay the ground for Armenians, and only the Armenians, to commemorate their dead, the unburied, the graveless souls still in agony in the face of denialism. And we, the Muslim peoples of Turkey, have no right to “commemorate,” and should only express our responsibility in the ongoing denial and heavy burden of shame for being a member of the perpetrator group.
[1] Talin Suciyan, “Surviving the Ordinary: the Armenians in Turkey, 1930’s to 1950,” unpublished doctor of philosophy thesis at LMU Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, 2013.
2 Ayda Erbal, “We are all Oxymorons,” Armenian Weekly Special Issue, 2008 and on http://azadalik.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/we-are-all-oxymorons, accessed on Sept. 24, 2013.
"The Armenian Weekly," October 2, 2013

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