Aztag: On the Foundations of Turkey: An Interview with Muge Gocek

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On the Foundations of Turkey: An Interview with Muge Gocek

By Khatchig Mouradian

January 29, 2005

“Historians have primarily been concerned with protecting the interests of
the state. This has been the dominant historiography since the founding of
the Turkish Republic,” says Muge Gocek in this interview. She adds, however,
“Today, there are new works, like the works of Taner Akcam and the
interviews of Halil Berktay that approach the State’s views critically.
These, put together with the fact that recently – in the last two decades –
especially the Aras publishing house in Turkey has been translating
Turkish-Armenian literature into Turkish, make me think, or hope and wish
that there may be a post-national critical narrative developing.”

Gocek, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, certainly does much more than hoping and
wishing, however, regarding what she calls a “post-national critical
narrative.” She is one of the few Turkish voices in wilderness, organizing
conferences that bring together Turkish and Armenian scholars who are
prepared to set aside prejudices and confront history with all
its ugliness. She writes papers and gives lectures on the Armenian genocide,
and is currently, authoring a book on the subject.

The number of Turkish scholars that challenge the state’s point of view
regarding the Armenian genocide – any Turkish diplomat would immediately
tell you it is the “so-called Armenian genocide” — is not extensive.
However, their work speaks for itself. It is already catching the attention
of their Armenian colleagues, as well as historians, publicists and
politicians in the West.

Will the dominant Turkish elite have the courage to confronts its past and
acknowledge the suffering that the government of the Young Turks in the
Ottoman Empire inflicted on a considerable segment of its subjects? Will the
souls of more than a million Armenians that perished because of
state-sponsored killings finally rest in peace? For what they believe will
be for the good of all on both sides of the divide, Gocek and some of her
like-minded Turkish colleagues want to make sure that the answers to these
questions are all in the affirmative.

You can call them ‘turncoats’ or you can call them ‘pioneers’. They will not
feel intimidated by the first label. Nor will they be blinded by the second.
However you will describe them, one thing is certain: their work is a
harbinger of things to come.

Aztag- How did your research interests lead you to research the fate of the
Armenians in the early 20th century Ottoman Empire?

Muge Gocek- When I came to do my doctoral degree here in the US, I was
interested in the decline of the Ottoman Empire, especially in the elements
that led to its demise, and also in the rise of the Turkish Republic–my
dissertation was titled “the Rise of the Bourgeoisie and Demise of the
Empire”. During my research, I was alerted to the role the religious
minorities played in the Ottoman Empire and how, with the emergence of the
nation-state, these minorities were drawn out of the picture, and how their
exclusion led to the formation of a different type of society in Turkey. But
at that particular juncture, my interest in the minorities didn’t go beyond

However, as a historical sociologist, I was very interested in writing about
the histories of social groups that had not had a voice in history; this was
eventually compounded by my interest in the lack of democratization and the
lack of the participation of social groups in determining the Turkish
political structure. I was especially distressed about what was happening to
the Kurds and to other minority groups in Turkey today.

The way that the Armenians came into the picture had to do with my
particular location in the US. Whenever I told Armenians I was a Turk, I was
immediately asked to account for killing all those Armenians; I’m still
telling them that I honestly had nothing to do with it!

Initially, the issue was extremely politicized for me to venture into that
field. Anyhow, at the time I was working on other projects, and that is why
I put off getting involved in this matter. But then all my interests came
together and after I established my professional standing here and got
tenure, I figured that, as an academic, this was an issue I had to research
for a number of reasons. The most important reason is something which is
not covered much and that has to do with the emotional aspect of what
happened: The Armenians I talked with were so hurt because of this awful
thing that had happened in the past; they were not able to mourn it properly
because it was not recognized. Regardless of what happened, if one doesn’t
recognize something that has happened to someone, and something that has
been an extremely traumatic experience, it increases the trauma even more
and warps them emotionally. That’s why when I said “look, I feel for you as
a human being, I’m willing to listen to what made you suffer so much, made
your life so miserable, tell me what happened to you,” people were
immediately so much relieved that they almost became speechless. That was
an extremely eye-opening experience for me: I never realized how much
acknowledging and sharing people’s emotions and sufferings can make them and
you better people, part of a humane community.

Just as eye-opening for me was that in Turkey, when this issue came up, the
Turks I talked to became extremely angry. That made me realize how much the
official historiography there had left out what had happened in the past. I
got the best education Turkey had to offer before I came to the US and I
myself wasn’t aware of what happened, because there are no sources that I
could have read and critically studied other than the ones that presented
the Turkish State’s version of history. This was, of course, very hard to
overcome and I was able to do so because I came to the US and continued my
scholarship. The position that emerges in Turkey is unfortunately one based
on the ignorance of our own past, partly because of the partial knowledge
that exists out there in what passes as Turkish scholarship and also
because, as a consequence of the alphabet reforms, people cannot read the
original Ottoman texts themselves, and the translation of those Ottoman
sources into Latin script has been controlled by the government as well.
Still, because of personal experiences and hearsay, there is a general
awareness in society that things are not what they are portrayed to be and
that in the public rhetoric there are some missing elements. In Turkey,
there is general criticism of the State control over knowledge today and I
think that criticism is also reflected on the Armenian issue as well.

Given the existing state of affairs –the strong emotions of the Armenians
here and the strong emotions in Turkey– and the fact that I had now
established my own credentials as an academic, I thought it was the right
time for me to pick this topic up for further analysis. Of course, the first
thing I had to do was to prove that I really was not an Armenian. This had
to be done because the nationalist Turks thought I had to have some Armenian
blood in me since no Turk in is his/her right mind would engage in such
“destructive” behavior toward the Turkish state, because they see what I’m
doing as leading to the destruction of the Turkish nation-state. Likewise,
whenever I presented my thoughts to the Armenian audiences here in the US,
they would say that I had to be Armenian, since they couldn’t think of any
Turk who could say such things, because they believed Turks in general were
not capable of being so reasonable or say things that are critical of Turkey
and the Turks. What is of course very striking here is that both sides have
the same prejudice. That’s how I am probably going to start the book I’m
writing on the subject. But I had to go back and trace all my ancestors to
see if there was one part which was Armenian.

Aztag- They really got you doubting didn’t they?

Muge Gocek- Well, if there was an element of truth in it, I wanted to make
sure it was I who discovered it first, rather than have them discover it at
some point. My ancestors all come from Anatolia-I do not have any Balkan
origins at all. One of my ancestors was from Agn (Kemalye), from a village
called Bashvartenik, however. I went there to discover who my ancestors
were–my mother’s grandfather had left there in 1903– and it turns out we
are Sunni Muslims to the core, and came there from the Caucasus in the 16th
century. I asked the people there why the place is called Bashvartenik, an
Armenian name meaning ‘large rose bushes’, and they said, “Before we came,
there were Armenians here, but they had migrated to Agn”. Obviously, my
ancestors had no connection to the Armenians in any way, especially to 1915.
However, I still cannot convince them that I’m not an Armenian.

What I’m trying to do is to come to terms with how the historiography on
1915 was created in Turkey. I’m writing a book on this as we speak, with the
hopes that if we see the dynamics behind the creation of this
historiography, if we understand the dynamics, people can go from denial to
remembrance to respect.

Another thing that I tell audiences here is that recognition of what
happened in 1915 will be very cathartic for the Armenians, but for the
Turks, it will be the beginning of a very long process, an arduous process
because there are many other social groups in Turkish history that have also
suffered; there are the Greeks, the Assyrians, of course, the Kurds, and, at
certain junctures, the Islamists. Turkey has a lot to come to terms with and
it is going to be a very long and difficult process.

Aztag- In one of your papers, you refer to “the other silences” in Turkish

Muge Gocek- Exactly! I was originally going to write on the silences of
Turkish history and speak about all the different groups that suffered – in
addition to the groups I mentioned previously, I was also interested about
the terrible fate of the leftist intellectuals in Turkey and how they too
were suppressed. But Ronald Suny was here, and he and I would meet and talk
about these things, and he thought I was the only Turk who thought
critically about Turkish history and about the Armenian problem. I said no
there are others, and that’s how we started thinking about bringing together
scholars from both sides. The first workshop we held was at the University
of Chicago in 2000 and we had another at the University of Michigan in 2002
and one at Minnesota in 2003. In all these workshops, what we first tried
to do was develop a common language; I think we have been able to do this,
the group keeps growing and hopefully we can now start working on joint
projects together.

Aztag- You have come a long way. At the very beginning, there were many
historians who had reservations and refused to take part in the workshops.

Muge Gocek- Yes. Quite a number of them initially stayed out of it; some
wanted us to write declarations stating that we are recognizing the Armenian
genocide before we even started. It was interesting because Ron himself
said, “look, we are scholars and that goes against the nature of
scholarship”. We just went along with the ones who were willing to take the
risk and come, and then of course time proved us right.

Aztag- Some even confused your workshop with the meetings of the
Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), didn’t they?

Muge Gocek- Yes. It is very interesting, because that confusion was there on
both sides; both the Armenians and some of the Turks I talked to thought
that I was inviting them to this place where we were going to advocate the
views of the Turkish State. I think this demonstrates how ingrained and
dominating the political narrative of the Turkish state is in this matter.
It’s very hard for people to perceive that there is scholarship done
independently of the Turkish state, that there is a Turkish society that is
separate from the Turkish state. Even in the Armenian Republic, some
newspaper editorials appeared stating that the scheduling and timing of our
workshop had been strategically planned in relation to the reconciliation
meetings. This was very ironic because the scheduling was actually done with
respect to when Ronald Suny, I, and others had free time in our teaching

The whole politics around the subject was actually one of the reasons why we
decided at the very beginning that the workshop should be closed to the
public. We didn’t want participants marching in and declaring what we should
be doing, but nevertheless we thought that there ought to be a public
component to the workshop where we shared the results of our workshop with
others. Now we have a public presentation session at each workshop where we
summarize what we have accomplished. We also invite some journalists to
attend so that they could see for themselves what’s happening and report on
it to the larger public.

Aztag- You speak about three phases in Turkish historiography. Based on what
criteria did you make this distinction?

Muge Gocek- When Ronald Suny and I decided to do the workshops, he said that
we should start them off by presenting surveys of existing historiographies
on 1915, suggested he would look at the English-language historiography
himself and I could look at the Turkish-language historiography. He thought
that the critical analysis of the historiography would set the tone for the
workshop very nicely. I said “ok, sure no problem.” I figured it wouldn’t
take me long to get the official historiography down since it just keeps
repeating itself. However, because I am an Ottoman specialist, I didn’t stop
with the official Turkish historiography, went further back, and researched
the Ottoman historiography on the Armenians starting from the late 1800’s.

And that is when I realized that at first, there was an Ottoman
interrogative narrative; the Ottoman state was trying to understand what was
going on, was attempting to decipher it, and this continued all the way
until sultan Abdul Hamid’s reign. In 1878, when the subject of reform comes
up, when the Ottoman administrators talk about the reform, some like Ahmed
Izzet Pasha try to undertake the reforms, others resist them entirely.
Furthermore, the first incidents were seen as the subjects being unhappy
with the situation and initially there is no rhetoric that developed against
them. The hostile stand against the Armenians developed later when they
gradually started to be portrayed as “the other”.

The rhetoric of the Committee of Union and Progress to justify what was
going on was much more different and proto-nationalist, and this rhetoric
was then adopted by the Turkish Nation-State. The ensuing Republican period
acquired a defensive narrative as the historians were primarily concerned
with protecting the State’s interests. This has been the dominant
historiography since the founding of the Turkish Republic. I call it the
Republican defensive narrative.

Today, there are new works, like the works of Taner Akcam and the interviews
of Halil Berktay that approach the State’s views critically. These, put
together with the fact that recently in the last two decades, especially the
Aras publishing house in Turkey has been translating Turkish-Armenian
literature into Turkish, make me think, or hope and wish, that there may be
a post-national critical narrative developing.

Aztag- Is being a Turkish historian an advantage when you are dealing with
the Archives in Turkey?

Muge Gocek- The problem is that the type of research that’s done by Turkish
historians tends to be extremely scholastic in nature; it either focuses
exclusively on just deciphering one or two documents or describing the state
of affairs through lots of documents with very little analysis. Of course,
since the alphabet reform severed the connection of most Turks with their
own past, there wasn’t a very large body of historians in Turkey to start
with; in addition, the Republic was moving forward and did not want to look
back and study its past – it was much more concerned with progress. There
aren’t too many Turkish students and faculty – that is, in relation to the
size of our country –
who conduct research in the archives and the ones who do tend to, as I said,
focus on institutions and such and are not willing to risk or are not
encouraged to work on politically charged issues.

What happened to me was that when I was very interested in the
westernization of the Ottoman Empire – which is what the first two of my
sole-authored books are on-I did an interim project on education.
Considering the fact that the ways western knowledge was brought into the
Ottoman Empire varied according to the type of school that brought this
knowledge, I thought it would be very interesting to compare a State school,
like the Galatasaray lyceum, with a quasi-missionary school like the Robert
College and a minority school, like the Uskudar Djemaran. I picked Djemaran
just by chance – it could have been a Greek school or a Jewish one instead,
but I wanted it to be a minority school that was established around the same
time period with Galatasary and Robert College and that was still in
existence today in one form or another, and that happened to point out

When I went into the Ottoman archives to research the documents existing on
these three schools, I had no trouble getting documents on the first two,
but then had all the trouble on the third one. I was very surprised because
this was education; what I was looking at really did not have any political
bearings at the time. The fact that I was systematically not shown any
documents that the Ottoman Armenians themselves had written not only on this
school but on education as a whole made me realize that even though the
archives were open, the documents that the people got to see were actually
inspected by a group of people/officials before they were permitted out. I
was told that all such documents I located in the catalogues were either
missing, miscataloged, in repair or actually not related to my topic. There
was something strange about this and I did write to them about this and said
that I both as a scholar and a Turkish citizen was very disillusioned by the
fact that it wasn’t as open as it should be. The archives may be open to
others who use them selectively and who upfront tell what it is that they’re
going to “find” from the archives. Obviously, that’s not how scholarship
works. Therefore, although the archives are there and technically indeed
open, how much of an advantage that gives the Turkish scholars or anyone is

Aztag- Where do you go from here?

Muge Gocek- Well, there is the next workshop we’re planning in Salzburg in
April 2005 and the increasing number of scholars participating in our
workshops is, in my opinion, a step in the right direction. We are also in
the process of putting out edited volumes out of all the papers presented at
our workshops. Most of the papers were of very high quality, so we decided
to do an edited volume on the ones that focused on the Armenian massacres
and another one on the background of those events. This way, there will be a
new body of scholarship that all scholars could draw upon.

There have been other examples of such undertakings as well and I laud them
all. Recently, other conferences are also bringing together Turkish and
Armenian scholars. Nobody should have any monopoly over this. It should be a
general movement. Given the current world context, I think with time, there
is going to be more and more scholarship that is critical of the official
stand in Turkey. A stand manned -I’m saying “manned” because there are no
women among them- by people who are not even professional academics, but
rather retired bureaucrats or historians who do their work in an amateurish
manner. With time, people in Turkey will recognize the things that
transpired in their past and will come to terms with it; I know that they
have the courage and perseverance to do so. What I want to be extremely
careful about, however, is that because this process is being introduced
after a very long silence, one should work in a way that recognizes the
total lack of knowledge among the Turks concerning what happened to the
Armenians of Anatolia. I think that it is probably going to take us a decade
or so to see Turkish society reconcile with its past, to get concrete
results. That’s how I think when the days are sunny and I’m in a good mood!

Aztag- Well then, I wouldn’t dare ask you what you think if you aren’t in a
good mood!

Muge Gocek- Well I also get distressed at times. We hear of Turks living in
the US who think people like me are ‘turncoats’; that we are out to destroy
the Turkish Republic. There are these nationalist Turkish-Americans out
there, mostly professionals dying to be the mouthpieces of the Turkish
State, who know nothing about the Armenian issue other than what the State
has instructed them to believe, or who have maybe read at most one
propaganda piece on the topic, but are of course sure everything in there is
correct because they have no scholarly training to assess its quality. Then
they have the guts to get out in public and denigrate you without even
bothering to read what you have written!

But this also happens to my Armenian colleagues: nationalism and scholarship
do not go well together. They have to see that you cannot scare scholars
into not doing research, into getting them to fear you and censor
themselves. That isn’t healthy and pleasant — and it also won’t work. But
obviously that conflict comes with the territory, it comes with the subject,
and we are in this profession to do what we want and choose to do, and
thankfully the freedom of thought and expression is something guaranteed to
those academics among us who live and practice scholarship in the United
States, and I’m going to practice that for good, and that’s the way it goes.
It’s just that at times it becomes difficult and unpleasant, but life is
sometimes unfair, so what can you do, right?

Aztag- We spoke about the Armenians not having the chance to fully mourn,
but you’ve also written that even Turkey hasn’t had the chance to mourn. Can
you explain what you mean by that?

Muge Gocek- Turkey has not had the chance to mourn either. I think because
of building this new nation on new Republican principles, the Turkish people
themselves have never had the chance to come into terms with the traumas in
their own past; the Balkan wars, the traumatic expulsion from the Balkans,
the various uprisings, rebellions, and other murders in Turkey itself that
were put down so violently. These haven’t been acknowledged and publicly
mourned either. All these societal issues will have to come up, hopefully in
a constructive way. That’s what I meant.

Nations usually come to a point in their histories when they are able to
face their past and undertake such mourning in order to heal for a healthier
future, and I think Turkey has reached that point because the level of
education in Turkey has increased dramatically and with education the
capacity to think as a society increases as well.

Aztag- Some historians and sociologists argue that the Armenian genocide and
other tragedies are at the foundations of the Turkish Republic, so
recognizing the Genocide would really shake those foundations and that is
why Turkey is so reluctant to face its past.

Muge Gocek- Well, it would definitely shake it, but Turkey has gone through
many earthquakes and is nevertheless still there. If there is a foundation
and you know there are problems with it, would you live in that house? You
would have to if you have no place to go, but you would know that
eventually, at one point it’s going to cause trouble. You know you’ll
eventually have to fix the foundation. Otherwise, the whole thing will
eventually collapse. So you have to get the tools out and start working on
it; you can’t keep pretending all is fine, you can’t keep painting the
surface over and over again with expensive paint to make it appear strong –
none of that is going to work in the long run if the foundations are shaky.

Aztag- And scholars like you are not only looking at the building, but also
studying the foundations.

Muge Gocek- Exactly. I think in Turkey most people look at the building and
judge things by appearance alone. And they see of the foundations only what
Mustafa Kemal and the official historiography built for them. They don’t
realize that those foundations run deeper and include many things that
happened before the founding of the Turkish Republic. I think that’s where
the problem with the foundations is located.

Aztag- I read that you like translating novels from Turkish into English;
there must be a story there.

Muge Gocek- Oh yes, I do. I did translate one of the novels of Elif Shafak.
Why did I become interested in that? In a society where the official
historiography and official documents don’t give you much information about
what has actually transpired in history, literature becomes extremely
important in capturing the past. Literature conveys the spectrum of meanings
in a society and that’s why I’m very interested in novels that highlight the
multi-ethnic, multi-cultural fabric of Turkish society, past and present.
These works haven’t been translated enough, however; that’s why I have
translated Elif Shafak because I think she is a very important Turkish
novelist who captures that fabric.

Aztag- I’m currently reading “Snow”, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel.

Gocek- I’m including that book in my ‘post-nationalist narrative’. There
recently appeared one or two critical articles in Turkey on all the Armenian
elements in it. When you go to Kars–I was in Kars this summer–you cannot
avoid seeing all the Armenian houses, buildings, and structures, and the
fact that Pamuk does mention all that has been noticed in Turkey.
Interestingly enough, I think in that novel he does a much better job
capturing those multi-ethnic elements than the Islamic ones on which he is
rather weak. Still, he’s obviously cognizant of those elements of Turkey’s
past and it’s good that people outside of Turkey see that.

I mean the Turkish standpoint is so dominated by the State narrative that
the people do not realize that many Turkish intellectuals are aware of these
dynamics and write about them, until, of course, their works are translated
into English. That’s why the works that deal with those dimensions have to
be translated. And it is a shame only Orhan Pamuk gets to be translated
because there are many others who do just as good a job who are not yet
translated into English.