25 September 2006

1042) A Year After The Armenian Conference

At the end of May last year Bogazici University hosted a conference under the heading “Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy”. Most of the attendees were Turkish academicians and writers that favor the Armenian account of the events of 1915. The conference program also testified to the fact that only Armenian views would be represented.

Due to these issues the conference was viewed as a political venture rather than a scholarly one and thus drew strong reactions. Upon certain members of the Turkish Parliament criticizing the conference, among whom was the Minister of Justice Cemil Cicek, The Rectorate of Bogazici University issued a statement declaring that ‘they were worried that the scholarly freedom of the University was in jeopardy’ and deferred the conference to a later date on this basis. Views alluding to the misconception that . . . the conference had been hindered by the Turkish government started to circulate especially in the tight knit circles of the European Union.

It was overlooked however that the Turkish government does not have the authority to delay or cancel such a conference, this authority solely rested within the scope of the judiciary. If any one was to be criticized in this instance it should have been the committee organizing the conference for delaying it without just cause. It could be surmised that leaving the Turkish government susceptible to criticism was the true reasoning behind the decision taken by the conference committee to delay the event.

That this event took place at a critical time in terms of European accession caused the Turkish government to take steps to get the conference back on track. Newspapers ran accounts stating that the Prime Minister personally requested that the conference be held, and promised that, if his program allowed it, the Turkish Foreign Minister would speak at the opening ceremony. Finally it was announced that the conference would take place on the 23rd and 24th of September 2005.

However, the fact that Armenian views would be represented and that those academicians not subscribing to them would not be given a chance to express themselves freely at the conference drew heavy criticism. At first certain institutions, of which the Lawyers Association was at the fore, objected to the conference commencing and with this in mind filed a case against the organizers. The 4th Administrative Court of Istanbul ruled that the conference be canceled; upon which voices of opposition were raised. Even the Prime Minister denounced the ruling.

The Higher Education Board of Turkey voiced that this ruling surpassed the bounds of jurisprudence and threatened the autonomy of the scholarly freedoms granted to Universities. The European Union issued a statement expressing a profound concern in regards to the events that transpired hindering the right of Turkish society to question its own history. As a result of these events a statement which circulated in the media allowed the conference to take place. This statement was made by the Minister of Justice, Cemil Cicek, who said that the conference could take place at another University. Thus the conference was finally held on the 24th of September at Istanbul Bilgi University. This however was not to cease the reactions against the conference; a large protest was staged in front of Bilgi University causing the attendees to take their seats by way of police escort.

Problems persisted during the conference as well; speakers who objected to what was being said on the conference floor were escorted out of the hall. The conference program that had been scheduled for three days was rushed through and completed in a matter of two days and the conference was concluded without even a customary end of conference declaration. Although a year has transpired since this event the papers presented at this conference have still not been published and thus it is impossible to discern what had been said at this event.

Although the conference received the cold shoulder in Turkey, it garnered a great deal of interest and admiration within the circles of the European Union. Some of the conference organizers were even invited to reiterate their pro-Armenian views in several European countries where they were showered with praise. On the other hand however a large majority of the Turkish population continued to condemn the conference and its attendees.

Some participants converged on the consensus that this conference helped dissolve the taboo surrounding the Armenian issue in Turkey. As such, it would seem they alluded to the initiation of openly expressing Armenian genocide allegations in Turkey by way of this conference. However, it would be accurate to say that the beliefs of those who subscribe to the Armenian view have been openly expressed in Turkey prior to this conference. The first publication on this issue was “Turkish National Identity and the Armenian Problem” by Taner Akcam (1992). Also the term ‘taboo’ was first introduced in another of Akcam’s publications entitled “Unveiling the Armenian Taboo; Is There Another Solution Other Than Mutual Dialogue?”(2000).

Akcam is also not the only believer in the Armenian view; there have been many Turkish academicians that have attended symposiums coordinated by Fatma Muge Gokcek in some foreign countries. Among these people Halil Berktay has become the most well known internationally thanks to the interviews he has given and conferences he has attended. What is interesting about this issue is that the Armenian question does not lie within Halil Berktay’s academic competences; he does not have one comprehensive article or book pertaining to this subject matter to his name.

Due to 2005 marking the 90th anniversary of the alleged Armenian genocide the Armenian Diaspora took it upon itself to press these allegations in a series of conferences held in various countries, some of which were attended by the Turkish academicians mentioned earlier. It can be discerned that the conference which took place in Istanbul Bilgi University in September 2005 was the last such conference in the series elaborated on above.

A moment should be taken to point out that this time frame and the subsequent years leading up to the present have been saturated with an ever increasing number of translated books expressing Armenian views appearing on bookstore shelves in Turkey.

In short one would be hard pressed to say that the conference held at Bilgi University toppled any taboos.

So what was the aim of the conference held at Bilgi University? In hindsight the aim of the conference was to change the prevalent belief in Turkey that outright rejects the Armenian allegations, or at least attempt to weaken the consensus on this issue in Turkish public opinion. The basis of this line of thought is the efforts of the Diaspora in past years to convince Turkish academicians of the benefits of converging with the Armenian view on the events of 1915. Now that some Turkish academicians who vigilantly defend Armenian views have surfaced and have had an opportunity to convene at the conference held at Bilgi University; it can be surmised that the Diaspora’s (and of course the Armenian Government’s) plans have been implemented and have finally began to bear fruit.

Has the conference held at Bilgi University fulfilled its aim? Due to the controversy surrounding the conference and the resulting bad sentiment it has embedded in the eyes of Turkish public opinion; the conference seems to have been unable to accomplish its mission.

On the other hand, the conference has engendered issues the organizers did not foresee.

The first of these issues being; the reinforcement and proliferation of the previously existent defensive reflex of the Turkish people pertaining to the Armenian genocide allegations under a radical civil movement spearheaded by Kemal Kerincsiz attorney of law.

The second issue is the fact that there were a great many academicians that felt the need to respond to the conference held at Bilgi University under the unified belief that the 1915 relocation of the Armenians did not constitute genocide. In this context, particularly during the six months following the conference held at Bilgi University, several Universities and non-governmental organizations convened numerous meetings on this subject and those attending these meetings submitted hundreds of papers dealing with the Armenian allegations. As an example the conference held at the University of Istanbul in March can be cited due to the turn out at this event alone being three times that of the conference held at Bilgi University.

In closing we can surmise that the conference held at Bilgi University did not reach its aim but it did however prove to be useful in that it has provoked further research in Turkey on the Armenian Question.

Comment: Omer Engin Lutem
25 September 2006
IKSAREN

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