Intellectual bullying

I recalled Rafi, the Canadian-Armenian whose introductory remarks to me were: “I hate you – because you are Turkish!” Rafi who would later become a good companion in Yerevan… I also recalled the Turkish blogger who, many years after Yerevan, would write of me: “No doubt about it. After having his [my] photo enlarged and examined it, I have come to the conclusion that he is a crypto Armenian!” (because this column had angered the man).

I was forcefully reminded of both expressions of hatred recently in Tbilisi, at the conference “The Caucasus at Imperial Twilight: Nationalism, Ethnicity and Nation-Building (1870s-1920s),” not by its academic content but because of the intellectual intimidation against Armenian scholars who participated.

According to Asbarez Armenian News, the presence of Armenian scholars [at the conference] both from Armenia and the United States was “surprising.” A few lines later, Asbarez says their participation was not surprising “as they [were] sold out a long time ago.” Finally, Asbarez concludes that “these scholars should be accountable to the public through press reports.”

Echoing the same view, the Armenian Weekly quoted Professor Richard Hovannisian as saying that, “…such a conference confers on those behind it an unmerited status as partners in a scholarly dialogue when, I believe, the real purpose is to create doubt and undermine honest scholarly investigation.”

According to the Armenian Weekly, the fact that one of the sponsors of the conference was the Turkish Coalition of America was enough evidence of conspiracy. “A key element of TCA’s mission is to normalize the presentation of denial of the Armenian genocide within academia… In order to succeed, they need legitimate scholars to function as ‘the other side.’” Perhaps the organizers should think about another subject at their next conference: “The Abundance of Conspiracy Theories in the Caucasus: The role of the Media.”

In fact, the conference brought together nearly 100 scholars who did not travel all the way to the Georgian capital only to debate Armenian genocide. And those who did included those who think it was a genocide, those who think it was not and those who think the tragedy was beyond the power of any single word to name it. But the scholars were there to listen to each other, to learn from each other; not to settle the almost century-long dispute, nor to draw up future borders.

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!

As any academic debate would require, the G-word was not disturbing for any scholar, Turkish or otherwise. In fact, there was frequent reference to it although it was not always associated with the word Armenian. A Russian professor listed about 15 genocides in the Caucasus only. An American professor added a few more in Latin America, the natives in North America and even Chernobyl! There were differences, but that was precisely why those people were there.

Professor Hakan Yavuz from the University of Utah said: “We are not politicians or lawyers, but scholars. Our purpose is to understand what happened, and why it happened.”

Intimidation against scholarly debate would only radicalize even the most moderate Turks and Armenians. Academic debate should go on – with no winners or losers.

But perhaps the professor who was a former member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars was right when he said: “People who have been subjected to a tragedy want their tragedy to be ‘pure.’” In fact, a tragedy is a tragedy and always pure.

What’s next? Armenians enlarging the photos of Armenian scholars who attend conferences to debate “what happened and why” only to examine them and conclude that they are in fact crypto Turks?

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