‘We have heard all your arguments before’: Gaslighting, the burden of proof, and the politics of recognition with the Armenian Genocide 

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Armenian descendants of those massacred, displaced, and in exile have been organizing for recognition for over three generations. It’s been a longtime coming and has taken far too long, all because of the geopolitical and imperial interests of the United States and Turkey at the expense of truth and justice. The politics of recognition have always been hotly debated in the community but for the descendants of survivors the passage of U.S. resolution HR 296 is heartwarming not because the U.S. has any moral authority, but because it means finally our decades-long day-in and day-out activism has come to fruition.

For myself, the descendant of eight survivors on both sides of my family and as a racial justice organizer, the politics of recognition has felt like being in a multi-generational abusive relationship. Our community every year is gaslighted as we scream our stories. Historically, when we have resisted militantly we are condemned. We when we use non-violent tactics like campaigns for recognition, divestment, and boycott, we are also condemned. For our critics, it seems there is actually no “right” way to resist.

Armenian Genocide denial and complicity in that denial is a systematic, world-wide gaslighting of our global Armenian community. It is the undefinable burden of proof, and one that always has a moving yardstick. It is saying “show us” as we shout our stories, and then being called crazy as we scream. The government of Turkey is like an abusive boyfriend. It is a cycle of violence.

However the recognition debate has always been only part of the puzzle. Genuine justice is needed which also includes reparations, material restitution, and most importantly an existential reckoning in the hearts of the Turkish public. Recognition is not a statement, it is a strategy. It is a piece in a very long history of Armenian struggle, a struggle that has used all of the tactics in the toolbox of justice organizing.

What remains clear is the material reality of our people; spread across the world like shattered glass, each day having to argue, debate, and re-discover what it means to be Armenian. Because it is what we are forced to do. We are a nation that has had to live and define itself transnationally. Because of the Genocide, because of our relationship to land. This is the pain and the opportunity. Our physical existence is proof of the Genocide enough.

Sophia’s mom side from Kharpert (Harput) whose Armenian community was almost entirely destroyed. The Turkish government today claims there were no Armenians there or if there were they were traitors and deserved death and displacement.
Sophia’s mom side from Kharpert (Harput) whose Armenian community was almost entirely destroyed. The Turkish government today claims there were no Armenians there or if there were they were traitors and deserved death and displacement.

There are 15 million of us in forced exile, in diaspora that continues to be denied access to justice, to our memory, to our history, and our land through systematic erasure. The Armenian Genocide is not a past event, it’s an ongoing struggle whose logics are utilized in Turkey today and by its global accomplices. Genocide is not a one time event, it is a structure, with racism as its defining quality. And so through every generation, we must actively build and support movements to eradicate racism, the heart of genocide, in our region and globally today.

All advocates of justice should stand with the Armenian people in seeking justice, and work for U.S. recognition and reparations for it’s own bloody history of genocide. The U.S. is itself an genocide nation, ongoing, against Black communities and indigenous nations. It is why it participates in and covers them up so well around the world. The notion that the U.S. has any moral authority presupposes it has a conscience. As Stokely Carmichael told us, it has none.

Meanwhile, those who are using Turanist, also known as “Turkish nationalist,” logics against community organizing of a displaced and dispossessed people, are enabling injustice. Any utilization of the “two sides” narrative that Turkey and Armenians need to sit down and “work out the facts” on the Armenian Genocide is normalization. The privileging of Western academics as the arbiters of truth above Armenian collective memory, or saying there is no academic consensus when there is, is straight out of the government of Turkey playbook and should be named as devices of this racial supremacy. The notion that this is just two “feuding religions” with “longstanding ancient hatreds” rather than about structures of power, race and marginalization, like in all other parts of the world, is textbook Orientalism. Not only is it historically inaccurate, it serves the purposes of power.

Armenian boys outside a school. The Ottoman-era photograph is kept by Sophia's mother under her bed in a shoebox.
Armenian boys outside a school. The Ottoman-era photograph is kept by Sophia’s mother under her bed in a shoebox.

Today Armenians are banned from the country I live in, the United States, by the thousands because of the #MuslimBan, and are experiencing displacement from Ramallah to Baghdad, and are faced with compounded effects of US sanctions on Iran. But our stories are not told because we complicate the narrative, because our stories are not valued in both the discourse of power and the resistance to power. Our physical erasure from our homeland, is mirrored in discourse.

As Armenians, who continue to be denied justice, we have heard all your arguments before. There are many devices through which this racism from Turkey and its allies works. These are the devices Turanism that the government of Turkey and its allies use to deny justice for the Armenian Genocide:

  • Normalization, “Two sides Narrative” of “two equal sides” with “two versions of history” that both just need to come to the table to “work out the facts,”
  • They were “relocated” under the conditions of “war” during which millions died including Turks in combat, from diseases, malnutrition, starvation and massacres. “Turks died too” often cited is the conspiracy historian Justin McCarthy’s work at the University of Louisiana
  • No legal basis, no (Western) academic consensus “let the historians decide”
  • The Armenian diaspora is a lobby, a dark shadow with sinister grips on the world
  • Racialize Armenians as imperialists and foreign agents & deserve death
  • The Armenian Genocide is a Western Lie
  • Armenians were never in Turkey and are not indigenous to the region
  • Construct Armenians as “terrorists” using War on Terror boogeyman logics
  • Say we should look at the “next 100 years, not the last”
  • Say the Armenians rose against the State and thus the entire race deserved extermination
  • The Armenians in Turkey are an ethnic “minority,” not who is left 
  • This is a conflict between two nation states, the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia (est. 1991), not the descendants of those displaced and Turkey
  • This needs more “dialogue” and “peace,” construct descendants as violent
  • Deny any public discourse in Turkey by ethnic Turks, ban Turkish academics that discuss this history
  • Jail those who use the word Armenian Genocide using Turkish Penal Code 301 on charges of “racial hatred” and insulting “Turkishness” so there can’t be historical debate
  • Assassinate and repress Armenian institutions, journalists, and initiatives in Turkey that seek to educate the Turkish public about this history, stoke supremacist groups and cover up their crimes
  • Confiscate, bulldoze, leave to ruin and rename Armenian cultural and sacred sites to erase any trace that Armenians were there, especially in Southeastern Turkey to an absurd point, even trying to erase Armenian nomenclature in studies of the land
  • Gaslight Armenian families from these cities, say their material evidence, documented survivor testimonies and history is propaganda
  • Hold US military bases there so the US will never back reparations, many of the military bases are on genocide victims’ confiscated land as in the case of Incirlik U.S. base
  • Say Turkey is the only “good” democracy in MENA, utilize the racist construction of “good vs bad Muslims” which racializes other countries as “terrorists,” against U.S. national security
  • Infiltrate and undermine Armenian-American organizations in the U.S. by the U.S. government via bodies like the CIA and the FBI, place informants in meetings
  • Stack the EU and International courts so no form of Genocide Convention case can win
  • Use the Armenian Genocide and freedom for the Palestinians as pawns, to be used with Israel at any given moment, place Armenians’ and Palestinian Arabs’ freedom as conditional
  • Distance itself from Ottoman history, “Ataturk ended all that came before,” make ahistorical break between the current Republic of Turkey and its formation
  • Name and cite Bernard Lewis, known Orientalist and denier, an “expert” because he is a white man
  • Hold Syrian refugees rhetorically and physically hostage in this debate, dehumanize them by using them as collateral against the moves by the US and the EU, while fundamentally denying Syrian-Armenian refugees access to the land many are actually from as survivors of the Genocide. Threaten to expel nationals of Armenia.
  • Find allies in American citizens, through funding, conferences, and non-profit organizations and hold money and support on condition
  • Say there was a joint commission the Republic of Armenia refused to come to, while simultaneously constructing millions of Armenian families’ stories around the world as lies
  • Have Western students go on “two-sides” propaganda trips to meet with government officials of the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia like in the “Turkey-Armenia initiative” of the infamous Olive Tree Initiative

Everyday as notions of belonging, identity, and place are debated in our community, I am reminded that we did not ask for these debates, they were thrust upon us. Our material reality of mass exile continues to remain after the back and forth in the media headlines have disappeared.

Every year they tell us bring out our dead, and we do. Every year Armenians bring out our dead, and the U.S. questions their validity and examines their bodies. The politics of recognition is deeply dehumanizing. Our community knows this the most. So, for us Armenians, we know U.S. resolution HR 296 is one step of a very long road. One that sits uneasy. One we inherited and one that will have a legacy. One we walk in stride with our ancestors and with those yet to come.

On the morning of the vote, my family and I were glued to our TV sets. It felt like every Armenian I knew was watching CSPAN together, holding our breath, as we always do every other time only to be crushed. On Twitter, we were speaking to each other across the world, we were saying, maybe just maybe this time, though, the United States would get it right. And it did.

A week later we awoke to President Trump inviting Erdoğan for a private meeting in Washington D.C. where he rolled out the red carpet for the President of Turkey. He assured him no formal Armenian Genocide recognition by his administration, the final and most important piece of official U.S. recognition, would occur. As revealed in Turkish media, Trump had even offered to call the Armenian Genocide, a “war.” When giving a press conference to international media, Trump looked on gleefully as Erdoğan denied the genocide publicly to the world. He also invited five Republican lawmakers to the closed door meeting, including Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham, announced within hours, he was blocking the Senate version of the bill. When, for the first time in history, it finally had the votes to pass.

Any notion that the Armenian Genocide is an imperialist lie is not only laughable, it is precisely because of Western imperialism that no justice for the Genocide exists. It is the West who has given the government of Turkey a most well-funded shield, an arsenal of military weaponry and support, an apparatus of denialist infrastructure. But these are not just arguments, or something to be trivialized, these are the discourses of a racial project. Genocide is a structure not an event.

There is a saying we use in Armenian that says the struggle is eternal. And so is our reality. We have to wage justice around the world, because we are here. We are not there. Genocide in action. The Armenian Genocide is an ongoing struggle. A story of exile, of racism, and of erasure.

Those who stand in our way, may have many faces and many tongues, but we have heard all your arguments before.

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For the record: A little known fact is that despite the severe shortage of food and the deplorable situation in general in their country, including seizure of their crops by British and Ottoman forces, Palestinians welcomed and provided for thousands of Armenian Christian refugees fleeing massacres at the hands of the Turkish government during WWI. Vast numbers of them found refuge and hospitality throughout the Arab world where they established new communities that thrive to… Read more »

I think the article mentioned reparations.
Anyway. I respect the Armenians and i do belive that they were subject genocide and that unjust situations should be ractified ,but i dont belive that a turkish man or woman are guilty or responsible for something that their government did 100 year ago .

Zaid, Today’s Turkish Republic government is the direct, institutional continuator of the Union & Progress government that perpetrated the genocide and expulsion of the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians (not to mention other, “”minor” nationalities, has worked like crazy to eject their remaining pockets, and erase their culture and their very memory. The current tepidly Islamist government has continued denying it and repressing any reminders; not only that but since 2015 it is in a government alliance… Read more »

You just erased the identity of Bernard Lewis by referring to him as a “white man”.
Ashkenazi Jews are Levantine in DNA and have more of a claim to Middle East than you do.
Furthermore Jews were never seen as “white” or ethnically European while in Europe, we lived in segregated areas, spoke different languages, and were subject to discrimination.
Do some research before you talk like that.

“I’m saying that the location of Israel is not random, we have genetic ties to it…” Yes, very true. When my Mom went to Israel, she brought back a bottle of Dead Sea mud, so we kids could rub it into our chromosomes every night before bed. Ain’t it great to rub your genes with the good ol’ Dead Sea mud? So,”Yitzhak” does this “genetic” connection to Palestine mean every Jew must want to go… Read more »