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Shapes, Legitimation and Legacies of Violence in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey

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On Monday, November 23, 2020, the George and Irina Schaeffer Center for the Study of Genocide, Human Rights and Conflict Prevention hosted its first online event of the academic year: a discussion between Stephan Astourian, Executive Director of the Armenian Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ronald G. Suny, Professor of History at the University of Michigan. The two scholars offered a lively discussion on the topic of “Shapes, Legitimation and Legacies of Violence in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey: From Abdülhamid II to Erdoğan,” which focused on the patterns present in the use of violence in the country that is now Turkey. The talk was based on the last chapter of a book Astourian co-edited with Raymond Kevorkian, Collective and State Violence in Turkey: The Construction of a National Identity from Empire to Nation-State (Berghahn, 2020).

After an introduction from Professor Brian Schiff, the director of the Schaeffer Center, Astourian detailed what he called the structural causes (or causes profondes in French) of state and collective violence perpetrated first under the Ottoman Empire and later under the Turkish state. Astourian was seeking in these structural causes an explanation for the patterns of violence in Turkey over the last 140 years, during which no decade has passed without some form of collective violence against a specific group. These causes were technical as well as political: the bankruptcy of the Ottoman Empire, the division of Ottoman colonies among European powers after the First World War, the rejection of a civic sense of nationality and the concept of domination as a central feature of the self.

Notably, Astourian explained how “Turkishness” was not viewed positively until the end of the 19th century, at a time when subjugation was not coded along ethnic lines. It was under the “Union and Progress” party (created in 1889) that the question of “Turkishness” – defined by its associations with Sunni Islam – became prominent. As this religious, nationalistic and racialistic background consolidated, a combination of the banalization of state violence, a sense of Turkish victimization and economic motivations led to widespread violence against other groups, including Armenians. Professor Astourian also brought the audience’s attention to the militarization of education for children in the first half of the 20th century as a cause for the later development of the country’s warring nature.

Following Astourian’s talk, Suny delivered an in-depth critical analysis of Astourian’s arguments. In his response, Suny argued that the idea of a continuity between Ottoman and Turkish state-sponsored violence campaigns has led Astourian to a skewed view: a view that does not include the Ottomanist voices that challenged Atatürk or Erdoğan, as silenced as these voices may have been. In fact, he believes that Astourian’s arguments lead to a blindsided view: that all non-Turks are fated to be governed by Turkish violence. Rather, Suny argued that the genocides of Armenians and other groups are better viewed as an organic process that coalesced not only around ideology but also around racism and a sense of distinction and entitlement. Finally, Suny argued that the uniqueness that Astourian ascribes to Turkish nationalism is mistaken: it is comparable to Armenian nationalism and similar to the American nationalistic amnesia surrounding both the dispossession of native peoples and the Civil War. Suny’s comments were followed by a discussion with Astourian.