World-Class Researchers Gather in Paris

World-Class Researchers Gather in Paris

By Tigrane Yegavian
From March 25 to March 28 the capital city of France became the nerve center of the Armenian world. After two years of preparation the International Scientific Council for the study of the Armenian Genocide (CSI) finally gathered 63 renowned researchers of all nationalities in one place. The most noteworthy event of this historic symposium, launched with great pomp by the French Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was the announcement of the creation of a special committee dedicated to the thorough study of the Armenian Genocide.
Sixteen researchers from Turkey attended the event for the first time. In addition to those who champion rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, such as publisher Ragıp Zarakolu, researchers Taner Akçam, Büşra Ersanlı and Ayşe Gül Altınay, a number of lesser known stakeholders from the Diaspora were present. One of these historians, Sait Çetinoğlu from Ankara Free University, delivered a speech on the "Teskilat-i Mashusa" organization, which was in charge of extermination during the mass deportations of Armenians. He also spoke of forced conversions to Islam and deliberate, carefully planned seizures of Armenian property. 
His colleague Umit Kurt from Sabancı University investigated the theme of forced conversions, while Ayhan Aktar from Bilgi University broached the subject of the opposition some Ottoman governors expressed to the deportation and massacre of Armenians. Young historian Mehmet Polatel's (Koç University) striking presentation had an in-depth focus on the plundering of Armenian poessions during the Genocide. A presentation by Erdal Kaynar, a historian working with the Polonsky Academy at Van Leer Institute, covered the year 1908 and the Young Turks’ accession to power, while young historian Hira Kaynar (EHESS, Paris) exposed her works on the memory of the Genocide in the Turkish Armenian community.
Another sensitive topic dicussed was the relationship between massacre, forced conversion and gender. The works of anthropologist Ayşe Gül Altinay (Sabancı University) shed new light on the subject: by alluding to the fate of millions of descendants of forcefully-converted Turkish Armenians – a field of study that remains undeveloped – she gave the Genocide a contemporary context. Furthermore, she addressed the delicate issue relating to the existence of a "Muslim" component in the Armenian identity and questioned its future. Taking into account the fact that the majority of the newly-converted were women and children, the Turkish anthropologist noted that Armenians converted to Islam (a total of 200,000 according to her) had never been included in Genocide-related statistics. 
Khatchig Mouradian's (Rutgers University) presentation was no less impressive. This Lebanese Armenian historian, who lives in the United States, revealed an unpublished inquiry into the second phase of the Genocide that took place in 1916. The scholar highlighted the way in which the solidarity deported Armenians experienced at the camps developed into what he called "humanitarian resistance," in which 10,000 members of the Armenian community in Aleppo, especially priests, joined forces to rescue deportees coming from Anatolia. Detailed documents (lists of names, figures, minutes of support committees’ meetings, accurate financial accounts – including bribes paid to Turkish officers) made it possible to keep track of each Armenian deportee in the camps. Indeed, it was the surprise the Young Turks experienced when they discovered these survivors that led to the second (final) phase of the Genocide in 1916, which saw a second wave of deportations from various camps to the Deir ez-Zor desert.
The four days’ worth of presentations and discussions revealed just how much progress has been made in academic research of the Genocide of 1915. However, numerous documents remain out of researchers’ reach in Turkey (military archives, land registers, etc) but also in Germany, which was an ally of the Ottoman Empire and was considered an accomplice in the elimination of non-muslim groups from Anatolia (Armenians, Syriacs, Greeks). The conference was also an opportunity to discuss the shortcomings of Armenian Genocide historiography, the role of Armenians in the Ottoman economy in the 19th century and the independence of research from politics in Turkey and Armenia. Finally, it was also a chance to move away from the persecutor/persecuted and winner/loser dichotomies by taking stock of new perspectives now open to researchers.