Armenians, Kurds, and the Politics of Ottoman Historiography
RoundTable V-3, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm
Twenty-five years ago, the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship (WATS) was established at the University of Michigan in 1998, bringing together prominent historians from Turkey, Armenia, Europe, and the United States. The two-and-a-half decades since have witnessed an efflorescence of scholarship seeking to develop a more nuanced understandings of the Armenian Genocide and antecedent instances of violence directed at Ottoman Armenians. These efforts have largely centered on transcending the essentialism that saturated much of the prior historical writing on the topic. We have also seen in recent years a much greater willingness among scholars to engage with topics and themes that were long considered taboo or off-limits within Ottoman historiography, including the history of Armenian, Kurdish, and Assyrian communities in the Ottoman east; and the various episodes of violence against non-Muslims populations in the empire’s final decades. The creation of WATS also converged with several other developments, both historiographical and political. Cautious political liberalization in Turkey, which created space for more critical historical inquiry in the country’s elite universities, loosened restrictions that had earlier limited access to the Ottoman archives. The collapse of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, precipitated a discipline-wide engagement with the category of empire, which resulted in ‘Ottomanist’ turns in Balkan and Arab historiographies aided by easier access to Ottoman state documents.
This roundtable brings together a group of scholars whose work has profited from the dialogue initiated twenty-five years ago by WATS. As we look back on the past quarter century, this roundtable discussion seeks to reflect upon and assess the new areas of inquiry in the fields of Armenian and Ottoman history and beyond that have emerged from this dialogue. As we look forward, what political, historiographical, and even ethical issues might prevent furthering these discussions, especially with the increasingly authoritarian turn in Turkey, Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia, and the declining support for humanities and social sciences research in the United States and beyond?
Scholars have long bemoaned the corrosive effects of document fetishization and archival authority in Ottoman historiography. While historians’ initial turn to Ottoman state documents as their preeminent source base in the 1970s was welcome—doing so undermined many of the Orientalist assumptions that had underpinned the field to that point and helped move it away from diplomatic history to social and cultural history—it ultimately reinforced the étatist impulses of the Turkish national project that naturalized Sunni Turks’ structurally advantageous position in the state apparatus and placed non-Turks, and particularly non-Muslims, outside the mainstream historical narrative. Though the epistemological connection between state documents and national historiography had already been established, opening up of the Ottoman archives in the early 2000s arguably exacerbated the problem as it encouraged historians to center those materials in their scholarship. Recognizing that decentering the seminal role of the state in Ottoman historiography must also entail decentering the Sunni Turkish community overrepresented in state institutions (and the documents they produced), historians have developed projects that employ documents composed in non-Muslim languages as part of an effort to diversify the source base used to write Ottoman history. This presentation will offer some reflections on those efforts as it relates to the use of sources produced by Armenians. Armenian sources—which include archival materials generated by Armenian institutions as well as non-archival primary sources such as memoirs and newspapers—have featured prominently in a number of recent books. In particular, I will address the following questions: what does it mean to use Armenian sources to write Ottoman history? How do we locate Armenians and Armenian archives in Ottoman historiography? And how does this reframe our view of power relations in imperial society? Does this transform our understanding of what constitutes an Ottoman archive? Finally, what ethical and moral obligations does use of Armenian sources place on the historian? Does the historian using Armenian sources have a responsibility to center Armenian agency in their analysis—particularly in light of the discursive violence Ottoman historiography has long waged against Armenians—or is it permissible to use those sources simply to corroborate over evidence?
In 2016, one year after the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association (OTSA) and the Society for Armenian Studies (SAS) formally co-sponsored a MESA roundtable that brought together a variety of scholars working at the confluence of Ottoman and Armenian studies. What ensued was a frank discussion about the long history in Ottoman studies of marginalizing—or ignoring altogether—the Armenian experience in the Ottoman Empire, and the legacy of anti-Armenian violence in the empire’s waning decades. The enforced silence in Ottoman historiography surrounding this history served, until very recently, as a profound obstacle to dialog and collaboration between the two fields. The various presenters at this roundtable agreed that the tide had begun to turn thanks to, among other developments, the efforts of scholars associated with the Workshop on Armenian and Turkish Studies (WATS) and the emergence of a new generation of leadership in OTSA and SAS advocating for greater dialog. Nonetheless, it was agreed that a great deal more work was necessary both to better integrate the Armenian experience into the study of the late-Ottoman Empire and to foster a sense of greater trust and collaboration between scholars working in the fields of Ottoman and Armenian studies. It is my intention to discuss how historical scholarship on Ottoman Armenians has evolved in the seven years since this 2016 roundtable discussion and the nearly ten years since the centenary of the Armenian genocide. I plan to address the following questions: How has recent scholarship on the Ottoman east engaged with the region’s Armenian history and the legacy of anti-Armenian violence there? Have developments in Ottoman historiography, such as the recent “environmental turn,” provided new avenues for exploring these histories? How have the source bases for studying Ottoman Armenians changed and how successful have historians been in incorporating non-Ottoman Turkish and non-European language sources? What are the remaining obstacles to continued dialog and scholarly collaboration between scholars working in the fields of Ottoman and Armenian history?
Since postcolonial analysis defines the critique of Western European modernity as its foundation, I will start my study of the Ottoman Empire with the auspicious ascendance to the throne of Sultan Selim III during the year 1789. It was during the rule of this sultan that the systemic Westernization of the empire started to transform Ottoman ideas, practices, and institutions, a process that brought the empire to an end with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate in 1924. During this period of approximately a century and a half, I will empirically focus on knowledge production in the empire that range from the initial reports of official historical chroniclers on the important contemporaneous events of the empire to the later memoirs of many officers and officials.
Since the early years of the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship (WATS) not only the topics discussed by scholars regarding Armenians and other marginalized groups in Ottoman historiography have expanded and diversified, but also the terminologies used about these groups and their histories have changed. In the 2000s some scholarship, namely by Ussama Makdisi, Selim Deringil and Thomas Kühn, emerged around the topic of Ottoman colonialism vis-à-vis the Arab world and Kurds. While studies on Arabs and Kurds of the late Ottoman Empire focused on how they were differentiated by the Ottoman state, scholars examining Jews, Greeks and various Christian groups in the Balkans attempted to show how these peoples were an integral part not just of the empire but also the Ottoman state. In the meantime, throughout the 2000s, the scant literature focusing on Armenians in the Ottoman Empire continued to either prove or explain the Armenian genocide. It is only in the last decade that we have seen the study of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire engage with the Imperial Turn that Ottoman historians had turned towards since the 1990s. Until recently scholars discussing Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian genocide did not adopt terminologies and frameworks of colonialism as the above-mentioned scholars did. Yet, the recent Nagorno-Karabagh war of 2020 precipitated a surge in the use of language and terminologies commonly appearing in discourses of decolonization and post-colonial theory. In the last two years this language has increasingly been applied to discuss Armenians of the Ottoman and Russian empires and their descendants. This has led for calls to decolonize Ottoman history, where in the last decade the call was to recognize and incorporate the histories of Armenians and other marginalized groups in Ottoman historiography. I aim to address what would a decolonized understanding of Ottoman history from the prism of Armenians entail? What does it mean to decolonize Ottoman history when rarely anyone perceives the Ottoman Empire as colonial? What problems may we face by approaching the Ottoman Empire and the South Caucasus and Armenians in general through terminologies of decolonization such as indigeneity? Won’t scholarly projects of decolonization, that are often tightly linked with post-colonial national self-determination reproduce firm categories of ‘post-colonial’ nation-states? What can scholars focusing on Armenians learn from and contribute to conversations that have been occurring in other regional fields (i.e. Arab regions and Balkans) of Ottoman Studies?