“The only weapon against bad history deployed for political or personal vindication,” argued Ronald Grigor Suny on the morning of Saturday, February 22nd, 2020, “is scrupulous investigation that results in evidence-based narration and analysis of what it is possible to know.” He was explaining the Armenian Genocide to a learning community of six Grade 6-12 teachers from Michigan. Ronald Grigor Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at U-M, and the founder and first director of its Armenian Studies Program, now the Center for Armenian Studies (CAS). He was speaking at “Genocide and Collective Historical Memory in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia,” the fifth session of the 2019-2020 MENA-SEA Teacher Program. The program is a Title VI collaboration between the National Resource Centers (NRCs) of the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. CAS had provided financial support for the program and his talk, whose title, -- also of his book published by Princeton University Press -- “They Can Live in the Desert But Nowhere Else,” is the verbatim and ignominious statement pronounced by Talaat Pasha (1874-1921) about the Armenian survivors of the Genocide.
The 2019-2020 cohort of the MENA-SEA Teacher Program included: Greg Dykhouse (History, Black River Public School), Kiersten Gawronski (English, Saline High School), Colleen Kalisieski (English, All Saints Catholic School), Amy Perkins (A.P. World and A.P. U.S. History, Lakeshore High School), Gabrielle Popp (Special Education English, Beacon Day Treatment), and Alison Sullivan (World Geography and World History, Traverse City East Middle School).
To prepare for Professor Suny’s presentation -- later described as “such a privilege to hear” and “one of the most thought-provoking” of the entire program -- the teachers had read his article, “Truth in Telling: Reconciling Realities in the Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians.” “I employ the word ‘genocide,’” began Professor Suny, “to designate what in German is called Völkermord, the murder of a people, and in Turkish soykırım or Armenian tseghaspanutiun (killing of an ethnicity or, in an older understanding, ‘race’).” Drawing on his book, he demonstrated that the purpose of the Genocide was to eliminate the perceived threat of the Armenians within the Ottoman Empire by reducing their numbers and scattering them in isolated, distant places. “The destruction of the Ermeni millet was carried out in three different but related ways: dispersion, massacre, and assimilation by conversion into Islam.”
Using an array of material evidence, including official documents and papers, photographs, maps, paintings, and portraits, Professor Suny narrated how the Genocide resulted from a strategic vision “colored by the passions of the Ottoman leaders, their propensity for violence, and the affective disposition of hostility – anger, fear, resentment, and hatred – that they felt toward Armenians in particular.” His scholarship, he explained, was dedicated to reconstructing new national imaginings in the Tanzimat, Hamidian, and Young Turk periods. The Young Turks, “however Ottomanist they were in their inception, became over time national imperialists prepared to take the most desperate and drastic measures to homogenize their state while promoting some peoples over others and annihilating still others.”
Beginning in 1915, first the “muscle” of Ottoman Armenians -- the demobilized soldiers -- and then the “brain” -- “the intellectual and political leadership, and the connective tissue that linked separate communities together” --were removed. Women, children, and old men in town after town were marched through the valleys and mountains of eastern Anatolia. Those who reached the inhospitable deserts of Syria languished in concentration camps or starved to death. By the end of the war ninety percent of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire had vanished, a culture and civilization wiped out, “never to return.”
For this history lesson by Professor Suny in Weiser Hall, the MENA-SEA teachers had traveled from all over the state -- some from as far as Holland, Traverse City, and Stevensville. They had reflected too beforehand on the definitions of genocide laid out by the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and by Human Rights Watch; they had explored the educational, historical, and moral exigence of truth-telling and its denial with respect to the Genocide. Kalisieski observed that, “as soon as the word genocide gets used, it becomes a direct threat to a political structure.” Sullivan’s middle-schoolers “want all things to be fair. And genocide... well, it's the opposite of fair. It would drive them mad to know they couldn't do anything about it. But that's what's key in this - they must become aware of it in order to never be a part of it happening again.” Professor Suny’s rigourous and scholarly recovery of the difficult past, the teachers could appreciate, challenged -- to quote him -- the “assassins of memory,” those who “through distorting sophistries deny or minimize the enormity of [the] human tragedy.” This disinterment and raising of memory from the dead were also quite personal: Professor Suny’s great grandparents had been the first victims in his family of the Genocide.
The investigation of history and historiography is all the more relevant and exigent, since Michigan law requires schoolchildren to learn about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Upon learning about state atrocities against civilian populations, Perkins’ students, “gifted with hindsight,” wonder aloud, “Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we intervene sooner?” She aims to trouble their bewilderment at the devastating decisions of political and historical actors. She wants to teach them, as Suny put it, to “[investigate]” those moments of choice when political actors might have acted differently but decided instead to embark on a course that led to devastation and destruction.” Her colleague Dykhouse challenged, "Why do particular people understand topics in a certain way?” “By having young learners practicing responses to [this] question,” she continued, “they are strengthening skills of analysis or understandings of various points-of-view. Historians work with such analysis often, so young learners become more adept at considering various perspectives as explanations of historical events.”
From John D. Ciorciari, associate professor of public policy, director of the Ford School's International Policy Center, and senior legal advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the teacher cohort on that day also learned about the Cambodian Genocide perpetrated by the regime of the Khmer Rouge, expanding their understanding of the definition of genocide beyond the restriction to an ethnic or racial group, to encompass a political collective target. And Ph.D. candidate in linguistic anthropology Cheryl Yin followed with a talk about Cambodian diasporic communities in the U.S. in the aftermath of the Genocide.
The MENA-SEA Teacher Program provided year-long professional development in religious and cultural diversity in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Intending to bring into their classrooms what they have learnt during 2019-2020, the teachers each designed two lesson plans about the regions to be publicly and freely accessible to all educators on the NRCs’ websites. At the close of the program in June, one of the teachers wrote: “Being part of this cohort has been the most inspiring thing I've ever been involved in as a teacher. Thank you so much for the development and work that goes into supporting us with such skill and thoughtfulness.” “The impact it has had,” declared another, “will be life-long for me and the impact it will have on my students is immeasurable. It is a pebble dropped in the waters of humanity that will ripple out for many life times to come.”
Introducing himself to the teachers, the septuagenarian historian lightheartedly had described himself as “antique,” but Professor Suny’s setting straight of the record has far-reaching and contemporaneous ramifications, as by no means are the actions and decisions of the Turkish republic exceptional or obsolete in the world arena. “Like many other states, including Australia, Israel, and the United States, the emergence of the Republic of Turkey involved the removal and subordination of native peoples who had lived on its territory prior to its founding,” Professor Suny concluded. “Coming to terms with that history, on the other hand,” he continued in an imperative tone, “can have the salutary effect of questioning continued policies of ethnic homogenization and refusal to recognize the claims and rights of those peoples, minorities or diasporas – Aborigines, native Americans, Kurds, Palestinians, Assyrians, or Armenians – who refuse to disappear.”
The MENA-SEA Teacher Program thanks CAS for its delivery of Genocide-related education to Michigan teachers, and looks forward to future collaboration in the imperative of telling and teaching the truth to Michigan’s schoolchildren.
Rima Hassouneh is the Outreach Coordinator for the U-M Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies and Center for Southeast Asian Studies.