Ara Sarafian: "Freedom of expression for historians in Armenia is limited"

Ara Sarafian, the head of the London-based Gomidas Institute, gave an interview to Hurriet last week. The historian argued, that multilateral efforts to improve relations between Armenia and Turkey are the wrong way to resolve the Armenian issue and stressed, that the solution lies in the huge and influential diaspora.
I have very limited knowledge about Sarafian’s views and activities. What little I know comes from this post at the Caucasian Knot and a recent entry in my own blog. However, there are a couple of points made by the historian in the Hurriet interview that took me by surprise.
1. Sarafian said there were two problems that would arise out of any effort to improve relations with Armenians through closer ties with Armenia. “Freedom of expression for historians in Armenia is limited and the genocide issue has become a political tool,” he said.
2. “We cannot compare the Armenian genocide with the Holocaust. Those who were banished from their land suffered a lot but survived,” he said.
3. He said the restoration of the Armenian Akdamar Church in the recent past could have created an environment of dialogue but had become a missed chance. “Armenians did not want to take that chance because it did not suit their interests,” he said.
These are all quite arguable statements. I know the journalist personally, so I dismiss the option that the words of Sarafian were misrepresented. But – I can’t bring myself to agree, even to a smallest degree, to what Sarafian has said in the points highlighted by me.

Artur Papyan

Journalist, blogger, digital security and media consultant


  1. Artur, read Ara’s response to such criticism in The Armenian Reporter.

    Over the past 25 years, practically all cutting-edge scholarship on the Armenian Genocide has taken place outside of Armenia. A good part of this work was done by diaspora Armenians, and many non-Armenians were nurtured or benefited by the efforts of diaspora Armenians. The diaspora is at the core of the Armenian Genocide debate. If Prime Minister Erdogan’s government is looking for an engaging strategy to resolve the Armenian Genocide issue, it has to address the diaspora as much as the Armenian government.
    Our understanding of the Armenian Genocide has been influenced by partisan scholarship because a number of academic institutions and political parties in Armenian communities, such as in the United States or Great Britain, have nurtured a prosecutorial approach to the subject. Consequently, some important elements of the events of 1915 have been distorted. The main thrust of the prosecutorial approach has been the assertion that the genocide of Armenians was executed with the thoroughness of the Nazi Holocaust, and that all Turks and Kurds were involved in the genocidal process. […]
    The Armenian Genocide is not the same as the Holocaust. The Young Turks did not have the apparatus to carry out a genocide on par with the Holocaust. It is also a fact that many Ottoman officials, including governors, sub-governors, military personnel, police chiefs, and gendarmes saved thousands of Armenians during the Genocide. Most Armenians from the province of Adana, for example, were not killed. This very basic fact is elided in the works of prominent Armenian historians. There are other examples too. The “Holocaust model” of the Armenian Genocide is fundamentally flawed.
    Key “Armenian archives” on the Armenian Genocide remain closed to critical scholars. This matter concerns all scholars and should be subject to scrutiny. The most important examples are the archives of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, which include materials from Ottoman Turkey related to the Genocide. Partisan scholars have used these archives in their work, though their assertions can not be checked. In the 1980s the Zoryan Institute collected the private papers of individuals in the diaspora, yet the materials have remained under lock and key. Such standards should not be acceptable within our communities. We should object to them as we object to any manipulation of Ottoman archives in Turkey today.
    Prime Minister Erdogan has suggested that a commission of historians should be formed by the Turkish and Armenian governments to examine the events of 1915. I would propose an alternative as follows: (1) Relevant archives in Turkey should be open to researchers, with special procedures to allow them ready access to records; (2) Independent groups of specialists from different disciplines should be funded to collaborate on specific projects related to 1915; (3) The work of such groups should be open to the scrutiny of third parties; (4) Academic excellence should be the governing criteria in putting research teams together, not ethnicity, citizenship, or horse-trading among Turkish and Armenian bureaucrats; (5) The examination of archival records should not be limited to Ottoman records but include other archives outside of Turkey.

  2. As a historian I have to look at what deniers say and sometimes I have to address what they say as part of my work. Denialist historiography has currency in Turkey and it has some impact in the English speaking world. So I do not ignore it as a matter of course. For example, I worked on Ottoman archives regarding the Armenian issue in the 1990s. I found that these archives did not support the Turkish thesis on the Genocide, but supported the consensus that the events of 1915 constituted genocide.
    I published my findings in Armenian Forum, and my findings have been used by others. Now Taner Akçam has even produced a book on the same materials. Last year I challenged Turkish historians (deniers) to undertake a case study on the Harput plain, where they would produce details of deportations from the Harput plain and state where the deportees were resettled according to the Ottoman deportation decrees and regulations (cited by Turkish historians at face value). Yusuf Halacoglu, having accepted to undertake the case study, stated that the records in question did not exist. Dr. Halacoglu never explained why the records did not exist, though people can draw their own conclusions : his disclosure had an immediate impact in Turkey as people asked why such Ottoman records did not exist (or remain inaccessible) if the deportations were supposed to be an orderly event.
    Similarly, when Turkish historians and parliamentarians denied the integrity of the 1916 British parliamentary blue book, I decided to respond to their position with a critical edition of the blue book, where the denial of the Armenian Genocide was the main focus. I decided to engage them on this occasion because of the prominence of the deniers (practically the whole Turkish political establishment) and because all of the relevant materials on the blue book were in western archives and could not be manipulated.
    The fact of the Armenian Genocide is a given. There are no more Armenians left to speak of in modern Turkey, where most Armenians lived before WWI. They were forced out with much bloodletting and never allowed to return. Their properties were confiscated by the Ottoman state in 1915, and the record of Armenians in Turkey was erased over the past 90 years.
    However, historically there is still a lot we can learn about the events of 1915, and there is a lot more that can be said about the Armenian Genocide conceptually, in terms of the contemporary context of the diaspora, Armenia, Turkey and even further afield.

  3. “Cutting to the Bone”: Armenian Genocide scholar makes a splash in West London
    by Anoush Melkonian
    “Cutting to the Bone” is an interview with Ara following the release of a new film documentary, The Blue Book (Ani Sounds, 2007), at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London. The film received a glowing endorsement in the mass circulation weekly, Time Out London (November 01, 2007).
    The Blue Book follows Ara’s work opposing the efforts of the Turkish parliament to deny the Armenian genocide in London in 2006. Starting in London where Ara and a group of British parliamentarians stop the Turkish effort, the film follows Ara to a special conference at Istanbul University, where he delivers a paper on the denial of the Armenian genocide. The conference is attended by arch deniers of the genocide, most notably, Sukru Elekdag (the former Turkish ambassador to the United States and currently a member of the Turkish Parliament), Yusuf Halacoglu (the head of the Turkish Historical Society) and Justin McCarthy, (the longstanding denier of the 1915 genocide in the United States today).
    Ara is the only diaspora-born Armenian who attends the three day conference. Other than presenting a paper on the Armenian genocide, he also mounts an exhibition of books on the Armenian genocide published by his Gomidas Institute. This is the first exhibition of such books in Turkey, he comments.
    The Blue Book also includes a third element, as Ara moves and locates some of the places mentioned in the Blue Book, where Armenians were murdered in 1915. Driving backwards and forwards, he finds some of the valleys where, according to Leslie Davis, the US Consul in Harput, tens of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered. He also identifies the remains of Armenian churches in ruins. However, throughout this observational documentary, Ara is not bitter. He comes across calm and peaceful. His aim is to engage the Armenian genocide in Turkey in a meaningful way. He believes in the essential good nature of Turks and Armenians. He believes that the genocide issue can be resolved by scholarship and dialogue, not posturing and power play, and The Blue Book goes a long way to prove this point.
    Nevertheless, though Ara’s work shows how much an individual can do, The Blue Book also shows the limitations to such work. The fact remains that Ara is on his own. While his grit and knowledge as a historian may be truly amazing, he has to make his own tracks and carry his own bags. Watching this documentary, one is daunted by the opposition he faces. For all of Ara’s success and promise, The Blue Book is also a sad reflection on the lack of real support Armenian intellectuals like Ara Sarafian receive when engaging the genocide issue in such a meaningful way.

  4. I’d also add that history in Armenia is a means of manipulation especially for nationalistic rather than academic purposes. The same in Azerbaijan and probably the entire former Soviet Union, in fact.

  5. Just talked to a couple of historian friends specialized on Armenia – Turkey relations about Ara Sarafian. The general consensus is – Sarafian is a highly controversial person, who becomes a nationalist Armenian when talking to Armenians and a very ‘moderate’ – ‘soft’ Armenian historian when talking to Turks.

    1. Really ‘just talked’ lol..

  6. Well, for sure historians in the Diaspora and Armenia are at each other’s throats, but anyway, I’d be interested in knowing who those historians are and what their specialization is. I’ve known Ara since 1996 and he’s never been nationalistic, but very definitely one to speak his mind and controversial. However, so far that’s the only thing people have said in response to his statements.
    Nobody has actually countered them with any factual argument. Incidentally, Ara would welcome that, I’m sure, but it’s not there. Instead, we get vague comments such as “Sarafian is a highly controversial person, who becomes a nationalist Armenian when talking to Armenians and a very ‘moderate’ – ’soft’ Armenian historian when talking to Turks.”
    Where’s the academic discourse?

  7. Incidentally, Ara responded to an open letter which didn’t counter anything he said but merely told him not to speak to Turkish journalists with a full response and argument. In order to make this discussion valid, I’d suggest your historian friends respond with an academic-based response rather than a personal slur.

  8. I have seen Ara Sarafian speak and read 2 of his books: ‘United States Official Records On the Armenian Genocide 1915-1917’; and ‘The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-1916 (The Blue Book)’. There is no question as to his integrity as a historian. He is one of the few Armenians to have actually done archival research in the United States, Great Britain and Turkey. He does not hesitate to engage Turks despite having been denied access to Ottoman archives in the 90s.
    However, we must be skeptical of some of the statements in the Hurriyet interview and in his letter to the Armenian Reporter. In particular his statement that ‘In the 1980s the Zoryan Institute collected the private papers of individuals in the diaspora, yet the materials have remained under lock and key’ is more than problematic. A quick check with Zoryan, which anyone could have done, reveals that Zoryan does indeed possess a unique collection of materials which are kept ‘under lock and key’ because they are rare and priceless but which are accessible and are in fact being accessed by scholars from all over including Istanbul.
    My personal view is that we should be uncomfortable with historians engaging in polemics. A scholar should avoid engaging in contemporary geo-politics and stick to what he does best which is research.

  9. It is immoral to compare one genocide with another. The practice of benchmarking or indexing genocides is becoming a common “trend” where the Holocaust is set as the “base index” and a “monopoly”.
    The main reason for this is that the world ignores any other genocide which derives from the incapacity of the UN as a proper organization. Now days the UN is not more than a charity.

  10. This is very hot info. I think I’ll share it on Twitter.

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