[[ I wrote a large portion of this text for a roundtable discussion organized at the 2015 Creative Time Summit in Venice, and I wanted to revisit and update my position.]]

As I was thinking about the Great Catastrophe (i.e., the Armenian Genocide) and its ruins, remains and residues, memory, trauma, and forgetting, I remembered a small incident that happened a long time ago in Ankara when I was at junior high school. We were arriving at the school in the morning, and a bunch of us saw a piece of beautifully carved marble tombstone, which was being uncovered at an ongoing construction site. We rushed back to the school, went to the director’s room, and explained that Roman ruins were next to our school site. We were super excited about this small but possibly important archeological discovery. After informing the superintendent, we returned to the construction site to see what was happening. By then, workers had already cleaned the stone and uncovered its writings. There was a Christian cross, a name, and a date. It was a small gravestone of a child from the late 19th century. I vividly recall that I was surprised and confused about the existence of Christians in Ankara in the 19th century, in the middle of nowhere. Ankara was a Turkish town. 

Official Turkish nationalistic historical narrative systematically ignores the existence of non-Muslims, or it depicts them as traitors. Not long ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than four million Christians and Jews living in Anatolia out of a total population of 14 million. As the Anatolian landscape is systematically Turkified, many remains of non-Muslims are erased, built over, or appropriated by the state apparatus and their local conspirators, Turkish or Kurdish.

History is a travesty. It seems to me that the past is constantly reinvented through opposing religious and nationalistic narratives, reinforced and naturalized by sectarian and ethnic divides. A land must belong to someone, and the nation-state apparatus uses a historical narrative to justify the displacement of millions of people in Turkey, Israel, and/or elsewhere.

One of the earliest political lessons my parents taught me was that we were “Alevis,” I should never-ever tell this fact to anyone, not even my closest friends. My parents were secular; they believed in the “republican” ideals of citizenship and equality. Yet, we were “Alevis,” and deep down, we all knew we were not equals. Alevis don’t follow the rules of orthodox Islam. They do not have mosques; they do not pray five times a day; they do not fast during Ramadan. 

As a side note, many Westerners consider Islam more like a monolith. Of course, it is not true. There are many versions of Islam. Among those, Alevism is almost a separate religion, a distinct branch of Islam primarily found in Turkey but also the Balkans, Caucasus, and parts of the Middle East. Alevis practice incorporates elements of Sufi traditions, such as mystical and Turkic shamanistic spiritual rituals, including the ceremonial ‘cem,’ which features music, dance, and shared meals. Alevis are always considered rebels because they emphasize social justice, equality, and a strong community bond, and they have a distaste for power—distinguishing it from mainstream Sunni practice.  Throughout history, Alevis has faced discrimination, persecution, and systematic violence. Passed through generations, the deep trauma of many massacres committed by Islamist and nationalist mobs continues to haunt the Alevi community today. 

The issue with Turkish secularism wasn’t with secularism per se, but rather that it was imbued with Sunnism, much like how the U.S.U.S. secularism is infected with Judeo-Christian fundamentalism or France prioritizing its Catholic traditions. (For more about secularism(s), please see Sandra Harding’s writings)

Anyway, growing up, I was obsessed with historical documentaries (I still am)–especially the 2WW documentaries that haunted me: the scale of the war, its sheer destruction, and the genocide. Being a minority, I identified with the Jews, and I thought about the horrors of unimaginable scale. What would I have done if I had lived in those times?

Then, when I started college, the Middle East Technical University was the real training ground for many of us who came from all over the country, not just because of its fantastic faculty or resources but because of a vibrant culture of student activism, communities, and comradery. Baraka, the space that housed many student organizations, was our home. We learned from each other.  Cultural activities, organizing, and activism were the real pedagogical moments. Kurdish friends educated us on what has been going on in the “Southeast,” and feminist colleagues grinded our masculinity, and challenged the omnipresent patriarchy in which we grew up. We argued, we discussed, and we discovered together. During that time, I realized that the genocide (the Armenian one) was not a fiction invented by the Armenian diaspora to dismantle the Turkish state but a historical fact that we had to face head-on.

The Middle East is a sustained tragedy. To achieve a better future, one has to break apart from this nationalist/fundamentalist vicious cycle.  Is it possible to reach a form of justice that transgresses the idea of eternal victimhood, revenge, oppressor, and oppressed? Is it possible to have a clean slate? Is justice even possible?

We need role models. When I think about the post-war era, I keep returning to the same question: What can we learn from the German experience? The German example was particularly interesting because, after their drastic social, political, and cultural failure, German society was [literally] forced to conduct radical institutional transformations from the educational system to its military, from democratic mechanisms to cultural institutions. 

Defeat was an opportunity. German President Richard Von Weizsacker called the day that Germany lost the war the “Day of Liberation.” So, what can we learn from German defeat and their liberation?

For a long time, I viewed Germany as a model for Turkey due to its thorough confrontation with its dark past. However, observing recent developments, I see that something has gone wrong. The model that once seemed exemplary now appears fundamentally flawed.

A destabilized national identity can provide an ethical opening, a model for a national identity in flux, and a citizenship of becoming, a possibility of equality. Yet, what we are witnessing in Germany is the absolute alignment with the violent Israeli State apparatus, a total disregard for what is happening on the ground in G.A.Z.A., and a moral collapse of modern German institutions. 

Alongside the U.S. and A, Germany became the de-facto supporter of the ongoing G3noc1de and the shameless face of the Western colonialist desire to keep the ‘other’ under check through systematic dehumanization.

The concept of a “troubled past” has been co-opted into a platform for crystallizing a new form of self-righteous German identity, which casts itself as the ultimate victim. Implicitly, this narrative suggests that the German state endured such immense suffering that it had no choice but to support the genocide. This narrative of torment now extends to the point where it emboldens accusations of anti-Semitism against prominent Jewish intellectuals and artists like Judith Butler, Masha Gessen, and Nancy Fraser.

With my Alevi background, I consider myself a student of the Jewish intellectual tradition. I had the privilege of taking classes from Nancy Fraser and other remarkable scholars at the New School, once called the University in Exile. I want to conclude with a quote from one of her interviews:

“Over a hundred professors have been killed there [Gaza]. Nine university presidents have been killed. The names of the people that I mentioned to you earlier are just rattled off the top, there are so many more. Just think of Albert Einstein, who was offered the presidency of the state of Israel and refused. These are people whose very Jewishness took them to defend universal rights, not a narrow tribal identity.” [Jacobin]