The Zoryan Institute Highlights the Work of Dr. Bedross Der Matossian
July 12th, 2023: The Zoryan Institute had the pleasure of highlighting the work of Dr. Bedross Der Matossian, member of the Zoryan Institute’s Academic Board of Directors and Professor of Modern Middle East History in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in the form of an interview about his latest book, Denial of Genocides in the 21st Century.
Understanding genocide denial is crucial to understanding genocide as a whole. As prominent genocide scholar and the late Chair of the Zoryan Institute’s Academic Board of Directors, Dr. Roger Smith shared, “Genocide denial supports the re-enactment of genocide not only by the original perpetrator, but by others who wish to resolve political and social problems through mass violence, defining the problem as the people who are said to constitute the problem.” This can look like the total loss of human sympathy toward groups who have experienced the devastations of a genocide, as well as academic and political corruption. It is for this reason, among others, that the study of genocide denial is crucial to the field of genocide studies but also to the prevention of genocide across the world.
In his latest book, Dr. Der Matossian explores genocide denial across multiple contexts and how it has evolved and adapted in its forms throughout the 21st Century. Dr. Der Matossian’s work on this subject is an extremely valuable addition to the field.
ZI Question: Dr. Der Matossian, your latest book, Denial of Genocides in the 21st Century, brings together leading scholars from across disciplines to add to the body of genocide scholarship that is challenged by denialist literature today. What is genocide denial and what is its significance in genocide scholarship?
BDM: Denial is the reluctance to acknowledge the historical injustices of the past by the perpetrator groups, their descendants, and their allies. By doing so denialist become complicit in the process of genocide, transmuting the violence from the physical to the psychological plane. Denialists become ideological as well as biological descendants of the perpetrators; they continue the process of genocide through multiples mediums ranging from print and audiovisual media, the desecration of genocide monuments, to the exertion of pressure on different governments, academic institutions, museums, and academic scholars in order to prevent the use of the forbidden word: genocide. Unfortunately, the scholarship on denial of genocides lags far behind when one compares it to other more developed areas in the field of comparative genocide studies. It is significant because denial does not only pertain to the past, but it is a contemporary issue with all its ramifications.
ZI Question: Throughout history we often see patterns of violence performed by the same perpetrating groups, or targeted towards the same victim groups. Can genocide denial be linked with impunity and future instances of violence and/or genocide by a nation and/or group?
BDM: Genocide denial aims at killing the dead and their memory over and over, inflicting pain on the survivors and their descendants, and demonstrating that future acts of violence are possible in a climate of deception and impunity. Thus, denial of genocide is strongly connected to impunity. Both denial and impunity embolden the perpetrator group to commit acts of violence against the vulnerable group. A recent example of this is the Second Nagorno Karabakh War of 2020. Turkey, for example, which adamantly denies that a genocide has been perpetrated by its predecessors has supplied the Republic of Azerbaijan with both military and intelligence aid leading to the death of thousands of Armenian soldiers and hundreds of civilians. Israel too could be put in the same category. The State of Israel has oscillated between active and passive denial of the Armenian Genocide. During the Second Karabakh war it too sold advanced military equipment to Azerbaijan leading to disastrous outcomes for the Armenians. The question one needs to ask: if both Turkey and Israel had acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, would they still have sold advanced weaponry to the state of Azerbaijan during the War?
ZI Question: This book speaks to how genocide denial has evolved and adapted in the twenty-first century. How has genocide denial has evolved over time and do you see it continuing to evolve in the future?
BDM: In the twenty-first century the art of genocide denial has also evolved and adapted to keep pace, developing new strategies to augment and complement established modes of denial. Denial has encompassed a range of techniques, including—beyond outright negation—disputes over numbers, contestation of legal and sociological definitions, blaming of victims, cover-ups, and various modes of intimidation, including threats of legal action. However, the most effective strategy in the twenty-first century has been the purposeful creation of misinformation, the nature and global transmission of which has been fundamentally altered by vast changes in technology and methods of communication in the twenty-first century. Through publishing in mainstream journals and presses, denialist literature has taken on the outward appearance of legitimate scholarship. It seeks to give the impression of rationality and evidence-based research, while simultaneously employing strategies to subvert the possibility of authentic scholarly exchange. The internet in the twenty-first century along with the social media networks have played a monumental role in fomenting denial of genocides. Through deliberate spread of denialist propaganda and misinformation, denial in the twenty-first century is no longer a marginal, shadowy pursuit: it is, increasingly, a fact of daily life. Denial of genocides of the modern and premodern eras continues today with increased vigor because of the rise of right-wing populist governments around the globe.
ZI Question: Each chapter in your new book speaks to a different case of genocide or a different perspective. What is the benefit to comparing these instances?
BDM: There is no doubt that the denial of the Armenian Genocide represents the most extreme case of denial of any genocide in the modern period, involving a concerted effort by the state to combat, distort, falsify, and obfuscate the historical veracity of the crime. That is why three chapters in the volume is dedicated to the denial of the Armenian Genocide. Denial of the genocide extends beyond the state to incorporate all of the Republic of Turkey’s diplomatic and non-diplomatic representatives, both major and minor, outside of Turkey. Entities ranging from Turkish cultural centers to Turkish students’ associations in universities around the globe have become active participants in this denialist venture. Despite the intensity of its denial, the Armenian genocide is not the only genocide that is being denied. By bringing together some of the major genocides of the twentieth century such as the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Syria, the volume aimed to demonstrate how denial of genocide is also prevalent in other cases too. Let us take the Holocaust for example. Gerald Steinacher in his fantastic article demonstrates how anti-Semitism, racism, and the denial of the Holocaust have all been on the increase in the United States in the twenty-first century, as evidenced by the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the emergence of the Proud Boys, and the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories. With the rise of right-wing populist governments in the United States, Europe, and Australia, Holocaust denialists no longer represent a societal fringe but have become active in mainstream politics. Hence, similar to the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, denial plays a vital role in the daily contentious political situation.
ZI Question: What do you hope the impact that this book will have on the field of genocide studies?
BDM: Through this volume I want to demonstrate that denial is an integral part of the genocidal process and can occur in liberal democracies as well as under authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. The volume demonstrates how democratic states have explicitly aided the perpetrators in denying the massacres as is seen in the case of Turkey and Guatemala. Denialists in democratic states by benefiting from freedom of speech have infiltrated the mainstream publishing market with the aim of legitimizing their denial of “scholarship” as part of an academic debate. The Armenian and the Rwandan genocides are perfect examples. As various cases examined in this volume have demonstrated, denialists have also resorted to legal actions as was seen in the case of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust.
The volume also aims at alerting scholars, general audience, and policy makers that denial of genocides today is not confined to a marginal group but encompasses strong movements infused with racism and bigotry against the victim groups. This bigotry is manifested in anti- Semitism, Armenophobia, and Islamophobia, among other types of hatred. Hence, twenty-first-century denialists do not represent a fringe of society but have become part of larger groups that indulge in conspiracy theories and xenophobia. In the age of the Internet, right-wing ideologies in Europe in the form of neo fascism and neo-Nazism have grown, and the denial of genocides has proliferated at a greater rate than in the past.
I also wanted to raise an important question in the volume whether denial of genocide should be designated a category of hate speech that should not be tolerated in the public, academic, or political spheres. I think it is about high time that we should explore this theme and have an honest discussion about it. As I have argued in the book, as long as denial of genocides exists and is flourishing, the act of genocide itself continues without positive signs on the horizon. This in itself results in the emergence of a climate of impunity leading to future acts of violence.
Denial of Genocides in the Twenty-First Century is available for purchase from the University of Nebraska Press website here .
An academic volume of this nature takes years of dedicated research. The Zoryan Institute encourages its constituency to purchase a copy of this book with the special discount rate of 40% using the code 6AS23 at check-out.
Bedross Der Matossian is Professor of Modern Middle East History in the Department of History and the Hymen Rosenberg Professor in Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he began his graduate studies in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. He completed his Ph.D. in Middle East History in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University in 2008. From 2008 to 2010, he was a Lecturer of Middle East History in the Faculty of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For the Spring quarter 2014 he was appointed as the Dumanian Visiting Professor in the University of Chicago. His areas of interest include ethnic politics in the Middle East, inter-ethnic violence in the Ottoman Empire, Palestinian history, and the history of Armenian Genocide.
Currently he is the vice-chair of the Department of History. He was also the President of the Society for Armenian Studies (2018-2022). He serves on the Board of Directors of multiple international educational institutions and on the editorial board of multiple journals, the most prominent of which is the flagship journal of the field: International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES). He is also the series editor of Armenians in the Modern and Early Modern World published by I.B.Tauris and Bloomsbury Press. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of multiple books including The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century (Stanford University Press, 2022).