Cameron Thibos     Home  |  Research  |  Publications  |  CV  |  Contact  |  



Cameron's doctoral work focused on the construction of Turkish-American diasporic consciousness. To explore this topic he focused on the current political debate in the United States regarding official recognition of the deportations and massacres of Armenians by Ottoman forces as a genocide. This thesis, written under the supervision of Prof. Robin Cohen and Dr. Hein de Haas, was successfully defended on January 20th, 2014 at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford.

A summary of this work was recently published under the title 'Stalemate in the Armenian genocide debate: the role of identity in Turkish diasporic political engagement' in the Sigona, Gamlen, Liberatore and Kringelbach edited collection Diasporas Reimagined: Spaces, Practices and Belonging (September 2015: Oxford Diasporas Programme).

Competitive Identity Formation in the Turkish Diaspora

This thesis examines the politics of narrative control, and how it relates to the formation of diasporic consciousness among Turkish migrants in the United States. It asks how Turkish diasporic identity is formed and shaped by discourses that frame Turks, and that interrogate who or what a ‘Turk’ is? This thesis suggests that this process of continual construction and re-construction of diasporic consciousness should be investigated as a matter of competitive identity formation, meaning that there is competition between multiple actors to impose a definition or label on a diasporic group and to achieve broad-based support for that label or definition. This also implies the attribution of specific values, ideas, and political agendas to that group.

The thesis examines the roots, motivations and activities of Turkish American activists in Washington DC. Based on an analysis of their political orientations and internal fissures, it focuses on the current political debate over official recognition of the deportations and massacres of Armenians by Ottoman forces as a genocide. It argues that Turkish American activists have coalesced on the defensive around this issue, framing it as a matter critical to the identity of Turks. Their manifold activities to prevent the further institutionalisation of the ‘genocide’ label in American political discourse do not, however, always resonate with the passive majority of Turkish Americans.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory and Methodology

3. ‘We are Not…’: Reactive Politics and Identity Formation in the United States

Chapter three is the first of my empirical chapters. It provides a brief introduction to the Turkish population in the United States and the Turkish-American organisations active in the Washington DC area. I analyse their activities, rhetoric, and interactions with other groups. I argue that their political engagement is largely in reaction to other groups’ attempts to label Turkey and ‘the Turks’ in a negative light. The focus of Turkish-American activists, in other words, is defensive and centred on questions of identity. I suggest identity in Turkish-American politics is a threshold issue which, until resolved, precludes other possible pursuits. This chapter draws extensively on fieldwork interviews.

4. Debating Genocide I: Constructing the Counter-Narrative

This chapter explores the identities of non-activist Turkish-Americans and some of the influences upon those identities. Many of these interviews revealed passive perceptions of prejudice in American society against Turkey and Turkish-Americans. To examine this I look at America’s historical portrayal of Turks and Turkey, as seen through two of America’s oldest and most respected newspapers: The Washington Post and The New York Times. I follow this with an analysis of 41 interviews I did with ‘lay’ members of the Turkish-American community in Washington DC. I look at the activities of the groups introduced in Chapter 3 to garner grassroots support and analyse communiqués distributed by one group’s ‘grassroots information service’. In the final section the coverage of the groups found in both the Turkish and American presses. I argue that the continued evocation of the past by contemporary political activists has a powerful effect on the identities of Turkish-Americans. Perceptions of prejudice have set Turkish-Americans, both lay and activist, on an irrevocably defensive footing and the disparagement of their ‘imagined community’ (see Anderson, 1991) has strengthened their communal consciousness and identification with their former homeland.

5. Debating Genocide II: Preventing Lexical Hegemony

Since the 1980s Turkish activists in America have opposed the formal recognition by the US of the Armenian massacres of 1915 as genocide. I use the thrusts and ripostes of both Armenian and Turkish activists in court, on Capitol Hill, and in the media to argue that the issue is not so much one of historical substance as national pride. From the side of the Turkish diaspora, the impetus is more about preventing what is seen as slander than about the practical ramifications (e.g. legal liability and insurance claims) of recognition. The aversion to being labelled as génocidaires has created a strong defensive reaction among the Turkish activist community. I build my case using fieldwork interviews, legal and legislative archives of minutes, and national press coverage of genocide-related bills in Congress.

6. Will All Those Happy to Call Themselves Turks Please Stand Up?

In the first section of this chapter I look at some of the tactics and programmes for cultivating grassroots support undertaken by the Turkish American activist organisations. In the second section, I look at the media coverage of the Turkish American organisations in both the Turkish and American national presses. I argue that while the organisations are largely ignored by the American press, the Turkish press serves as an amplifying echo chamber for the activists to broadcast their activities, positions, and narratives. In the third and final section of this chapter I look at some of the attitudes and ideas of the more passive and silent Turkish Americans living in Washington DC during the summer of 2011. I argue that while few engage in direct activism, the individuals I interviewed found ways to connect and keep up with Turkey. Many expressed pride in their ‘Turkishness’ and perceived prejudice against Turks in the United States. At the same time, many also expressed a broadening of horizons and a moderation of their views in the United States. As a consequence, some but not all agree with the methods or priorities of the groups discussed in this thesis.

7. Conclusion