Turks Breach Wall of Silence on Armenians
By BELINDA COOPER
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
ÌINNEAPOLIS Taner Akcam doesn't seem like either a hero or a
traitor, though he's been called both. A slight, soft-spoken man who
chooses his words with care, Mr. Akcam, a Turkish sociologist and
historian currently teaching at the University of Minnesota, writes
about events that happened nearly a century ago in an empire that no
longer exists: the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire
during World War I. But in a world where history and identity are
closely intertwined, where the past infects today's politics, his
work, along with that of like-minded Turkish scholars, is breaking
Mr. Akcam, 50, is one of a handful of scholars who are challenging
their homeland's insistent declarations that the organized slaughter
of Armenians did not occur; and he is the first Turkish specialist to
use the word "genocide" publicly in this context.
That is a radical step when one considers that Turkey has threatened
to sever relations with countries over this single word. In 2000, for
example, Ankara derailed an American congressional resolution calling
the 1915 killings "genocide" by threatening to cut access to military
bases in the country."We accept that tragic events occurred at the
time involving all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire," said Tuluy
Tanc, minister counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, "but
it is the firm Turkish belief that there was no genocide but self-
defense of the Ottoman Empire."
Scholars like Mr. Akcam call this a misrepresentation that must be
confronted. "We have to deal with history, like the Germans after the
war," said Fikret Adanir, a Turkish historian who has lived in
Germany for many years. "It's important for the health of the
democracy, for civil society."
Most scholars outside Turkey agree that the killings are among the
first 20th-century instances of "genocide," defined under the 1948
Genocide Convention as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in
whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."
During World War I the government of the disintegrating Ottoman
Empire, fearing Armenian nationalist activity, organized mass
deportations of Armenians from its eastern territories.
In what some consider the model for the Holocaust, men, women and
children were sent into the desert to starve, herded into barns and
churches that were set afire, tortured to death or drowned. The
numbers who died are disputed: the Armenians give a figure of 1.5
million, the Turks several hundred thousand.
In the official Turkish story the Armenians were casualties of civil
conflict they instigated by allying themselves with Russian forces
working to break up the Ottoman Empire. In any case atrocities were
documented in contemporary press reports, survivor testimony and
dispatches by European diplomats, missionaries and military officers.
Abortive trials of Ottoman leaders after World War I left an
extensive record and some confessions of responsibility.
A legal analysis commissioned last year by the International Center
for Transitional Justice in New York concluded that sufficient
evidence existed to term the killings a "genocide" under
Yet unlike Germany in the decades since the Holocaust, Turkey has
consistently denied that the killings were intended or that the
government at the time had any moral or legal responsibility. In the
years since its founding in 1923 the Turkish Republic has drawn what
the Turkish historian Halil Berktay calls a "curtain of silence"
around this history at home and used its influence as a cold war ally
to pressure foreign governments to suppress opposing views.
Mr. Akcam is among the most outspoken of the Turkish scholars who
have defied this silence. A student leader of the leftist opposition
to Turkey's repressive government in the 1970's, Mr. Akcam spent a
year in prison for "spreading communist propaganda" before escaping
to Germany. There, influenced in part by Germany's continuing
struggle to understand its history, he began to confront his own
country's past. While researching the post-World War I trials of
Turkish leaders, he began working with Vahakn Dadrian, a pre-eminent
Armenian historian of the killings. Their unlikely friendship became
the subject of a 1997 Dutch film, "The Wall of Silence."
Turks fear to acknowledge the crimes of the past, Mr. Akcam says,
because admitting that the founders of modern Turkey, revered today
as heroes, were complicit in evil calls into question the country's
very legitimacy. "If you start questioning, you have to question the
foundations of the republic," he said, speaking intensely over
glasses of Turkish tea in the book-lined living room of his
Minneapolis home, as his 12-year-old daughter worked on her homework
in the next room. In a study nearby transcriptions of Turkish
newspapers from the 1920's were neatly piled.
He and others like him insist that coming to terms with the past
serves Turkey's best interests. Their view echoes the experience of
countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa that have
struggled with similar questions as they emerge from periods of
repressive rule or violent conflict. Reflecting a widespread belief
that nations can ensure a democratic future only through
acknowledging past wrongs, these countries have opened archives, held
trials and created truth commissions.
Mr. Akcam says some headway is being made, particularly since the
election of a moderate government in 2002 and continuing Turkish
efforts to join the European Union. After all, he says, in the past
dissent could mean imprisonment or even death. "With the Armenian
genocide issue, no one is going to kill you," he said. "The
restrictions are in our minds."
Mr. Akcam is convinced the state's resistance to historical dialogue
is "not the position of the majority of people in Turkey," he said.
He cites a recent survey conducted by scholars that appeared in a
Turkish newspaper showing that 61 percent of Turks believe it is time
for public discussion of what the survey called the "accusations of
Ronald Grigor Suny, an Armenian-American professor of political
science at the University of Chicago, was invited to lecture at a
Turkish university in 1998. "My mother said, `Don't go, you can't
trust these people,' " he remembered. "I was worried there might be
danger." Instead, to his surprise, though he openly called the
killings of Armenians "genocide," he encountered more curiosity than
Still, Mr. Akcam's views and those of like-minded scholars remain
anathema to the nationalist forces that still exercise influence in
Turkey. Threats by a nationalist organization recently prevented the
showing there of "Ararat," by the Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom
Egoyan, a movie that examines ways in which the Armenian diaspora
deals with its history.
Mr. Akcam's own attempt to resettle in Turkey in the 1990's failed
when several universities, fearing government harassment, refused to
hire him. And when Mr. Berktay disputed the official version of the
Armenian killings in a 2000 interview with a mainstream Turkish
newspaper, he became the target of a hate-mail campaign. Even so, he
says, the mail was far outweighed by supportive messages from Turks
at home and abroad. "They congratulated me for daring to speak up,"
Scholarly discussion can also turn into a minefield among the large
numbers of Armenians in the United States and Europe. Attempts to
discuss the killings in a wider context raise suspicions. "Many
people in the diaspora feel that if you try to understand why the
Turks did it," Mr. Suny explained, "you have justified or legitimized
it in some way."
Like their Turkish colleagues, a younger generation of Armenian
academics in the United States and elsewhere has grown frustrated
with the intellectual impasse. In 2000 Mr. Suny and Fatma Muge Gocek,
a Turkish-born sociology professor at the University of Michigan,
organized a conference that they hoped would move scholarship beyond
what Mr. Suny called "the sterile debates on whether there was a
genocide or not." Despite some disagreements between Turkish and
Armenian participants, the group they brought together has continued
to meet and grow.
Mr. Akcam had been building bridges even before that meeting. At a
genocide conference in Armenia in 1995, he met Greg Sarkissian, the
founder of the Zoryan Institute in Toronto, a research center devoted
to Armenian history. In what both describe as an emotional encounter,
the two lighted candles together in an Armenian church for Mr.
Sarkissian's murdered relatives and for Haji Halil, a Turkish man who
rescued Mr. Sarkissian's grandmother and her children.
Mr. Akcam and Mr. Sarkissian say Halil, the "righteous Turk,"
symbolizes the possibility of a more constructive relationship
between the two peoples. But like most Armenians, Mr. Sarkissian says
Turkey must acknowledge historical responsibility before
reconciliation is possible. "If they do," he said, "it will start the
healing process, and then Armenians won't talk about genocide
anymore. We will talk about Haji Halil."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company