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Turks Breach Wall of Silence on Armenians

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  • callbarred
    Turks Breach Wall of Silence on Armenians By BELINDA COOPER Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/06/arts/06TURK.html
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 15, 2004
      Turks Breach Wall of Silence on Armenians

      Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


      ├îINNEAPOLIS ┬Ś 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
      new ground.

      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
      international law.

      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,"
      he recalled.

      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

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