1915 killings of Armenians stoke university furor on academic freedom

July 5, 2008
Source: The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.)

By Susan Kinzie

WASHINGTON - The issue that has roiled U.S.-Turkish relations in recent months - how to characterize the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 - has set off a dispute over politics and academic freedom at an institute housed at Georgetown University.

Several board members of the Institute of Turkish Studies have resigned this summer, protesting the ouster of a board chairman who wrote that scholars should research, rather than avoid, what he characterized as an Armenian genocide.

Within weeks of writing about the matter in late 2006, Binghamton University professor Donald Quataert resigned from the board of governors, saying the Turkish ambassador to the United States told him he had angered some political leaders in Ankara and that they had threatened to revoke the institute's funding.

After a prominent association of Middle Eastern scholars learned about it, they wrote a letter in May to the institute, the Turkish prime minister and other leaders asking that Quataert be reinstated and money for the institute be put in an irrevocable trust to avoid political influence.
The ambassador of the Republic of Turkey, H.E. Nabi Sensoy, denied that he had any role in Quataert's resignation. In a written statement, he said that claims that he urged Quataert to leave are unfounded and misleading.

The dispute shows the tensions between money and scholarship, and the impact language can have on historical understanding.

Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I. Armenians and Turks bitterly disagree over whether it was a campaign of genocide, or a civil war in which many Turks were also killed.

In the fall, when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) championed a bill that would characterize the events of 1915 to 1917 as genocide, the Bush administration fought it and several former defense secretaries warned that Turkish leaders would limit U.S. access to a military base needed for the war in Iraq.

The Turkish studies institute, founded in 1983, is independent from Georgetown University, but Executive Director David Cuthell teaches a course there in exchange for space on campus.

Julie Green Bataille, a university spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail, "We will review this matter consistent with the importance of academic freedom and the fact that the institute is independently funded and governed."

The institute's funding, a $3 million grant, is entirely from Turkey.

A few years ago, Quataert said, members of the board checked on what they thought was an irrevocable blind trust "and to our surprise it turned out to be a gift that could be revoked by the Turkish government."

Quataert, a professor of history, said the institute has funded good scholarship without political influence. The selection of which studies to support is done by a committee of academics on the associate board, he said, and approved by the board, which includes business and political leaders. Never once, he said, did he think a grant application was judged on anything other than its academic merits.

He also noted that during his time there, no one applied for grants that would have been controversial in Turkey. Asked if any of the research characterized the events as genocide, Cuthell said, "My gut is no. It's that third rail."

Roger Smith, professor emeritus of government at the College of William and Mary, questioned whether the non-profit institute deserves its tax-exempt status if there is political influence -- and whether it is an undeclared lobbying arm for the Turkish government.

Cuthell said none of the institute's critics ever bothered to check the truth of Quataert's account with the institute: It does not lobby, Cuthell said, and "the allegations of academic freedom simply don't hold up."

The controversy began quietly in late 2006 with a review of historian Donald Bloxham's book, "The Great Game of Genocide." Quataert wrote that the slaughter of Armenians has been the elephant in the room of Ottoman studies. Despite his belief that the term "genocide" had become a distraction, he said the events met the United Nations definition of the word.

He sent a letter of resignation to members of the institute in December 2006, and one board member resigned.

But in the fall, around the same time that Congress was debating the Armenian question, Quataert was asked to speak at a conference about what had happened at the institute. He told members of the Middle Eastern Studies Association that the ambassador told him he must issue a retraction of his book review or step down -- or put funding for the institute in jeopardy.

His colleagues were shocked, said Laurie Brand, director of the school of international relations at the University of Southern California.

Ambassador Sensoy, who is honorary chairman of the institute's board, said in a statement this week, "Neither the Turkish Government nor I have ever placed any pressure upon the ITS, for such interference would have violated the principle of the academic freedom, which we uphold the most. The Turkish Government and I will be the first to defend ITS from any such pressure."

Since the May 27 letter from the scholars association was sent, several associate and full members of the board have left. Marcie Patton, Resat Kasaba and Kemal Silay resigned; Fatma Muge Gocek said she would resign, and Birol Yesilada said his primary reason for stepping down at this time is his health, but that he is concerned about the conflicting accounts of what had happened.

"It's a very difficult line that scholars walk," Patton said, "especially post- 9/11, especially because of the Iraq war."