Turks breach wall of silence on Armenians

March 5, 2004
Source: The New York Times

By Belinda Cooper

MINNEAPOLIS — 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 genocide."

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 hostility.

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."