Thursday, December 27, 2007

Is It Still Genocide if Your Allies Did It?

HYE-TERT, Turkey
Yer: USA
Tarih: 27.12.2007

How did you get involved in researching the Armenian Genocide?

I began in 1988 at the Hamburg Social Research Institute, working on the history of torture and violence in Turkish political culture. At first, I was studying and researching later Ottoman history. However, if one looks at this time period, one comes inevitably upon the massacres of 1894-1896 and the deportation and killing of the Armenians in 1915.

In 1991, the Institute launched a project to investigate whether or not the [lessons of the] Nuremburg Trials could be universalized. At the time there were no serious discussions about this subject. We wanted to know whether one could establish a court that would punish officials for the crimes they committed in the name of their government or nation. Within that project, I suggested looking into the Istanbul trials of 1919 and 1922 -- these were the trials that attempted to establish responsibility for the Armenian Genocide. They were sort of precursors to Nuremburg. So these two components came together, and I that's how I really started working on the Genocide.

And you're from Turkey? Are you a Muslim?

I grew up in a very secular family. My father was an atheist, but I grew up, of course, within Islamic culture. I am sure I carry on much of this Islamic culture in the way I live, but in terms of my personal convictions, I am very secular.

Please understand that I am a very ordinary Turkish intellectual. I come from the '68 Generation -- here it was the Hippie Generation, but we too were against the Vietnam War, American foreign policy, and so on. As progressive people of that time in Turkey, we believed that we, Turks created our nation-state in a fight against the great imperialist powers. We assigned a very negative role to the Christian minorities in Turkey, to the Armenians. To us, they were collaborators. This is how we perceived ourselves and the world, and how we saw Turkey's past. Since we saw all Christians in Turkey as allied with the imperialist state, we had a very negative image of them. As progressives, we always thought it was better not to touch on the topic of the Armenian Genocide, because to do so would be to enter a very dark, suspicious terrain, which could not be understood easily. It was not easy for me to decide to work on the Genocide. At first I thought: I'm working on a very suspicious terrain, better not to go in, actually.

You were active in protests from an early age, correct?

In my early period, in the early 1970s, I was in high school when the student movement was very active. This was a huge anti-war movement. When I started studying at the University it was already 1971, and 1971 was the military coup d'état in Turkey. We were under the control of military. At the beginning, we students were trying to reform the universities. We wanted students to have a voice. Later, they became radicalized, describing themselves as a socialist and democratic revolutionary movement. In 1974 there was the first free election in Turkey. The students became active, and I was one of these student activists influenced by his older brothers in the '68 movement. We wanted reform at the universities.

Now, this is important to understand because of the ongoing Turkish campaign in the United States to discredit me as a terrorist. The story begins with my arrest in 1974 for leafleting. At that time, the students didn't have representation at the universities. Our major demand was to have the freedom to establish a student organization to allow the university to hear us.

In order to distribute a leaflet in Turkey you had to go to the central police station and get special permission. You had to have this permit in your possession while distributing literature. However, even if you had this permit -- as I did -- you could still get arrested and held in jail for two or three days; which is exactly what happened to me. That was my "terrorist act": distributing leaflets -- with permission, mind you -- which said I opposed the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. I was against war. So the police arrested me and I spent two days in prison.

Now today, in the United States, you can go online and read about Taner Akçam's terrorist activities in 1974. It's very simple in the United States to stigmatize someone as a terrorist. With that label attached to someone's name, you can portray Al Qaeda and Taner Akçam in the same picture.

If you go to Google and type in "Holocaust", you get to the Jewish Holocaust immediately, and it takes some time and quite a few pages before you get to the crackpots whose Web sites attempt to discredit it. But with "Armenian Genocide," you get "Armenian Genocide Lie" on the first page, nine entries down on the day I checked (May 10). The famed British journalist and Middle East expert Robert Fisk argues -- quite effectively -- that we would think it insane to give equal time to a Holocaust denial group, but that is often par for the course on the subject of the Armenian Genocide. In 2006, John Evans, the United States' ambassador to Armenia, was even recalled by the U. S. government for using the term 'genocide' in a speech, and he was replaced by Richard Hoagland, who is on record as stating that what happened in Turkey doesn't qualify as a genocide. Since we know that Turkey opposes mention of the Armenian Genocide, I have to wonder why they are able to exert this level of control?

Turkey uses its political importance in the Middle East to pressure the U.S. and other countries not to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. Especially the U.S. and Israel have vital interests in keeping good relations with Turkey, so both states have enormous problems to face. Why Turkey doesn't acknowledge the historical wrongdoing is one part of the story. The other part of the history is why the U.S. and Israel let themselves be pressured by Turkey. According to me actually this is a wrong attitude and doesn't help to solve the problem; just the opposite, it lingers the problem and makes it more complicated. I think a strategic partnership that hasn't been based on truth cannot stay healthy in the long term.

Actually, in 2006, John Evans, the United States ambassador to Armenia, was denied a Foreign Service award for "constructive dissent" because he had characterized the Armenian Genocide as such in public presentations throughout the U.S. The State Department forced him to recant, then recalled him from his post.

During confirmation hearings to replace Evans, ambassadorial nominee Richard Hoagland acknowledged the "mass killings and forced exile of as many as 1.5 million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire." At one point highlighting the issue of the perpetrators' intent, Hoagland strenuously avoided characterizing this "human tragedy" as a genocide -- without stating, however, that what happened in Turkey did NOT qualify. The Senate declined his nomination.

Since Evans' departure, Armenia has been without a U.S. ambassador.

Those who argue that there are two sides to the story -- the same people who wouldn't dream of saying such a thing about the Holocaust -- are not doing so because of strong counter-evidence, but only because of political pressure from Turkey. According to the Ottoman documents, there can be no question that the Ottoman government consciously and deliberately destroyed a part of its own population. There is plenty of evidence there.

Acknowledging the Genocide is not a problem of scholarship; it has to do with Turkey's military and political strength in the Middle East. The United States needed Turkey in the Cold War, needed Turkey against the Soviet Union, and needs Turkey today -- not only in the Iraq war, but also in order to preserve the energy routes. Turkey's relationship with Israel is also very important. Turkey is the only country in the Middle East with which Israel has peaceful relations. For these reasons, the Armenian Genocide is highly politicized.

After you were involved in this Nuremberg project, where did you go from there?

In Hamburg, I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the Istanbul Military Tribunals in 1919-1922 and the attitude of the Turkish National Movement towards the Armenian Genocide. The German edition, which appeared in 1996, was around 200 pages long. The Turkish edition was 600 pages. A substantially revised American edition came out in 2006 as A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility.

And when did you start noticing harassment because of your pursuit of this subject?

Very early. 1996, I think.

By way of background, I couldn't go back to Turkey before 1993. With my early 1970s activity in the student movement, and some journal articles I wrote stating that the Kurds existed in Turkey, I was punished under Article 141 of the Turkish Penal Code. This was a law forbidding you to write about the Kurds. You also couldn't mention class struggle in Turkey. I wrote about a worker's strike in Istanbul and the right of workers to establish a trade union, topics which were also forbidden under Article 141. This law, by the way, had been adapted from the penal code of Mussolini's Fascist regime in 1936.

So in 1976 I was arrested and sentenced to prison for eight years, nine months and twenty days. I escaped from prison in 1977 and fled to Germany where I received political asylum and became a German citizen. In 1991, while Turkey was applying for membership in the European Union, Paragraph 141 was rescinded and my conviction was annulled. My issue regarding the escape from prison had already lapsed under the statute of limitations. Suddenly, I could go back to Turkey. I returned in 1993 with my family, intending to establish a documentation and research center on the late Ottoman and modern Turkish history. I worked with a private university in Istanbul in 1996 to establish this institute. But within a year, the Turkish Secret Service distributed a file against me amongst the scholars at the university, and they had to terminate contact with me because it was too risky. My family and I had to leave again for Germany.

There were and are no criminal charges pending against me in Turkey. Despite this, I have been constantly targeted by Turkish media, by the nationalists, and in certain political circles. In 2004, because of the strengthening nationalist movement in Turkey, the penal code was changed to prohibit any statement that challenges the official Turkish position. This is the infamous Article 301 that exists today. Now there are many scholars and writers who espouse the official Turkish position for fear of reprisal.

Recently there was a complaint against me because I supported a friend, Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist in Istanbul and an editor of a weekly Armenian/Turkish newspaper, who was charged under this law. He was assassinated in January 2007.

Now, Article 301 doesn't include anything specifically about the Genocide. Since the charge of "insulting Turkishness" is purposefully vague, some public prosecutor had decided that Dink's use of the term "genocide" constituted an insult. He was sentenced at the end of 2005 for the crime of insulting Turkishness. In 2006 he was put on trial for using the 'g' word.

So I wrote an opinion piece saying, essentially, "Here I am, I am also using the word 'genocide', please put me on trial." There was a criminal investigation, but the prosecutor dismissed the complaint. Since 1993 I have been able to travel to Turkey without any problem.

Do you feel that if you went back, you would be prosecuted?

No. The basic problem is the rise of nationalism in Turkey. Ever since my friend's assassination, many intellectuals have been living under police protection. I too could get police protection, but my life would be in danger. In fact, Hrant Dink's assassination showed us that the part of the police were complicit in the murder. You don't know whether or not you can trust the police.

Do you want to go back?

I would love to go to Turkey. I don't plan to live there, but I do plan to go back.

What brought you to the University of Minnesota?

I came to the United States because my work in Hamburg was almost at an end. I couldn't work on the Armenian Genocide and find a teaching position. So I came here because I didn't want to change my topic. I started at the University of Michigan as a visiting scholar. Then I came to Minnesota to give a lecture -- in fact, I gave three -- and the University liked them enough to give me a contract. I have a visiting status, but I am very happy here.

So the research that you did for A Shameful Act you pulled from Ottoman documents?

Actually my original dissertation was not based on Ottoman archival materials, but rather on two different categories of evidence. There were documents from the 1919 and 1922 Istanbul trials, the indictments, verdicts and minutes from meetings. These had been published in the daily newspapers of the time as well as in the official gazette of the government. I mostly used these for my PhD. Later, some of this information came from published memoirs.

In following years, I was able to work in the Ottoman Archive in Istanbul and I received very valuable documents from this Archive. This is the government archive, like the National Archives here in the U.S. In A Shameful Act I relied on these documents. The papers from the Interior Ministry were crucial to my study. They were catalogued just recently, in the 1990s, some in early 2000. They have still been working on cataloguing the documents.

What would prompt a group that wants to hide this information to open it to the public?

International pressure. You couldn't get these archives in the 1980s, but now the U.S. and Europe were saying, essentially, "Look, you claim that nothing happened, and yet you deny access to your archives." In the 1990s, the Turkish authorities launched a campaign to say, "Here we are, we are opening our archives."

Now, I would like clarify one point: the archives were always open to the public, but the question was whether or not the material related to this period was catalogued and available to researchers. If it's not catalogued, it becomes nearly impossible to examine. Also, in the past if you asked for material regarding the Armenians, you would be interrogated. They eased the working conditions in the archives so that it became easier to get access. The working conditions are better, the cataloguing has improved, and now that there's a new governing party, it's easier to do research on this topic.

Does this political party welcome news about the Genocide?

This party is more open than previous parties.

So there are these two parties, and one is more open-minded. But then there's a rise of nationalism. Do they both share hope of joining the E.U.?

No. The people who are challenging the Turkish position on Genocide and the governing party are in favor of joining the E.U. and want more democracy, more respect for human rights. But the resurgent nationalists and the Turkish Social Democrat Party are all very clearly against the E.U. and don't want to hear anything regarding the Armenian Genocide. The position of governing party towards the Armenian Genocide is more complicated. At the dawn of their power they had a more moderate position, but over the years the pressure from nationalists has become so strong that they have, on the surface at least, changed their previous position. I can give one example: initially they were inclined to open the border with Armenia, to support an open discussion in Turkish society, etc.

Is this the group that is primarily behind the efforts to discredit you and others who look into the Armenian Genocide?

That group is not the governing party. The group who organizes the campaign against me in Turkey and here in the U.S. is a part of what we call the "Deep State," the military-bureaucratic complex. This non-elected government body is behind the campaign to discredit Genocide scholars. The nationalists and the Social Democrat Party are behind this effort. Here in the U.S. there are some groups organized and controlled mostly by Turkish diplomats. I can give three names: ATAA (Assembly of Turkish American Associations); Turkish Forum (an e-mail group, coordinated between different initiatives in different states in the U.S.) and a Web site, (one of the most popular Armenian Genocide denial sites).

Definitely there are Turkish diplomats who nourish these sites with information. I mean, who could have given the exact date of my arrest in 1974? Even I had forgotten that! It was for leafleting! And there is no record of this in any journal or newspaper. This is what that Web site claims is a terrorist act. There must be some police officer in Ankara from whom they got the information. All these groups that I mentioned (ATAA, Turkish Forum,, some diplomats and police officers from Turkey) are very well connected.

Let's talk about this recent problem you've been having. Recently you tried to go to Montreal for a speaking engagement and were detained. What happened?

The McGill University Faculty of Law and Concordia University had invited me to lecture on my book A Shameful Act. At the airport in Montreal I was detained for almost five hours, without any explanation. Meanwhile, my hosts contacted the Ministry of Public Safety and the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity. Because of this intervention, I was issued a special one-week visa.

On my insistence that I had the right to know exactly why I had been detained, I was shown a printout of my Wikipedia biography. For the last year, that page had been persistently vandalized by anonymous "contributors" seeking to label me as a terrorist. Since then I have received apologies from Wikipedia editors, and my biography is now protected from unauthorized changes.

At any rate, on my way back from Montreal, an American immigration officer advised me not to travel internationally until I could get this information removed from my customs dossier. I still don't know the extent of the problem! My lawyer wrote to the immigration office and we couldn't get any answer.

Before going to Montreal I had applied for a Green Card, and when you do that you get an automatic travel permit and working permit, just for submitting the application. My daughter has her permit. I haven't. It hasn't been issued. Today I am still on an H1 visa, which is a special visa for scholars.

But you still can't travel internationally?

I can travel internationally, but I might not be able to return. The U.S. officers could deny reentry. They could tell me to return to my home country and wait for this to clear up. My lawyer and I are still waiting for news about my Green Card. Now we're working on getting an extension of my visa and waiting to hear about the so-called problem.

[Note: since this interview, Dr. Akçam 's status has changed and he is able to travel internationally.]

That must be frustrating.

Of course! Someone writes in Wikipedia that I'm a terrorist, and suddenly I can't travel or have some trouble in my Green Card application process. We have letters from senators, both Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, and we're hoping for acceleration on my case. Acceleration of a case that has been delayed already.

I've already canceled five international appearances, three conferences in Germany and Italy, a book tour in Britain and Holland. I canceled all of them. My book has been translated into Dutch, and I can't go there to talk about it.

As a campaign to silence you, this has been horribly effective.

Not only has it been very successful in keeping me from travel, it's been difficult to work. I have to focus on the legal problem, writing letters to institutions, meeting with senators and my lawyers. I'm occupied, stressed... this is exactly what they wanted. My publishing house in Istanbul is waiting for an article, and I haven't had time to finish it.

Once this is cleared up, what are your plans?

I'm working on some research projects. I just finished work with another leading scholar of the Armenian Genocide, Vahakn Dadrian. We are writing a two-volume book on the indictments and verdicts and minutes of the Istanbul trials. This is a very important first-hand account of the Genocide.

I'm also working on a book I call the Demographic Policy. My central argument in A Shameful Act was that the Armenian Genocide was not an isolated act against Armenians but a part of a demographic policy enacted during World War I. It had two main components. One was against the Muslim non-Turkish population, who were redistributed, relocated and resettled among the Turkish population with the aim of assimilation. The second was against the Christian population, the Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians. The goal was to get the Christians out of Anatolia, what we now know as Turkey-to forcibly move them to Greece or Iran. Or, in the case of the Armenians, to eliminate them altogether.

In 1914, Anatolia was about 25 to 30 percent Christian. After the war it was 3 to 4 percent. The aim was to reduce the Christian population to no more than 5 or 10 percent so that they would have little sway in Turkey. Based on Ottoman documents we can prove this policy existed. The genocidal intent can be shown. What I began in A Shameful Act I will conclude in this book, based only on Ottoman documents.

What would you like to see as the result of your scholarship? Do you feel that knowing about the Genocide actually helps make Turkey a stronger country?

This is an important point. The military-bureaucratic complex, the ruling elite, still believes that facing history is jeopardizing Turkey's security. They believe that there is an intertwining, a link, between facing history and national security. This is the meaning behind the basic argument behind the Turkish denial position. They argue that genocide -- which they call relocation and deportation -- was due to the security concern during the First World War. They argue that the Armenian population was a threat to Turkish security during the war.

Today, talking about the Genocide is considered a threat to national security. That is why they call us traitors. If they openly talk about the Genocide -- or what happened to the Greeks and the Kurds -- they think Turkey will be partitioned, even now. They consider the Genocide claims as a big plan against Turkey; they believe that the United States wants to partition Turkey. Within the rising tide of nationalism, they believe that the U.S. invaded Iraq in order to create a Kurdish state. If you establish this state it would take over a part of Turkey.

They believe that the U.S. wants to revive the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which would partition Anatolia among Greeks, Kurds and Armenians.

Any part of talking about history is regarded as part of a master plan to partition Turkey. If Turkey acknowledges the Genocide, the Armenians will want a part of the provinces; if Turkey admits the wrongdoings against the Kurds, they will want a part; if Turkey acknowledges the Greek problem, the massacres, the Greeks will want a part. Facing history is a part of a master plan to break up Turkey: this is the basic argument. My argument is that we have to find a way to disentangle security concerns from facing history. These are two totally separate issues. As long as Turkey doesn't face history, that will be a security concern. Any security concept which disregards human rights, which disregards the other national groups, and considers the Kurds a threat is detrimental in itself. Turkey must change its security concept.

Playing devil's advocate, do you think there's any truth to the concept that the U.S. wants to break up Turkey?

No. The U.S. doesn't have this option. Breaking up Turkey would only bring catastrophe. There is no such interest. But if Turkey continues to deny the existence of the Kurds, continues to deny the right of its ethnic minorities, partition could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Islamic government is actually more open to acknowledging the problem, and is looking for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish situation. But the military is looking for a military solution, and they consider the Kurds as a treat to Turkey's existence.

So actually, you want a strong Turkish state as much as the nationalists do?

I want a democratic, free Turkey, one that is a part of the E.U., and one that is a part of the Western democratic family. There is no way to achieve this unless Turkey faces its history.

Hearing what you've said, and hearing the rhetoric of the Bush Administration and supporters of the Iraq war, it seems odd that the right wing in America has not embraced your scholarship. Bush nominated a man for Ambassador to Armenia who obfuscates the Armenian Genocide, but one would think that someone like yourself, who supports democracy in a Middle East country and who is writing of essentially Muslim atrocities against Christians would be welcomed by the Right. Why is this?

Well, the war in Iraq is another piece of paper altogether. It is a wrong war, a wrong decision. But regardless of whether it was right or wrong, if they are honest with their argument -- spreading democracy in the Middle East -- they have to support the movement in Turkey toward a free society. If they are supporting the military, who are challenging this position, then that is a contradiction. This is what is happening in the U.S. now. If the information in the press is correct, the American new-conservatives are working with Turkish Deep State against Turkey's democratization movement.

So you think that contradiction exists?

Regarding the American arguments outwardly and their practice in the region we can definitely speak of a contraction. But we should never forget that nation-states don't have moral stances; they only have interests. It is naïve to think that the U.S. interest in the Middle East is only to establish democracy. Or U.S. follows certain moral principles in the region. Just the opposite. The last best example is what happened in April 2007. On April 27 of this year there was an "electronic coup d'état" in Turkey. The Turkish military issued a press release online that threatened the ruling party with a coup. The E.U. condemned the military immediately and said they wouldn't allow that to happen. For the first two weeks Americans just watched, to see who would win. They were pragmatic. If the military won, they'd be in good position. But five hundred liberals (I was on of the co-signer) openly challenged the military; we said that the military has no right to intervene in the democratic process. The ruling party took a very powerful stance against the Military. Even Tony Blair, for example, spoke out, it was only the American state department [that] really waited for two weeks to condemn the military. This is one of the basic problems of the U.S. in the region. They have a very bad reputation regarding the democracy and so they again prove that the people in the Middle East have the right not to believe the arguments of the U.S. administration. They stay only on the paper.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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