Turko-Armenian war brews in the Ivory Tower

After a century of debate about the Armenian massacres, can the Turkish government endow chairs at American universities without branding Turkish studies as wholly corrupt?

Published June 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

So you think the culture wars between traditionalists and alleged postmodernists can get a bit heated at times? The culture wars are schoolyard spats, concerning trivialities, compared with the tensions in one of the least-publicized corners of academia: Turkish studies.

Turkish studies? Most colleges don't even offer courses in the subject. Where it is taught, it draws a handful of majors and graduate students. Yet several Turkish-studies programs, and the universities that sponsor them, have plunged into a century-old blood feud. Obscure lectures by historians of Turkey can spur nationwide letter-writing campaigns. Efforts to hire Turkish-studies professors have inspired petitions, protests from the likes of Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller and even threats of violence.

The crux of the dispute is the deep distrust many Armenian-Americans and human-rights activists have of scholars who study Turkish history. The central Armenian experience of the 20th century, after all, was the death of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, in Eastern Turkey, during brutal deportations by the Young Turk government. This catastrophe is often called the first genocide in a genocide-ridden century.

Yet Turkey has always scoffed at that interpretation, claiming that the Armenian dead were casualties in a scorched-earth civil war, in the midst of a world war in which Turkey was besieged on several fronts -- a world war in which as many as 3 million Turks died.

Every neutral scholar agrees that the Turkish position is propaganda. (Preposterously, Turkey has claimed it was the Armenians who tried to commit genocide against the Turks.) But many American Turkish-studies scholars believe that the Armenian tragedy was far more complicated than people with a casual knowledge of Near Eastern history may think. They argue that the often-cited analogy with the Jewish Holocaust is misleading. They don't deny that there were unspeakable horrors. Men were taken from women and children to be slaughtered and refugees were attacked by soldiers. In some cases only 100-200 refugees survived from a group of 20,000. What Turkish studies scholars do question is whether all these atrocities resulted from a centralized plan to systematically destroy the Armenian people. Unsurprisingly, this view earns them the enmity of the Armenian community.

The latest flash point in this long-simmering dispute is an attempt by several major universities in recent years to establish professorships in Turkish studies, with the help of funds donated by the Turkish government. When word leaked out last fall, for example, that the University of Michigan was soliciting money for such a chair, Armenian activists deluged university officials with angry e-mail messages. "We were catching all kinds of hell," says Michael Bonner, director of the university's center for Middle Eastern studies. The protests grew to the point where state legislators were talking about forbidding state colleges from accepting any money at all from foreign governments. Such a move, professors observed, could have crippled the university's area-studies programs, which commonly depend on foreign funds. Michigan finally placed the proposal on hold -- not because of the protests, it claims, but because Turkey didn't seem all that receptive to the idea. The school now plans to go cap in hand to private donors in Turkey.

Meanwhile, UCLA's History Department is still nursing bruises from an 18-17 vote, in December 1997, to reject a $1 million donation from Turkey that would have helped create a professorship in Turkish history. Los Angeles is home to America's largest Armenian population, and the community mobilized against the donation. During the run-up to the vote, vague threats of violent retaliation, should the chair be approved, poured into the department.

Among Armenian-Americans, the bitterest feelings are reserved for Princeton University, whose distinguished Near Eastern Studies Department is viewed with the sort of distaste normally inspired by off-the-grid militias that celebrate Hitler's birthday. Unlike UCLA, Princeton took the money that Turkey offered, in the early '90s. What's more, it then hired a scholar, Heath Lowry, who, during a long stint at the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, had advised Turkish diplomats on how to respond to Armenian criticism of Turkey. Two other Princeton professors, Bernard Lewis and Norman Itzkowitz -- among the most prominent in their field -- have also been the target of letter-writing campaigns for "denying" the genocide. (With less fanfare and fireworks, Portland State, Georgetown, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Harvard have also installed Turkish chairs with the help of funding from the Turkish government.)

The Turkish-chair debate hits just about every academic hot-button imaginable. Armenian-Americans claim that the chairs -- and, more generally, what they see as the biases of scholarship on Turkey -- demonstrate how a foreign power can skew American research to its own ends.

Mutual charges of ethnic intolerance further inflame the issue. The Armenians say that a refusal to term the 1915 catastrophe a genocide amounts to a direct assault on their diasporic community. "There is frustration among the survivors of the genocide that there tends to be a double standard," says Richard Hovannisian, who holds a chair in Armenian studies at UCLA. "We won't tolerate denial of the Jewish Holocaust, but when it comes to the Armenian genocide, there is a lot of hedging, a lot of references to 'what the Armenians call a genocide.'" The Turkish-studies professors, meanwhile, say that it is Western ignorance of the Near East, combined with long-cherished stereotypes about Turkish brutality, that has led to blind acceptance of an entirely one-sided view of the events of 1915.

Given the moral and intellectual issues at stake, it's not surprising that the rhetoric is as extreme as it is. Accepting financial assistance from Turkey, says Dennis Papazian, director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, is "like a partnership with Hitler or Stalin."

"The last stage of genocide is to erase memory," he adds, "and it is pretty apparent that that is what the Turkish government is trying to do. It wants to instill its point of view in the major universities, where it can influence the next generation of leaders."

Peter Balakian, a professor of English at Colgate University who has spearheaded a campaign against the endowed chairs, speaks of the "corruption of Turkish studies worldwide."

"Even people inside Turkish studies acknowledge it is not a real discipline," he says. "You cannot have a career in that field unless you accept the state's version of history. I've never heard of anything this bad in higher education."

Absurd and offensive charges, say the Turkish-studies specialists. The Turkish government may have a history of sweeping dark periods in Turkey's past under the rug, but American professors are hardly Turkish agents, they point out. "This is an organized tactic of suppression," says Stanford Shaw, an emeritus professor of Turkish history at UCLA. "This is not simply the story of a chair," he adds. "It is part of a longstanding harassment of people who work on Turkish studies."

Shaw has seen that harassment firsthand. In 1978, during an outbreak of anti-Turk Armenian terrorism worldwide (reportedly stemming from Beirut), his house was bombed. He and his family were inside, but escaped unharmed. For his family's safety, he stopped writing and lecturing about the events of 1915. "People are afraid to write anything about this subject," he says. "It's a brutal suppression of academic freedom."

"None of the scholars who are pummeled as genocide deniers deny that large numbers of the Armenian population were destroyed," explains Christopher Murphy, a specialist on Turkey at the Smithsonian and president of the Turkish Studies Association. (As a scholar of 15th and 16th century literature, he has some distance from the fight.) "What exactly happened is a question of scholarly disagreement. But to a large number of Armenians, if you investigate the cause of the destruction you are a denier. There is so much bad feeling that it is almost impossible to have a scholarly dialogue, or a civil dialogue."

As Murphy's comments suggest, lurking behind the dispute is the politics of "genocide." Coined in 1944 to capture the enormity of the Holocaust, the word has since bred some of the ugliest fights in academia. Some scholars consider it a "God term" that shuts off important historical discussion, lumps together disparate atrocities and serves chiefly as a moral trump card. Others consider its selective use crucial to a morally nuanced understanding of the past. (As well as the understanding of the present -- witness the debate over whether the Serbs have committed genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo.)

Given the hardened feelings on both sides, it may be fruitless to try to give an "objective" account of the massacres of Armenians, but "Unveiling Turkey" (Overlook Press), a new book by the Wall Street Journal's Istanbul bureau chief, Hugh Pope, and his wife, Nicole, who reports for the French newspaper Le Monde, offers a carefully weighed version. Contrary to Turkish claims, the Popes point out that the Armenians had a distinct national identity for 1,000 years in eastern Turkey. Contrary to current Armenian assertions, however, they also describe Armenians as aggressive nationalists in the period after 1890.

As Turkey, which had sided with Germany, came under assault from France and England in the west and Russia in the east, the Young Turks -- who seized power from the Ottomans in 1908 -- came to view the Armenians as the enemy within. In fact, Armenians did begin to desert the Turkish army and attack Turkish towns and outposts.

When Turkey's efforts to quell the skirmishes failed, the government ordered the expulsion of every Armenian man, woman and child from Anatolia -- sending them on a forced march toward Syria, allowing them to take only what they could carry. The result was "horrors," the authors say, that were "some of the worst of any war" -- sporadic massacres, starvation and death by exposure. Whether the Turkish government intended to annihilate -- as opposed to brutally uproot -- the Armenians is "still being debated," the Popes write, but they do say that "it is hard to escape the conclusion that there was some central involvement." Conspicuously, however, they decline to use the word genocide.

The Turkish government's treatment of this history has been obscene. In a 1995 book, "Armenian Violence and Massacre in the Caucasus and Anatolia," published under the auspices of the state archives, the archives' director, Ismet Binark, argues that "the Armenian question" has been invented as part of a scheme to undermine Turkey in the world's eyes. "The Turks have always been fair and just and tender against the people and minorities under their patronage," Binark writes in the egregiously translated English edition. The Armenians, however, were guilty of "ingratitude and betrayal" during World War I. The book then offers page after page of examples of Armenian atrocities against Muslims. It's the kind of creepy garbage, in other words, that gives fascist propaganda a bad name.

What does the Turkish mangling of history have to do with American scholars? Armenian-American activists point to what they say are strings attached to the chairs. The deeds for several of them say that the scholars chosen must "maintain cordial relations" with professors in Turkey and do research in Turkish archives. Defenders say that this is the sort of boilerplate language you will find in the case of any donation. The critics beg to differ. "Imagine if, in the years when there was a Soviet Union, American scholars had to maintain 'cordial relations' with Soviets in order to keep a position," suggests UCLA's Hovannisian.

The stipulation that a historian of Turkey must do work in Turkish archives might seem to fall somewhat short of the bar of outrageousness. Yet Armenian-Americans say the clause is the linchpin of further censorship. The Turkish national archives, they say, discriminate against scholars whose work is critical of the state. Two researchers, one from England and one from Germany, claim they have been kicked out of the archives for working on the Armenian genocide. Bafflingly, Turkish-studies scholars cannot agree among themselves whether this sort of thing happens. "The archives are absolutely open," says the Turkish Studies Association's Murphy, although he says red tape can still be a problem; others have their doubts.

UCLA's Professor Shaw says the condition that holders of the chairs do work in Turkish archives is essential, given the racist history of Turkish studies. Up until World War II, he notes, it was common for Turkish "experts" to not even know the language. They relied, instead, on the bias-filled accounts of Western diplomats and sojourners.

Curiously, UCLA voted not to accept the chair even if the controversial conditions were removed. The department concluded, in other words, that taking money from Turkey was inherently corrupting. This is a far trickier issue. Many foreign governments sponsor academic programs in the United States. (Japan, through the Japan Foundation, for example.) And many corporate interests finance chairs. (Hence such marvels as Wayne State University's "Kmart Professor of Marketing.") All donors -- including, it is safe to say, those who create chairs in Armenian studies -- hope to get something in return for their largess. It has traditionally been up to university faculties to maintain a firewall between the sources of money and academic decisions.

The Turkish-studies professors say that the unusual treatment of Turkey in the UCLA case shows that it is ethnic politics, not academic standards, that determines the outcome of the Turkish-chair debates. The Armenians counter that Turkey's unusual interest in rewriting the past is reason enough for the difference.

Some scholars are trying to kick-start a civil discourse among Armenians, Turks and academics. Ronald Suny, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who specializes in Armenian history, last year became the first Armenian scholar to lecture in Turkey on what he unflinchingly calls a genocide. He is putting together a conference in the United States that would bring together the various camps. "I'm developing the view that we Armenians have talked enough amongst ourselves," he says.

Yet there are plenty of signs of intransigence, too. During the Michigan debate, the state's Armenian-American community helped support an activist named Serop Nenejian, who monitored the situation full time and kept the community abreast of every twist in the story. Nenejian holds the dimmest view of Turkey imaginable. He views it as an evil empire whose tentacles of influence extend into the White House, the State Department and American big business.

Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, Washington and Portland State are guilty of nothing less than "prostitution," he insists, for accepting Turkish money.

"The universities are corrupt," he says, bitterly. After a moment, he adds: "They are worse than corrupt."

By Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea is a writer living in Washington.

MORE FROM Christopher Shea

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College