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NYTimes: Turks Breach Wall of Silence on Armenians

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.”

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