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March 28, 2010

A Turkish Scholar Talks About the Armenian Genocide By Andrea Fuller
Taner Akçam made history in the 1990s as the first Turkish academic to publicly acknowledge that an Armenian genocide took place, an assertion long disputed by the Turkish government. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire died beginning in 1915 and culminating in the years following World War I. The Armenian National Institute, in Washington, says those lives were lost through mass slaughter, starvation, and disease as Armenians were displaced by the Ottoman government. This month Mr. Akçam, an associate professor of history at Clark University, will again break new ground when he leads one of the first international conferences of Armenian-genocide scholars, April 9 to 10, sponsored by the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark. Mr. Akçam grew up in Turkey, where he was arrested in the 1970s for leading a revolutionary student journal that criticized the government. He spent a year in prison before escaping and immigrating to Germany, where he earned his Ph.D. The scholar has received numerous death threats from Turkish ultranationalists, who have also vandalized his Wikipedia page and called him a terrorist, he says. Mr. Akçam is working on a book about political trials of the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide, based on daily newspaper coverage from that time. He is also collecting oral histories from the last survivors of a massacre in the Dersim region in the 1930s. Q. In your youth, you were arrested for your protest activities in Turkey. Why did you put your mind to becoming a scholar and not simply an activist? A. When I was a student at the university, my dream was to be a scholar. The Turkish justice system and the Turkish political system put a hold on my dream. Q. What is your opinion of the controversial resolution recently approved by the House Foreign Affairs

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Committee, labeling the Ottoman killings of Armenians during the World War I era a genocide? A. The Congress's history of failed resolutions in recognition of the Armenian genocide has started to grow old ... I personally strongly wish that the United States would change its policy toward Turkey. If democracy and facing history is good for the United States, the same should be true for Turkey. Q. Turkish authorities oppose the use of the term "genocide" for the events after World War I. Can Armenians and Turks ever reconcile their stories? A. Definitely. There is a very strong process of transformation in Turkey. ... I'm very much confident that this process will move forward and Turkey will face its own history in an honest way. Q. Do you often do research in Turkey? A. My research of course involves going to Turkey, but I am scared to go and work in the archives. It is still risky for me to work in the archives or to show myself in certain places regularly. Not because of the Turkish government, but because of ... ultranationalist groups. Q. What kind of relationship do you have with other Turkish historians? A. I would say that I am well respected among these critical scholars. Whether they agree with each of the positions that I have is another issue. The main problem in Turkey today is freedom of speech. Because of that, most of the scholars cannot come up and write and say what they really think about 1915. Q. Why is it so important that we study the Armenian genocide? A. If we don't face our wrongdoings in the past, we cannot create a democratic future. If we want to prevent further mass killings and further genocide, we have to understand why it happened in the past.
Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. The Chronicle of Higher Education 1255 Twenty-Third St, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037

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