UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY
Re: The endangered historian, Taner Akçam
Dear Senator Feinstein,
The American scholarly community -- especially those whose subject matter is the troubled history of the Ottoman empire/Turkey and its religious and ethnic minorities -- is alarmed about the threats to the life of our colleague, Taner Akçam, who teaches at the University of Minnesota.
Professor Akçam is an internationally renowned historian. Although born and educated in Turkey, as a student journalist he fell afoul of Turkish authorities in the 1970s, was sentenced to ten years prison, and was proclaimed a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. He fled to Germany, obtained his PhD there, and is now an Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. He is also well known to many Californians because of his numerous speaking engagements here on the subject of the Armenian genocide.
Professor Akçam's many articles and books on late Ottoman and modern Turkish history, and especially on the Armenian genocide, have been important contributions -- to scholarship, to Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, and -- indirectly -- to the development of a democratic civic culture in Turkey. His courage has earned him the admiration and respect of scholars in the U.S. Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland -- and Turkey.
As evidence of the latter, I note his presence on the consulting committee of the conference on "Ottoman Armenians During the Demise of Empire: Responsible Scholarship and Issues of Democracy," held in Istanbul in September 2005. Initially scheduled for May, this unprecedented, indeed historic, conference was initially cancelled because of pressure from elements within the Turkish government and from hyper-nationalist organizations, as well as fears for the safety of the participants. The conference enjoyed the prestigious sponsorship of the universities of Bilgi, Sabanci, and Boğaziçi. Its participants, limited to "Turks" (including Armenian and Kurdish citizens of Turkey), included scholars and intellectuals not only from universities throughout Turkey, but from all over the world: Germany (Bochum), France (Paris and the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Socales), as well as Arizona, Brown, Harvard, Michigan, Minnesota, and Yale.
Among the participants was the courageous Istanbul journalist, Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian and truly irenic figure, who was assassinated last January 19 after a vicious press campaign against him for his statements on the Armenian genocide. For more than a year, a similar campaign has been waged against Professor Akçam, and it has been escalating -- on the web as well as the print media. Professor Akçam is being harassed at speaking engagements stimulated by his most recent book (A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility); he has been stopped at the border for six hours on his way home from giving a paper in Canada, on charges (phoned into the U.S. customs) that he was a "terrorist." He recently had to cancel his participation on a panel in Berlin because of fears for his safety.
Hyper-nationalist organizations not only in Turkey but in the United States -- the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) and the Turkish Forum -- are behind these disgraceful proceedings. They harass every scholar committed to disclosing the truth about the Armenian genocide. Even I have been targeted -- on the web and through letters from the ATAA to the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau, and to my department chairman, accusing me of racism. My crime was to include a week on the Armenian genocide in my seminar on World War I. (Unlike Professor Akçam, however, I have never been subjected to death threats. )
What do I ask you to do? I urge you and your colleagues in the Senate to let the Turkish Ambassador, as well as the Turkish consuls in Los Angeles and elsewhere, know, in no uncertain terms, that it is of vital importance to the people of the United States -- and perhaps especially to your constituents of California, where many of our citizens are Armenians -- that no harm come to Taner Akçam! You should point out that this is a scholar whose work brings luster to Turkey's name -- through his example of courageous, independent scholarship. You should call their attention to the fact that Turkey's own honor and reputation is at stake in his safety.
Thank you so much for your attention to this matter!
Margaret Lavinia Anderson
Professor of History
University of California, Berkeley