Akçam: Clark Appointment Realization of ‘a Dream’


By Daphne Abeel
Mirror-Spectator Staff

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — For Taner Akçam, his appointment to the Kaloosdian- Mugar Chair at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies is the realization of a dream. The chair was vacated when its previous holder, Simon Payaslian, was appointed Charles K. and Elizabeth Kenosian Professor of Modern Armenian History and Literature at Boston University.

Akçam, who is moving from the University of Minnesota toWorcester, Mass., in June, in preparation for taking up his new position in September, said, “Ever since 1976, when I was a teaching assistant at the Middle East Technical University in Turkey, it was my dream to become a scholar, to go to Europe or the US and get my PhD. I was arrested and my life changed, but in the 1980s, I committed myself [to this goal]. I have worked very hard to be where I am, and I am very happy about the appointment and that I have realized my dream.”

Because Akçam is Turkish and will teach, among other subjects, a course on the Armenian Genocide, his appointment in some circles is bound to be considered controversial, but Akçam sees it as the result of a normal process that has opened the field to non-Armenian scholars.

“I applied for the job, and there was an open chair there. I am an expert in the field and I went through the normal interview process. There were many other candidates for the position. But the university was not concerned about the ethnic origin of the person who would get the job. The appointment is a politicized topic only because of the Turkish government’s attitude,” he said.

Akçam pointed out that there is a German scholar at the Strassler Center who is teaching a course on the Holocaust. “These sorts of appointments are a huge step towards a normalization process which disregards ethnicity and ethnic origin.”

The news of Akçam’s appointment has been published in Turkey, but so far there has been no official reaction.

Said Akçam, “The Boston Globe article which announced the appointment has been printed in all the Turkish papers. At the moment, there has been no response but I can imagine that the news could become part of an attack on me for advancing Armenian propaganda. I want to point out that there was an error in the Globearticle. I was arrested in 1976 not for any position I had taken on the Genocide but because of my articles on freedom of speech and the class structure in Turkey.”

Subsequent to his arrest and escape from prison, Akçam settled in Germany and became a member of Hamburg Institute for Social Research.

“It was in Germany in 1991 that I first became aware of the Genocide,” said Akçam. “My first topic and the topic that became my doctoral thesis was violence in the Ottoman Empire. In reading about the events of 1915, I became aware of the pogroms against the Armenians, and I became interested in the topic. The Hamburg Institute had launched a program of study of the Nuremburg trials. The inquiry focused on the question of whether the principle of the Nuremberg trials could be universalized. Could the concept of an international court become the standard?”

Akçam knew there had been trials in Turkey for those who perpetrated the Genocide and that many people were sentenced, although most Turkish officials escaped any penalties.

“No matter what the results were, the documentation is there for scholars and for all to read,” he said.

Akçam has lived outside of Turkey since 1978, first as a political refugee. He later came to the United States and has taught in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota since 2002. He last visited Turkey in 2007 for the funeral of his close friend, Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor of Agos, who was assassinated in Istanbul in front of the offices of his newspaper.

“I am apprehensive about going to Turkey. The newspaper, Hurriyet, has launched a campaign against me, and they are part of a shadowy group that is the deep state that is known as ergenkon. Dink’s assassination was part of this group’s activities. At the moment, there is no official action against me and I feel I can go back. I will probably return in 2009 to visit my mother and other family and friends. But when I am there I do not make public appearances,” Akçam said.

Some members of the Armenian community have criticized Akçam, in spite of his recognition of the Genocide, for not supporting the return of lands to Armenians.

Said Akçam, “I am not a political spokesperson for the Armenians or the Armenian Genocide. As a scholar, I am interested in rectifying historic injustices. The question of Turkish borders is not related to the Armenian Genocide. My position is, don’t touch the borders. I know there are Armenian organizations that say that portions of Turkey should be returned to the Armenians, but this sort of political question is not something that scholars should consider.”

Asked where Akçam considers home he said, “I feel that both the US and Turkey are my homes. My home is where I live. Of course, my socialization is from Turkey, but I am always happy in the US. But I feel the same way when I go to Ankara to visit my mother, or when I go to the village where I was born.”

Looking at the future of Turkey, Akçam said, “One can be very pessimistic about Turkey. As long as the US and Europe don’t change their positions, the military and the bureaucracy there will persist. The governing part is not democratic enough. A lot depends on the US and the European Union (EU). As long as they support Turkey’s entrance into the EU, there is a good chance, in the long run, for the democratization of Turkey. Only a democratic Turkey will acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.”

Akçam has filed a lawsuit in the European Court to completely rescind Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, which imposes harsh penalties on those whose views are seen as “insulting Turkishness,” for example, mentioning the Armenian Genocide. Although Turkey has recently passed amendments to soften the penalties, Akcam will not withdraw his suit. “Nothing has been decided yet,” he said. “Of course, the European Court might use the Turkish amendments as a reason to drop the case.”

Starting in the fall, Akçam will teach four courses at Clark University. One will be a graduate seminar on the history of the Armenian Genocide; another will be a graduate seminar on comparative genocide and the general problem of genocide in different cultures; the third will be a course for undergraduates on the modern history of the Middle East and the fourth will be a course for undergraduates on the modern history
and culture of Armenia and Armenians.

Said Akçam, “I am hoping that Clark will become an important focus for the study of Armenian Genocide and other genocides. And I will be working together with Armenian and non-Armenian scholars to develop a deeper knowledge of the Armenian Genocide.”

Akçam feels that his move to Massachusetts will bring him closer to the Armenian community. It is a tenure-track appointment and could result in a permanent position, said Akçam, depending upon the university’s review of his work.

“There are many cultural organizations and institutions in Massachusetts, for example NAASR [National Association for Armenian Studies and Research] and others that I will interact with. It is a much bigger and more active community, and I am looking forward to the new opportunities for conversation and contact,” he said.

“I think the Clark appointment is significant and it is something Americans can be proud about. When I first came to the US, I wasn’t sure I could stay here or even function in the field; I could hardly speak English, but in the beginning, at the University of Michigan, Fatma Goçek and others pushed me to teach, and this is how I started. In Europe, you cannot dream of these opportunities. I worked very hard and got up at 2 and 3 a.m. to prepare for my classes. No one knew who I was. But if you work hard and you know your topic, and if you are doing something good, you can achieve, and this is truly the American Dream.”