Turkish Professor Settles in as Armenian Genocide Chair


By Thomas C . Nash
Mirror-Spectator Staff

WORCESTER, Mass. — Where Taner Akçam goes, his reputation as a groundbreaking historian facing harassment and death threats for his views precedes him. Two months into his new post at Clark University as the Armenian Genocide Studies chair, he seems to have left the attention that greeted his appointment behind.

Instead, the noted Turkish scholar has embraced the break from the spotlight to teach an eager group of students about the Armenian Genocide.

“It’s going to be a great experiment,” said University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Prof. Richard Hovannisian during a lecture at Clark in April about Akçam’s appointment. “Let’s see how well he’s going to teach this issue. He has the skills; he has the knowledge. It’s a sign, perhaps of hope, that things have turned around.”

Searching for a New Generation

When Clark University’s Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies announced Akçam would become the new chair in April, his background as a Turkish dissident and early advocate for recognizing the Armenian Genocide brought intense discussion. A Boston Globe article circulated in Turkey,
causing an uproar.

Akçam gained notoriety in the 1970s after being imprisoned by the Turkish government for editing a journal that published articles about the treatment of the country’s Kurdish minority. One year into his sentence, he escaped to Germany and continued his studies, earning a PhD from the University of Hanover.

With the 1991 publication of his dissertation, Akçam became one of the first Turkish scholars to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. Before taking the position at Clark, he had been teaching at the University of Minnesota since 2002.

As Akçam prepared for class, he said he was looking to channel the expectations voiced by those like Hovannisian into recruiting a new generation of scholars.

“My first and foremost job is recruiting young students, training them and making them Genocide scholars,” Akçam said. “There is a serious problem in Armenian Genocide research: we don’t have enough Armenian Genocide scholars per se in the field. It’s a very serious problem.”

A Survivor’s Story

Fourteen students are taking Akçam’s graduate seminar on the Armenian Genocide. They filed in at 9 a.m. last Friday to discuss their weekly readings with Akçam and hear from guest speaker Martin Deranian.

Deranian spoke about the history of Armenians in Worcester, which served as the first hub for Armenian immigration in the US during its years as a mill town. He then turned to the Genocide, relaying the story of his mother’s struggle to escape certain death.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you are preserving these stories,” he said. “It’s a moral imperative that you keep going.”

Touching on one of Akçam’s themes, Deranian said the Genocide is only now becoming more available to historians as the community wrestles with the events’ meaning. Growing up, he said, it wasn’t a topic that was discussed. He believes his mother, who died when he was 7, died from the lingering trauma.

“It was too severe,” he said. “I had heard about it, but it took 50 years for Armenians to come to grips with it.”

Armen Kassabian, a senior studying international development, said some of his relatives who grew up in the Bronx were afraid to say they were Armenian and also wouldn’t speak of their experiences.

“I feel this weird tension,” he said.

“They couldn’t do it,” Deranian replied. “I’m putting it on your shoulders to do it. You’ll be a better person for it, I promise you that.”

Discussing the Genocide

As the class took a break before delving into their response papers from the week’s readings, students said they were unfamiliar with many of the details of their professor’s background. They cited his listing as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and last year’s detention at the Canadian border after officials found a vandalized Wikipedia page listing him as a terrorist.

“He doesn’t talk about that stuff,” one student said. “He’s a modest guy.”

The publishing of Akçam’s most recent English-language book, A Shameful Act, some of which was on this week’s reading assignments, brought death threats upon its release. Some believe he is being targeted by the same people who assassinated one of Akçam’s close friends, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. The last time Akçam went to Turkey was for his funeral in February 2007.

In October 2006, as Dink was receiving threats for using the term “genocide” in his paper, Agos, to describe the fate of the Armenians, Akçam wrote an article defending him and subsequently was investigated by the same commission investigating Dink, although they later announced they would not press charges following the journalist’s death.

In class, the controversy surrounding Akçam’s views takes a backseat to the subject matter. Paired with Vahakn Dadrian’s The History of the Armenian Genocide and other readings, the discussion ranged from the role gender played in the violence to a debate over the nature of rationality.

“Did you get any sense from your reading of the planning involved?” Akçam asked.

One student speculated that the Ottoman government’s fear of encroaching European powers lead to the planning. Another speculated that without an official statement the planning may have taken place anyway.

“An official decision can be made,” he said, “but I don’t think that changes it.”

“Maybe there is no general rule there,” Akçam replied. “In certain cases, it’s a mentality and you don’t need conditions to start the process. In the case of Armenia, I think there was such a decision.”

The conversation veered toward the language the Ottoman documents used to describe the events, with a student noting “deportation” usually meant death marches. Three hours in, the class wrapped until the next week, with an impromptu assignment on Max Weber’s theory on rationality thrown into the mix.

‘Class is Never Boring’

Akçam’s most recent book, which uses Ottoman sources from Turkish archives to describe the empire’s policies toward Armenians, is already in its fourth printing in Turkey after its release in January. A book coauthored with Vahakn Dadrian is slated to be released this year.

For now, however, Akçam says his focus is on teaching. Mary Jane Rein, executive director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Department, said both students and the community have been receptive to Akçam.

“The response has been enormously positive,” Rein said. “He’s such a warm and open person — any anxiety was put at ease.”

So far, the reviews from students are good as well.

“He’s really amazing; so enthusiastic and very entertaining,” said junior history major Shaylyn Doody after the discussion ended. “Class is never boring.”