March 24 2007
A shameful campaign
by Taner Akçam
For many who challenge their government’s official version of events,
slander, e-mailed threats, and other forms of harassment are all too
familiar. As a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience in
Turkey, I should not have been surprised. But my recent detention at
the Montreal airport-apparently on the basis of anonymous insertions
in my Wikipedia biography-signals a disturbing new phase in a Turkish
campaign of intimidation that has intensified since the November 2006
publication of my book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the
Question of Turkish Responsibility.
At the invitation of the McGill University Faculty of Law and
Concordia University, I flew from Minneapolis to Montreal on Friday,
February 16, to lecture on A Shameful Act. As the Northwest Airlines
jet touched down at Trudeau International Airport about 11:20 a.m., I
assumed I had plenty of time to get to campus for the 5:00 p.m.
event. Nearly four hours later, I was still at the airport, detained
without any explanation.
"Where are you going? Where are you staying? How many days are you
staying here?" asked the courteous officer from Citizenship and
Immigration Canada. "Do you have a return ticket? Do you have enough
money with you?"
As the border control authorities were surely aware, I travel
frequently to Canada: three or four trips a year since 2000, most
recently with my daughter in October 2006, just before the
publication of A Shameful Act. Not once in all that time had I been
singled out for interrogation.
"I’m not sure myself why you need to be detained," the officer
finally admitted. "After making some phone calls, I’ll let you know."
While he was gone, my cell phone rang. The friend who had arranged to
pick me up at the airport had gotten worried when I failed to emerge
from Customs. I explained the situation as well as I could, asking
him to inform my hosts, the Centre for Human Rights and Legal
Pluralism at McGill and the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human
Rights Studies at Concordia, that I might be late for the lecture.
The Zoryan Institute and the Armenian Students’ Associations of
Montreal, co-presenters of the event, would also need to be updated.
The immigration officer returned with a strange request: could I help
him figure out why I was being detained? You’re the one detaining me,
I was tempted to say. If you don’t know the reason, how do you expect
me to know? You tell me. It was like a scene from Atom Egoyan’s
Ararat. I knew better than to challenge him, giving the impression
that I had something to hide.
"Let me guess," I answered. "Do you know who Hrant Dink was? Did you
hear about the Armenian journalist who was killed in Istanbul?" He
"I’m a historian," I explained. "I work on the subject of the
Armenian Genocide of 1915. There’s a very heavy campaign being waged
by extreme nationalist and fascist forces in Turkey against those
individuals who are critical of the events that occurred in 1915.
Hrant Dink was killed because of it. The lives of people like me are
in danger because of it. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Laureate,
couldn’t tolerate the attacks against him and had to leave the
country. Many intellectuals in Turkey are now living under police
protection." The officer took notes.
"In connection with these attacks there has been a serious campaign
against me in the U.S.," I went on. "I know that the groups running
this campaign are given directives and are controlled by the Turkish
diplomats. They spread propaganda stating that I am a member of a
terrorist organization. Some rumors to that effect must have reached
you." The officer continued to write.
"For your information, in 1976, while I was a master’s degree student
and teaching assistant at Middle East Technical University, I was
arrested for articles I had written in a journal and sentenced to
eight years and nine months in prison. I later escaped to Germany,
where I became a citizen. The Turkish criminal statute that was the
basis for my prosecution, together with similar laws, was repealed in
1991. I travel to Turkey freely now and went there most recently for
Hrant Dink’s funeral."
The officer finished his notes. "I’m sorry, but I have to make some
more phone calls," he said, and left.
My cell phone rang again. It was McGill legal scholar Payam Akhavan,
an authority on human rights and genocide, who was to have introduced
my lecture. Apologizing for my situation, Prof. Akhavan let me know
that he’d contacted the offices of Canadian Minister of Public Safety
Stockwell Day and Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and
Canadian Identity Jason Kenney. Bishop Bagrat Galstanian, Primate of
the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Canada, also called to confirm
that he too had been in touch with Secretary Kenney’s office. I was
going to be released.
About 3:30 p.m. the officer returned with a special one-week visa.
Upon my insistence that I had a right to know exactly why I had been
detained, he showed me a sheet of paper with my photograph on top and
a short block of text, in English, below.
I recognized the page at once. The photo was a still from the 2005
documentary Armenian Genocide: 90 Years Later, a co-production of the
University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and
Twin Cities Public Television. A series of outtakes from the film,
originally posted on the CHGS website, could be found on the popular
Internet video site YouTube and elsewhere in cyberspace. The still
photo and the text beneath it comprised my biography in the
English-language edition of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia which
anyone in the world can modify at any time. For the last year-most
recently on Christmas Eve, 2006-my Wikipedia biography had been
persistently vandalized by anonymous "contributors" intent on
labeling me as a terrorist. The same allegations had been repeatedly
scrawled, like gangland graffiti, as "customer reviews" of A Shameful
Act and my other books at
It was unlikely, to say the least, that a Canadian immigration
officer found out that I was coming to Montreal, took the sole
initiative to research my identity on the Internet, discovered the
archived Christmas Eve version of my Wikipedia biography, printed it
out seven weeks later on February 16, and showed it to me-voila! -as
The fact was that my upcoming lecture had been publicized well in
advance in the Canadian print and broadcast media. An announcement
had even been inserted in Wikipedia five days before my arrival.
Moreover, two Turkish-American websites hostile to my work-the
500-page Tall Armenian Tale and the 19,000-member Turkish Forum
listserv-had been hinting for months that my "terrorist" activities
ought to be of interest to American immigration authorities. It
seemed far more likely that one or more individuals had seized the
opportunity to denounce me to the Canadians. Although I was forced to
cancel two radio interviews, I made it to the McGill campus in time
to lecture on A Shameful Act.
On Sunday, February 18, before boarding my return flight to
Minneapolis, I was detained for another hour. It was obvious that the
American customs and border authorities knew what had happened at the
adjacent offices on the Canadian side. "Mr. Akçam," I was gently
advised, "if you don’t retain an attorney and correct this issue,
every entry and exit from the country is going to be problematic. We
recommend that you do not travel in the meantime and that you try to
get this information removed from your customs dossier."
The well-meaning American customs official could hardly have known
the extent of the problem. Wikipedia and Amazon are but two examples.
Allegations against me, posted mainly by the Assembly of Turkish
American Associations (ATAA), Turkish Forum, and Tall Armenian Tale,
have been copy-pasted and recycled throughout innumerable websites
and e-groups ever since I arrived in America. By now, for example, my
name in close proximity to the English word "terrorist" turns up in
well over 10,000 web pages.
The first salvo in this campaign came in response to the English
translation of my essay, "The Genocide of the Armenians and the
Silence of the Turks." In a sensational March 19, 2001, commentary
from the ATAA Turkish Times ("From Terrorism to Armenian
Propagandist: The Taner Akçam Story"), one Mustafa Artun introduced
me to Turkish-Americans as a mastermind of terrorist violence,
including the assassinations of American and NATO military personnel.
Posted at the ATAA Web site in April 2001 and circulated via Turkish
Forum in December 2001 and June 2003-my protests notwithstanding-
"The Taner Akçam Story" ended up by March 2004 at Tall Armenian Tale
next to a photo of a PKK member, which was captioned as "a younger
Taner Akçam, from ; Three years later, the photo has been
updated, but Artun’s commentary remains, a frequently cited resource
As further evidence of my "terrorist" past, Tall Armenian Tale posted
a detailed chronology related to incidents of arrest, on dates that
even I can’t remember, for leafleting and postering in my student
movement days. Whoever provided this information failed to note,
however, that people were frequently arrested for such activities
even after official permission had been obtained. An entire nine-page
section of Tall Armenian Tale is now dedicated to vilifying me and my
work, and well over 200 pages of that denialist site mention my name.
Next came an announcement from Turkish Forum: "For the attention of
friends in Minnesota…. Taner Akçam has started working in America….
It is expected that the conferences about so called Genocide will
increase in and around Minnesota. Please follow the Armenian (Taner
Akçam’s) activities very closely." My contact information at home and
at work was conveniently provided "in case people would like to send
their ‘greetings’ to this traitor." Soon enough, harassing e-mails
were sent anonymously to my employer, the University of Minnesota,
and to me personally. A profile of the Center for Holocaust and
Genocide Studies and its director, my colleague Stephen Feinstein,
was added to Tall Armenian Tale.
With the publication of A Shameful Act, the circle began to close in.
On November 1, 2006, the City University of New York Center for the
Humanities organized a gathering at the CUNY Graduate Center to
introduce my book. Before I rose to speak, unauthorized leaflets
bearing an assault rifle, skull, and the communist hammer and sickle
were distributed in the hall. In rhetoric obviously inspired by
Mustafa Artun’s commentary, I was labeled as a "former terrorist
leader" and a fanatic enemy of America who had organized "attacks
against the United States" and was "responsible for the death of
As soon as I finished my lecture, a pack of some 15 to 20
individuals, who had strategically positioned themselves in small
groups throughout the hall, tried to break up the meeting.
Brandishing pictures of corpses (either Muslims killed by
revenge-seeking Armenians in 1919 or Kurdish victims of Iraqi gas
attacks on the town of Halabja in 1988), they loudly demanded to know
why I had not lectured on the deaths of "a million Muslims."
Shouting and swearing in Turkish and English, they completely
disrupted the discussion in the lecture hall and the book-signing
session nearby. I was verbally assaulted as a "terrorist-communist"
and lashed with the vilest Turkish profanities. Two individuals
dogged my footsteps from the podium to the elevator doors, howling,
"We are the soldiers of Alparslan Türke?!"(A Turkish politician who
was arrested in 1944 for spreading Nazi propaganda, Türke? later
founded the Nationalist Movement Party.) The security guards
surrounding me had to intervene when I was physically attacked.
A month later, on December 4, I was scheduled to speak at another New
York event, a symposium at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law
on "Denying Genocide: Law, Identity and Historical Memory in the Face
of Mass Atrocity." As if to illustrate this very theme, a 4,400-word
letter signed by Turkish Forum’s Ibrahim Kurtulus "on behalf of Dr.
Ata Erim the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Federation of
Turkish American Association, FTAA and Dr. Kaya Buyukataman the
President of Turkish Forum" was sent to the law school dean and
faculty three weeks in advance, urging the cancellation of the
symposium and labeling me as "a propagandistic tool of the
Two days later, on November 19, Turkish Forum published an 800-word
letter to the dean from Turkish-American activist Ergun Kirlikovali,
who characterized me as "a convicted terrorist in Turkey… one of
the leaders of an armed and clandestine group advocating a
Marxist-Leninist takeover of Turkish Republic caught red-handed in a
bombing plot in late 1970s… part of a group which bombed the
limousine of the American ambassador Comer in Ankara in 1969… He is
in America probably illegally."
Gusan Yedic of Turkish Forum posted further "terrorist" allegations
about me on November 24, with this sarcastic admonition: "The friends
who are going to attend the concert of Taner Akçam and his orchestra
at Yeshiva University are earnestly requested to behave in a
gentlemanly manner. Attendees are obliged to follow black-tie party
rules." On November 30, Turkish Forum mobilized an e-mail campaign
against the "Taner Akçam conference." Members were also urged to
attend the symposium and a "pre-meeting for Turks," coordinated by
I forwarded this information to the event organizers with a request
that appropriate precautions be taken. I let them know that if they
were going to allow intruders from Turkish Forum to leaflet my
presentation and disrupt the symposium, I wasn’t going to
participate. Yeshiva was concerned. An organizer who had attended the
CUNY gathering on November 1 assured me that security would be
As a pre-emptive step, the event committee informed the Turkish
Consulate that the law school symposium was intended to be general in
scope, comparative and scholarly in approach, and not focused on
either Taner Akçam or Turkey. They made it clear that any disruption
similar to the CUNY incident would not put Turkey in a favorable
light. A Turkish consular official disavowed any government
involvement in the disruption at CUNY, which he attributed to "the
actions of civilians" in grassroots organizations. There was nothing
the Consulate could do about them, he said. The organizers stressed
that they intended to take extra security precautions and that the
Consulate ought to think hard about what would happen if the
symposium was invaded and its participants attacked.
Just one day before the symposium there was another phone
conversation between the Turkish consular official and the
organizers. He assured them that no disruption would take place and
only two or three Turkish representatives would attend.
The government kept its word. The symposium was peaceful and no
leaflets were distributed. The Turkish consular official attended
with ATAA President-elect Gunay Evinch, both of whom were
scrupulously polite. It was as though three intense weeks of
mobilization had never happened.
For many Turkish intellectuals, freedom of speech has become a
struggle in North America as well as in our native country. What is
happening to me now could happen to any scholar who dissents from the
official state version of history.
Since my return from Montreal, the Canadian immigration authorities
have refused to say exactly why I was detained. As a result, I am
unable to face my accusers or examine whatever "evidence" may be
filed against me. Although I have formally requested access both to
my Canadian and American dossiers-a process that could take months-I
have had to cancel all international appearances. Meanwhile, my
Wikipedia biography and Amazon book pages remain open to malicious
insertions at any time.
Nevertheless, my American book tour continues under tightened
security. Although it is stressful and very sad to have to lecture
under police protection, I have no intention of canceling any of my
domestic appearances. After all, the United States is not the
Republic of Turkey. The Turkish authorities whether directly or
through their grassroots agents have no right to harass scholars
exercising their academic freedom of speech at American universities.
Throughout my life I have learned in unforgettable ways the worth of
such freedom, and I intend to use it at every opportunity.
Taner Akçam – Turkish intellectual, professor at the University of
Minnesota, and the author of A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide
and the Question of Turkish Responsibility – recently became the
subject of a formal complaint under Turkey’s Penal Code Article 301:
the same "crime" of "insulting Turkishness" for which Hrant Dink was
tried and found guilty by the Turkish judiciary.