HISTORY THAT DARES TO SPEAK ITS NAME
August 18, 2007
Giles Whittell talks to a writer whose view of the past has put his
life at risk
IT’S 9.30AM IN MINNEAPOLIS. The bridge over the Mississippi that used
to take Taner Akcam to work won’t be rebuilt for a year, but that’s
not what’s vexing him. His problem is the Turkish Secret Service.
Professor Akcam is a Turk and an historian. In 1999, 84 years after
the event, he completed a harrowing doorstop of a book on the Armenian
genocide – densely factual and unsparing of the Turkish culprits –
now published in English. As a result, he is being hounded from
Istanbul to his Midwestern academic exile by ultranationalists from
his home-land . . . and by spooks.
That’s his theory, anyway. How else to explain what happened in
Montreal in February when he was detained by airport police who said
that they had grounds to suspect he was a terrorist. Those grounds
turned out to be hostile postings on amazon. com and his own Wikipedia
page, doctored by people who had also, apparently, not only alerted
precisely the airport personnel who would be handling Akcam’s flight,
but also had information on the historian’s past, including a 1974
arrest for protesting at Turkey’s invasion of northern Cyprus, that
had never had been in the media.
So who gave the tip-off? Akcam laughs wearily. He doesn’t know.
"But my arrival was known of by the Turkish consul. He was even
invited to my lecture."
There might be something comical about this Wiki-assisted harassment –
except that two weeks earlier, Akcam’s friend and fellow intellectual,
the Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink, was murdered in
broad daylight on an Istanbul street. His crime, like Akcam, was
to have used the "G-word" to refer to the state-sponsored murder of
between 300,000 and 1.3 million Anatolian Armenians in 1915 with the
term reserved by the 1948 UN convention on genocide.
Akcam foretold his friend’s death to his face a few days earlier. They
were in Istanbul, chatting about a presidential campaign that was
fuelling tensions between nationalists and liberals. "I told Hrant
there would be political assassinations," Akcam remembers. "And I told
him, ‘Hrant, if I made a list of the people who will be assassinated I
would put you No 1. Please leave Turkey, at least until the end of the
election.’ He didn’t want to. He was, I think, expecting his death."
For his own part, even in Minneapolis, even after 30 years of
opposition to Turkey’s denial of responsibility for the genocide,
Akcam says he has never been as scared as he is now.
Next week he travels to the Edinburgh Book Festival to talk about
the the fight for freedom of expression. The prospect of travel is
hardly soothing, "but I have to do it because it is what they want
us not to do. They want us to shut up and sit down."
He is not talking about Turkey’s elected government, but the unelected
military and bureaucratic hierarchies he blames for a "culture of
hatred and animosity" towards an honest reckoning with the past.
He says that he feels that hatred whenever he returns to Istanbul,
which is about once a year. Once spotted by the nationalist press,
the vilification starts swiftly. He is branded a traitor, a foreign
agent and a liar, even though he is the only Turkish historian to
have based his analysis of 1915 on official Ottoman documents.
"On the second or third day you get the feeling that you should not
be showing yourself much in public."
Small wonder that of his fellow historians inside Turkey, almost none
are actively researching topics related to the Armenian question.
This is Turkey, a nation three years ago accepted as a candidate for
EU accession and which could be a member by 2015. Shouldn’t it show
that it can uphold the most basic democratic freedoms and then reapply?
Absolutely not, says Akcam. For the EU to go cold on Turkish membership
now would be to set the country on "the path to authoritarianism".
Membership offers the only hope of cutting down the unelected
hierarchies and ending official denials.
Seven years ago, Professor Akcam sued his critics for libel for calling
him a German spy. In January, he lost on appeal. "So the ultimate
decision from the judiciary is that it is the right of everybody to
accuse me of being on the payroll of the German government because I
am using the genocide term. This is outrageous. You cannot criminalise
talking about history. It is unbelievable." And, for a man whose only
crime was to brave his country’s archives, very frightening.
A SHAMEFUL ACT: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish
Responsibility by Taner Akcam
Constable and Robinson, Â£9.99; 600pp
Buy the book here at the offer price of Â£8.99 (free p&p)
Taner Akcam is at the at Edinburgh International Book Festival on
Monday August 27 at 11am. Call 0845 3735888
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress