Meet Taner Akcam, Anti-Denialist

by Dexter Van Zile (August 2012)


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has a problem.

His name is Taner Akcam.

Akcam, a native of Turkey who currently teaches history at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is calling on Erdogan and the government he leads to acknowledge the crimes perpetrated against Armenians and other minority populations in the early 1900s by the Committee for Union and Progress (or “Young Turks”) in its effort to create a homogenous Turkish state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times on July 20, 2012, Akcam called on Turkey to acknowledge its crimes once and for all. In this piece, Akcam reported that Prime Minister Erdogan has attempted to portray himself as the protector of oppressed and beleaguered people, Muslims especially, throughout the Middle East. Erdogan, for example, condemned the Syrian government, which has killed thousands of its own citizens over the past 16 months, of “attempted genocide.”

Akcam wrote that Turkey’s desire to champion human rights in the Middle East “is a welcome development,” but added “Erdogan’s condemnation of Syria is remarkably hypocritical. As long as Turkey continues to deny crimes committed against non-Turks in the early 1900s, during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, it’s calls for freedom, justice and humanitarian values will ring false.” Akcam continues:

Turkey’s attempt to cultivate an image as the global protector of Muslim rights is comprised by a legacy of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Christians and terror against Arabs and Kurds. Memories of these crimes are very much alive throughout former Ottoman territories. And Turkey cannot serve as a democratic model until it acknowledges that brutal violence, population transfers and genocide underlie the modern Turkish state.

Akcam’s plea is not going to be well received by the Turkish government, which has engaged in a campaign of denial for decades. For example, in the 1930s the Turkish government labored successfully (with help from the U.S. State Department) to stop the production of a movie based on The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a book by Franz Werfel about a group of Armenians that successfully defended themselves in a mountain stronghold against Turkish forces intent on annihilating them before they were rescued by the French in 1915. (This story was documented by Edward Minasian’s book Musa Dagh.)

The efforts of the Turkish government to hide the truth continues today. Efforts to speak honestly about what happened to the Armenian people in Turkey invites trouble. In 2011, one leading Turkish intellectual was fined for insulting the Turkish state.

This helps explain why Akcam lives in the U.S. and not Turkey. The New Yorker describes his odyssey as follows:

Akcam grew up in far northeastern Turkey and was educated at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, where he became the editor of a leftist journal. In 1976, he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for spreading propaganda. Using a stove leg to dig a tunnel, he managed to escape after a year, and fled to Germany.

After getting his Ph.D. in history in Germany, Akcam came to the United States where he has written two books. In the first, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility published by Metropolitan Books in 2006, Akcam lays out his case in authoritative and general terms, introducing readers to the overwhelming historical evidence of the crime committed against the Armenians by the founders of the modern state of Turkey.

In A Shameful Act, Akcam makes it clear that the Armenian genocide – and the massacres that preceded it in the late 1800s – have to be seen in the context of the dhimma pact between Muslim rulers and non-Muslim populations in the Ottoman Empire. This pact accorded non-Muslims some protection against Muslim oppression – if they accepted subservient status. Akcam reports that the dhimma pact allowed what he calls “Islamic pluralism” to exist in the Muslim-dominated Ottoman Empire, but this pluralism “rested on both humiliation and toleration.” He continues:

It was expected that non-Muslims would willingly accept this status; acting otherwise was a violation of the dhimma agreement. The non-Muslims’ demands for equality in the nineteenth century were indeed seen as a violation of this agreement, and the Muslim communities of the Ottoman Empire had no intention of acquiescing. (A Shameful Act, pages 24-25)

In other words, Armenian aspirations for equal status, which manifested themselves in the late 1800s, helped incite hostility on the part of their Muslim neighbors in the Anatolian Peninsula, which helped paved the way for their destruction in the 1900s. This helps shed light on current events in the modern Middle East, where Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East are under siege. Non-Muslims who insist on their human rights are upending the social structure throughout the region, with potentially disastrous consequences.

In his more recent book The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire published by Princeton University Press earlier this year, Akcam delves into the historical record in a much more technical manner than he did in A Shameful Act. He analyzes the telegrams and other documents produced by Ottoman officials to prove the existence of a coordinated and centralized campaign to extirpate the Armenian people from the Anatolian Peninsula, particularly from those provinces where hopes for their political emancipation were the strongest.

Akcam’s thesis is that the Young Turks had embraced a demographic policy that required the assimilation of non-Turkic Muslim populations in the Anatolian Peninsula and the “cleansing” of non-Muslims – Christians – from Anatolian Peninsula. The reason for the differential treatment was that the Young Turks believed non-Turkic Muslims would fit into the future structure while Armenians “were considered a mortal threat to the state and even described as a ‘cancer’ in the body of the empire.”

“Governability was the lodestone according to which they switched from assimilation, to physical annihilation,” Akcam said at an April 15, 2012 presentation at the Armenian Library and Museum in America (ALMA) in Watertown, Mass.

Under this demographic policy, Armenians were only allowed to remain as a small segment of the population of a province (between five and 10 percent) making it impossible for them to mount a challenge to Turkish control in any part of peninsula.

To achieve this quota, Armenians were forcibly relocated inside the Anatolian Peninsula and when their numbers exceeded the quota set for them, they were driven to locations in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, outside the peninsula where their population was not to exceed 10 percent of the local population.

“The Armenian genocide was based on numbers,” Akcam said in April.

As it became evident that it was impossible to adhere to these quotas, the Young Turks decided it was necessary for the Armenians to be annihilated. The result was the death of huge numbers of Armenians, with most estimates between 1.3 and 1.5 million Armenians being killed between 1915 and 1918. Many were massacred. Others starved in transit. Many drowned in the Black Sea after being thrown from boats.

Der Zor, a town in Syria, became of the main gathering points for Armenians outside of the Anatolian Peninsula. Here many Armenian orphans were, according to the Armenian Genocide Museum “gathered into a large orphanage building, then pushed in batches to a spot about an hour distant from the city, doused with petrol and torched to death. “

Some Armenians escaped death through forcible conversion to Islam and many Armenian females were forcibly married to Muslim men.

The decision to exterminate the Armenian population in Anatolia was not taken all at once, but a consequence of increasingly radical decisions needed to achieve the demographic quotas described above, Akcam reports.

“What we have is a set of decisions,” he said in April. “One decision triggered another radical decision, which ended up with the extermination of the Armenian genocide.”

In the aftermath of the genocide, Turkish officials attempted to destroy many of the records to hide the enormity of their crime. Nevertheless Akcam was able to document how Talat Pasha, Interior Minister for the Ottoman Empire, directed, monitored and oversaw the destruction of the Armenian people in the future state of Turkey. He did this through the use of ciphered (or encrypted) telegrams that instructed local officials how to get rid of the Armenians and confiscate their property in their provinces.

Akcam documents how Ottoman officials who refused to participate in the killing were themselves killed and how government officials who appropriated for themselves Armenian property (intended for use by the state) were punished and how some of those responsible for the killings themselves were protected from punishment by Talat Pasha.

The cumulative impact of the evidence Akcam has compiled and elucidated in the course of his career tells an undeniable story of one people devouring the life and property of another.

The details Akcam has uncovered, coupled with Turkey’s inability to come to grips with its past raises serious questions about the ability of leaders of Muslim-majority countries to respect and protect the rights of non-Muslims in their midst. It appears non-Muslims living in these countries must choose between their lives and their dignity, but may not have both at once.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

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