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Taner Akçam: Defiant in the face of Armenian genocide denial

At least one million Armenians are estimated to have been killed. Photo/Getty Images

Turkish visitor Taner Akçam has spent 30 years building proof of the Armenian genocide – an ethnic cleansing our Government still fails to acknowledge.

It’s not normal for a historian to check for bombs under his car every morning. Or to give lectures with heavy police protection. It’s not ordinary to answer phone calls in the middle of the night only to hear a military marching band. To be detained at airports, branded a “terrorist”. It’s not commonplace for an academic in the West to appear on the hit list of a shadowy cabal of military officers.

But such has been the lot of Taner Akçam, who has just finished a sprightly lecture tour in New Zealand. For decades, this balding, bespectacled intellectual lived in a state of anxiety, for himself and his family, that even a simple stroll in a city might be the end of him. For the apparently innocent acts of thinking, writing and speaking, he has been harassed and harangued, his name sullied, his work the subject of deceitful criticism.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

All this because Akçam (the ‘ç’ is a ‘ch’ sound) is the first Turkish scholar to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, and study it with meticulous care. The former student radical has worn through the leather of his shoes in pursuit of documentary evidence that the extermination of the Armenians during World War I was centrally planned and government-organised – and rigorously covered-up. Studiously scouring archives from Jerusalem to Ankara, Akçam has been called, in the New York Times no less, “the Sherlock Holmes of Armenian genocide” scholarship.

For the first 30 years of his life, however, Akçam knew nothing about the subject. The story of the Armenians, and their near-total extermination, was a “black hole”.

Taner Akçam.

Akçam was born in Turkey in 1953 “at the corner where Georgia and Armenia collide,” he tells the Listener from his home in Massachusetts, where he teaches at Clark University. He grew up in Ankara, the republic’s capital, and in his student years he became a dedicated soixante huitard – a ’68er – agitating against the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and Turkey’s complicity in that bloody conflict. “Yankee go home!” they chanted. “Long live a free and democratic Turkey!”

With the military coup of March 1971, the country fractured between insurrectionary left and hard right, resulting in street battles, kidnappings, torture and imprisonment. As editor of a student journal, Akçam was detained many times. In 1976, he was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison for protesting about the invasion of Cyprus and suppression of workers’ rights and, above all, for writing about the Kurds.

“In the 1970s,” Akçam says, “it was banned to write about the existence of Kurds in Turkey. “According to the founding myth of the Turkish Republic, there are no Kurds in Turkey. All so-called Kurds are actually Turks and it was banned to write about the existence of Kurds as a distinct ethnic group.”

Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience. A year into his sentence, he resolved to escape, digging away at the floor of the cell with a length of pipe until he could reach a window, file away its iron bars, and leap into the street. “It’s true,” he chuckles. “It’s like a topic of a movie.”

A rally in Istanbul marks the 101st anniversary of the 1915 massacre. Photo/Getty Images

History buried

It was not until the late-1980s, living under political asylum in Germany, that Akçam began to learn of a deep stain in Turkey’s history: between 1915 and 1920, as the Ottoman Empire faltered and fell apart, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress party enacted a plan to destroy the Armenian people – an ethnic Christian minority.

It began in the early hours of April 25, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals at the exact moment that Anzac soldiers stormed Gallipoli’s shore. For the next five years, Armenians faced massacre and deportation to concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Their property was plundered, their churches desecrated. Boys were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Muslim-Turkish population, girls were sold at auctions like cattle.

It remains, as British sociologist Michael Mann wrote in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, “the most successful murderous cleansing achieved in the 20th century”.

Newspaper illustration of the 1915 genocide. Image/Getty Images

By 1923 and the founding of the Republic of Turkey, just 10% of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire in 1914 remained. A conservative death toll: one million. A near-total erasure – not just of bodies, but of memory, too.

“I was not aware even that Armenians were living in Turkey,” Akçam says. “It was such a great big surprise for me. As a young Turkish political activist, I had no idea about this … I couldn’t believe these things happened. It really attracted my curiosity. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I should learn and read more.’

“It shows clearly the impact of the Turkish education system; the existence of Armenians – Christians in general – was erased from the memory map. I made a lot friends from Istanbul or from Kurdish areas. I learnt that these individuals had a vivid experience or knowledge of Armenians … They had their own stories about Armenians and what happened to them.

Tripods served as makeshift gallows. Photo/Getty Images

“I was one of those Turks who grew up in Ankara and the western part of Turkey without any practical connection with any Armenians, and since this topic never existed in books or in our everyday social life, or in political life, I had no idea. It was a black hole for us.”

But the Armenian genocide is not simply forgotten or misunderstood. Since its inception, the Turkish Republic has vigorously, aggressively denied that the death of more than one million Armenians was ordered and organised by the government. It never happened, deniers argue, and if it did, it was the Armenians’ own fault. It is as if modern Germany said that the Holocaust never occurred.

Denialism is a potent force. Successive Turkish regimes have used intimidation, diplomatic threats and open blackmail to shout down any Parliament, human-rights group, church or academic who dares to use the word “genocide”. For example, in 2010, Sweden’s Parliament voted to formally recognise the Armenian genocide. In response, Turkish Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to deport 100,000 Armenians: “If necessary,” he said, “I may have to tell these [Armenians] to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.” It was a particularly pointed threat because deportation was the main method of destruction used in 1915.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan maintains official denial. Photo/Getty Images

Smoking gun

In several books over 30 years, Akçam has combatted denialism with hard facts: mountains of official cables detailing the minutiae of the extermination process, laying out the view of the perpetrators.

Peter Balakian, Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Res-ponse, argues that Akçam’s research is “groundbreaking”.

Akçam’s latest book, Killing Orders: Talat Pasha’s Telegrams and the Armenian Genocide, released earlier this year, reveals that crucial evidence, long thought to be fraudulent or inaccurate (known to scholars as the Naim-Andonian documents), are in fact authentic. It is, Akçam states, “the smoking gun”.

“Over 100 years, the Turkish Government had one and only one strong argument. Its main claim was that there was no single [piece of] evidence that the Ottoman government intentionally exterminated the Armenians. The Turkish Government’s argument can be formulated in a few words: ‘Show us the original, show us the documents.’

“Lack of direct evidence [of killing orders] was one of the major problems in our field,” he says with a hint of finality. “And I found the direct evidence. Period.”

Despite the evidence, despite the “smoking gun”, several countries still refuse to openly recognise the Armenian experience as a genocide. Recognition efforts in the US and the UK have stalled because of close military, economic and diplomatic relations with Turkey.

Genocide architect Mehmet Talat Pasha. Photo/Getty Images

In order to combat these cynical alliances, Akçam compares the campaign for genocide recognition to the global movement against apartheid in South Africa. “[The] South African apartheid regime did not collapse only because of domestic resistance against the government. It was also, partly, the isolation campaign, international solidarity with the opposition in South Africa. I think it should be the same in Turkey.

“You should not allow a denialist government to bully around in the international arena – you should really restrict their possibility to act,” he insists.

“If Western powers are interested in a democratic Turkey, in a democratic region in the Middle East, they should really try to pressure the Turkish Government to recognise the Armenian genocide, and they should also support the civil rights and democratic movements in Turkey.”

In Australia and New Zealand, however, the cause is slightly more sensitive. In 2013, the New South Wales state Parliament recognised the genocide. In response, the Turkish Government threatened to ban NSW officials from Anzac centenary commemorations at Gallipoli. It was precisely this threat that influenced Australia’s and New Zealand’s decisions to continue a policy of genocide denial.

Akçam is appalled by antipodean apathy. “I think this is a big political mistake,” he says. It is comparable, he says, to supporting a racist South African regime.

“Whatever reason the New Zealand Government might have practically, it is in favour of supporting an apartheid regime with its policy. This must end, you know.”

Perhaps no other figure has faced so much denialist ire and vitriol than Akçam, including death threats and defamation. His name appeared on the hit list of Ergenekon, a clandestine Turkish group with military links. They were never idle threats. In January 2007, Akçam’s friend, Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor, was assassinated in Istanbul.


Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, assassinated in 2007. Photo/Getty Images

The campaign against him has eased slightly in recent years, partly due to living in the US. And although genocide-denial is still official Turkish state policy, it is no longer a criminal act to speak of it.

Traces remain, however. He was briefly held at the border when entering New Zealand earlier this month because of his 1976 prison sentence. And his two-hour, standing-room-only lecture at the University of Auckland was gatecrashed by Turkey’s former honorary consul, Nejat Kavvas.

Through it all, Akçam has not lost the sense of indignation that motivated his earlier student radical days. He still cares deeply about democracy, human rights and justice. The pursuit of those ideas defines him.

As he said in a lecture in Australia in 2012: “In the end, I am a thinker and a writer. These acts are so innocent, and so ordinary, that to renounce them out of fear would be to betray the fundamental values that make me human.

“All these threats, these pressures,” he says, “if I didn’t have my political background … I wouldn’t have continued working on the Armenian genocide. Because of my past experiences, because of my commitment to justice, it makes me continue to work on that topic.

“My belief in democracy and human rights tells me that Turkey must face its own history and acknowledge the historic wrongdoing if it wants to create a democratic society and develop peaceful relations with its neighbours.

“If you want to respect human rights, you have to face the abuses of human rights in your own history. Without confronting historic wrongdoings, you cannot establish a democratic society. This is my firm belief.

“It’s like in the family, or in the neighbourhood. If you have a fight with your neighbour and you don’t talk about it, you don’t really solve your problem, you will always fight with your neighbour.

“So simple it is, actually.”

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.