Turkish historian to study genocide

Armenians praise appointment at Clark

Taner Akçam will lecture on genocide issues. Taner Akçam will lecture on genocide issues.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 29, 2008

It's like appointing a non-Jewish German to teach Holocaust studies, but Clark University has already done that.

The Worcester school recently named a Turkish historian to be chairman of Armenian genocide studies.

Taner Akçam, who was imprisoned in Turkey in the 1970s for his work on the slaughter of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman period in Turkey, was selected over several candidates of Armenian descent to hold the Armenian genocide studies post and to become an associate professor in the history department.

Despite a century of friction between Turks and Armenians, Akçam's appointment has sparked little concern in the state's vocal Armenian community.

"My appointment is a sign of change, with symbolic meaning," said Akçam, who is leaving a post as a visiting professor of history at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"It is not important, the ethnic origin of the individual in this position; what is important is the approach of the individual to the historic wrongdoing," Akçam said. "The position should not be an issue between Turks and Armenians; this is an issue between those who violated human rights and scholars and human beings who fight against abuses of human rights."

Some local Armenians lamented that Akçam does not support Armenian claims to Turkish land and that there are not enough positions in academia to be filled by more scholars of Armenian descent.

Armenians have long called for more scholarship on the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians during and after World War I in what is modern-day Turkey.

Armenians, as well as nations including France, Argentina, and Canada have recognized the killings as genocide. But the Turkish government rejects the label and has opposed efforts in Congress to pass a genocide resolution.

The issue has led some municipalities in Massachusetts to split from the Anti-Defamation League-sponsored No Place for Hate program, because the group has been hesitant to refine its stance on what many consider genocide.

Local Armenians said they support the appointment of Akçam, who after being released from a Turkish prison received a doctorate in Germany and has since written extensively on the Armenian genocide, including his most recent book, "A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility," published in 2006.

"It's not troubling that he's of Turkish descent; if anything it's encouraging," said Marc Mamigonian, director of programs at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research in Belmont.

"It's important that non-Armenians be involved in this sort of work," he said. ". . . It's hard to miss the symbolism of it. But my hope is that this is more than just symbolic and that he will continue to make important contributions to the scholarship."

Sharistan Melkonian, chairwoman of the Armenian National Committee of Massachusetts, said Akçam's willingness to go to prison for his views shows the wisdom of his appointment.

"In this case, you put ethnicity aside for people who speak the truth, and that's exactly what he has done," Melkonian said. "This is a scholar who has distinguished himself."

Local Turks, however, questioned Akçam's appointment, as well as the position, which they consider biased.

"Some Armenians may be very happy with his appointment, but how productive will he be in creating an academic platform to resolve these issues?" said Erkut Gomulu, president of the Turkish American Cultural Society of New England in Boston.

"Akçam seems a little bit biased, and I don't know how objective he will be," Gomulu said. "I would like to see more dialogue between Turks and Armenians, but I don't think the academician should be taking sides. He should be trying to find out what happened during that period. This seems more like a political appointment."

Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark, said Akçam was chosen from more than a dozen people who interviewed for the position. She said the appointment follows her department's naming of Thomas Kühne, a German Catholic professor of Holocaust studies.

"Ethnic or religious identity is not crucial to any appointment," she said. "We hire the best scholars in the pool."

Akçam will become an associate professor and teach four classes next semester at Clark, which has about 1,900 undergraduates and 650 graduate students.

He expects to face criticism.

"I assume that I will be the target of hate by Turkish nationalists - I'm sure about that," he said.

He said his goal is to find ways to prod both Armenians and Turks "to rectify the historic injustices."

"This is a position to educate students and the community about the human rights abuses in the past," he said.

David Abel can be reached at

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