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Genocide dispute unsettles Turkish studies institute

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post / July 8, 2008

WASHINGTON - The issue that has roiled US-Turkish relations in recent months - how to characterize the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 - has set off a dispute over politics and academic freedom at an institute housed at Georgetown University.

Several board members of the Institute of Turkish Studies have resigned this summer, protesting the ouster of a board chairman who wrote that scholars should research, rather than avoid, what he characterized as an Armenian genocide.

Within weeks of writing about the matter in late 2006, Binghamton University professor Donald Quataert resigned from the board of governors, saying the Turkish ambassador to the United States told him he had angered some political leaders in Ankara and that they had threatened to revoke the institute's funding.

After a prominent association of Middle Eastern scholars learned about it, they wrote a letter in May to the institute, the Turkish prime minister, and other leaders asking that Quataert be reinstated and money for the institute be put in an irrevocable trust to avoid political influence.

The ambassador of the Republic of Turkey, H.E. Nabi Sensoy, denied that he had any role in Quataert's resignation. In a written statement, he said that claims that he urged Quataert to leave are unfounded and misleading.

The dispute shows the tensions between money and scholarship, as well as the impact language can have on historical understanding.

Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I. Armenians and Turks bitterly disagree over whether it was a campaign of genocide or a civil war in which many Turks were also killed.

In the fall, when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, championed a bill that would characterize the events of 1915 to 1917 as genocide, the Bush administration fought it and several former defense secretaries warned that Turkish leaders would limit US access to a military base needed for the war in Iraq.

The Turkish studies institute, founded in 1983, is independent from Georgetown University, but executive director David Cuthell teaches a course there in exchange for space on campus.

Julie Green Bataille, a university spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail, "We will review this matter consistent with the importance of academic freedom and the fact that the institute is independently funded and governed."

The institute's funding, a $3 million grant, is from Turkey.

A few years ago, Quataert said, members of the board checked on what they thought was an irrevocable blind trust "and to our surprise it turned out to be a gift that could be revoked by the Turkish government."

Quataert, a professor of history, said the institute has funded good scholarship without political influence. The selection of which studies to support is done by a committee of academics on the associate board, he said, and approved by the board, which includes business and political leaders. Never once, he said, did he think a grant application was judged on anything other than its academic merits.

He also noted that during his time there, no one applied for grants that would have been controversial in Turkey. Asked if any of the research characterized the events as genocide, Cuthell said, "My gut is no. It's that third rail."

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