Back in 1985, Prof. Donald Quataert, Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston, and 68 of his pro-Turkish colleagues signed a joint statement questioning the veracity of the Armenian Genocide and asking the U.S. Congress not to approve a commemorative resolution on this crime against humanity. That denialist statement, paid for by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, was published as a half-page ad in the May 19, 1985 editions of the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Incidentally, Prof. Quataert, along with scores of other scholars, had received funding from the Institute of Turkish Studies (ITS) and other Turkish sources. The ITS was founded in 1982 by the Turkish government in Washington, D.C., with a $3 million grant.
Last week, an unexpected revelation was made concerning Prof. Quataert who had served as Chairman of the ITS Board of Governors from 2001 until the end of 2006. Prof. Mervat Hatem, President of the Middle East Studies Association, sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressing her outrage at the dismissal of Dr. Quataert from the ITS Chairmanship.
The MESA letter revealed that Prof. Quataert was forced to resign "after he refused to accede to the request of ITS's honorary chairman, [Turkey's] Ambassador [in Washington] Nebi Sensoy, that he issue a retraction of a scholarly book review he wrote" about the Armenian Genocide. The letter also indicated that "unnamed high officials in Ankara" had "threatened to revoke the funding of ITS if he [Quataert] did not publicly retract statements made in his review or separate himself from the Chairmanship of the ITS."
Prof. Hatem expressed her serious concern that "the reputation and integrity of the ITS, as a non-political institution funding scholarly projects that meet stringent academic criteria, is blackened when there is government interference in and blatant disregard for the principle of academic freedom." She reminded Prime Minister Erdogan that the dismissal of "Dr. Quataert sharply contrasts with your government's recent call to leave the debate regarding the events of 1915 to the independent study and judgment of scholars." Prof. Hatem concluded her letter by asking the Turkish authorities to reinstate Prof. Quataert as chairman and place ITS funds in "an irrevocable trust immune from political interference and infringement of academic freedom." Copies of the MESA letter were sent to Amb. Sensoy, the ITS Board and the President of Georgetown University where the Turkish Institute is housed.
Prof. Quataert's difficulties started when in Fall 2006 the Journal of Interdisciplinary History published his review of Donald Bloxham's book, The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. In that review, Prof. Quataert boldly criticized Turkish scholars' work on the Armenian Genocide by stating that "they were not writing critical history but polemics ... Many of their works were directly sponsored and published by the Turkish government ... "
Dr. Quataert noted that the "wall of silence" of Turkish scholars on the Armenian Genocide was "crumbling." Despite his earlier objection to the word genocide, he explained why he had decided to use that term for the first time in his book review. While acknowledging that his reference to the Armenian Genocide "may provoke anger among some of my Ottomanist colleagues," he said that not doing so "runs the risk of suggesting denial of the massive and systematic atrocities that the Ottoman state and some of its military and general populace committed against the Armenians." Prof. Quataert further observed: "Indeed, ...accumulating evidence is indicating that the killings were centrally planned by Ottoman government officials and systematically carried out by their underlings." He concluded the book review by admitting that "what happened to the Armenians readily satisfies the U.N. definition of genocide."
Prof. Fatma Muge Gocek, an Associate Member of ITS, told the Armenian Reporter last week that after Prof. Quataert's dismissal two ITS board members had resigned and two more, in addition to herself, were considering doing so. A knowledgeable source disclosed to this writer that the two ITS board members who have resigned are: Prof. Resat Kasaba, Chair of the International Studies Program at the University of Washington-Seattle and Marcie Patton, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fairfield University.
Dr. Gocek, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, sent a letter to the ITS last week, expressing her surprise that she was still on its Board. She said that no one from ITS had contacted her in more than five years. She described Prof. Quataert's dismissal "as an infringement on his academic freedom" and the Turkish government's funding of ITS "with strings attached" as "unethical."
Prof. Quataert's transformation from a denialist to a believer in the Armenian Genocide is based on the growing body of scholarship in recent years both within and outside Turkey. A comparison of the 2000 and 2005 editions of his book, The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, illustrates the gradual evolution of his position on the Armenian Genocide. In a sharp departure from the cautious language used in his first edition, Dr. Quataert in the 2005 edition of his book points out the organized nature of the killings: "The patterns of killings were chillingly similar in the various areas, powerfully suggesting the presence of a coordinated program." He further states: "On the evidence presented, it seems plausible that high-ranking officials of the Ottoman state, utilizing the Special Organization, directed a concerted, centrally orchestrated program that murdered massive numbers of Ottoman Armenians." Finally, Dr. Quataert comes to the conclusion in his 2006 book review that what had happened to the Armenians in 1915 was indeed a Genocide.
The Turkish government now has a new scandal on its hands, thanks to the reckless behavior of its Ambassador in Washington, who clearly violated the academic freedom of a prominent American scholar. The Ambassador's actions should embarrass the Turkish government in front of not only the public at large but also the academic community worldwide. This scandal may also cause the Internal Revenue Service to look into possible violations of U.S. laws by ITS in view of the improper control of an American non-profit organization by a foreign government. Georgetown University officials may also review their association with ITS, given the latter's blatant violation of academic freedom.
Once again, the Turkish government has been caught trying to export its gag rule on the Armenian Genocide beyond its borders to Washington, D.C. Indeed, as the MESA President pointed out in her letter, Prof. Quataert's dismissal exposes the Turkish government's lack of sincerity in suggesting that scholars rather than politicians should deal with the Armenian Genocide issue.