Many historians aren't welcoming Turkey's call for a debate about the Armenian holocaust

Historians in the News

...Turkey’s government ... has been quick to point [to] American scholars (there are only a handful, but Turkey knows them all) who back its view that what’s needed with regard to 1915 is not to call it genocide, but to figure out what to call it, and what actually took place.

Normally, you might expect historians to welcome the interest of governments in convening scholars to explore questions of scholarship. But in this case, scholars who study the period say that the leaders of Turkey and the United States — along with that handful of scholars — are engaged in a profoundly anti-historical mission: trying to pretend that the Armenian genocide remains a matter of debate instead of being a long settled question....

... To those scholars of the period who accept the widely held view that a genocide did take place, it’s a matter of some frustration that top government officials suggest that these matters are open for debate and that this effort is wrapped around a value espoused by most historians: free and open debate.

“Ultimately this is politics, not scholarship,” said Simon Payaslian, who holds an endowed chair in Armenian history and literature at Boston University. Turkey’s strategy, which for the first 60-70 years after the mass slaughter was to pretend that it didn’t take place, “has become far more sophisticated than before” and is explicitly appealing to academic values, he said.

“They have focused on the idea of objectivity, the idea of ‘on the one hand and the other hand,’ ” he said. “That’s very attractive on campuses to say that you should hear both sides of the story.” While Payaslian is quick to add that he doesn’t favor censoring anyone or firing anyone for their views, he believes that it is irresponsible to pretend that the history of the period is uncertain. And he thinks it is important to expose “the collaboration between the Turkish Embassy and scholars cooperating to promote this denialist argument.”

To many scholars, an added irony is that all of these calls for debating whether a genocide took place are coming at a time when emerging new scholarship on the period — based on unprecedented access to Ottoman archives — provides even more solid evidence of the intent of the Turkish authorities to slaughter the Armenians. This new scholarship is seen as the ultimate smoking gun as it is based on the records of those who committed the genocide — which counters the arguments of Turkey over the years that the genocide view relies too much on the views of Armenian survivors.

Even further, some of the most significant new scholarship is being done by scholars who are Turkish, not Armenian, directly refuting the claim by some denial scholars that only Armenian professors believe a genocide took place. In some cases, these scholars have faced death threats as well as indictments by prosecutors in Turkey.

Those who question the genocide, however, say that what is taking place in American history departments is a form of political correctness. “There is no debate and that’s the real problem. We’re stuck and the reality is that we need a debate,” said David C. Cuthell, executive director of the Institute for Turkish Studies, a center created by Turkey’s government to award grants and fellowships to scholars in the United States. (The center is housed at Georgetown University, but run independently.)

The action in Congress is designed “to stifle debate,” Cuthell said, and so is anti-history. “There are reasonable doubts in terms of whether this is a genocide,” he said.

The term “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish-Polish lawyer who was seeking to distinguish what Hitler was doing to the Jews from the sadly routine displacement and killing of civilians in wartime. He spoke of “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” Others have defined the term in different ways, but common elements are generally an intentional attack on a specific group....

Probably the most prominent scholar in the United States to question that genocide took place is Bernard Lewis, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, whose work on the Middle East has made him a favorite of the Bush administration and neoconservative thinkers. In one of his early works, Lewis referred to the “terrible holocaust” that the Armenians faced in 1915, but he stopped using that language and was quoted questioning the use of the term “genocide.” Lewis did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article. The Armenian National Committee of America has called him “a known genocide denier” and an “academic mercenary.”

The two scholars who are most active on promoting the view that no genocide took place are Justin McCarthy, distinguished university scholar at the University of Louisville, and Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Both of them are cited favorably by the Turkish embassy and McCarthy serves on the board of the Institute of Turkish Studies....
Read entire article at Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed

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