Turkish Press and Students React Swiftly to Taner Akcam’s New Book “A Shameful Act”


Within 24 hours of a press release announcing the publication of a new book by Taner Akçam, titled A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, the Turkish press attacked the book on two grounds. Some accused the author of falsifying a quote from Kemal Ataturk, revered founder of the Turkish Republic, in the book’s title. Others alleged that a brief testimonial for the book given by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was misappropriated.

Akçam quickly provided the reference for the statement by Kemal Ataturk. It had been made in a speech to a closed session of the Turkish Parliament on April 24, 1920, in which Ataturk described what the Ottoman State had done to its Armenian citizens as “a shameful act.” The next day the journalists who had attacked Akçam publicly apologized in their columns.

Similarly, Metropolitan Books, Akçam’s publisher, verified the authenticity of the Pamuk quote, and a public apology was made in that case, as well. The newspapers involved in these incidents were Hürriyet, Sabah, and Zaman.

The knee-jerk defensiveness of the Turkish media was paralleled by a group of militant, Turkish-speaking individuals at the official launch of the book, during a public lecture at the City University of New York Graduate Center on November 1. The event was an academic lecture co-sponsored by two of the university’s departments, the Center for the Humanities and the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, the Zoryan Institute, and the publisher.

Before the event began, about a dozen student-aged individuals distributed throughout the audience of some 275 people an anonymous flyer claiming that the speaker of the evening was a communist, a terrorist and a murderer. During the question and answer session, they disrupted the proceedings by shouting and not allowing Akçam to speak. The most vocal among them was so loud and insistent on asking his question that the moderator was forced to cede the floor to him. He was later identified as a Turkish individual who is a faculty member of CUNY. He made a lengthy statement contradicting the guest of the evening, until the audience demanded he ask a question or shut up. He then asked what kind of a Turk Akçam considered himself. Akçam angrily responded, “I am the kind of Turk who is ashamed when my fellow Turks support the acts of murderers.” He stated that there has to be a moral standard by which Turks should be outraged at the mass murder of any people, whether it is in Rwanda, or Darfur, or it is the Armenians.

In the press outside of Turkey, Akçam’s new book has been getting a lot of very positive attention. It was covered in the October 21-27, 2006 issue of the Economist and the November 6, 2006 issue of The New Yorker, both of which appeared before the official launch at CUNY.

At the launch, welcoming remarks were made by Aiobheann Seeney, Director of Programs for the Center for the Humanities. She observed that “Taner Akçam could and does serve as a model for the work we do: he is a writer who, after being driven from his own country, became a scholar and historian whose research involved not only navigating the Ottoman archives, which requires reading Arabic script, a language the Turkish abandoned with the Alphabet Reform of 1928, but working in archives in Germany and the US, taking into account daily newspapers of the period, and keeping an open ear for oral histories. It is in the course of project such as Akçam’s where, as we shall see, the history of an empire conflicts with the history of its people, and where archival scholarship must remain in constant dialogue with its cultural context, that historians become humanists….We believe not only that those of us in the academy benefit from this kind of dialogue, but that an ongoing, uncompromised public dialogue about culture, art, ideas, and politics is actually necessary for the voting and informed public that the City University of New York serves.”

George Shirinian, Director of the Zoryan Institute, in explaining his organization’s involvement with translating and editing the book, reaffirmed the institute’s commitment to providing reliable, authoritative and incontestable information regarding the Armenian Genocide. He described the project known as “Creating a Common Body of Knowledge. This is a large, long-term project initiated by Professor Akçam, in which a number of academic institutions are engaged. The objective is to provide knowledge that will be shared by Turkish and Armenian civil societies and western scholarship. The project aims to identify, collect, analyze, transliterate, translate, edit and publish, authoritative, universally recognized original archival documents on the history of the events surrounding 1915, in both Turkish and English.

The more such information is made available,” he stated, “the more Turkish society will be empowered with knowledge to question narratives imposed by the state. Restoring accurate historical memory will benefit not only Turkish, but also Armenian society. Both will be emancipated from the straightjacket of the past. Such a Common Body of Knowledge will lead to an understanding of each other, act as a catalyst for dialogue, and serve as a precursor to the normalization of relations between the two societies.”

Beth Baron, Co-Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center, then introduced Professor Akçam and provided a brief biography of him.

Akçam began by explaining that the book recounts the history of the attempts from 1919 to 1921 to put on trial and punish those who were responsible for the deportation and killing of the Armenians during World War I.

These trials in Istanbul were extraordinary in a lot of respects,” he described, “especially in the indictments and the gathering of evidence—telegrams, eyewitness accounts, and other testimonies—produced during the trials, and the investigations and interrogations leading up to them. The book is not only the history of these trials, which are almost unknown here and in Turkey, but it is also an attempt to reconstruct the history of the destruction of Armenian society in the Ottoman Empire, based on military court records. Additionally, I used extensively other Ottoman sources, such as the records of the Başbakanlık Arşivi Prime Ministerial Archive in Istanbul, newspapers of the period, Ottoman and Turkish Republic parliamentary minutes and a multitude of memoirs. My objective was to weave together Ottoman-Turkish sources with western materials.”

Akçam noted that “A Shameful Act is dedicated to the memory of a Muslim Turk, Haji Khalil, who saved the family of my good friend, Greg Sarkissian, during the Genocide. Haji Khalil and Greg’s grandfathers were business partners in the city of Urfa when the government orders came. Whoever hides an Armenian is to be hanged in front of his own house, and then the house will be burned. In spite of this order, Haji Khalil hid the Sarkissian family in his attic, eight people in all, taking care of them, feeding them and burying one of them when she passed away. Greg told this story at a conference in Armenia in 1995, ending with these inspiring words:

I want to extend my hand to the people of Turkey, to ask them to remember that though at one time their state was led by mass murderers, they also had their Haji Khalils, and that it would honor the memory of the latter to acknowledge the overwhelming truth of the Genocide, to express regrets, so that the healing process may begin between our two peoples.’

The next day,” Akçam continued, “April 24, I went to the Armenian cathedral at Etchmiadzin to attend a memorial service for the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Greg approached me, took my hand, and invited me to light a candle in memory of his family, as he would light a candle in memory of Haji Khalil. I was deeply moved. Together we vowed to preserve the legacy of this righteous man.

I'm telling you this story not because I want to repeat the stale ‘bad man–good man’ argument, which I feel is an oversimplification of historic events. I also don’t mean to be overly sentimental. I share this story with you in order to illustrate a basic problem in the study of massive human rights violations, including genocide. What is the ethical dimension of this type of research? Is non-partisanship the same as moral neutrality? One is challenged to balance engagement and objectivity, to understand acts which seem incomprehensible, and to explain horrific events.

The legacy of Haji Khalil helps answer this question,” he continued, “and this is my approach to the Armenian Genocide—that we can be objective and dissociate ourselves only to the extent that we are also morally engaged. So, the path of disassociation lies directly through engagement with a moral standard. This means we have to have a very strong, engaged position respecting human life and dignity and to oppose any sort of violence which targets a group of people because of their race, ethnicity, belief, or religion. Without this clear commitment and engagement on behalf of humanity, without this moral standard, we cannot be objective in analyzing mass crimes.

Even though at some points in A Shameful Act you will encounter analytic language that may strike you as cold or distanced,” he noted, “I wrote this book with the spirit of Haji Khalil and for the legacy of this man. I also firmly believe that Haji Khalil’s legacy can also teach us how Turks and Armenians should deal with this dark past, not only as Armenians or Turks, but also beyond these ethnic identities, as human beings who respect each other.”

My basic thesis,” he went on, “is that a paradigm change in the Turkish-Armenian conflict needs to occur. I argue that until now, the Turkish-Armenian problem has been perceived within the old paradigm which produced these conflicts, namely, the collapse of the st1:place w:st="on">Ottoman Empire and the clash of different ethnic or national groups. These conflicts can be blamed on the desire of each ethnic or national group to define its territories and determine its own boundaries, which resulted in ethnic cleansing within these boundaries. My suggestion is that a new conceptualization is necessary, and that the conflict should be placed within the new paradigm of transitional justice, as a part of the democratization effort within the existing nation-states. The conflict should not be regarded as merely a dispute between two parties over territories and boundaries, but rather as a human rights issue between them. Both nations should deal with their pasts as a part of their democratization process and try to redefine themselves and their perception of the other’s identity.

Within this framework,” he explained, “my book should be understood as another reading of our history. The central thesis of this book is that we can read Ottoman-Turkish history not only as a history of demise and partition, as we were taught in Turkey, but also as a history of continuous violation of what in today’s terminology is referred to as human rights, so much so, that the Ottoman state was unable to prevent its own collapse.”

Wolfgang Gust was Foreign News Editor with the highly respected German news magazine Der Spiegel, equivalent to Time Magazine, for years and is the author of two previous books related to Armenian history and the Genocide.