Four months ago, Yektan Turkyilmaz was a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at Duke University, well-regarded but little known outside his field. Then, on June 17, authorities at the airport in Yerevan, Armenia ordered him off a plane and placed him under arrest, confiscating nearly 100 books and CDs of research he had done as the first Turkish scholar ever granted access to the National Archives of Armenia.
Over the summer, Turkyilmaz became a cause célèbre among scholarly groups that believed the smuggling charges against him (supporters say he was the first person Armenia has ever charged with illegally exporting books) to be a pretext for what they considered a crackdown on a researcher studying a politically sensitive period in the country’s tangled history with Turkey. Major scholarly associations and human rights groups, as well as academic and political leaders in the United States and throughout the world, urged Armenia to drop the charges against him.
After a short trial last month, a court found Turkyilmaz guilty of trying to take books out of the country illegally, but suspended his two-year sentence and released him. He returned to Duke early this month to get back to his studies and his research. In an e-mail interview with Inside Higher Ed, he discusses his detainment, why he thinks he was arrested, and the implications of his situation for his career, his profession and beyond.
Q: In court, you apparently acknowledged breaking the Armenian law unknowingly. Does that mean you believe your arrest was legitimate,or did the government have another motive?
A. Yes I did acknowledge that I unknowingly broke a “law,” an obscure law which applies to the:
"Contraband of narcotic drugs, neurological, strong, poisonous, poisoning, radioactive or explosive materials, weapons, explosive devices, ammunition, fire-arms, except smoothbore long barrel hunting guns, nuclear, chemical, biological or other mass destruction weapons, or dual-use materials, devices, or technologies which can also be used for the creation or use of mass destruction weapons or missile delivery systems thereof, strategic raw materials orcultural values."
But I am convinced the book charges were just a pretext for my arrest. KGB officials (Armenia’s police are now formally known as the National Security Service, but everyone, including they themselves, still call them the KGB) were certain that I was a spy. The first day one of the KGB agents told me that their endeavor was to clarify -- given that Armenia’s ceasefire with Azerbaijan had ended very recently -- that I had not been involved in espionage on behalf of the Turks (they do not differentiate between Azeris and Turks!). That is why they arrested me.
The interrogators’ questioning in the initial few days of my arrest was entirely devoted to my research, my political views and connections with Turkish intelligence and state officials. The concept of "scholar" is meaningless to them. According to them, as the investigator put it, “all scholars are spies.” All my friends and contacts in Yerevan (most of whom have nothing to do with the books found in my suitcases) have not only been interrogated by the KGB but were also harassed and threatened. They were all told that I was a Turkish spy. My friends who were at the airport with me were threatened not to let anyone, especially my family, know about my arrest. (When my sister contacted them via phone they denied that they were with me at the airport! For that reason my family did not know about my situation for 15 hours.)
My case was a violation of academic freedom and the right to research. Investigators went through every bit of my research material. They looked one by one at almost 20 thousand images saved on the CDs and on my laptop. I was asked to prove that I had permission to reproduce every single image and also that they contained no "state secrets" even though I had official permission to do research in the archives. They posed questions about my political ideas, dissertation topic, why I had learned Armenian, if I personally would have had enough time to read the material I had reproduced at the libraries and the Archives, my relations with Turkish military and intelligence, etc.
The staff at the libraries and archives where I was conducting research were not merely questioned about their personal connection with me, but also forced to testify against me. They asked one librarian “how dare you take a non-Armenian guy to ‘our’ national Archives?” I am also informed that, they had been forced to confirm that I got permissions to conduct research at their institutions not through legal procedure (implying that I bribed them to get permission to do research!).
It was only later, when the Armenian secret service could find no basis for their claims, that the issue of legally purchased, second-hand books in my possession came into the picture.
Q: Do you think you were detained for political reasons? If so, why?
A: I am convinced that not only my arrest but also my release were political decisions taken by (few but) very high ranking Armenian officials. I believe this Cold War-era conspiracy was organized, or at least encouraged, by those who have no wish to see cooperation and improved relations between Turkey and Armenia. KGB officials’ mentality -- a mixture of the Soviet way of thinking and nationalism with xenophobic overtones -- played a crucial role in making the decision to detain me. Unfortunately, in today’s Armenia (like many other ex-Soviet republics), there isn’t adequate political control over KGB. I should also underline that there is an ongoing fight between pro-democracy advocates and pro-Russia Soviet-style rule. For me, it is relieving to know that I have received a good deal of support from the pro-democracy politicians and large segments of the Armenian society, which is very important.
I think the basic reason why they targeted me is that they could not put me in any of their nationalist, primordialist categories. I was like a UFO to them: a citizen of Turkey of Kurdish origin, student in the US, critical of the Turkish official stance on controversial historical issues, an admirer of the Armenian culture, collector of old Armenian books and records, speaker of the language, a researcher who has visited Armenia several times without any worries and concerns, a foreigner who is vocal about his ideas, etc. A story too good to believe, because for them, the world can never be that colorful. For the people who were interrogating me, you are either Armenian-Armenian with the ‘full’ meaning of the word, or Turkish or anything else. If I were a conventional “Turk,” as they would have rather preferred to see me as, I believe, I may not have had any troubles. I think, my endeavor to cross boundaries was deemed as a threat by the people who decided on my arrest and by those who interrogated me.
Q: Is there reason, legitimate or otherwise, why the Armenian government would view your scholarly work with alarm? Can it be perceived as "anti-Armenian"?
A: My work is not only about the history of the region but also about historiography. Therefore, I don’t think that it favors any nationalist historiography including the Armenian version. In that sense my work is critical not only of the Turkish nationalist historiography but also of the Kurdish and Armenian counterparts. Hence my work can neither be called pro- or anti Armenian. That question itself is based on nationalist anxieties, which I try to analyze and move beyond in my scholarship.
There are some Armenian circles that do not sympathize with the usage of Armenian resources by the Turkish scholars. This, too, is a nationalist (if not racist) stance that we as academics need to challenge for a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the past as well of today.
Q: Most scholars characterize the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians during World War I as a genocide, but relatively few Turkish scholars do so. What is your take on what happened?
A: It is very clear that almost the entire Armenian population of eastern Anatolia was subjected to forced migrations and massacres beginning in the early months of 1915.
Q: Do you think your treatment by Armenian authorities will undercut Turkish willingness to explore the treatment of Armenians under Ottoman rule?
A: That may be the message people will likely take away. But I think we should be stubborn and should not give up.
Q: Were you aware, while you were being held, of the breadth of the effort on your behalf, both from other academics and from leaders in the political world like Bob Dole?
A: To some extent I was. I knew that my friends would realize why I could be detained and also that they would support me to the end. I was getting some kind of information from the outside, but it was not always very accurate.
Here, I would like to take the opportunity to thank especially my colleagues, Turkish, Armenian and American, who have demonstrated an exemplary and meaningful solidarity. One upshot of my case, I believe, is that unprecedented number of scholars, intellectuals and activists from both groups came together, united around a common cause. It was really great. I am grateful to all of them who have signed the open letter to [Armenia's] President Kocharian and hope that my case has opened up further space of dialogue and cooperation between the critical intellectuals studying the controversial and painful pages of the history of the region.
I would also like to present my gratitude to the entire Duke community, especially to President Brodhead, to Provost Lange and, of course, to my heroic adviser Orin Starn, and to the department of cultural anthropology. I want to mention three other names who were crucial in the process, Prof. Ayse Gul Altinay (who orchestrated the "global" campaign for my release) of Sabanci University, Istanbul/Turkey; Prof. Charles Kurzman of UNC, and Prof. Richard Hovannissian of UCLA. Their support was invaluable.
I am also extremely grateful to the American politicians who got involved. Bob Dole’s intervention was really crucial. I thank him very much.
Q: Did you ever consider yourself to be in true danger?
A: Yes I think I did, especially after the first week.
Q: Do you envision returning to Armenia to continue your research? Can you complete your dissertation without going back?
A: This is really a very tough question. I should first underline the fact that for me there is no difference between Istanbul and Yerevan. I feel at home when I am in Yerevan. I love walking on the streets (especially Mashtots) of the city, or sitting at the lovely cafes around the opera building. I have very close friends over there. However, there is also this bitter experience I have gone through. It is very sad for me to know that there are people in Armenia who do not want me to do research in the country. I know that those people are a minority, yet they are powerful. They still keep their old isolationist way of thinking which they have recently blended with a xenophobic brand of "Armenian patriotism." Whoever it is behind the provocation against me, there is no doubt that they have damaged the image of Armenia in the international arena. As a scholar, I have been deeply disheartened by this incident.
But there are also people like the director of the National Archives of Armenia, Mr. Amatuni Virabian, who from the first day of my arrest, understood what was happening behind the scene and diligently supported me. I received considerable support from pro-democratization Armenian intellectuals. I also know that majority of the people in Armenia eventually understood that the officials made a big mistake and also that I was not an enemy of the Armenian people.
I don’t want those who have tried to intimidate independent researchers through my own case to win over those who have been seeking and struggling for improved relations and scholarly cooperation between the two countries and communities. Therefore I will definitely go back.
I think I have compiled enough material to finish my dissertation. That is, it is not a must for me to go back to Armenia for my dissertation fieldwork research.
Q: Should your case make scholars wary of studying contentious subjects? Do you have advice for other researchers contemplating exploring such a topic?
A: Caution, they have to be really very cautious. They should be very careful about the laws and procedures especially about permissions necessary for research. No signal of danger should be overlooked. It might be a good idea not to be publicly very visible. I also recommend them to always back-up their work and if possible to download it to the internet.
Q: What are your career plans for after you have your doctorate? Do you envision entering the academy, and if so, any idea in what country?
A: I am willing to pursue an academic career in the U.S. where I can attain a free environment necessary for my studies.
Finally, I want to emphasize that I am not angry or bitter. I want to put everything aside and concentrate on my work. I am an academic not a politician, notwithstanding the fact that I was caught in the middle of a fight among hostile political actors.