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Refusing to Back Down

December 6, 2011

A historian at the University of California at Davis has become the latest target of Turkish-American groups that have criticized -- and in some cases made legal threats against -- researchers of the Armenian genocide that took place as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. He is refusing to back away from the statement that led to this conflict, and says that the university is backing him against what he and others see as an attack on academic freedom.

In this case, letters sent to various officials at Davis have asserted that Keith David Watenpaugh, an associate professor of religious studies, should apologize for a reply he wrote in the Davis alumni magazine to a letter about an article on his research. Watenpaugh’s research is about how the Armenian genocide led to the first international humanitarian relief effort and changed the way many in the world viewed suffering from being inevitable to being something that should be prevented.

Watenpaugh -- consistent with a consensus among historians -- refers to the genocide as fact. (A handful of American historians argue that the genocide didn’t happen or that evidence is inconclusive.)

After the Davis magazine wrote about Watenpaugh’s research, Gunay Evinch, an alumnus who is a Washington lawyer and is a past president of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, sent a letter to the editor that argued that scholars should examine the wide suffering that took place in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and recognize that many groups were hurt, not just Armenians.

Watenpaugh replied in the same issue, arguing that while suffering was widespread, genocide was not -- and was limited at that time to the Armenians. Then in the paragraph that has been the subject of the controversy, he wrote the following: "What is most important to understand is that the Assembly of Turkish American Associations has been at the forefront of a Turkish government-sponsored effort in the United States to deny that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. The attack on my work in Mr. Evinch's letter is part of that project and should be understood in this light. At UC Davis, we teach our students that history is more than just a collection of facts, but rather is the starting point for an ethical relationship with the past."

The president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, Ergun Kirlikovali, then wrote to the editor of the Davis magazine and the head of Watenpaugh’s program at Davis, saying that his statement had been "reckless" and "extraordinarily harmful." Further, the letter compared the statement to one over which an emeritus professor who has argued against evidence of genocide sued the Southern Poverty Law Center, prompting a retraction of portion of an article published by the center about groups that deny the Armenian genocide.

The Watenpaugh statement was “defamatory,” Kirlikovali wrote, because it suggested that his organization was an agent of the Turkish government -- something it is not. (Agents of foreign governments are required to register, and lack of registration would be a crime, the letter noted.)

In that Southern Poverty Law Center case, the dispute was over whether a professor who does not believe genocide took place was supported financially by the Turkish government -- a brief statement in an article published by the center and something that the center acknowledged it could not prove (the statement was eventually retracted).

But in the Davis case, Watenpaugh said that he is being accused of something he did not say. While he charges that the Turkish government has encouraged the general effort to deny the Armenian genocide, Watenpaugh did not say that the Turkish-American group was an agent of the Turkish government. The next issue of the Davis magazine will feature a statement to this effect from Watenpaugh: "These individuals misconstrued my statement as suggesting that the ATAA is part of the Turkish government, or is financially supported by the Turkish government. I make no representations one way or the other in this regard. To be clear, what I meant is that the ATAA is at the forefront of the effort to deny in the United States that what happened to the Armenians as the result of Ottoman government policies was genocide, which parallels the actions of the Turkish government in our country to do the same."

Watenpaugh said he viewed the letters to Davis as an attempt to limit his academic freedom, and said he was glad that his university has defended his rights and not retracted anything.

He noted that other scholars have also faced legal pressure from groups that do not agree with the historical consensus on what happened to the Armenians. The Turkish Coalition of America has sued the University of Minnesota over a website (since changed) that declared the coalition's information about the Armenians to be unreliable. A federal judge ruled that the university's site was protected by academic freedom and free expression principles, but that decision has been appealed.

The Middle Eastern Studies Association last month wrote to Kirlikovali, saying that it viewed his letters as making legal threats against Watenpaugh and Davis, and that these were based on an incorrect interpretation of what Watenpaugh wrote.

“Your organization, and those who hold perspectives different from those expressed by Professor Watenpaugh, certainly have the right to participate in open scholarly exchange on the history of the Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire or any other issue, by presenting their views at academic conferences, in the pages of peer-reviewed scholarly journals or by other means, thereby opening them up to debate and challenge,” the letter said. “However, we feel compelled to express our concern when non-academic organizations initiate, threaten or justify legal action against scholars and/or academic or research institutions because of their findings or views on historical issues. We do not believe that legal action is the proper way to resolve disputes about historical interpretation, and we fear that legal action of this kind, or the threat thereof, may undermine the ability of scholars and academic institutions to carry out their work freely and to have their work assessed on its merits, in conformity with standards and procedures long established in the world of scholarship.”

Kirlikovali, via e-mail, said that his group "wants open, free, and complete debate on whether the Armenian case constitutes genocide and on the options for reconciliation." And he said that he hoped that the Davis magazine "will make all required corrections to exonerate itself from this false statement, and we hope Mr. Watenpaugh will apologize."

He said that the Middle East Studies Association was "wrong to define the ATAA's motive and intent, and thereby the legal issue, as an attempt to limit freedom of speech on the perspective that the Armenian case constitutes genocide." Rather, he said, the association is focused on a matter of principle that is not covered by academic freedom. "MESA might be pleased to learn that ATAA agrees with MESA that more information and debate is necessary on this legitimate historical controversy," he said. "However, we are not in agreement that academic freedom should include defamation of an organization or an author for challenging the orthodoxy on a controversial subject. Indeed, freedom of speech does not include defamation. Defamation is an important exception to freedom of speech."

 

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