Middle East: Turkish money fails to blot out the stain of genocide

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Turkey's effort to erase the memory of its genocide of the Armenians has suffered a setback in the United States. The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) has refused to allow Ankara to fund a chair in Ottoman studies, because the Turkish government attached conditions to their $1m offer that would have forced scholars to ignore the 1915 massacres.

It must have come as a shock to the Turks. Already, they have endowed Princeton, Georgetown, Indiana and the University of Chicago with nearly identical provisions - that scholars holding a chair must have used Turkish archives and must maintain "close and cordial relations with academic circles in Turkey". Anyone, of course, who acknowledges the Armenian Holocaust is not going to have any kind of cordial relations with Turkish academics, let alone access to Ottoman archives. So when UCLA turned down the offer from Ankara, it was something of a precedent.

Nuzhet Kandemir, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, had already made a down-payment of $250,000 (pounds 150,000) for a chair in UCLA's History Department, in a cheque presented to Irene Bierman of the university's Near-East studies department.

But Armenian scholars immediately pointed out that access to Ottoman archives - essential for any scholar taking up Turkey's endowed post - was tightly controlled by the Turkish government and denied to anyone critical of Turkey's treatment of the Armenians, or of current human rights violations in the country. Ambassador Kandemir was then identified as a diplomat who had sent letters to Jewish organisations claiming that the Armenian Holocaust - unlike Hitler's extermination of the Jews - was a hoax.

The 1915 bloodbath - in which hundreds of thousands of Armenian men were butchered by Turkish forces while their wives and children were dispatched in equal numbers into the Syrian desert to die at the hands of rapists or the Turkish gendarmerie - is a fact of history accepted in every country except Turkey. In the desert of what is now northern Syria, the Turks even invented the world's first gas chamber - an underground cave containing thousands of prisoners into which smoke was funnelled by Turkish policemen - to complete their genocide. "Who now remembers the Armenians?" Hitler is said to have asked before commencing his genocide of the Jews of Europe. By 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians had died. The Turks claim that their Armenian citizens were victims of a civil war.

When UCLA initially accepted Turkey's offer - initial discussions were, lamentably, held behind closed doors - petitions poured into the campus. One, signed by 57 scholars and writers, condemned the proposal because the "Turkish government prohibits intellectual freedom, outlaws enquiry about its country and its history, incarcerates its intellectuals and has one of the worst human rights records in the world today".

A petition criticising the post at UCLA was signed by Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur Miller and Susan Sontag. Armenians whose grand-parents or great-grandparents were victims or survivors of the genocide, were also prominent in the campaign, although the UCLA faculty's vote - 18- 17 in favour of shunning the endowment - was a close-run thing.

Prominent among the protesters was Levon Marashlian, a history professor of Armenian origin at Glendale Community College.

The endowment, he said, was "funded by a foreign government with one of the worst human rights records in the world, a government which persecutes writers and journalists and oppresses millions of its Kurdish citizens, a government which promotes official history through its state-sponsored Turkish Historical Society. The push to establish this chair is part of a campaign to deny the Armenian genocide ..."

Professor Marashlian, it might be added, failed to point out that many of the Armenian women and children driven into the desert in 1915 were in fact violated or killed by the grandfathers of the same Turkish Kurds for whom Mr Marashlian expresses such sympathy. UCLA academics had already witnessed the results of Princeton's acceptance of a Turkish endowment. Princeton University accepted $750,000 (pounds 462,000) from Turkey and hired Heath Lowry as professor. Mr Lowry, it subsequently transpired, had ghost- written the Turkish ambassador's denunciation of a scholar for writing about "the so-called Armenian genocide". At UCLA itself, a conference on Armenia called in May of last year by history professor Richard Hovannisian was attended by the Turkish consul-general in Los Angeles, Hayret Yalav, who said he wished to rebut "Armenian falsifications" about the 1915 Holocaust. Since three of Mr Yalav's predecessors had been assassinated in California in the Seventies and early Eighties by an Armenian extremist group, the US State Department demanded that all conference guests be searched. Armenian scholars claimed this was a form of intimidation deliberately brought about by the Turkish consul's attendance.

Professor Hovannisian told The Independent yesterday that despite the UCLA vote, the issue was not dead. "We've been told that the Turkish money might now go to one of three other places - to our sister campus at UC Berkeley, to the University of Washington or Ohio State University, all of which had expressed interest in the chair," he said. "The Turks may now even try to establish the fund in another branch of our university."

US Congresswoman Esteban Torres also had some pertinent questions to ask UCLA when she wrote to an academic newspaper last month: "If Adolf Hitler had wanted to endow a chair of German studies, or if Saddam Hussein wanted to endow a chair of Iraqi studies, would UCLA accept the money?"