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Ottoman studies chair questionable

By Daily Bruin Staff

Nov. 19, 1997 9:00 p.m.

Thursday, November 20, 1997

Ottoman studies chair questionable

SCHOLARSHIP: To protect its integrity, UCLA must consider
Turkey’s record

By Pedro Zarokian and Ardashes Kassakhian

The establishment of an Ottoman studies chair in the history
department of UCLA, made public a few weeks ago, raises serious
academic and ethical concerns. These concerns require careful
consideration by the history department and the UCLA
administration, and deserve attention by the UCLA community in
general.

In 1982, the Turkish government established the Institute of
Turkish Studies in Washington, D.C., with an endowment of $3
million. This institute, of which the official goal is to promote
Turkish studies in the United States, has been actively involved in
various political activities, such as anti-Kurdish and anti-Greek
propaganda and the denial of the Armenian genocide. In particular,
it organized the 1985 publication of a petition denying the
Armenian genocide by a number of U.S. academics in the New York
Times and the Washington Post. A look at the grants distributed
yearly by the Institute of Turkish Studies shows a significant
overlap between the list of its recipients and the signatories of
that petition. What is more, Dr. Heath Lowry, who had been the
executive director of the institute from its inception, became in
1994 the first incumbent of the Ataturk chair in Turkish studies at
Princeton University (endowed with a $1.5 million gift by the
Turkish government), despite a rather meager academic record, most
of which is polemical in nature.

On the basis of Lowry’s correspondence with the Turkish
ambassador, Nuzhet Kandemir, which was mistakenly sent to Professor
Robert Jay Lifton, professors Roger W. Smith, Eric Markusen and
Lifton himself have documented Lowry’s collusion with the Turkish
Embassy in Washington, D.C., to influence American academia (see
their "Professional Ethics and the Denial of Armenian Genocide," in
Holocaust and genocide studies 9, 1, spring 1995). This has led to
a major protest by prominent scholars and intellectuals against the
corruption of American universities by the Turkish government.
Among the long list of signatories of a petition denouncing that
corruption, one can name Yehuda Bauer (professor of Holocaust
studies, Hebrew University, Jerusalem); Robert N. Bellah (Elliott
professor of sociology, UC Berkeley); Helen Fein (executive
director, Institute for the Study of Genocide, John Jay College of
Criminal Justice); Henry Louis Gates Jr. (professor of
Afro-American studies, Harvard University); Seamus Heaney (poet;
Boylston professor of rhetoric, Harvard University; Nobel
Laureate); Deborah E. Lipstadt (Dorot professor of modern Jewish
and Holocaust studies, Emory University); Nicholas V. Riasanovsky
(Sidney Hellman; professor of European history, UC Berkeley);
Cornel West (professor of philosophy and religion, and African
American studies, Harvard University); and noted authors Norman
Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and Kurt Vonnegut.

Since the establishment of the Princeton chair, the Turkish
government has established five chairs in other universities. It is
disturbing to notice that Kandemir is the same ambassador who gave
a $250,000 check to Dr. Irene Bierman, director of the Gustave von
Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies, as a first installment
for the UCLA endowment.

This fact raises an important question: Did the history
department and the UCLA administration give consideration to this
matter beforehand?

One wonders whether this is a purely benevolent action to
further the pursuit of truth. Clearly, the university community is
entitled to know whether any specified conditions are attached in
writing or by way of suggestion to this gift of the Turkish
government. In the case of the recently established chair at
Portland State University, for example, the incumbent to be chosen
is required to have "published works … based upon extensive
utilization of archives and libraries in Turkey." He is also
required "to maintain close and cordial relations with academic
circles in Turkey." In a nutshell, the incumbent of the chair can
but be beholden to the Turkish state and to its semi-official
academic associations. In addition, this restriction implies a
Turko-centric study of the Ottoman Empire based on the archives
produced by its ruling elite. Why should scholars who have done
extensive research in the archives of Bulgaria or Egypt, both of
which were Ottoman provinces for centuries, be excluded from
consideration for the position?

What makes the case of this chair even more peculiar is that the
Turkish government has actively engaged in controlling the field of
Ottoman and Turkish studies in the United States for more than a
decade. For instance, no faculty or doctoral student can have
access to Ottoman archives, or for that matter travel to Turkey to
do anthropological or sociological research, if he or she does not
corroborate the state-sponsored theses endorsed by the Turkish
Historical Association, or other similar semi-official Turkish
academic institutions. In this regard, there are numerous cases of
non-Turkish scholars who have been denied access to Turkish
archives or visas to Turkey, and of Turkish academics imprisoned
because of their research and writings. Thus, Dr. Alan W. Fisher,
president of the Turkish Studies Association (TSA) from 1982 to
1984 and editor of the TSA Bulletin from 1985 to 1988, felt it
appropriate to state in diplomatic terms the concerns which his
American colleagues expressed in a 1988 "questionnaire concerning
problems of research access" in Turkey (see Alan W. Fisher,
"Research Access in Turkey," Turkish Studies Association Bulletin
14, 2, September 1990: pp. 139-160). Fisher asserts that "the
detailed project description (required to carry out research in
Turkey) has raised doubts in the minds of many about the likelihood
of non-academic – that is, political – standards being applied to
their applications. In fact, there seems to be no possible academic
reason for such detailed descriptions of projects, and no other
Western country’s research institutions require any" (p.142). He
adds that "those whose applications have been rejected often
received no explanation" (p.143). He concludes that "many continue
to believe that some of those who make decisions on research access
use political standards. Many others reported that they steered
clear of topics and geographical areas that they believed the
Turkish government would consider too sensitive" (p. 146). Academic
freedom has indeed a price in Turkey: the courageous Turkish
publisher of some Western works on the Armenian genocide is
currently in jail.

Moreover, any chair endowed with a gift of $1 million by a
foreign government would necessitate a modicum of scrutiny. One
would think that this should be even more the case when such money
comes from the Turkish government. Its record in terms of human
rights abuses, periodical military coups, forced "Turkicization" of
its minority population (especially its 10 million Kurds),
imprisonment and violence against unpalatable journalists and state
control of academic production is unsurpassed.

Would, for instance, UCLA accept similar "gifts" from states
such as Iraq and North Korea, whose records in terms of human
rights and academic freedom are quite comparable to that of
Turkey?

As one of the most prestigious universities of the United
States, UCLA ought to stand for open, careful scrutiny of the
process whereby the agreement between UCLA and the Turkish embassy
has been reached and of specific conditions of that agreement. As a
state university, UCLA is also required to be accountable to
California taxpayers and their representatives and to be sensitive
to its diverse student body. Ottoman-Turkish studies are an
important part of Middle Eastern studies and they deserve as much
support as any other Middle Eastern subfield. On the other hand,
the Turkish government’s manipulation and control of
Ottoman-Turkish studies both in Turkey and abroad and its efforts
at corrupting U.S. academia should be stopped. UCLA should avoid
being snared in the same scandalous trap as Princeton University.
It should preserve its academic integrity and independence.

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