In 2009, Taner Akam’s name was one of five listed in a file that was confiscated by Turkish police from a Turkish ultra-nationalist organization.
The organization, Ergenekon, is composed mostly of Turkish army members, police officers and bureaucrats that deny the mass killings of Armenians after World War I.
Akam and the four other men on the list were assassination targets.
On Friday, Akam, a Clark University professor who studies the Armenian genocide, spoke about Turkish interpretations of the Armenian genocide at USF’s second annual Armenian Studies symposium, hosted by the USF Library’s Holocaust and Genocide Center.
Some of the other men on the assassination list are in jail now, Akam said. One was assassinated. The police intercepted the list just in time, he said, before he was killed for his work.
“One can, therefore, draw that conclusion that to be outspoken about the Armenian genocide is to be considered a threat by certain groups,” he said.
Akam has written 11 books on the genocide and has spoken about it for about 21 years, making him a prime target by groups who deny the existence of the Armenian genocide. However, he said ultra-nationalist groups are not the only ones who deny that the genocide ever happened.
The Turkish legal system ruled in 2007 that any reference to what happened from 1915 to 1916 as “genocide” is not protected under free speech due to national security concerns, he said.
Mark Greenberg, director of the Library’s Holocaust and Genocide center, said he invited Akam to speak because “the number of Turkish scholars who speak openly in support of recognizing the Armenian genocide is very small.”
After World War I, mass killings of Armenians by the Young Turk’s government of the Ottoman Empire were commonplace, according to BBC News. Armenians estimate approximately 1.5 million deaths, while Turkey estimates 300,000 deaths.
Since then, only one Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Atatrk in 1919, has acknowledged the genocide, Akam said.
In 1975, the U.S. Congress declared April 24 as a national day of remembrance for the Armenian genocide. Even so, former President Ronald Reagan has been the only U.S. president to refer to the mass killings of Armenians as genocide, Akam said.
Now, Turkish history must be reviewed from new perspectives, he said.
The Turkish government, he said, should condemn the genocide and call it a “shameful act,” as Atatrk did.
Akam also said the discussion of human rights should expand between Armenians and Turks.
“We should not discuss this question as a problem of security, borders and so on, but as a problem of human rights, rectifying injustices and compensating Armenian losses,” he said.
Akam said if it were illegal to discuss slavery or the displacement of Native Americans in the U.S., it would mirror the current situation in Turkey.
“What we have here in the U.S., we should demand the exact same thing for Turkey,” he said. “Can you imagine that the federal government websites, where these historic events are uniformly, slavery and Native American cases were referred to as ‘so called’ or ‘alleged’ and filled with openly racist, hate-filled propaganda, or that forcing American children and Native American children to watch films denying that slavery of Africans or subjugation of Native Americans ever took place would be viewed here in this country as secure?”
Rachel May, director of the USF Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, spoke after Akam and said a main issue in today’s society is acknowledging genocide when it happens.
“The issue here is calling it ‘genocide,'” she said. “The implications are fairly straightforward: Those who deny it are on the other side of the wall.”
Merrell Dickey, the USF Library’s director of development, said the USF Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center, founded in 2008, is working toward raising grant money to fund future speakers and expand the Armenian Studies program at USF.
“We want to really bring alive the implications of genocide and the denial of genocide and holocaust,” he said. “(By) understanding today we do not continue to violate human rights, we heal the past.”