Appearance by Sukru Elekdag, Turkey's Former Ambassador to US,

At Columbia University Turns into Lively and Heated Encounter


NEW YORK, NY - On Tuesday, April 17, Columbia University became the site of a lively and, at times, heated encounter between Armenian student-activists and Sukru Elekdag, Turkey's former Ambassador to the US, during the latter's talk held at the university's Middle East Institute.

Now a lecturer at Turkey's Bilkent University and a columnist for the newspaper Milliyet, Dr. Elekdag spoke to an overflow crowd of nearly 60, found within a small conference room at Columbia's School for International and Public Affairs. The crowded environment included a healthy blend of Armenian and Turkish students, Columbia professors, Turkish officials, as well as activists from the local Armenian community. This, along with Elekdag's provocative title - "The Eastern Question and the Ottoman Armenians" - only added to the air of excitement surrounding the talk.

After introductory words by Middle East Institute Professor Gary Sick, Dr. Elekdag embarked on a 50-minute talk (originally planned to be 25), which was followed by a lengthy and contentious question-and-answer period. In a catchy and provocative introduction, Elekdag emphasized the need for dialogue between Armenian and Turkish interests, saying that reasonable discussion could overcome many emotions and lead the way toward eventual "rapprochement" between the two countries and their peoples. Such rapprochement would, in turn, pave the way for greater stability in the Near East and Transcaucasus, improving not only Armeno-Turkish relations, but Armeno-Azerbaijani relations as well. He also emphasized, however, that dialogue should be led by Ankara and Yerevan, followed by semi-official scholarly dialogue within universities, and thereby omitted any discussion of the Armenian diaspora or any other interested parties that might have a stake in the Armenian Genocide issue.

Elekdag then proceeded to touch on many familiar themes used by Turkey in its ongoing revisionist campaign to deny the Genocide. This was so even though, at the outset, Elekdag tried to distance himself from official Turkish policies, claiming that he is not a mouthpiece for the Turkish government and that he represents no views other than his own. Unfortunately, the remainder of the talk often closely resembled official Turkish propaganda, as Elekdag spoke repeatedly about World War I as "a time of suffering" and a "period of inhumanity," in which "Turks suffered as much as Armenians."

Elekdag's claims revolved around three familiar themes: 1) Ottoman Turkey did, in fact, deport many Armenians, but always in reaction to the acts of Armenian rebels who had sided with Russia and were thus acting as subversive elements; 2) massacres, when they did occur, were isolated instances and not part of any premeditated plan on the part of Ottoman Turkish authorities; 3) contrary to Armenian claims, the suffering of World War I was not preceded by a period of oppression and subjugation on the part of Ottoman authorities.

In defending these arguments, Elekdag relied liberally on the works of American scholars Justin McCarthy and Michael Gunther, whom he described as impartial. He also dismissed the claim of genocide by qualifying it as an outgrowth of Armenian nationalism and its biased historiography, without addressing the numerous non-Armenian sources that also attest to the Genocide's veracity. Elekdag then spent the remainder of his talk attempting to establish a definition for what constitutes genocide, arguing that the Armenian case does not conform to that definition.

Eventually, the talk descended into a series of diatribes, with Dr. Elekdag alternating between defensive condemnations and the reading of lengthy quotations from Armenian nationalist literature. The talk, while received in a fairly civil atmosphere, ended on an inconclusive note leading into the question-and-answer session.

During the ensuing 40 minutes, a number of audience members raised pertinent criticisms of the speaker's assertions as well as omissions. One questioner asked Elekdag how he could point to Justin McCarthy, Heath Lowry and others as impartial, when they are well-known recipients of grants and other funding from the Ankara-sponsored Institute for Turkish Studies. Another audience member agreed with Elekdag that Armeno-Turkish dialogue would be most welcome, but that the terms of such dialogue must be clearly set, avoiding fruitless debates over whether a genocide occurred and, instead, treating it as a fact and discussing what to do about it. Other questioners addressed concerns about minorities within modern Turkey, arguing that the Armenian Genocide is only part of a larger pattern of human-rights abuses committed by the Turkish state against many people - for example, Greeks, Assyrians, Kurds - living within its borders. Dr. Elekdag was selective in his responses, addressing certain questions while ignoring others, and at times became visibly testy as some audience members pressed him for not answering their questions.

Following the talk, several students form the Columbia Armenian Club met with department organizers, expressing their concerns about Elekdag's talk and how it was arranged. At that time, it was discovered that Dr. Elekdag had originally proposed to deliver the talk on April 24, and that the date had been changed to April 17 due to certain scheduling conflicts. The students expressed disappointment that Elekdag's schedule had been timed deliberately to coincide with Armenian commemorative activities marking the 86th anniversary of the Genocide.

It has also been learned that Elekdag's talk at Columbia is one of several scheduled for this month, at his initiative, at leading East Coast universities.

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