by Sukru Elekdag, Turkey's Former Ambassador to US,
Columbia University Turns into Lively and Heated Encounter
By ANTRANIG KASBARIAN
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
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.