Turkey and history: shoot the messenger

Taner Akcam
16 August 2007

I am a historian of Turkey and the author of many books and articles on the subject of Turkish nationalism and the Armenian genocide of 1915, among them From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide (Zed Books, 2004) and A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (Henry Holt, 2007)

Taner Akçam is visiting associate professor in the department of history, University of Minnesota. He earned a doctorate at Hanover University, and later worked at the Institut für Sozialforschung in Hamburg, the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Among his many publications are the books Dialogue Across an International Divide: Essays Towards a Turkish-Armenian Dialogue (Zoryan Institute, 2001), From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide (Zed Books, 2004) and A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (Henry Holt, 2006)

In May 2007, I revealed the identity of Murad "Holdwater" Gümen, the secretive webmaster of "Tall Armenian Tale", an extensive and influential site devoted to "the other side of the falsified Genocide" and the defamation of genocide scholars, myself included. Murad Gümen has been a leading voice in an ongoing campaign to denounce me as a traitor to Turkey and as a terrorist who ought to be of interest to American authorities.

For the last three years, disinformation about me from Tall Armenian Tale has been disseminated all over the internet, eventually reaching the open-source encyclopedia, Wikipedia. This campaign intensified after the publication in November 2006 of my book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility; it culminated in my detention by Canadian and American border authorities in February 2007, on suspicion of terrorism. As evidence, they showed me my vandalised Wikipedia biography.

Just one month before this incident, the assassination of Istanbul-based journalist Hrant Dink on 19 January 2007 by an ultra-nationalist gunman had put Turkey's intellectuals on high alert. We knew that in the months before his death, Dink had been targeted by an increasingly vicious media campaign intent on portraying him as a traitor. Among other things, Dink was pilloried for revealing the Armenian identity of Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Turkey's founding father, Kemal Atatürk. Leading the pack against Dink was Hürriyet newspaper, one of the most influential publications in Turkey.

The voice of "freedom"

In the campaign against me, disinformation from Tall Armenian Tale was copied to YouTube videos describing my "terrorist" activities. I received death threats by email. My lectures and book tour were disrupted, and poison-pen letters were sent to the hosting universities. Following my lecture on 1 November 2006, at City University of New York, I was physically assaulted.

My detention was the last straw. I challenged Murad Gümen to stand up in public.

The unmasking of an individual who had been running a campaign of slander against me was presented to readers of Hürriyet as a criminal or unethical act. I was said to have endangered Murad Gümen's life.

"Murad Gümen, who has been defending Turkey for over thirty years under the assumed name 'Holdwater', had his identity unmasked by Taner Akçam, supporter of the claim of a so-called genocide....Upon publication of his identity, Gümen became a target and has been the subject of a hate campaign" ("Secret Lobbyist Deciphered," Hürriyet, 21 June 2007).

Also in openDemocracy on Turkey's contest of memory over the Armenian genocide:

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (13 December 2005)

Murat Belge, "The trials of free speech in Turkey" (6 February 2006)

Fatma Müge Göçek, "Hrant Dink (1954-2007): in memoriam"(22 January 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue"(23 January 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom" (23 January 2007)

Peter Balakian, "Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy" (29 January 2007)

Hratch Tchilingirian, "Hrant Dink and Armenians in Turkey" (23 February 2007)

publishes a quarterly digest of selected articles on a particular topic. The second issue, published in April 2007, is entitled Turkey: Writers, Politics and Free Speech. It contains the above articles and many more. For details and purchase, click here

"Murad Gümen, whose identity was unmasked by Taner Akçam, has been the target of a flood of insults sent by Armenians via the internet. Gümen, who's been accused of racism, has had his photograph published on the Web....[Taner Akçam]'s disappeared. It has not been possible to reach Taner Akçam....Murad Gümen is a successful illustrator and film producer who lives in America" ("Immediate Target," Hürriyet, 22 June 2007).

"Taner Akçam fled Turkey years ago. He lives overseas, in the United States at this point, and gets fed by the Armenian lobby. He vomits hate towards our country in all of his books and his speeches. Recently he unmasked the website that was maintained by Murad Gümen, who has been defending the Turkish position on Armenian issues in the United States, and he revealed the latter's identity which had been kept secret until now. This individual named Taner Akçam who has spent his life living outside of the country, writing articles and giving speeches against Turkey...[T]his individual...escaped overseas, works in opposition to Turkey, betrayed his country, and serves the Armenian lobby by promoting the position that 'there was an Armenian genocide' all over the world!" (Emin Çolasan, "Bravo Atilla Koç! This is How You Introduce Turkey!", Hürriyet, 23 June 2007).

A weapon of power

Hürriyet's reportage concerns me deeply, for three reasons.

First, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the lynching mentality that was created against Hrant Dink. Having revealed the identity of a secret slanderer, I am now being denounced as a traitor who "vomits hate towards our country."

My second cause for concern has to do with an anonymous email that I received on 11 June 2007: "Today we have started fighting you and those creatures you call your friends, within the boundaries of the law. But if we don't get the result we're looking for, we'll start trying other alternative ways. It would be better for world peace and truth if sewer germs like you were taken off the planet... tomorrow is going to be much more difficult for you. Pray that the devil takes you away soon because otherwise you'll be living a hell on earth... you think you've discovered who ‘Holdwater' is ...you have gotten it all wrong. Right now the world is full of millions of Holdwaters...One day you and your wild Armenian blood brothers will drown in this sea of Holdwaters...The truth hurts...it really does. One day you are going to feel the pain so badly that when you read these lines, you'll remember how you were."

The similarity in character between the campaign against me by Hürriyet and the language used in this threatening email is frightening.

The writer of that letter concludes, "Who am I? You're going to find out, Taner, you're going to find out." Was it a coincidence that the Hürriyet campaign began just ten days later?

Third, Hürriyet cold-bloodedly disregarded the most basic principles of journalism. Their headline on the second day of coverage proclaimed that I had "disappeared". Readers were given the impression that I had gone into hiding the day after Hürriyet reported my unmasking of Murad "Holdwater" Gümen.

The fact is that my office address, telephone numbers, and email address are all available online. The University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts, the department of history, and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies each has full-time staff. There is no record of a call, not one single email, from Hürriyet. They never bothered to contact me. They didn't check their facts or attempt to interview me. And when I demanded a correction, the editor-in-chief ignored my letter.

Thus, in Dink's case and also in mine, one of the most influential and widely circulated national newspapers in Turkey does not hesitate to transform itself into a weapon. Once again, intellectuals and activists who dare to question the government's "official history" are being put on notice. This shameful campaign not only endangers my life and the lives of my colleagues, my family and friends; ironically enough, the very notion of free expression is being undermined by the very institution that depends on it most: the public press.

And what is the point, after all? I published a scholarly study that deviated from the official position of the Turkish state. One should ask the Turkish authorities whether they truly believe that shooting the messenger will prove that their position on 1915 is the correct one.

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