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The Case Against Legitimizing Genocide Deniers: Scholars Speak Up

The Case Against Legitimizing Genocide Deniers: Scholars Speak Up

[The] willingness to ascribe to the deniers and their myths the legitimacy
of a point of view is of as great, if not greater,
concern than are the activities of the deniers themselves.
—Deborah Lipstadt

WATERTOWN, Mass. (A.W.)— The participation of a number of Armenian studies and genocide studies scholars in the conference “The Caucasus at the Imperial Twilight” in Tbilisi, Georgia, organized by Prof. M. Hakan Yavuz of the University of Utah and sponsored by the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) has generated a controversy in the diaspora as well as in Armenia over the enabling of genocide denial.

The individual and organization at the heart of this conference have for much of the past decade been actively engaged in efforts to extend denial of the Armenian genocide into academia as well as in the political realm in North America.

Since 2009, the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), established in 2007, has pumped at least $900,000 into the Yavuz-directed Utah Turkish Studies Project as a continuation of the decades-long campaign to deny, diminish, or otherwise distort the history of the Armenian Genocide. Denial within academia has reached new heights through the publication of genocide denying books by the Utah University Press and other outlets and the organization of four (2010-2013) conferences of which the most recent is the conference in Tbilisi.

The TCA has also lobbied aggressively to block recognition of the Armenian genocide and has engaged in legal actions against, most notoriously, the University of Minnesota and its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS). The suit alleged defamation because the CHGS website had identified the TCA as an “unreliable” source on the Armenian genocide that engaged in genocide denial. The suit was dismissed and the dismissal upheld, with the decision stating that “the Center’s statement about the TCA is true and, therefore, not actionable.” In addition, in 2011 the U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee ruled that the TCA had provided some $500,000 in improper gifts in the form of legal counsel to now former Ohio Representative Jean Schmidt.

A key element of the TCA’s mission is to normalize the presentation of denial of the Armenian Genocide within academia. This approach seeks to establish the Turkish state’s denialist narrative as a legitimate historical viewpoint, as just another scholarly “perspective.” In order to succeed, however, they need legitimate scholars to function as “the other side.”

By participating in the Tbilisi conference, scholars, whether intentionally or not, are providing just that “other side” of the “debate” over the Armenian genocide, argued several prominent scholars contacted by the Armenian Weekly.

Prof. Richard Hovannisian

“I learned a long time ago that providing a platform for deniers, under any guise, is a serious mistake because it affords them a claim to legitimacy. It is no less harmful to the cause of serious scholarship to participate in a conference organized and sponsored by a deceptive university professor and an organization that has repeatedly supported the publication of denial literature and initiated legal proceedings against institutions that exclude denial materials from their programs,” said Prof. Richard Hovannisian, former holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA.

“No matter how well-intended it may be, participation in such a conference confers on those behind it an unmerited status as partners in a scholarly dialogue when, I believe, the real purpose is to create doubt and undermine honest scholarly investigation,” added Prof. Hovannisian.

Prof. Roger Smith

Prof. Roger Smith, a founding member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and a former president of the association, concurred. “Invitations to conferences such as the one organized by Hakan Yavuz of the University of Utah, a university that has numerous graduate students who are churning out denial of the Armenian Genocide, are simply lures and traps,” he said. “Lures in the sense that it gives the appearance of welcoming dissenting views and appears to offer an opportunity to refute the narrative upheld by ‘historians who hold other views of what took place in 1915.’ It suggests a debate and an assessment of the evidence: a normal process in scholarly inquiry. Some scholars may, not unreasonably, jump at the bait, and hope to dislodge the claims of those who argue that the Genocide never took place, that the Young Turk regime is not responsible for whatever happened, and that, in any case, the term ‘genocide’ is not applicable for a variety of reasons. But the trap is when such well-known, non-denialist, scholars participate in such conferences, they inescapably offer legitimacy to the whole conference, to its framework. And that is precisely what the organizers seek: the appearance of legitimacy for bogus history,” he added.

Marc Mamigonian

Marc Mamigonian, the Director of Academic Affairs of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), said, “Deniers have already hijacked the discussion of the Armenian genocide to an unhealthy extent through their efforts to manufacture doubt about established historical facts. Participating in forums organized and funded by individuals and entities who promote the Turkish state’s denial of the Armenian genocide only contributes to the myth of a scholarly debate. This also undermines scholars who strive to create honest scholarship in the face of denial and intimidation. Denial—even if it carries a university imprint—must not legitimized and granted a place at the same table as scholarship, because it does not belong there.”

Prof. Keith Watenpaugh

Prof. Keith Watenpaugh, Associate Professor of Modern Islam, Human Rights and Peace at UC Davis, said, “The Turkish Studies Project (TSP) at the University of Utah, which is the sponsor of this conference is funded by the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA). As a federal judge recently ruled, the TCA is a denialist organization. It uses its money and relationship with the University of Utah to support Armenian Genocide denial through publications and through conferences like the one in Tbilisi. Given the genocide denial framework established by the TSP and its director, the Political Scientist M. Hakan Yavuz, the participation by scholars—Armenian or otherwise—cannot help but lend legitimacy to its broader denialist enterprise. I would not participate in something like this. I am reluctant to criticize the few Armenian scholars who did participate, because I stand in solidarity with all those who resist denial and its corrosive effects, even if I don’t agree with the way they go about doing it.”

Watenpaugh added, “Instead we should be asking questions about the continued relationship between the University of Utah and the TCA. It is hard for me to understand why an important American research university would lend its good name to a political organization that seeks to violate academic freedom by, for example, bringing suit against the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, and by promoting the falsification of history through its grants and political advocacy. The real issue here is the fact that the University of Utah has provided an institutional home to genocide denial.”

“Armenians and others should be confident that there are more and better venues of interchange between Turks and Armenians in which elements of their shared past can be examined honestly and in a framework of legitimate historical enquiry. In fact scholarship on late-Ottoman Armenian society and history is one of the most vital fields of history today and the Armenian Genocide is firmly established in the global history of human rights and genocide studies,” Watenpaugh concluded.

Prof. Debórah Dwork

In turn, Prof. Debórah Dwork, the Director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, told the Armenian Weekly that “there is no reason—none!—to engage genocide deniers, whether they are deniers of the Armenian Genocide or of the Holocaust, or of any other genocide.” She explained, “A conference or debate offers them an arena to make their arguments. Why would I offer them such an arena? Speaking to them, or arguing with them elevates them to the status of legitimate scholars, and their positions to the status of legitimate history. We are not equals and there aren’t two legitimate, equally historically valid ‘sides.’”

According to Prof. Dwork, “engaging with deniers allows them to set the issues to be discussed; it allows them to hijack the historical account. Why should I talk about the points they wish to raise? And please, would someone tell me why I should I waste my time refuting their arguments? Time is the coin of the scholarly realm, and if we spend it on deniers, we are not moving our research forward.” She concluded, “Engaging with deniers thus undermines history thrice over: it offers them a platform; it confers legitimacy upon them, and it diverts scholars from their own research which, of course, plumbs precisely the genocide the deniers refute.”

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