Keith David Watenpaugh

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Scholar Becomes Target of Turkish Groups

Dec 15 2011

By: Nanore Barsoumian

University of California, Davis (UC Davis) Professor Keith David Watenpaugh became the latest victim of a Turkish-American group’s allegations of slander this fall when his article—titled “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920–1927”—was published in the university’s magazine.

In the article, Wattenpaugh, a religious studies professor and director of the UC Davis Human Rights Initiative, discusses the rescue efforts by Western entities during the genocide, their perception of the events unfolding before them, and the transformation of international humanitarian relief efforts.

Denialist narrative: outright deny or minimalize

The article on Watenpaugh’s paper was followed by a letter to the editor by Gunay Evinch, an alumnus and past president of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations (ATTA), and currently an attorney in D.C., whose clients include the Turkish Embassy. In the letter, which appeared in the magazine’s Fall 2011 issue, Evinch argued that Western humanitarian aid was strictly directed at the Ottoman Empire’s Christian population, and a more appropriate title for the article would be “Humanitarianism for Christians Only.” He said that “the world turned its back on Ottoman Muslims and Jews who also died in frightful numbers and suffered the same privations as the Ottoman Armenians.” Evinch proceeded to parrot the official Turkish denialist narrative that charges the Armenians of revolting or taking up arms during the great massacres of the late 19th century and, later, the Armenian Genocide.

In a disturbing and offensive choice of words, Evinch said the Van rebellion “provided partial justification” for the Armenian Genocide—or, as he phrased it, “the May 1915 security relocation of Armenians from the eastern Anatolian war zones.” He concluded that the West had remained silent on the suffering of Muslims and Jews of the Empire; that the Western humanitarian efforts were in collaboration with the Ottoman government; and that humanitarianism “of a universal sort…was neither born nor sparked.”

Watenpaugh replies

In response, Watenpaugh acknowledged that many groups did suffer during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, but added, “Only Armenians were subjected to a state-sponsored attempt to exterminate them as a people in what became the Republic of Turkey—genocide.”

International humanitarian efforts were directed towards the Armenians “because they were faced with genocide and dispossession, were living in refugee camps…[and] were being prevented by the Republic of Turkey from going home. They were stateless, had no legal standing, and were wholly reliant on international humanitarian assistance for their survival.” On the other hand, Turkish and Muslim refugees from the Balkans and Russia received citizenship, refuge, and the properties of murdered Armenians, he wrote. Citing two examples, Watenpaugh disputed Evinch’s claims that Ottoman Muslims and Jews did not receive international aid, and went on to note that the Jews of the Ottoman Empire “did not face state persecution or deportation.”

In his conclusion—and what became his most controversial words—Watenpaugh held: “What is most important to understand is that the Assembly of Turkish American Associations has been at the forefront of a Turkish government-sponsored effort in the United States to deny that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. The attack on my work in Mr. Evinch’s letter is part of that project and should be understood in this light. At UC Davis, we teach our students that history is more than just a collection of facts, but rather is the starting point for an ethical relationship with the past.”

ATAA demands apology

Not long after, the president of the ATAA, Ergun Kirlikovali, in a letter to the managing editor of the UC Davis magazine, Kathleen Holder, and to the head of the university’s religious studies department, Catherine Chin, accused Watenpaugh of making “defamatory” and “extraordinarily harmful” statements, reported Inside Higher Ed. The letter highlighted Watenpaugh’s final sentence in his response to Evinch, calling it “Professor Watenpaugh’s reckless insinuation that the ATAA is a foreign agent, funded by and under the direction and control of Turkey…”

The ATAA proceeded to compare the statement to one made by the Southern Poverty Law Center against Prof. Guenter Lewy, who had argued against evidence on genocide. Lewy sued the center, which was then ordered by the court to print a retraction and an apology.

The ATAA then sent letters to UC Davis officials demanding that Watenpaugh apologize, reported Inside Higher Ed. So far, the university has said it will stand behind Watenpaugh. The latter maintains his words were not “defamatory,” as he did not say the ATAA was an agent of the Turkish state, but an organization who vehemently denies the Armenian Genocide in the U.S., paralleling the same policy and propaganda of denial by the Turkish state.

Inside Higher Ed reports that Watenpaugh is set to release a statement to clarify his previous one.

MESA voices support

On Nov. 16, the president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), Suad Joseph, addressed a letter to Kirlikovali on behalf of MESA and its Committee on Academic Freedom, in which he expressed concern over the ATAA’s letter to Holder and Chin, and a separate e-mail from Evinch to Holder. MESA fears the ATAA will seek legal action, as Kilikovali alleged that Watenpaugh defamed his organization, while Evinch accused him of libel.

“We are concerned that such allegations may damage Professor Watenpaugh’s standing as a respected historian of the modern Middle East and undermine his ability to do his work as a scholar and a teacher. More broadly, we are concerned that your letters’ specific references to legal action initiated in another case involving the question of what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War may have a chilling effect on academic inquiry and discourse about this important historical episode,” read the MESA letter.