Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An Interview with Prof. Donald Quataert on Academic Freedom, the Armenian Issue and Turkish Studies


By Tugrul Keskin

Assistant Professor of International and Middle Eastern Studies
Portland State University
I interviewed Dr. Donald Quataert, a historian at Binghamton University – State University of New York, on academic freedom, the Armenian Issue and Turkish Studies. Dr. Quataert was a chairperson of the Board of Governors at the Institute of Turkish Studies and he resigned from this position in 2006 as a result of controversial book review, ‘the Massacres of Ottoman Armenians and the Writing of Ottoman History,’ published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History in 2006. According to some sources, such as the articles published in the Inside Higher Education by Scott Jaschik on July 1 2008[1], and Huffington Post by Harut Sassounian on June 3, 2008[2], Nabi Sensoy, Turkish ambassador in Washington DC implied that Dr. Donald Quataert should consider resigning from his position. This incident should deeply concern us as academicians who value free speech; therefore, my interview aims to explore the controversy that fueled his resignation. At the center of this debate over free speech is whether political actors should be allowed to interfere with academic research in the name of national interests. I have received similar types of threats and I was warned not to write critically of the Turkish government’s policies by two Turkish government officials in Washington DC; therefore, I am inclined to pay more attention to this subject. Even tough, I strongly disagree with using the term ‘Armenian Genocide;’ however, we must ensure that political actors are not manipulating academic discussions. Free speech should be protected whether we agree or not.  In short, as commonly attributed to Voltaire, I strongly agree with following quotation: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (originated in “Friends of Voltaire”, 1906, by S.G. Tallentyre).
Donald Quataert is an Ottoman and Turkish Historian at Binghamton University - State University of New York. He received his Ph.D. degree in History from UCLA. He has published numerous books and articles on Ottoman History, such as The Ottoman Empire: 1700-1922 by Cambridge University Press. He speaks Ottoman Turkish, modern Turkish, German, French and Spanish. Professor Donald Quataert was a chairperson of the Board of Governors at the Institute of Turkish Studies and he resigned from this position in 2006.
Professor, History, Binghamton University State University of New York Binghamton, New York 13902-6000

Tugrul Keskin: Why did you resign from the Institute of Turkish Studies (ITS) at Georgetown University? I have read that you were told to resign by a high Turkish official in the US. Is that correct? Would you please explain the entire situation regarding what happened and why it happened?
Donald Quataert: The Institute is not part of Georgetown, it is only located there. I have attached the letter of resignation which I sent to the Ambassador and to all members and associate members of the ITS. The issue revolved around the book review. The Director of the Institute urged me to talk to the Ambassador because he, the Director David Cuthell, had heard rumors that the embassy was upset because Ankara had learned of the review and was very upset.  So, I called the Ambassador and we had a cordial conversation.  I was never told to resign; rather, the Ambassador made it clear that persons in Ankara had threatened to withdraw the funding of ITS, should I remain as ITS chairman.  He never asked me to resign, but simply told me what some people in Ankara were thinking.  The Ambassador encouraged me to remain as a member should I decide to resign as chair.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you think this was a suggestion or was it a direct instruction to resign? 

Donald Quataert It was neither—rather it was the ambassador informing me of sentiments in Ankara.  When I asked if there was a real chance that the funds would be withdrawn should I not resign as chair, the Ambassador said there was such a real possibility.

Tugrul Keskin: What I have heard is that someone in the US sent your article, "The Massacres of Ottoman Armenians," to a former Turkish ambassador, Sukru Elekdag. From what I understand, your resignation process began at this point. Can you please clarify?

Donald Quataert: I heard the same report from a colleague.  I do not choose to name the scholar in the US, who is of Turkish origins, who informed the officials in Ankara.  Ambassador Elekdag’s name was given to me as one of the officials who was deeply upset at my review.

Tugrul Keskin: Do you think the way that this took place conflicts with academic freedom? 

Donald Quataert: Of course it conflicts with academic freedom.  I do not expect agreement with my views, but I do expect to have the right to express those views.  I believe that academic freedom demands that I have the right to express my views and at the same time to be the officer, even the chair, of an organization.  When expressing my views, as long I as do not identify myself as the chair or officer; I have the right to my views.  When I wrote the review, I signed my name as Professor of History, Binghamton University.   According to the dictates of academic freedom, the Institute was not involved.

Tugrul Keskin: Some people claim that in your short article, "The Massacres of Ottoman Armenians" published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History in 2006, you claim that the Armenians were massacred in Ottoman Turkey. Is this true?

Donald Quataert: I suggest that people read the review—and yes, I do write that Armenians were massacred during the late Ottoman Empire.

Tugrul Keskin: On the one side, in the US, the Armenian lobby has been using so-called 'genocide politics' in order to maintain power and ethnic solidarity for Armenians; on the other side, some Turkish scholars and organizations in the US are using the Armenian issue to receive more financial support from Turkey, and this issue becomes their occupation. I believe this is ethically wrong. What is your perspective? 

Donald Quataert: If what you say is true, then I would agree that it is ethically wrong.  I do not pretend to be a specialist on √©migr√© politics in the US.  My task is to study Ottoman history.  For my views on Ottoman history, see the seven books I have authored or the fourteen books I have edited or co-edited.

Tugrul Keskin: What are the mistakes of both sides: Turks and Armenians in the US? 

Donald Quataert: No comment.

Tugrul Keskin: How can the conflict between Armenians and Turks be solved peacefully? Can Turks and Armenians become two friendly nations again? 

Donald Quataert: Yes. The question is—is the fate of the Ottoman Armenians an issue blocking peaceful relations? If so, why is this so? If so, how can these issues be addressed? A beginning step, but not an easy one, to allow free and open discourse within each community. 

Tugrul Keskin: I am not a historian on Armenian and Turkish relations; I am a sociologist, however, as far as I know there was no real conflict between Armenians and Turks until the late 19th century, actually, until arrival of British or European imperialism into the region. Imperialism, in the sense that it makes ethnic groups enemies to each other in the region for purposes of exploitation Do you think the conflict between Armenians and Turks is a product of imperialism?

Donald Quataert: Muslims and Christians during the Ottoman era were aware of differences between them and there was occasional violence before the 19th century.  But when the twin forces of imperialism and nationalism entered the Ottoman world, Muslim-Christian relations deteriorated badly, giving rise to ever-higher levels of violence.  And yet, the massive violence of 1915 against the Ottoman Armenians was not inevitable but rather the product of very specific historical conditions, including the fact that World War I was raging at the time.  Historians need to examine these specific conditions and not allow themselves to see the violence as inevitable or a necessary outcome of the relations between Muslims and Christians, or “Turks” and “Armenians” in the late Ottoman era.

Tugrul Keskin: How do we develop Turkish Studies in the United State? What is your view on this subject? 

Donald Quataert: For more than twenty years I have worked hard to promote an accurate view of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire and its peoples in the United States and among Americans.  Turkey is well served if the truth and nothing but the truth is told.  We should demand that of ourselves.  Turkey is a wonderful country and is not served by those who want to present just one side of a story.

Tugrul Keskin: Dr. Quataert, thank you for the interview.

Donald Quataert: Thank you.

Dr. Donald Quataert’s book review can be found in the following source:
The Massacres of Ottoman Armenians and the Writing of Ottoman History Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxvii:2(Autumn, 2006), 249–259.


[1] Is Turkey Muzzling U.S. Scholars? http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/07/01/turkey
[2] Turkish Ambassador Dismisses U.S. Scholar For Telling the Truth on Armenian Genocide http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harut-sassounian/turkish-ambassador-dismis_b_104996.html

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