A leading scholar of the Armenian genocide has canceled his plans to speak at the University of Illinois in protest at the firing of professor Steven Salaita.
In August, the university terminated Salaita’s appointment as associate professor in the American Indian studies program only a few weeks before he was slated to begin teaching. Salaita had used Twitter to denounce Israel’s attacks on Gaza in the period leading to that decision.
Salaita and his attorneys are currently planning a multi-pronged lawsuit against the university.
Taner Akcam, a professor in Armenian genocide studies at Clark University in Massachusetts, was invited to come to the University of Illinois by Michael Rothberg, a scholar on genocide and the Holocaust. Rothberg has been an vocal critic of the university’s actions regarding Salaita, and first shared Akcam’s letter articulating why he would not deliver any lectures at the university on a blog.
Akcam had been invited to give two lectures on campus; one on the First World War, and another about Turkey’s denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Following the announcement that the university’s officials had revoked its job offer to Salaita, a petition to boycott the university was circulated among universities and colleges, quickly gaining more than 3,500 signatures. In addition, many conferences, lectures and film screenings have been canceled since his firing was announced.
“Act of conscience”
In an email message to The Electronic Intifada, Rothberg wrote, “I am very disappointed that my colleagues and students won’t get a chance to hear from [Akcam] this semester, but I understand his decision. As he makes very clear in his powerful statement, freedom of speech and academic freedom are very personal issues for him. It was an act of conscience for him to decide not to visit our campus at this time.”
In Akcam’s letter, he lists his numerous and life-threatening experiences of living in Turkey, where marginalized ideas and speech are easily criminalized, before writing: “So, I know the value of freedom of speech and the weight of it resides deep inside my flesh and bones.”
Since the UIUC fired Salaita the boycott has had a dramatically palpable effect on campus, according to Rothberg. “At least among faculty in the humanities, ethnic studies, and some of the social sciences, morale is lower than I’ve seen it in my thirteen years on campus,” he stated.
Akcam is regarded as one of the first Turkish academics to openly acknowledge and discuss the 1915 Armenian genocide committed by the Turkish Ottoman government. He has led a life antagonistic to how the Turkish government treats its minorities, first working for a leftist journal scrutinizing his government’s mistreatment of the Kurdish minority in Turkey and then in his unequivocal stance on the Armenian genocide.
“You suddenly feel naked”
As a 23-year-old young man Akcam was sentenced to ten years in prison for serving as the editor of the journal and charged with spreading propaganda, only to escape one year later by digging a tunnel out using a stove leg, and becoming a political refugee in Germany.
In 2006, Akçam published A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and The Question of Turkish Responsibility, which chronicles the Armenian genocide using documents from the Turkish government’s archives.
UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise has insisted her decision to fire Salaita was not due to his viewpoints on the Middle East.
Not unlike Israel, the Turkish government has made concerted efforts to suppress free discussion of its bloody history within US academia, but with notably less success.
When Akcam’s appointment to chair the Armenian genocide studies program at Clark University was challenged by Turkey, he was defended by senior figures within the university. In his letter to UIUC, Akcam notes the contrast between his treatment and how the UIUC has treated Steven Salaita, writing:
It is indeed very sad for me to experience practices here in American universities where certain power centers can hold sway over an individual’s right to express their opinion. This is doubly saddening to me because when I was the target of attacks, it was American universities that came to my defense and who always had my back.
But when you learn that someone can lose a job opportunity simply because of something they expressed about a political issue, you suddenly feel quite naked, as if a warm cozy blanket had been pulled off you. Naked, because you realize that the “powers that be” reside here too and you are just as vulnerable as you were before when “they” could decide they don’t like what you have to say and make your life hell because of it.
Rothberg stated that faculty are at UIUC are still vocalizing their discontent and organizing events around the need to protect academic freedom.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post described Akcam as a lecturer in Armenian genocide studies. It has been updated to show that he is a professor. The first sentence also described Steven Salaita as a Palestine solidarity activist; it has been since changed to describe him as a professor.