Earlier this year, I invited Professor Taner Akçam to speak to students and faculty at the University of Illinois about the Armenian Genocide and the Turkish state’s denial of that genocide. Professor Akçam, the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Professor of Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, is one of the world’s leading genocide scholars and one of the first Turkish intellectuals to acknowledge and openly discuss the Armenian Genocide. Last week he informed me that he is cancelling his visit to Illinois to honor the boycott that has arisen in the wake of the university’s decision to revoke a job offer to Dr. Steven Salaita because of comments Dr. Salaita made on twitter about the recent bombing of Gaza.
As Professor Akçam makes clear in the statement below, his personal experience with censorship, imprisonment, harassment, and violence makes it impossible for him to visit our campus until a just resolution to the Salaita case is found. While I deeply regret that our students and faculty will not have the opportunity to meet and hear from Professor Akçam this fall, I understand and respect his decision. His own story demonstrates all too clearly what happens when those in power attempt to cut off debate about matters of public concern, including controversial political conflicts. The recent controversy on our own campus concerns the hot-button issue of Israel-Palestine, but Professor Akçam’s experience illustrates the all too real risks to academic freedom and freedom of speech that can emerge in any field of research once political expression is limited.
--Michael Rothberg, Director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Illinois
I personally know the value of freedom of expression and I have paid a heavy price for it in my life. I was thrown in prison in 1976 simply because Turkish authorities did not like what I wrote and said about democratic rights and the rights of Kurdish people. The government, the judicial system and law enforcement authorities held tremendous power in Turkey, while I was a mere citizen, a young student at the time; next to them, I was a nobody and freedom of expression was just some words written on paper.
Later, I became the target of a hate campaign here in the US organized by extreme nationalists from Turkey because they did not like my scholarly work on the Armenian Genocide. I was not only threatened with death but I was also physically assaulted in New York in 2006 and had to be protected by campus police. I was detained at the Canadian border in February 2007 because those who did not like what I had to say on the Armenian genocide vandalized my Wikipedia web-page and portrayed me as an “enemy of Turkey and a terrorist.” Letters have been sent to universities to cancel my lectures when I have been invited to speak and in some of those cases university officials were intimidated.
I was also on the hit-list of a covert organization in Turkey known as “Ergenekon” which consists of some members of both the armed forces and civil bureaucrats. These circles arranged the assassination of my dear friend, the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, in Istanbul in January 2007 because they did not like what he said and wrote.
So, I know the value of freedom of speech and the weight of it resides deep inside my flesh and bones.
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. They ignored the threats and intimidation and were stalwart defenders of freedom of speech. America is indeed that safe haven for so many of us who have escaped persecution in our home countries.
For that reason, perhaps out of gratitude, we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt when we see injustices played out here, believing that the US has a just system of governance and law and, even more importantly, a strong democratic moral center. 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.
The job offer to Professor Steven Salaita was withdrawn based solely on his strongly worded expressions via Twitter on Gaza and Palestine. Whether or not Professor Salaita’s utterances were appropriate is not the point here! Let’s even accept that they are inappropriate! This has nothing to do with my argument. His statements may have disturbed a university president, someone with a sensitive temperament, but then that president might be equally disturbed by the violence of bombs falling on innocent children and the utterances of the cheerful supporters of those bombs.
Persecution, intimidation, harassment and abuse of power against those whose thoughts and views do not suit the “powers that be” is nothing new. This has been a problem since the origins of humanity. We should never let power be abused in this reckless way. The boundaries of freedom of speech cannot be determined arbitrarily, but must be determined by the rule of law, which is the product of the fight of humanity against any kind of ideology and practice based on discrimination, hate and racism!
I am canceling my lecture at the University of Illinois to show my solidarity with Professor Steven Salaita and to protest the decision of the Chancellor, the President, and the Board of Trustees of the University.
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The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
is an interdisciplinary program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Founded in 2009 and located within the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, HGMS provides a platform for cutting-edge, comparative research, teaching, and public engagement related to genocide, trauma, and collective memory.