A Turkish government gift of $3 million in endowment grants to leading American universities has triggered a sharp debate over charges that Turkey is trying to buy academic absolution from the dark past of the Armenian massacre.
Turkey is funding chairs in Turkish studies at Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown and the University of Chicago at a time when Turkey is of growing strategic interest to the United States. The Turkish largess, however, raises longstanding questions about strings that might be attached to such money.
Those questions became more pointed when Princeton filled its new Ataturk Chair in Turkish Studies by naming to the post a longtime lobbyist for the Turkish government and steadfast skeptic on the prevailing view of the Armenian fate.
According to most historians, more than 1.5 million Armenians were massacred in a deliberate extermination program by the Ottoman Turks during the World War I era. According to Turkish officials and some revisionists, fewer Armenians died in what was a tragic civil war.
Turkish diplomats deny that that they are trying to manipulate history with the endowment program, maintaining that they are simply acting in the interest of scholarship and bettering Turkish-American relations by providing seed money for chairs at the universities.
Harvard officials, now seeking matching funds, say they will not be beholden to the Turkish government despite the $750,000 bequest.
"We are the first to bristle at the thought of being locked up by some foreign government," said William Graham, director of Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies, which has raised half the $3.1 million it needs for the matching endowment. "We're not interested if that is the condition."
Even without the Turkish money, universities have been expanding Turkish studies programs. Harvard's efforts date back to the mid-1980s, Graham said, but accelerated as enrollments in Turkish studies tripled in the past five years.
"It's definitely the growth area in Middle East studies," said Richard N. Frye, the retired founder of Harvard's Middle East center.
A State Department official concurred: "Turkey is very, very much in the forefront of U.S. interests if you look at the vast oil reserves of the Caucasus and Central Asia and everything else going on in that area of the world. We only smile on the growth of interest in Turkish studies."
The problem for some academics and critics of the Turkish government, however, is the outright Turkish funding, which raises questions about what version of history will be taught.
"There's no problem as far as setting up a Turkish chair or program," said Rouben Adalian, a historian at the Armenian Assembly of America, a Washington-based lobby. "But it is a very disturbing trend to have a foreign government funding a program and having the influence of that government worked into the arrangement in establishing the chair."
Direct funding by foreign governments is not unprecedented at American universities. Many chairs in Iranian studies were endowed in the 1970s by the shah of Iran. Gulf Arab nations set up similar chairs in the 1980s. Indirect funding from Japan, Germany and other friendly governments often makes its way to a grateful academia.
"It's always the same issue: Is the appointment freely made?" said Peter Buchanan, president of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But given the extraordinary amount of peer review, it is very difficult for me to believe that it is easy to put a government lackey in one of these chairs."
Earlier this year, Yale returned a $20 million pledge from conservative billionaire Lee M. Bass after student and faculty protests over a history curriculum he wanted to see established. Harvard returned a $2.5 million bequest in 1988 because of fears of undue influence, Graham said.
At $750,000 an endowment, academic critics charge, Turkey is trying to manipulate American scholarship to conform to their view that, as Turkish Ambassador Nuzhet Kandemir says, the fate of Armenians was tied up in "a tragic civil war perpetrated by misguided Armenian nationalists."
Warning about "Turkish efforts to deny the Armenian genocide of 1915-17," Robert Jay Lifton, a professor at City University of New York, and two colleagues recently published a paper charging that "where scholars deny genocide, in the face of decisive evidence that it has occurred," they "encourage -- indeed invite -- a repetition of that crime."
Lifton and other critics single out Turkish studies professor Heath C. Lowry for doing just that both in his writings and in direct advice to Turkey on how to counter what Lowry has called assertions of "the so-called 'Armenian genocide."'
For 10 years, Lowry directed the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, a lobby set up in 1982 with $3 million from the Turkish government and annual funding from Ankara. A 1992 institute report cites its own "key role ... in encouraging the government of Turkey to embark upon a plan of endowing a series of chairs in Turkish studies at major American universities."
The first of those, at Princeton, was established last year. Its occupant, chosen from among 20 candidates: Heath Lowry.
Lowry did not return phone calls.
Princeton is also home to Bernard Lewis, an eminent Middle East historian found guilty in a French court in August under a French "hate speech" law for expressing doubts that the massacres of Armenians should be called "genocide."
The leading candidate for the Harvard post, academic sources say, is Cemal Kafadar, an associate professor of Turkish studies. His specialty is the formation of the Ottoman state, and he is also an expert on Sufism and has campaigned for preservation of Bosnia's cultural heritage. Critics of Lowry say Kafadar's name raises no similar alarms.
Turkish officials say their motives are pure.
"We are trying to achieve better understanding between Turkey and Americans," said Levent Gumckcu, spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington. "The universities are very enthusiastic. But our Armenian and Greek friends are not content with this development. They are afraid of Americans having better understanding of Turkey."
There have long been chairs in Armenian studies at Harvard, Columbia, the University of Michigan and the University of California at Los Angeles and part-time or rotated positions at Tufts and UC-Berkeley. Manoog Young, chairman of the Belmont-based National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, spearheaded fund-raising for Harvard's Mashtots chair of Armenian studies, which was established in 1959.
"One reason we selected Harvard is Harvard's history of resisting pressure from governments and funding groups," Young said. "We're hoping that whoever is appointed at Harvard" for the Turkish studies chair "will act independent of where the money comes from. Princeton's case, however, is rather disconcerting."