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UCLA Hosts Talks on Armenian Genocide

An Oct. 6 conference on the Armenian Genocide marked the first time Turkish scholars outside Turkey have challenged their government's position on the genocide, organizers said.

UCLA Hosts Talks on Armenian Genocide

Fatma Gocek, a Turkish scholar and professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, discusses the Armenian genocide at UCLA on Sunday. (Photo by Jennifer Huang of the Daily Bruin)

This article was first published in the Daily Bruin.

Julia Erlandson, Daily Bruin contributor

A conference on the Armenian Genocide held at UCLA on Sunday marked the first time Turkish scholars outside Turkey have challenged their native government's position on the genocide, organizers said.

The Armenian Genocide comprises a series of killings by the Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1918, during which as many as 1.5 million Armenians died, but the Turkish government has historically denied that a genocide occurred. The U.S. government also has not officially recognized the genocide.

About 650 to 700 people attended the event, said history Professor Richard Hovannisian, an organizer of the event and the Armenian Educational Foundation chairman in Modern Armenian History. [The event was co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.]

"This is a historic, momentous event," Hovannisian said. "It was overwhelming. This was a highly appreciative audience, obviously."

Hovannisian said he was contacted prior to the event by the UCLA Turkish Students Association, who offered to bring a speaker representing the Turkish government's point of view to the conference. Hovannisian declined.

"We know what the government of Turkey and its supporters have to say," he said.

Elif Shafak, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona and one of the Turkish speakers at the conference, attributed the interest in the event to the strong historical memory Armenians have of the genocide, since accounts have been passed down through their families.

Turkish families, however, are much more detached from the memory of the genocide, Shafak said, and so do not have as strong of a knowledge as many Armenians do.

A bigger problem in studying the genocide is posed by the Ottoman documents from that period, said Taner Akcam, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and another Turkish speaker.

These documents have been tampered with and therefore do not contain accurate information, so anyone trying to study the genocide would have difficulty doing so and would receive skewed information, Akcam said.

Third-year psychology student Nora Kayserian attended the event and said she found it enlightening.

"They were saying a lot of things I hadn't heard before. You don't usually hear from the Turkish (perspective on the genocide)," she said.

Lerna Kayserian, a member of the Armenian National Committee, an Armenian-American grassroots political organization, agreed.

"It was historic, considering that there are not many Turkish scholars talking about this," she said. "This was a very different conference. ... Hopefully this will start a trend."

Still, not everyone praised the event. Though no protestors showed up to the conference itself, Shafak said she received threats and criticism beforehand from people and groups supporting the Turkish government's position. Via e-mail, she was insulted and accused of treason, she said.

Additionally, a Turkish nationalist Web site criticized the three scholars for going against the Turkish government's position and acknowledging the genocide, according to an article in the AZG Armenian Daily.

Fatma Gocek, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and another Turkish speaker at the event, said she hopes conferences like this one will help create recognition for the conflict.

"As a human being, it is unbearable for me that there are people who have been wronged and who can't mourn that because of denial," she said. "(Turkish admittance of the genocide) will happen. I want it by 2015. Everyone should be able to live in the society equally with equal chances. That is what we are aiming for."