Questions of Academic Freedom in Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies in the United States

Essay for a course on the academy and academic life (Joel Peters)

Questions of Academic Freedom in Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies in the United States

The principle of academic freedom may appear on the surface to offer a carte blanche for all matters of scholarly pursuit, whether to instructors or students, and perhaps even to university administrators. There are a few key questions around which that principle hinges. This essay will take up some of them by investigating the history of the development of Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies in the United States and the controversies that have arisen within and across those disciplines.

Brief Overview

This section draws upon Mamigonian (2013), Ergüneş (2018), Reed (1997), and the websites of the Institute of Turkish Studies, the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, the Society for Armenian Studies, and the Middle East Studies Association.

Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies have been systematically pursued by European scholars initially under the broader Oriental Studies umbrella since even as early as the late 18th century. It is not difficult to point out the political interests that evidently led to and supported the study of language, culture, religion, and society of the Balkans, Anatolia, Asia Minor, and the Levant. The Great Powers were keen to extend their holdings – the so-called “Eastern Question”. In fact, studying Persian, Arabic, or Turkish philology had an immediate association in many capitals with a career in the foreign service (and in espionage). The Diplomatic Academy of Vienna was founded by Empress Maria Theresia as the Oriental Academy in 1754, serving as a sort of prototype. Well into the 20th century, Oriental Studies university programmes were feeders for the KGB in the USSR.

In the United States, both Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies were present in fits and starts before the 1950s and 1960s. A number of individuals carried out independent work, teaching, and publishing before the Second World War, mostly at institutions of higher education in the north-east. The increased interest in area studies spurred by the Cold War pushed both to become formal disciplines within academia. Echoing its Oriental Studies cousin from across the Atlantic, the Middle East Studies Association was established in 1966, with some of its leaders founding the Turkish Studies Association later, in 1971. (That organisation is currently known as the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, reflecting a wider and deeper scope.) For its part, the Society for Armenian Studies was established in 1974.

One essential difference between the two fields and the story behind their establishment lies in the fact that, whereas Turkish Studies was driven in large part by various grants from private foundations, US government (including defence) contracts, and, later, government support from Turkey itself, Armenian Studies was a home-grown, Armenian-American affair. There was no independent Armenian state in modern times before 1991, barring the short-lived republic that existed between the fall of the Romanov regime and Sovietisation. The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic did support scholarship in Armenian Studies but, understandably, academic links with the United States were quite limited. Fundraising at the local level, individual philanthropists, and community organisations set up and propped up the chairs and programmes in Armenian Studies that began their work in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. There was not much of a substantial, organised Turkish-American community as a counterpart. Instead, it was individual scholars – often returned Peace Corps volunteers – who led the way in founding the chairs and programmes in Turkish Studies during those same decades.

Efforts towards establishing Armenian Studies were hindered by intra-communal fighting. The Armenian Diaspora was highly polarised during the Cold War, with individuals and groups aligning themselves either with a recognition and accommodation with the USSR – that is, accepting the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic as a legitimate homeland – and those opposed to communism. It was only in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, when advocacy towards public acknowledgement and commemoration of the Armenian Genocide became a mainstay, that diverse organisations within the community found a rallying point. Differences remained, however, and they continue to affect the Armenian-American Diaspora.

It was that very same push for Armenian Genocide-related lobbying that acted as a stimulus for Turkish advocacy efforts in Washington and elsewhere in the United States. Once again, whereas the Armenian groups were locally established and funded, Turkish organisations tended to act at the behest of Ankara – a dynamic that continues today. Academia soon became one of many spheres where that back-and-forth played out, as will be seen in the next section.

By the late 1970s-early 1980s, both Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies became more recognised and established within American academia. With its beginnings in Boston – an endowed chair at Harvard – Armenian Studies in the United States today consists of some twenty or so chairs, programmes, institutes, and endowments, at Columbia, Michigan, UCLA and elsewhere in California, Tufts, Chicago, etc. Turkish Studies also began on the East Coast, at Princeton, with a dozen or so chairs and more undergraduate and graduate courses currently at Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Chicago, Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana, etc. There are a number of journals focussing on Turkish Studies today, besides papers related to the subject appearing in broader Middle East Studies journals or other disciplines. Armenian Studies-related papers likewise appear in broader or inter-disciplinary fields, but there are only a handful of journals related specifically to Armenian Studies regularly published in English.

Anecdotally, mainly those of Armenian background find an immediate interest in pursuing research related to Armenian Studies, though not only. In fact, many people of Turkish background have made significant contributions to Armenian Studies. Likewise, there are a number of non-Turkish names pursuing Turkish Studies in the English-speaking world, Armenians among them. The discipline of Genocide Studies, not without reason, brings together a number of scholars of Armenian and Turkish background.

Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies both continue to interface with Middle East Studies. The annual Middle East Studies Association conference includes panels on both. Interestingly, one prominent Armenian Studies scholar was initially opposed to establishing the separate Society for Armenian Studies, although he ended up being among its founders. In fact, the world of Armenian Studies is rather bounded and insular, so it would be helpful for the sustainability of the discipline to have active academic links with broader pursuits. But perhaps that can be said of more or less any somewhat specialised discipline.

It is worth noting that the establishment and development of both Armenian Studies as well as Turkish Studies have been informed by political conditions from the start. Whereas one may argue that all disciplines are somehow or other affected by politics – whether in terms of the day’s prevailing fashions or for gleaning funding opportunities – it is at the same time telling to draw the contrast between, say, on the one hand, an archaeological discovery of some ancient civilisation leading to funding, research, teaching, and publication, perhaps drawing in tourists, perhaps not, perhaps addressing a partisan agenda, perhaps not, and, on the other hand, a scholarly pursuit that has had political colouring and motivation from the outset. As such, especially when one takes funding aspects into account, area studies scholarship may be taken to have political biases built into them.

In that light, it is worth asking why it remains politically controversial to label the massacres and deportations of non-Muslims during the First World War as a genocide whereas referring to the events of Rwanda or the Balkans in the 1990s as genocidal is not an issue. It is a stark reminder that the question of genocide vs. not genocide becomes a live political issue when the framing takes on a religious, specifically Islamophobic, turn. If Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies have their roots in Oriental Studies, they may not easily escape charges of neo-Orientalism.

Although it is unfair to paint every single piece of Armenian Studies or Turkish Studies research with a broad political brushstroke, it can be argued that political considerations have shaped both disciplines in ways or to degrees unlike many other fields of study in the social sciences. The next section outlines a few episodes that, among other things, reflect that politicisation.

Conflicts in Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies

An early incident of a clash in the Armenian-Turkish academic context was a violent one: the firebombing of the house, a raid on the office, and death threats to Stanford Shaw, a professor at UCLA, in the late 1970s (Arkun 2006). Although the perpetrators were never discovered, this was notably a period of active Armenian violence, when armed groups would carry out attacks on individuals or establishments affiliated with Turkey, such as government officials or embassies, in order to bring up the Armenian Genocide in the media. Standford Shaw was a prominent scholar of Turkish and Ottoman Studies. His name is often listed alongside such giants as Bernard Lewis and others, such as Heath Lowry, and Justin McCarthy, as scholars who questioned or downplayed the veracity of records of the deportations and massacres during the First World War – so-called “genocide deniers” (Jaschik 2007).

Donald Quataert was also one such name associated with that camp, in particular for signing on to a statement in the 1980s calling the Armenian Genocide into question. Two decades later, in 2006, he resigned as chairman of the board of the Institute of Turkish Studies (an organisation based at Georgetown University providing grants) after referring to the Armenian Genocide as such in a book review. The ambassador of Turkey had forced the decision on to him, Quataert claimed, threatening to cut off funding if he did not step down (Jaschik 2008; Redden 2015).

Guenter Lewy, likewise a distinguished scholar of Turkish Studies, went so far as to initiate legal proceedings against the Southern Poverty Law Center for a report it published in 2008 claiming that he was one among “a network of American scholars, influence peddlers and website operators, financed by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the government of Turkey” (Jaschik 2009, 2010b). The SPLC was forced to issue a retraction as a result.

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota was for its part sued around the same time for at one point having included on its website a list of unreliable sources for studying the Armenian Genocide (Jaschik 2010a; Lederman 2011). The case was considered remarkable because the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund lost – the appeal rejected – based solely on the principles of academic freedom, rather than by bringing forward First Amendment rights (Jaschik 2011, 2012).

The case of Yektan Türkyılmaz takes place partly outside the United States, but is also worth recalling. As a Duke University doctoral student in anthropology, Türkyılmaz had carried out field research on a number of occasions in Armenia. In 2005, however, he was detained at the airport as he was leaving. The books and other research materials he had collected were confiscated, citing laws on the removal of antique properties. In fact, Türkyılmaz had raised baseless suspicions of security officials in Armenia. It took a campaign of scholars in Armenia, Turkey, and the United States – both Armenians and Turks, that is – for his release to be secured (Lederman 2005a, 2005b, 2005c).

It is helpful to note, then, as the above case demonstrates, that scholars of Armenian Studies and Turkish Studies are known to support one another as well – and unsurprisingly, at the same time, such collaborations have not been without controversy in either Armenian or Turkish circles. One significant example is the Workshop on Armenian and Turkish Scholarship (WATS) which began in Chicago in 2000, bringing together a variety of viewpoints. Its political analogue was the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission, an attempt at Track II diplomacy, which did not go very far in establishing diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, but was in all events a significant undertaking at the time (Phillips 2005). WATS produced a series of papers in a publication in 2010 called A Question of Genocide – thereby inviting consternation from Armenian circles, given a title that could have multiple interpretations (Mamigonian 2011).

The word “genocide” itself is the axis around which many controversies turn in this context. There is a semantic struggle, often without any meaning or consequence when it comes to research or scholarship. The International Association of Genocide Scholars has long since established its position to characterise the historical events of the First World War as a genocide. It is in fact difficult today to find serious scholarship on the issue dismissing the massacres and deportations. Even within Turkey or among Turkish Studies scholars, to outright deny the Armenian Genocide has become passé. The Turkish political leadership often issues statements of condolences on or around April 24, which is Armenian Genocide commemoration day (though it pointedly went in the opposite direction in 2019 – a sign of re-framings to come?). However, disputes remain on characterising the historical events specifically as genocide. There are distinctions to be made among academic, legal, political, moral, and emotional definitions of genocide. The debate on the subject might be closed in some of those spheres, but not all.

Larger Questions of Academic Freedom

How is it decided what is studied and how, what is taught and how? These are the central questions that touch most closely upon the principle of academic freedom.

What is studied? A straightforward response to this even banal question would be that whatever elicits wonder, whatever piques one’s interest, whatever seems to be important is taken up for systematic analysis and experimentation.

How is it studied? This question invites more complex responses. The scientific method requires a degree of rigour and reason which may or may not always apply to the same extent to each subject of study, whether practically or ethically. One may set up laboratory work in order to mix and match chemicals and discover laws of reactions or physical processes – but it is not yet possible, say, to run experiments with stars or with quarks in the same way. One may not set up laboratories in quite the same manner in order to study human behaviour either, so rigorous and reasonable systematic pursuits of the social sciences often have to make do with more limited capacities and insights, drawing from whatever historical records are available or macrodata to come to conclusions that tend to be less confident than those of the pure sciences.

What is taught? This is likewise a somewhat more superficial and uninteresting question, as it were. It is worth noting, however, that unlike personal interests or perhaps an era’s demands informing what is studied, what is taught can be very much shaped by structural factors. If an educational system has a high degree of regulation, there may be subjects of study mandated by state authorities or perhaps by the governing board of a given educational institution.

Is there at the same time a degree of flexibility involved both for educators and for students? Perhaps regulators would much more confidently demand, say, that reading, writing, and arithmetic be given high consideration at the elementary school level. But even then the details might get murky. What does it mean to teach writing in 2019? Not too long ago, cursive writing was considered a necessary skill. In the age of computers and tablets, are pen and paper worth keeping in the classroom? Without exaggeration, there may be fundamental outcomes at stake.

Imagine, then, the questions that arise when state authorities in the United States mandate that the Armenian Genocide be taught in schools. Is the argument one of spreading necessary knowledge and information? What makes the Armenian Genocide necessary? Is it simply one example of world history that could, in theory, be replaced by some other episode in a textbook? Or is it pernicious propaganda in order to sully the name of the Turkish people?

An additional complication in the United States is the existence and strong legal tradition behind freedom of expression. First Amendment rights extend into the classroom. As mentioned, the University of Minnesota case was unique because the judge did not cite the First Amendment, relying instead on academic freedom alone as an informing principle. The two concepts are certainly inter-related, ultimately valuing the transformative or progressive potential of innovation or counter-arguments to prevailing thinking over entrenching any status quo.

Finally, how to teach? Once again there are complexities at work here. It is not just a question of whether it is better to read one book or article or another, or to watch some particular documentary or a video at all, or visit a site or invite a speaker. A question of broader context is a reasonable demand to be made of any course of study, especially an introductory course or a school-level subject. But who sets the boundaries of the context? Again, not to exaggerate, but when the study of evolution is countered with the slogan, “Teach the controversy”, is it the case that the classroom should discuss how and why there are those who do not believe in evolution or that evolution itself should be considered with the same seriousness as other accounts of life?

How can due sensitivity be assessed, much less guaranteed in every case? Can each instructor be expected to posses the requisite skills to deploy balanced approaches?

And, then, at which point is it decided that a certain issue is no longer a controversy? There are far clearer breaking points in the natural sciences, when phlogiston and the geocentric imagination of the universe were replaced with oxidation and the Copernican model of the solar system. Who gets to make these rulings and how in the social sciences and humanities? Does an individual professor’s academic freedom allow pre-emptive decisions, one way or another?

Isn’t it at all possible that some such rulings were either mistaken or politically motivated? The fact that they reflect social norms suggests that those rulings themselves are subject to change, unlike re-evaluations of natural phenomena. Isn’t it the case that individuals of African descent or indigenous populations elsewhere were very scientifically proven to be sub-human once upon a time? The facts of the Armenian Genocide may be quite fully documented, but the principles used to draw conclusions for them – the prism through which they are seen – may be skewed or, more neutrally, modified in times to come, as they have been over the past decades.

Needless to mention that all four of the above key questions and any number of the sub-questions will have additional considerations once the issue of funding is also brought into play.


Where does that leave us? It is easy to shrug one’s shoulders and bring up the salience of relativisation. Cursive writing is out of fashion in 2019, but so-called “fake news” is all the rage, after all. “To live one’s truth” allows for multiple truths.

In academia, however, there is a trust, a tradition of integrity that, at the very least, keeps one’s outlook grounded in some sense of fairness, self-awareness, and intellectual humility. That sense can indeed – probably should – change over time. But, at any given moment, an instructor and a school board ought to be able to point to their approaches towards what is studied and how and what is taught and how with confidence that due consideration has been given to more than one detailed and comprehensive response to those four questions.

More than asking, “Was what happened during the First World War a genocide?”, the question becomes, “Can the judgement of the International Association of Genocide Scholars on this point be trusted?” and “Is it worthy of serious consideration in the classroom and in research?”. Maybe there are good reasons that it cannot and is not. But those reasons have to be substantiated – just as rigorously and reasonably as any systematic study would demand. An opinion on a controversy has to be rendered a (more or less) confident finding, a position, or a (working) conclusion. The social sciences are compelled by their nature to allow for that “more or less” and “working” flexibility. But that does not mean that their findings are to be dismissed. The fact that meaningful and useful social science is difficult makes it all the more valuable.

The author gratefully acknowledges the feedback received from Prof. Joel Peters and colleagues Nada Alwadi, Sayed Ghannam, Joseph Kushner, Jasper Schneider, and Moon Sulfab in shaping the above essay.


Arkun, Aram. 2006. “Obituary: Stanford Jay Shaw (1930-2006).” Armenian Reporter, December 23, 2006.

Ergüneş, Aras. 2018. Armenian Studies Past to Present, Hrant Dink Foundation Publications, Istanbul, 2018

The Institute of Turkish Studies. n.d. “Turkish in the U.S.” Accessed April 20, 2019.

Jaschik, Scott. 2007. “Genocide Deniers.” Inside Higher Ed, October 16, 2007.

———. 2008. “Is Turkey Muzzling U.S. Scholars?” Inside Higher Ed, July 1, 2008.

———. 2009. “Going After a Scholar’s Critic.”, Inside Higher Ed, May 4, 2009.

———. 2010a. “Suit Over ‘Unreliable Websites’.” Inside Higher Ed, December 1, 2010.

———. 2010b. “Unlikely Foes.” Inside Higher Ed, December 20, 2010.

———. 2011. “Unusual Ruling for Academic Freedom.” Inside Higher Ed, March 31, 2011.

———. 2012. “An Academic Right to an Opinion”, Inside Higher Ed, May 4, 2012.

Lederman, Doug. 2005a. “Far Away Trial.” Inside Higher Ed, August 11, 2005.

———. 2005b. “Convicted, But Free, in Armenia.” Inside Higher Ed, August 17, 2005.

———. 2005c. “Freed Scholar Speaks Out.” Inside Higher Ed, September 30, 2005.

———. 2011. “Middle East Studies Group Urges End to Suit Against U. of Minnesota.” Inside Higher Ed, January 19, 2011.

Mamigonian, Marc. 2011. “‘A Question of Genocide’… and More Questions.” Armenian Weekly, May 3, 2011.

———. 2013. “From Idea to Reality: The Development of Armenian Studies in the U.S. from the 1890s to 1969”, originally published in the Journal of Armenian Studies 10 (2012-2013).

Middle East Studies Association. n.d. “About.” Accessed April 20, 2019.

The Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association. n.d. “About OTSA”. Accessed April 20, 2019.

Phillips, David L. 2005. Unsilencing the Past: Track-Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation. Berghahn Books.

Redden, Elizabeth. 2015. “Turkey’s Take Back.” Inside Higher Ed, December 22, 2015.

Reed, Howard A. 1997. “Perspectives on the Evolution of Turkish Studies in North America since 1946”, Middle East Journal, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 15-31.

Society for Armenian Studies. n.d. Accessed April 20, 2019.