Scholar Becomes Target of Turkish Groups

University of California, Davis (UC Davis) Professor Keith David Watenpaugh became the latest victim of a Turkish-American group’s allegations of slander this fall when an article about his paper that appeared in the American Historical Review—titled “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920–1927”—was published in the university’s magazine.

Keith Watenpaugh

The article highlights Wattenpaugh’s, a historian of modern Middle East who teaches in the religious studies program and director of the UC Davis Human Rights Initiative, research on rescue efforts by Western entities during the genocide, their perception of the events unfolding before them, and the transformation of international humanitarian relief efforts.

Denialist narrative: outright deny or minimalize

The article on Watenpaugh’s paper was followed by a letter to the editor by Gunay Evinch, an alumnus and past president of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations (ATTA), and currently an attorney in D.C., whose clients include the Turkish Embassy. In the letter, which appeared in the magazine’s Fall 2011 issue, Evinch argued that Western humanitarian aid was strictly directed at the Ottoman Empire’s Christian population, and a more appropriate title for the article would be “Humanitarianism for Christians Only.” He said that “the world turned its back on Ottoman Muslims and Jews who also died in frightful numbers and suffered the same privations as the Ottoman Armenians.” Evinch proceeded to parrot the official Turkish denialist narrative that charges the Armenians of revolting or taking up arms during the great massacres of the late 19th century and, later, the Armenian Genocide.

In a disturbing and offensive choice of words, Evinch said the Van rebellion “provided partial justification” for the Armenian Genocide—or, as he phrased it, “the May 1915 security relocation of Armenians from the eastern Anatolian war zones.” He concluded that the West had remained silent on the suffering of Muslims and Jews of the Empire; that the Western humanitarian efforts were in collaboration with the Ottoman government; and that humanitarianism “of a universal sort…was neither born nor sparked.”

Watenpaugh replies

In response, Watenpaugh acknowledged that many groups did suffer during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, but added, “Only Armenians were subjected to a state-sponsored attempt to exterminate them as a people in what became the Republic of Turkey—genocide.”

International humanitarian efforts were directed towards the Armenians “because they were faced with genocide and dispossession, were living in refugee camps…[and] were being prevented by the Republic of Turkey from going home. They were stateless, had no legal standing, and were wholly reliant on international humanitarian assistance for their survival.” On the other hand, Turkish and Muslim refugees from the Balkans and Russia received citizenship, refuge, and the properties of murdered Armenians, he wrote. Citing two examples, Watenpaugh disputed Evinch’s claims that Ottoman Muslims and Jews did not receive international aid, and went on to note that the Jews of the Ottoman Empire “did not face state persecution or deportation.”

In his conclusion—and what became his most controversial words—Watenpaugh held: “What is most important to understand is that the Assembly of Turkish American Associations has been at the forefront of a Turkish government-sponsored effort in the United States to deny that what happened to the Armenians was genocide. The attack on my work in Mr. Evinch’s letter is part of that project and should be understood in this light. At UC Davis, we teach our students that history is more than just a collection of facts, but rather is the starting point for an ethical relationship with the past.”

ATAA demands apology

Not long after, the president of the ATAA, Ergun Kirlikovali, in a letter to the managing editor of the UC Davis magazine, Kathleen Holder, and to the head of the university’s religious studies department, Catherine Chin, accused Watenpaugh of making “defamatory” and “extraordinarily harmful” statements, reported Inside Higher Ed. The letter highlighted Watenpaugh’s final sentence in his response to Evinch, calling it “Professor Watenpaugh’s reckless insinuation that the ATAA is a foreign agent, funded by and under the direction and control of Turkey…”

The ATAA proceeded to compare the statement to one made by the Southern Poverty Law Center against Prof. Guenter Lewy, who had argued against evidence on genocide. Lewy sued the center, which was then ordered by the court to print a retraction and an apology.

The ATAA then sent letters to UC Davis officials demanding that Watenpaugh apologize, reported Inside Higher Ed. So far, the university has said it will stand behind Watenpaugh. The latter maintains his words were not “defamatory,” as he did not say the ATAA was an agent of the Turkish state, but an organization who vehemently denies the Armenian Genocide in the U.S., paralleling the same policy and propaganda of denial by the Turkish state.

Inside Higher Ed reports that Watenpaugh is set to release a statement to clarify his previous one.

MESA voices support

On Nov. 16, the president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), Suad Joseph, addressed a letter to Kirlikovali on behalf of MESA and its Committee on Academic Freedom, in which she expressed concern over the ATAA’s letter to Holder and Chin, and a separate e-mail from Evinch to Holder. MESA fears the ATAA will seek legal action, as Kilikovali alleged that Watenpaugh defamed his organization, while Evinch accused him of libel.

“We are concerned that such allegations may damage Professor Watenpaugh’s standing as a respected historian of the modern Middle East and undermine his ability to do his work as a scholar and a teacher. More broadly, we are concerned that your letters’ specific references to legal action initiated in another case involving the question of what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War may have a chilling effect on academic inquiry and discourse about this important historical episode,” read the MESA letter.


Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).


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  1. Another attempt at intimidation by Turks via our legal system.   Be careful, but do not be intimidated.
    Turks have been losing a lot of cases, as in Massachusetts and Minnesota.

    • The irony is this story has arleady died, save the efforts of the Turks to deny it. Were they to remain silent it would simply go away.

  2. What are the origins of this cultural trait among Turks to be unable to handle the truth when it is unflattering?  I have my theories.

    Watenbaugh is a courageous, principled scholar.  Evinch and Kirlikovali are representatives of the segment of the Turkish community that rejects any criticism of “the great nation of Turkey.”  As if they stumbled through the looking glass with Alice, they are in an upside down world where victims are accused of abuse when they seek justice against their abusers.  Funny thing is, if Turkey simply admitted the truth and apologized for the genocide and its aftermath, there would be no need for people like Kirlikovali and Evinch.  They would have to find better ways to occupy their time than to defend Turkey from the truth of its own history.  I think they should get ready, because that day may be coming sooner than they think.

  3. I am Turkish, and I think what ATAA did was plain stupid. He is a scientist for god’s sake! Telling him to apologize is as stupid as it gets.
    This doesn’t mean I agree with him, but he is inclined to say whatever he thinks, however wrong it may be.

  4. The professor (Watenpaugh) is being blackmailed by Turkish agents aka ATAA.I can make a lot of derogatory words from this acronym ;however i will not stoop to their level.One should point  T .As .anonymous that French Parliament  passed a law making it a crime to deny the “Armenian Genocide”.
    Thank you Nanore for bringing this matter to the public attention!
    Turkey is trying to rewrite history and bury the truth.However “truth” is like a beam of light no matter how deep they dig a hole to bury “it” it will always stay on top!

  5. LATurk,

    You are a Turk but  criticise ATAA here in AW  ???

    What do you expect from this?

    You want armenians to say:  “oh , this Turk is soooo good” , and you will be happy?

    if you have something to say about ATAA , just tell to their face…you are soooooo   strange…………………!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. There are over 40,00o pages in OUR OWN US ARCHIVES on the systematic extermination of the Armenians by the Turkish Government.. ITS NOT DISPUTED unless you consider a small paid select group, of Turkish paid mercenary scholars.. Also the Turks need no apology as any law suit is usually lost. Too bad they reverse the Gunther Lewy article AS HE WOULD HAVE LOST AS WELL.

  7. The American response to the devastation in the Ottoman Empire was spearheaded by the Near East Relief Organisation. The organisation’s motto was “Based on need not on creed”. The organisation’s archives show that assistance was given to Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Turks, Persians, Kurds and others. However, the Armenians were the main beneficiaries of aid since they did not have a state which was capable of providing relief to the tens of thousands of Armenians scattered throughout the Caucasus and Middle East. There were also over 130,000 Armenian orphans which needed to be housed, fed and educated. In NER documentation, aid was given to the respective ethnic groups based on their need. Assertions made by some that the American humanitarian response was biased towards Christians is in itself “defamation” against the American people who provided unprecedented support to the NER organisation. Watenpaugh needs not to worry as any subsequent threat of litigation will only bring attention to the forgotten story of America’s humanitarian response to the Armenian Genocide. Then, the ATAA will be on trial for defaming the American people.

  8. Thank you Nanore for your wonderful article.
    TRUTH will eventually set the Turkish people free and
    it is happening, slowly but surely, for their own sake.

  9. When I heard about this story last week, I sent an email to Professor Watenpaugh thanking him for his commitment to the true history, resolute refusal to back down from legal pressure, and recognition of the ethical obligations a study of history demands from us. As Armenians we cannot take our supporters for granted, because nothing except the very finite currency of morality compels them to stick up for us, especially when competing with Turkish prestige and Azeri oil money. So if we’re appreciative of his courageous efforts, we should tell him that in addition to posting on AW.

  10. To LATurk,
    As a scientist myself, I can appreciate your comment.  Thank you for standing up for the method of scientific inquiry.  Indeed it is through sound reasoning that a clear understanding on often emotionally charged subjects such as the Armenian Genocide can be reached.  Really, that is certainly what most Armenians want, i.e. an acknowledgment of the facts and certainly not a bashing of the Turkish people or nation.  As you may know, there are a number of Turkish academics, e.g. Taner Akcam, who are now considered experts on the Armenian Genocide and who honor their Turkish heritage by seeking truthful understanding of events according to the scientific method.  In such a way they contribute to what I believe will be an eventual understanding between Turks and Armenians on the Armenian Genocide.

  11. ‘As Armenians we cannot take our supporters for granted’
    ‘if we’re appreciative of his courageous efforts, we should tell him that’
    Well said Alex: we all should email  to Prof. Watenpaugh in support.
    We should also  email to the head of the university’s religious studies department Prof. Catherine Chin. (I just did both).
    Hopefully, ANCA will also soon send out the clarion call to the community (if appropriate),  to offer their support to  Prof Watenpaugh. 

  12. LA Turk–  even though i know you don’t believe what happened to ARmenians was GEnocide perpetrated by your ancestors, I still want to thank you for your stand and for not detering yourself from the fact that everyone has the right to express their own opinion including Professor Watenpauh… this is a free country and NO ONE should feel threatened by lawsuits or threats like Turks are doing .. IN THE USA… a country that gives freedom to those who wants to express but also gives freedom to those retards who will sue anyone for any reason.. double edge sword… however, I salute the professor for standing up against the Turkish propaganda and Turkish censorship on the Armenian Genocide…

    Necati- and what is wrong critiziting TUrkey on AW??? what are you implying?? Are you saying that you know the truth but yet you REFUSE to acknowldge it because you are a notorious lying denialist??? because tha is exactly what you are saying in your comment to LA Turk… you are pathetic.. afraid of coming out of your closed up shell… learn from your handful countrymen and yes including LA TUrk who has more balls than you, who are braver and more inclined as to what is means to be justice, truthful and humane..can’t say the same about some of you on our pages… and outside…    

  13. David jan– i second that… you are absolutely correct.. ATAA should be on trial for defaming the American people.. great point.. Someone needs to stand up and sue them back.. make them feel and taste their own medicine.. they are very lawsuite happy in US.. give them an inch they will take yards and yards…  well what can i say? when one has a dirty secret to hide they will go as far as suing everyone who says a word that is not acceptabl to the denialists….. but unfortunate to them, they can’t keep the truth under the rug too long.. 

    Boyajian jan- well said..  

  14. I am a Turkish person from Istanbul and I am very sad and angry that many of my countrymen continue to deny what happened in and around 1915. Turkey should accept what happened in 1915. What happened in 1915 should AT LEAST be called ‘acts against humanity’ (personally I think it is genocide) and the Turkish government should apologise for the acts of ‘Ittihat and Terakki’ group who were the main people behind the genocide.

    I have to say this : When I write such stuff in message boards, Turkish nationalists say insults against me and some even say that I am probably not Turkish because according to them, a Turk cannot say 1915 is genocide.

    Some Armenian nationalists also don’t like my views because they prefer to see Turks denying genocide so that they can say things like ‘All Turks are bad, etc’.

    I don’t like natonalism ; never did ; never will. I am just a human being who has happened to be Turkish. And, I want all countries to face the bad pages of their history.

  15. Anti-Racist…. I want to thank you for your post and I am very proud of you to be brave enough to stand away from the denialists that we got to know on our pages…

    However, I am not in agreement with your statement:  Some Armenian nationalists also don’t like my views because they prefer to see Turks denying genocide so that they can say things like ‘All Turks are bad, etc’.

    I know that Armenians are not and will not say that ALL TURKS are bad.. that is just a another Turkish tactic to spread inaccurate information about Armenians.. I personally can say that everyone on these pages never spoke with ill about ALL Turks because we have good Turks as well such as Taner Ackam, Orhan Pamuk and many ordinary Turks… and if you are honest about your feelings and open and understanding, then you are one of the good Turks… So please do not reference such things in the future because you know Armenians don’t have any ill feelings, any hatred, any violence, any Anti-Turkish motives like many of your countrymen….

    Thank you again for putting aside your pride and looking at this matter as a human being…


  16. Firstly, to Gayane : Thanks for your thoughts. However, I want to clarify something. The remark (that you put it in bold letters) I made in my previous post was regarding some Armenian NATIONALISTS.

    For me, there is only a thin line between nationalism and racism/bigotry. And,yes, I have unfortunately come across bigtory from Armenian nationalists online a few times. Sadly, this is true ; I am not lying. As for messages from Turkish nationalists, I got messages of bigotry from them too in various message boards. It is not easy being anti-nationalist :)

    One Armenian nationalist called me ‘communist’ as an insult :) I am not even communist (if I was, I would say so openly). I am an anti-nationalist, social-democrat. As for Turkish nationalists, you can guess that their favorite insult for me is ‘traitor’ :)

    Anyway, I don’t want to take the original topic to other areas of discussions. Maybe we can discuss the issues of nationalism and racism in another thread. But let me just say this : I have had one bad face-to-face encounter with an Armenian person many years ago. When I said to him I am from Turkey, believe it not, the first thing he said to me was ‘You know, Turks are not nice people’. It didn’t make me angry ; but it made me feel really sad, I remember. I was so saddened and shocked that I couldn’t even say anything in response to him.

    As for Turkish groups in America, well, I know that most of them are nationalist and deny the genocide. They dislike people like me :) I want to ask something : aren’t there any decent, anti-nationalist Turkish groups in America, who want the truth to be accepted and who wants Turkey to face the past properly. There must be some surely ?

    I dream of one sports club in America, jointly owned by people of Turkish origin and people of Armenian origin, a club which aims to foster good relations between Turks and Armenians. There is a large number of Turks and Armenians in the US but sadly there is no such sports club, right ? I am saying this because, as you know, sports can sometimes acheive results, where politics cannot.

    Well, coming back to the subject of 1915, as I wrote, for me, it is genocide but do you think it would be acceptable to most Armenians if Turkey formally accepted 1915 as, not genocide, but as ‘act against humanity’ and apologised ? Do you see Turkey doing this in the near future ? Unfortunately, I don’t see Turkey doing even this in the near future.

  17.    Armenian sisters and brothers… we should feel proud that their are many credible scholars who have the integrity and courage to write the truth. This is the new battle front that those that deny the genocide are waging…. attack the credibility of scholarship and academia. This is and will continue to fail just as their general campaign has failed. Why? For one very simple reason… the fabricated versions they expound are porous with deceit and hatred. The truth is simple. It is reflection of what happened…period.
            The other disadvantage of denying is that your attempts will be confronted at every corner because the truth will always prevail. It is a sad existence to attempt to perpetuate a hate based or politically motivated distortion. To a serious academic, it is an insult to have their work challenged by amateur lobbying to perpetuate the big dark cloud over Turkey.
           Rest assured we are witnessing the implosion of the denial strategy… from with in Turkish society… from the motivated Armenian nation and from the non-Armenian academic and political communities. Slowly those who refuse to accept the truth become more isolated and their worn out tactics disgust even casual observers.
           Even the Armenian community is bored at times with the denialist. The recognition battle is over. Advantage…. the truth. Restitution and reparations are our future.

  18. Let the ATAA sue, the noise the Turks make is the best advertisement for the issue of the Armenian Genocide.  At what point does the action of the ATAA become censorship, not too unlike Turkey’s Penal Code 301 and in a foreign country, the United States!

  19. Lilit asks: I was wondering what is the professors email I’d like to email him a thank you letter.

    …go to the school’s website, all the faculty with contact info is usually listed…

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