WASHINGTON (Inside Higher Education) — A controversial institute supporting research in Turkish studies has lost its funding from Turkey’s government, raising questions about whether an institute that has long been perceived by some in the field of Ottoman and Turkish studies as pushing the Turkish state’s agenda had grown too independent for the government’s liking.
The Institute of Turkish Studies, a nonprofit based at Georgetown University, has been accused of toeing the Turkish state position on the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government objects to the use of the term “genocide” to refer to the massacre of Armenians in 1915, arguing that Armenian deaths were not the result of a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing — a broadly shared view among historians of the subject — but instead were a consequence of “intercommunal conflict” and the privations of World War I.
In 2006, Donald Quataert, a historian (now deceased) at the State University of New York at Binghamton, resigned from his position as chair of ITS’s board, saying the Turkish ambassador had pressured him to either quit or see the institute’s funding withdrawn after he used the word “genocide” in a book review. Quataert’s resignation, combined with the institute’s Turkish government funding source and its current or former associations with some prominent scholars who have challenged the use of the term “genocide” — specifically the institute’s founding director and governor emeritus, Heath Lowry, and former board member Justin McCarthy — have contributed to suspicion that the institute functioned as a kind of academic front for the Turkish state. A 1995 article published in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies journal exposed correspondence in which ITS’s founding director, Lowry, drafted a letter on behalf of the Turkish ambassador criticizing a book that discussed what Lowry described as “the so-called ‘Armenian genocide.’” (Lowry could not be reached for comment.)
Jenny White, an anthropologist at Boston University and a longtime member of ITS’s governing board, said the perception that the institute is in the Turkish government’s pocket is just not true. In the case of Quataert, she said the board would have had his back — “I told him, ‘Donald, we’re never going to submit to this, the board has your back, let us handle it’” — but that he resigned before they had the chance. Moreover, she said that scholars on the institute’s board “have a variety of different views on hot-button issues in their field. That’s exactly as it should be. We’re not in the business of selecting people who are ideologically one way or another.”
White described ITS as an “independent and impartial supporter of Turkish studies,” powered by a group of scholars who volunteer their time to evaluate research proposals.