Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s speech at Columbia University made me think about freedom of speech on America’s college campuses.

Mr. Ahmadinejad — who represents a country the State Department calls a state sponsor of terror, who represents a country that helps Iraqi militias to kill American troops and who denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel’s destruction — was allowed to speak at one of America’s most prestigious campuses. But Archbishop Mesrob II Mutafyan, the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, was denied the same privilege last week at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.

When the archbishop first visited the United States in April, he spoke at Southern Methodist University, and said something Armenian-Americans never question. Last Thursday, Harut Sassounian, the publisher of the California Courier, a weekly English-language Armenian newspaper based in Los Angeles, explained that Mr. Mutafyan had challenged the notion that Armenians were innocent victims of the Ottomans during its last days. “Did some Armenian political parties promote armed rebellion in the Armenian community?” the archbishop asked in his April speech. “They did. In some areas, did armed Armenian gangs work together with the Russian army? They did. But the government of the Committee for Union and Progress, being in charge of the country, is chiefly responsible for the painful events that occurred and the great suffering that was endured.” He charged both Armenians and Turks with making peace with their past and acknowledged that Armenians must also clarify their history.

Mr. Mutafyan is voicing an unheard split within the Armenian community as support grows in the House for congressional legislation recognizing the Armenian genocide. If he could have spoken at Georgetown, he would have been able to say that “[w]e have to change the mentality shown by some Armenian historians who still see the Turks as uncultured barbarian emigrants from Central Asia.” But the Armenian American lobby is determined to keep that perception of Turkey in the United States.

The Armenian National Committee of America quoted Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat, the lead sponsor of the House Armenian Genocide Resolution, as saying, “In order to perpetuate its campaign of denial, Turkey seeks to intimidate all Armenians worldwide, but especially the Armenians in Turkey who must live with daily threats.” Mr. Schiff said that “[t]he editor of the… Armenian language newspaper in Turkey, Hrant Dink, was assassinated for writing about the genocide this year, and a popular video now being circulated in Turkey celebrates his killers and threatens Armenians.” Mr. Schiff did not acknowledge that the assassination of Mr. Dink, a beloved Armenian-Turkish journalist, was a crime — and has been treated as such. And while that disturbing video exists, there is another, even more popular video, which calls for unity and shows the protests by thousands of Turks against Mr. Dink’s murder.

Mr. Schiff can cherry-pick examples to criticize Turks and Turkey, but he neither shows the whole picture nor acknowledges the society’s true nature and values. Mr. Mutafyan, however, admits that there is much unity in the gray areas. Nearly 40,000 Armenians work in Turkey illegally; surely they would not if they felt they were in constant peril. “trategists sin by…turning the youth of the two countries against each other,” he has said.

The Armenian National Committee of America, in a letter circulated last week to members of Congress, said that “Patriarch Mutafyan… lives in constant fear of acts of discrimination and retribution by a Turkish government that actively persecutes those who speak freely” in recognizing genocide claims. So it blocked his speech. Mr. Mutafyan’s “political statements are made under Turkish pressure and do not reflect his true views on the Armenian genocide,” says Sassounian. However, when I interviewed the archbishop, he said, “It is all lie. I am here with my own free will.” But he was sad. “I learned that the speech is cancelled due to threats to my security… America should have been the country of freedom, but things do happen here, too,” he said.

There is an admirable elegance in the way the Armenian-Americans promote freedom of speech in Turkey, but one has to wonder whether they really believe in total freedom of speech. Is it so outrageous to think that the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul would sincerely call upon all parties — Turks, Armenians and others — to consider looking for “new primary sources?” What if he really believes that both sides will heal by strengthening today’s relationships and assuring tomorrow’s friendships? What if he believes that the House resolution will only please the Armenian diaspora?

Finally, Turkey is no Iran. It is a NATO ally and has started full membership accession talks with the European Union. If the archbishop could have spoken, he would have suggested constructive solutions to bring people together. What’s more, American colleges and universities derive their strength from their students’ ability to think critically and ask questions. If Mr. Mutafyan were not to speak his own mind, they would have easily discredited him.

Last but not the least, if Mr. Ahmadinejad can speak at Columbia, certainly Mesrub II Mutafyan, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, deserves a chance to be heard.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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