Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Washington-based organization is spearheading a drive to correct what it sees as common misconceptions about Turkey, hoping to change how Americans see the massacre of Armenians in World War I and educate them about Turkey’s role in rebuilding Iraq.

The Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) already has organized meetings in 11 cities and will continue to tour the United States with meetings and lectures in an additional 19 cities.

The program, inspired by ATAA President Nurten Ural, aims to teach Turkish Americans how to be more active citizens and how to defend and promote themselves in American society.

According to a Turkish Embassy registry, there are about 150,000 Turks living in the United States. ATAA puts the number at 250,000, counting ethnic-Turkish immigrants from countries other than Turkey.

The assembly, representing more than 60 leading Turkish-American organizations across the country, sees its main goals as explaining Turkey’s account of the Armenian massacres and overcoming common prejudices against Turks.

The effort by the Turkish-American assembly will have to counter a strong Armenian lobby in the United States. Several U.S. cities — especially in California, Michigan and Massachusetts — have large Armenian populations with considerable political influence. One estimate put the number of Armenian Americans at 1.5 million.

The Armenian lobby won a significant victory in October when, despite an appeal from President Bush, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution describing the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

As many as 1 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, according to the Armenians, who describe the deaths as genocide. Turks acknowledge that large numbers of people died, but they object to the use of the word genocide.

“We are seeking dialogue with Armenian Americans. Rather than monologue on the Armenian perspective, we want broad and deep debate regarding all the facts and the law,” said Gunay Evinch, the president-elect of the ATAA.

“I would like to be clear that in no way does the Turkish-American community or Turkey deny the massacres of Armenians,” Mr. Evinch said.

“We also call for sincere attention to the 1.1 million Muslims and Jews who perished during the Armenian Revolt, 1885-1919, in the same area of eastern Ottoman Anatolia and under the same conditions under which Armenians died. The truth we seek is the complete truth.”

The organization also wants Americans and their government to better understand what Turkey is doing to help the United States in Iraq.

The ATAA points out that Turkey has made large donations to Iraq for humanitarian purposes and construction work, while helping with military training and in establishing a dialogue among Iraq groups and factions.

Mr. Evinch said he worries that the image of Turkish Americans will be hurt by television shows that depict people of Turkish heritage as Islamic terrorists.

“There wasn’t one [event] in American history, let alone European history, when we had Turkish people engaged in Islamic terrorism,” he said.

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