On the Campus: January 24, 1996


Chairman of NES department is at center of academic debate about Armenians

Over the past few months, Princeton has been the center of an emotionally charged debate among academics regarding Heath Lowry, the Ataturk Professor of Ottoman and Near Eastern Studies and chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Studies. A petition circulated by Peter Balakian, a poet and professor of English at Colgate University, asserts a link between a grant to Princeton from the Turkish government to finance a chair for Turkish studies and the hiring of Lowry for the position in 1993. (Among the petition's 57 signatories are intellectuals Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates and genocide historians Raul Hillberg and Deborah Lipstadt.) A letter accompanying the petition suggests the Turkish government wanted Lowry for the chair because he supports its view of a historical controversy between Turkey and Armenians who accuse the Turks of killing their countrymen. The letter also attacks the university's hiring practices, which the petition asserts were co-opted by the $700,000 grant, and questions Lowry's academic credentials.
The alleged connection between Lowry and the Turkish government hinges on their interpretation of the killing of up to one million Armenians in World War I. Many historians believe that the Ottoman state planned and systematically carried out the killing of Armenians, so that the deaths should be termed genocide. But the Turkish government and a small number of historians that includes Lowry hold that the deaths were part of a bloody civil war, not a genocidal campaign.
Lowry's critics note that he helped to draft a letter from the Turkish ambassador to the United States to Robert Jay Lifton, a holocaust scholar at the City University of New York, that criticized Lifton's comparison of the Ottomans' killing of Armenians with the Nazis' slaughter of Jews and other ethnic minorities. Questions have persisted about possible influence of the Turkish government in the hiring of Lowry. Lowry has been the subject of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Globe, the Times of Trenton, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Daily Princetonian. In an interview with the Times of Trenton, university spokesperson Jacquelyn Savani said that the $700,000 given by Turkey for the chair "is not the amount of money, given the $4 billion endowment of Princeton University, that should even raise suspicion. The fact of the matter is that not for $100 million could the Turkish government put its man in that chair. Not with this faculty." (Princeton's hiring procedure for faculty is rigorous: tenured faculty members of the department recommend candidates to the Committee on Appointments and Advancements, formed from the faculty at large, which makes the final decision.) Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago received similar grants, but only Princeton has established a fully endowed chair in Turkish studies.
Scrutiny of Lowry's credentials has accompanied the criticism of his association with Turkey. Lowry lectured on history full time at Bosporous University in Istanbul from 1973 to 1980, an experience he says was more valuable to him as a scholar of Turkish history than time teaching in the United States. Lowry then spent 12 years as head of the Institute of Turkish Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based educational organization funded by the Turkish government. Lowry's colleagues in Near Eastern studies, who recommended him for the chair in 1993, are impressed with his scholarship, and students have spoken highly of his teaching ability. Letters to The Daily Princetonian in his support were signed by the 11 members of the faculty in his department and by its four undergraduate majors. After a year at Princeton he was asked to head the department.
As for claims that he is a tool for the Turkish government, Lowry points out that his first book was banned in Turkey and that he helped initiate a petition to the Turkish prime minister to open archives that pertain to the Armenians' massacre. Although the archives have been open since 1989, Lowry says he has not yet been able to study them in depth due to the magnitude of the task. The thousands of documents are mostly handwritten in Turkish and therefore are hard to decipher. Lowry says he is reluctant to term the deaths genocide without more study of the archives: "Neither I nor any other scholar specializing in Ottoman history would deny or condone the widespread death, destruction, and decimation affecting a large portion of the Ottoman Armenian citizenry which occurred in the course of the First World War . . . However, I and many other scholars in the field cannot accept the characterization of this human tragedy as a pre-planned, state-perpetrated genocide . . . unless and until the historical records of the Ottoman state . . . are studied and evaluated by competent scholars."
However, Lowry recently revealed that in the one volume he has studied, he found one document "which strongly suggests that there was government involvement in the killing of Armenians." Lowry said that if more such material becomes available from the archives, it would be "exactly the kind of thing" to make him change his mind.
Colgate's Balakian asserted that the Turkish archives are an unreliable historical source. "[Turkey] is a totalitarian society that has no mechanisms for critical evaluation, that can't face its past with any honesty at all . . . Eighty years later, you can be sure that there's not a thing of authenticity or value left, that they have sanitized their archives." Though no Ottoman historians have yet signed Balakian's petition, he says that's because the historians fear reprisal from Turkey, and because "a group of so-called Ottoman historians are simply lifelong recipients of Turkish government funds. Some of them, like Mr. Lowry, are just not reliable historians."
Lowry's colleagues at Princeton defend his academic views. Norman Itzkowitz, a professor of Near Eastern studies, says Lowry's opinion is "not renegade at all. Professor Lowry's point of view is considered the one that many people in Turkish and Ottoman history would claim." But Rouben Adalian, the director of research and analysis for the Armenian Assembly of America, told the Times of Trenton, "Princeton has quite a track record in employing scholars who deny the Armenian genocide. I am not aware of any other American university where so pronounced a revisionist school on the subject of Armenian genocide exists."
On May 3, history professors Anthony T. Grafton and Natalie Z. Davis will conduct a conference titled "The Historian, Nationalism, and the End of Empire," which may provide a constructive forum for debating the Armenian question. Participants will consider three case studies: the Ottoman empire and Armenia, the Hapsburgs and the Balkan conflict, and England and India. "The real issue is the responsibility of the scholar," says Grafton. "In situations in which there are different collective memories, different documents, what is the historian's responsibility? By bringing together experts in the field, we hope to generate light instead of heat."
Senior English major Liz Vederman is a contributing editor of the Nassau Weekly.