"The Strange Case of Yektan Turkyilmaz: An International Incident": Update

January 31, 2008
The Strange Case of Yektan Turkyilmaz: An International Incident

Duke Magazine

In the summer of 2005, after wrapping up two months of archival research in Yerevan, Armenia, Yektan Turkyilmaz, a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Duke, prepared to head back to his home country of Turkey. But at the airport, he was arrested by officers of Armenia's National Security Service. He was accused of being a Turkish spy, and later charged with attempting to smuggle books out of the country, violating a law he says he did not know existed.

Turkyilmaz had fallen victim to a long-simmering international feud between the two countries. Armenians have sought to classify the killing and deportation of more than a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923 as genocide. Turkey claims that these were simply casualties of war. Turkyilmaz, the first Turkish national to be granted access to the Armenian archives, was keenly aware of this dispute. In fact, his dissertation is on that very period of history in Eastern Anatolia, the region where the alleged genocide was to have taken place. Eventually, he was given a suspended sentence and released.

This past October the U.S. House of Representatives took up a bill that would officially declare the killings in Eastern Anatolia an instance of genocide. President George W. Bush criticized the bill, saying that it would harm the United States' relationship with Turkey, a key ally in the global war on terror.

Turkyilmaz agrees. "While I believe it is historically credible to call the 1915 massacres a genocide, the current international political climate means this bill would do little to advance justice, prevent further genocide, or promote the stated American aim of supporting democracy in the Middle East," he says. The bill, he says, has only reinvigorated "ultra-nationalists in Turkey who see the bill as evidence of America and Armenia conspiring to paint Turks as victimizers."

Instead, he suggests, Congress should focus on another bill that would condemn the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and call for a continued investigation into his murder.