Born on October 24, 1953, Taner Akçam grew up in a small town in northeastern Turkey, without electricity or running water. The son of schoolteachers, he left home as a young man to attend college in Ankara, the national capital.
In 1974, he and several other student activists got arrested for protesting Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus.
Though jailed only briefly, he hoped to avoid further incarceration. Akçam dutifully registered and obtained a permit to distribute leaflets condemning his country’s continuing occupation of Cyprus. The police arrested him, anyway, and jailed him for two days.
He knew the risks when he became the editor of a radical student journal and published articles criticizing Turkey’s repression of the Kurds. The state arrested Akçam and called him a terrorist. Amnesty International disagreed, declaring him a prisoner of conscience. Early in 1977, he received a nine-year sentence.
With nothing but time on their hands, Akçam and his cellmates worked to reduce their sentences. “We dug a tunnel,” he remembered, “with spoons we had collected from mealtimes,” and with the leg of an iron stove. “We created a system where a few of us would be digging and another couple was keeping watch. We would let each other know if a guard was approaching switching a light bulb on and off, which the diggers were keeping down in the tunnel.”
“We worked for around six or seven months” to dig “from one of the buildings to the other…. When we reached the other building, it had a window that looked onto the main street going off of the prison. We managed to get through the bars of the window, reach the big street and run off into freedom.”
Akçam fled to Syria and made his way to Germany, where he won political asylum in 1978 and earned his doctorate at the University of Hanover in 1995. His dissertation, “Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide,” led to several acclaimed books and essays on the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia during World War I and the Turkish War for Independence.
This research focus also attracted attacks from contemporary Turkish nationalists who reject the term “genocide” to describe the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Asia Minor.
All academics expect colleagues to challenge their findings, and truth advances when the scholars with better facts prevail.
Unfortunately, lacking superior evidence, some of Akçam’s detractors resorted to harassment. After the publication of A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (2007), belligerent goons began disrupting his book tour. He received anonymous death threats and got detained at a Montreal airport and at the U.S. border by authorities following up on allegations smearing Akçam as a dangerous terrorist.
Although an American resident since 2000, Akçam continues to challenge the laws of his native country. Turkey’s 1982 constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but in 2005, Article 301 of the penal code made “insulting Turkishness” a crime. Soon, Hrant Dink — an Armenian Turk journalist — faced criminal charges for insulting Turkishness because he used the term genocide to describe the Ottoman slaughter.
Akçam promptly published articles in Turkey to defend Dink. He wrote, “I believe the 1915–1917 deportations and massacres of Armenians constituted a genocide. I reiterate this at every opportunity. I have written books, articles and even columns on this issue. If describing this as genocide is a crime, I commit this crime nearly every week.”
Prosecutors responded by filing a criminal complaint against Akçam for insulting Turkishness. After an assassin murdered Dink, the state decided not to pursue charges against Akçam. The scholar traveled to Turkey to attend his friend’s funeral despite continuing death threats.
In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Article 301 charges violated Akçam’s freedom of expression.
His scholarship continues to offer his fellow Turks — and people everywhere — freedom from a common mental prison: the false notion that patriotism requires us to deny or minimize past crimes committed by our countries. No country can ever correct the errors of its past or present without the courage to acknowledge those errors, correct them, and make appropriate restitution. People like Akçam — who manifest that courage — show true patriotism, real integrity and authentic humanity.