LOS ANGELES | Daily Trojan – An event at the University of Southern California Center for Public Diplomacy featuring two former ambassadors from Turkey was canceled late March, days before its scheduled date, amid complaints and controversy about its intended subject. Former Turkish ambassadors Gunduz Aktan and Omer Lutem were scheduled to speak at USC to coincide with their visit to Los Angeles, Calif., for an event at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
The event was canceled, however, after administrators at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy realized that the original topic of the event had been changed, said Joshua Fouts, director of the center.
“When we first scheduled the event, it was described as an event about Turkish civil society and Armenian relations,” Fouts said. “The final description that was e-mailed described the event as a discussion about the genocide.”
But despite the official reason given by USC, members of both the Turkish and Armenian communities in Los Angeles expressed differing opinions regarding USC’s decision.
Days before the event was scheduled to occur, members of the Armenian community, including the Western region office of the Armenian National Committee of America, sent a letter to Fouts encouraging the university to cancel the event.
In the letter, Steven Dadaian, chairman of the ANCA Western region office, wrote that the event would provide a forum for the Turkish ambassadors to make false statements and deny historical facts about the Armenian genocide.
“(Genocide) denial is a deliberate misrepresentation of fact and a scientific fraud which must not be tolerated by the university,” Dadaian wrote. “This panel will undoubtedly be considered an extremely offensive event which disrespects the rights and dignity of not only your students but to all the hundreds of thousands who are the victims and surviving children of the Armenian Genocide.”
The letter went on to warn Fouts that “if USC chooses to proceed with this program, our organization will be forced to take further action to protest the University’s complicity in providing a forum for genocide deniers.”
The letter to the university was written because “we didn’t want these (genocide) deniers to have this platform in front of students,” said Armen Carapetian, director of the ANCA-Western Region.
“(Aktan and Lutem) were going to talk about the Turkish perspective, but the world community has already acknowledged that the Armenian genocide occurred. All they have to do is throw a shadow of doubt into it and confuse people,” Carapetian said.
One former student, who is Turkish, responded to the cancellation with an e-mail of his own.
In the e-mail sent to USC administrators March 30, Evren Ugurbas, former president of the USC Turkish Students Association, accused the university of violating free speech and buckling to political pressure for canceling the event during which the ambassadors were to discuss Turkish-Armenian relations.
In the e-mail, Ugurbas wrote that the cancellation of the event, which had been planned and scheduled by the USC Center for Public Diplomacy, “was a grave and embarrassing mistake (the university) made by cowardly resorting to censorship under partisan pressure by local activists.”
The Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles scheduled the event with the USC Center for Public Diplomacy, which “enthusiastically welcomed our efforts,” said Engin Ansay, Consul General of Turkey in Los Angeles.
The purpose of the event, Ansay said, was to promote positive relationships between the Turkish and Armenian communities by discussing the long-debated Armenian genocide and “how best to remedy the situation and shed light on this dark period in history.”
Turkish Consul General Ansay said, “It was not an exercise in Turkish propaganda. We’re just trying to find a dialogue. There can be a fruitful cooperation between the Turkish and Armenian communities,” he said.
Ansay said that the consulate was surprised to hear from USC informing it of the cancellation.
“We were astonished, flabbergasted, because where is the freedom of speech? It was a big blow to everyone who heard about it. USC is a respectable institution but we regret that it happened,” he said.
But Carapetian said that USC had been misinformed about the event.
“I think that they had heard from one side, and it was our responsibility to let our community know and weigh in on the subject. It was freedom of expression on our side,” he said.
In a press release posted on ANCA’s Web site, the organization applauded the university for the cancellation, stating that “(t)he quick action to draw attention to this issue by many groups and individuals resulted in the ultimate cancellation once USC officials were made aware of the real intent of the event.”
But Fouts said the Armenian community’s efforts had no bearing on the center’s ultimate decision to cancel.
Instead, the reason behind the cancellation dealt with the relevance of the intended discussion to the Center for Public Diplomacy’s mission, he said.
“We have a great relationship with the Turkish Consulate, but we can’t afford to host an event not central to public diplomacy,” he said. “At the same time that we realized this, the Armenian community was contacting us about it. As much as the Armenian community would like to take credit for (the cancellation), it was just a coincidence.”
Regardless of the reasons behind the cancellation, Armenian students were satisfied with USC’s decision.
“They tried to change the topic before anyone realized it,” said Nerses Ohanyan, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering and a member of the Armenian Student Association. “But I’m very glad that this event didn’t happen regardless of the reasons.”
Ugurbas, the Turkish former student who wrote the e-mail to administrators, expressed concern that opposing viewpoints could not be considered.
“(The Armenians) are talking, and we are listening. But we also want to reflect our opinion. In a community like this we should understand each other,” he said.