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December 23, 2006 Stanford Jay Shaw, 1930-2006 : An academic who denied the Armenian Genocide
by Aram Arkun (special to the "Armenian Reporter")
NEW YORK—At first sight, Stanford Jay Shaw appeared to be an ordinary, innocuous, friendly, and garrulous grandfather. At UCLA, he typically wore sneakers, and dressed informally.
He was, however, no ordinary man.
A prominent Ottoman historian, Shaw was perhaps the most prominent of a scholarly school of American deniers of the Armenian Genocide. In his best known work, a two-volume survey titled "History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey" (Cambridge University Press, 1976-77), Shaw and his co-author (and wife) Ezel Kural Shaw attempted to present the Ottomans and Turks in the most positive light possible, at times from an anachronistic Turkish nationalist perspective. In the process, alongside many other consequential errors, they minimized the size and significance of the Hamidian and Cilician massacres, while placing much of the responsibility for these events on Armenians.
They went on to argue that the Armenians revolted and consequently suffered losses during World War I, contrary to the wishes of their Young Turk rulers who worked to safeguard them during deportations from war zones. Two hundred thousand Armenians were killed due to famine, disease, and inadvertent violence during the turmoil of the war, which, they emphasized, killed some 10 times as many Muslims.
This denial of the Armenian Genocide, similar to what many Turkish government officials were contemporaneously stating, aroused Armenian ire. In addition to a deplorable firebombing of Stanford Shaw’s house by unknown assailants, damage to Shaw’s office, and threats made to Shaw and the publishers of the book, many legitimate Armenian demonstrations and protests took place at UCLA. As a consequence, Dr. Shaw was able to present himself as a persecuted victim of Armenian infringements on freedom of speech, and the academics who were going to participate in a major public critique of his book changed their minds for fear of the charged political atmosphere. Nonetheless, both volumes were criticized by scholars in print for many flaws of chronology, factuality, and bias on topics that went far beyond Armenian matters, and even for issues of plagiarism.
Dr. Shaw produced a number of students who themselves became university professors and published authors on topics of Ottoman history. Some of them, such as Heath Lowry or Justin McCarthy, also became prominent deniers of the Armenian Genocide. Many graduate students in modern Armenian history at UCLA, incidentally, took Ottoman history and language courses with Shaw.
Born in Minnesota on May 5, 1930 to Jewish immigrants from England and Russia, Shaw is said to have changed his name to its present version early in his career, primarily due to anti-Semitism, and, apparently, in honor of Stanford University, where he did his undergraduate work and received a master’s degree in British history. He completed the work for another master’s degree, this time in Turkish and Islamic history, from Princeton University in 1955, and went on to study with Bernard Lewis at the University of London, and Hamilton Gibb at Oxford. He also studied in Egypt and Istanbul, preparing for his Princeton doctoral dissertation titled "The Financial and Administrative Organization and Development of Ottoman Egypt, 1517-1798" (published in 1962 by Princeton University Press). Along the way, he learned to read Ottoman Turkish and Arabic.
Shaw went to Harvard University, where he became an assistant and then associate professor of Turkish language and history in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and the Department of History from 1958 to 1968. Here, in addition to his dissertation mentioned above, he published four more works on Ottoman Egypt, thus securing his position as a specialist on this topic : "Between Old and New : The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim III" (1971), and the edited translations "Ottoman Egypt in the Eighteenth Century" (1962) and "Ottoman Egypt in the Age of the French Revolution" (1964), all with Harvard University Press ; and "The Budget of Ottoman Egypt 1005-1006/1596-1597" (1968) with Mouton (The Hague). He also co-edited a work of Sir Hamilton Gibb’s, "Studies on the Civilization of Islam" (1962).
Shaw became friends at Harvard with two other young professors, Avedis Sanjian, a specialist in Armenian literature, and Speros Vryonis, Jr., a specialist in Byzantine, Seljuk, and early Ottoman histories. Often, Shaw would come to dinner at Sanjian’s house and play with his young son Gregory. When Shaw fell sick, a Turkish graduate student nursed him back to health, and he soon married that student, who became Ezel Kural Shaw. Gradually, his positions on Armenians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire began to change in a negative fashion.
Shaw moved to Los Angeles, where he became professor of Turkish history at the University of California from 1968 to 1992. Sanjian and Vryonis moved to the same university, where Richard Hovannisian became professor of Armenian history. It was at UCLA that his conflict with the Armenian community at large, as well as with many of his faculty friends at UCLA, became intense after the publication of his above-mentioned second volume on Ottoman history. In the 1980s, Shaw also lobbied the state of California’s Department of Education, and state legislators, against accepting the Armenian Genocide as a planned attempt at annihilation, and was a signatory of various petitions and paid political advertisements denying the Genocide.
Meanwhile, UCLA Armenians continued to protest against Shaw’s position on the Armenian Genocide. Shaw’s presence at UCLA raised questions about the limits of academic freedom. Towards the end of his stay at UCLA, in 1988, Shaw claimed that the Armenians were persecuting him because of their anti-Semitism, not because of his published writings on Ottoman-Armenian relations—but this was refuted by statements from the UCLA Jewish Student Union, the rabbi who was then director of Hillel, and emeritus sociology professor Leo Kuper, a specialist in the field of genocide studies. In two books Shaw published several years later tendentiously praising Ottoman tolerance towards Jews, he portrayed the Armenians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey as anti-Semites ("The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic," 1991 ; "Turkey and the Holocaust," 1992).
After retiring in 1992 from UCLA with various benefits, Shaw took advantage of the "golden parachute" arrangement offered to many senior faculty there to continue teaching courses for another five years. He then moved with his wife to Turkey, and became professor of Ottoman and Turkish history in Ankara’s Bilkent University from 1999 until his death. There, he published "Studies in Ottoman and Turkish History : Life with the Ottomans" (Istanbul : Isis Press, 2000) ; a five-volume work titled "From Empire to Republic : The Turkish War of National Liberation 1918-1923. A Documentary Study" (Ankara : Turkish Historical Society, 2000) ; and "Bir Dusuncenin Gerçeklesmesi : Osmanli Tarihi Çalismalarima" (Ankara : Türkiye Bilimler Akademisi Forumu, 2003), on his work on Ottoman history.
In his multivolume work on the Turkish war for independence, Shaw highlighted the "misdeeds" of Armenians and others, while failing to note or extremely minimizing massacres of Armenians committed by Ottomans or Muslims in this period.
Shaw continued periodically to issue statements on the Armenian Genocide while living in Turkey. For example, according to a Turkish news agency, last year he called Switzerland "uncivilized" for beginning a legal procedure against Turkish History Society president Yusuf Halaçoglu for statements denying the Armenian Genocide.
Shaw’s biases fit in well with those of his colleagues in Middle Eastern studies. Turkey’s generally anti-Soviet stand in the Cold War, and American economic interests led to American promotion of positive views of Turkey, while the Turkish historical establishment, dominated by official state views, naturally also appreciated such historiographical revisionism, thus allowing Shaw wide access to Ottoman archives.
Stanford Shaw consequently was able to play an influential role in the broader field of Middle Eastern studies. He helped found the "International Journal of Middle East Studies" for the Middle Eastern Studies Association, which is the major organization of scholars specializing on this area in the United States. He edited this journal, published by Cambridge University Press, from 1970 to 1980.
Shaw received medals from the president of Turkey, the Turkish-American Association, and the Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture at the Yildiz Palace, Istanbul, as well as honorary degrees from Harvard University and Bogazici University in Istanbul. He was made an honorary member of the Turkish Academy of Science at the end of 2005. Major foundations provided him with research awards and fellowships, including the United States National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Fulbright-Hayes Committee, and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Shaw obviously possessed great energy and considerable ability. It is a shame that in the latter half of his career he often pursued tendentious goals at the expense of a reasoned historiographical methodology. This, along with sloppy writing, damaged the value of his own work, harmed the field of Ottoman studies, and caused Armenians—and the descendants of the other former Ottoman subject nationalities who received short shrift in his works—great upset.
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Historian Aram Arkun was a graduate student at UCLA during the 1980s.
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