BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Armenia’s have always blamed themselves for their lack of unity. Of course, Jews and other communities, who have their own internal quarrels, frequently express the wish that they were as united as Armenia’s! The recent dispute among Jewish-Americans regarding the ADL’s position on the Armenian Genocide reflects the natural diversity of opinion in a pluralistic society.
It is therefore not surprising to discover that Turkish-Americans are just as divided as other ethnic groups. In the midst of all sorts of political difficulties facing Turks in Washington and Turkey these days, various officials of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) have found "the perfect time" to accuse, attack and sue each other. The ATAA, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is a coalition of 62 Turkish organizations in the United States, Canada and Turkey.
The problem first surfaced back in 2003 when there was a serious dispute among ATAA leaders over the outcome of the elections for new board members. After a lengthy and acrimonious flurry of e-mails, the problem was temporarily settled in late 2004. Vural Cengiz was elected President of the Board of Directors, while Tamer Acikalin was elected Chairman of Board of Trustees.
Internal disputes flared up again in 2006 and continue to this day. In a letter sent last month to ATAA members, Tamer Acikalin, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, accused certain members of ATAA’s Board of Directors of running the organization "like their personal fiefdom" and ignoring all financial accountability. "Since the current administration’s takeover, ATAA has no budget," said Acikalin. "We do not know where the ATAA’s funds are being spent. The Administration refuses to become transparent. They provide no minutes. They keep no records;. They presided over two elections and later turned around and announced these elections to be invalid." Acikalin and several of his supporters ended up filing a lawsuit against their own organization’s Board of Directors.
Acikalin’s sidekick, Vural Cengiz, the former president of ATAA’s Board of Directors, made this internal dispute even more public on September 3, 2007 when he penned an article in the Turkish Daily News titled, "Why Turkish-Americans are losing the battle?"
Predicting that the pending resolution on the Armenian Genocide will be approved by the U.S. Congress, Cengiz blamed Turkish-Americans for "not fighting as well as they used to." He stated that the ATAA is "weak, with board members facing lawsuits now." He revealed that the ATAA’s president, Nurten Ural, who is the Honorary Consul General of Turkey in Detroit, is "a representative of the Turkish government," and the president-to-be, Gunay Guvench, is "the lawyer of the Turkish Embassy."
Two days after Acikalin’s letter, on August 19, 2007, Ural, the President of the Board of Directors of the ATAA, issued a counter-statement in which she described the lawsuit as "frivolous and malicious," claiming that it is based on "unfounded lies, accusations, attacks, and criticism to intimidate us to follow their unethical ways." She said that due to this internal dispute, the ATAA "was left with no funds" and "only one staff member."
In a statement released to ATAA members on August 8, Tunca Iskir, the Chairman of the ATAA "Advisory Committee," defended President Ural and severely criticized those who filed the lawsuit. The Perles Law Firm was retained by the ATAA Board of Directors as litigation counsel. Iskir said that "the lawsuit will be a costly diversion from the ATAA’s important work in what will be a difficult legislative session on Capitol Hill for Turkish-American relations starting in September."
Iskir revealed that due to "the current Armenian resolution in Congress" and several other critical issues, his group had asked the plaintiffs for a 120-day extension to answer the complaint. Robert Levin, the plaintiffs’ attorney, after consulting with his clients, reportedly rejected the request. The Court, however, granted the requested extension and a response is being filed this month.
Iskir said in his report that the lawsuit will be financially damaging to the ATAA. He said that "the cost of this defense could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." Iskir accused Acikalin of "freezing the Endowment Fund, the earned interest of which provides the operating expenses of the ATAA." He said that "over $95,000 is due the ATAA for more than six months."
Iskir also said that the lawsuit is "a major diversion from our goals and mission at a critical time. Turkish Americans have been under intense attack by certain ethnic groups. Two anti-Turkish pro-Armenian resolutions are pending on Capitol Hill with a new Congress determined to legislate these claims;. The ATAA required unity right now. This lawsuit threatens that unity." This statement is an obvious attempt by the ATAA to use the Armenian genocide resolution as a rallying cry to unite a hopelessly divided organization.
Iskir stated that the lawsuit made the ATAA vulnerable for potential exploitation by its opponents, probably meaning the Armenia’s. He wrote: "Worse than the salacious e-mail traffic and defamatory public statemen’s of some of the plaintiffs and their handful of supporters, the filing of this lawsuit makes available to any curious eyes the ATAA’s inner workings and conflicts. Not just the complaint, but also all evidence presented in the future, including e-mails, depositions, financial disclosures, meeting notes, etc., will be part of the public record for all to see. Our traditional antagonists will start gloating about the ATAA’s poor financial condition, or our factionalism, or our unfortunate preoccupations with this court action to the detriment of our programs. When those who wish ill toward Turkish-Americans use the evidence in this lawsuit as a roadmap of how to exploit our weaknesses, will the plaintiffs step up and explain, or will they deflect responsibility for their personal actions upon others and the ATAA?"
While it is not surprising that there are divisions among Turkish-Americans, what is truly incredible is that the conflict is so acrimonious that even the Ambassador of Turkey and Turkish governmental leaders, who count heavily on ATAA’s grassroots support for lobbying purposes in Washington, must have failed to dissuade the feuding parties, particularly since the plaintiffs and the defendants are board members of the same organization.
Rather than "gloating," this writer’s intent is simply to point out that Armenia’s are sometimes too harsh on themselves. They wrongly believe that they are more disunited than others. Jews, Arabs, Turks, Koreans, Russia’s, and all other ethnic groups are just as divided as Armenia’s. Of course, unity is an admirable objective and the more a community is united, the more successfully it can pursue its collective interests and aspirations.