Northern Light

Freedom of enquiry?

Last Tuesday Fuat Deniz, an 40 year old associate professor of sociology at the university of Orebro, Sweden, was stabbed on his way to the fitness center on campus. He died the next day. Fuat Deniz had his throat cut, and the murder has caused chock and bewilderment at the university, where he had been teaching since 2001. So far the police has no suspects, they are investigating the life of the well-liked scholar.

Fuat Deniz was of Assyrian origin and an international reknown expert on the mass killings of the Assyrians under Ottoman Turkish rule in the wake of the First World War, a politically charged and controversial matter in today’s Turkey. Mr. Deniz did his ph.d. on this issue, and yesterday he was scheduled to give a presentation at Leiden university in the Netherland about the treatment of religious minorities in a number of countries.

Though Mr. Deniz’ colleagues in the sociology department expressed chock and couldn’t come up with a possible motive for the killing, researches dealing with the same hot issue of the Assyrian’s fate in the Ottoman empire were not that surprised.

Says David Gaunt, author of Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Reactions in Eastern Anatolia During World War, to Svenska Dagbladet:

”Anyone who studies the Assyrians and the genocide in the Ottoman empire is subject to threats. Even if there hasn’t been been a specific threat, it’s always been part of the subtext. This is a very sensitive issue, academic research in this field is perceived as political action. Anyone interested in Christian minorities in Turkey is seen as a threat.”

David Gaunt who just received a grant from the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies in Sweden to continue his research on the genocide of the Assyrians, explains that unknown individuals show up at seminars devoted to the issue of the Assyrians in the Ottoman empire and present themselves as journalists. During the seminars these ”journalists” shoot photographs of everyone present, and on field trips to Turkey David Gaunt has been followed closely by security officers armed with automatic weapons.

David Gaunt has also been the target of a smear campaign in the Turkish press, and he knows about colleagues receiving death threats and being denounced as terrorists.

Firat Deniz, a cousin of the murder victim, also focuses on a political motive:

”Maybe somebody was upset because of his writings. It looks as if the killer knew what he was doing. He wanted to kill, he just stabbed his throat.”

The Assyrians are Christians and according to leading scholars close to 500.000 Assyrians lost their lives in the Ottoman empire in the years 1914 – 1924. Today they reside across the Middle East in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. An estimated 80.000 Assyrians live in Sweden, the largest diaspora in Europe.

This tragic episode reminds me of an attack in Copenhagen two years ago. A scholar of Islam was approached by three young Muslims on the streets of Copenhagen. According to colleagues the Muslims praised his teaching and suggested that he gets in the car so they can talk about it. In the car the scholar was beaten up and dropped off in another part of town. His kidneys were damaged, he was urinating blood and needed medical treatment.

This episode played a crucial role in the wake of the cartoon crisis. The illustrator who made the drawings of the prophet Mohammed for a children’s book by author Kare Bluitgen and insisted on anonymity, i.e. committed self censorship, referred to this attack as a major reason behind his decision to have his name removed from the cover of the book. This example of self censorship was the starting point for the commissioning of the cartoons.

According to the police the three young men demanded that the scholar refrain from reciting the Koran in class. Later the scholar said to the daily Berlingske Tidende:

”I am pretty sure that I was attacked by Wahabis. They have a strict, Taleban-like understanding of Islam.”

Three weeks before the attack the scholar, who has a Jewish-Moroccan background and is a Danish citizen, was invited to recite from the Koran in a class. The teacher suggested he read verses from a chapter about the devil.

”The recited pieces involved Adam’s encounter with the devil, and Satan refuses to submit to Adam, and he is being thrown out of heaven,” explained the teacher present at the reciting to the weekly Weekendavisen.

Two years later it appears that the crime hasn’t been solved.