The Turkish American National Leadership Conference – Empowering Turkish Americans


A Commentary by Yuksel Oktay, PE, March 21, 2011

The three-day conference which officially started on Thursday, March 17, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, some participants coming on Wednesday night March 16, ended on Saturday afternoon, March 19, where many excellent presentations were made and new leaders were introduced. The highlight must have been the presentation by The Young Turks TV Radio founder Cenk Uygur, which took place after I had to leave around 2:00 PM on Saturday afternoon in order to visit the site of the proposed Turkish American Community Center in Lanham, MD (1).

The first of a kind conference has been organized by the two umbrella organizations; Washington DC-based, “Assembly of Turkish – American Associations – ATAA” and the New York-based “Federation of Turkish –
American Associations – FTAA” with support from the “Turkish Coalition of America” and the “Turkish Cultural Foundation.” The official language of the conference and the Program book were all in English, including the presentations. The exception was State Minister Egemen Bagis’ remarks in Turkish after his presentation in English, which is to be commended. After all, this is a conference for the Turks in America and the Turkish-Americans, or, perhaps to follow the example of a speaker on the American Jews, it could be referred to as the American Turks.

The first day of the Conference, dubbed as “Turkish American capital Day”, opened with a video address by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, HE Ahmet Davutoglu, followed by welcoming speeches by Gunay Evinch, the President of ATAA and Kaya Boztepe, the President of FTAA. The Arlington City Council Chairman Chris Zimmerman, the Host county, and the Mayor of Alexandria city William D. Euille spoke next.  A message by the DC mayor Vincent C. Gray was included in the Program book with statements from several Congressman and  Congresswoman as well as messages from the Turkish President and the Prime Minister.

HE Ambassador Namik Tan spoke about the role of the Turkish-Americans and State Minister Egemen Bagis reminisced his 17 years in America before going to Turkey to enter politics and provided many advise, including a strong statement that the Turkish-Americans should love each other. Of course, the first requirement for this is knowing each other…

The first panel was on “US-Turkish Relations: Challenges and Opportunities”, moderated by Mark Meirowitz, advisor to ATAA and FTAA Presidents. Suleyman Gokce, Deputy Chief of Mission, Turkish Embassy, and Jess Baily, Director, Office of Southern Europe in the Bureau of European
& Eurasian Affairs spoke in length on various issues. Following the first question by the Moderator himself and long responses, three questions were allowed to the participants, one of which was on the Turkish-Israeli relations and the Boat Marmara incident. I asked two questions; one whether any action was being taken for the removal of the fabricated statement by Hitler on the Armenian issue displayed at the US Jewish Memorial Museum, visited by 2.5 million people every year. The second question was whether there were a Turkish Library and Museum in the US? Neither questions were responded to but were discussed in length outside the conference room with Mr Baily.

The afternoon was reserved for Capital Hill Grassroots visitations and many went to see their congressman. However, due to a crucial vote on the funding of the National Public Radio (NPR), some of the congressmen were not available, but several were visited.
The first day of the conference was concluded on Thursday evening with the Ambassador’s reception at the magnificent Turkish Embassy Residence. Prominent members of the Turkish-American community, students from several universities in and around WDC, including three 13-year-old elementary school students, and many Turks, including a young Turkish-American who said he drove 30 hours from Texas, attended the reception. Professor Dr Justin McCarty and his wife and many academicians and businessmen were also at the conference and the reception. I had an opportunity to speak with the Ambassador on the “Turkish Library and Museum Project” and suggested that a clear definition of what is expected from the Embassy and the Turkish government should be formulated.

The second-day conference began with a presentation by Prof. Dr Justin McCarty, following brief opening statements by Gunay Evinch and Kaya Boztepe. The topic of McCarty’s presentation was, “The Turks in America: the Creation of an Enduring Prejudice.” As usual, the presentation was lively with a lot of anecdotes and slide showing of caricatures of Turks from McCarty’s new book with the same name, some dating back to 1890s, including an Editorial cartoon in the 1895 issue of the New York Times (Library of Congress Collection), the darling of Armenians who love to quote from that newspaper.

McCarty began with an explanation on the reasons for writing about the Turk: “because what I saw around me and the complete lack of understanding of the Turkish issues,” he said, making reference to the New York Times reviews. McCarty stated that if  15 books are presented on Turkey, all would be anti-Turkish, none with Turkish point of view. Then he gave many examples of name-calling for the Turks, from Assassins to Barbarians with pictures of camels. Referring to the books and articles on Turks by foreigners, McCarty listed 3 points used by the west as to why Turks killed the Armenians:

1. Religious hatred
2. Envy of the Armenians for their superior culture and wealth
3. Racially inferior people

Also referring to a description of a Turk in the 1895 issue of the New York Times, “A standing Disgrace to the Civilized World”, followed by stating that the bad image of the Turks in the West was created by the Missionaries and  “Americans saw nothing else except what missionaries wrote.”

Following the excellent presentation, several participants were allowed to ask questions. One lady asked as to what they should do to correct the bad image of the Turks, further asking if these were included in his book.

McCarty responded first by stating that he was expecting this question and put on a slide with the following points:

1. Educate Ourselves.
2. Educate Others
3. Admit Turks” Mistakes
4. Question falsehoods
5. Identify Bigotry for What it is.

Taking advantage of the 5 points listed on the slide, I asked a question also (after walking to the centre of the hall where the microphone was) and suggested that perhaps a 6th point could be included: Build Museums.

Then I briefly told about yet another Chance Encounter with a dozen 8th-grade students visiting WDC on a class trip.

“As everyone must have seen, a lot of young students are at the Hyatt hotel. I asked them where they were from and what they were doing in WDC. They were 8th-grade students from a Middle School in Illinois and were on a class trip, all 180 of them with several teachers and parents. I asked to close to a dozen of them if they knew where Turkey was since they were also running around the Turkish American Conference hall. None of them knew. Then I asked one of their teachers the same question, who said she was a Special Education Teacher, and she said, “Somewhere near Poland.” I told her that all she has to do is to put her finger at the centre of a world map and that is where Turkey is.”

Then I suggested to Prof. McCarty that establishment of Museums should also be included in the list. He pointed to Point No 2. “Educate others.” I said yes, but Museums should be emphasized.

The next Panel was on Effective Non-Profit Organizations which was to be followed by a Luncheon where M. Rifat Hisacikoglu was to be the Keynote Speaker. Since he did not show up, Sevgin Oktay, the coordinator of the CPTSTRS was allowed to speak about the work done by the members of the “Concerned People to Set the Record Straight” and show the 9 booklets issued on the Armenian issues. However, the writer was not given time to make a brief presentation on the proposed “Turkish Library and Museum for Friendship and Peace “Project.

The third day of the conference announced as the “Young Turks Day – Student and Youth Program,” began with presentations in Media and Education, moderated by Bonnie Joy Kaplan from California. A documentary, “Hiphopistan’, by the young and talented Cigdem Akbay was shown, dubbed as “Presentation on the fusion of American and Turkish culture in today’s Turkiye.”  Iris Gross, the Executive Director of Birmingham International Center, made an excellent presentation on the centre’s activities.

A newcomer, at least to this writer, Hulya Aksu” the founder and editor of “I AM Modern Women’s Magazine” spoke about two magazines and their contents, which was excellent. After lunch, Cenk Uygur walked in with his father Dogan Uygur and sat at a table in the back of the hall. They were escorted to a table in the front, shown in the attached photograph. I regretted missing Cenk Uygur’s presentation, in which I am sure he must have mentioned the adventures of the ‘Magnificent Seven” friends who meet every year at a different city, in fact, some years in different continents, since their childhood days in New Jersey. I hope his presentation, as well as the presentations of all the speakers, will be made available.

Another excellent presentation was made by Marty Callaghan, Historian, Journalist, & Film Producer, including the “Armenian Revolt”. The subject of Callaghan’s presentation was  “Placing Turkey Related Programming on Public Supported Television.” When I had the opportunity to ask a question, I suggested that perhaps another documentary could be made, this one on  Armenian Friends, since there are many Armenians in Turkey and around the world who do not agree with the claims that the massacres that took place during World War I, where thousands of Muslims and Turks were also massacred, can not be labelled as Genocide.  I also told another chance encounters where just before coming to the conference room, I had met an Armenian lady from Yerevan who told me that she has been involved in the reconciliation efforts and had a very close Turkish girlfriend in WDC.

Publications and Book Sale

The only publications distributed during the conference, other than the Program Booklet, were two magazines, I am Modern and MB – Modern DC Business Magazine and one of the two founding members of ATAA, The Washington ATA’s excellent NewsMagazine. The publisher of the two magazines, Ms Hulya Aksu, made an excellent presentation with a promise that she was about to launch a third magazine. However, none of the other magazines published in the USA, such as Turks of America, were not displayed or made available although it was good to see the excellent children’s magazine, “Bonbon.”

Observations from the Conference and Recommendations

Since this was advertised as being the first conference jointly organized by the two competing associations, ATAA and FTAA, the observed shortcomings can be overlooked, especially since there were some very interesting presentations and a  chance to bring several issues to the attention of the conference attendees, which numbered close to 200, including the presenters. I will list some of my suggestions for the benefit of future conferences, hopefully, the next one to take place in New York, which I had expected to be announced, but was not.

1.  Although the title of the Conference was on leadership, only the leaders of the two organizations were introduced although many leaders, including several past presidents, were among the participants but were not mentioned, unless you knew them. The two organizations must have over 100 member associations between them (The Turkish Ambassador stated that there were over 300 across America), but neither the organizations nor their Presidents (leaders) were mentioned or included in the Program Book. Name Tags were not used other than for the speakers. In fact, the young lady who made the introductions did not remember to introduce herself until the second day. The President of TACA of Georgia and a Board member of TACA of Seattle were among the participants.

2.  There were seven flags on the podium, including the Turkish and the US flags, with five rolled and therefore not clear as to their representation. There was no Photograph of Ataturk at the conference hall or an open large Turkish flag. Azeri Associations were represented, several Turkistan and Ahiska Turk representatives were among the participants, but other Turkic nations were not represented.

3.  I believe there was only one media from the States (Turkish Radio ) and one from Turkey (Ergun Babadan) at the conference. I would have expected to see the representatives of all the media and Turkish publications in the US (Hurriyet, Zaman, Turksof America, etc.) present at the conference, including an exhibition of books other than those that were on sale.

4.  Some of the presentations were too long with very little time left for questions although comments were made for these to be interactive sessions. In some Panels, the moderator did the asking rather than the participants and several individuals did not have the opportunity to ask questions due to time limitations.

5.  The official language of the conference and the Program book was English, and except the second part of Minister Egemen Bagis’s speech and one of this writers questions, all presentations and question and answer sessions were in English. Some even questioned whether the title should have been “The American Turks”, taking the clue from one of the presentations on the history of the American Jews and where they came from. There is much more that can be reported on this unique and useful Conference and I hope others will also write and the organizers will provide the transcripts of the presentation.

Yuksel Oktay, PE
Past President FTAA
Founding Member and First President of MIM

Notes: The City Council has approved the construction of the Turkish-American
Community Center in Lanham, MD by a 5 to 4 vote. The work now has been
initiated to obtain the various permits for the centre which will include
a Mosque, a school, restaurant, guest houses, a soccer field, etc.