Among other jobs, Harvard history professor Henry Louis Gates works as a host of the PBS show Finding Your Roots.
In each episode, different celebrities come to the show to discover their ancestral ties with people who were involved in important historical events.
On February 9th, Gates welcomed Tony Shalhoub, an American actor of Lebanese origin best known for his leading role in the comedy detective series Monk.
The main topic of the show was Shalhoub’s great-grandfather who was reportedly killed in 1895, amid the sustained persecution of Armenians and other Christians who lived in the Ottoman Empire.
Gates said in the show that Shalhoub’s ancestor was one of around 150,000 people killed in a series of massacres covered by the international media.
Without explicitly naming them, Gates was referring to the so-called Hamidian massacres which occurred between 1894-1897 and actually involved murders of around 400,000 Christians (mostly Armenians) who lived throughout the Ottoman Empire.
In describing an Ottoman motivation for these crimes, Gates made a controversial claim that genocide came as a reaction to Armenian agitation for political reforms.
Several media outlets pointed to the words of Taner Akçam, an eminent Turkish historian with expertise in the topic of the Armenian genocide, who described Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s goal to unite Muslims as a primary motivator for the massacres.
The Turkish expert explained that the languishing empire desperately wanted to tie its enormous Muslim population to the country.
To achieve such an aim, it resorted to the cruelest methods against the non-Muslim population of the empire, exerting violence after an indication of the slightest provocation.
How was Shalhoub’s great-grandfather killed?
The claim about the massacre motivation was not the end of Gates’s minimization of the Armenian genocide.
At one point during the episode, Shalhoub ended up reading a passage from the Western newspapers which indicated that his father was killed by the method of crucifixion, which involved hours of horrendous pain of having one’s extremities nailed to a cross.
After Shalhoub asked whether the story is true, he received a surprising response from Gates.
The PBS host said that the story might have very well been made up by the American media.
Gates said that the reason for that might lie in Islamophobic tendencies that were widespread in the Western newspapers at that time.
Days and even weeks after the episode streaming, Gates received various criticism for his treatment of Christian victims from the Ottoman empire.
Commentators such as Spectator’s Daniel M. Bring and Robert Spencer from David Horowitz Freedom Center pointed to the inaccuracy of Gates’s remarks, likely influenced by his overall goal to present Muslims as nothing but victims.
In the end, it is quite confusing that claims of this sort come from a historian who signed a petition against the denial of the Armenian genocide in 1999.