In 1915, the Ottoman state, in the midst of World War I, took the fateful decision of deporting all Armenians in Anatolia to eastern Syria. An entire people was forced to migrate overnight, and many of them, perhaps a million people, perished on the road due to starvation, disease and massacres by locals. There is no doubt this enormous tragedy deserves remembrance and empathy today — and we Turks must be much more considerate about it than we have been over the past century.
The proper term to use in defining the fate of Ottoman Armenians has been a matter of controversy. Armenians themselves and many others in the West use the G word: genocide. Most Turks, in return, only use the much more innocent term “tehcir,” or deportation. Personally, I take a middle ground and opt for the term “ethnic cleansing.” (The difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide is that the former is about cleansing a geographical area from a group of people, whereas the latter is about the very extermination of that people. As a comparison, note that the Ottoman government only pushed Armenians out of Anatolia, whereas the Nazis searched for Jews everywhere in order to exterminate them one by one.)
A perhaps more important question, however, is why did this catastrophe happen? In the West, sometimes religion is perceived to be the underlying problem, as “Muslim Turks” are pitted against “Christian Armenians.” Yet this perception disregards the very fact that, before 1915, the same Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians coexisted for centuries under the banner of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious entity, where faith communities constituted “nations.” Muslims were the “ruling nation,” whereas Christians and Jews were “protected” nations, in line with the status Islamic law gives to “the People of Book.” That is why Armenians, like Greeks or Jews, lived and flourished in the Ottoman Empire for centuries with some autonomy and certain rights. They were not allowed to become soldiers or public servants, which were jobs reserved only for Muslims, hence they excelled in artisanship. (No wonder some of the most beautiful mosques and palaces in Istanbul were built by Armenian architects from the famous Balyan family.) Moreover, in the Reform Era of the mid-19th century, the Ottoman state gave all non-Muslims the status of equal citizenship. That is why in final decades of the empire, Armenians began to take public jobs, becoming ambassadors, ministers or parliamentarians.
Yet in the same 19th century, the road to disaster began to unfold, in a seemingly unrelated place: the Balkans. The French Revolution had ushered in an era of nationalism, which gradually influenced Ottoman-ruled Christian peoples of the Balkans, such as Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians. Rebellions by these peoples led to nation-states, which often resorted to ethic cleansing, whose victims were often Muslims. A similar tragedy hit the Muslims of Crimea and Caucasus as well, who were persecuted by the Russian advance. Historian Justin McCarthy estimates that some 5 million Ottoman Muslims have perished during the decline and shrinking of the empire over two centuries — all due to various waves of ethic cleansing.
The impact of this drama was to lead the Turks, who tried to hold the empire together, to finally develop their own nationalism, culminating in the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) that dominated the Ottoman state’s final decade. When they entered the Great War in October 1914, the CUP leaders faced the Russian onslaught from the east, and they found that Armenian nationalists had established paramilitary units to support the enemy. This formed the basis for the catastrophic CUP decision to expel all Armenians in Eastern Turkey to Syria. It was an inexcusable verdict — but it happened out of the fear that the Balkan nightmares would be repeated this time in Anatolia, the last stronghold of the Turks.
In other words, the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Armenians took place not because of the Ottoman system. Rather, it occurred because of the fall of the Ottoman system. Christian Armenians, who lived with Muslim Turks for centuries, were driven out not because of religion, but a modern ideology: nationalism.
It is therefore not an accident that some Islamic sentiments and views of the era fell at odds with the nationalist motives behind the deportation and murder of Armenians. In a famous incident, in Bogazliyan, a district of the central Anatolian province of Yozgat, the mufti of the town, Abdullahzade Mehmet Efendi, protested the governor of the town who willingly executed the deportation orders from the capital. Later the mufti testified in the Ottoman military tribunal trial of 1919, stating, “I fear the wrath of God.”
In the neighboring province of Cankiri, some elders accompanied by their mufti put a request to the governing in May 1915, saying: “The Armenians and their children from the neighboring vilayets [provinces] are being driven like cattle to the mountain for slaughter. We do not want these type of things to occur in our vilayets. We are afraid of the wrath of God.”
A more scholarly Islamic objection had come from Egypt’s Al-Azhar University in 1909, when Grand Sheikh Salim al-Bishri condemned the massacre of Armenians in Adana, in a drama that preceded the bloodshed in 1915. His fatwa, or religious opinion, read:
“We have seen in local newspapers agonizing news and vile reports about Muslims of some Anatolian provinces of the Ottoman Empire attacking Christians and killing them brutally. We could not believe these reports and hoped that they were false, because Islam forbids aggression, oppression, bloodshed and harming human beings — Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.”
The Egyptian sheikh then reminded the “protection” Jews and Christians deserve under Islamic law:
“Oh Muslims living in that region and elsewhere, beware of actions prohibited by God in His Sharia [Islamic law] and spare the blood that God prohibited to spill and do not transgress on anyone since God does not like aggressors. Your duty toward those who are allied with you, who entrusted their safety to you and who reside among you and next to you from Ahlul Dhimma [Jewish and Christian minorities protected under Islam], as imposed by God, is to uplift them as you would uplift yourselves, prevent them from what you prevent yourselves and your kinsfolk, make your strength their strength, make pride and prosperity out of your strength, and protect their monasteries and churches the way you protect your mosques and temples.”
Of course, history is never clear-cut, and many of the Turks (and Kurds) who engaged in the massacres against Armenians acted with hatred against (or fear of) “the infidels,” reflecting their Islamic identities. Still, the distinction between the religion-as-identity, taking the form of a nationalism, and religion as a set of values, is important.
It is practically important, too, because if Turkish society is to develop a more emphatic view of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians, this will happen not due to any foreign pressure, which actually only backfires, but rather due to some honest self-criticism based on authentic values. A wise reading of Islam presents such values, and no wonder in the past few years some notable Islamist pundits in the Turkish media expressed remorse and sympathy for the Armenians using Islamic arguments. In my view, these arguments — and not any imposing statement from Washington or any other Western capital — presents the key for a much-needed grand reconciliation between us Turks and our good old neighbors, the Armenians.
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