Camel greeting

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Last Word on Armenianism – In search of solutions

If you happened to be in Berlin recently, you may have indulged your musical appetite with an evening out at the Young Euro Classic Music Festival, a two-and-a-half week event taking place at the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt Square. The programme included orchestras from all over the world, African jazz, ballet, dance and choral groups, with the common factor of young people playing and enjoying music.

One of the concerts featured an assembly of musicians calling themselves the Turkish-Armenian Youth Orchestra, playing works by Beethoven, as well as by one Turkish and one Armenian composer. According to the festival website:

‘For the first time, Young Euro Classic presents an Armenian-Turkish Youth Symphony Orchestra. Initiated by Young Euro Classic, this ensemble unites young musicians from Armenia and Turkey in one joint orchestra. This ambitious project has great symbolic importance, given the political tensions between the neighbouring countries of Turkey and Armenia. The young Turkish and Armenian musicians distinguish themselves through the joy they take in their excellent music-making.’

The event attracted my attention because I had recently read an article in the New York Times by a gentleman called Taner Akçam. In fact, because of its tone and content, the article received some small attention in our local Turkish newspaper as well. The title was ‘Turkey’s Human Rights Hypocrisy’, and the writer, a well-known activist in the area of Armenian-Turkish relations, was drawing a connection between the contemporary situation in Syria, and the mass deaths of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The essence of Mr Akçam’s argument was that Turks should shut up about what Bashar al-Assad is doing to his people in neighbouring Syria until the Turkish Government admits to carrying out genocide against the Armenian race, and (unstated but we may assume) pays appropriate reparations. According to him, Christians and other minorities in Syria are choosing to support al-Assad’s murderous regime because of some strange connection in their minds between political freedom and Ottoman killings of Armenians in the 1st World War. Well, Mr Akçam can set his friends minds at rest, I think. Even if Turkey had the aim of wiping out ‘Christians and other minorities’ (which I am pretty sure they don’t) – it seems clear that they have no interest in invading and annexing Syria.

I’m not going to expend energy going through Akçam’s article point by point to debate his weasel words and dubious logic, but I did pick up on one term that was new to me – denialist. It’s not a word you’ll find in older dictionaries, but it’s a pretty useful one, I’m sure you’ll agree. It goes beyond the Freudian term denial, perhaps because that word was losing its force from over-use. When you call someone a denialist, the –ist ending adds extra power to the criticism since it implies some kind of political/ideological conspiracy. The beauty of it is, as was the case with the earlier word in popular usage, it does away with the need for further debate, since you have at one blow established, without need for actual proof, that your opponent’s arguments are flying in the face of all scientific and historical evidence. So Turks are engaging in denialism on the issue of Armenian genocide – end of argument.

I guess that’s roughly where I started from when I first arrived in Turkey. Not that I knew a lot about it, but I knew what pretty much everyone knows: Turks slaughtered Armenians, right? In 1915, right? One-and-a-half million of them, right? That’s where Hitler got his inspiration for the Jewish Holocaust, right? Then I started to read about the Ottoman Empire that ruled what is now Turkey and much else in the region for over six hundred years until it whimpered out of existence in 1923. I learnt that Armenians were a respected millet within the Ottoman Empire along with Jews and Orthodox Christians; granted freedom to worship, use their own language, bury their dead in their own cemeteries, educate their children in their own schools, run businesses, get rich, rise to high positions in society . . . and my curiosity was aroused. Why would the Ottoman government suddenly decide to genocide these people?

Our local newspaper is running a series of articles during the month of Ramazan about significant mosques around the country. One article featured the Aksaray Mosque of Pertevniyal Valide Sultan, the mother of the 19th century Ottoman Padishah, Abdulaziz. The writer credits the building to the architect Sarkis Balyan, five generations of whose family served as builders and architects to the Ottoman regime through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I checked him out on a website called World Architecture Map and I learned that he lived from 1835-1899, but the space for Place of Birth was blank, and alongside Nationality there were three question marks (???).

Still, pretty much everyone knows that people with surnames ending in –yan or –ian are more than likely of Armenian ethnicity, and Wikipedia confirms that about the Balyans. So, credit where credit’s due – five generations of this Armenian family worked for the Ottoman dynasty and were responsible for the building of some of the city’s best known landmarks: the imperial palaces of Çırağan (now a 5-star Kempinski hotel) and Dolmabahçe, along with numerous mosques, public buildings and major factories. I haven’t been able to confirm the facts, but I would make an educated guess that, despite his Armenian ethnicity, Sarkis Balyan was an Ottoman citizen, born in Istanbul. I can’t say for sure why the WAM people couldn’t establish that one way or the other, but I have my suspicions.

Still, I hear you. Just because there were a few successful and respected Armenians in the empire it doesn’t mean genocide didn’t happen. Being a pillar of society didn’t save many Jews in Nazi Germany, did it? Nevertheless, you take my point. I wanted to know why the Ottoman state, after five centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence, would suddenly decide that genocide of Armenians was the way to go. Of course, once I started, I found that I had opened a can of worms. One question led to another, and another, and another, and I can truthfully tell you that I cannot give you a conclusive answer on this one. What I can say, however, is that labelling Turks ‘denialist’ in no way does justice to the complexity of the issue. Undoubtedly a horrifying number of Armenian people lost their lives in a tragic series of events in 1915, set in train by officers of the Ottoman Empire. This much seems to be accepted by all, but thereafter, important questions arise:

  • Were these events part of a state-sponsored programme whose aim was the extermination of a race? Proponents of the case for genocide claim to have seen official documents proving this. Opponents claim that at least some of these documents are falsified.
  • How many died? Obviously, in the circumstances, it is impossible to get an accurate count, but numbers vary enormously depending on which case is being argued. Still, even the lowest estimates seem to accept that several hundred thousand died – clearly an unacceptable number.
  • Is Turkey responsible? Whatever happened, happened in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, which was not a nationalist state. Europeans had for centuries chosen to label the Ottoman rulers Turks, and their empire Turkey, but this is a distortion of the facts, a bit like outsiders calling citizens of the USA Yanks. Turks, incidentally, tend to refer to the United Kingdom as İngiltere, and its citizens as İngliz. The Ottoman Empire was defeated, along with its ally Germany, in the First World War, and thereafter divided among the conquerors, principally Britain, France, Italy and Greece. The modern Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 after a struggle by nationalist freedom-fighters who expelled invading forces from Anatolia and Istanbul, marginalising and subsequently abolishing the Ottoman Sultanate and its government. So there is only a tenuous connection between the perpetrators of whatever happened in 1915, and the present-day Turkish Republic.
  • Is what happened to the Armenians comparable to Nazi German measures to exterminate Jews? First of all, the Germans set up a bureaucratic machine and invested in plant and facilities to expedite their scheme. There was large-scale state propaganda designed to justify Nazi actions. The Germans invaded other sovereign states and carried out their policy in those places also (France, Poland and Greece, for example). As far as I am aware, none of these factors was present in the case of Ottoman Armenians. It is also clear that extermination was the primary object of the Nazi German programme. The Ottoman aim was to remove/relocate people perceived as a serious security threat at a time when their state was at war and fighting for its survival on at least three fronts. Third, there is a long history in Europe (not only in Germany) of state-sponsored discrimination and violence towards Jews. This was definitely not the case in the Ottoman Empire (see above). Finally, there was no context in which Nazi German actions could be justified. The Jewish people posed no security threat to Germany and gave no provocation. On the other hand, Armenian nationalist groups had been carrying out terrorist activities in Ottoman territory for decades. As American military personnel in Iraq testify, in a guerrilla warfare situation, it is by no means easy to distinguish dangerous militants from law-abiding villagers – and remember, the Ottomans were operating on their own soil, with at least some modicum of moral authority. Further, it is also historically verifiable (as I have written elsewhere) that Russian Imperial expansion into Ottoman territory had involved the incitement of Christian minorities (including Armenians) to revolt against their lawful government, followed by large-scale killing, terrorising and displacement of Muslims from the areas they conquered.

OK, I admit I am working from secondary sources here. Like most of you, I don’t have the time or the language skills to check primary documents. I am not employed and paid a salary by any university’s Department of Genocide Studies. I can say, however, that I have read a broad sample of the literature on both sides of this question, and I can assure you that there are some quite reputable scholars who question the application of the term ‘genocide’ to this Armenian business. One in particular you may like to check out is Justin McCarthy, Professor of History at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, two of whose publications are listed in the sidebar. One is actually available as a free eBook, so take a look.

Now, I know that, if you are a follower of Armenian Genocide Studies, you will be aware that McCarthy and others who attempt to balance the ledger on this issue, come in for a deal of criticism, and not simply on a scholarly level. I read an article recently by a lady identifying herself as a Latin Americanist (there's that -ist again). She was waxing warm on the Armenian issue, and informed the reader that our Taner Akçam (above) had received death threats for his outspokenness. She went on to say that he ‘fears prosecution’ if he ever sets foot in his native Turkey. Interestingly, then, the Wikipedia entry reveals that this ‘wanted man’ attended the politically-charged funeral of Hrant Dink in Istanbul in 2007, and managed to get safely back to his job of criticising Turks and their country at Clark University, Massachusetts. I'm not saying that the poor fellow hasn't received a death threat or two. I even got one myself while teaching at a prestigious high school in Auckland, New Zealand. The house of UCLA Professor Stanford Shaw was bombed in 1977 after he published a book on Turkish history in which he questioned the accuracy of Armenian genocide arguments, and Armenian ultra-nationalist organizations (to borrow a phrase) were responsible for the deaths of forty-two Turkish diplomatic staff abroad between 1973 and 1994, so make what you will of that.

As for the personal attacks on ‘denialist’ scholars, that Wikipedia entry on Taner Akçam names a certain Vahakn Dadrian as his academic mentor. I checked him out and learned that Dadrian is a ‘towering figure in the field of Armenian genocide history’. The quote is attributed to an academic by the name of David Bruce MacDonald. He too has a very nice entry in Wikipedia, but the managers of the site warn that ‘a major contributor to this article appears to have a close relationship with its subject’. Getting back to Mr Dadrian, I further learned that he had been dismissed from his position as Professor of Sociology at the State University College in Geneseo, New York for sexually molesting an 18 year-old student. According to the report I read, Mr Dadrian had escaped punishment for a similar offense ten years earlier by pleading ‘cultural differences’. Given that the learned professor had pursued his academic studies at reputable universities in Europe and the USA, you'd think he might have gleaned some understanding of acceptable teacher-student behaviour in Western cultures. Anyway, the excuse apparently didn’t wash the second time he was caught.

The Wikipedia entry on Akçam states that he is ‘recognised as a leading international authority on the subject’ (their quotes) of Armenian genocide. If you check the referenced footnote, you’ll find that the words are attributed to a David Holthouse of the Southern Poverty Law Centre. If you follow that lead, you’ll learn that the SPLC published an apology for that particular article and retracted claims made therein that, among other untruths, another scholar arguing for a more balanced view of the issue, Guenter Lewy, was in the pay of the Turkish Government.  But I'm not here to blacken anyone's name - merely to suggest that there may be more to this business than simply ‘truth’ and ‘denialism’.

I am not at all a reader of horror literature, but I am about to finish a book that is seriously frightening me. Probably the scariest thing about it is, it is not a work of fiction. The writer is Kevin Phillips, a political and economic commentator from Lichfield, Connecticut, and former strategist for the US Republican Party. In the book ‘American Theocracy’, he posits an unholy alliance conjoining big oil, the finance industry and fundamentalist Christianity which he claims has taken over the GOP and pretty much the governing of the United States. To put the thesis of a 400-page book in a nutshell, the ‘FIRE’ sector (finance, insurance, real estate) is enriching a small elite by encouraging indebtedness at every level of society (spend like there’s no tomorrow – it’s your patriotic duty!); as US oil runs out, it becomes necessary to control the major global areas of supply (did you ever believe Iraq was not about oil?); and fundamentalist Christian leaders hold that an inerrant Bible justifies man’s exploitation of the environment, salvation is by faith alone (which means no need for social welfare programmes, hence no taxes), unbelievers must be converted or destroyed, and the end-times are coming when true believers will be ‘raptured’ and the last battles will be played out in the Middle East, home of the anti-Christ and his evil followers (Muslims).

All this wouldn’t be particularly relevant here, except that, in my rummaging around on the internet, I learned that Taner Akçam had been giving talks to an organisation called CSI – aka the Christian Solidarity Foundation. On their web page, their CEO has this to say:

‘CSI is unique. It is currently the only organization working in the field to free slaves captured by Islamic jihadists [another -ist] during Sudan's civil war, and we are one of the few organizations to shine a light on the disappearance, forced conversions and forced marriages of Christian women in Egypt. My colleagues have repeatedly traveled to terror-torn Iraq to stand in solidarity with that country's beleaguered Christian community, and CSI supports the tiny remnant of Christians who remain in Turkey following the great anti-Christian Genocide and its devastating after-effects.

‘These are troubled times for Christians and other religious minorities in the broader Islamic Middle East where an upsurge of radical Islamic supremacism [that –ism again] threatens their very existence. The situation is especially dire in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran.’

A man is a bird without wings
and a bird is a man without sorrows
Well, hate comes easy to human nature, I guess. Unfortunately, there are many organisations hiding behind words like peace, freedom, truth and democracy while pursuing programmes of discrimination, prejudice and violence. There is a wonderful novel, ‘Birds Without Wings’, by the English novelist Louis de Bernieres. It deals with events surrounding the time of that ‘great anti-Christian Genocide’ in a rather more even-handed manner. A minor character, Daskalos Leonidas, is schoolteacher in the small Anatolian village of Eskibahçe where most of the story takes place.  The village is a microcosm of the Ottoman Empire, with Muslims, Greek and Armenian Christians getting along as they had for centuries, before the great upheavals of the 20th century tore them apart. The teacher is a lonely bitter man who sees his mission as being to educate his Greek Christian neighbours in ‘their own culture’ and to foster a spirit of nationhood which they will then fight to achieve. The result is the disaster of the Greek-Turkish War and the tragedy of the population exchanges that followed.  I wish the organisers of that Berlin Festival well, and hope that their attempts to demonstrate the power of music to heal wounds and unite souls will not be in vain.


  1. Alan, this is so powerful! Very people realize how anti-Muslim sentiment influences the writing of history on the West.

    1. (I mean, in the West).