Genocide, as is well known, exposes in very different forms racial cleansing, ethnic extermination, rationalized, formalized and planned annihilation of a nation’s economic means to existence, language, religion, cultural values and dignity. Yet, there are still clusters of resistance to acknowledging certain nations’ fully documented tragedy of programmed and systematic violence, which led to the full or partial obliteration of their physical and, at times, historical presence.
This article is a synthesis of a long discussion with a Turkish colleague of mine a few months back, before the confinement, in Istanbul. A historian by profession, our frequent conversations in a kıraathane (café) were always informal, open, at times heated, but never aggressive. During the confinement, however, our discussions continued in the guise of an epistolary exchange. It is these discussions and epistolary exchange that I have synthesized and fashioned in the form of this written communication.
We sat, embroiled in our conversation, which I fail to remember how it steered into the sensitive zones of the Armenian Genocide, or as some call it in Istanbul, the “great catastrophe” (büyük felaket). It was certainly not the first time that we labored this point, oftentimes at loggerheads on how we should put an end to it. However, on that particular day, my colleague bent over the table and, with a wide grin, quite openly acknowledged genocide committed by Turks against the Armenian people without his usual touch of patronizing irony, but then immediately added: “Didn’t the white European colonists do the same thing to the Native Americans?” The question, put so bluntly, took me by surprise; I had never associated the massacres and wars against the Native Americans by the European colonists as a genocide, nor had I ever dreamed of applying it as a yardstick to measure another genocide.
My colleague, being an excellent historian, began to answer his own question, noting forthwith that I had never given the topic any thought at all. I soon realized that he had done research on it, and was quite prepared to “brief me” on his research, and especially take note of my reactions and remarks. Besides the synthesis of our verbal and written exchanges, I have also inserted snippets of bibliographical and academic information in footnotes as I did some of my own research into the Native American genocide during our epistolary exhange.
Racial Hatred of the Other
My colleague opened the discussion on racial or ethnic grounds: a common ground, according to him, of both genocides. Did not the white European settlers disembark onto territories that belonged to the indigenous peoples of what is now the United States? Did they not steal these lands or cheat the “Indian” out of them for a pittance by a written law of the white European philosopher John Locke, who had stated in the 1600s that land in its original state becomes property to those who labor it? This “natural right” of the white settlers thus exonerated them from the systematic depopulation of the natives through wars, massacres, infliction of disease (smallpox), broken treaties and deportation. They deemed that the superiority of European trade, law, culture and weaponry posited their race as the legitimate dominating one. In 1830, the Removal Act legally allowed the deportation of the Seminole, Cherokee and Choctaw tribes from the East Coast to lands west of the Mississippi River. The “pacification” of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific crudely meant the removal or extermination of six-hundred native peoples. General Winfield Scott invaded Cherokee territory in 1832 with 7,000 soldiers and burnt all their homes. Many were put into concentration camps whilst 14,000 were deported to the West, of which 4,000 died of hunger and mistreatment. This tragic episode is called the Trail of Tears. Is that not an image that will re-emerge in 1915 under the infamous term of “tehcir”?
The onslaught continued: The Sioux Uprising of 1862, the massacres at Sand Creek in 1864, the Black Kettle slaughters in Texas by General Custer in 1868, Wounded Knee in 1890. Accumulated, these events paint the sad picture of the racial cleansing of populations that were deemed uncivilized, unclean, pernicious, savage, unchristian, unhealthy. The Great Plains were “emptied” of the Sioux and their bison to make way for the railway that would link East and West, make way for white European civilization to bear the flag of progress, unhindered by whooping, horse-riding beasts that lived a hunter’s life in the dark forests or on the arid plains. It was a war of “extirpation” (John Knox). The native savages were left with a choice between Americanization or extermination. The majority chose the latter! From one million natives to 400,000 today, is that not a genocide, and a well-planned one at that?
There can be no doubt that the white European settlers acted out of racial hatred, a hatred that can only be explained by an incoherent and unsound biological farrago. The colonist had never lived for any lengthy time with the Native American, nor had he offered any opportunity of fellowship or amity with them. One can only hate someone whom he knows well… or whom he completely ignores! That “unknown Other” has indeed always been the trigger of racial hatred.
The Army and the pioneering European colonists endeavoured to wipe out the Native American’s presence in the forests or on the plains in order to appropriate their lands and farm them in accordance with the white European code of property ownership, a code quite estranged from the nomadic way of life of the Native American hunter. Racial hatred between the colonists and the Native American seems to me intimately bound to their very diametric ways of life: the sedentarized white European farmer and the nomad “redskin” hunter.
By succintly summarizing the racial motivations of the genocide of the Native Americans, my colleague then collated them to the genocide of the Armenian nation. He reminded me that the first outbreaks of genocidal violence in 1892 at Merzifan and at Tokat in 1893, and the uninterrupted pogroms that continued up until the 1915 deportation to the desert of Deir ez-Zor in Syria and the roundups in Istanbul, are events that run parallel to those that were perpetrated against the Native Americans. For indeed, these parallel events are not to be waved off as historical coincidences. The theory of the supremacy of the white European race was being put to practice here and there: North America, Southwest Africa and Ottoman Turkey. You say that the Turks are not European? That is very true. But how they were contaminated by those nefarious theories we shall develop afterwards.
Like the Native Americans, the Armenians chose to fight, so as not to lose their identity by a forced and humiliating assimilation. There are, nevertheless, diverging points concerning the Turkish treatment of Armenians when we compare them to the white European treatment of the Native Americans. First of all, the Seljuk Turks of the eleventh century who invaded Armenian territory via Persia were not motivated by racial pretexts nor genuine hatred of the Other. Being nomads, racial prejudice or ethnic discrepancies played absolutely no role in their driving force ever forward into unknown lands to conquer them. They were not farmers bent on cultivating the soil or fencing-in property. The Seljuk nomad warriors defeated the sedentarized and civilized communities of Armenia and there founded their communities (beylikler), settling among the dense Armenian population. This cohabitation is essential, for the Seljuk Turks did not consider themselves racially or biologically superior, or even fundamentally different than Armenians. Indeed, Seljuk Turks and Armenians collaborated in many fields of crafts, arts and sciences. It was only with the advent of the Ottoman Dynasty and its exponential growth into the 1800s when political, economic and social reforms were carried out in the Ottoman Empire under the influence of the European powers that biological theories of superior and inferior races began to inspire the future leaders of the Young Turk Movement. Theories that Talat Paşa, Enver Paşa, Ziya Gökalp and others had learned at universities in Paris and Berlin.
Talat Paşa, Djemal Bey and Enver Paşa collaborated to form the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihad ve Terahki Cemiyeti), whose underlining strategy was the biological definition of the Turkish race as a superior race as formulated by Ziya Gökalp, a Young Turk intellectual and sociologist. This intellectual and political alliance concocted the concept of Turkification, by which the minority races of the empire had no other choice but to assimilate the illustrious values of the Turkish race, values such as language, religion, customs, dress, names, etc. Turkification, Islamization and Modernization—Türkeşmek, Islamlaşmak, Muasırlaşmak—formed the triad of social reforms of the 19th century, and provided an excellent pretext to the genocide of the Armenian nation when these “unloyal subjects” rebuffed the privilege of adopting them. Pan-Turanism, which Gökalp and the Young Turk leaders devised, theoretically implied the total assimilation of the Christian populations of Anatolia, the majority of which were Armenians, the result of which meant that their language, family names, education and lifestyle would be irreversibly effaced (silme). Is it not odd that, at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, the Turks, who had never theoretically reflected upon the biological values which created racial distinction—i.e., the inferiority or superiority of races—quite naturally deemed themselves a more superior race than the Armenians? As if the Turkish race had evolved into a more noble, modern, civilized breed of humanity than the Armenians, who still lived in their mountainous villages, still followed superstitious religious rites, still dressed in their traditional costumes. The paradox of it all is that this “biological status,” imposed on the Armenians, originated in Europe, and whose criteria of appraisal is thoroughly European in substance and spirit! These racial considerations, biologically “proven” were imported during the Tanzimat reform period. How else would the Turk have learned them? Did the anti-semitic Germans not logistically help the Turks in the genocide of the Armenians?
Faced with the same ultimatum as the Native Americans—assimilation or extermination (imha)—the Armenians also rejected demands to assimilate, to barter their identity, and so took up arms first against the Hamdian squadrons of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, then the Young Turk armies and Kurdish militia and finally against Atatürk’s Republic: Merzifan (1892), Tokat (1893), the uprisings and struggles against the Hamidian Regiments (Hamidiye alayları), who under the authority of Sultan Abdul Hamid II killed 300,000 Armenians between 1894 and 1896, the defense of Sassoun (1894), the raid and 14-hour occupation of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul in 1896, the defense of Van (1915) and the heroic battle at Musa Dagh in 1915. The battles and slaughter continued under the auspices of Atatürk: the pogroms of Marash and Kars in 1920 and the burning of the Armenian districts of Izmir (Smyrna) in 1923. Yet, however unflinchingly courageous the Armenians fought, like the Native Americans, they were heavily outnumbered and militarily ill-equipped. Thus ensued the total extermination (toptan imhanın), cleansing (tasfiye) and deportation (sürgün yollanması) of the Armenian nation. This program is commonly called Anadolu’nun Türkeştirilmesi, a strategic coordinated program to Turkify Anatolia long before World War I began. Let us not forget the words of T.E. Lawrence: “The Young Turk had killed the Armenians, not because they were Christians, but because they were Armenians; and for this same reason they herded Arab Moslems and Arab Christians into the same prison, and hanged them together on the same scaffold.”
The Turks acquired the intellectual theories of biological racial differences from the Europeans. These theories were framed in a discursive strategy and materialized as a justificatory weapon in the genocide of the Armenians as they had been in the genocide of the Native Americans, the Hereros and of course the Jews. Though over the course of history communities and nations have savagely attempted to assimilate or eliminate one another, it is in 19th century Europe where the concept of assimilation and extermination was theorized and exercised on a large scale. Both the Armenians and the Native Americans were and still are victims of racial theory.
Two Representations of a Guilt Complex
Our discussion became more and more parodoxical as we reflected upon the aftermath of the ethnic and cultural genocide of the two nations in question: How are these nations represented in the eyes of the descendents of their murderers? How have the European communities of the United States and the Turks of Turkey today portrayed these defeated peoples in history accounts, in school textbooks, in the media? How have they been assimilated into the social fabric of daily life? My colleague believed that both conquering nations suffer from guilt complexes, out of which have evolved two diametrically opposed defense mechanisms: vainglory and effacement.
In the United States, Native Americans enjoy extraordinary visibility in the eyes of the public, both popular and to a certain extent academic. How many Cowboy and Indian westerns have been filmed at Hollywood studios, which represent the good white rifle-bearing cowboys shooting down and routing the savage, tomahawk-brandishing “red-skinned” Indians? How many toponymic references can be read throughout the United States: street names, cities, regions and states? How many topographic references: rivers, lakes, forest, mountains? How many studies have been taken up on Native American languages, customs and religion since Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir at North American universities? How many Native Americans live corralled into the most arid regions of the western states, eking out a livelihood? Or have fought in the American Armed Forces and lost their lives? There is even a numismatic representation of an Indian chieftain on the tailside of a U.S. nickel! Does this ubiquitous representation not bespeak an American epistemological debt toward Native Americans, an overt and honest display of intellectual cleanliness and historical probity? Indeed, although conquered and humiliated, the Native American identity does participate very actively in the making of the history of the United States of America. Historians, activists and writers such as John Collier, Howard Zinn, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Angela Cavender Wilson have fought to ensure that their names, history and cultural figures remain in school textbooks in an objective, unbiased manner.
Yet, the fact that the Native American had and still has refused “total” assimilation points to an important existential reality: in spite of the appointed reservations, mass media derision and slant view of them by teachers in classrooms, they have retained their dignity. The Native Americans preferred to fight, die and be deported rather than adopt the identity of their conquerors, submit to cultural transformation as prescribed by the Americanization program contrived by George Washington and John Knox, and which attained its political and social apex in the early 1900s. True, many were duped into bartering off their homesteads in exchange for American citizenship in 1887, and in 1924 those Native Americans living on reservations exchanged their traditional self-governance and autonomy for American citizenship. And when they take to drink or to drugs, and choose indigence rather than conforming to the American “Way of Life”, it is their choice as the vanquished Native.
With these Acts and reforms, it would seem that American decision-makers have attempted to come to grips with with a guilt complex of the genocide that has provoked paradoxical defense mechanisms: Americanization by a vast program of allocated reservations, obligatory religious and civil education, but at the same time commercialization, patriotic engagement and historical consideration, however prejudiced. A mercantile strategy of gaudy visibility accommodates a public who exhibits no real empathy for the Native American, and actually enforces this indifference within a mold of cinematographic conformism. Americanization has unearthed and acknowledged the indigenous cultural substratum of North American history, but has done so mainly in histrionic hues and tones, that is, by impressing the public with images and signs whose existential meaning has been conscientiously evacuated, whose linguistic code echoes hollow because today it is identified with the remote past like an object of folkloric value in a museum showcase. Save a handful of university specialists or political activists who have truly attempted to draw a legitimate picture of Native Americans today, and this cultural heritage to the United States, this heritage has been grossly stamped as a stereotyped “pose of a savage and primitive people.”
Now what about the remaining 60,000 or so Armenians of Turkey, citizens of Mustafa Atatürk’s modern Republic? They have escaped alloted homesteads and reservations simply because so few have survived the genocide, and those few who live in Istanbul or in Izmir have the means to survive without depending on the Turks as their “benefactors.” They have indeed become citizens, albeit “second class” (ikinci sınıf), a citizenship granted to them, however, only after having Turkified their names and embraced, not the identity of their conquerors, but the code of nationalistic conduct to which the Turks demanded them to adhere, sine qua non. On the other hand, has their 2000-year cultural heritage evolved into an irremediable spectacle of television banter and literary lampoon? Not at all and quite the contrary. With the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, their existence has inexorably dwindled; towns, villages, streets, districts, mountains, lakes, nothing of their historical presence has been deemed worthy of patrimonial preservation, even histrionic preservation! Their very family and first names have been substituted for more “appropriate” Turkish ones so as to suit the modernized Turkish Republic’s assimilating program of effacement. Their alphabet and the sounds of that alphabet disappeared with their expropriated schools, deportation and stolen property, but ironically enough, words of Armenian origin have crept into the Turkish language to such an extent that Turks themselves hardly realize that the words carry a “local foreign” (yerli yabancı) stamp. As can be expected, the majority are slang words.
In short, it was as if the State of Armenia never really existed, a figment in the imaginations of the Armenians themselves, or in all those who erroneously supported them.
Atatürk and his successors implanted the sickness of Amnesia, ingrafted the seeds of historical Effacement. It is a graft whose sowers profess that “forgetfulness” (unutkanlık) is the best way to forget! This is no paradoxical defense mechanism; it is the Turkish guilty conscience that cries out and has constructed the complex, a mechanism that has effectively worked in Turkey since 1923, and not only among the less educated strata of the Turkish population. Once injected, the malady spread and deepened to all the classes of Republican Turkey. The malady became a lethal virus to “make forget” (unutulmak) the innocent and hard-working populations of Anatolia, those “treacherous subjects”, those “disloyal bigots.” At the same time, Turkish intellectuals conjured up a plethora of historical arguments to justify their “disappearance” in the most distortedly grotesque manner. Effacement and calumnious existential disparagement have been the Turkish defense mechanisms to attenuate the pangs of guilt that erode the conscience, mechanisms that assuage the periodic tides of abysmal guilt that has spiralled out of control, and every now and then has stirred public indignation, assassinations and conspiracies, not only against the Armenians of Turkey (in Istanbul), but against those Turks who do not necessarily support Armenians but defend the historical and juridical reality of genocide, and who want to understand the true nature of Turkish-Armenian relationships in the past and the present.
If the Turkish defense mechanism to the genocide of the Armenian nation has been the voluntary spreading of the “social malady of forgetfulness” (toplumsal hastalığı unutkanlık), it has functioned quite efficiently, for it sanctions and warrants the Rupublican policy of overt, arrogant and aggressive nationalism. Effacement strategy is not a substitute for a guilt complex; it is its epiphany, and has sufficiently abated (but not totally deadened) the fear of the murdered Armenian, who at unexpected moments, returns to haunt the lieus of their former existence. Indeed, they seem to arise from unmarked graves, scattered here and there on the Anatolian plains, in its rivers, or ensconced deeply in the gorges, ravines and minds of their killers, and there, like spectres (öcü), take up residence like an intruder and impose an invisible presence, inciting the architects of effacement to efface their uninvited presence more totally, more thoroughly, until the heavy doses of their lethal injections disclose their neurotic obsessions of the boogeyman’s estranged but terribly familiar Voice.
Property Appropriation and Theft
We have already evoked John Locke’s philosophy of the acquisition of property by natural rights, and how the Native American lands had been appropriated by violence or cunning. My colleague asked whether or not it made much difference to steal land by invasion, slaughter and deportation, or with $24 worth of trinkets? The intention behind the acts altered nothing since the means justified the ends; hunting lands became “private” property to be fenced and exploited for pecuniary gains. So unlike the Native American’s vision of the world, land under the code of conduct of the European colonist transformed into an object of mercantilism, of buying, selling or bartering. Territorial infringement existed among the six hundred or so Native tribes of North America, but the skirmishes that ensued never caused any great damage or deaths. In the words of John Collier, “The Indians practiced an ecological balance within the forests, plains, deserts, waters and animal life.” Hence, forays were “purposely controlled and cautious.” Their mêlées into each others’ territories never amounted to more than animal rustling or martial exercises similar to those of the Bedouin tribes of Arabia before the advent of Islam, where tribes would indulge in a display of bravado by fiercely drawing their swords or firing a few shots from their antiquated rifles in an attempt to purloin a sheep or filch a camel!
It was ownership of property and its enclosure that separated the worlds of the Native American hunter and the white European farmer. And it was the world of the farmer, and consequently the industrialist, that prevailed. We find the inverse situation with the invading Seljuk nomads and the settled Armenians. Neither the Seljuks nor the Ottomans contrived a coordinated plan to appropriate Armenian property; both dynasties remained resolutely nomadic in their essential natures until the 19th century. Like the Native Americans, whose land drew its telluric forces from their totemic gods and thus was regarded as sacred, the Seljuks, too, regarded property as sacred in accordance with Quranic law. References to property occur 86 times in the Quran (mal, mülk, emlâk). However, for the Islamized Turks, owning property or goods meant economic sovereignty, that is, the possibility of buying, selling or bartering. It was a means, a guide to human relationships (mu’amalal). For property had been endowed to humanity by God as a gift of His eternal goodness because the ownership of property leads to cultural enrichment and enterprise. If this sacredness is breached, it will lead to the ruin of civilization, as warned by Ibn Khaldun.
The sacredness of property, even that belonging to the non-Muslim, predominated until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. No longer considered sacred by the Young Turks’ secular standards, the politics of expropriation accompanied the massacres and deportation, either by Turks or by Kurds. The “cleansing” of Anatolia was not followed so much by property destruction, but by its outright theft and the maniacal belief that hidden treasures could be unearthed either in the gutted, vacant homes or in their abandoned gardens. From the Turkish or Kurdish viewpoint, it wasn’t theft at all since the former occupants had abandoned their homes and forsaken their goods, as if the abandonment was not a consequence of the massacres and deportation. Besides, most Islamized Turks and Kurds had no real qualms about land grabbing, legitimate in their eyes since nothing is said in the Quran or in the hadiths of property claim when the occupant is not a Muslim. “Violation of a Muslim’s life, property and dignity is forbidden for another Muslim,” so says a hadith.
Since nothing is mentioned regarding non-believers, it is permissible to acquire property legally that has been abandoned.
As for Christian life, property and dignity? The hadiths make no mention of this possible occurrence. As Server Tanilli has written:
“As I see it, the deportation of Armenians, that horrible event, was probably part of the ‘national economy’ policy as well as the security measures that a state of war necessitates, since this policy sought to clear the way for Muslims. It must be underlined that, as regards the Greeks, even if no law was promulgated against them—contrary to what was done to the Armenians—many amongst them in fact immigrated or were forced to immigrate. The bourgeoisie of Anatolia having been up till then solidly made up of Greeks and Armenians, these measures created a gap, which was one of the factors that quickened the process of the accession of Muslims to a bourgeois class.”
Consequently, homes were immediately occupied or allocated to meritorious army officers. Schools were transformed into government buildings. Houses or public buildings that served no civil or military purpose were left to crumble, and eventually cleared away. Churches and chapels were transformed either into mosques or animal shelters, others used by the military as targets during rifle and machine-gun practice. And although many Armenian families of Istanbul and the diaspora still retain their property deeds, no juridical entity has helped them nor will ever help them redeem their stolen property in a court of law. Mustafa Atatürk made very sure of that with the implicit aid of the western European powers who supported him in the founding of the Republic. A blind eye was turned to Armenian claims as Atatürk proceeded to redistribute all stolen property or money or industries to the prominent members of the rising bourgeoisie of Anatolia, in complete violation of the Amasya Protocol of 1919. Atatürk’s intentions toward Armenians were made perfectly clear when addressing his compatriots:
“Upon these fruitful lands, the Armenians have no rights. This country is yours. It is Turkish. The history of this country was Turkish, is at present Turkish and will be eternally Turkish.”
The theft of Armenian property supplied the fundamental capital essential for the affluence of the Turkish agricultural and industrial sectors of Anatolia. We may say that the genocide and the expropriation of Armenian property and goods in Anatolia contributed to put into effective practice the racial theories of the Young Turks and further solidified or validated Turkish nationalism. For this reason, guilt complexes do not presuppose regret. How often Turkish authorities have iterated:
“…yes we did it, and if necessary we would do it again.”
Atatürk’s theory or concept of treason (ihanette kavranmıştır), and his hatred (nefret) of the Armenians instituted the strategic policy of property expropriation and effacement (silme). The Armenian nation was effaced from the face of Anatolia and from the pages of the history of Turkey, written and periodically rewritten by sociologists, historians and ideologues of the Turkish political Republican machine. Atatürk’s actions were not at all spontaneous, but well-planned and coordinated, since for him “autonomy within the motherland means treason.” Therefore, the only method of dealing with autonomy-seeking traitors is to deprive them of the land on which they pretend to found their autonomy. And so “afflicted with slaughter, their traces effaced and culture cleansed,” began Atatürk’s novel and democratic adventure of Republicanism.
The seeds of the Turkish Republic were planted only after the 2000-year roots of the Armenian nation had been wretched out and burned. It thus follows that his “enterprise/politics of denial” (inkâr industrisi/politikası) has steadily seeped into the collective conscience of the Turkish population, and has paradoxically fashioned and fostered both the collective guilt complex and the defense mechanism that flowed and still flows from this guilt complex in guise of an ersatz history of the Turkish Republic.
Is genocide a result of religious fanatacism? Our discussion and exhange became more turbulent when we touched upon the delicate subject of religion, albeit my colleague, a Muslim, did not exercise his faith in any ostentatious manner, nor did he ever moralize or sermonize on it. My question was always a general one: Is religion the primary cause of violence? The answer—if there is any answer—lies not in the religion itself, but in the manner men and women will interpret and practice that religion. All the founding sacred texts of religions exhort peace, but historically have waged war to attain that peace! Now as regards the genocide of the Native Americans, there can be no doubt that religious zeal drove the “God-fearing” European colonists either to convert or eliminate the “pernicious creatures” that stood in the path of the white man’s progress. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a New England Puritan minister, appalled that the savages refused the “gift of civilization” (namely, Christianity) happily noted that:
“The woods were almost cleared of those pernicious creatures, to make room for a better growth.”
That “better growth” is of course Christianity, and notably Puritanism. This being said, the quest for land and property was the European settlers’ primary motivation in their belligerence toward the indigenous nations of the United States. Religion served either as a legitimate vindication in the name of civilization and progress or as a convenient palliative to ease one’s culpability, however evanescent or fugitive this culpability might have been. Puritans, convinced of the absolute values of their creed, were completely unprepared psychologically and socially to plumb the religiosity of these “pernicious creatures,” and thus acknowledge or condone their wild dancing round totem poles, their whooping and yelling on horseback, faces smeared with awesome colors and agitated heads bobbing up and down fiercely with feathered headgear as they invoked their pagan gods of the sky, mountains, rivers and plains. For these reasons, the Puritans considered these creatures demons or devils, unfit for the civilizing path that the colonists were hastily tracing.
The role religion played in the genocide of the Armenian nation is more complex. Christians are “People of the Book” (‘Ahl al-Kitāb), and according to Sharia law, Jews and Christians are to be protected under the dhimmi system, which the Ottomans called the millet system. This centuries-long system was reformed during the Tanzimat period (1839-1876), setting the stage for the Constitution of 1876. Sultan Abdul Hamîd II, however, invoked Islam to stir and excite Turkish Muslim suspicion and contempt against the zimmī (dhimmi) or the non-Muslim subject, notably Armenians, when his demand for Christians to become patriots by Ottomanization (Hıristiyan vatandaşlarımız osmanlılaştırlacaktır), that is, to convert to Islam, failed to convince “the loyal nation.” If many Armenians were conscripted into the Ottoman Army, few acquiesced to disavow their 2000-year religious identity. Inversely, those who had been forcibly converted to Islam over the centuries reclaimed their Christian heritage after the 1863 Regulation of the Armenian Nation (Nizāmnām-i millet-i Ermeniyēn), when the Ottoman authorities granted them the opportunity to reconvert. The Sultan, foiled in his strategy of Islamization, succumbed to his instinct of rancor and revenge (kin ve intikam). The massacres at Kumkapı (1890), Sassoun (1894), Van (1897) and Adana (1909) belie any intention of allowing Armenian autonomy or of founding a republic based on a common history (ortak tarihin) as dictated by the collective memory (kolektif hafızlar) of all the subjects of the empire. This common history was doomed from the outset, and in its place was inscribed a kaba saba tarihi.
The Young Turks, who dethroned the Sultan in 1909 and took effective control of the empire in 1913, did envisage a homogeneous Anatolia of Islamized citizens and “at the beginning accepted that those Armenians who did effectively convert to Islam were not to be deported. This policy, however, for political reasons soon changed, and even those converted Armenians were deported.”
Despite the ideological shift from a religious to a racial plan or strategy of assimilation, the Young Turks, Atatürk himself, and his more militant successors (Boz Kurtler), colluded with certain Islamic conservative forces (Sunna) in Turkey to forge a nationalistic ideology of unshakeable coherency: a Kemalist and Islamic alliance which has weathered all political storms, and has shifted to the AKP (Erdoğan’s party) and military coalition of today. This ideology assures the allegiance of the military and the conservative clergy that wields unlimited power and exercises extraordinary influence over the Turkish population, especially in the Anatolian towns, villages and hamlets.
And it is this solid coalition, this combination of might and spirit, this uneasy yet undeviating coexistence that has coerced the Muslim population of Turkey into believing the subtly fabricated myth of the disappearance of the Armenian nation, first from Anatolia then from the pages of schoolchildren’s history of Turkey. This coercion and its consequences are known as the “collective mystery” (kolektif sırrıdır), enshrouded within the veils of servile complacency.
A Pause in our Discussion and Correspondence
Our discussion and epistolory exchange came to a gradual halt on the irksome topic of semantics: genocide (soykırım), massacres (katliam), mass murder (kitlesel kayım), cultural genocide (kültürel soykırımısı), ethnic cleansing (ethnik/ırksal tasfiye), catastrophe (büyük felaket), ethnocide, etc. The fact that over a million Armenians disappeared from their homeland or were forced to live on other lands than their own, points quite overtly to a coordinated strategy to put an end to their existence, and existence is a fundamental compound of ontological identity and its cultural manifestations. Hence, a genocide assumes a cultural genocide because that culture, intimately linked to its ontic source of existence, is no longer free to perpetuate a specific cultural destiny bound to that ontic source. Historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has illustrated quite plainly that the:
“Proponents of the default position emphasize attrition by disease despite the other causes equally deadly, if not more so. In doing so, they refuse to accept that the colonization of America was genocidal by plan, not simply the tragic fate of populations lacking immunity to disease.”
Genocidal by plan! Attrition by disease is as lame a justification of genocide as the Turkish exculpatory refrain which intones that Armenians brought their own fate upon themselves by collaborating with the enemy during the First World War. The extermination of nations is never a quirk of history, nor is it a sterile polemic of statistics: 1.5 million Armenians or 800,000? 600,000 Native Americans or a million? Nor is it a question of the survivors of genocide who continue to identify themselves, more or less, with their defeated culture. It seems more important to investigate the governing “victorious” majority that politically prevents the “defeated” minority from living their culture. Due to this constraint, the “victorious” have developed alternative resources to nullify and mitigate the survivors’ periodic demands or sudden manifestations of discontentment: either they prohibit them from any overt display of what remains of their cultural dignity as in the case with the Turkish government toward the Armenians of Turkey, or overwhelm the public with films, tourist attractions at Disneyland, amiable Hopi handicraft workshops, radio or television airtime for “minority communities” authorized with the most demagogic high-mindedness and/or exculpatory munificence as in the case with many of the states in the United States toward the Native Americans.
It goes without saying that the Armenians living in Istanbul or Izmir can go to church, attend conferences or concerts in Armenian in their churches. Armenian children can go to Armenian schools to learn their language and literature, adults can earn a good living and are not threatened by expulsion or the expropriation of their property. The Armenians are “tolerated” and tolerance signifies a concession dictated from above, not a victory from below.
Similarly, the Native Americans can dance their traditional dances on their allocated territories (or for tourists) without fear of reprisal. They can work alongside the many other communities of the United States, go to church and join the Armed Forces. Nevertheless, my colleague and myself posed the same question over and over again: in spite of these allowances, are the consciences of the defeated minorities free to roam the lands that were once theirs without playing the role of the second-class citizen that has been appointed to them? Are the Armenians of Istanbul or Izmir free to go to church in Kayseri or Van, other than on those occasions permitted to them by the Turkish government, and whose ceremonies (Christmas and Easter) are heavily guarded for “security reasons”? Armenian identity has been thoroughly wiped off the map of Turkey, save a few restored churches in Anatolia to meet certain international standards of “fair-play” toward minorities.
Are the Native Americans’ consciences free to represent their cultural heritage without the showy spectacles coated in a fine layer of commiseration, then broken up into a jumble of bright spangled-wrapped handicrafts to be peddled off expeditiously for popular amusement and curiosity? Or at best are they solicited by the erudite sociologist, linguist or anthropologist to “save” or “record” what is left of their severed past?
The social conditions of these two nations may have improved over the years thanks to genuinely interested historians’ and activists’ conferences and writings. Nevertheless, no conference, symposium, book, bill or law will ever return their stolen lands to them, or revive the dignity of their ancestral identity.
We therefore concluded, temporarily, that a nation that has been confronted by the choice either to adopt another’s culture by subterfuge or by violence, or face cultural extinction is a nation that has experienced the agony of cultural genocide; namely, the extinction of their ontic identity rooted deeply in the lands upon which their ancestors had been born and bred. A nation and its language which “survives” only is a nation and language that is all but non-existent. For they are no longer considered as “realities” by Authority, only mere “survivals” of some remote past.
No concessions from the victorious authorities, however good- or bad-willed, will ever efface the humiliation and shame of that ontic loss.
Or will a full and official avowal of the genocidal plans efface that humiliation and shame?
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