Today is the 103rd anniversary of the start of the genocide against the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. The essay below by Jen L. Jones was originally published in a slightly different form at a website that has since closed down. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.
The Ottoman Armenians: The Fate of Christians in a Muslim Land
Against the combined forces of Turkish nationalism and Islam, the Christian Armenian minority’s struggle for equal rights and reform met with disaster on a massive scale. We now identify that time of their persecution and suffering as the Armenian Genocide
by Jen L. Jones
Genocides in human history are thankfully rare — modern genocides even more so, since we now have the will and the means to end them. Or so we think.
No doubt in our distant past, before recorded history, genocides occurred but left little trace. In more recent times, say 1915, for example, news of genocide in the Ottoman Empire could be and was telegraphed around the world and its harrowing images published in such newspapers as The New York Times. One might think that knowing about atrocities would spur action — that the world would care. But for the most part the world just sighed and looked away. That particular genocide, brought to the front pages of the Western press, then proceeded apace.
April 24, 2018 is the 103rd commemoration of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, carried out mostly in the lands now known as Turkey. Millions of words will be written about this event; tears will be shed; denials will rage.
Yet, despite the worldwide ceremonies and events marking this, how many of us really understand the nature of this massive atrocity?
For most of us, placing these Armenians in space and time is a fog-shrouded exercise which reveals the weakness of our educations. Yes, most of us have heard about this, but how many of our university youth could quickly point out on a globe where these events happened? How many could name the powers that orchestrated this? How many would know of the historical precedents in the 19th century that foreshadowed the genocide of 1915?
And if this weren’t the 103rd anniversary, how many would know how long ago this happened?
Imperatives to Understanding
Placing the land known as Armenia, both then and now, within its geographical context is crucial to understanding this genocide. Knowing the religion of the Armenians, their long history of Christianity, the deep nature of their faith — all are vital to comprehension.
Knowing the extent of the Ottoman Empire, its history, and the primacy it placed on Islam are all further crucial steps to full understanding — as is knowing how and why the revolutionary Young Turks had seized power from Sultan Hamid in 1908.
Also, placing the Armenian Genocide within its temporal and historical context of surging Turkish nationalism — melded to Islam — in the turbulent years prior to World War I, is imperative. The rising expectations of individual freedoms and equality that swirled in a milieu of crumbling imperial powers are also key. The Christian Armenians, long second-class subjects, longed for that equality.
Learning more about all these aspects isn’t difficult. Print sources and the Internet abound with information, but be prepared to be shocked and saddened. The suffering of the Armenians was profound; the atrocities beyond belief.
All this background information is essential to understanding, but it still isn’t sufficient to explain why the ruling Young Turks made their fateful choice to commit genocide.
Why did the Young Turks Order Genocide?
Most of today’s articles appearing on the Genocide will focus on the numbers and the nature of the atrocities. These are chilling: around 1.5 million people slaughtered or hounded to their deaths; cruelties of unimaginable horror seared the land. We must never forget.
But in digging for reasons, trying to comprehend the thinking of the masterminds — that is where the lessons for humanity will truly be found.
Purported reasons abound, but what really was the crux, the pivotal factor which led the Young Turks to their fateful and awful decision?
Beneath the often-used excuses of military excesses, the need for national security, and war-time chaos, lies another reason why the Armenians were the target of such ferocity. That reason is religion, in particular Islam, and even more particularly, Islamic Jihad — aimed full force at the Armenians, followers of Christ in a land where Islam then reigned supreme, although the land we now know as Turkey had previously been Christian.
This is not just speculation — the facts are easily found. Many respected scholars have written about this. Among them are Taner Akçam, a Turkish historian and professor, who has been targeted by the Erdogan regime in Turkey for his support of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist murdered in 2007; Andrew Bostom who has meticulously detailed Islamic Jihad in his writings; and, Bat Ye’or, who has written extensively on the plight of minorities under Islamic rule.
This perfect storm bore down on the hapless Armenians in 1915, but was genocide its inevitable outcome? Taner Akçam doesn’t believe so:
“Even immediately prior to the genocide decision, there were always other options available to the Ottoman leadership. It is easy to fall into the trap of inevitability when describing historical events. The context and circumstances need not have necessarily resulted in genocide.”
We need to understand that context and those circumstances to know that when the Young Turks chose genocide, it was a deliberate decision — one that was inspired by, and called for, Islamic Jihad.
Akçam, Taner, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006
The photo at the top of this post shows the Armenian Church of Surb Grigor Lusavorich (Saint Gregory the Illuminator, 13th Century) of Tigran Honents, in the ancient city of Ani, looking towards the church’s west facade and entrance.
Ani is a ruined medieval Christian city in what is now eastern Turkey. This “city of one thousand and one churches” was once home to 100,000. The city suffered repeated attacks over the centuries from many forces, including Byzantines, Mongols, and Selçuk and Ottoman Turks. It has seen many massacres. Since it was already a ruin, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 had little effect on it, but the new Republic of Turkey in 1921 issued an order for the monuments of Ani to “be wiped off the face of the earth.” This was only partially carried out, and the site today is a symbol of Armenian cultural and religious heritage.