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How Far Did the Armenian Genocide Extend? A New Book Examines that Question.

August 8, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: TurkeyArmeniaMiddle EastOttoman EmpireKurds

How Far Did the Armenian Genocide Extend? A New Book Examines that Question.

In The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924, Morris and Ze'evi make a compelling case that Turkey carried out a gruesome genocide on its Armenian population, but are unpersuasive in arguing that it was extended to all Christians living within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire and then what became modern Turkey.

Finally, whereas the Nazis transported Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe, notably Poland, the Turks—though less so the Kurds—often transported Armenians simply to expel them from their lands. The authors offer little evidence of Turkish attempts to murder Christians once they resided outside Turkish territory.

It is noteworthy that, until the latter part of World War I and then its immediate aftermath, when Greece invaded Turkey, the Turks perpetrated far fewer outrages against Greek Christians, even as the Armenians were being systematically massacred. The authors wish to treat the persecution and killing of all Christians as genocide. Yet if the term is to be applied at all, it is to what was inflicted upon the Armenians. Indeed, in a recently discovered 1949 television interview, Lemkin himself spoke only of the Armenian genocide, rather than the “Christian genocide.” It is not at all clear that the Turks intended to commit genocide against the Greeks, or, for that matter, the Assyrians, whom they also expelled. Mass murders, certainly. Crimes against humanity, for sure. But genocide, as Scottish jurisprudence would put it, is “not proven.”

Morris and Ze’evi emphasize that underlying Turkish behavior was Islamic resentment of Armenian material success and national ambitions; the Christians no longer “knew their place” and had to be put down. Yet there was another dhimmi community that survived the killings virtually untouched: the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. The authors note that, on occasion, Jews were also expelled from their homes. In general, however, Jews were not attacked and, in at least one case, Jewish homes were marked as such so that mobs would refrain from invading them.

 If, as Morris and Ze’evi assert, Islamism underlay much of what was inflicted upon Christians, the Jews, too, should have been victims. Unlike the Greeks, who could look for assistance to the government in Athens and to the Western great powers, or the Armenians, who sought Russia’s protection—whether they received it is another matter—the Jews had virtually no one to turn to for help, apart from perhaps their co-religionists in the West. Moreover, many Jews had prospered under the Ottomans, surely a source of Muslim envy. Indeed, one Joseph Nasi became so close to the Sultans Suleiman I and Selim II that he was actually ennobled as the Duke of Naxos and Count of Andros. The Jews should have been as much the targets of persecution as the Christians, yet the authors never explain why that was not the case, if Islam was as important a factor as they assert it to have been.

Nor is this all. The authors mention neither the Vatican nor the pope throughout the entire volume. One wonders why the leader of the world’s Catholics said nothing about the Turkish atrocities. After all, a small percentage of Armenians were Catholics who accepted papal primacy. Surely the authors might have commented on the Vatican’s silence, which foreshadowed Rome’s seeming indifference to the plight of European Jewry after Hitler rose to power in 1933. Not until November 2000 did Pope John Paul II issue a joint statement with Karekin II, the leader of the Armenian Catholics, which explicitly referred to the Armenian genocide. In so doing, John Paul II became the first pope to employ the term; Pope Francis followed with a similar reference in 2015. Both statements were met with anger by Turkish authorities who not only continue to deny that any such thing took place but also to criminalize references to genocide, as they did in 2006 when they prosecuted the noted novelist Elif Shazam for having one of her characters do so in her acclaimed novel, The Bastard of Istanbul.

Morris and Ze’evi also fail to appreciate the irony that the Kurds, who in the past several decades have been the victims of Turkish efforts to eradicate their identity, were the government’s willing executioners. How was it that the Turks turned on their Kurdish allies? Surely it was not a matter of Islamism, as Kurds are Sunni Muslims just as the Turks are. More likely it was simply the next phase of Turkish nationalism; having eradicated the Christians either through murder or expulsion, the next major target was the Kurds, whom the government designated as “Mountain Turks” as late as 1991. If that indeed is the case, one must ask why Morris and Ze’evi focus so heavily on the Islamic roots of the persecution of Christians.

Perhaps Morris and Ze’evi have an additional agenda, which obliquely surfaces in their concluding chapter. Even as they compare and contrast Turkish treatment of Christians with Nazi treatment of Jews, they also reference the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in this regard, Morris’ changing perspective on that conflict must be taken into account. Morris initially acquired an international reputation and considerable notoriety as one of Israel’s leading revisionist historians, who argued that, during Israel’s War of Independence, there was a deliberate effort to expel Arabs from Israeli territory. Subsequent to the failure of the Camp David negotiations he took a much harder line against the Palestinians, concluding that the Palestinians would never accept a two-state solution and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is but one aspect of what Samuel Huntington termed “the clash of civilizations.”

MORRIS AND Ze’evi observe that “the de-Christianization, demographically speaking, of Syria, Iraq, and Palestine” is “nearing completion.” They argue that “[t]hese may be the final stages of the Arab and Turkish ‘awakenings.’” As an example, they note that “Bethlehem, once an overwhelmingly Christian town, is now majority Muslim.” Indeed, Christians have been victimized by radical Muslims in a wide range of countries including Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and Indonesia. Their rights are also severely restricted in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, other Arab states, such as Bahrain and Jordan, permit Christian worship and have not been the scene of widespread murder of Christians or attacks on their churches.

Morris, therefore, may have been overstating his case when, in the context of his reevaluation of the Palestinians after 2000, he asserted that

there is a deep problem in Islam. It’s a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien...Revenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture. Therefore, the people we are fighting and the society that sends them have no moral inhibitions.

Might not what appears to be Morris’ apparent antipathy toward Islam have colored the approach that he and his co-author took to detailing Turkish persecution of Christians?

Ze’evi and he certainly provide an exhaustive account of Turkish policies towards Christians from the waning years of the Ottoman Caliphate through the first decade of Atatürk’s rule. Despite its title, however, their work does not conclusively prove that the successive Turkish government deliberately pursued a policy of genocide against all Christians living in Anatolia either before, during or after the First World War. Christians other than Armenians were certainly victims not only of ethnic cleansing but also of crimes against humanity. But successive Turkish governments did not seek to eradicate either Greeks or Assyrians simply because they were members of a distinct group. On the other hand, that was precisely the objective of the crimes that the Turks perpetrated on the Armenians, and the book certainly puts paid any lingering Turkish claims that what took place against these unfortunate victims, especially in 1915–16, was anything other than a genocide. When Hitler referred to the “annihilation of the Armenians,” he knew exactly what he was talking about.

Dov S. Zakheim was an Under Secretary of Defense (2001–2004) and a Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (1985–1987). He is Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.