I am a Turkish American, and on the centenary of the Armenian tragedy of 1915, I thought I should write about my views on the issue.
Every year, around this time, there is usually a lot of media activity on the matter that is widely known as the “Armenian Genocide”. Whether the term “genocide” can be used to describe what happened is in dispute, but there are certain facts about the tragedy that are not in dispute.
But before I write about that tragedy, let me first paint a picture of the period in question.
It is not in dispute that many people died in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. Those were the times when the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, and it rapidly lost a lot of its land first in the Eastern Europe and the Balkans (which is when Greece, Bulgaria, etc gained their independence), and then the Middle East during and after the World War I.
Many muslims and Ottoman Turks were exhiled and killed by the people who rebelled against them, and by the foreign forces that helped them, and the number is in millions. Historian Justin McCarthy was among the experts that unearthed the horrifying and extremely important fact that between the Greek War of Independence and World War I, the Ottoman Empire suffered five and half million dead and five million refugees. This was Europe’s largest loss of life and emigration since the Thirty Years War.
Death of a large number of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 is not in dispute, but a less known fact about the period is that millions of Turks and muslims were also killed in the region at the hands of Greek and Armenian insurgents and militia.
What I keep reading and hearing about this issue every year usually dismisses this side of the events, and only focuses on the Armenian side of the tragedy.
This pattern of death and exhile puts the matter of Armenian deportation and massacres into perspective, and turns this into an act motivated not by hatred, but mostly by fear. This is not to say that there was no hatred involved, but the motivation was mostly based on fear.
Now, let’s talk about what happened to Armenians.
As the reader may or may not know, World War I was fought between 1914 and 1918, and the Ottoman Empire entered war alongside of the Germans and Austrians. British, French and Russian forces were on the other side. There were heavy fighting and a lot of casualties in the Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire against the Russians, and that is the area where most Ottoman Armenians lived. Since the Ottomans had already lost a lot of land in the Balkans before the World War I, and many Eastern European nations gained independence, Armenians in the region saw this as an opportunity for their possible independence from the Ottomans, and chose to fight against the Ottomans alongside the Russian forces, even though they were Ottoman citizens.
This angered and frightened the Ottoman Sultan and the ruling class, and they ordered a forced relocation of the Armenian population from the Eastern provinces where they lived, to the Syrian desert (which was still Ottoman land). The ones who resisted were killed, and many died due to the hardship of the journey. (Starvation, disease, etc).
The number of people died is in dispute. Armenians claim it was as high as 1.5 million people, but the Ottoman and Turkish sources say the number is more like 200 – 300 thousand. Possibly the most accurate number is Justin McCarthy’s figure, which is about 600,000 Armenian deaths.
The number is not really important here of course, since one number versus another will not make this less of a tragedy.
The important thing to note here is that most of the deaths were localized in the region in question, and the Armenians who lived in the other regions of the Ottoman Empire were not affected, meaning that they weren’t gathered and deported or executed. There are reports of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals being executed in Istanbul and other western provinces, but this was limited to the outspoken Armenian intellectuals, and there are no reliable reports of common people in the other regions being affected.
Now, there are many efforts that try to make this look like something more similar to the genocide against the jews by the Nazis, and some of those efforts talk about concentration camps for Armenians, which is a complete fiction as far as I can tell, and not supported by any verifiable facts.
The main example of a genocide in most people’s mind is what Nazis did to Jews during World War II, and there are many attempts to make one look like the other.
But no matter how you look at it, there are many differences between the two. There was a hatred campaign against the Jews in the Nazi Germany, and they were seen as the source of all evil in the country, and there was a deliberate attempt to hunt down and exterminate every single one of them.
This is not what happened to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. First of all, the action against the Armenians was mostly motivated by fear (less of hatred, more of fear), and the Ottomans had legitimate concerns of being slaughtered by the Armenians in the region, who were being aided by the Russians.
Even though there was some amount of hatred campaign against the Armenians, it wasn’t like the one suffered by the jews. Armenians were never seen as the source of all the trouble in the nation, there was no conscious plan to wipe them all out. And the actions were localized in a certain region, rather than widespread like in the case of the jews under Nazi rule.
Now, all this doesn’t make this less of a sin, and it doesn’t justify what was done. But hopefully, it distinguishes it from the Holocaust.
But this doesn’t mean to say that the term “genocide” cannot be used for this tragedy. It means that it doesn’t fit the profile of a genocide in most people’s minds. What most people know about genocide is mostly based on the jewish holocaust. But United Nation’s definition of a genocide is more broad, and pretty much covers any killings of a large number of civilians that belong to a certain nationality, religion or group, during wartime or otherwise. From this point of view, it does fit the description of United Nation’s definition of genocide.
Then again, ignoring all the facts I mentioned above, and considering what people perceive a genocide to be, calling this incident a genocide and bringing this up every year in the media, US congress, etc, and making it a political matter is what troubles me.
Turkish Parliament does not vote every year about whether to pass a bill that calls what happened to Native Americans a genocide, does it? There isn’t a lot of political activity and media coverage every year in Turkey or throughout Europe about what to call the killings of Native Americans. That is because this matter doesn’t have anything to do with today’s politics, and today’s politicians shouldn’t concern themselves with the historical matters of centuries ago. It is a historical incident, and there are records of it. If people are curious about it, they can research and form their own opinion about what to call it. What is this push every year in the US, and some other countries where Armenians have political power, to bring this up and make it today’s political matter?
All I see here is a political game that is being played against Turkey, possibly in the hopes to claim monetary compensation for the losses that happened hundred years ago, under the Ottoman rule (which is a State that doesn’t even exist anymore). And maybe even claims of land for today’s Armenians in the Eastern Turkey?
I see unfairness in the way similar events are treated differently, depending on which nation’s past we are talking about.
Ottoman Turkey was carved up and divided into many countries hundred years ago. Apparently, these efforts didn’t end yet, there is still activity in the world to divide up the remaining Turkish land into even smaller pieces, for Kurds and Armenians, etc.
This side of the matter is what troubles me every year around this time, when this matter becomes a hot topic again.
What does the world want from Turks after all this time? Today’s Turkey does not have the similar level of power that Ottomans enjoyed for centuries. Nor it has any imperialistic agenda. (Now, this last point is in dispute due to some of the policies of the latest Turkish government, but at least before them, there was no such issue).
Unfortunately, what most Turks see when the matter of Armenian genocide is discussed is a conspiracy against them, and I don’t blame them.
If the issue was treated as a remembrance of a tragedy in human history, I wouldn’t have any problem with this. I would join everyone in this effort. But unfortunately, what I see every year is a political plot against Turkey, which is what troubles me.
Why don’t we leave the debate to the historians, and let everyone form their own opinion about what happened. What is this urge to pressure Turkey every year about this?
What is going to change if Turkish politicians call this a genocide or not?
People don’t realize that the fear that led to this tragedy a hundred years ago still continues in Turkish people’s minds, and for good reason. Turkish people fear that there is a plot against them, and that they will lose more than a debate if this issue keeps getting brought up all the time.
Another side of the matter is the political influence of the Armenians and Greeks in the western nations compared to Turks.
An average Armenian or Greek American is fourth or fifth generation American. An average Turkish American on the other hand is first or second generation. Armenians have been in the US a lot longer than Turks, and they have more financial and political power here. So, their way of looking at these matters is more common in the US, and in the most western European counties as well. This is also partly because Armenians are christian, which explains their immigration and acceptance in the western nations, compared to Turks, who are mostly muslim.
So, as usual, this comes down to religion, and people’s perceptions and prejudices against other religions. Christian views are accepted more in the western nations, that are almost all Christian. Muslim views are not known or understood as much.
I wonder when people will start looking at these matters without the influence of religion in their minds. (By the way, the reader should know that I am an atheist, and my views are not clouded by one theistic religion versus another).
I criticize the Turkish nation, and the Turkish politicians more harshly than most, when it is necessary. I oppose the current AKP government, and I supported the Gezi protests in the recent past. I am mentioning all this to make sure that the reader understands my views are not motivated by prejudice based on religion or conservative political views of the current Turkish government.
I am trying to be as impartial as I can be about this. But I cannot ignore the tragedies suffered by the muslims and Turks in the times of the Ottoman Empire, and the injustices in today’s world.