The 1915 Armenian and Assyrian Genocides: Inconvenient Precedents for the Arab Spring Revolutions
…by Ranbir Singh
“Who, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Of course it was not just the Armenians who have been forgotten. The Assyrian nation were also prime targets of the Ottoman policy to deliberately exterminate ancient Christian nations of the Middle East. It has often been cited as a template for the very Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis in which six million Jews were deliberately wiped out in the name of racial purity. What makes it more poignant as that there is one other very inconvenient fact that is ignored in all this. For years we have been fed information that Israelis an apartheid state and that the Zionists foisted their unwelcome colonialist intentions on the Palestinian natives. But if we look back to the very genesis of the Zionist project we find Jewish pioneers from Europe making arable land and small communities in what was desert and malaria infested marsh sparsely inhabited by nomadic Bedouin. This land was bought legally from the Ottoman authorities but nevertheless alarmed the sublime Porte enough for the caliphate to deliberately settle Circassians, Egyptians and Crimean Tatars in the region. Sultan Abdülhamid II candidly admitted that this was because he did not want Palestine to become a “Second Armenia”.
The question of recognising the Armenian genocide has become the subject of recent high level diplomatic conflict between France and Turkey. France Has made it a crime for anyone to deny that the Armenian genocide took place, something which modern secular Turkey continues to do so officially. For its part Turkey has accused France of having committed genocide on the natives in its colonisation of Algeria. There is once again a deep poignancy to all this. It was to France that Atatürk had turned in his efforts to make Turkey a secular, modern and civilised nation. The French Revolution was his model and he prided himself on being a product of the Enlightenment. But just as France had suppressed diversity in the ideal of creating a common citizenship so too did a secular Turkey impose a homogenous ethnic identity on what remained of the previous Ottoman Empire. Kurds were denied the very right to be Kurdish and were pejoratively termed ‘Mountain Turks’. Was this so different from Algerian schoolchildren reading history books which began with “Our ancestors the Gauls”? Now when the Arab revolutions broke throughout 2011 there was optimistic yet naïve talk that the new governments would steer their states towards the much vaunted Turkish model which apparently emphasised secularism and democracy. To say that this was clutching at straws is an understatement. In any case it is apparent now that the new states will have strict Salafi style governments to replace the pro-western despotisms which by contrast may indeed have been ‘Salafist’ but were anything but moderate and secular. Just as the National Party in South Africa did not actually invent apartheid in 1948, but merely codified the racial segregation and discrimination against non-whites which had been practised and even extended by the ‘liberal’ government of Jan Smuts into a statist ideological framework, the Salafi regimes already have had much of their work done for them by dictators such as Mubarak under whom official discrimination against minorities and rampant anti-Semitism was rife. Calling the Salafi parties moderate will not change this reality one iota.
To return to the relevance of Turkey how actually secular was it? Atatürk salvaged the remnants of the Ottoman state in order to build modern Turkey and in doing so united all Muslims against the Christian enemy. The sultan had actively used pan-Islamic sentiment to court Kurdish support in the First World War and in the genocide against Armenians and Assyrians. Kurdish chieftans had seized Armenian land after the deportations and genocide of 1915 and were easily persuaded by Turkish nationalists to join with them as fellow Muslims in a common resistance to wiping out the Armenians. In May 1919 the Grand Vizier Ferit Pasha sent Mustafa Kemal to Kurdistan where he appealed to the population using the self-styled title “saviour of Kurdistan”. He championed the cause of the Khilafat in his appeal to Islamic sentiment to expel the kuffar from sacred Muslim land in which he stressed the Ottoman fraternity that bound Kurds and Turks together. Appeal to the Turkish nation was not even on his lips here or in the Erzurman Congress of July and August 1919. Turkish officers commanded Kurdish soldiers in order to defeat the armies of Christian Georgia. These same largely Kurdish armies helped liberate Anatolia for the Turks against the imperialist aspirations of Greece. But as the war progressed Kurdish aspirations were crushed. On 1 November 1922 Kemal declared that the new Turkish state had been created. The Treaty of Lausanne of 24 June 1923 carved up Kurdistan and established the borders of modern Turkey. Kurds were said to be equal partners with Turks in this new state.
It was only after the establishment of the republic that ethnic identities of Kurds, Laz and Circassians were suppressed in favour of the surrogate faith of Turkish nationalism which was to replace a state based on Islam. Turkish national and racial identity is still extolled with schools, barracks and public buildings prominently extolling slogans such as “What a joy it is to be able to call oneself a Turk”, “A Turk is worth the whole universe” and that Turks are “the most valiant and noble race on earth”. Republican secular Turkey continues to deny the very historical fact of the Armenian genocide by the Islamic empire of the Uthmani Khilafat. In ‘Hitler’s Apocalypse’ Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has elaborated on how Kemal merely extended the nationalistic trends which were evident even under the caliphate:
“The Turkish government’s objective was to destroy the Christian Armenian population inside Turkey, which was deemed to be actively seeking full independence or autonomy. Previously regarded as a constituent dhimmi millet (a non-Muslim religious community in the Ottoman Empire) the Armenians found themselves stereotyped as an ‘alien nationality’, especially after the modernising rulers of Turkey adopted the new ideology of Pan-Turkism. This was a xenophobic nationalism intended to underpin their dreams of a new empire stretching from Anatolia to western China, based on Islam and Turkish ethnicity. The Armenian nation, with its ancient ethnic culture and Christian religion, stood in the way of the homogenising nationalism embraced by the young Turks.”
The Turkish-speaking Christians of Karaman were held to be Greek and hence expelled to Greece. But they spoke no Greek at all, only used Greek script to write their mother tongue. When one realises that the “Turks” expelled in turn from Greece actually spoke only Greek which they wrote in Arabic script, it was in fact a forcible exchange of Muslim and Greek Orthodox Christian populations, since Arabs, Kurds, Bosniaks and Albanians could be accepted as Turks because they are Muslims. Hardly secular for a supposedly secular state. Indeed Turk continued to equal Muslim, and non-Muslims are not considered to be Turks. President Süleyman Demeril put it so succinctly in 1995:
“We are all – barring non-Muslims – owners of this land.”
That same logic was used to brutally suppress any hints of Kurdish identity as Atatürk crushed this minority throughout his premiership. Kurds were forcibly Turkified and forbidden from speaking their own language. In disturbing echoes of Australia’s Stolen Generation, children were deliberately removed from Kurdish families in order to remove the inferior racial and cultural strains. Again the genocide of Christian minorities by both the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate’s successor state of modern Turkey is instructive here. Between 1925 and 1928 about a million Kurds were deported and thousands died en route. While the survivors were dispersed throughout Anatolia in order to make Turkification easier, ethnic Turks were settled to dilute Kurdish demographics in Kurdistan. Turkish language was of course enforced throughout the country, especially on the Kurds. In 1927 in Bihandus, Lebanon, the Hoyboun (Independence) Congress brought together Kurdish nationalist groups who in desperation made overtures to the Armenians. Indeed Vahan Papazyan from the Armenian nationalist Dashrak Party attended the conference.Turkey sensed a Kurdish-Armenian conspiracy and in 1930 persuaded Iran to cut off aid to the Kurdish revolt around Mount Ararat. Kurdish villages suffered aerial bombardment for months and yet again thousands were killed by the Turkish military. In August 1930 Prime Minister Ismet Pasha triumphantly announced:
“Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right.”
Minister of Justice Mahmut Esat Bozhurt was even more forthright:
“We live in a country called Turkey, the freest country in the world. As your deputy, I feel I can express my real convictions without reserve: I believe that the Turk must be only lord, the only master of this country. Those who are not of pure Turkish stock can have only one right in this country, the right to be servants and slaves.”
In 1937 and 1938 the last Kurdish resistance was snuffed out in Dersim. In disturbing echoes of the Armenian genocide, Kurds were burnt alive in barns, caves and forests. Women and girls committed mass suicide. Kurdish identity was now subsumed under the unconvincing label of “Mountain Turks”. Turks were a civilised and valiant people who had attained victory over a savage and backward enemy, an inferior race against whom Turkish nationalism could assert itself; the Kurds. Savage repression followed with even the faintest stirrings of Kurdishness being crushed. For example, in June 1967 the nationalist journal Otuken carried an uncompromisingly venomous piece by one Nihaz Atsiz :
“If they want to carry on speaking a primitive language with vocabularies of only four or five thousand words, if they want to create their own state and publish what they like, let them go and do it somewhere else. We Turks have shed rivers of blood to take possession of these lands; we had to uproot Georgians, Armenians and Byzantine Greeks….let them go off wherever they want, to Iran, to Pakistan, to India, or to join Barzani. Let them ask the United Nations to find them a homeland in Africa. The Turkish race is very patient, but when it is really angered it is like a roaring lion and nothing can stop it. Let them ask the Armenians who we are, and let them draw the appropriate conclusions.”
Colonel Alpan Turkes enjoyed huge influence with his calls for pan-Turanianism. In 1965 he formed Milliyetci Harekat Partisi (Nationalist Action Party) or MHP to defend Turkey against the twin threats of communism and Kurdish separatism. After 1967 the MHP organised paramilitary units known as Bozkurt (Grey Wolves) to murder and intimidate left-wing Turkish and Kurdish students. The party only gained two seats in parliament but exerted much wider influence with its extreme views that the Kurds had to either accept assimilation as Turks, or face physical annihilation. Only in 2002Turkey did make grudging reforms in allowing Kurdish language broadcasting and education. Lack of major changes meant that violent resistance to Turkish rule continued. Kurdish politicians who have tried to use the existing parliamentary mechanisms to elicit change suffer harassment by the state, including jailing and assassination.Turkey still does not exactly encourage ethnic diversity. Many Turks are of Albanian descent but outwardly conform as Turks. Albanian-speaking Muslim Kosovar refugees in the 1990s were treated as outsiders. Even the late prime minister Turgut Ozal suffered taunts from Turkish ultra-nationalists due to his part-Kurdish origins. In Turkey the unskilled workers operate closed shop trade unions that exclude marginal and minority groups such as the Roma Gypsies.
Even the limited secularisation by Kemalism has been rolled back. Since the time of Ismet Inonu, Islam has made a comeback in Turkey. The military is regarded as the stalwart of Kemalist secularism and the most devoted disciple of Atatürk’s legacy. Yet after the coup of 1980 the ruling military junta made religious lessons compulsory in order to counter the influence of the Left. Özal’s Motherland Party had a strong Islamic element within it. Even the pro-Islamic leader Erbekan, leader of the National Salvation Party and later the Welfare Party, was a virulent Turkish nationalist who wanted all of Cyprus occupied by Turkey.
As it happens there can be no doubt that even the much vaunted Turkish model is not going to be exported to former Ottoman colonies. Indeed even within Turkey the Kemalist system is fast ditching its secularism while retaining its nationalist core. Now the Arab Spring has brought Salafi forces into dominance who seem intent on following the Pakistani model of regression. Of course this failed state has been bolstered not just by western aid but has become a vassal of Saudi Arabia For some years where along with other Third World guest workers Pakistanis toil in jobs which until 1962 would have been the preserve of black slaves and which still offer them few rights.Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi is rife with ethnic conflict between the country’s main ethnic groups of Sindhis, Punjabis, Pathans and Muhajirs. The Baluch have had their aspirations crushed right from inception in their native homeland. Failing to become full members of the Arab master race the leaders of Pakistan retain attachment to the language of Urdu while feeling it necessary to disown or downplay the majority language which is often their own mother tongue of Punjabi. Similarly we can expect to see the native inhabitants of the Maghreb known variously as Berber or Kabyle suppressed in favour of Arabisation which has been carried out since the departure of the French colonialists.Pakistan also offers another sinister precedent which again brings us back to the genocide of Armenians and Assyrians in 1915. At independence the area which is now Pakistan was about twenty per cent Hindu and Sikh. Where are these communities now? They barely make up one per cent of the population. Along with much larger Christian communities and the microscopic Kailash people extinction of these once vibrant non-Muslim minorities is within sight as western democracies once again avert their gaze from inconvenient facts. Of course one does not even need to look at Pakistan. Witness how half of Iraq’s Christians have fled, many into Syria where the imminent fall of the Assad regime does not bode well for minority Christian, Shia and the dictator’s very own Alawite community. The Assyrians of Iraq have faced the unrelenting and uncompromising hatred of the state since they were machine gunned by the regular army and massacred in pogroms by Arabs and Kurds in 1933 whipped up by King Faisal’s prime minister, the pan-Arabist Rashid Ali. While Saddam Hussain gassed the Kurds, there were elements among the Kurdish ‘freedom fighters’ who vented their own genocidal hatred against the Assyrians in their midst. Therefore to blame the genocide of ancient Middle Eastern nations on simply Turkish nationalism is missing the point and is inaccurate. Does it explain the demographic catastrophe suffered by Maronite and other Christians who once formed the majority population in Lebanon? Or the present situation of Iraqi Christians, the half century of slavery and genocide against southern Sudanese, the grim future faced by Copts in Egypt? Ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation, rape and conversion to Islam at the point of the gun and dagger will become more commonplace. Again the precedent of Pakistan is relevant. At partition Mahatma Gandhi urged Hindus and Sikhs to remain in the new state of Pakistan. The result was that they were driven out, raped, slaughtered or forcibly converted. The same will happen to those minority groups in the post-revolution Arab nations. Simply averting our gaze will not change this. While an earlier generation of Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Libya and former French North Africa found sanctuary in Israel where will the Christian minorities go? To a Europe that has become increasingly secularised and simultaneously xenophobic as it loses its cultural moorings while its economies fail? To America where seemingly sympathetic voices on the Republican right also garner populist support through anti-immigrant rhetoric? Hence why I have said newly independent South Sudan may offer a way out. This may be decried as unrealistic but is it any more unrealistic than expecting the Salafi regimes to be ‘moderate’? Again averting our gaze will not change the fact that we are not seeing the emergence of democracy in these states but the growth of a lumpen flotsam element which through occasional suppression (along of course with collaboration and co-opting) by ‘secular’ pro-western despots has made them experienced, nastier and more determined in their dystopianism than ever.
As with Pakistan western democracies have funded the very radical Islamic forces which now threaten the precarious existence which minorities lived under what remained dhimmitude, subject as they were to arbitrary powers of the state and lack of equality before the law. In 1945America offered a Europe devastated by war financial help in return for democratic governments. This Marshall Plan was aid with strings unapologetically attached. Yet now after years of funding despots, America and Europethink that the victorious Salafi and Wahhabi forces can be feted by what are effectively bribes for good behaviour. As the present trials of American NGO employees in Cairo demonstrations this would be a disastrous miscalculation. The Salafis do not see it as aid or assistance. They at least recognise it for what it is; a modern updated version of the jizya tax. When will western democracies similarly open their eyes and realise that they face an ‘Armenian’ scenario in the aftermath of the Arab Spring? After all Saudi funded imperialism of the Maghreb will not settle on remaining south of the Mediterranean. Will this ‘Armenian’ lesson come too late for us? As the late Oriana Fallaci wrote in ‘The Force of Reason’on her native Italy:
“Those coasts where still today you can see the remains of the watchtowers used for spotting their arrival and warning the towns and villages. And where still resounds the echo of the scream which today is used as a mockery but at the time was a cry of terror and despair: “Mamma, li turchi! Mother, the Turks!”.
But it is this next quote by her which should inspire us with confidence and courage in the face of the present adversity against those forces who would strive to take away the freedoms which we take for granted but were only achieved after centuries of struggle:
“The moment you give up your principles, and your values, you are dead, your culture is dead, your civilization is dead. Period.”