Let’s be honest on genocide

4 August 2011

Mustafa AKYOL

In all this perpetual controversy about the tragic fate of the Ottoman Armenians, there is something that I, as a Turk, don’t like: its unethical politics.

Most non-Turks, and especially Westerners, honestly believe that what happened was genocide. In return, our lobbyists in Washington, or elsewhere, argue about how angry we Turks will be to hear that opinion, and how important a “strategic ally” we are to be pissed off.

In other words, we try to counter a historical narrative by political pressure.

Maybe that is inevitable, for the issue is highly politicized on the Armenian side as well. But, personally speaking, I am more interested in the truth of the matter than anything else. And, believe me, if I am convinced one day that what really happened to the Armenians in 1915 amounted to genocide, I will say it out loud.

When Empires fall apart:

Yet I am not convinced. I rather take the view that Norman Stone, professor emeritus of modern history at the University of Oxford, put in his piece in The Times the other day: “You cannot really describe this as genocide… if by that you mean the sort of thing [Adolf] Hitler did.”

Professor Stone also added: “Horrors, of course, happened but these same horrors were visited upon millions of Muslims [and Jews] as the Ottoman Empire receded in the Caucasus and the Balkans. Half of its urban population came from those regions and, in many cases, the disasters of their families occurred at Armenian hands.”

This background of 1915, of which most Westerners are clueless, is key to getting the story right. The drama started a century ago, when the winds of nationalism entered into the multi-national Ottoman Empire. Its peoples, first in the Balkans and later elsewhere (as now in the Kurdish areas), started to aspire for national homelands, and, one by one, launched rebellions to achieve national independence. The latter were joyful moments of liberation for the new nations. But for others, they were nightmares. “Serbia for the Serbs, Bulgaria for the Bulgarians, Greece for the Greeks,” a popular slogan of the early 20th century read, “Turks and Jews out!”

The latter, and especially the much more numerous Turks, a term which then often referred to all Ottoman Muslims, faced several tides of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Crimea. According to some estimates, more than five million Ottoman Muslims lost their lives in these regions between 1821 and 1922. (See: Justin McCarthy’s book, “Death and Exile”.) Some were killed in wars, others perished as refugees from starvation and disease. The ones who could make it to Turkey proper, including my own great-great-grandfather from the northern Caucasus, brought with them the stories of the cruelty of the enemy.

The reason why no congress considers resolutions about these perished Ottoman Muslims today is simply that there are very few people who remember them – and the ones who do really have no means to lobby in Washington on Paris.

But the Young Turks who ruled the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was of a generation that went through all that drama. Hence they had gradually lost faith in the centuries-old Ottoman creed: People of different faiths and ethnicities can live well together. When they unwisely entered the Great War on the side of Germany, they faced Russian invasion in the east, and found out that the some Armenian nationalists had formed paramilitary units to support the enemy. They feared that an independent Armenia would be founded in the east and the Balkan nightmares would be repeated.

That led to the catastrophic decision that the Young Turk government took in April 1915 to expel all Armenians in Eastern Turkey to Syria. Hundreds of thousands perished on the road, due to massacres and other atrocities by locals, along with famine and disease.

There is no way that this ethnic cleansing can be seen as justified or excusable. But we should see that it is nothing like the Holocaust, by which the Nazis systematically exterminated the Jews simply out of their hateful ideology. There was no anti-Armenian ideology in 1915. There was rather a fear: “If we don’t do something against them, they will do something against us.”

The way to go:

Today, Westerners will do a much better job if they try to see this other side of the story, and encourage dialogue between Armenians and Turks, rather than pushing the latter into accepting a definition which they honestly find wrong.

And we Turks will do a much better job if we try to understand, respect and even share the pain of the Armenians. We might not accept the G-word, for reasons I noted, but we should accept that 1915 was a horrible episode which caused enormous suffering to a people who used to be our good neighbors.

Meanwhile, The Armenians, especially the more nationalist ones, should see that we Turks really are not a nation of monsters who take pride in the killing of innocents. We were just raised with a totally different national narrative. Yet now many of us are now ready to show more empathy.

We will even be happy to offer our extended hands to Armenian nationalists, if they are willing to unclench their fists.