We Remember the Genocide -- And We Must Avert Another

Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians, as well as hundreds of thousands of Syriac and Greek Christians, died in a genocide that the Ottoman Empire embarked on exactly a century ago. As we look back on the history of the Armenian Genocide—and, in particular, its religious roots—we see lessons for today.

Westerners react to the so-called Islamic State’s recent treatment of Christians in Iraq and Syria with shock. But this is not the first time Mideast Christians have endured violence when elements within Islam have sought to revive a “pure” or “classical” version of their faith.

Sometimes the ironies leap out. In Der Zor in Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians died 100 years ago, survivors built a church in their memory. Every year, tens of thousands visited this church to honor and pray for the victims of 1915. Last September, the Islamic State destroyed it.

As Pope Francis said at a commemorative Mass in Rome last month, we hear today, as we did a century ago, “the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death–decapitated, crucified, burned alive–or forced to leave their homeland.”

Some clarifications are necessary when dealing with such an emotional subject.

First, I do not suggest that the violent persecution of Christians by the Islamic State, or the persecution of Christians by the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago, represents the only stream in Islam, its “true” or “authentic” form. Islam, like other world religions, has different forms. Many Muslims are appalled at what is happening to Christians today; most Muslims, even very traditional or conservative Muslims, reject the Islamic State.

Second, I know that factors other than religion also had a role in 1915. The same goes for the situation today. I claim only that classical Islamic attitudes toward Christians were an important factor in their persecution at the time of the Armenian Genocide, and that those attitudes are an important factor in their persecution now.

Finally, I do not believe that today’s Turks are culpable for what their ancestors did during the First World War and immediately afterwards. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the truth about what happened to the Armenians and other Christians as the Ottoman Empire gave way to modern Turkey would be a good start.

And indeed, there has been some movement in this respect.

Notwithstanding official denials, in Turkey today some are, for the first time in a century, beginning to speak out about what they know. Armenians who return to cities like Diyarbakir are greeted by Kurdish leaders who acknowledge what happened in 1915; a couple of churches have been rebuilt. Even Turkey’s President, Recep Erdogan, who reacted angrily to Pope Francis’ recent words on the subject and withdrew Turkey’s ambassador from the Vatican, has gone farther than most Turkish leaders in expressing condolences to the Armenian people—though not an apology—for what their ancestors suffered.

We must hope these developments continue. Time will tell.

Dhimmitude and Attempts at Reform

The essential facts about the genocide are well known. Armenians are an ancient people who have inhabited the Armenian Highlands—the area around Mount Ararat in what is now eastern Turkey—for thousands of years. They were Christianized early, by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew; indeed, Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in 301 AD, several years before Rome.

After the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium in the 15th century, Armenians became one of the Empire’s millets, or “nations.” Armenians were tolerated and given a measure of communal autonomy. Many integrated into Ottoman society. Individual Armenians could do quite well; some served in the Ottoman government. But, as a rule, Armenians were always subject to the dhimma—the notional agreement that governed the treatment of non-Muslims in classical Islamic law. Under the dhimma, non-Muslims were inferior; they had to pay a tax and abide by strict rules of legal and social subordination. Whatever they had, they had as a matter of sufferance, never as a matter of right. Moreover, Armenians were subject to collective punishment if they appeared to question Muslim superiority or to cooperate too closely with outside Christians. It was a precarious existence.

This was the situation for centuries. Then, in the 19th century, things began to change. At first, they seemed to change for the better. In a series of religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, or “Reorganization,” the Ottomans granted Christians legal equality. The old dhimma restrictions were abolished; in theory, subordination was a thing of the past. Historians debate why the Ottomans adopted the Tanzimat, but European pressure was a major factor. Many European Christians genuinely sympathized with their downtrodden co-religionists. European governments also thought that they could use the persecution of Christians as a pretext for intervention, a cynical strategy the Ottomans perceived.

The Tanzimat reforms pleased Christians, especially urban intellectuals. Among Muslims, though, equality for Christians caused a severe and violent backlash. Equality upset the natural religious order, in which Muslims ruled Christians and kept them in their place. It did not help that Armenians were supported by outsiders whom Muslims distrusted. As a result, the reforms were never really implemented, especially in the Anatolian countryside, where local Kurdish beys continued to oppress Armenian Christians, sometimes savagely.

Armenians began to arm and resist. In response, Sultan Abdul-Hamid, who was to be one of the last of the Ottoman rulers, sided with the Kurds and ordered massacres of Christians in the 1890s, to teach them a lesson. Perhaps 300,000 Armenians died. Syriac Christians were caught up in the violence as well; perhaps 25,000 of them were killed.

After the massacres of the 1890s, it was clear that the Ottoman state was not prepared to grant real equality to Armenians or other Christians, and that Europeans, for all their rhetoric, were not prepared to do very much to help. The large majority of Armenians resigned themselves to the status quo. But some continued to organize paramilitary groups.

The revolutionaries were always a very small minority that had difficulty gaining support from Armenians. But they occasioned increasingly brutal collective punishments by the government, which in turn provoked more resistance, a “cycle of violence,” historian Ronald Suny writes, that “produced more and more victims.”

When World War I broke out, the new Young Turk government, which had initially cooperated with the Armenian revolutionaries, worried that the militants would side with Christian Russians and fight for independence. So the Young Turks decided to solve the “Armenian Question” once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian Desert.

Deporting people through a desert, without adequate supplies or protection, is a recipe for mass death. Moreover, the Young Turk government gave private orders to exterminate the Armenians en route, to segregate and murder the men and march the women, children and elderly through conditions that would ensure their elimination as well. Armenians offered some resistance in places like Van and Musa Dagh, but were completely outmatched. The columns of refugees were set on by local gangs, police, and Kurdish irregulars, who robbed and killed them in the most horrible of circumstances. Turkish guards who were supposed to protect the refugees stood aside and let the butchery happen—or participated in it. Anatolia became a giant slaughterhouse. The murders continued once the Armenians reached Syria, at the above-mentioned city of Der Zor.

A clear consensus exists among historians about what happened in eastern Turkey in 1915. Moreover, although the genocide had economic, military, nationalist, and political causes as well as religious ones, the latter played a central role. It is easy to see how negative attitudes toward Christians—incorporated for centuries in the dhimma rules, and exacerbated by the events of the 19th century—figured in the genocide.

Armenians and other Christians who converted to Islam were spared; indeed, their descendants still live in Turkey today. And survivors reported that Turkish authorities told them the Armenians were being punished, as part of a jihad, for being traitorous infidels–giavours. Here I would recommend Peter Balakian’s recent translation of the memoirs of his great uncle, Father Grigoris Balakian, a priest who survived the genocide.

Besides, the massacres were not limited to Armenians. Other Christian communities in Anatolia were also swept up in the killing. Syriacs suffered greatly in Diyarbakir and Van, slaughtered by local Kurdish tribes in what the Syriac community today calls Sayfo, the year of the sword.

Unlike Armenians, the Syriacs posed no conceivable territorial threat. Yet hundreds of thousands of Syriacs died. And the Ottoman government also carried out a campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing against Greek Christians, particularly in the region of Pontus, on the Black Sea. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks died.

Minimizing the Reality

The history of the Armenian Genocide suggests three lessons for the current situation in the Mideast.

First, religiously motivated violence against Christians is not a new phenomenon. The attitudes classical Islam fosters—that Christians are vaguely alien dhmmis who can be tolerated as long as they remain subservient, but who forfeit protection if they assert equality or cooperate with outsiders—played an important role in 1915 and do so today. Again, most Muslims today do not endorse these attitudes, and other factors are involved, too. But to dismiss religion as a major factor in the current violence is to close one’s eyes to reality.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Islamic State, the West has a tendency to do just that. American leaders and policymakers, including President Obama, often talk as if the group were motivated principally by ideology, or tribalism, or politics—by anything but religion. As Graeme Wood demonstrated in a much-noted Atlantic piece in March, however, the Islamic State is deeply rooted in religion, in “coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

It’s easy to see why the West wishes to minimize this fact. One doesn’t want to dignify the group or alienate the millions of Muslims who resist it. And Western diplomats, who as a rule are quite secular, often fail to appreciate that religion can be a genuine and powerful inspiration for people, and therefore search for other explanations. But it is dangerous to deny the obvious. Again to quote Wood, “pretending” that the Islamic State “isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combated, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”

We need to get this right, and soon.

Second, outsiders must be prudent in how they address the crisis facing Mideast Christians. Raising the profiles and hopes of Mideast Christians and then abandoning them to their fate—as Europeans did in the 19th century and Americans did in the recent Iraq war—leads to disaster. Whatever we do, we must avoid steps that inadvertently make the lives of Mideast Christians even more difficult than they already are.

But, third, there are things we can do to help Christians and other displaced religious minorities in the Mideast. We can support the NGOs that do remarkable work among the refugees, often at great personal risk to their staffs. We can demand that our government take into account the consequences of its Mideast policies for Christians, at both the planning and execution stage. We can insist that Christians have fair and equal access to American humanitarian assistance.

—And, finally, we can make sure that word gets out about what is happening. Remembering the Armenian genocide, the almost unimaginable suffering Mideast Christians faced in the last century, may be a way to mobilize the world to do something to help Mideast Christians who face almost unimaginable suffering now—before it is too late for them as well.