Posts Tagged ‘Armenian Genocide’

ararat - suren manvelyan

A couple of weeks ago I asked why Muslim groups in the US supported Turkey in genocide denial. One theory was that Muslims saw themselves as incapable of committing genocide.

Erdogan, it turns out, said just this in defence of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir in 2009.

But a better reason for supporting genocide denial is one based in Islamic law. At the turn of the century, Armenians were protesting unfair taxation and treatment by an Islamic government. Declaring themselves equal to Muslims was dangerous to the umma, and the secular Young Turks therefore had strong support among their subjects when they declared all Armenians a threat to society.

20th century Turkey was built on the Ottoman remnants of unfair tax laws and building restrictions. Similar policies continue today.  The Islamist practice of denying building permits for new churches – the same policy across the Islamic world in countries such as Egypt – is alive and well in Turkey, and continues to form the basis for discrimination against its Armenian minority. The Greek Orthodox church in Turkey, still the ‘primus inter pares‘ authority, is still not able to rebuild the the 70 or so churches that were destroyed in 1955.

The continued discriminatory legal code is one clue to why Ottoman, Young Turk, Nationalist, and Islamist narratives all agree that Armenians were a legitimate threat in 1915.

The Byzantine military historian Edward Luttwak recently reviewed Ronald Grigor Suny’s book, ‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide‘ (Suny is a historian from the University of Michigan, and formerly U. Chicago, and Luttwak apparently “raises cattle in the Amazon”).

There were a couple details that caught my eye – ones that don’t usually make it into news reports:

1) Erdogan freely uses the word genocide in criticism of nations that persecute Muslim minorities (Chinese + Uighus, Israel + Palestine)

2) Jewish, Orthodox, and Armenian minorities continued to pay discriminatory taxes in the 20th century – in the 40s and 50s, sometimes more than 200% higher than Muslim counterparts. These were the same policies that Armenians were protesting in 1896. Pogroms destroyed some 73 Orthodox churches in 1955, none of which are allowed to be rebuilt today.

3) The initial pluralism of the Young Turks (Ben Gurion was among the future leaders, and studied in Istanbul) was rejected partly because of fear that Muslims would be eclipsed by the patriotism of non-Muslim talent. A secular Turkey would have also given Armenians an advantage in the business world.

4) Decades after Edward Said’s Orientalism, Islamists continue to deflect criticism by pointing out colonial hypocrisy.

Davutoğlu called the (EU) resolution (to recognize the Armenian Genocide) ‘a reflection of Europe’s racism … where are those aboriginal people? Where are the Native Americans? Where are the tribes of Africa? How were they wiped out from history?’

This is all very true, but it simply panders to the much expanded (and appropriate) Western guilt based on Natural Law, where Erdogan shows none because Muslims are apparently incapable of evil.

In Canada, we are just now coming to terms with the “cultural genocide” of Aboriginal peoples – especially the government program of taking children away from their families to “kill the Indian in the child.” This really was an attempt to wipe out a distinct heritage, and it was partly based on religious motives.

One of the prerequisites for the Truth and Reconciliation process was an increased secularism.  In other words, religious pride (sometimes indistinguishable from nationalist pride) kept Canadians from acknowledging the evil done to their neighbors for 100 years. This religious pride was a product not only of sermons, but a long tradition of legal discrimination against Aboriginals.

Despite their calls of hypocrisy, it is precisely the secular natural law view of human rights that Islamist groups refuse to acknowledge – Islamic law, as far as I know, admits of no natural law readings of justice.

It is from this brotherhood of religious pride that American Muslim groups declare solidarity with Turkish policy. And it is not just an interpretation of history that American Muslims support, but a legal code – one that led to the events they deny.

As of last week, Erdogan’s Justice and Development party is no longer in majority. In an interview with Foreign Policy, one party official blamed you know who: “There’s an economic lobby in the world, which is under the hand of the Jewish lobby, and these are the ones who want the AKP to fall. Not only the Jewish lobby, there is another movement – the Crusaders. Because the AKP government is the voice of the Muslims in Turkey, and all the world.”

The idea that Turkey would be the voice of the umma was perhaps a policy objective of the AKP. Whether they could ever achieve this, one thing remains constant – the continued discrimination toward minorities in Turkey based on religion that has been handed down through the Ottoman legal code.

By signing on to Armenian genocide denial rather than call for legal reforms, American Muslims are hinting that Islamic Law can never be superceded by Natural Law. It will be interesting to see whether their view changes if a secular democratic process in Turkey leads to the acknowledgement of past evil.

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April 24 was a rainy cold day, which was spent in a vehicle driving with the family to Georgia to renew our visas. I would have loved to be downtown for the concert, but by the time we arrived it was 3 degrees and raining. So I did the next best thing, and watched genocide denial videos on Youtube…

After spending a week looking at pro-Armenian sources, I wondered more than once how Turkey justifies its position.  Was it a conscious denial of evidence? Do they really think innocent civilians were a political threat? Was there any truth to the stories of Armenians massacring Turks? Our Model UN delegation encountered their Turkish counterparts in Rome a couple weeks ago, and said “No. YOU were the ones who committed genocide against US.”

I read some Muslim eyewitness accounts from the Armenian rebellion in Van (the centre of the ancient Armenian kingdoms in Eastern Anatolia) – the precursor to the April 24 killing of intellectuals. There were definitely accounts of Armenian atrocities committed, such as rape and slaughter of civilians, which would have prepared Muslim villages psychologically for copy-cat revenge. It seems very true that the Armenians did everything in their power to help the Russians, since they were promised land in return. And it is also clear that the land Armenians planned to retake (centred around Lake Van), was majority Muslim and would have required similar resettlement programs to the ones used in Western Anatolia.

I also wondered why some Jewish scholars denied the genocide – even giants in the field like Bernard Lewis.

I watched Justin McCarthy deliver a speech in Australia. McCarthy is probably the highest profile genocide denier (a historian from Kentucky) who describes the deportations as a “rational political decision” based on the Armenian rebellion.

One of the most interesting parts of the talk was when he described the Armenians pleading with the UK to invade in the south, which would split the kingdom in two, and have been far more effective than Gallipoli. Churchill decided against it. McCarthy notes that a UK landing in the south would probably have prevented the Armenian genocide.

The most striking think about McCarthy’s position is his starting point. He assumes that there is no legitimate reason for the Armenians to be revolting against the Ottoman Empire, and there is no discussion of the failed tanzimat reforms, which were supposed to give Armenians a modicum of equal treatment. He therefore depicts the Armenian/Russian cooperation as a travesty and the gravest treason, justifying the treatment of all Armenians as potential combatants.

It is certainly important that Armenian rebels slaughtered Ottoman soldiers who were retreating from the Russian front line. You will never hear this in a pro-Armenian documentary. From reading the eyewitness account, it does seem as if revolutionary groups shot at Muslims from church steeples in order for Muslim reprisal to incite greater revolution. And I would certainly want to ask the Armenians about the “million” (or so McCarthy claims) fleeing villagers and soldiers who also died of starvation (were they just soldiers or villagers?). Were they massacred, or just fleeing the Russian invasion?  He reports that by the end of the war, two thirds of Muslims in the area of Van were killed.

In any case, why does McCarthy defend the just rule of the ailing Ottoman empire to begin with? He believes in the American revolution supposedly. Armenians were revolting against the outright slaughter of their people under Abdul Hamid II. He does raise the question of what the Van region would have looked like if the Armenians were successful – would they have dealt with the majority Muslim population in a similar brutal fashion?

McCarthy makes note of the outright massacres of Armenians in Trabzond (drowing in the Black Sea), and in central Anatolia. But he seems to believe the Turkish narrative that deportations (into the desert?) were not intended to kill people. Deportations were not genocide, he claims, because Turks left considerable numbers of Armenians in Istanbul, Izmir, and Erdine.

Many scholars have noted McCarthy’s contribution to a more full picture of the Turkish reprisal. However, I just can’t wrap my head around one thing:

How is the killing of innocent men, women, and children ever a “rational political decision?” Sure, they needed to be worried about Armenian insurrection (even though arms smuggling was mostly successful in the East). What about the death squads formed by the triumvirate?

In my very limited opinion, McCarthy seems to be defending not justice, but the Ottoman Empire and their Turkish successors. The weak argument about political expedience also ignores the serious question of document veracity. This is where I rely on respected historians who have been to the Ottoman archives, like Taner Akcam, and ignore the ridiculous (and anonymous) analysis on the web.

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For decades, Armenian students were taught to have nothing whatsoever to do with Turks – no Turkish television, discussions, etc. Now people can talk about the issue, do business with Turkey, and invite delegations of Turkish young people to take part in the Meds Yeghern memorial.

That doesn’t mean public opinion has improved very much. My students were disgusted that Turks were here. It was inconceivable to some students that Turks disagreed with their own government.

Though the US position is officially neutral (so even my US students couldn’t take sides, or do projects that were supportive of the Armenian position), it is impossible not to feel emotion and form an opinion. Even I was enraged to hear about the Muslim groups in the US that supported Turkey. How can some people choose to equate the killing of innocent civilians with military casualties? It is impossible not to loose your balance.

After a week of watching documentaries, reading primary sources, and hearing eye witness accounts, the emotional toll kept some students closely huddled around their initial prejudices. Teaching about genocide involves so many cognitive traps that confirm Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman’s research in cognitive psychology –  political positions might have more to do with individual brain chemistry, and the tyranny of empathy can only be quelled by long hard doses of intellect.

Yet I remain dedicated to the idea that my autonomy depends on reason guiding emotion. Teaching about genocide is one of the most complex tasks a teacher can have – you need empathy, intellect, a spiritual sense, historical understanding, and the willingness to acknowledge ignorance.

Mix that challenge with teaching in a place that is cynical about freedom of speech, political change, and harbors deep hatred – giving counterexamples can seem insulting, to say the least.

“What were some of the responses to your questions downtown Yerevan?”

“The only good Turk is a dead Turk.”

“Do you agree?”

“Yes, of course they need to be re-payed for what they have done to us.”

(Talk about a teachable moment, where failure to communicate means perpetuating a cycle of hatred and ignorance.)

“Are you telling me that everyone in Turkey is to blame for the genocide?”

(Armenian student): “Mr. Siebert, you can’t tell me that those people who stabbed pregnant women are innocent.”

“I don’t think I’m saying that. Take this scenario – there is a small town of 50 people. 40 of them are evil and have done horrific things, and 10 of them are good. You have a drone with missiles and can wipe the town out. Would you do it?


“Ok, what about if there were only 5 people in the town that were good, but 45 continued to murder and destroy. Would you do it now?”

“Umm… yeah, sure.”

“So 5 out of 50 people you would be willing to kill – that’s 10 per cent ratio. OK, so how many people are there in Turkey?”

“I don’t know, 70 million.”

“And what’s 10 per cent of 70 million? 7 million? You would be willing to kill 7 million innocent men, women, and children. I don’t know if I would ever do that.”

“Well, no I wouldn’t kill the innocent ones, only the ones that had a part in the genocide.”

“But those Turks are all pretty much dead. Besides, how would you be able to tell who supports genocide and doesn’t.?

“Wait Mr. Siebert, are you saying that the Turks should have no consequences for what they did to us?”

“No. But I want you to think about your desire to kill Turks, and your idea that all Turks are evil.”

(Expat German student): “Not all people in a country have the same thoughts and ideas, and from the documentary we know that some Turks didn’t want to kill people.”

(Armenian student): “Why are you trying to defend the Turks!!”

(pandemonium in class)

(Me) “I don’t think anyone is saying they shouldn’t be made to pay for what they’ve done. Just that they should be seen as human beings.”

“Well, the Turkish government denies the genocide. Doesn’t that mean that Turkish people are also guilty of the same view?”

“Are you saying that you agree with everything your president, Mr. Sargsyan, says?”


“Do you think it is important to educate the Turkish people so that they can finally acknowledge the genocide?”

“The Turks will never acknowledge their crimes. it is impossible for them to do that.”

“But what about the university students who were protesting, trying to get recognition. And the Turkish scholars that agree with Armenia’s position?”

“Obviously they are not making a big difference, since the Azeris boast about killing Armenians on our border, and Turkey considers all of our evidence as fake.”

“But what about gradual change, working toward educating Turkish people so that they can vote for someone who will acknowledge the past?

“Mr. Siebert, do you know how many people technically voted for Sargsyan? 90 per cent. Do you think it is any different in Turkey?”

“Well I hope so, ideally. In Canada we have very close elections all the time. Again – do you think it is important for Turkey to acknowledge the genocide?”

(diaspora Armenian): “Yes, of course, it is the only way that we can heal.”

“So should we bring young Turkish people here so they can learn about their great-grandfather’s crimes?”

(local Armenian): “No, the only reason they would come here is to make fun of us, and go back to Turkey and tell lies.”

“Well how about this situation. Imagine that the Turks finally acknowledged their role, and paid reparations to the Armenians. Would you accept their apology?”

(Russian Armenian) “No. Never. Plus, what good would the money and land do? Even if they give us some land, that land will be minority Armenian, and majority Kurdish or Turkish. In 10 years, they would hold a referendum, we would spend all the money Turkey gave us, and we would be back in the same place to begin with.

“Well, maybe, but don’t you think it is an important psychological moment of healing for the Turks to acknowledge genocide?”

“Mr. Siebert, how can anyone pretend that a simple apology will do anything, after they killed 1.5 million of us?

“How about the Germans? Didn’t they apologize for their crimes, and now have a good relationship with Jewish people?”

“Yes, but they were defeated in a war, and Turkey will never be defeated, even if Armenia became really powerful.”

At the end of the week, we were back to the fantasy of Armenia becoming so powerful that they were able to do “an eye for an eye” with the Turks. One or two Armenians were tuned out during the documentaries. What was the point of rehashing pain, when the solution was so simple?

So the entire week was a roller coaster of emotion, indignation, frustration, cognitive closure, illogical debates, empathy overload, empathy shortage, disbelief, sadness, glimmers of hope and utter despair. As a teacher, you imagine that the truth will shine out at some point, and students will start to acknowledge their contradictions. Even as we were having these discussions and addressing the most pressing existential questions about life, our class seemed to be running up a mountain, running out of energy and patience, falling back to instinct. Time will tell whether these students – these rather powerful students – will grow up to be leaders in Armenia who are willing to understand other human beings, even their enemies.

Some from the “Kill the Turks” crowd had just completed character analysis of Atticus Finch. They noted his bravery, courage, principle, etc. But one or two gave simple managerial analyses – Finch was good at making decisions, he was intelligent, and he was prudent in his dealing with people. The view of the Other was missing. 

Another 13 year old was reading  The Prince by Machiavelli. I praised her courage to tackle the book, but noted some of its amoral qualities (toward nature, etc) She was quick to respond – “Yes, but it is very pragmatic.” As we discussed possible final projects, it became apparent that what she really wanted to do was study Hitler, and how he dealt with the Jews. “Machiavelli says that to gain power, you have to make your powerful opponents ineffective.” All I could do was stare at amazement. We’ll see how this final project shapes up!

You could be sure of one thing – engagement was not an issue.

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Genocide media

Please take the time this week to read or watch some of these accounts:

2010 German documentary “1915 Aghet”

BBC documentary on the genocide:

2006 PBS documentary:

2005 PBS Minnesota Emmy Award winning documentary

Online galleries of the Armenian Genocide museum.

Interviews with eyewitnesses, and other stories at Armenipedia

Resources for teachers


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April 24 is the day one hundred years ago that hundreds of Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and slaughtered. This day launched the Armenian Genocide, the roots of which began with the pogroms of 1895 by Abdul Hamid II, Caliph of Islam (See this NYT backgrounder here). It certainly is a humbling time and place to be teaching history.

Yesterday we walked to Republic Square and saw the huge set up for the “System of a Down” concert, and enjoyed Yerevan’s famous singing fountains:

Young people fill the streets at night to take part in patriotic folk dancing on Northern Avenue to raise money for crippled soldiers in the ongoing war with Azerbaijan. There are free Armenian folk dance lessons at the foot of the cascade – this one is a war dance:

My 8th grade students are downtown this weekend as well, interviewing people about their connection to the genocide. Some of the questions, like “if Turkey admitted to genocide and paid reparations, would you forgive them?” were controversial, to say the least. Students reported answers such as “the only good Turk is a dead Turk,” and “You should be ashamed for asking such a question.” People cried recalling family stories.

Putin, along with dignitaries such as the French president, will be here. There is increased security everywhere – Republic square will be shut down for the memorial, and police dogs have been sniffing the crowds this week.

Armenia is on edge, and Putin’s visit symbolizes many of these anxieties – 1) the simmering conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is heating up, 2) the benefits of joining Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union are uncertain, 3) Western countries are unwilling to acknowledge the genocide in order to keep Turkey as a NATO ally. Armenia is again caught in the crossroads of empire on the anniversary of their unimaginable suffering.

While Russia is Armenia’s greatest ally, it also arms the Azeris in their war with Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh is heating up again. In the last couple months, high schools here have again begun “shooting classes” as part of the curriculum. Sniper fire continues along the border, killing civilians and soldiers alike. We drove along the M-6 highway to Tbilisi last week, where we passed a couple settlements close to the border that had been abandoned during the 1988 war. “There is only sniper fire here once a year,” reassured our driver. However, along the Karabakh region, there are metres of sand banks protecting traffic in some areas.


Abandoned settlement near the Azeri border in the north, close to Noyemberian.

For Putin, this is a significant public appearance and plays to his conservative base who see Armenia as a Christian ally among Muslim nations. (Meanwhile Turkey is only happy to incite this religious divide, by reminding the Pope that the Hagia Sophia will most likely be converted to a mosque.)

But the underlying religious narrative of “Russia is our greatest ally” falls apart when considering their support for Azerbaijan, and their desire to build a natural gas pipeline through Turkey (to avoid Ukraine) and draw it away from NATO.

The effects of joining the Eurasian Economic Union are still to be seen. If all post-Soviet states sign on, it could serve as a platform for diplomatic ties with the Azeris. One thing is certain however – more economic sanctions on Russia will almost certainly hurt the Armenians, who have some 3 million citizens sending paychecks here from Russia.

Unfortunately for Armenia, isolating Russia’s networks of propaganda and mafia businesses seems to be the best course for the west. I recommend listening to the latest Munk debates in Toronto, where Anne Applebaum and Gary Kasparov make the case for isolation (The WSJ columnist/historian and chess champion have the definite upper hand, while their opponents make the cheap move of claiming to have all the “facts.”) It is a lively and wide ranging debate, with discussions of western involvement in the Russian civil war, attempts to negotiate with Stalin, etc.

Applebaum discusses the new type of Russian propaganda which aims to sow confusion rather than a consistent message by creating conspiracy theories, broadcast contradicting information, and straight out lie. One example is the Russian media response to the Malaysian flight shot down over the Ukraine – among the many conspiracy theories, one claimed that the people on board were already dead before taking off.

While I haven’t watched Russian news here in Armenia, there are some clues to its influence. Our driver here thinks Gary Kasparov is a villain because he was born in Baku, and does not recognize his Armenian heritage. Another thinks Georgian president Saakashvili is an idiot who started a war with Russia and was deluded into thinking he could win. Discussions about corruption often devolve into emotionally defensive rationalizations – corruption is rampant everywhere in the world, it just goes by different names – like lobbying and Super PACs. This is probably true, but serves as ammunition for the Russian status quo, and keeps the Armenian oligarchs  loyal to their Russian counterparts.

Finally, Armenians are on edge because they require international recognition of the genocide to fully heal. But Western powers like the US prefer to make Turkey happy in hopes of drawing it closer to Europe. This means Washington does not use the “G” word (they need their military base in Incirlik), but Russia does. When France recognized the genocide, Turkey was quick to recall its ambassador and threaten total diplomatic rupture. The EU’s genocide recognition was a way to avoid a repeat of France’s ruptured ties.

One wonders how Russia will use their largely sympathetic portrayal of the Armenian genocide as a political tactic.  Armenians have figured prominently in Soviet history – most notably the Mikoyan “MiG” jets, and General Bagramyan, the architect of the Kursk offensive that drove the Nazis back across Ukraine during the “Great Patriotic War.”

Armenia faces two versions of revisionist history – Turkish/Azeri, and Soviet. It is difficult to understand why the Turks and Azeris hate Armenians so much. One can understand the nationalist fervor after the Russo-Turkish war in the 1890s, but why did Azeris kill their neighbors in Baku after 70 years of coexistence under Soviet rule?

Azeris claim that Yerevan is historically theirs. Aside from leaving out whole centuries of Armenian rule in their museums, they claim that the architect Tumanyan deliberately wiped out Islamic cultural influence in his design of downtown. This is a classic conspiracy theory tactic of pointing to non-existent evidence.


By arming the Azeris and recognizing the genocide, Russia might be trying to remind the post-Soviet republics that life was better before 1991. Analysts have been discussing the possibility of Russian “peace-keepers” in Karabakh. Russia continues to conduct massive military exercises, including in the the South Caucasus, ie the disputed Georgian border. Since Armenia has joined the EEU, Russia has been building highways to the Georgian border, and requested transit to their bases in Armenia:

Since the exercises are taking place in the mountainous part of the Northern Caucasus and are focusing on the skills needed to conduct military operations in the mountains, Moscow appears to be signaling that it does not plan to stop with the annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Frequent media reports about Russian plans to construct new highways from Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia to Georgia appear to be intentional leaks.

Putin’s visit to the genocide memorial thus raises a question about Armenia’s spiritual path – will it continue to draw strength from its independent religious past, or will it give over some of its independence for the sake of protection and economic stability from Russia?

During the genocide, the Russians acted as messengers to the west, relaying requests for assistance from Etchmiadzin (the Armenian “Vatican” near Yerevan). They felt some moral responsibility, since the Turks claimed that killing Armenians was justified given their allegiance to Russia. But Russia remained largely bystanders during their own time of upheaval and revolution. During Soviet rule on the other hand, the Kremlin was careful to fund Armenian historical projects, museums, and archaeological excavations.

The Armenian Genocide, unfortunately, is being used for pragmatic reasons. For Russia, it is a way to claim a moral high ground. Meanwhile the US sacrifices conscience (even though Obama calls it “a great atrocity”) for better ties with Turkey.







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