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Monday, September 28, 2015

Telling the truth about The Armenian Genocide is the best way to serve America's interests

In the hundred years that Armenians have mourned the Genocide’s martyrs and marched for justice, Turkey has exerted extraordinary effort to fabricate an alternate reality.

In the hallucinatory history taught in Turkish schools and peddled to the world by Turkey’s academic toadies, the Ottoman government evacuated Armenians from the path of war in 1915 for their own safety.

The resulting deaths are described as unfortunate—tragic, even—but unintended.

"As President, I will recognize
the Armenian Genocide" -- Obama 2008
There are two problems with this denialist fantasy. That it isn’t true is actually the lesser problem. The greater problem for Turkey is that even if it were true, it wouldn’t matter.

As Geoffrey Robertson points out in An Inconvenient Genocide, the very facts admitted by denialist scholars and Turkish officials would provide sufficient basis for prosecution of genocide under international law.

I cite Robertson’s book because he makes the case exceptionally well, focusing on facts rather than on the outcome. He avoids sensational but questionable assertions and sticks to clearly admissible evidence, which is fitting for one of the world’s most prominent and vocal human rights attorneys. 

The evidence he presents makes clear that the word “relocation” used in Ottoman directives was a euphemism for extermination. The brutal circumstances of the relocation of Armenians from their homes in Eastern Turkey is well documented in accounts by non-Armenian sources, including Germans working with the Turks.

Hundreds of thousands of people were marched without sufficient food, water or shelter into the uninhabitable Syrian desert. These haggard marchers were repeatedly attacked by thieves, rapists and murderers. Those who survived the journey were left to die in the sun, or burned alive in caves.

None of this is compatible with the fable that the evacuations were temporary. Even before these poor people were reduced to bones, their homes were seized and turned over to Turks or Kurds.

One of the most egregious fallacies repeated by denialists is that genocide cannot be proven without evidence that the government ordered the extermination of all Armenians. But as Robertson explains, forcing even part of a population into circumstances where most could be expected to die is genocide, and it cannot be legally (or morally) excused by the exigencies of war.

With that alone, the prosecution could rest its case except that there is no prosecution and there won’t be.

Armenia’s suffering gave birth to the very term genocide as well as to the international convention aimed at eradicating this most inhuman of human crimes, but it all happened too late to bring justice to Armenians.

Why is that?

In the wake of the First World War, Britain took the lead among the victorious powers in urging prosecution of war criminals. The worst offenders took off running. Turkish thugs sought refuge in Germany, while Germany’s Kaiser fled to the Netherlands.

As disappearing acts go, this hardly rivaled Houdini but it didn’t have to. Post-war politics and the nascent state of international law made extradition difficult even in the case of Turks who were convicted in absentia of involvement in the Genocide. Delay after delay ensured that all such efforts petered out within a few years of the armistice.

What makes this not only relevant but important so many years later is that America helped the bad guys get away with murder.

President Woodrow Wilson opposed creation of an international justice tribunal because it would violate the “sovereignty principle” that governments were responsible for punishing crimes against the people they ruled.

As related by Robertson, Wilson reasoned that Armenians “were Ottoman subjects, and their suffering at the hands of their own government would have to be punished by their own government – present or future – if they were to be punished at all.”

We know how that’s worked out—at least, so far.

Despite a century of disappointment and insults, Armenians are making real gains in achieving international recognition of the Genocide. Response to this year’s centennial commemoration has been overwhelming.

Turkey’s churlish attempts to draw attention away from the Genocide memorial in April fell flat while Armenia’s pleas for recognition generated a wave of support from around the world.

The European Union adopted a resolution recognizing the Genocide while urging Turkey to do the same. Pope Francis also called on Turkey to tell the truth, and he celebrated a mass in memory of the Genocide’s victims. The president of Germany, Turkey’s war-time ally, called the Genocide by its rightful name and admitted German complicity.

It is very nearly possible now to declare that no civilized nation tolerates Turkey’s lies and evasions. Unfortunately, there are two notable exceptions: The United Kingdom and the United States.

Both continue to avoid using the words genocide and Armenian in the same sentence. Contrast the courage of Germany’s president with our own President Obama, who broke his pledge to recognize the Genocide and turned down an invitation to attend this year’s Genocide commemoration at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Vice President Biden did attend. Like Obama, he was once a vigorous advocate for Armenians and for truth about the Genocide. But he sat in silence throughout the memorial ceremony and left immediately after. He declined to speak to the gathering or to exchange more than polite greetings with the president of Armenia.

This is very much in line with the Administration’s insistence on not offending a vital ally. American presidents have followed this crooked path to disappointment for  decades. Not long ago, for example, Obama thought he’d persuaded Turkey to join the fight against ISIS. Instead, it attacked the Kurds who were fighting ISIS.

Obama’s abandonment has been so disappointing that some Armenians have suggested there’s little point pressing this year’s presidential candidates for their position on the Genocide. I think it’s more important than ever given the momentum at work.

As an American, I certainly don’t want my country to become an outlier as the world evolves toward zero-tolerance for genocide. What’s at stake is much more than embarrassment.

If President Wilson had shown more gumption, the Armenian Genocide could have been a powerful and far-reaching force for international justice and human rights in the wake of World War One. Instead, Hitler was encouraged by the world’s passivity. Robertson reminds us of this with the cover quote: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”

He also reminds us that the truth of this quote is so powerful that Turkey and its denialist clients insist Hitler never said it. He did. You could look it up.

Unless, of course, you’re in Turkey.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Armenians continue to suffer for their faith, but the truth behind the Genocide is complex.

This year’s centennial has inspired a great deal of discussion about the Armenian Genocide, all of it valuable.

Every memoir and every academic treatise adds important evidence and deepens our understanding of events that continue to affect succeeding generations.

His Holiness Aram I of Cilicia
Yet our understanding will always be imperfect because genocide is beyond the comprehension of rational beings.  No matter how much we learn about any genocide, the equation seems impossible to solve.

This doesn’t stop us from trying, nor should it.

By examining the unique circumstances of the Armenian tragedy we hope to learn and share some universal lessons—at the very least, to identify the early warning signs of the next horrific episode.

This year, of all years, much of the world is paying attention to us. So when we share our observations, it’s important that we choose our words with care.

I think we’ve performed with admirable clarity and dignity, but one area where we could use more care – and thought – is in connecting the Armenian Genocide to the current worldwide surge of violence by Muslim fanatics.

It’s easy to see parallels to the Genocide in the destruction of Armenian communities in Syria and elsewhere in the roiling Middle East. Who isn’t reminded of 1915 by scenes of ragged refugees whose homes and churches have been reduced to rubble?

And it isn’t just Armenians being kidnapped and beheaded. The persecution of Christians has become so widespread and devastating that the New York Times headlined a recent report: “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?”

The sub-headline was even more chillingly reminiscent of the Armenians’ abandonment: ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.”

It’s understandable that Armenians, proud of being the oldest Christian nation, feel the effects of this onslaught so keenly. Some draw a direct line from the events of 1915 to current events, explaining the Genocide as a direct act of Christian persecution.

Among the most prominent and important dissenters from this view is also one of our most important Christian voices: Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia.

“What happened against the Armenians, the Genocide, was not because the Armenians were Christians,” he told a Vatican correspondent. “This was part of the pan-Turkish ideology and politics and plans of the Young Turks.”

His Holiness knows history.

The Turks who directed the Genocide were not religious. They were driven by ambition to revive and expand the fractured Ottoman realm by creating a new Pan-Turkic empire.  

The Armenians, to our lasting misfortune, were in the way.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – certainly not mass murder. There was clearly a religious dimension to the Genocide, as there had been to almost every aspect of Armenians’ lives as Ottoman subjects for six centuries.

While we often hear that Armenians and Turks once lived peacefully as neighbors, Turkish historian Taner Akcam makes clear that the peace held only as long as Armenians obeyed the rules that kept them subservient and humiliated.

In his Genocide book A Shameful Act, Akcam notes that Muslim superiority was a fundamental principle of Ottoman rule, which was guided by Islamic law. As a result, the regime had always “specifically oppressed and discriminated against non-Muslims.”

Islamic law gives non-Muslim subjects a degree of protection and even tolerence to practice their own religion. But as Vahakn N. Dadrian notes in The History of the Armenian Genocide, the Ottomans reasoned that Armenians forfeited such clemency during the 19th century by appealing for European help when pressing for reforms.

What followed were the Hamidian Massacres of 1894 to 1896, which claimed hundreds of thousands of Armenians.  Many were slaughtered by their formerly peaceful neighbors who were exhorted by their sultan to punish unbelievers.

Dadrian relates this scene reported by the British consul at Aintab: “The butchers and the tanners, with sleeves tucked up to their shoulders, armed with clubs and cleavers, cut down the Christians, with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ ”

The executioners paused only when the time came to kneel in mid-day prayer, then resumed their bloody work.

Given that history, it’s understandable that many Armenians welcomed the Young Turks into power in 1908 with their promise of constitutional protection for all.

Despite its secular trappings, however, the new regime remained committed to Turkish-Muslim superiority. Whatever their true feelings and motives, Talaat and his cohorts skillfully exploited religious fervor to foment the bloodlust of 1915.

I think it is clear Armenians did suffer grievously because of their Christian faith. It’s not at all clear that they wouldn’t have suffered regardless.