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.