Letters | An exchange about the Armenian genocide, pandemic sanctions

 

UNLIKELY AND SELF-SERVING

I read with interest Gabriel Said Reynolds’s review of Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi’s new book The Thirty Year Genocide on the series of massacres of Armenian and other Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire and its political successor, Turkey, in the years between 1894 and 1924 (“What Turkey Did to Its Christians,” June). Serious readers welcome all new evidence documenting any mass slaughter—and especially about this, the first of the twentieth century. In his review, Reynolds seems to accept Morris’s and Ze’evi’s highly unlikely thesis that the Armenian genocide is more properly seen as arising from religious causes. They are, the authors claim (and Reynolds agrees), best understood as Muslim atrocities against Christians rather than as the Turkish targeting of a large but vulnerable Armenian minority.

This thesis as described is both incorrect and self-serving. As Reynolds notes, Armenians had been pressing for independence, following other nationalities within the crumbling Ottoman state. Most notably, the Greek revolution of the 1820s provided an inspiring example for other subject peoples. Many Armenians wanted their own self-determination as well, and the Ottomans, followed by the Young Turks, strongly opposed this rebellion in Asia Minor. No longer restrained by the Islamic legal tolerance of Christian and Jewish populations—dhimmitude—and fighting a war against the Russian sponsors of Armenian independence, they planned and executed the first genocide. That they included other, less politically ambitious Christian populations in the slaughter does not diminish the political aims of the massacre and deportation of Armenians. The latter were the previous occupants of lands that Turkish authorities wanted to secure against their losses to the west. It should be remembered that Turkish forces also opposed the independence desired by Arab populations well to the south.

Second, on a point of subsequent history. Reynolds refers to the post–World War I expulsion of Greek communities in Anatolia (the Turkish heartland, ancient Asia Minor), communities whose continuous existence went back for two-and-a-half millennia, as a consequence of the policies of the new Turkish national state created on the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, which was dismantled after the defeat of the Central Powers. But Turkish authorities achieved victory after a three-year war that began in May 1919 with an invading Greek army at Smyrna (Turkish Izmir) and ended with the horrific burning of Smyrna in September 1922. Was that war driven primarily by religious animus or by nationalist (Kemal Atatürk and his Turkish National Movement) and irredentist (the Greek fantasy of the Megali Idea, a reversal of centuries of Ottoman rule) passions and interests? Both events—the Armenian genocide and the burning of Smyrna, followed by the deportation of Greeks from Asia Minor and the exchange of populations—were entwined with rising religious antipathy, but they were also political and guaranteed Lebensraum for Turkish populations returning from Greece and Bulgaria.

Reynolds might also have commented on the views that the authors bring to the topic. Benny Morris’s name is well known to those who study the origins of the Israeli state in the 1948 war and the resultant dispossession of the Palestinian people, a hotly controverted historical subject that Morris himself has had an influential hand in shaping. Readers may learn about that in a May 2008 New Yorker profile by David Remnick, in which Morris expresses views of Islam and the Palestinians that seem to provide his lens for viewing the earlier appropriation of land and military terror on the part of the Turks. We can expect this important new book to be put to extrinsic and non-scholarly ends in short order. Apropos of the de-Christianization of the Middle East, Reynolds might also have named our disastrous invasion of Iraq as the proximate destabilizing cause of the latest wave of emigration.

Michael Hollerich
St. Paul, Minn.

 

GABRIEL SAID REYNOLDS REPLIES:

I thank Michael Hollerich for his thoughtful and learned response. His response is a helpful rejoinder and a reminder that there were political elements to the genocide, including the fear of Armenian nationalism and the effect of independence movements in the Ottoman Empire. I certainly agree with Hollerich’s concern for the Palestinian people and his emphasis on the role of the U.S. invasion (and its aftermath) in the de-Christianization of Iraq. I also agree that the authors (Morris and Ze’evi) downplay in places the role of Christian armed resistance (although they do justice to them in the post–World War I story of Smyrna/Izmir and its surroundings). I disagree with Hollerich’s assessment of the killings, abductions, and forced conversions of Assyrian and Greek Christians. They were not simply “included” in a coordinated political “response” to Armenian nationalist sentiments. They, along with all Christians in Turkey, were taken up in waves of fanaticism, bigotry, and uncontrolled violence. It is telling that Muslims of all ethnicities—not only Turks, but also Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, Arabs, and others—were involved in different ways, sometimes in popular riots, in the three waves of the genocide.  Militias and mobs were often motivated by an ideology that values the triumph of Islam over “unbelievers” (kuffar). This explains why Christians in Turkey (unlike Jews in Nazi Germany) could save their lives by converting (for a conversion also brings glory to Islam).

This is not to vilify Islam, which classically does offer protection and rights to Christians (and Jews) as dhimmis. It is, however, an important warning against religious fanaticism and triumphalism today, in a world where Christian girls are still abducted and converted in Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere; where many Christian descendants of the thirty-year genocide have become victims of ISIS; where Muslims have been victims of Buddhist fanaticism in Myanmar and Islamophobia in the West; and where Muslims and Christians together have been victims of Hindu extremism in India.

 

SANCTIONS AND THE PANDEMIC

Raúl Rodríguez Rodríguez’s “Sanctioned Cruelty” (May) discusses the “Trump-administration policies meant to punish the people of Cuba.” The presence of this article in an issue chiefly devoted to “Life in Lockdown” is begging for intellectual exploration.

What is the goal of these sanctions? Political pressure on the government, so great that the Cuban people will demand democratically elected, representative government. Sanctions are generally spoken of like paternalistic punishment, akin to the withholding of an allowance, imposed for the good of the Cuban (or Iranian, or Venezuelan, et al.) people. If only they tough it out a bit longer, surely a federalist two-party government will spring up.

As Americans feel the pain of seemingly arbitrary restrictions imposed for the goal of maintaining their own health, they can use this opportunity to consider what level of similar economic suffering they are willing to impose on other world citizens for the much less laudable goal of punishing their governments. Do we have the right to allow these actions to be carried out in our name? What if the level of economic distress we are currently experiencing were the result of a much more powerful country deciding that the Trump administration should be held responsible for its treatment of immigrants at the Mexican border? Or that the Obama administration needs to face consequences for drone strikes in the Middle East? Now is an opportunity to remember the real consequences our country’s decisions have, not just on our own people, but on the global human family.

Greg Demet
Houston, Tex.

Published in the September 2020 issue: 
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