“The destruction of the Christian communities was the result of deliberate government policy and the will of the country’s Muslim inhabitants,” Morris and Ze’evi write. “The murders, expulsions, and conversions were ordered by officials and carried out by other officials, soldiers, gendarmes, policemen and, often, tribesmen and civilian inhabitants of towns and villages. All this occurred with the active participation of Muslim clerics and the encouragement of the Turkish press.”
The definitive “tell” of an official, coordinated Turkish program to cleanse the country of Christians, Morris and Ze’evi contend, was the slaughter and deportation of Assyrian Christians during 1914-24. Dispersed and small in numbers, shunning terrorism or military conquest, the Assyrians were without any designs on their own nation-state in Anatolia. Nevertheless, “they were murdered and expelled en masse.”
While much of what has been written about the Armenian genocide focuses on the period during World War I, Morris and Ze’evi contend that the destruction of Turkey’s Christian minorities – “a giant and continuous crime against humanity” – began much earlier, with the massacres of 1894-96. During this 30-year stretch there were periods of relative peace for Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. But the inevitable outbreaks of mass murder, mass rape of girls and women (“absolute sexual permissiveness vis-à-vis Christians”), the kidnapping of children, extensive plunder, and conversion to Islam at the point of a bayonet were never far away. Prosperous Armenian villages that had for centuries enjoyed peaceful relations with Muslim neighbors and Ottoman rulers were subjected to planned raids of Turks, Kurds, and others – and destroyed by the score.
Over 30 years, the authors say, the “the process of ethnic-religious cleansing was characterized by rounds of large-scale massacre, alongside systematic expulsions, forced conversions, and cultural annihilation that amounted to genocide.” Christians accounted for 20 percent of the population of Asia Minor at the close of the nineteenth century. By 1924, that proportion had fallen to two percent.
How big a role did Islam play in the genocide?
On the question of Islam’s contribution to the genocide, Morris and Ze’evi begin by observing that the religion holds to humanistic and moderate traditions, and that individual Muslims have differing views of practice, scriptural interpretation, and moral behavior. Still, the historians assert that there is “compelling evidence” that Islam was a forceful driver of the genocide of Anatolia’s Christians. “Perpetrators cited jihad and Muslim law more generally to explain and justify their actions, even to argue that their actions were obligatory,” they write. Indeed, even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the secular, Westernized Turkish state, justified the destruction of Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians as rooted in Islamic doctrine. In 1919, Western diplomats cited captured Turkish documents that pointed to Kemal and proved “beyond all doubt his responsibility for [the] disorder … by inciting to holy war.”
What of the charge by pro-Turkish writers and historians that the Armenians were a subversive element working to destabilize the nation, a fifth column that would pave the way for foreign intervention in the wake of a massively destructive and destabilizing world war? Indeed, the threat of postwar intervention by Britain, France, and Russia – and the occupations and military clashes – was an ongoing concern, as was the potential for a dismemberment of Turkey, particularly in the heavily Armenian eastern provinces. Destroying the Ottoman Christians was also seen as “payback” for the territorial losses and humiliations “meted out to the empire and the Turks since the 1820s by the Christian powers and rebellious Christian minorities, from the Balkans to the Caucasus,” Morris and Ze’evi write. Ottoman leaders and the Muslim population at large shared “a deeply ingrained feeling that the natural order had somehow been overthrown and that matters had to be put right.”
The political and military context
The European Christian powers had other things on their mind following World War I. Carving up the remnants of the crumbling Ottoman Empire was their chief concern. The French, exhausted by the Great War, had occupied Cilicia in 1919 but quickly lost any stomach for battle when faced by Kemal and his Nationalist movement. France’s chief interest was to hold onto Syria. Churchill, commenting on the peril of being drawn into a conflict of “indefinite scale” against the Nationalists for the benefit solely of “alien and predatory races [Greeks and Italians]” was worried how such a war would affect Britain’s garrisons in Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Morris and Ze’evi observed that Kemal shrewdly played the powers off of each other. And “he never stopped telling Muslims that Turkey’s existence was imperiled by Christians abroad and at home, the great powers and the subversives who constantly invited their intervention.”
The Greco-Turkish War (1919-22) didn’t do anything to allay those fears. Greek military forces landed at Smyrna in 1919, encouraged by victorious Western allies who encouraged the Greeks. The war eventually ground into a stalemate and then a defeat, as retreating Greek forces and irregulars, the historians write, “deported Turkish villagers and townspeople, looted and torched villages, and occasionally murdered and raped.”
Indeed, Armenian revolutionary bands has been forming since the 1870s, at a time when Armenians, including the patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Etchmadzin, made appeals to the Russians for protection. One of these revolutionary bands was the Hunchaks, inspired by violent anti-tsarist ideologies in Russia. They attacked Ottoman military bases and gendarmerie posts and Kurdish bands from bases in the Caucasus and northern Iran. A chief aim, Morris and Ze’evi write, was to “provoke the authorities to take harsh countermeasures that would trigger European intervention.”