Friday, October 12, 2007

Congressional resolution on the Armenian genocide

The Bush administration is worried about the reaction that a congressional committee resolution that states a simple fact-- that the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1917 was a 'genocide,' will cause in Turkey.

The Turks of course claim that these events, which happened before nearly anyone alive today was born, were simply a matter of inter-ethnic fighting.

First, let's dispense with that fiction. The Ottomans, who felt threatened by Christian Armenians because they were well aware that the colonial powers, France and England, planned to divide up the spoils of their empire if the side Turkey was on lost World War I (which they eventually did) wanted to get rid of their non-muslim population from an area in the eastern part of the empire. So following the orders of the so-called 'three Pashas' (leaders in the Ottoman government) Turkish troops and irregulars embarked on a campaign to systematically eradicate the Armenian population. Mehmet Talat Pasha, who held the position of Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, is known to have issued the order,

"Kill every Armenian man, woman, and child without concern".

On the orders of Mehmet Talat Pasha and others, Armenians were simply butchered by armed soldiers in their villages, the villages themselves were burned to the ground and those who managed to flee were pursued and mercilessly slaughtered when caught. Some were temporarily spared and let go in remote regions of the desert to die a slow death of starvation. Thousands of others avoided the soldiers but had to flee across the border into Russia where some survived but others froze to death, starved to death or were killed by local gangs of marauders-- not surprising at that, as the Christian Armenians have always been about as 'welcome' among their various Muslim neighbors as a cat in the dog pound. In fact, in many ways the Armenian genocide provided a blueprint for Hitler's Holocaust against those he considered undesirable-- primarily Jews, a generation later.

It is also true that while the Ottoman empire was carved up and shrunk down to its Turkish core (plus a third of Kurdistan-- more on that further down) and the British and the French demanded that the Turks pay some reparations, the one act of war that the Turks were never held accountable for was the Armenian genocide. It turned out that the Turkish concern about the Christian British and French colonialists was misplaced-- they did indeed divide the Ottoman empire, but in creating territories (which eventually became nations) like Iraq, Syria and Jordan, they just drew lines on a map, thinking in terms of plunder, not people. The peoples of these lands were artificially divided by lines drawn in London or Paris and often forced into new political entities which made no sense historically, culturally, or ethnically (much of our present problem in Iraq springs from this fact.)

Of course the powers that won WWI did not consider genocide to be very serious to begin with. Britain and France were guilty in their long colonial past of everything from the slave trade to plundering and carrying out extreme acts of brutality against indigenous peoples all over the world. For that matter, the United States was only a generation removed from Wounded Knee and would not have wanted to have its past history involving the Nez Perce or Cherokee, for example, scrutinized very closely. So the world simply forgot.

But now, ninety years too late, but still better than never, a committee of the United States Congress has forwarded to a floor vote a simple, non-binding resolution which contains no specific actions or recommendation for action. It simply acknowledges that the Armenian genocide was in fact a genocide-- and by any modern definition it meets the definition of one.

The Bush administration has questioned the timing of this resolution. They are worried that Turkey may invade northern Iraq to fight against Kurdish rebels operating from the region. To date Kurdistan has been the one area of Iraq that has been relatively peaceful so the administration is worried that a war going on in Kurdistan would complicate their already-unattainable goal of to winning a 'victory' in Iraq.

But to question the timing is ridiculous. For years they've had a rubber stamp Congress and one that would never have considered such a resolution. A Congress with the fortitude to do so was seated only nine months ago. And this is one of the first nonbinding resolutions they've taken up (and seriously, hasn't Turkey been threatening to invade Iraq for at least the past three years? The same argument would have been made at any time since January if the resolution was put forward).

Now, I don't mean to claim that Democrats are blameless when it comes to plowing under the Armenian genocide. After all, our party has controlled Congress before, and never passed such a resolution. However, we haven't since 1994, and even back then the issue hadn't reached such a stage of consciousness. Further, while I would argue that in general Republicans have been worse about showing moral clarity on human rights issues (except of course when the perpetrators were communists), Democrats have failed as well-- Jimmy Carter, for all his well-earned reputation as a champion of human rights, does have one huge blot on that record-- as President he supported Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge maintaining a seat in the United Nations and did not speak out or oppose Pol Pot, who was the biggest genocidal murderer of that day. And Bill Clinton did not speak out about, let alone take action to oppose the biggest genocide to have occurred on his watch, that in Rwanda.

Nevertheless, Carter and Clinton at least deserve credit for being willing to speak up against erstwhile allies like the Shah of Iran and some of the Latin American dictatorships for human rights abuses. Republicans' stands on human rights can best be related by a letter I wrote once to Jon Kyl (in 1988 or 1989 when I lived in Phoenix and he was my congressman.) I was concerned about reports that the government in Sudan (then technically a U.S. ally) was involved in the slave trade, supporting the kidnapping of African men, women and children who were then sold as slaves in Saudi Arabia and other countries. Kyl 'got back to me' with a response, and it was exactly word for word the lie that the Reagan era state department was perpetrating that the Sudanese government was doing everything they could to stop the slave trade. Of course everyone knew that wasn't true, they were hip deep in it (as they are today). But then today they are both failing to stop the slave trade and today's biggest genocide-- in Darfur, and the Bush administration again does as little as they can get away with.

Which leads us back to the Turkish situation involving the Kurds. It is true that the Turks feel threatened by Kurdish rebels, operating from what has become a free and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Kurdistan itself is effectively a nation that has been divided up into three parts, Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian. When the colonialists drew their lines on the map, they separated the Iraqi and Turkish Kurds from each other, so that families and whole communities were torn asunder. And instead of allowing open travel and passage across that border, the Turks have elected to prevent it. And so they face a restless Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey, with a military resistance that has bases in Iraq. However, perhaps instead of invading Iraq, perhaps the Turks should consider establishing a separate autonomous region in southeastern Turkey, which could then peacefully remain in Turkey but have an open border with the Iraqi Kurdish region. In fact, this might also serve U.S. interests as well since the logical third piece of the equation would be for Iran to do the same thing with their third of Kurdistan, and they would certainly feel pressure to do so. But instead, Turkey has brutally suppressed any Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy, and so they have certainly bought themselves more trouble.

But that is no reason why our Congress shouldn't take the time to state facts. And the Armenian genocide is a historical fact.

1 comment:

Eli Blake said...


It is always good to hear muslims speak out on issues like this. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about muslims, and with a billion muslims in the world it is important to point out that the vast majority are peaceful people who respect human rights and dignity.