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Stop Denying the Armenian/Assyrian/Greek Genocide!

24/04/2015 10:17 BST | Updated 22/06/2015 10:59 BST

A hundred years ago today, 24 April 1915, the arrest of some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople (Istanbul) marked the beginning of the Armenian genocide. Throughout 1915, and in some places carrying on for much longer, scores of Christian communities were massacred or rounded up and forced to go on long marches through the Syrian Desert. Most men were killed on the spot; women and children were raped and enslaved, or simply murdered. Orphaned children were taken away to be raised as Muslims by Turkish and Kurdish families. These atrocities were carried out by Ottoman Turkish soldiers and officials, as well as local Kurds, in the eastern parts of Anatolia. They ended up obliterating whole communities of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and others. In total, 1-1.5 million Armenians were killed, along with some 300,000 Assyrians and 100,000s of Greeks. The genocide that took place a hundred years ago has a frightening resemblance to what is happening today as the self-proclaimed 'Islamic State' is pursuing a similar campaign against the remnants of these communities.

The massacres of 1915 were part of the politics of the late Ottoman Empire. Since the early 19th century, the Ottomans had gradually been implementing a series of modernising reforms (known as the Tanzimat). These sought to gradually transform the old empire into a modern nation, modelled on European states. One of the most radical measures was an edict promulgated in 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid that stipulated universal equality regardless of creed. In effect, the subjects of the Sultan were transformed into citizens of a modern state - in theory at least. While seemingly unremarkable to a modern reader, this change was of a profound nature. It meant that the age-old divide between Muslims and Christians had been erased. Christians, who had always been second-class citizens forced to pay the Jizya tax, were now to be considered equal to Muslims. Needless to say, many Muslims did not appreciate the new order.

Another effect was the transformation of the old millet system. The millets were religious communities that were recognised under Ottoman law. Each millet had the right to perform limited legal functions in personal matters. They were organised on a sectarian rather than an ethnic basis. This meant that Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks were divided between different millets. However, as ideas of nationalism began to spread in the Ottoman Empire, the millets were gradually transformed into incipient national organisations. Thus, the unintended outcome of the Tanzimat - which had been designed to strengthen the empire - was to bend it apart. Throughout the 19th century, most of the Christian majority territories in south-eastern Europe were lost in wars and rebellions. Greece, for instance, was able to break free in 1832 following a long war of independence in which it was aided by Britain, France and other European powers.

By the turn of the century, the Ottoman Empire was therefore made up of a majority of Muslims. Nationalism was gaining ground not only amongst the Christian communities, but also amongst the educated Ottoman elite. An inclusive ideology of Ottomanism had been preached by groups of intellectuals (the Young Ottomans) since the 1850s. But following territorial losses and heightened internal antagonisms, the tolerance was gradually exchanged for jingoism and chauvinism. The Young Turks replaced the Young Ottomans, and began pushing for a Turkification of what was left of the empire. This coincided with the ascent to the throne of Sultan 'Abd al-Hamid II in 1876. His reign was marked by authoritarianism and an attempted 'Sunnification' of the empire. In 1908, 'Abd al-Hamid was overthrown by the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress - ostensibly to end his autocratic rule and revive constitutional rule. From then on, a relentless policy of Turkification was pursued. Christians were not the only victims; Arabs, Kurds, and other Muslims were to be Turkified as well. As a consequence, many Arab Muslims who before had been loyal to the empire now turned against it, and Arab nationalism became decisively anti-Turkish.

As war broke out in 1914, the empire was in turmoil. Traditionally, the Ottomans had been allied with Britain but due to a pre-war agreement with Germany, they ended up declaring war on Britain, France and Russia. Perhaps it was the idea of recovering territory in eastern Anatolia lost to Russia in the War of 1877-8 that motivated the alliance (which also ironically made the Ottomans allies of their old foes the Habsburgs). Nevertheless, the Armenian, Assyrian, and to some extent Greek communities mostly lived in the eastern parts of Anatolia that quickly became a theatre of war as the Russians advanced through the Caucasus. Historically, the Russians - and other Western powers - had patronised these Christian communities, offering 'protection'. As a result, the Ottomans considered them a 'fifth column'.

The atrocities that were carried out in 1915 thus happened in a context of increasing war paranoia, but, importantly, also against a backdrop of historical Turkification and 'nation building' in which any identity other than Turkish/Ottoman/Muslim (in that order) was considered potentially treacherous. The killings came about partly as official policy against Armenians, because they were deemed pro-Russian, and partly through the unleashing of the killing instincts of local Muslim populations, most of whom were Kurdish, whose pent-up hatred of former neighbours - whether motivated by religion or pecuniary gains - found an outlet in the killing fields of eastern Anatolia.

Following the war, most of Anatolia had been ethnically cleansed of Armenians and Assyrians, and the extermination of the Greek community was completed with the 1923 'population exchange' agreement between Greece and the newly established Turkish Republic. This agreement 'transferred' (forcibly expelled) 1.3 million Anatolian Greeks in exchange for some 350,000 Turks living in Greece. The transfer was agreed following the Turkish defeat of a Greek invasion force during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23). Having cleansed most of the Christian communities, the new Turkish Republic led by Mustafa Kemal "Atatürk" - the ideological successor to the Young Turks - went on to Turkify the Kurds. For the past ninety years, Turkey has denied Kurdish identity and aspirations - even claiming that Kurds were 'mountain Turks'. Thus, Turkish 'nation building' was not premised on anti-Christian ideas per se but rather on the notion of a homogenous 'Turkish' nation in which alternative identities are anathema.

Taking this historical view, there can be no question whether the atrocities against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks during and after World War I constitute a genocide. These massacres were not (only) isolated killings happening during the turmoil of war - as claimed by genocide deniers - but, importantly, they were part of a nation building project bent on the denial, or forcible eradication, of alternative national identities.

It is a disgrace that on the hundredth anniversary of this genocide most Western states, notably Britain and the US, continue to deny it. Lobbying and threats from the Turkish government have prevented recognition of the genocide save from a handful of courageous countries. In the case of the US and Britain, the reluctance to use the G-word is perhaps also to do with their own modern history in which the genocides of the native populations of North America and Australia formed an integral part of the nation building process. Nevertheless, time has certainly come to recognise this shameful genocide, not as an isolated incident, but as the negative consequence of jingoistic and chauvinistic nationalism.