[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Ninety-five years ago, on this very day, a dark episode began in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Around 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Istanbul and deported to Anatolia, never to return.
The real catastrophe began a month later. The Union and Progress government, the Young Turk Party that overtook the empire with a military coup in 1913, passed an Expulsion Law, giving itself the authority to deport anyone that is deemed as a threat to national security.
Armenians were the real target. Soon, in almost every city and town in eastern Anatolia, they were forced out of their homes and destined to the far and arid Syria. In some places, they were transported by trains, but most were forced to march for hundreds of kilometers, often without food and water. Many perished on the road, out of famine, dehydration and disease. (The photos showing these victims, especially the starving children and babies, are painful for anyone with a conscious.) In other cases, there were massacres committed by the locals, driven either by hatred or the lust to confiscate the victim’s properties.
In total, at least 600,000 Armenians, and probably more, perished in 1915, in one of history’s most tragic ethnic cleansings. I, as a Muslim Turk, feel only pain and remorse for those tortured souls, whose memory deserves remembrance and respect. Yet, the same memory also leads me to ask why this great catastrophe took place, and how my nation created it.
A combination of fear and nationalism, as I understand, was the driving force. In 1915, the Ottomans were at war on three deadly fronts (with the British and the French at Gallipoli and the Middle East, and with Russia on the East), and Armenians were increasingly seen as in league with the enemy. The Ottoman elite, and especially the Balkan-originated Young Turks, had seen how the Greeks or Bulgarians ethnically cleansed great portions of their Muslim populations during their national uprisings. Now they feared the same thing would happen in Anatolia, with an independent Armenia emerging under Russian tutelage.
The “pre-emptive” logic of the Young Turks can be seen in the memoirs of Halil Menteşe, a close friend of Talat Paşa, the mastermind of the whole tragedy. In the summer of 1915, he visited Talat at his home, and found him miserable. “I got telegrams from Tahsin [the governor of Erzurum] telling about the situation of the Armenians,” Talat explained:
“I could not sleep all night. It is not something that the human heart can endure. But if I did not do this to them, they would do it to us.”
I heard the same logic from my own grandmother as well, who always lived in Yozgat, in which Armenians were mass-murdered in 1915. “There was a rumor that the Armenians would ally with the Muscovite to kill all Muslims,” she once said. “Then the elders stormed the Armenian church and found many guns and ammunition. This, they thought, proved the rumors.”
What followed, my grandmother would sadly add, was the “kesim,” or “the slaughter,” of the Armenians – who, alas, probably piled up those weapons out of fear as well.
In the Turkish mind, this if-we-did-not-do-this-to-them-they-would-do-it-to-us logic was also reinforced by the mass atrocities that Armenian militias committed against Muslims in 1916-17, when they had a chance for “revenge” due to the Russian advance in the eastern front. Turks kept on remembering the horror stories from that period, whereas most Armenians only remembered 1915.
We humans, after all, have a tendency to remember our own losses rather than those of others.
The mufti vs the governor
But now, I believe, is the time to be fairer. For our part, I think we Turks have made a terrible mistake for decades by totally overlooking the enormous suffering that the Armenian people went through in 1915.
Yet in fact, there were exemplary figures who put justice over nationalism even then. In Boğazlıyan, a district of Yozgat, the mufti of the town, Abdullahzade Mehmet Efendi, had protested the governor who was a willing executioner. The Muslim cleric also bore witness against the governor in the Ottoman military tribunal trial of 1919, stating, “I fear the wrath of God.”
The same Muslim conscious can also be seen in the transcripts of the same tribunal, at which the Unionists were tried for their crimes against Armenians. A passage tells about how “the elders and leaders” of Çankırı, accompanied by their mufti, put a request to the mayor of the city with the following words:
“The Armenians and their children from the neighboring vilayets [provinces] are being driven like cattle to the mountain for slaughter. We do not want these types of things to occur in our vilayets. We are afraid of the wrath of Allah.”
The same transcript adds, “these individuals had left with tears in their eyes, after securing the assurances of the mayor that this type of act would not take place in their vilayet.”
Those God-fearing individuals, I believe, were the best of my nation in 1915. And now more of us are remembering their spirit, and even joining them in their tears.