The Armenian Genocide: Examining the Turkish and North American Response 100 Years Later

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2015 CE marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.  The term “genocide” was coined in 1940 by Raphael Lemkin “to describe the Turkish handling of Armenians and the Nazi treatment of the Jews.”1 It has been hotly disputed whether or not the Turkish government’s treatment of Armenians should fall under the category of “genocide.” Unsurprisingly, Turkey vehemently and adamantly refuses to consider and label what happened to the Armenians as genocide. Canada is one of the few countries that have officially recognized what happened to the Armenians as genocide. Other countries, like the United States of America, have at times refused or hesitated to use the word genocide to describe what happened to the Armenian population from an official standpoint. This article will explore the current Turkish and North American response to the Armenian Genocide one hundred years later.

If the old adage “history is written by the victors” is true, who are the “victors” that are now writing the narrative concerning the Armenian Genocide? Even in the early days of the arrests and deportations that were taking place in 1915, much of the world looked askance at what was happening. How can we allow this tragedy to happen? Turkey, allied with Germany, seemed to be able to act against the Armenian population without fear of possible retribution or even the simple threat of sanctions. The outbreak of World War I perhaps made this horrible act easier to commit: the war may have distracted other nations away from the Turkish government’s despicable acts. In Canada, religious newspapers covered the event. With incredulity, they wondered why Turkey was allowed to act with impunity against the Armenians. The estimated deaths of Armenians range from 800 000 – 1 500 000. Yet for a variety of reasons, even with this staggering number of deaths, the world seemed to be frozen in their reaction to the Armenian tragedy. The Christian population was targeted and yet the leading Christian governments of the day failed to act against Turkey. The Canadian population, like others, may have had the impression that since the Christians were being persecuted, surely their Christian brothers and sisters in the West would stand up against those who sought to persecute the children of God. They would sadly find out that justice is expensive and that in some cases, injustices are better left alone.

By the 1980s, Turkish nationalist historians were offering a historical view of the Armenian Genocide that sought to mitigate and downplay the role of the Turkish government in the whole affair. “According to this narrative, the decision for relocation should be interpreted simply as a strategic measure to secure the rear of the Ottoman Army fighting against the Russians on the Eastern front.”2 A major proponent of this “official thesis” is the late Ambassador Kamuran Gürün who states that3

Various deaths occurred for various reasons during the relocation. Some of the deaths were due to epidemics, some were due to climatic factors, some were due to the hardships suffered during the journey, some were due to attacks, because officials did not protect them or because officials engaged in illegal acts … Many others died while fighting against the Turks in the Russian Army which they joined as volunteers.

This type of thinking minimizes the death toll of Armenians and seeks to downplay the Turkish government’s role by trying to justify their actions as collateral damage.4

A huge part of the proposed narrative lies in the[^5]

unquestioned belief that Muslims and Christians had lived peacefully together within the Ottoman millet system until it collapsed in the second half of the nineteenth century. This collapse was, to a large extent, the fault of the Great Powers who intervened in the domestic affairs of the Ottoman Empire and exploited the position of the non-Muslim minorities living there.

By placing the majority of the blame on the Great Powers, Turkey is able to claim a modicum of innocence in the whole matter. By mitigating Turkey’s action and exaggerating the level of action undertaken by the Armenians, the proposed story is one of two equally armed groups who were waging warfare against one another. There is no proper recognition of the disparity of power between the two groups. It is curious to note that Gerard Libaridian observes how “(t)he entrenched position of each side is now part of their respective identities, identities that not only define the boundaries of the ethno-cultural self-definitions but also the socio-political context within which they see their present and project the future.”[^6] Such an entrenched position has proven itself to be a major influence in Turkey’s adamant refusal to recognize and label the Armenian tragedy as one worthy of the word “genocide”, along with its steadfast vigilance in trying to silent any organization or government who should dare to call it as such.

The constant refusal by the Turkish government to acknowledge their role in the Armenian Genocide “only infuriates the new generations of Armenians; it makes it more difficult for them to focus on the historical context in which these events took place or to generate a desire to understand the position within which Turkey society finds itself.”5 As Belinda Cooper and Tanner Akcam note “(a) freer historical debate on the Armenians could lead to a broader reconsideration of the repression not only of other non-Muslim populations in the empire but of Kurds, Greeks, and Alevites in the republic, and it could open up debate over more recent clashes between fascist nationalists and leftists, over disappearances, death squads, and torture.”6 There is not only fear that these debates would unintentionally open a Pandora’s box but that “it would also lead to claims of territorial demands and calls for restitution of property confiscated a century ago.”7 Turkey’s stalwart vigilance in preventing the “g” word from being used has resulted in applying undue pressure towards any attempt by any government or institution who dared to start resolutions that sought to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide for what it truly was.

It was not until 2004 that the Canadian House of Commons passed a bill that officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. Why did Canada take its time in acknowledging this tragic event? Karen Ashford looks at the way that the Armenian Genocide was portrayed in the Canadian press (specifically, a mainstream national newspaper called Globe and Mail) during 1914-16 and 2004-2006. She argues, rather convincingly, that their portrayal of Armenians as “unworthy” victims played a role in Canada’s reluctance. She also examines the political and economic relationship between Canada and Turkey and how it may have factored into the decision making concerning any declarations that involved an official acknowledgement of genocide by the ruling government. Ashford mentions how in 2004, “Turkey was in talks with Bombardier … to build a subway system worth $117 million.”8 In contrast, “the Armenian economy is the world’s second weakest.”[^11] Turkey can exert considerable political and economic pressure while Armenia has absolutely nothing in its name that it can use for any leverage purposes.

According to Armstrong, “Countries can ignore genocidal intent when their intervention would not serve their self-interests, standing by while thousands are killed.”[^12] She continues, “Despite the Canadian government paying lip service to the Armenian victims, the Globe and Mail did not cover the recognition of the Armenian genocide, in favour of not hurting the political and economic relationship with the perpetrator.”9 Even though Canada may have belatedly recognized the tragedy of 1915 as a genocide, it seems as if it is more of a bark than a roar that seeks to right the wrongs of yesteryears. In many ways, the United States exhibits these same qualities.

Simon Payaslian opines that President Woodrow Wilson’s “administration refused to employ military intervention to stop the genocide being committed by the Turkish government against the Armenian people.”10 It seems that the United States of 1915 is eerily similar to the United States of 2015; both versions are motivated by political and economic reasons, rather than ethical and humanitarian concerns. While the United States have used moral reasoning in the past as an excuse to protect/occupy foreign soil, they failed to intervene during this tragic crisis. Not only did they fail to intervene, it seems as if there was no political desire to even entertain such an action against the Ottoman empire. Although the Wilson administration condemned the genocide, “its response initially stressed management of public opinion at home, followed by relief assistance to the survivors.”11 In many ways, the current relationship of the United States with Turkey has not changed in the last hundred years. The fear of the political and economic fallout that could happen if the United States used its voice to stand up and condemn Turkey’s actions and force her to acknowledge and label what happened in 1915 as genocide has resulted in a foreign policy that has gone unchanged within the last century.

During a mass in the Armenian Catholic rite at St. Peter’s Basilica attended by the Armenian president and church leaders last year, Pope Francis spoke of living through “three massive and unprecedented tragedies.” He spoke of the Armenian Genocide as the first of the twentieth century. This statement ignited the ire of the Turkish government, especially by the Pope’s use of the word “genocide.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his official capacity as the leader of Canada, affirmed his belief that what happened in 1915 was genocide. President Barack Obama, during his campaign, promised to use the word “genocide” to describe the events of 1915 in his attempt to court the Armenian-American votes. For his seventh year in a row as president, he continued to break his previous promise to Armenian-Americans to use the word “genocide.” Perhaps, it is within the next hundred years that the plight of the Armenians of 1915 will finally be recognized and acknowledged as the first genocide of the twentieth century.

 

Sid D. Sudiacal, PhD Candidate

McMaster Divinity College

 

[^5] Aktar, “Debating the Armenian Massacres,” 242.

[^6] Libaridian, “The Past as a Prison,” 1.

[11]: Fisher, D. Forbes, 2011.

[^12] Ashford, “The Globe’s Representation,” 84.


  1.   Gordon L. Heath, “”Thor and Allah … in a hideous, unholy confederacy”: The Armenian Genocide in the Canadian Protestant Press” in The Globalization of Christianity: Implications for Christian Ministry and Theology, edited by Gordon L. Heath and Steven M. Studebaker (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 108. 
  2.  Ayhan Atkar, “Debating the Armenian Massacres in the Last Ottoman Parliament, November – December 1918,” History Workshop Journal 64 (2007): 241. 
  3.  Kâmuran Gürün, The Armenian File: The Myth of Innocence Exposed (London: K. Rustem; G. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985), 241. 
  4. Ibid., 242. 
  5. Ibid., 2-3. 
  6.  Belinda Cooper and Taner Akcam, “Turks, Armenians, and the ‘G-Word’,” World Policy Journal 22 (2005): 85. 
  7. Ibid., 85. 
  8.  Karen Ashford, “The Globe’s Representation of the Armenian Genocide and Canada’s Acknowledgement,” University of Waterloo, 2012 8. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10.  Simon Payaslian, United States Policy toward the Armenian Question and the Armenian Genocide (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), xi. 
  11. Simon Payaslian, “The United States Response to the Armenian Genocide” in Looking backward, Moving Forward: Confronting the Armenian Genocide, edited by Richard G. Hovannisian (New Jerssey: Transaction Publishers, 2003), 51. 


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