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A Requiem for Armenians--a Sequel

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] My latest piece in these pages, "For the fear of God: A requiem for Armenians," proved to be quite controversial. And I, as usual, was blamed by some readers for being a bunch of nasty things. (A "traitor" to my own nation who is funded by evil foreigners, a "fake" Turk who hides his crypto-Armenianness, or a deceitful Islamist hell-bent on destroying secular Turkey.) I am not going to waste my time by trying to explain that I am really not the man in these caricatures -- or that I really don't have fangs and claws. But let me try to explain why I wrote a requiem on April 24 for the Armenians who perished in 1915. Because I hope that the reasoning (and the sentiment) that I followed might also help other Turks build a more righteous attitude in this poisonous controversy. A tale of two arguments I have been listening to both sides of this controversy, Turks and Armenians, for years. And I have realized that we Turks often use two major arguments. The first one is what I call the There-Was-A-Reason argument. By this, we are trying to tell the world that the expulsion of Armenians from Anatolia in 1915 was forced by a troublesome political context. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling. It had seen its Muslim populations slaughtered in the Balkans and the Caucasus by the Russians and their allies. The Ottoman elite had reason to suspect that Armenian nationalists were the fifth column of Russia, with which they were at war. The same elite also feared that an independent Armenia in the east would be disastrous for the Turks. Now, this is all true. And I, too, have written about these in this very paper. ("After All, Who Remembers the Ottoman Muslims?" on Feb. 15, 2007, and "Let's Be Honest on Genocide" on March 9, 2010) But understanding the context of something is different from seeing it as justified. What we should honestly ask ourselves here is whether it was justified to expel a million people from four corners of Eastern Anatolia to the Syrian Desert. If this was done simply to "secure the eastern border from Armenian militias," as we often say, then why not only men but also women, children and the elderly were also driven out of their homes? Was it too hard to see that most of those innocents could not survive the hundreds of miles of marching under the brazing sun without food, water and shelter? Was it too hard to see that some could even be pillaged, raped and murdered? These questions make me suspect that the "tehcir" (expulsion) law of the young Turkish government of the time was something more than a security measure. It rather seems to me as an ethnic cleansing for some political design. And I don't know you, but I, as a rule, am passionately against all ethnic cleansings -- whether they might be committed by the Serbs against the Bosnians, the Israelis against the Palestinians (see episodes such as Deir Yassin), or by my own country against the Armenians. At this point, I am sure, some of the Turkish readers will raise the objection that I call the second major Turkish argument: But-We-Were-Killed-Too. And this is true as well. Turks suffered horrible massacres at the hands of Armenians militias, in a few incidents before 1915, but in a much larger vengeance campaign in 1916 and 1917, when the Russian forces invaded several cities in northeastern Anatolia. The cruelty inflicted on the Muslim population at that time has become notoriously famous in Turkey, and we keep remembering that. We also rightfully condemn modern-day Armenia for occupying a large portion of Azerbaijani land, and creating a million refugees ("qacqins") living in terrible conditions. Yet still, I believe, the fact that we Turks also suffered should not make us blind and indifferent to the suffering on the other side, whose proportions are undoubtedly much larger. The fact that we remember and honor our own dead, in other words, should not prevent us from feeling mercy and remorse for the hundreds of thousands of perished Armenians. The beginning of wisdom My intention to speak of a "Muslim conscious" in my previous piece, by referring to some muftis and other devout Ottomans who tried to save the Armenians in 1915, was to bring in some new perspective to this moral side of the issue, which I see as the heart of the matter. I did not say, "Muslims do not commit genocide," as Prime Minister Erdoğan unconvincingly said in another context. I rather implied that Muslims should not do such horrible things if they will remain true to the principles of their faith, as some exemplary figures saw clearly during the Armenian exodus. This is important because a particularly Islamic critique of the tragedy of 1915 might be the key to Turkey's way forward. Until recently, those who questioned the official narrative on this matter were only a bunch of Western-educated secular liberals, whose language looked too alien to the majority of society. But recently some conservative Muslim pundits have also entered debate saying that their values are represented by not the Young Turks, who were secular nationalists, but the muftis who opposed the killings "for the fear of God." So, well, perhaps the Psalmist was really on to something. "The fear of the Lord," might really be, at least once in a while, "the beginning of wisdom."
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