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A Great Time For A Fresh Look At The Armenian Genocide

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  • A Great Time For A Fresh Look At The Armenian Genocide

    By Jonathan Kay

    11:38, May 30, 2012

    This week, a Turkish court approved a criminal indictment against
    four former Israeli military commanders for their alleged role in the
    deaths of nine Turkish activists who were trying to break Israel's
    blockade of Hamas-run Gaza in 2010. The indictment calls for between
    8,000 and 18,000 life sentences for each of the Israeli men.

    That's a lot of life sentences - especially given last year's UN report
    concluding that, while Israel had used excessive force against the
    knife- and club-wielding Turkish jihadis, the blockade itself was
    perfectly legal.

    As an arithmetic experiment, imagine if the Israeli military had done
    something truly monstrous - comparable, for instance, to what the
    Ottoman Turks did to the Armenians during World War I and the years
    that followed. How many life sentences do you hand out to the killers
    of over a million innocent people? (Extrapolating from the flotilla
    indictments above, the figure I come up with is over a billion.)

    Alas, those WWI-era Ottoman killers have long since given up this
    earthly vale of tears. Many died in their beds - unlike the Armenian
    men and women who perished from exposure or starvation, clutching
    their children's bodies, during their forced marches through the
    Anatolian hinterlands.

    As it happens, a new book on this historical episode - The Young Turks'
    Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
    in the Ottoman Empire, by Clark University professor Taner Akcam -
    landed in my mailbox a few months back. According to the publishers,
    Princeton University Press, Akcam is the first scholar of Turkish
    origin to publicly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.

    Till now, Akcam's work has been taboo in Turkey. But given the recent
    flotilla indictments, it would seem the Turks are exhibiting a newfound
    zeal for litigating the crimes of the past. What better time to crack
    open Akcam's book?

    The first theme that jumps out from The Young Turks' Crime Against
    Humanity is the obsessive zeal with which the Turks of the early
    20th-century sorted the Anatolian population by religion and
    ethnicity. Christians - Greek and Armenian alike - were singled out
    for special scrutiny. But even non-Turk Muslims were seen as suspect.

    Millions of Kurds, for instance, were ethnically cleansed from
    certain regions in a bid to weaken their political claims - a legacy
    of persecution that continues to this day.

    "In order to reform the Kurdish element and transform it into a
    constructive entity, it is necessary to immediately displace and send
    [Kurds] to the assigned places in Anatolia," reads one 1916 telegram
    cited by Akcam. "In the place of resettlement, the sheikhs, leaders
    and mullahs will be separated from the rest of the tribe and sent
    to different districts ... to places where they will be unable to
    maintain relations with other members."

    The overarching demographic goal of the Ottoman Turks prior to WWI
    was what Akcam calls "the 5% to 10% rule": Officials sought to cleanse
    each region of the country such that resettled non-Turk groups would
    constitute not more than one-in-20 or one-in-10 within the larger
    population. One way to meet this mathematical threshold was through
    massive, long-range population transfers.

    Another strategy, implemented as World War I unfolded, was outright
    extermination: Cadavers didn't count toward the 5-to-10 quota.

    The process by which Ottoman officials and generals used military
    exigencies as a pretext for annihilating large swathes of the Armenian
    population was complex. Readers looking for the details will find
    them in chapters five through eight of Akcam's book, along with the
    names of the men responsible. But it is the anecdotes that stand out
    in a reader's memory, such as this one, quoted from a 1918 debate in
    the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies:

    "There was a county head in the military district. He loaded the
    Armenians onto a ca´que on the pretext of sending them off to Samsun
    [by boat] and then dumping them into the sea. I heard that the governor
    [of the province of Trebizond] Cemal Azmi performed this act personally
    ... As soon as I arrived [in Istanbul], I told the interior minister
    those things that I had seen and heard ... But I was unable to persuade
    him to take any action ... I tried over a period of perhaps three
    years, but it was not to be. They would claim it [had happened in]
    the war zone, [and] say things like this."

    Almost a century later, Turkish officials still "say things like
    this" when confronted with evidence of the Armenian Genocide. The
    country's formal position is that the Armenians endured a mere
    "relocation" exercise during a period when they were suspected
    of comprising a pro-Russian fifth-column threat. Five years ago,
    Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan asked his government officials
    to use the phrase "1915 Events" to describe the Armenian Genocide -
    which is kind of like referring to the Jewish Holocaust as "that
    thing that happened in the early 1940s."

    Many nations and ethnic groups whitewash their own history. Russian
    school textbooks underplay the crimes of Stalin. And Chinese officials
    are scandalized whenever someone mentions the atrocities against
    Falun Gong practitioners. But unlike Turkey, these nations generally
    do not posture as guardians of human rights and international law.

    If Turkey presumes to lecture Israel or anyone else on these subjects,
    it could start with a frank admission of the horrors that Turks
    themselves perpetrated against Armenians and other minorities. Even
    then, the Turkish case against Israel would have little merit. But
    at least, it wouldn't stink of hypocrisy.