To explain consciousness, a physical evolutionary history would have to show why it was likely that organisms of the kind that would have consciousness would arise.

Editorial Introduction

Turkey is unarguably one of the most significant nations in the Middle East. Because not nearly enough Westerners know much at all about this powerful republic and its predominantly Islamic population, this newsletter has welcomed an expansion of its coverage of Turkey. As part of that effort, the essay below deals candidly with one of the problems that Turks everywhere face: impassioned accusations that they irrationally reject allegations of historical genocide.

The Armenian Genocide: The Alternative Narrative And The Way Forward

By Eden Tunbach (eden.tunbach@yahoo.co.uk)

For those of my friends who are curious about the Turkish view regarding the Armenian genocide, I have written a four thousand word piece with which I merely convey the Turkish narrative before adding my own thoughts. I hope that you will find this information useful as you develop a more balanced opinion. My intention is neither to provoke nor to offend, but rather to generate a constructive and intellectual debate.

April 24th was the centennial of the tragic events that occurred to the Armenians in the Ottoman lands in the midst of WWI, so I will naturally start by expressing my deepest sorrow and regret that such a disaster ever took place — regardless of the name that both sides attribute to it. In truth that name does not change the fact that it was a real tragedy. My intention is not to provoke or offend anyone, but rather to present the alternative position advocated by Turkey in order to enlighten my friends, many of whom have asked me about this aspect of the dispute, which often gets no coverage at all or ends up being reduced to insignificance.

Western media, for the past few days leading up to this commemoration, have been ferociously outspoken, with even a notable appearance by the beloved Pope, who would probably be much better placed to address first the countless atrocities perpetrated by his Catholic Church throughout history. It is also remarkable to see the sudden appearance of so many self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the matter across social media who have probably never even read any relevant literature. Everyone should naturally have a right to express his or her opinion, which is not only healthy and constructive but also fundamental for the realization of a democratic society.

As someone with a huge passion for history, and who can claim Turkish heritage through my mother’s half of the family, I feel compelled to express my opinion on a number of issues. My mother being the child of Bosniak refugees from the Balkans, I am very well aware of the pain and suffering caused by forced displacement, which the Armenian diaspora, particularly the older generations, undoubtedly still feel to this present day. Just as the thought of Turkey sparks intense negative sentiments in many Armenians home and abroad, the same thought triggers immense affection in me since Turkey was the land of refuge and of new opportunities for my family who had to leave everything behind bar the few suitcases they could manage to carry. It seems to me that the West always seizes any opportunity to vilify Turkey whenever the circumstances are present, often by criticising historic actions that belong far in the past. That is rather ironic, considering the West has a brutal history of slave trade, colonialism and proxy-warfare to secure its own interests.

I would like to highlight my main area of concern, which is how the vast majority of mainstream publishers of news articles, opinions and literature regarding the Armenian distress fail completely to touch upon the other side of the story. We are taught from an early age always to consider numerous and varying sources to develop a comprehensive and well-founded understanding. Unfortunately, this issue has become very politicized and ulterior motives seem to prevail.

In fact the subject of contention boils down to a single issue — which seems simple on the surface but entails enormous consequences, namely the legal definition of the events of 1915.

Turkey does not deny that a great number of people died or contend that massacres did not occur, however it argues that the acts did not constitute genocide. The definition of “genocide” is provided by Article 2 of the Genocide Convention which reads as follows: “[a]ny of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, such as: (a) Killing members of the group; […].” Here, the key word is “intent”, and Turkey holds that the Ottoman authorities never had any intention to destroy the Armenian nation (unlike in Germany where there was a Final Solution for the Jews), but rather to displace them far away from the sensitive conflict zones near the Russian front to Syria.

The passing of the Tehcir (Deportation) Law was the direct result of a massive armed rebellion by the Armenians — supported and fueled by Russia in the context of WWI — which also led to the large-scale massacres of Turkish civilians, the cutting of supply lines to the Russian front, and many Armenians joining the enemy in the fight against the Ottoman state.

The Turkish narrative further maintains that the historical events should be read in the context of the time. The Ottoman Empire had been in terminal decline in the years leading up to these events and had lost its last African possession, Libya, to the Italians in 1912 and, most painfully, its over five-century-old European possessions in 1913 to the newly-formed Balkan States. This, in turn, naturally created the fear that the Anatolian motherland would be the next target, a fear that was exploited by three Pashas — Enver, Talaat and Cemal — in a coup d’état in 1913. That dictatorial triumvirate was responsible for the entry of the Ottoman Empire into WWI on the side of the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary against the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia, in what was effectively a war of survival.

The Ottoman Empire was fighting on numerous fronts — the Caucasus; Gallipoli; Sinai and Palestine; and Mesopotamian Campaigns — while at the same time being plagued with famine and disease. It is in this context that the Armenians, sensing the weakness of central authority, seized the opportunity to start an armed struggle for independence in promise of a sovereign state sponsored by Russia. This was similar to the strategy employed by the British organization of the Arab Revolt in 1916. As a matter of fact, the Armenian rebels even managed to take control of the strategically important Eastern city of Van with support from the Russian army and the local Armenian population in May 1915, thereby cutting vital supply routes for the Ottoman army. This occurred a month prior to the enactment of the Deportation Law and clearly highlights the difficult situation that the Ottoman government was faced with at the time.

The Armenian nation, previously referred to as sadık millet (the faithful nation), unfortunately fell victim to a game: it was effectively lured by Russia to fulfill the Russian expansionist agenda. A real fear was present in the Ottoman mindset regarding the likely dismemberment from the Empire of the Eastern Anatolian heartlands because of Armenian collaboration with Tsarist Russia. That fear was justified because the European Powers, particularly Russia, had used the exact same method in dismembering the Balkans from the Empire by inciting the Orthodox minorities against the state. This undoubtedly was the very reason why the dictatorial triumvirate led by Enver resorted to such harsh measures as the Deportation Law.

It is worth pointing out that Armenians and Turks had lived together peacefully in a mutually beneficial coexistence for centuries, with Armenians holding positions at all levels of the Ottoman state apparatus and within all sectors of society, most notably as government ministers. Gabriel Efendi Norandunkyan was the Minister of Foreign Affairs as late as in 1913.

Moreover, it is particularly noteworthy that the vast majority of Turks at the time did not consider themselves Turks, but rather Ottoman subjects in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Empire, where, up until recent reforms, each community was allowed to rule over itself to a certain extent under its own system with separate legal courts. Reforms brought on by the Second Constitutional Era following the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 had led to the re-establishment of the Meclis — a parliament comprised of 142 Turkish deputies and 133 non-Turks (Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Albanians, Jews, Balkan Slavs and a Vlach) — and the guarantee of full equality before the law of all the nations of the Empire, at a time when the colonial subjects of the European Powers could only dream of such representation.

The deportation occurred a year into the war. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was involved in a fight for survival on numerous fronts and resources were critically overstretched. Consequently, the conditions during the relocation were extremely primitive and harsh, leading to countless Armenians perishing from exhaustion, famine and disease. Furthermore, many were attacked by Turkish and Kurdish civilians in reprisal for earlier atrocities; moreover, the convoys were also subject to attacks by irregular troops, militias and local bandits in isolated incidents outside the control of the central authorities. The region was essentially in a state of civil war.

However — and this idea is central to the Turkish dogma — there was no official involvement by the state, which failed to protect the deportees due to a lack of resources or by turning a blind eye.

It is fundamental to note that, unlike the Nazi Holocaust, there were no official plans to exterminate the Armenian population and that the only legal basis for the events of 1915 was a Deportation Law for the purpose of resettling the Armenian population in the East to Syria.

Noteworthy also is the fact that Armenian civilians in the rest of the Empire, such as in İstanbul in the West or in the Arab provinces in the South, were exempt from deportation. This fact draws closer parallels with ethnic cleansing than with genocide. Additionally, as was mentioned above, the Deportation Law was enacted in the year following the start of WWI and only after armed rebellions had broken out — which stands in strong contrast to the situation in Germany where the Jews never fought to establish a separate homeland and Hitler’s motives and the treatment of the Jews prior to the war are very well documented.

The final point of contention for the Turks is the number of victims. Turkey argues that the numbers claimed by the Armenian diaspora and the West are grossly inflated and points to the fact that even the estimates of historians favorable to the Armenian cause range from 600,000 up to 1.5 million. On the other hand, the Turkish government maintains that the number stands at 300,000 based on Talaat Pasha’s personal documents, with other scholars favorable to the Turkish view claiming 600,000 deaths.

Today, the number of the Armenian diaspora is estimated at between seven and ten million people living outside the borders of Armenia. According to the last official Ottoman census published in at the dawn of WWI in 1914, the number of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was 1,219,323, while a study performed by the Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople in 1912 concluded 1,018,000 Armenians were living in the so-called “Six vilayets”, which were the Armenian-populated provinces of the Empire. Even an Armenian historian claims that the total number of pre-war Ottoman Armenians was 1,7 million. As can be seen, numbers are very shady and subject to much debate, and can be used to advance arguments on either side.

The case put forward by Turkey is this: how is it possible to argue that 1,5 million Armenians were slaughtered when the wartime population of Armenians stood at around the same number — especially considering that the current size of the Armenian diaspora is estimated to be somewhere between seven and ten million and that the majority claims to descend from the victims of the events of 1915.

Having covered the main issues of contention according to the Turkish claim, it is worth noting a few more points. The brains behind the Deportation Law, Enver, Talaat and Cemal, were all tried in abstentia in the Turkish courts-martial in 1919-20 and sentenced to death. Furthermore, following the Ottoman defeat, the British deported 145 Ottoman statesmen — military officers and high-ranking politicians — to the island of Malta while searches were made in the archives in İstanbul to find any evidence in order to convict them of war crimes. After being held there for three years, the “Malta exiles” were released and allowed to return home.

Subsequently, the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, have failed to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide and to date only 23 countries have done so. This raises the questions as to why, a hundred years on, the events have only been recognised by a handful of countries and why the cause has been taken up almost exclusively by European and American scholars and media outlets.

Often, many people wrongly assume that Atatürk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, was involved in the events of 1915 as part of an effort made to cast a shadow over his achievements. The claims amount to an outright fallacy, as he was involved with fighting in the Dardanelles.

It is undeniable that the Armenian diaspora today attaches an immense interest to the issue and has a huge stake in the events of 1915. How is it that this question of genocide still remains so relevant a century on?

Certainly there are the more evident answers such as seeking some form of justice and recognition with potential implications in the form of monetary compensation and even land reparations. Another less obvious view is that the Armenian Genocide is of vital importance to maintaining the Armenian identity, culture and heritage of the diaspora worldwide, which is currently nearing its fourth or even fifth generation. The issue of genocide is a unifier; it rallies and brings Armenians together in a common cause, particularly encouraged by Armenian cultural societies and the Armenian Church. Otherwise, Armenians would assimilate and lose their identity as is usually common among displaced ethnic groups after a generation or two.

The Armenians in the diaspora live with the grudge and preach hatred of Turks, which they pass on to the next generation in a never-ending vicious circle. It is my belief that many Armenians in Armenia, as well as their government, would like to see the normalization of relations with Turkey since the landlocked country situated between Iran and Georgia would stand to benefit a great deal, particularly in terms of economic activity which has been inhibited by the country’s isolation due to its closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, thus depriving it access to those markets.

However, whenever Armenia has expressed any such interest in resuming its relations with Turkey, the powerful and wealthy diaspora has stepped in and threatened to withhold investments or to withdraw funds from a state so heavily dependent on foreign influx of capital. For example, a study in 2004 suggested that the yearly private transfers to Armenia amounted to $900 million, which is equivalent to one third of Armenia’s official GDP. Consequently, faced with the full wrath of the diaspora, the Armenian state is effectively held hostage and can do little other than obey.

It is convenient and rather selfish for those who live so comfortably abroad to dictate the politics of their home country in which people face tougher struggles. The powerful Armenian lobby of the diaspora, particularly in the US and France, still preaches damaging one-sided misinformation regarding the Turks a hundred years on and exercises yearly pressure on governments and news agencies in the West to do the same and to recognize the events as genocide…which only leads to political frictions. This remains a huge obstacle to any future rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia.

There is a deliberate attempt to vilify Turks of today for the actions of a long defunct multi-cultural and multi-religious Ottoman Empire; that government preceded the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey. Unfortunately, through a combination of factors, historic prejudices and fallacies, current mudslinging by hostile lobbies with further motives such as the prevention of Turkey’s EU accession into a “Christian club”, and the fueling of nationalistic hate speech by countries formerly part of the Ottoman Empire for short-sighted political gain — a lot of people have naturally developed a negative sentiment towards and a bias against Turkey or Turks. I wonder how many of these people have ever visited Turkey or got to know Turkish people, or even shown any interest in trying to develop an understanding of Turkish culture before forging such an opinion.

Turkey is more than the historic aggressor portrayed by the West. It is the country of shelter for millions of refugees, in the past and even to this present day — my own family being such an example. With the gradual collapse of the multinational Empire, millions and millions of people from various nations previously enjoying the protection provided by the Pax Ottomana had to seek refuge in Anatolia. This is the case for large numbers of Balkan Turks (who had resided in Europe for over five centuries), Albanians, Bosniaks and Pomaks from the Balkans; Abkhazians, Ajarians, Circassians, Chechens, Nogais, Karachais, Ossetians from the Caucasus to name just a few; Crimean Tatars from the Crimean peninsula; as well as other Turkmens from the Levant, mainly from Iraq and Syria. As a result, the Turkish nation today can proudly boast of a colourful and mixed heritage.

In more recent history, Turkey offered refuge to massive numbers of Kurds fleeing Saddam’s gassing in Iraq, and currently, the refugees from the Syrian Civil War number over 1,750,000 according to official UNHCR statistics. In the past, as a result of the expulsion of Jews as part of the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, the Ottoman Empire under Bayezid II sent out its navy to evacuate the Jews safely to the Ottoman lands, issued proclamations throughout the Empire that the refugees were to be welcomed, and granted them permission to settle and to become Ottoman subjects.

What is the point of preaching hatred to our children down the generations? After how long will it be deemed sufficient to stop? Talking from my own personal experience, despite growing up hearing from my own grandmother’s mouth the accounts of how she and her family were forced to move from the first Yugoslavia back in 1934 as a result of threats from local Serbs, some of my closest friends today are Serbs. The same is true for Greeks, despite my grandfather’s side of the family having moved from what is today part of modern-day Greece. I am aware that my grandparents hail from a different generation and that they grew up in a very different reality from the one that I was so fortunate to grow up in, yet I did not allow their struggles and experiences to get the better of my own personal judgment.

I will gladly admit to having had prejudices of my own regarding these particular issues while growing up but I managed to keep an open mind and not let preconceived ideas prevent me from developing my own independent views through the various experiences I have had. Something that really amazed me during my travels in Vietnam was to see how the locals were so friendly towards Americans despite having suffered so much during two decades of warfare. This really is a trait of character worthy of endless admiration that, unfortunately, is not very prevalent among many nations of the world. It is the proof that it is possible to both look to the future and move forward, while at the same time not necessarily forgetting about the past.

To bring this current commentary to a close: the Turkish narrative holds that the events of 1915 do not amount to genocide due to a lack of intent to commit such an act. Turkey does not deny that the measures taken were very severe and that mistakes were made, which led to the loss of countless lives. However, it argues that in the context of time, with the Empire involved in an armed uprising from part of its populations (civil war) while at the same time fighting on a number of fronts in a war of survival, the Ottoman authorities deemed that the measures to deport were necessary to avoid greater bloodshed. The idea of deportation might have seemed as the most humane solution back when the law was adopted, however time would show that this was not the best approach considering the lack of resources and due to the Empire being ridden with famine and disease.

In fact the authorities chose to relocate the Armenian civilian population away from the sensitive conflict zones instead of just committing wide-scale massacres and making use of death camps in the areas concerned. That is an argument in favor of the absence of intent to exterminate the Armenian population. Intent is a crucial requirement for proving genocide. The Deportation Law clearly required a lot more effort, time and resources which were already scarce at the time, when easier solutions existed to commit what the Armenians term as genocide.

The solution to this highly important question and political impasse as proposed by Turkey, and which I personally believe to be the best way forward, is to form a joint commission of historians from Armenia and Turkey, supported by neutral observers chosen by both sides, which would dig into the archives and all the available evidence with the aim of reaching a fair and impartial view of what happened in 1915 and whether those actions do indeed constitute genocide. This finding would then be binding.

The reason behind the need to establish such a historic commission is that both sides fiercely maintain such divergent versions of the same events and that, importantly, it should certainly not be down to foreign legislators to play the role of historians for what are clearly political gains.

The obstacle to such a solution is currently the Armenian government, which has refused to take part in a joint commission and, furthermore, has also refused to open their state archives relating to the events of 1915 for examination by Turkish historians. This is in stark contrast to Turkey, which has made its archives available to the public, i.e., the whole world. This naturally raises the question as to why Armenia is so reluctant and whether there is a fear of the potential outcome, especially after having preached their vision so outspokenly for the past 100 years to the entire world.

Those of you who know me well, will know the importance that I attach to human rights and to the cause of advancing the well-being of humankind. As I have expressed earlier, my intention is not to fan the flames but merely to present the Turkish case for those of you who are curious as to why Turks so vehemently deny the events of 1915 as genocide. I have no stronger wish than to see this issue resolved and it would bring me immense happiness to someday witness these two once-brotherly nations again resuming a mutually beneficial relationship.

As someone with a huge passion for history, I am convinced that the best solution would be the establishment of a joint historic commission, particularly because my knowledge in this field is not sufficient and I believe that experts would be better placed to establish the real and unbiased facts. I would respect any conclusion reached by such a commission and should the verdict be that the events of 1915 do in fact constitute genocide, I would hands down be the first one and the loudest to shout that the Ottoman dictatorial triumvirate committed genocide.

I am sure that Turkey, over time, will recognise any wrongdoings — and it does not deny that mistakes were made — and take responsibility for the actions of a defunct Empire, but one thing the West desperately needs to realize is that this will definitely not happen through the current witch-hunt campaign, which more than simply seeks the recognition of the Armenian genocide but also aims at denigrating the Turkish nation. This is counter-productive and has the opposite effect, making the current Turkish government more reluctant to facing its past in what can only be considered a natural reaction. This is why it is so crucial to establish a historic commission which would give Turkey the opportunity to present its case.

The fact that so many countries in the forefront of the genocide campaign have shady histories of their own makes Turkey feel targeted for political reasons. It is important for more states to dig up in their past, however, fundamentally, this has to be done based on the same sets of conditions for everyone.

This leaves us with the question as to how far in the past each country should go in order face up with its history. WWI caused pain on all sides and did not discriminate according to ethno-religious divisions. The Ottoman Empire suffered close to 800,000 in military casualties alone in addition to countless civilian deaths. However, the sufferings of the Turkish nation did not stop with the armistice in 1918 as the Empire was dismembered and occupied by troops from Britain, France and Italy, while the Greeks organised a landing on the shores of Western Turkey committing ethnic cleansing in pursuit of their dream to achieve the Megali Idea, with other Christian minorities seizing the opportunity for revenge massacres.

It was not until the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey by Atatürk in 1923, after a further forty thousand military deaths, that the Turks were able to put the sufferings behind them following eleven years of continuous warfare which started at end of the Yemeni Revolt (1905-11) with the Tripolitanian War (1911-12) and was followed with the two Balkan Wars (1912-13), World War I (1914-18); peace was not restored until the end of the Turkish War of Independence, alternatively known as the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22).