Next week, on the 24th, is the commemoration of the Armenian genocide, 114 years after the Ottoman Empire started systematically murdering 1.5 million Armenians, as well as Greek and Assyrian minority Christians.
One man and the state he leads will not be participating in this important recognition of historical truth. Turkey's anti-Semitic, Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, fancies himself the reviver of a neo-Ottoman Empire and has undertaken to spread his ideological influence globally. That includes Armenian genocide denial.
While Turkey has long fought the recognition of the Armenian genocide internationally, the situation under Erdoğan's Islamist ideology has led him into an alliance with the international Muslim Brotherhood and its American affiliates. This has given Turkish propaganda a reach into the United States that didn't exist at these levels before. Samantha Rose Mandeles wrote at The American Spectator in February on how Turkish diplomats have spoken at and influenced prominent Muslim groups since 2014. One such organization officially embracing Turkey's genocide denial is the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), an umbrella group of over 30 Islamist charities and mosques, which published a "Statement on 1915 Turkish-Armenian Events" that forwards Turkey's denialism.
American Muslim organizations that founded the USCMO include American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), ICNA, Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), MAS, Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), and The Mosque Cares (Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed). Today, 32 Muslim organizations and mosques affiliate with the group.
Now Turkey has gone a step farther: actively distributing Armenian genocide denialist propaganda to American Muslims. Last year, MAS's 21st annual West Coast convention took place from November 22 to 24 at the Ontario Convention Center in Ontario, California. The conference featured booths from Muslim charities and businesses. But Turkey was the only Muslim government present, represented by two booths. There, amid complimentary Turkish flags, hats, and t-shirts, they distributed free books and pamphlets challenging the regime's enemies, including the Armenian people.
A good example of the Turkish propaganda on offer is Our Neighbours of a Thousand Years: The Armenians, a slick, 52-page book filled with pictures and even a miniature CD in the back with folk songs. While the title seems friendly and inviting, the book contains questionable historical claims and shaky arguments about Armenian-Turkish relations.
These falsehoods include the following:
- The book quotes Erdoğan at the beginning demanding that all death and suffering of the period be treated the same, ignoring the historical question of who was responsible: "a fair humanitarian and conscientious stance requires an understanding of all the pain experienced in this period regardless of religion or ethnic origin." This is akin to insisting that equal historical weight be given to the Jews murdered in the Holocaust and to the Nazis responsible for their deaths.
- The book claims that the Ottoman Empire did not seek to exterminate the Armenians — that it sought only to relocate them. The decision to forcibly relocate Armenians was supposedly the result of a "life or death struggle," and had it not been done "to secure both fronts during this time [sic] war," then there would have been "heavy casualties among Muslims."
- The book alleges that Armenians and Turks "lived side by side, amicably" for centuries; the conflict allegedly started with "the armed actions by the Armenians." Thus, Turkey claims that rising Armenian nationalism provoked the conflict. This ignores the fact that pogroms against Armenians occurred in 1894, 1895, 1896, and 1909.
- It alleges that Armenians collaborated with Turkey's enemies during the war and committed violent crimes: "they were involved in manslaughter and looting incidents in cities and towns, that there is a need for a radical measure for the security of the state and that on this account, it had been decided to transfer the Armenians rioting from the war zones to other regions."
- The pamphlet asserts that the Ottoman government did have a plan to feed and support the Armenians who were forced to relocate; however, there were "certain setbacks and abuses in implementation" that "caused many Armenians to have bitter memories of this period etched in their brains."
- Any abuses of Armenians were supposedly done by "disobedient state officials," and documents proving that such events occurred supposedly disprove genocide claims because "they also prove that the Ottoman Government did not intend for such incidents to occur, on the contrary, penalized those who committed such crimes."
- Finally, the pamphlet asserts that in the 1970s, Armenian terrorists murdered Turkish diplomats and that it was around this time when "forged documents and photographs" and "dubious memoirs" emerged supporting the idea of the genocide. This historical revisionism collapses by doing the most basic historical research into the period. The truth of the genocide was affirmed in the 1918 memoir by Henry Morgenthau, who served as the United States' ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1918, and Winston Churchill's 1929 history of the First World War, The World Crisis. It is evidenced even by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkish president from 1923 to 1938. Ataturk named the nationalist group responsible for the genocide: "These leftovers from the former Young Turk Party, who should have been made to account for the lives of millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse from their homes and massacred ..."
To summarize: Today, Turkey claims that the Ottoman Empire's policy was one of relocation, not extermination, and that it was both morally justified and existentially necessary because it was provoked by alleged Armenian nationalism, violence, and treason.
Where to begin? All of these historical points and arguments may seem like a lot to unpack. However, the book skips something that should be obvious in any document purporting to tackle a controversial historical subject: there are no sources whatsoever to back up any of these dubious claims.
"This booklet is publication of Prime Ministry of Republic of Turkey," the book notes on the last page in the poor English that characterizes much of the text. How is it that a state with the resources of Turkey cannot manage to produce a book that would earn a college freshman a passing grade?
The Turkish-backed USCMO's insistence that what is needed is a "proper investigation of these events by independent historians" rings hollow, given that substantive historical work has been done for generations now, and an abundance of contemporaneous evidence from 1915 makes the denialist position so untenable that it almost starts to make sense that Turkey would not even bother with standard academic conventions like a works cited page.
Where do we find clear evidence affirming the Genocide? The New York Times'archives going back to 1915 are a good place to start. An article summarizing the Times coverage and evidence of the genocide notes how "extensively" it was covered, with "145 articles in 1915 alone by one count — with headlines like 'Appeal to Turkey to Stop Massacres.' The Times described the actions against the Armenians as 'systematic,' 'authorized,' and 'organized by the government.'"
The pamphlet's claim that the Ottoman government's policy was relocation, not extermination, and that atrocities were isolated incidents by officials acting on their own, is not tenable when the sheer numbers are considered. The Times notes, "The University of Minnesota's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has compiled figures by province and district that show there were 2,133,190 Armenians in the empire in 1914 and only about 387,800 by 1922." Likewise, the vastness of the numbers missing engulfs Turkey's suggestion that any meaningful number of the Armenians killed were done so in reasonable self-defense.
The historical truth of the genocide and the mendacity of its present-day Islamist deniers are dark and disturbing subjects to process. However, history has offered a silver lining in the form and people of the Armenian diaspora. In countries around the world, over the generations since the genocide, Armenians have built prosperous communities, in harmony with their neighbors.
Living well is indeed the best revenge, and it is this sense of peace that Turkey is now striving to disrupt among Armenian-Americans. But we can fight back together.
I will continue to advocate for recognition of historical truth, clear-eyed resolve in confronting Erdoğan's imperial impulses, and a unified opposition to the threat of Islamist totalitarianism both abroad and right here in sunny Southern California. It's time for Armenians, Jews, Christians, women, moderate Muslims, and everyone with a moral conscience to come together to recognize the common threat Islamism poses to the peace of all our communities.