Historicizing mass violence in the Middle East

With over 600,000 Armenians slaughtered on future Syrian territory in 1916, the Armenian Genocide ought to be more than a footnote in Arab history, argues Vicken Cheterian in response to Yassin al-Haj Saleh.

[Editor’s note: The below is a response to Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s article, ‘The use and misuse of genocide denial,’ which was itself a response to Vicken Cheterian’s earlier article, ‘How do you say “genocide” in Arabic?’, both published at Al-Jumhuriya]

When I first read Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s response to my article, I thought it would be near impossible to continue the debate. The “response” criticized my article based on incorrect quotes, took the debate to a political and polemical level which was neither my intention nor reflected the context of the debate, and ignored the questions I was raising in the first place. But the debate is an important one, as it concerns engaging with the sources of mass violence and exterminations in the Middle East. So I invite the reader to be patient, as I proceed first by clarifying what I did not say, then explain what I did try to say, and finally suggest how to continue the debate and historicize mass violence in the modern history of the Middle East.

What I did not say

I did not talk about Arab denial of the Armenian genocide. Al-Haj Saleh starts by saying that “it is not clear if [Cheterian] means denial of the occurrence of the genocide per se, or the denial of Arab involvement in it.” The correct answer is the second one: a lack of curiosity towards mass violence and Arab involvement in it (both negative and positive). In the Arab world, especially in countries with significant Armenian populations, one can find books in Arabic about the history of the genocide. Every year on April 24—the day of commemoration—there are public events organized. And so on. In Syria, moreover, there is a major monument for the victims of the genocide in Deir al-Zor, built in 1990, that is before its destruction during the current war. Therefore, talking about “Arab denial of the Armenian genocide” would be incorrect, a statement of ignorance, and it is not found in my article. Yet, al-Haj Saleh’s central criticism of my article is based on this misreading centered on a presumed Arab denial of the Armenian genocide.

Moreover, al-Haj Saleh supposes that “Syrians alone among Arabs are concerned with the Armenian genocide”—which, again, is not my position. By isolating Syria out of the broader Arab intellectual context, al-Haj Saleh reads my article as a “clash of victimhoods,” interpreting it as an Armenian diatribe against Syrian victims. Again, this is not found in my article. I started the debate with a reflection on why there is no interest among Arab intellectuals and scholars about the genocide, an “event” that took place in part in Arab lands. I think Iraq and the history of violence there reveals more evident continuity between the deportations and massacres in the last Ottoman decade, and the culture of violence in Iraq. The problem of Assyrian refugees and their armed levies—used and manipulated by the British only to be abandoned to their fate—and especially the Simele massacre of 1933 perpetrated by Bakr Sidqi, a former Ottoman army officer, were the opening acts of a series of mass violence that continues to target one Iraqi community after another.

Nor did I write that “Arab nationalism was sectarian,” as was wrongly stated in the Arabic translation of the article published at Daraj, but rather that, “The Arab nationalist narrative was largely ideological,” as in the English original.

Most concerning is the level of the reading that al-Haj Saleh did for my article. The misreading is largely connected to the interpretation he gave to the article, which, again, I find absent in my text. He misread in my article a call of “Armenian victimhood” entering in a kind of one-on-one competition with the Syrian victims of today. Or, even worse, that the current mass violence in Syria “occur[s] due to denial of the Armenian genocide a century ago.” Again, neither the initial text (the translations realized by al-Haj Saleh) nor my article was intended for political polemic, and certainly not to create any kind of senseless competition between victims, past and present. Al-Haj Saleh quotes a segment of my article on “the violence we are witnessing today” in Syria to suggest denial on my part. I read these lines within the context of what is happening in Syria today, where the Syrian victims of mass murder are abandoned by those who are supposed to be their protectors, and by the self-declared guardians of global peace and morality. Let me be clear here: I consider the Syrian state and its president the foremost political, legal, and moral bearer of responsibility for the crimes being committed in Syria, and for allowing a multitude of state and non-state actors to occupy Syria and turn it into a slaughterhouse, with the only objective being to preserve the obsolete dictatorial rule inherited from the past. The Syrian state had the choice of addressing the popular movement demanding change back in 2011 through political means, and through establishing a much needed dialogue between rulers and ruled within the country. Yet the mass violence “that we are witnessing today” is not limited to the Syrian state or Assad dynasty, as I will return to later.

What I did say

What I tried to say was a reaction to al-Haj Saleh’s translation of texts on genocide and denial, which mentioned among others Raphäel Lemkin, the author of the Genocide Convention. We had an evident gap here, at least evident to me: Lemkin got interested in his legal research on genocide due to the massacres of the Ottoman Armenians (more precisely as he read about the Tehlirian trial in Berlin). Regarding genocide denial, again, the Armenian genocide provides the richest material available, as it has been ignored, censored, forgotten, and denied for over a century.

Those events happened, in significant part, over what later became the Syrian state, where Syrian people had interacted with the events, either by saving the victims, or, in less publicized cases, in kidnapping women and children, or at some times in taking part in the killings. Yet, for a century Syrian intellectuals, historians, and the public did not notice that a genocide had taken place in their midst. Such “indifference” is not a “normal” occurrence; it needs an explanation. In what conditions could an entire nation ignore a genocide that happened in its midst? Could such oblivion come with no conditions and consequences? Could this amnesia in one way or another help us deconstruct the reproduction of mass violence, I wondered? Isn’t this a legitimate question to address to someone interested in studying genocide and its denial?

Moreover, I proposed an explanation for this ignorance, indifference, or amnesia: the Arab nationalist narrative, especially under Baathist ideology, considered the Ottoman period outside its historic scope, a period of decadence under foreign, Turkish rule. Therefore, Ottomans, Turks, and Armenians were all foreign and outside the interest of “Arab” historic experience. My explanation pointed to the hegemonic powers and their ideological construct—not to the victims—as a possible explanation of indifference towards genocide.

While al-Haj Saleh did not contest “the facts of the scattering of Armenian women and children among the residents of Syria’s northern regions,” as he put it mildly, he attributed participation in violence to the “situation of a persecuted and unprotected group,” concluding that the issue is marginal for Syrian history because “there was no Syrian entity at that time;” “there is no discourse; there is no issue or discussion about the matter.”

Where I start the question: why is there no discourse for a century about a genocide that happened on Syrian land and among the population of Syria, al-Haj Saleh at the same point and with the same argument ends the debate: there is no discourse, full stop. Moreover, the 1915 Genocide is outside the scope of Syrian history. Al-Haj Saleh rightly places responsibility for the Armenian Genocide on the Turkish state, “akin to the responsibility of Germany for the Holocaust,” yet were we to push this comparison further, then Syria is Poland, where an important part of the actual extermination took place. What would be the preconditions and the political consequences for a country like Poland to be indifferent towards the extermination of European Jews for as long as a century? Though Poland and the memory of the Holocaust is yet another complex and contemporary debate, I think the comparison could help us measure the magnitude of the debate we are having, and the importance of decades of silence and indifference towards the first modern genocide of the twentieth century.

Let me illustrate: Syria was the destination of the 870,000 deportees, mostly women and children (the men were killed near their hometowns and hundreds of thousands died en route) who survived the death marches and reached the twenty or so concentration camps situated north of Aleppo and along the Euphrates river. It was here that the second stage of the genocide took place, when in early 1916 the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) leadership decided to exterminate the surviving deportees, killing 630,000 of them. In the concentration camp situated at al-Bab, a town to the north-east of Aleppo, between “fifty to sixty thousand deportees lost their lives.” In the concentration camp of Meskeneh, “60,000 Armenians are buried,” and in Deir al-Zor, where the “final solution” took place, over 192,000 deportees were massacred in the five months from July to December 1916 alone.1

I find it curious that up to this day Edward Said and his students remain popular and widely read for continuously bemoaning “Western” or “Orientalist” misinterpretations of “our” history, and yet that we do not care about our own history bothers no one; that the first modern genocide went unnoticed raises no eyebrows.

Lastly, unlike al-Haj Saleh’s reading of my book Open Wounds, which he says presents “the conflict in terms of fixed identitarian elements: Muslim/Christians; Armenians/Turks,” the book revolves around changing attitudes towards genocide denial. The book is not about “group conflict,” but rather starts around the question: why did Turkish intellectuals discover the annihilated Armenians in the 1990s, and even more in the mid-2000s, after eight decades of oblivion and then denial? The reverse of the question is naturally how this oblivion of the Armenians and their history is possible, and what are the political, moral, and legal consequences? Unlike the expectations of al-Haj Saleh, the book does not concern nationalism and imperialism and the genocide, but rather the post-genocide denial and its consequences. Open Wounds reaches a number of conclusions. First, that denial is not limited to state censorship. In fact, this is the easiest part of explanation. What is more complicated—and key to understanding denial—is to explain the denial and/or indifference of anti-state groups, including political dissidents, scholars, and artists. Without their collaboration, state denial would not have survived a century. The challenge is to explain their long silence. The second concerns the consequences of denial, not only for the victimized group (the surviving Armenians in Turkey) but for Turkish society overall: the roots of the Turkish “deep state” lie in the “Special Organization” (Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa), that secret organization within the CUP that was in charge of the deportations, the massacres, and the redistribution of confiscated property. Open Wounds traces the overlap between genocide denial and the continuation of the Special Organization within the “deep state,” and its readiness to continue carrying out its culture of violence on future occasions. This, I illustrate, with the emergence of the “Kurdish problem” immediately after the elimination of Armenians and Assyrians from what became southeast Turkey. While certain Kurdish tribes participated in the killings of the deportees, and while there was popular Kurdish participation in taking over Armenian property, we see the emergence of the Kurdish problem in Kemalist Turkey starting from the 1920s, in which the Turkish state used the same methods, although to a lesser extent: massacres, deportations, and denial of Kurdish identity, culminating in the Dersim massacres of 1937-38.

Methodology: How to study the past of present mass violence?

Behind the differences in the reading of the texts, I have three methodological disagreements with al-Haj Saleh in conceptualizing mass violence. The first is the exclusive focus al-Haj Saleh gives to the state to understand mass violence. Naturally, the modern state is both a powerful and a very dangerous instrument that can be misused, and one of its major dangers is exactly that of genocidal violence. Yet, focusing exclusively on the state risks giving us a partial and deformed understanding in our research of the origins, the causes, and the forces involved in mass violence. The state is no more than an instrument, and its misuse can only be explained by other factors, including ideology and social mobilization, which has been the focus of research of scholars interested in genocide studies. 

If we take the two case studies—the Ottoman Empire under the CUP, and Syria under Baathist/Assadist domination—we are unable to understand the mass violence by focusing only on the state apparatus. The CUP was too weak within the state, and especially in the eastern provinces, to be able to carry out an operation of the magnitude of deportations, massacres, and property confiscation of several million of its subjects. To realize such a crime it had to mobilize social groups outside the scope of the state. Christian Gerlach, whom al-Haj Saleh quotes, in his book Extremely Violent Societies, focuses exactly on “popular participation in extreme violence” when discussing the Armenian Genocide with specifically economic and class dimensions playing roles in this violence. Moreover, the CUP had created a secretive, extra-legal organization (the “Special Organization”) that organized the massacres and executed them, often in disagreement with the Ottoman state hierarchy and specifically the military; this later needed the Armenians in their war effort. Similarly, the “state” as an organized institution largely disintegrated in Syria by 2012-13, as a result of the violent confrontation between pro-regime elements and rebel groups. The regime survived not only because of foreign intervention, first by Iran and its Lebanese and Iraqi allies, and then with the massive direct Russian intervention, but also because of sectarian paramilitaries organized outside the institutions of the state. By focusing exclusively on the state we will miss the ideological and organizational dimension of mass violence.

This brings me to the second point, that of “group identity” that al-Haj Saleh criticized, referring to my writings. The author is confusing when he criticizes “group identity” only in the next paragraph to talk about the Yazidis as a group (ethnic or religious or both?) victim of ISIS’ mass violence. He reduces “identities” to the products of “discrimination, killing, and extermination.” Does this mean there was no “Yazidi identity” before the ISIS attack on Sinjar on 3 August, 2014? The fact that identities change and mutate, or that identities are complex and plural, does not mean they do not exist, and the relationship of social groups is not key to our understanding of mass violence, from the Ottoman case to that of Nazi Germany, from Stalinist famine and deportations to Pol Pot’s genocide.

My third disagreement with al-Haj Saleh is the historic frame in which he develops his thoughts; that of the modern Syrian nation-state. I think this frame is inadequate to understand institutions, social groups, and informal practices in the Middle East. Neither the emergence of the modern state, nor the failure of the idea of the nation, nor the vivacity of sectarianism can be studied or fully grasped by this approach. The history of Syria is a fragile experimentation that can only be comprehended in the fuller context of Ottoman past, a history that continues to be largely ignored under the influence of Arab nationalism. As Albert Hourani wrote several decades ago, the greatest challenge for Middle East historians is “to explore this Ottoman world” neglected for so long2. What could be more important to help us understand the post-Ottoman legacy than the development of the “deep state” and the mass violence in the last decade of the Ottoman Empire?

A final remark on sectarianism: we cannot grasp mass violence in the Middle East without a thorough study of sectarianism, which is both beyond the scope of the state, and reflects “group identity,” two issues already discussed above. In an analogous manner to ethnic nationalism in Europe in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, sectarianism emerged as the ideological framework, but so did “group identity” upon which fascistic mobilization is fueling internal and regional wars. This is not the monopoly of one community or another: in the explosion of war in Lebanon, right-wing Christian political parties and paramilitaries played a leading role in both sectarian mobilization and mass violence, before the same type of mobilization set up Shia sectarian militias. And yet, studying sectarianism within Lebanese national history, or limiting it to that of Syria or Iraq, will be partial, miss the historic depth, and the regional dimension of the question. Is it possible to understand sectarianism without studying the Ottoman millet system and its evolution and mutation in the nineteenth century? In this context, the Hamidyan massacres of Armenians and Assyrians, and CUP deportation and massacres of Armenians, Assyrians and Anatolian Greeks, still remain the largest examples of sectarian violence left outside the historiography of the Middle East.

In the Middle East today, in Syria and beyond, we are witnessing not only a profound political failure, but also a moral and an intellectual one. Its remedy starts by radically revising the ideas and narratives received from the past and deconstructing them.

  • 1. Raymond Kévorkian, Le Génocide des Arméniens, Paris : Odile Jacob, 2006, pages 787, 811, and 824.
  • 2. Albert Hourani, “How Should we write the History of the Middle East?”International Journal of Middle East Studies, 23 (1991), pp. 125-136.