Ending the past silence, US President Joe Biden marked the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day of April 24 by calling out the historical event and promised American commitment “to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring”. It was on this day in 1915, amidst World War I, that the Ottoman authorities arrested and expelled about 250 Armenian intellectuals and artists from Istanbul; most were eventually killed. This began a process of systematic arrest, deportation, forced march and eventual massacre of thousands of Armenians.
As Biden said, the purpose is “not to cast blame” but to prevent its recurrence. This belated recognition of the Armenian Genocide indicates that human rights would guide the Biden administration’s policies towards the outside world, even towards American friends and allies.The expressions ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ were not in vogue when the Armenians were systematically eliminated and their culture annihilated in Ottoman Turkey. Not surprisingly, it was the Arab parts of the Empire, especially present-day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, which received, hosted and protected thousands of fleeing Armenians.
Estimates put the number of Armenians killed during 1914-1916 at over 1.5 million, or nearly 90% of the Armenians who were living in the Ottoman Empire. These deaths were accompanied by about 1,00,000-2,00,000 women and children being forcibly converted into Islam, and the number of crypto-Armenians or Turkish citizens with Armenian lineage could run several thousand.
While the Armenian elites occupied senior positions in the Ottoman Empire, the relations were tense at the societal level. Despite the communal autonomy, the Armenian-Muslim relations were uneasy and suspicious. The Turkish antipathy towards the Christians reached its zenith when militant members of the Young Turks took over the reigns on the eve of World War I. Blaming the Armenians of betrayal for the initial military reversals in the Balkans, the Young Turks under military leader Enver Pasha institutionalised their systematic annihilation.
Disregarding historical evidence of the role played by senior figures in the Ottoman Empire, the leaders of modern Turkey vehemently denied charges of genocide. They blamed it on the civil war situation and argued that no ‘systematic extermination’ of the Armenians ever took place. However, the massive extermination of its Armenian population transformed the post-Ottoman Turkish republic as an ethnically homogenous state since ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Armenians facilitated the Turkification process—both ethnic and religious—of modern Turkey.
Biden’s decision to recognise the mass killing of Armenians as a ‘genocide’ is a small but significant move towards recognising a historical injustice. For decades, the world knew that “one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination”. That it took more than a century for the American leadership to recognise this is testimony to political and strategic calculations overriding moral and ethical concerns. Washington is a highly politicised capital, and like several domestic and foreign policy issues, the Armenian question was subsumed by larger ‘strategic’ issues.
The announcement is a severe setback for the Turkish lobby that was successful for decades. Flagging Turkey’s importance to NATO and its position as a major Muslim-majority ally of the West, friends of Turkey were able to prevent any meaningful discussion on the Armenian Genocide. Despite his promises, President Barack Obama failed to deliver and it was left to his former deputy and current incumbent of the White House to fulfil the longstanding aspirations of the Armenian diaspora. The first signs of the American shift came in 2019 when both the Houses of US Congress voted to recognise the Armenian Genocide.
Even Israel, which recognises and marks the Holocaust, has been slow in recognising the Armenian Genocide. Turkey, the first Muslim country to recognise the Jewish state in 1949, was too vital for Israel. Indeed, in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh last year, Israel angered Armenians by siding with Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. Biden’s latest move should induce Israel to revisit the subject, especially in light of the cold winds blowing from Ankara. With growing regional acceptance and recognition, Israel should move away from its political timidity of not recognising the genocide.
What could be the Turkish reaction? Ankara immediately described Biden’s move as a hurdle for reconciliation with Armenia. One should expect more vociferous reactions from Turkish President Erdogan. Like individuals, societies are also sensitive to external criticism, especially over an unpleasant past. Hence, under its neo-Ottomanist leader, Ankara will not keep quiet, especially if other countries follow the American example and use the dreaded G-word. Biden’s move will complicate the Washington-Ankara relations, already under rough weather over receding democratic space within Turkey and policy disagreements over Russia.
Like individuals, it is not easy for societies to come to terms with their ugly past and they behave like ostriches, lest old wounds are reopened. The question of recognition and apology over mass murders such as Japan over Nanjing, Pakistan over Bangladesh, the US for Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still linger on. The unconditional apology and reparations contributed to the German-Jewish reconciliation. While apology alone is insufficient, remorse over the past is critical for meaningful reconciliation and healing. On the Armenian issue, Turkey is still far away from that Willy Brandt moment.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there