By Dan Katz
The Ottoman Empire existed from 1299 until its abolition by Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists in 1923. At the height of its power, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Empire spread from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the Persian Gulf and from southeastern Europe down to the Red Sea.
A long period of decline followed, characterised by the loss of territories, fragmenting centralised authority and attempts at reform from above. In the 19th century the backward, stagnant Empire faced the rise of nationalisms inside its European boundaries as the constituent peoples rose to national consciousness. Britain, France, Russia and Austria detached territories.In response the Ottomans attempted to reform along Western lines. They modernised the army, abolished guilds, and somewhat reformed banking and the legal codes.
But a measure of the Empire’s continuing backwardness was that the trade in slaves continued until the early 20th century.
Groups began to emerge amongst the elite demanding more radical change. In 1876 a military coup forced the abdication of the Sultan, Abdulaziz, and the new Sultan was allowed to assume power on condition he declared a constitutional monarchy and convened a parliament.
The genocide of the Armenians, which started in April 1915, was orchestrated by nationalists, but had been prepared by Islamic-Turkish domination within the old Empire.
Modern Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir, campaigning for the refounding of the Caliphate (religious authority which existed within the Ottoman state), claim that Jews and Christians were simply obliged to pay a tax to the Ottomans in order to practice their religion freely. In fact non-Muslim religious groups were subjected not only to a special tax but to a range of discriminatory, deliberately humiliating laws:
“[Non-Muslim] men were forbidden from marrying Muslim women. Testimony [from non-Muslims] against Muslims was not accepted in court… [Non-Muslims] were forbidden from conducting their religious observance in a way that would disturb Muslims. The ringing of church bells or the construction of churches of synagogues were forbidden… [Non-Muslims] were forbidden to ride horses or carry arms and were obliged to step aside for approaching Muslims” (Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act). In some periods the non-Muslim groups were forced to wear clothes of particular colours (Armenians wore red shoes and headgear, Greeks wore black, Jews turquoise).
Armenians and others were expected to abide by this religious “agreement”, which had been imposed on them. When the Armenians and other nationalities began to demand equality in the 19th century, they were seen as violating Islamic custom.
Although the state was essentially an Islamic state, the nature of law in the Ottoman Empire was complex. Laws concerning finance and administration were normally dictated by orders from the Sultan; Shari’a, or Islamic religious law and courts, governed marriage and inheritance. In addition, and regularised in the 19th century, was the millet system, whereby non-Muslims were organised by religion. A high-ranking religious leader from each group was chosen. The representative was responsible to the Sultan and had wide powers to regulate the affairs of their followers, including the right to collect taxes.
Additionally non-Muslims — mainly the Christians — were subject to treaties that had been forced on the Ottoman Empire by foreign powers. After 1673 France became the “protector” of all Catholics inside the Ottoman Empire. Later Russia claimed a treaty of 1774 gave it similar rights over Orthodox Christians. Within the Empire the Christians began to be seen as privileged benefactors of foreign interference.
Taner Akcam comments, “The millet system might have been progressive compared with medieval Europe, but held up against the principle of equality introduced by the French revolution, it was revealed as utterly backward.” After 1839 the elite introduced reforms in an attempt to hold the Empire together and stem the tide of rebellions. The idea of a new patriotism, “Ottomanism”, followed. “Ottomanism” — allegiance to the Empire — was an attempt to bind the Christians and other oppressed groups and nationalities to the Turkish, Islamic core.
However “Ottomanism” was artificial and ineffective. By the end of the 19th century the state was promoting a pan-Islamism in an attempt to keep itself together. In the Turks case, at the start of the 20th century, an Islamic Turkish nationalism emerged.
“The Ottoman-Turkish ruling elite identified with Islam and saw themselves as superior to other religious groups… The Young Ottoman organisation that formed in the mid-19th century and its successor, the Young Turks, accepted Turkish domination of the Ottoman Empire as a situation so natural and obvious as not to merit discussion.” (A Shameful Act)
Rebellions — either against social conditions or for equality — were repressed with great brutality. In the period 1894-6 a revolt begun by Armenian peasantry ended with the murder of at least 80,000 Armenians (the figure may be much higher).
Following the Young Turks coup of 1908, which brought power to the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), and a reactionary counter-coup attempt in 1909, 15-20 000 Armenians were massacred. The killings brought European objections.
The vulnerability of the 2.1 million Armenians within the Empire was in part their geographical location. They were spread through areas south of the Black Sea in the Turkish heartland.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II said, “By taking away Greece and Romania, Europe has cut off the feet of the Turkish state. The loss of Bulgaria, Serbia and Egypt has deprived us of our hands, and now by the means of this Armenian agitation they want to get at our most vital places and tear out our very guts.” The Turks were terrified that the Western powers would use the Armenians to partition Turkey.
In the run-up to war France, Britain and Germany were haggling over a partition plan. Simultaneously the Turkish nationalists were discussing plans to destroy the Armenians; the massacres and deportations started with the ethnic cleansing of Greeks in 1914.
The Ottoman state joined World War One on 29 October 1914 on Germany’s side. Its war aims were to win back lost territory and to abrogate treaties it had been forced into signing by the Allied powers.
At first the war went well for the Turks, but by January 1915 they were loosing ground to the Russians whose forces included small numbers of Armenians (there was an Armenian population inside Tsarist Russia). The Armenians inside the Empire were blamed for the defeats and branded as traitors.
In February 1915 army commanders were issued with a decree directing them to disarm Armenians in all fighting units and regroup them in labour battalions. Disarmed, these soldiers were then massacred.
At the end of April prominent Armenians were rounded up in a coordinated drive across the country to destroy the Armenian people’s leadership. In Constantinople over 2000 arrests took place during the last week of April – some prisoners were tortured to death, others were publicly executed and the rest were killed in small batches over the next weeks.
In May the systematic deportation and murder of Armenians began, coordinated by the CUP’s Talaat Bey in the Ministry of the Interior, and Enver Pasha in the Ministry of War. Their policy was summed up in a note sent by Talaat, “the Government [has] decided to destroy completely all the Armenians living in Turkey… An end must be put to their existence, however criminal the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex or conscientious scruples.” (16 September 1915)
To achieve their end the CUP extensively used groups of criminals released for the purpose and Muslim Kurdish militia. When clearing Armenian villages those Muslims involved were often rewarded with the property of the Armenians.
In the last seven months of 1915 about one quarter of the 2.1 million Armenians in the Empire were already dead. The majority of the remainder were sent of death marches, south and east, to desert areas where they died from cold, starvation or were butchered.
The German Ambassador reported that “Talaat Bey… openly stated that the [government] wished to take advantage offered by the war to make a clean sweep of their enemies at home without being troubled by foreign diplomatic intervention.” When the Turks’ German Allies objected to the annihilation of the Armenians, they were told that their Turkish side, “did not consider their allies competent to instruct them in humanity” (AO Sarkissian, Genocide in Turkey).
Turkey was on the losing side in World War One, and in 1918 Allied forces began an occupation. The Sultan, Mehmed VI, used Allied demands for punishment of those responsible for the Armenian genocide as a political weapon against the CUP.
In 1919 a number of political and military leaders were sentenced to death by a Court Martial. These included, in their absence, Talaat and Enver. Talaat was assassinated in Berlin, in 1921, by members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation who had vowed to find and kill those responsible for the genocide.
However the trials came to a halt. Many of those responsible, who had been removed by the British to Malta to await trial, were exchanged for British hostages seized by the Turkish nationalists who had regrouped under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). Kemal had been a CUP member and now led a struggle for Turkish independence.
In 1923 the Turks won independence. Kemal declared a republic and, the following year, abolished the Caliphate. The Turkish state refused — and continues to refuse — to allow a proper discussion of the crimes of Turkish nationalism.
Officially, in Turkey, the Armenian genocide is downplayed as mere “deportations”.
Many Turks have been prosecuted for characterising the massacres as genocide (the charge is “denigrating Turkishness”).
In 2007 the newspaper editor Hrant Dink was murdered by a Turkish nationalist (the murderer was treated as a hero by some of the police who detained him); Dink had been prosecuted three times for criticising the Turkish state’s denial of the genocide. It seems that those that organised to murder Dink were involved in a broader conspiracy including a plan to kill the Turkish Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, who has also been the victim of legal persecution for writing “a million Armenians were killed in these lands.”