By Bruce Fein*, Journal of Turkish Weekly, Jan. 27, 2009 - During the Senate confirmation hearings of the newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Robert Menendez (D. N.J.) lobbied the Obama administration to characterize the tragic events of World War I as a “universally recognized” Armenian “genocide”. That official verdict was said necessary to “move forward.” The Secretary of State demurred on the characterization question, but concurred with the idea of moving beyond the contentious status quo.
Moving forward, however, requires recognition of facts, not fiction: that the Armenian “genocide” is disputed by reputable scholars and historians; that politicians are ill-equipped to deliver “genocide” verdicts on matters light years beyond their ken; that Ottoman Muslims also suffered horribly during WWI at the hands of Armenians fighting as armed belligerents; and, that voicing sympathy for Armenian suffering while ignoring the suffering of those whom Armenians slaughtered and terrorized would reflect the Christian bigotry of yesteryear.
The Armenian “genocide” is hotly disputed within the universe of genuine Middle East scholars versed in the Ottoman Empire, the circumstances of World War I, and otherwise. An inexhaustive list of doubters would include: famed Middle East expert Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, the late Stanford Shaw of U.C.L.A., Guenter Lewy of the University of Massachusetts, Justin McCarthy of the University of Louisville, Norman Itzkowitz of Princeton University, Brian G. Williams of the University of Massachusetts, David Fromkin of Boston University, Avigdor Levy of Brandeis University, Michael M. Gunter of Tennessee Tech, Pierre Oberling of Hunter College, the late Roderic Davison of George Washington University, Michael Radu of Foreign Policy Research Institute, and military historian Edward J. Erickson. Outside of the United States even more scholars have endorsed a contra-genocide analysis of the history of the Ottoman Armenians, among them Gilles Veinstein of the College de France, Stefano Trinchese of the University of Chieti, Augusto Sinagra of the University of Romae-Sapienza, Norman Stone of Bilkent University, and the historian Andrew Mango of the University of London. In addition to these and other scholars, the United Nations, Great Britain, and Sweden have refused to endorse the “genocide” label.
Politicians, including Members of Congress or the President, are ill-suited to decide the issue pivoting on century-old happenings that sharply divide experts. They have neither the time nor inclination to undertake intellectual labors commensurate with the importance of a “genocide” charge. And they do not sit like members of a jury to listen to both sides present their respective cases. Senator Menendez exemplifies why politicians should shy from deciding ancient historical controversies. He rendered judgment without examining all the credible evidence and analyses.
Moving forward on the “genocide” question requires placing the decision with an international commission of impartial experts with access to all relevant archives. The most important archives that remain closed belong to Armenian organizations. Turkey’s Prime Minister has agreed to the international commission solution to the Armenian “genocide” issue.
Moving forward further requires reciprocal apologies by both Turks and Armenians for the mutual devastation wrought upon each other. What is customarily ignored are World War I’s harrowing Ottoman Muslim deaths effectuated by numerous bloody Armenian revolts; raids and slaughters by Armenian extremist revolutionaries; treasonous defections in the hundreds of thousands to fight for invading Russian and French armies; and, austere wartime conditions that occasioned starvation, disease, epidemics, and deaths from acute shortages of medical personnel and medicine. According to research reports, nearly 524,000 Ottoman Muslims perished from the actions of Armenian revolutionaries during the war.
Armenians have never acknowledged any culpability for their side’s atrocities of World War I. Instead, they apotheosize to this day those Armenians who murdered scores of Turkish diplomats in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” descried the bigoted hierarchy of human suffering that would be reflected by expressing moral outrage over historical Armenian suffering or killings while remaining silent over the counterpart suffering and deaths of Ottoman Muslims or Turks. To paraphrase from an immortalized passage: “Hath not a Turk eyes? Hath not a Turk hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick a Turk, does he not bleed? If you tickle a Turk, does he not laugh? If you poison a Turk, does he not die?”
In sum, to honor her pledge to move forward on the Armenian “genocide” question, Secretary Clinton should promote the ideas of an international commission of experts and reciprocal apologies. It is also the best formula for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
*Bruce Fein is a resident scholar with the Turkish Coalition of America.