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The Ottoman Empire: Christian Genocides in the Middle East

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Many books are published every year in the U.S., and academic books are a big part of that space. Many books concerning the humanities tend to fall into one of two categories.

The first category gives the reader a new point of view of historical events and primary sources. The author typically shines a different light on historical events and offers a new way to understand them.

The second category are books that involve a close reading of primary sources and focus on uncovering unknown aspects of historical events. These books offer the reader a unique vantage point to previous events.

Rarely do we find books that belong to both categories, and the 2019 book, “The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924” by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi is one of them. Benny Morris is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict expert, and Dror Ze’evi is a well-known Ottoman Empire historian.

This book is a rare example of a field-changing book. It forces anyone who studies the Middle East in general and the Ottoman Empire specifically to engage with its arguments.

The book is an achievement in many respects. Its language is precise, but it also contains over five hundred pages detailing mass atrocities. Some of the book can be hard to read because it graphically describes the brutal murders of Christians in many communities.

‘The Thirty-Year Genocide’ Points Out That the Ottoman Empire Sought Ethnic Cleansing in Asia Minor

The book argues that between the last decade of the 19th century and 30 years later in the reign of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, there was a genocide of Christians in Asia Minor designed to create a solely Turkish and Islamic sphere.

In the past, scholars primarily focused on the Armenian genocide that occurred in the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) between 1915-1916. This genocide, finally recognized by the U.S. government this year, has been the topic of scholars for a considerable time. However, “The Thirty-Year Genocide” adds that the Armenian genocide was part of a much larger phenomenon.

The authors argue that the Ottoman Empire attempted to eliminate Christians from the entire area of Asia Minor. The first genocide in 1894-1896 targeted Armenian Christians. The 1915-1916 genocide affected Armenians but also some Greeks and Assyrians.

The last genocide occurred in 1924 during the reign of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. At the time, there were approximately four million Christians living in Turkey. Some were murdered while others were forced to relocate.    

The Role That Islam Played in the Turkish Genocides

One of the factors that the authors discuss in the book is the role of Islam in the genocides. The authors argue that Emperor Abdul Hamid justified the genocide murders by using religious language that dubbed the massacres as jihad (holy war), which is a religious duty in Islamic tradition.

The intriguing point the authors make is that this religious language wasn’t used only by the Emperor. The anti-monarchist group known as the Young Turks used religion in 1909 to justify the murders and prompt Turkey’s modernization, and Mustafa Kamel Ataturk also used it in the 1920s. Ataturk acknowledged the atrocities, but he blamed his predecessors.

This point is very important and it leads to a question for further research: who exactly perpetuated the massacres? In 1894-1896, Kurdish tribes carried out many of the mass murders. Some of the murders took place in urban centers, so how did the Ottoman authorities convince rural Kurdish tribes to attack Armenian villages that had co-existed alongside them for many years? 

It would be interesting to explore this aspect of the Turkish genocides and dig deeper into the use of religion as the justification for the massacres. The most intriguing part of this argument is the use of religious justification by the secularist Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, an argument that will likely receive more scholarly attention in the future.

The Sources Used for ‘The Thirty-Year Genocide’ Are Mostly from Western Sources

Most of the sources in this book by Morris and Ze’evi originate from Western archives that provide documents from Western diplomats and missionaries. According to many scholars, any mention of a planned genocide was purged from Turkey’s archives. The Turkish army archive is not open to scholars, and many scholars assume it has material pertaining to the genocides.

Turkey argues that there were no genocides, just conflicts between communities containing people from different ethnic backgrounds. Turkey also says that the conflicts, to a large degree, were the result of Armenian secessionist motivations.

The book notes that there was a nationalistic movement among the Armenians and Greeks, and that movement was a cause of worry to the Ottoman Empire. The perceived threat of the Christian communities becoming proxy powers under the control of other countries such as Russia, Greece and Bulgaria brought about the idea that the only solution to protect the unity of the Ottoman Empire was the removal of the agitators. 

The Book Serves Both Non-Scholars and Scholars Equally Well

‘The Thirty-Year Genocide’ serves both scholars and non-scholars equally well. For readers who only have a limited knowledge of the Ottoman Empire and readers who have a deep understanding of the region and its history, the book provides a useful education.

For scholars of genocide, the book presents new points of view that require attention and thought. The Ottoman Empire is portrayed as a multicultural heaven — which it was for many centuries — in many high school history textbooks that utilize the common core curriculum. However, ‘The Thirty-Year Genocide’ and the long-overdue U.S. recognition of Ottoman Empire genocides requires that attention also be paid to this dark period of Turkey’s history.  

Dr. llan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the university, he teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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