An American Muslim Responds to Muslim Orgs Questioning Armenian Genocide

Image from 2006 PBS documentary, "The Armenian Genocide."

Yesterday I read an astonishing and upsetting press release. The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) released what I cannot in good conscience call anything but a cowardly prevarication in the face of moral tragedy. It is not only a forfeiture of what we, as Muslims, are called to—stand up for truth, the Qur’an says, ‘if even against yourselves’—but it makes the work we ourselves are most passionate about even harder to accomplish.

And since this release is released by USCMO, an ‘umbrella group of mainstream Muslim American Organizations,’ which includes the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and others, I am concerned that they might appear to speak in my name.

Rather than accept, as American Muslims, what happened to our fellow Americans of Armenian origin, this organization chooses to (1) challenge the historicity of the Armenian genocide; (2) pander to the increasingly authoritarian Turkish government; and (3) tell Armenians that, in effect, we cannot recognize your pain because someone else won’t recognize ours.

The statement opens by recognizing ‘the painful history’ of World War I, and ‘the loss of over 37 million lives in World War I, including those of Armenians.’

You lose your keys, because you misplace them. If someone takes your keys, then they’re stealing from you. 37 million people did not absent-mindedly forfeit existence. They were murdered. Armenians were among the murdered. Great numbers were killed, on purpose. There was an Armenian genocide.

In 1913, the Committee of Union and Progress, a xenophobic, nationalistic and militaristic junta (in stark contrast to the historically more pluralistic traditions of Ottoman governance), seized the Ottoman Empire and attempted to rebuild it in the image of secular European nationalism. In 1915, a few months after joining the fighting in World War 1, CUP organized for the elimination by transfer, and other far more brutal and direct means, the Armenian Christian population of eastern Anatolia.

Today, Turkey, like much of Europe, is far more homogenous than it used to be. That’s the price of modernity. Ethnic cleansing, population transfer, slaughter. It’s ugly, but we should not look away. The Armenian population was systematically eliminated. That’s genocide. There’s no way around it. Responding to the assertion that it was a civil war, humanities professor Peter Balakian commented, in a 2006 PBS documentary, The Armenian Genocide:

‘If we are going to pretend that a stateless Christian minority population, unarmed, is somehow in a capacity to kill people in an aggressive way that is tantamount to war, or civil war,’ Mr. Balakian says, ‘we’re living in the realm of the absurd.’

To debate the events would be to open the door to a legendarily self-defeating relativism. The USCMO statement’s deceitfulness of calling for ‘independent historians’ to review what has happened is revealed when, several paragraphs later, we are told we should not alienate the Turkish government, a key ally, which rather suggests we are less concerned about the evidence and more concerned about the present.

Not to mention that, as per usual, our institutional leadership is some years behind the conversation. What Turkey was five years ago is not where Turkey appears to be headed five years from now.

Why should American Muslim organizations endorse this? When I want American Muslims to be more politically involved, to talk to people who don’t talk to us, it’s not in order for us to accept their narratives uncritically. But to be willing to hear them, in order that we too may be heard out. And to advance, hopefully, from this position, toward a more just outcome.

The press release then declares:

We also believe that any acknowledgment by religious or political leaders of the tragedy that befell Armenians should be balanced, constructive and must also recognize Turkish and Muslim suffering.

Of course, the heartless passive verbiage is still there—‘the tragedy that befell Armenians’—and not far behind it the political calculus which everywhere runs through it: We will not recognize your suffering unless you also recognize our suffering is not just weak in the knees, soft in the spine, and hard in the heart, it’s the very opposite of the Muslim faith. And I refuse to accept it. In fact, I reject it. It is not only immoral, but self-defeating.

Many of us have worked years to draw attention to moral double standards. Some say, for example, that Israel exists because of the Holocaust—that broken, traumatized refugees, fleeing centuries of very real and violent discrimination, culminating in the Nazi plot to eliminate a people, required a state. But that state in turn required the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians.

One’s suffering is not license to cause others to suffer. I refuse the narrative that 1967 is the beginning of Israel’s descent into occupying power. It was 1948. It was inherent in the project. You cannot build a state where someone else lives unless you remove them from it. And on what grounds? The Palestinians had no moral responsibility for what happened in Europe.

So why are we condemning the collateral damage from drone strikes, and ignoring the collateral damage of our own strikes? The Armenians did not cause the tragedies that European Muslims suffered at the hands of Christian European states, and should not be held hostage to them.

From Romania and Bulgaria to the Caucasus, entire communities were forcibly uprooted, killed, expelled, or forced to transform themselves, in a long, slow, bloody march against Ottoman Muslims. Fearing for their lives in Anatolia, some Ottomans believed the only hope was a purely Turkish, or at least purely Muslim, republic, a heartland secure from minorities who could be leveraged by foreign powers which, in the name of a common faith (Christianity), would further harm a vulnerable people. All of this is true, and yet has nothing to do with Armenians themselves.

We have a principle in Islam, rooted in the Qur’an: ‘No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another.’ The innocent cannot be made to suffer the sins of the guilty. If one is wronged, one is not given permission to wrong in return. The Armenian genocide is an historical fact. Is it true that other genocides are not recognized? Of course it is. Nobody is demanding an apology from the American government for the treatment of Native Americans, who were also forcibly removed from their homes, harassed, harried and outright murdered to make way for white settlers.

But, again, the Armenians who died were not responsible for this. The Jews who died in the Holocaust did not oppress Palestinians. Civilians are not killed to affirm our narrative. The innocent do not suffer the sins of the guilty. It has been a century since the Armenian genocide—are we still waiting for these magical ‘independent historians’ to wave their wands and figure out what really happened?

True moral leadership comes from courage. The ability to challenge one’s own community to face up to its darkest deeds. We want people to recognize that Islamophobia is real, that Muslims can and often are the victims, and yet when Muslims are themselves victimizers, we are suddenly silent. We hide behind deceitful language; we seek refuge in equivocation; we beg historians to do more work—and to what end?

Healing only begins with recognition.

These organizations do not speak in my name.

What these organizations fail to understand is that, while engagement is necessary and important, it doesn’t permit simply surrendering historical fact for the sake of political expediency. We have swung from one extreme to the other. We have been reduced to boilerplate press releases for our side, no different than any other community—except, perhaps, that we cheer our own and cast doubt on those who question us.

An ugly side to American Islam is revealed. I am embarrassed I must say this, but I have to: If we cannot listen to our conscience, at least we should not act against our interest.

I have even seen Muslims argue that the campaign to compel Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide is a ‘Zionist plot,’ or is only raised in order to besmirch Turkey’s reputation. Well, guess what. Denying genocide also besmirches your reputation. And a community that finds no justice, that is traumatized, grieving, and hurt, will look desperately for someone else to support their cause.

This is not a ‘Zionist plot,’ not a scheme against Islam, but the simple reality of how humans behave when they are wronged, and then wronged again. Don’t slam the door in someone’s face, and then ask why they went to someone else’s house. Actually rising to the occasion, and accepting what has happened, would take the steam away from your opponents, and transform the conversation entirely. The recognition of pain is the beginning of healing.

The Armenian genocide does not represent the Ottoman Empire historically, and admitting to its occurrence does not mean forfeiting the campaign for recognizing the instances when Muslims were themselves on the receiving end. It does not deny that Turkey also welcomed many refugees, and continues to. It does not demand we dismiss the genocidal and xenophobic violence many of these largely Muslim populations fled from. Turkey can hold its head high in this regard: It has long been a place of safety for many.

But recognizing the Armenian genocide opens the door to discussions of other crimes against other peoples, as well as other achievements of other people. Because history is good, bad, and ugly. Many of our histories were. We do not have to remain trapped in the past. But to do so, we must be willing to accept that past. If we want justice, we have to prove that we actually care about justice. If we deny the suffering of others, do not be surprised that others will deny our own suffering.

A more just, inclusive and humane planet requires, first of all, that we are willing to admit when wrong is done in our names—and not rush to cover up those wrongs when others fairly ask recognition of them. I spend days convincing fellow Americans that other peoples have real grievances against us.

Can we not imagine that others have real grievances, too? And if so, why must we take sides in a debate that, fundamentally, as Americans, is not even our own—except that we should take the high road, which is the right road?

To my Armenian brothers and sisters, I am sorry that, to this day, many refuse to accept what was done to your people. What happened in Anatolia was wrong, and denying it is wrong, too. I am sorry that some American Muslims have stooped so low as to take part in this. They do not represent all of us.