Erdoğan’s Ottoman Fantasies
British journalist Robert Fisk once stated, “The story of the Armenian genocide is one of almost unrelieved horror at the hands of Turkish soldiers and policemen who enthusiastically carried out their government’s orders to exterminate a race of Christian people in the Middle East.” The extermination of one and a half million Armenian Christians during World War I was the completion of a jihad that began in 1071, when the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert. Having overrun the Armenian provinces of the Byzantine Empire, they imposed sharia-based norms upon the Christians since they collectively refused to convert to Islam.
Despite a few countries in the world recognizing the Armenian genocide, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to deny this tragedy. Even U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham sided with Erdoğan this past Wednesday in blocking House Resolution 296, which would have recognized the Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turks hours after he and President Trump met with Erdoğan. Senator Graham objected, saying senators shouldn’t “sugarcoat history or try to rewrite it.”
Many today ask what would change if Turkey and other nations publicly admitted to this infamous part of history. It’s not that recognition would undo past evils—alas, we can never take back our sins. But we might better understand how President Erdoğan’s ambitions match (and even stem from) those of his Ottoman predecessors: the implementation of the hakimiyyat Allah, i.e., the kingdom of Allah on earth.
The Seljuk Turks, up to the fourteenth century, encouraged the illegitimate transfer of property and the dispossession of the rural Armenian population, and compelled their emigration from their homeland. Under the reign of Murad I, in order to meet the increasing manpower demands of their janissary troops, the Turks levied a special tax (on all Christian subjects within the empire), the devshirme (i.e., blood tax), which required forced collection and the Islamization of Christian children. As do present-day Islamists, they took inspiration and justification from the Koran and from what Muslim jurists had to say regarding the methods of tyrannizing non-Muslims (i.e., the dhimmis) under Islamic despotism.
The journalist and scholar Joel Gillin, writing in The New Republic back in 2015, argues that “the Young Turks’ [the new forces at the helm of the state during World War I] attempt to annihilate the Christian Armenians was not a faith-driven genocide by radical Islamists” but instead “tied to the creation of modern nation-states” by nationalists. Such propositions fail to perceive that while there is a religious sentiment at the base of every jihad, its goal is not necessarily religious but social. Such was the case with Muhammad’s military raids and his establishment of Islamic citizenship in seventh-century Arabia, which had more to do with Islamic expansion and control than religious purification. This is why, for example, the Muslim Turks created the Armenian patriarchates in both Jerusalem and Constantinople in order to regulate the Christian religion. These state-imposed patriarchal churches were not (and still are not) accepted by the authority and the faithful of the Armenian Apostolic Church, all the more so since the Turks’ aim was not to promote religious liberty and diplomacy but rather to discourage it by maintaining continual surveillance.
Since he came to power, Erdoğan has reportedly built 17,000 mosques: one-fifth of Turkey’s total. From Mali to Moscow, by way of Cambridge and Amsterdam, Erdoğan is ceaselessly active in “diplomatizing” his religion. The biggest mosque in the Balkans is Turkish and is located in Tirana, Albania; the largest one in West Africa was built by Erdoğan in Accra, Ghana; and the largest mosque in Europe will be his new Turkish mosque in Strasbourg.
While Erdoğan publicly was seen to fight ISIS, he played a duplicitous role in permitting foreign jihadists to cross into Syria from Turkey in 2011 with the goal of overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was also reported in 2015 that his daughter, Sumeyye, ran a hospital located in the southeastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa to help injured ISIS militants. He has also seized churches, including, in April 2016, the 1,700-year-old Virgin Mary Syrian Orthodox Church in Diyarbakirch. Just five months later, the pro-government newspaper Akşam published a front-page article accusing the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of conspiring with the CIA and the Fethullah Güllen in the “attempted coup d’état” to oust Erdoğan from power.
In June 2017, under the surveillance of President Erdoğan, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (i.e., the Diyanet) seized control of at least fifty Syrian churches, monasteries, and cemeteries in the Mardin province. This liquidation committee, established in 2012 with the task to confiscate and redistribute the property of institutions whose legal entity had expired, denied that it had carried out the aforementioned raid as a result of religious discrimination.
Since last year Erdoğan has also employed al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants along with his troops in the 2018 takeover of Afrin, where 300,000 Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds were displaced. According to a high-ranking member of the Syriac Democratic Federation, Abdulrahman Hassan: “Our heritage was attacked, the city was destroyed. Villages were plundered, women and girls were taken hostage, men are missing. Also several churches were destroyed and church members arrested.” And just days after the U.S. pullout from northern Syria, Turkey began to assail Kurdish and Christian civilians—many of them children—with chemical weapons.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau stated: “When the Turkish authorities gave the order for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal this fact… I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”
Erdoğan has practically undone the secularization and religious freedom established in 1924 by Kemal Mustafa Atatürk when he abolished the thirteen-hundred-year caliphate that essentially left the political lineage of the Prophet of Islam unclaimed. By reigniting Islamic-Turkish nationalism, observance of the sharia has subtly resumed. In doing so, Erdoğan has incited a jihad against Christianity, simultaneously targeting Kurds, Yazidis, and Shi’ite.
Is history repeating itself? It would seem so.
N. B. This article was originally published on November 21, 2019 by Crisis Magazine. Sources not cited may be found in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.