Matthew Jendian

Commemorating Genocide: Recognizing the Truth, Remembering the Past, Transforming the Pain

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By Matthew Ari Jendian, Ph.D.

This year, while commemorating the 105th anniversary, it is worth highlighting that both houses of the US Congress passed resolutions officially recognizing and remembering “the Armenian Genocide.”

On October 29, 2019, H. Res. 296, a resolution introduced in the US House of Representatives by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) recognizing the Armenian Genocide passed with a vote of (405 to 11 with 3 present).

On December 12, 2019, S. Res. 150, a resolution introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and championed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-T.X), was passed by Unanimous Consent.

Not only has Sen. Menendez led the call for a formal Senate Resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide in every session of Congress since 2006, he co-authored such resolutions during his time in the House.

Under Senate rules, legislation can pass without a roll call vote as long as no senator objects. However, for three consecutive weeks, Sen. Menendez brought the resolution to the Senate Floor, only to be blocked.

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On November 13, having just met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a heated Oval Office meeting, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) hurried back to the Senate floor and blocked the resolution, at the behest of the White House, saying, he didn’t think it was a good idea to pass it “with the president of Turkey in town.”

Then, on November 21, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), also upon the request of the White House, objected to the resolution “due to concerns that passage of the resolution would jeopardize the sensitive negotiations going on in the region with Turkey and other allies.”

Again, for a third time, the White House reached out and directed Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) to block the resolution on December 5.  Ironically, Sen. Cramer, who co-sponsored a similar resolution during the prior session of Congress, said on the Senate floor, “I don’t think it’s the right time” to pass it, noting that the resolution could undermine the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts.  [NOTE: Cramer’s objection came two days after he announced the Army Corps of Engineers had awarded a $270 million contract to work on the border wall to a North Dakota company, Fisher Sand and Gravel, something he had repeatedly lobbied Trump to do.]

After being blocked three times, Sen. Menendez and Sen. Cruz said they were dedicated to keep returning every week until Armenian Genocide denialism was defeated.  And, they did it with the support of thousands of citizens’ phone calls and emails to various senators.

The resolution, which did not require President Trump’s signature because it is nonbinding, states, “it is the policy of the United States to commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance” and describes the genocide as “the killing of an estimated 1,500,000 Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.”

Continued Denial by Turkey

Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s communications director, condemned the resolution via Twitter. And, in a separate tweet proclaimed, “History will note [this resolution] as irresponsible and irrational. [US lawmakers] will go down in history as the responsible party for causing a long lasting damage between the two nations.”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu called the “null and void” decision a “shameful” and petty “revenge” for Turkey’s independent foreign policy.

This recognition has been long opposed by Turkey, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a joint news conference with Trump, complained that two bills approved by the House in October, one on sanctions and another on recognizing genocide, “deeply hurt the Turkish nation.”

The 20th century observed major advances in the forging of international agreements and treaties with respect to human rights, genocide, and other crimes against humanity, but it was also one of the bloodiest centuries on record.  And, the bloodiness has continued into the 21st century.

Ball (1999) suggests at least 15 major genocides occurred since WWII, during which some 15 million people have been massacred.  Legal agreements and international laws — which have been undermined through weak enforcement and limited application — are incapable, by themselves, of preventing genocide.

What does the anti-genocidal slogan “Never Again” mean?  Does it mean, as David Rieff facetiously interprets, “Never again will Germans kill Jews in the 1940s in Europe,” or, similarly, “Never again will over a million Armenians be slaughtered in Asia Minor”?  No, “Never Again” is uttered as an aspirational hope that we will take action — at the individual, national, and international levels — to prevent crimes against humanity, particularly genocide.

In 2006, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pondered whether the United Nations was an effective defender of human rights, while condemning the world’s failure to halt the bloodshed in the Darfur region of Sudan:  “Sixty years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps and 30 years after the Cambodian killing fields, the promise of ‘never again’ is ringing hollow.”

Progress?

Ratko Mladic, general of the Bosnian Serb Army during the Bosnian civil war in the ’90s, was convicted of war crimes, including genocide, in November 2017 after a 5-year trial by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague in the Netherlands and sentenced to life in prison.

More recently, on December 14, 2019, a court in Sudan convicted former President Omar al-Bashir of money laundering and corruption and sentenced him to two years in a minimum security lockup.

Al-Bashir, who also has a warrant out for his arrest by the ICC on charges of war crimes and genocide, was behind the nearly 15-year genocidal campaign carried out against the Darfur region since 2003, resulting in the deaths of nearly 500,000 and the displacement of over three million Darfuris.

In 2018, Sudanese protesters, organized in part by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, revolted against al-Bashir’s authoritarian rule. Despite al-Bashir’s three decades in power, Sudan’s military was forced to oust him in response to the nationwide protests.

Although Sudan’s military initially said it would not extradite al-Bashir, 76, to the ICC, the country’s military-civilian transitional government agreed on February 11, 2020 to hand over the ousted autocrat to The Hague to face trial on three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and two counts of war crimes for his alleged role.

The indictments, issued in 2009 and 2010, mark the first time the ICC had charged a suspect with genocide.

And, as of February 4, 2020, ICC investigators were collecting evidence for a case involving alleged crimes against humanity by Myanmar government under Aung San Suu Kyi against Rohingya Muslims.

In August 2017, Myanmar security forces launched crackdown in western Rakhine state that, compelling evidence shows, involved mass rape, killings and the burning of entire villages.  Consequently, over 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh as refugees.

Bystander or Upstander?

Why do we stand idly by while tragedy unfolds?  It’s NOT true that many people don’t know what’s going on.  It’s NOT true that many people don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the situation.

The real reason the US has not done what it could and should do to stop genocide throughout the 20th century and today has not been because lack of knowledge or influence, according to Samantha Power (2003), but a lack of will:  “US leaders KNEW what was going on, BELIEVED it to be wrong, but were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, and domestic political capital needed to stop genocide.”

But, in a democracy, it is not enough to say that our president and our leaders failed us, for we the people have the ability to create enough pressure for an administration to act.  And, if the world does not act and remains silent, we send a clear message to current and future perpetrators of genocide.

Indeed, Hitler’s comment, eight days before invading Poland in 1939, “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians,” demonstrates his awareness of the fact that within two decades what had been the most important international human rights catastrophe of the 20th century had been forgotten.

Passive participation reassures perpetrators of the legitimacy of their actions and reveals in a breakdown of empathy.  As Jane Elliot reminds us, “To remain silent is to cooperate with the oppressor.”

Samantha Power argues the US should stop genocide for two reasons: “1) We have a moral responsibility to act; and 2) It is in our enlightened self interest to act.”  Allowing genocide undermines regional and international stability, creates militarized refugees, and signals dictators that hate and murder are permissible tools for state usage (Dekmejian 2007).  But this burden to act must be shared.  It is not enough for the US government to unilaterally intervene, as we did in Iraq since 2003.

The United States must exert whatever influence and leadership it has left in the world — and let’s be honest and recognize that the US government has lost some of its credibility in the world due to our misadventures in Iraq — but our government, and we, the people, must use our voice and our remaining influence to ensure the United Nations or some other coalition acts to prevent further atrocities in other places around the globe.

Moving from the societal to the individual level, we have a personal responsibility to think about and respond to genocide.  We must not think about cases of genocide in isolation and focus on our particular group’s experience alone.

The terms “genocide” and “holocaust” are not copyrighted; they do not belong to any one group.  We must recognize and learn from all genocides and join with one other, across ethnic and national boundaries, in order to prevent new genocides from occurring.

Genocide Survivor Descendent

I am a descendant of genocide survivors.  Three of my four grandparents survived the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government beginning in 1915 (some scholars say 1914), and I am working with my brother Micah and sister Megan on a sequel to my first book, Becoming American, Remaining Ethnic, subtitled One Family’s Journey from Martyrdom to Good News, memorializing the first names of my grandfathers, Mardiros (i.e., literally “Martyr”) and Avedis (i.e., “Good News,” as in The Gospel of Jesus Christ).

As my brother Micah Jendian recalled during his address in San Diego on the 90th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, it’s important for us to “acknowledge the deep pain of our collective experience,” to “examine the effects of the Genocide on the survivors, those raised by survivors, and those raised by those raised by survivors,” to “not be retributive but restorative in nature,” and to “tell our stories and keep alive our memories as a means of transforming and transcending our experience.”

Indeed, our painful experiences can help us connect with the pain of others experiencing or having experienced similar forms of oppression.

 

 

30-Year Genocide

In 2019, two professors in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi published The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924.

They argue that genocidal policies were implemented by three different governmental bodies in Turkey over these 30 years, including:  1) Sultan Abdul Hamid II — for the 1894-96 massacres of approximately 200,000 Armenians and the 1909 pogroms of 30,000 Armenians in Adana — 2) the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) — namely for the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916 and the destruction of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians 1919-1923 — and 3) The Republic of Turkey’s continued persecution of Christians during the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1923-1924).

All three entities attempted to “de-Christianize” the Anatolian plateau, resulting in a decrease in the Christian population of nearly five million, constituting 20% of the total population, in 1894 to only tens of thousands (less than 2% of Turkey’s population) in 1924.

While Armenians, estimated to number around two million, were the largest ethno-religious minority group in Turkey, Armenians were not the only group to suffer, and so it is time to recognize all of the Christian ethnic minorities targeted for elimination during this time.

The term “genocide,” coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943-44 and encoded into international law in 1948 through the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, narrowly defines it as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”

Therefore, Kieser’s (2019) conclusion that the term “genocide” does not seem to fit the 1894-96 and 1909 massacres seems appropriate, because the Sultan’s goal was to bring the Armenians into submission through violence, intimidation, and fear, not eliminate them.

Although, the phrase, “in whole or in part” does suggest the extermination of a population does not have to be complete in order for it to be considered genocide.

Nonetheless, the combination of anti-Christian ideology and Turkish nationalism between 1894-1924 resulted in millions of Christians — Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians — being systematically targeted for marginalization, dehumanization, forced expulsion, removal, and migration, and massacres, leading to their nearly complete disappearance from the region.

Ourselves and Others

The quote from Rev. Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) — a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who initially supported Hitler, then opposed him, and was arrested in 1937 and sent to a concentration camp where he stayed until the end of WWII in 1945 — reminds us all of the personal costs for not speaking up on behalf of others:

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then, when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me.”

As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are bound by an inescapable garment of mutuality, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Therefore, our demonstrations and protests must extend beyond ethnic boundaries to stand against all such discrimination.  This means:

Each one of us must recognize and confront our ethnocentrism — our belief that our ethnic group is the best and right one;

Each one of us must recognize and confront our xenophobia — our fear of outsiders or strangers.

Each one of us must recognize others as “human, just like me,” and develop empathy and identify with the circumstances and pain of others, for empathy is essential for the resolution of oppression and conflict.

Each one of us must recognize the biological fact that every human being is related to every other human being.  Genetically, we are among the most similar of all species on the planet.  In fact, each person is at least a 50th cousin of any other person on the globe and we have more in common than we do different.

Each one of us needs to be able to envision a world of inclusion. And while changes can develop in individuals’ minds and hearts, they must also become manifest in ACTIONS if social change is to take place.

I want to emphasize the importance of action.  You have heard it said that “knowledge is power.”  I disagree with that. Knowledge is not power, but merely POTENTIAL power. Knowledge becomes powerful when it’s acted upon. You could have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don’t act on it, it is useless. And, we must not let the excuse that we can’t do everything prevent us from the some thing that we can do.

Together, we recognize the truth and remember the past. Together, we transform the trauma and empathize with others. Together, we stand up for each other against all forms of injustice. Together, we have the power to make a difference and to stop and prevent genocide. The journey for humanity continues anew, through our actions for a better future.

And, as anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

(Dr. Matthew Ari Jendian earned his doctorate from the University of Southern California and is a professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno.  He is also the founding director of the Humanics Program at Fresno State, where he has taught since 1995.)

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