For Armenians in the US and around the world, it’s a recognition that is long overdue. After years of demurring, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted on Tuesday to recognize the Armenian genocide. In a Congress that’s characterized by deep partisan divisions that have only grown with the impeachment process against President Trump gathering steam, the 405 to 11 vote was an extraordinary sign of unity.
The Armenian genocide is one of the most significant events of the 20th century that few people know about; it was the systematic slaughter and deportation of up to 1.5 million Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of the Central Powers of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in World War I, between 1915 and 1917. The Ottoman Empire, a Muslim empire and declared caliphate that long dominated the Middle East but which would collapse during the war, was at the time largely controlled by revolutionary Turkish factions known as the Young Turks (yes, that’s where the liberal social media folks get their name) and was essentially the precursor to the modern state of Turkey that would form a few years later (many Europeans called it the Turkish Empire). Even though the Young Turks were secularists, in the context of the war they grew increasingly suspicions and accusatory against Christian minorities in the empire, who they argued would betray it to the Christian Europeans
Some Armenian fighters sided with Russia, which was fighting against the Central Powers, and the Armenian population as a whole became the main target of the Ottoman’s vitriol. The ancient kingdom of Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the year 301, a few years before Ethiopia made a similar move and 36 years before the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to the religion. In the following centuries, Armenia would come to be dominated by various empires, including the Persians and a number of successive Muslim powers, eventually including the Ottomans. During WWI, the Ottomans carried out genocides against several Christian minorities, including Greeks and Assyrians, but the Armenian genocide was the largest.
And it was brutal. As historian David Fromkin described it “rape and beating were commonplace. Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians eventually succumbed or were killed.” Less than 400,000 people, out of an Armenian population of over 2 million, survived. Even though the genocide occurred over a century ago, the modern government of Turkey has been unwilling to acknowledge the event and thereby tie its country’s founding to one of the worst mass murders in modern history. Instead, Turkey has claimed that the Armenian deaths have been exaggerated and that they were the results of a messy war, not a concerted effort of systematic slaughter, coordinated mass deportations and concentrations camps – all of which were features of the genocide.
The US has until now walked a fine line between acknowledging the plight of the Armenian people (which includes a sizable population in the United States, largely around Los Angeles, that exists as part of the diaspora created by the genocide) while also placating Turkey, a NATO ally and important partner in the region, even as Turkey has grown more autocratic. George W Bush helped kill a 2007 resolution that would have acknowledged the genocide, and even though candidate Barack Obama promised during his campaign to recognize the genocide, he backed off of that promise once he got into office.
In recent years, the most prominent voice for recognizing the Armenian genocide has been reality star (and frequent Political Religions topic of conversation) Kim Kardashian West, who has become not only perhaps the most effective advocate on behalf of black Americans at the moment (if you don’t believe me, look at her track record) but also the most effective US-based advocate for the nation of Armenia. Armenia does not employ lobbyists in America, but Kardashian West (who’s late father, famed LA lawyer Robert Kardashian, was a descendant of Armenians who fled to the US to escape the genocide) has not only expressed pride in her heritage; she’s also met with the President and Prime Minister of Armenia and personally advocated for recognition of the genocide to high ranking officials in the US, including Jared Kushner, who connected with the reality star when they worked together on criminal justice reform (and no, President Trump, you still don’t get to take an HBCU hostage just to be recognized for passing that legislation). Even with the Kardashian connection, however, official recognition of the genocide remained elusive until now.
As should be obvious, the thing that has changed between those times and now is Turkey’s invasion of Syria against the Kurds, the former US ally in the region that has been instrumental in the fight against ISIS and which provided crucial information leading to the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even as President Trump was abandoning them to Turkey’s offensive. The Kurds have not experienced a full-on genocide like the Armenians did (although there have been a number of massacres committed against them), but they’ve been hit hard in a number of ways. Divided between several countries – mainly Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – they’ve been, to various degrees, oppressed in all these places. Saddam Hussein infamously slaughtered them by the thousands when they rose up against him at the urging of the US after the first Gulf War (the United States abandoned them then, too).
But the Kurdish situation in Turkey has been especially fraught over the decades. Since the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey, there has been a concerted effort to erase Kurdish identity – they weren’t allowed to keep their traditional ways of dress, their names, or even the name of their group (they were rebranded “mountain Turks” by the oh-so-clever Turkish government). In response to this situation, a Kurdish group in Turkey called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK in Kurdish) launched a rebellion/terrorist campaign against the government in the 1970s and has been fighting on and off ever since. The PKK is closely allied to Syrian Kurdish fighters, which is what motivated Turkey’s incursion into Syria this month.
That campaign against the Syrian Kurds is what has motivated the current House vote recognizing the genocide against the Armenians. Just in case there was any doubt about the timing, the House also voted overwhelmingly on the same day to impose sanctions on Turkey over its incursion into Syria against the Kurds. Trump, pretending to oppose the Turkish military offensive against the Kurds that he both knew would happen and allowed to occur, had temporarily placed sanctions against Turkey but quickly removed them after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to not hurt the Kurds too badly (while winking and crossing his fingers behind his back,I assume). The House, at this point being so over both Trump and Erdogan’s B.S., stepped up to reinstate sanctions, although Mitch “look the other way as long as Trump signs the bills I like” McConnell will likely stall sanctions in the Senate.
Another, more surprising, opponent of the resolution emerged in the House: Representative Ilhan Omar, “Squad” member and frequent target of racist and Islamophobic attacks by Donald Trump and others, was one of the few who did not vote for the measure, instead voting “present.” She later attempted to explain her position, arguing that while it was important to have “accountability for human rights violations” that “accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight.” Rather, she argued, ““it should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics.” She also argued that other “mass slaughters” should be recognized, like the transatlantic slave trade or the near elimination of indigenous Americans.
This position is, quite frankly, a strange one. Acknowledging one genocide does not lessen the ability to recognize others; in fact, it likely moves us closer to being able to acknowledge all the ugly moments from our pasts. Furthermore, Omar’s appeal to “academic consensus” is especially problematic, as many have pointed out, as it seems to stick pretty close to the Turkish government’s party line of trying to deny the genocide. Many people have called out Omar for quite literally placing herself on the wrong side of history. These voices include that of Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter (whose long history of anti-Erdogan activism and decision to join the Boston Celtics both speak to his high moral authority), who expressed his “disappointment and shame” at Omar’s non-vote, and (unfairly) insinuated that she was being paid off by Erdogan.
Erdogan’s government, meanwhile, in keeping with its line that what happened to the Armenian people has been exaggerated and taken out of context, responded by calling the declaration “devoid of any historical or legal basis” and warned that the move could harm US-Turkey relations.
(Am I allowed to say “good” in response to that warning?)
Despite pushback from Turkey and strange objections from Rep. Omar, the House seems committed to keeping up pressure against Turkey and not letting it off the hook for its violations, past and present. For that, I will definitely say “good.”