The Islamic State, Then and Now

Lessons from the extermination campaign against the Armenians.

armenian-genocideIn early 2015, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or simply “the Islamic State,” as news organizations now have it, has escalated its murders, massacres, persecutions and push for territory. The rise of ISIS has been rapid, but it should come as no surprise to Western leaders familiar with history. Barely 100 years ago, in early 1915, another Islamic state was mounting a similar campaign.

That would be the Ottoman empire, specifically Turkey, where Armenians had long been marginalized and ostracized. As Christians the Armenians had virtually no legal rights and no recourse in Islamic courts. As Peter Balakian showed in The Burning Tigris (2003) this grew worse under Turkey’s Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) which perceived Armenians as a kind of infection. CUP leaders Behaeddin Shakir and Mehmed Nazim, both medical doctors, called Armenians “tubercular microbes” infecting the state, and physician Mehmed Reshid likened them to “dangerous microbes.”

CUP propagandist Ziya Gokalp believed the Turks could only revitalize by getting rid of non-Muslim elements. On November, 14, 1914, sheikh-ul-islam, chief Sunni religious authority in Ottoman world, formally declared jihad, and the Ottoman empire boasted an extensive bureaucratic infrastructure easily deployed in the cause. The clandestine Special Organization (SO), Balakian noted, was “the first state bureaucracy to implement mass killing for the purpose of race extermination.” The SO recruited tens of thousands of criminals to massacre the Armenian population.

The SO used trains, cramming 90 people in a car that normally carried 36 people or six horses. The 32,000 Armenians deported by rail included more than 9,000 children. The trains took them to camps where the men were killed, the women abducted and raped, and children sold into slavery. If any Muslim tried to protect a Christian, according to one instruction, “first his house shall be burned, then the Christian killed before his eyes and then his family and himself.”

The genocidal campaign against the Armenians did not lack high-profile, witnesses, including U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau, on record that “I do not believe the darkest ages ever presented scenes more horrible than those which now took place all over Turkey.” Torture squads would apply red-hot irons, tear off flesh with hot pincers, then pour boiled butter into the wounds. The soles of the feet would be beaten, slashed, and laced with salt. Dr. Mehmed Reshid tortured Armenians by nailing horseshoes to their feet and marching them through the streets. He also crucified them on makeshift crosses.

The Muslims hacked Armenians to pieces and dashed infants on the rocks before their mothers. They burned bodies not for sanitary reasons but in search of gold coins they believed the Armenians had swallowed. The Muslims also tore apart the victims’ feces in the search for gold. U.S. consul Leslie Davis, a former attorney and journalist, documented the Islamic zeal.

“We could all hear them piously calling upon Allah to bless them in their efforts to kill the hated Christians,” Davis wrote. “Night after night this same chant went up to heaven and day after day these Turks carried on their bloody work.” Around Lake Goeljik, Davis wrote, “thousands and thousands of Armenians, mostly innocent and helpless women and children, were butchered on its shores and barbarously mutilated.”

Leslie Davis and British historian Arnold Toynbee both called the Turkish campaign a “reign of terror,” and it drew a strong response in the United States. Now, 100 years later, Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sissi feels compelled to speak out on current Islamic terror. He recently told Muslim clerics in Egypt that departing from the corpus of texts and ideas Muslims have sacralized “has become almost impossible” and “is antagonizing the entire world.” Therefore, “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution.” But events of 100 years ago suggest that may not be possible in Islam.

An Islamic state mounted a reign of terror against an unarmed civilian population, under siege, and pillaged of its material goods. This reign of terror indulged mass murder, torture and cruelty on a massive scale. It produced unfathomable suffering and claimed more than one million victims. But no statements of regret emerged from the Islamic regime, only denial. As far as can be discerned, no Muslim cleric issued any call for a “religious revolution” in Islam. And the events of 1915 did nothing to forestall the current Islamic state and its reign of terror in 2015.

Peter Balakian believes the terror of 1915 happened because, based on their attacks of the 1890s, the Turks found they could act with impunity. Western leaders should make a change in that dynamic. Otherwise the world will see more of what is already happening in 2015.

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