This article appeared in the May 2007 BreakPoint WorldView magazine.
George Orwell or Franz Kafka could have been writing the headlines last fall when author Elif Shafak was put on trial in her homeland of Turkey. Her crime, "insulting Turkishness," sounds odd enough to Western ears, but Shafak's trial was made particularly surreal by the fact that her alleged crime was committed by fictional characters.
A novelist, Shafak had written a bestseller, The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, 2007), about the intertwined histories of two families, one Turkish and one Armenian American.
In the book, the Turkish Kazanci women live together in Istanbul, all their male relatives having vanished by death or circumstance. Their only brother, Mustafa, departed for America many years ago, where he lives in Arizona with his American wife Rose and his stepdaughter, Armanoush, who is half Armenian.
Torn between her suburban American mother and her first-generation Armenian relatives, who seem to live in another century as well as another country, Armanoush struggles to find her identity as an Armenian American. Hoping to resolve her personal crisis, she secretly travels to Turkey during her school break and stays with the Kazanci women — who learn only after she arrives that she is Armenian.
While Armanoush expects this news to be explosive, she is met with little more than polite interest. Raised in modern, secular Turkey, the women of the Kazanci family know little about the almost total disappearance of Armenians from the land they once shared. The haunting history that Armanoush's San Francisco family cannot leave behind has been wiped clean from the social memory of her new Turkish friends.
The fictional Kazancis are not the only ones who have forgotten this awful tale. The nearly successful genocide of the Armenians in the years during and leading up to World War I passed quickly from the public consciousness.
Three-quarters of an entire people group were brutally slaughtered, and today few outside the close community of survivors can recount the events or even know that they occurred.
Straddling Europe and Asia, the land that is now modern-day Turkey has spent centuries in a dualistic reality, balancing the worldviews and demands of East and West, of Islam and Christianity.
The modern state of Turkey was formed in 1923, after the Ottoman Empire fell during World War I. For years, the Ottomans and Armenians had lived, for the most part, peacefully together, despite their religious differences.
However, as the Ottoman Empire shrank, economic strains on the region heightened the already inherent discrimination toward those not Muslim — both Jews and Armenians. Isolated massacres of Armenians took place, likely at the behest of the Sultan. All of this changed, however, in 1915.
Between 1915 and 1919, 1.5 million Armenians were summarily slaughtered in a systematic fashion on the express order of the ruling Turks. The remaining 500,000 fled their homeland, most settling in America, where the largest group of Armenians lives to this day.
The events of 1915 are well-documented. After years of sporadic killing and discrimination, hostility toward the Christian Armenians by their Muslim Turk political leaders became entrenched in that year. Official edicts issued by a Turkish government agency, ironically named the Committee of Union and Progress, called for the complete destruction of the Armenians. "An end must be put to their existence," one order reads, "however criminal the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to age, or sex, or conscientious scruple."
In carrying out this edict, Turkey served as a testing ground for the practices that the Nazis would use a few years later on Jews and other non-Aryans. Entire Armenian families were "deported" from their homes in the cities and "relocated" to remote areas in the sparsely populated desert regions of Turkey.
The American consul was skeptical of the deport-and-relocate scheme, prompting a November 1915 edict declaring that care had to be taken "with those who are near the cities or other centers. It is important that foreigners shall be persuaded that the expulsion of the Armenians is in truth only deportation."
Deported Armenians traveled by foot or in cattle cars, many of them dying along the way. Those who survived their journey fared little better. In January 1916, an official report stated, "It is understood that hardly ten per cent of the Armenians subjected to the general transportation have reached their destinations; the rest have died from natural causes, such as hunger and sickness. We inform you that we are working to bring about the same result with regard to those who are still alive, by using severe measures."
Spirited away into the countryside, the Armenians essentially disappeared. Their Turkish neighbors, quietly and without asking questions, took over their abandoned homes and businesses in the larger cities, while three thousand years of cultural heritage — including churches, libraries, and towns — was decimated.
Not everyone turned a blind eye. The US Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, pieced together reports from his consular staff and American missionaries in the remote areas of the country. Morgenthau appealed first to the Turkish government, after which twenty Armenians were publicly hanged in what was then still called Constantinople.
With diplomacy clearly not the answer, he spent considerable time and energy trying to convince the US government to intervene, but President Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for re-election on a platform that depended on keeping America out of the war raging in Europe.
Instead, Wilson heartily endorsed the formation of Near East Relief, a charity to help survivors of the genocide with food and relocation to more hospitable lands. The New York Times faithfully covered the reports coming out of Turkey — reports of barely fathomable atrocities, women and children burned alive in locked buildings, used as target practice, and drowned en masse.
Ironically, one of the groups from whom we now have documentation of the events of this period is the Nazis. Allied with Turkey in what was to have been the "war to end all wars," German ambassadors began documenting the ethnic cleansing, sending official reports back to Germany, many of which have been preserved.
Some twenty years later, on the cusp of his invasion of Poland, Hitler is said to have invoked the Armenian genocide, saying, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
Who indeed? The answer to that question is most certainly not present-day Turkey. As Shafak demonstrated in her book, modern Turks barely know the events of 1915.
In The Bastard of Istanbul, the Kazanci women listen to Armanoush's recounting of the genocide with detached interest. For them, it is "the issue of another era, and another people." Her new friend Asya puts it bluntly: "Why should I know anything about the past? Memories are too much of a burden." Asya, it turns out, is a girl without a past, the only child of a single mother whose father remains shrouded in mystery.
But for the Armenians, who lost everything in 1915, memory is all that remains. Armanoush, beginning to understand the idiosyncrasies of her Armenian-American family, says, "Despite all the grief that it embodies, history is what keeps us alive and united." And so the Armenian population keeps the memory alive and asks only that the Turks remember.
Armanoush writes to a friend, "This is what we say to the Turks: Look, we are mourning, we have been mourning for almost a century now, because we lost our loved ones, we were driven out of our homes, banished from our land, we were treated like animals and butchered like sheep. We have been denied even a decent death. Even the pain inflicted on our grandparents is not as agonizing as the systematic denial that followed."
Denial, according to the International Campaign to End Genocide, is the eighth and final stage of a genocide. It is the final step in a process of erasure that begins with the physical elimination of a people and ends with their complete disappearance, even from memory. The killing of a people, the root meaning of the term genocide, is finished only when no one remembers that they even existed.
Shafak's novel is a study in contrasts. The most powerful character in the novel, we learn, was once the helpless victim of an attack. The one who should be the most knowledgeable is the one most in the dark. The one who wants only to forget is the one who discovers secrets no one else knows.
Perhaps Shafak's emphasis on contrast and dualism is a natural outgrowth of her homeland. Turkey today touts itself as a secular state, but Christians there face discrimination, intimidation, and hostility.
And the law under which Shafak was prosecuted, Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, was initially intended, as Shafak told National Public Radio's Terry Gross, as a progressive measure designed to enforce and comply with European Union regulations on free speech. It replaced an earlier law that placed even greater strictures on the freedom of speech.
Despite its hopeful beginning, according to one source, in just the two years since Article 301 was enacted, nearly one hundred writers and journalists have been prosecuted under the law.
Shafak was acquitted of the charges brought against her. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, facing similar charges, was let off on a technicality. But Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was not so fortunate.
While awaiting a trial for charges brought under Article 301, Dink was assassinated by nationalist radicals in January 2007. Dink's crime, like Shafak's and Pamuk's, was to use the term genocide to describe the events of 1915.
Remembering and Caring
Still, not all the news out of Turkey is bad. The fact that Shafak's novel was a bestseller in her homeland is encouraging. The personal moral dilemmas faced by her characters serve as a gripping backdrop to a national story that needs to be heard.
Perhaps, as Shafak writes, "Istanbul is waking up from its perturbed sleep, ready for the chaos of the rush hour." Perhaps some day soon, Turks will remember the history they have forgotten, and Armenians can look confidently into the future, no longer shackled by a dark past.
In our modern age of globalism and digital communication, we get front-row seats to atrocities on a daily basis. While it is more difficult now for one group of people to wipe out another group without anyone knowing, what is entirely possible is that we will know and not care.
The very fact that we know so much can inure us to new examples of "man's inhumanity to man," as Robert Burns put it. Like Auntie Banu in Shafak's novel, we can wonder, "What's knowledge good for if you can't change anything?" But surely ignorance and amnesia are not the salve for grave misdeeds.
Christians cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of persecuted people. We are exhorted in Scripture to care for the dispossessed, the outcast, the downtrodden, and the weak, for widows, for orphans, and for strangers in our land. These individuals can seem far removed from our daily lives in America, irrelevant to our routine or too heavy for contemplation. We can feel paralyzed and impotent in the face of something as overwhelming as a genocide.
So what can we do? Some of us will be called to help in tangible ways. Some will give financial support to human rights organizations like International Justice Mission, whose president Gary Haugen is this year's Wilberforce Award recipient. Others of us will give our time, through relief groups like Samaritan's Purse or through short-term missions. Many of us will pray for those who are suffering, both for their physical relief and for their spiritual rebirth. All of us can remember.
Remember the victims of genocide. Remember the Armenians. And along with them, remember the Rwandans, the Bosnians, the people of Darfur, and the Jews. If we remember what they cannot forget, perhaps together we can ensure that no people group is ever again subjected to the brutality of annihilation.
Kristine Steakley is a freelance writer and grant writer from northern Virginia. She is a regular contributor to The Point blog, and her articles have appeared in BreakPoint Online, Inside Journal, and Crosswalk.com. Her first book, on grown children of divorce, will be published by InterVarsity Press in 2008.