BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
We often forget that the Islamic Caliphate last resided in Constantinople in the person of the ruling Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. With Ataturk’s abolition of the Ottoman monarch and state, the caliphate, too, disappeared, only to “reappear” a few weeks ago in the proclamation of the (Sunni) “Islamic State” as the latter’s murderous minions swept out of the territories they had occupied in Syria and “conquered” a significant segment of Iraq.
How did all this happen? What are the precedents? What connects these two caliphates? Who shares responsibility for these developments? How is all this connected, or relevant, to Armenian concerns (beyond the obvious immediate threat to the lives of those Armenians who fall under the rule of the “Islamic State”)?
A century ago, as its dying act, the last caliphate liquidated the Armenian population under its control. Far more than any other massacre of Christians by Moslems (or even vice-versa), this was a precedent-setting policy. It screamed, “from now on, states may eradicate human beings as suits their needs.” Thus was modern genocide born. No longer sufficed the slow-moving, decades/centuries-long process of decimating native populations of the Congo or Americas, nor the ancient “tradition” of wiping out the population and physical existence of city-states (think of what Rome did to Carthage), nor even the Mongol/Turkish tradition of conquest-by-carnage.
Unfortunately, the winners of WWI were still in a colonialist mindset and created artificial states over the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to suit their divide-and-conquer needs. Not only did Armenians get shafted, but the Kurds, Arabs, and everyone else. I suspect part of the reason that Armenians were treated relatively well in the Arab countries was the budding Arab nationalism and its attendant decency. It was a non-religious movement, but a threat to European colonialists who set up monarchies and pseudo-democracies in countries constructed to maintain mutual tension. One need only look at Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, to see this reality. Then came Israel, established (at least partially) as atonement for the genocide Jews had just suffered.
After some three-quarters of a century of triple indignity, Arab populations have had enough. First, their legitimate national aspirations were perverted, strangled, and/or subverted through the bogus state boundaries created to divide them. Second, they were subjected to misrule in those states by tyrants (often successive, where a revolution promising liberation was co-opted by darker forces) who were often puppets of one or more of the great powers. Third, they perceived the creation of Israel (rightly or wrongly is not relevant at this point) as a dagger in their heart.
In tandem, Iran’s people experienced similar disappointments. The pre-WWI constitutional revolution (in which Yeprem Khan, an ARF member, played a key role) ultimately was subverted with any progress/modernization made by the Pahlavi dynasty being rendered meaningless by the 1953 American-British engineered coup that toppled Prime Minister Mosaddegh. This ultimately led to religious forums becoming the venue and source of hope for liberation, as people saw nowhere else to turn, leading to the creation of an Islamic republic.
Similar religion oriented ferment was present in the Arab world, probably inspired to some degree by the “progress” made in Iran through religion. In the Arab case, the most extreme ideologies had the most financial support because of the oil wealth of the countries hosting them (e.g. Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabis). Plus, the less extreme Muslim Brotherhood was brutally and repeatedly “contained” in Egypt and Syria. Add to this the context of the Cold War in which the West saw advantage to using radical Islamists as proxies against the Soviet Union (primarily in Afghanistan), and you get a perfect storm developing.
People’s frustration (failure of Arab nationalism, despotic rulers, aborted “Arab Spring”), battlefront experience (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria), ideological context (decades of religion-based inspiration), financial support (Arab Gulf states), and rivalries among Arab states plus between Shias and Sunnis (and, in parallel, with Iran) led to the mess in Syria. Of course, Turkey, with its reborn Ottomanism (starting in the days of Prime Minister Turgut Özal) being implemented as policy over the past decade by the AKP’s Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, had its fingers in the Syrian pie. It supported the Islamist radicals (think Kessab) and probably has a good relationship with them, much as it may be diplomatically convenient to pretend otherwise.
Now, we have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi anointing himself as caliph. His forces are doing rather well, using the same murderous terror tactics (might we be witnessing the beginning of a genocide of Christians?) as the last caliphate (Ottoman) did to spread and maintain its control. Erdoğan is president of Turkey, and likely will be for the next decade. How far can a rapprochement between Turkey and the “Islamic State” go? Consider that the latter is also fighting the Kurds who are also the Turkish regime’s perceived enemy (regardless of recent improvements and ongoing negotiations with jailed PKK leader Apo Öcalan)?
If the West and current Arab leadership don’t wake up to this danger, there’s a good chance the latter will be wiped out and a new monster empowered by oil wealth, Turkey, and sheer enthusiasm born of ongoing victories will be pounding at the gates of Kurdistan, Israel, probably Iran, and possibly even further. The new caliphate’s overt and covert supporters will live to regret their support of the Ottoman Empire’s new heirs, and Armenians will continue to be “collateral damage” in the Middle East, and may even confront some problems on our twin republics’ borders as a result of this resurgent religious extremism.
Let’s start getting the word out before it’s too late for all concerned.