Christian Genocide in the MidEast and Public Apathy in America

Christian Genocide in the Middle East and Public Apathy in America:
Looking Back on 2014 and Before

Published Date 1/5/15 5:00 PM

One of the last diplomats to leave Smyrna after the Turks set the
great Anatolian port city ablaze in September 1922 was the United
States’ Consul General, George Horton. Reflecting on the carnage and
depravity of the Turkish forces tasked by Mustafa Kemal to destroy
Smyrna’s Greeks and every physical semblance of their three-millennial
presence in the magnificent city on the western littoral of Asia
Minor, Horton wrote that “one of the keenest impressions which I
brought away from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the
human race.” The shame that Horton expressed stemmed from his shock
and disgust, both as a witness to the Turks’ genocidal frenzy and as a
diplomat aware that several Western governments, including his own,
had contributed to the horrors that took place in Smyrna.

The destruction of Smyrna marked the dramatic, fiery climax-although
it would not be the telos-of the Turkish nationalists’ genocidal
project to annihilate the historic Christian populations of Asia
Minor. The mass murder and mass expulsion of the Ottoman Empire’s and
Turkey’s Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks from 1915 to 1923 marked the
twentieth century’s first large-scale and systematic state-directed
genocide, establishing a model that would inspire and be replicated by
other criminal regimes throughout the following century. Moreover,
the Turks’ policy of genocide encouraged imitation elsewhere,
precisely because that holocaust against Christians was astonishingly
successful and without penalties for the perpetrators. Indeed, the
Turks not only achieved their objectives-the slaughter of three
million Christians and the expulsion of another two million from their
ancestral homes did, in fact, produce an essentially homogeneous
Muslim Turkey-but they did so without any consequences, evading all
accountability and any justice.

One of the chief reasons that Turkey escaped responsibility for its
crimes against humanity was the complicity, albeit indirect, of
several of the Western powers in those crimes. During the First World
War, the Allies condemned the Turkish nationalist leadership that
controlled the Ottoman Empire for its acts of genocide. However, once
the war ended, various Western Allied powers (most notably France,
Italy, and the United States), in pursuit of commercial concessions
from the Turks, entered into diplomatic understandings with the
Turkish nationalists, pushed aside and buried the issue of genocide,
and even provided military aid and support to Kemal’s regime, thereby
enabling the founder of the Turkish Republic to complete by 1923 the
bloody “nation-building” project begun by his colleagues in the
Ottoman Empire in 1915.

Despite the duplicitous postwar actions of several Western
governments, popular sentiment in those same societies was deeply
sympathetic to the plight of Christians in the Ottoman Middle East. A
remarkable variety of international relief and aid efforts emerged
throughout the West, especially in the United States, in response to
the humanitarian crisis produced by Turkey’s policy of annihilating
its large Christian population. The extermination and expulsions of
Christians-Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks alike-in Turkey were
widely reported in the United States, producing strident calls by
several prominent diplomats, politicians, influential religious
leaders, scholars, and the press to respond decisively to the crisis
as a moral imperative and a Christian duty. Two years before the US
even entered the war, Americans had answered this call to action by
organizing the highly publicized, nationwide charity that would become
known eventually as Near East Relief, which channeled millions of
dollars in aid to Christian survivors of the genocide.

In sharp contrast to the American public’s outrage over the Muslim
Turks’ extermination of Christians a century ago, the most recent
genocide of Christians in the Middle East by fanatical Muslims, under
the moniker of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has
witnessed a very different response in American society-apathy.

In the year 2014, ISIS launched a reign of terror against Arab and
Armenian Christian populations reminiscent of Turkey’s genocide a
century earlier. As Islamic State forces advanced across the northern
arc of the historic Fertile Crescent (the territory stretching across
northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq), ancient Eastern Christian
communities were decimated. An undetermined number of Christians,
many several thousands, were killed or enslaved by the Islamic State’s
forces in 2014. In order to escape this fate, almost 250,000
Christians fled the areas occupied by the Islamic State. The Islamic
State’s cleansing of the Christian populations under its control
recalls and reiterates the project of nationalist Turkey, one in which
nationalist Islamic forces functioned to create a homogeneous Muslim
society in the territory under their control.

Tragically enough, the erasure of Christians in Iraq and Syria in 2014
is only the most recent episode in the wave of violence and
persecutions against Christians that has been underway since the
fateful United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 catalyzed the state
failures and Islamist extremist mobilizations that are producing
anarchy in the Near East. During the last decade of bloodshed and
chaos in Iraq, and more recently in Syria, perhaps as many as 100,000
Christians have been killed and more than 1.5 million have been made
refugees. As a result, Christianity now faces the possibility of
extinction in the lands of its origin.

The American government’s response to this humanitarian catastrophe
has been characterized by overt indifference. The Bush administration
dealt with the embarrassing fact that its Iraqi misadventure had
unleashed the destruction of the country’s ancient and large Christian
population by ignoring and suppressing that fact. Simultaneously, the
Bush government, either deliberately or through sheer folly,
implemented occupation policies that undermined the security and
prospects for survival of Christian communities in Iraq.

The Obama administration has continued and compounded the fecklessness
of its predecessor administration. Most recently, in an effort to
erase the humiliation produced by his reckless comment made in late
July, that the White House had no policy to deal with the Islamic
State, President Obama rushed to launch a policy initiative in early
August. In a televised national address, President Obama announced
that he had ordered military action against the Islamic State,
rationalizing the move to limited air war in Iraq and Syria by
invoking the US’ moral obligation to protect Iraq’s Yezidi religious
minority from genocide at the hands of the Islamic State. The
privations of the Yezidis certainly justified a response and aid, but
the genocide and plight of the much larger Christian communities of
Iraq, brutalized for more than a decade by the region’s m lange of
Islamist extremist groups and actively and passively persecuted by the
Baghdad government, were largely ignored in President Obama’s speech.

The US government’s indifference to the genocide of Christians in the
Middle East is shocking, but, unfortunately, not surprising. The
demonstrated disregard for the suffering of Christians in the Middle
East by the administrations of Presidents Bush and Obama is entirely
consistent with a double standard established by the moralizing
hypocrisy of Woodrow Wilson in the midst of the first genocide of the
twentieth century. In fact, American administrations have been
willing not only to turn a blind eye to genocide against Christians in
the Middle East; they have gone beyond that, by consistently
supporting, at least since the 1980s, Turkey’s genocide denial

Yet, where is the public outrage? Although the US government has
remained consistent in its indifference and duplicity on this subject,
the attitude of the American public has undergone significant change.
A century ago, the Turks’ genocide against Armenians and other
Christians provoked public outrage and led to large-scale humanitarian
relief efforts in the United States of America. A century ago,
America’s civil society leaders, public intellectuals, and media
mavens actively promoted awareness of the Turks’ crimes against
humanity, and led popular initiatives to rescue Christians from death
and suffering. The invocation in the public sphere of Christian duty
and moral imperatives was sufficient to produce societal concern and
action. In contrast, today, as the Islamic State completes the
destruction of the historic Christian centers that Kemal’s forces did
not reach, the American public’s response is one of apathy. The
apathy is reflected in the measurable lack of public awareness
campaigns and in the absence of activism when it comes to coverage
about and support for the Christian victims of Islamist violence.

The cultural and intellectual currents, as well as official policies,
that have aimed to expunge religion, in general, and Christianity, in
particular, from the American public sphere have been corrosive for
any commitment to respect for faith and, especially, for assigning
value to the survival of Christianity in human civilization. Signs of
America’s emerging a-religious culture has also been instrumental in
explaining public misperceptions about the Middle East as home only to
Muslims and Jews, thereby rendering reporting on Christians in the
Middle East largely incomprehensible or meaningless. In a word, the
cumulative social and cultural changes attendant to the specific
drivers and modes of secularization in America go a long way to
explaining the reasons for American public apathy towards the
annihilation of the Mideast’s Christians. Indeed, the knowledge,
principles, and the very language-“Christian duty,” for example-that
produced widespread outrage and drove humanitarian relief in response
to genocide against Christians a century earlier have no place in
today’s public dialogue, and for some, are viewed as vestiges of an
exclusivist American identity that must be terminated.

The domestic politics of faith and US foreign policy concerns
regarding religion have contributed to a worrying cynicism in how
Washington policymakers engage on the issue of the Middle East’s
disappearing Christians. This past August, President Obama introduced
the Yezidis-a group unknown to Americans, indistinguishable victims,
free from any association with Christianity-to justify limited
military action against the Islamic State. Given current American
political sensitivities towards Islam and social changes generating
ambivalence and hostility towards Christianity, the President (much as
with his predecessor) made no clarion call for action to protect
today’s Middle East Christians-a group whose experiences in the
Ottoman Empire were marked by the same options-pay a poll tax,
convert, flee, or be killed-that face the Yazidis and the Christians
suffering in the ISIS footprint.

This year, 2015, will be a year of centennial remembrance and
commemoration of the Christian-the Armenian, Assyrian, and
Greek-genocide. It will also be a year of genocide denial, already
planned and launched by the Turkish state, as well as by Turkey’s
apologists in the US government, American media, and academia. In
recognition of this tragic centennial, as well as the unfolding
genocide in the Middle East in our time, this blog will return to
these issues in several postings throughout 2015.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State
University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the
Ottoman Empire.

By Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou

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