Armenians Before Dreams and Realities

The politics that the Ottoman Empire followed in governing non-Muslims, which were based on principles which protected their existence, gave them the right to own properties, and allowed them to conduct their religious rituals in accordance with their traditions. This system, though implemented without any problem for many centuries, started to fall insufficient before liberal, socialist and nationalist ideas spread after the French Revolution. Before the 19th century, the millet system had sufficient mechanism for keeping the communities from different ethnic and religious backgrounds in the country loyal to the state authority; but people of the 19th century were different. In this century, Muslim intellectuals also did not stay away from questioning the governing system. For non-Muslims, this had become much more possible; their right to own properties, absence of religious and sectional pressures and an easiness for being involved in administrative positions were more as compared to Western countries. For Christian intellectuals, it was more proper to choose to live in national states to be founded by Europe being taken as a model.

Secular approaches emerging with the Enlightenment had shaken the authority of the clergy. Liberal-socialist movements emerging after the 1830s strengthened this situation even further. Similar reactions started to be shown also by congregants in Turkey. These objections were not local or individual; on the contrary, they were based on ideological grounds. Governing people, who reject everything which is not about human with the influence of materialism, through clergy, was itself a problem now. Also, the rumors that clergies having the power of a state authority tyrannizing the people played a great role in legitimizing the reactions against them.

Armenian youths, having gotten education in various European cities, had completely different opinions when they came back to Istanbul. They now regarded themselves responsible for enlightening the Armenian nation. They were opening new and modern schools with their knowledge gained from the West and the religious themes in the literary works were being replaced by worldly issues. The traditional structure opened to European influence, was experiencing a radical change spreading from Istanbul to Anatolia. Gradually, dominant groups of the Armenian community were moving away from religion and clergy and tending towards a worldly and secular understanding. Moreover, the new generation took the stand of parliamentarism by saying that natural law is not sufficient, positive law is needed. Therefore, making innovations in the millet system formed as completely depended on religious perspective and the clergy became inevitable.

The Sublime Porte, actually realized the fact that the old understanding was not anymore sufficient in governing the non-Muslims in 1830s. Mahmud II’s remarks that there was no religious discrimination and the idea of equality coming with the Reform showed the necessity of creating an Ottoman millet. It is seen that an understanding of Ottomanism instead of the millet system was demanded to be dominant. Hence, Sultan Abdulaziz said in the Council of State in 1868: “Regardless of what religion they follow, all of my citizens are children of the same land” (Inalcık, 1992, p.3). Similarly, in Article 8 of the Ottoman Basic Law, it was said that, “All individuals under Ottoman Empire are defined without exception as Ottoman no matter which religion or sect they are from” (Kili, 2009, p.44). Besides, the biggest strike to the idea of millet was by the Reformation Edict grounded on expanding the privileges towards non-Muslims. The edict deepened and institutionalized the separation rather than the unity.

The Sublime Porte was late for the Ottomanism policy. Non-Muslims would not any longer see any attractive side in being a citizen of this state. Subjects who were thankful to the state for worshipping freely and having the protection of their lives and properties were replaced by those who demanded equal rights and even independence.

The Armenian Nation Regulations accepted in 1863 “became a text which restricted the authorities of clergy and wealthy class of city-dwellers who associated themselves with old aristocrats of Armenians in the governance of the nation, democratized and secularized the governance of people” (Yumul and Bali, 2009; Pamukciyan, 2003; Karakoç, 2010). The fact that the Regulations were especially of a civil characteristic, civil individuals in the parliament got hold of the governance of the community and the roles of clergy were restricted were reflections of socialist-liberal ideas dominating in Europe and of the French style of secularism. After all, the Regulations were the creation of Armenian intellectuals who studied in Paris and took part in the 1848 revolutions (Ter Minassian, 1995, p. 171-173).

Armenians’ adoption of the idea that gaining an independent government was possible came to existence especially with the 1877-1878 Turkish-Russian War. The fact that originally Armenian Loris Melikof was chosen as the chief commander of the Russian army in Caucasia for this war was regarded as the indicator of Armenian independence after the war. Thus, the relations between the state and the Armenian community started to be tense. As Lord James Bryce, an Armenian sympathiser, wrote, “Before Berlin Treaty, neither Sultan had a special hostility towards Armenians nor Armenians had political ambitions. Later on, treaty articles put for the purpose of their protection not only directed doubt and hatred towards Armenians but also reinforced Armenians’ hopes for independence; on the other hand the hostility of the governors widely increased. British-Turkish Convention taught the Armenians that they could get help from the British and the intervention of the British embittered the Turks” (Lewy, 2011, p.31).

Armenians, when independence was delayed, tended towards terrorist activities for the purpose of obtaining intervention from big powers (Nalbandian, 1963). The goal of the Hunchakian Revolutionist Party, one of the organizations founded for this purpose, was to found the Great Armenia and establish a socialist regime here. The party believed that it was necessary to start a big riot to achieve this goal and this would be possible only when the Ottoman Empire was in a war (Mattei, 2008). Another important organization, Dashnaktsutyun, worked towards gaining freedom and autonomy rather than independence. The majority of the Armenian population, on the other hand, was against both revolution and the revolutionists (Dadrian, 2004, p. 69).

Members of the Hunchakian Party undertook attacks against Muslims and Armenians who were opposing independence from the beginning of the 1890s onwards. Assaults to bishops and rich Armenians were grounded on the excuse of betrayal of the “national cause.” In the reports by British diplomats, it is stated that there was an atmosphere of fear and panic among Armenians due to such assassinations (Şimşir, 1989, III, p.208-209). There were assassinations committed by soldiers in uniforms for the purpose of creating a bigger panic in the public (Kırpık, 2007). Therefore, weakening the loyalty to the state on one hand and getting rid of the unwanted people on the other hand, and eventually showing the European public that there was state terrorism against the Christians were targeted.

The first big riot happened in Sason in the summer of 1894. Armenians provoked by guerrillas objected to the taxes that they paid till then and attacked the Bekiran and Zeydan tribes. There was no possibility that they did not know that they were going to face blowback. However, in this way it was targeted that the sufferings experienced would influence the European public and the governments would be pressured for intervention. Hence, while the attacks by Armenians were never mentioned in the European press, the news that Muslims assaulted them was occupying the pages (J. McCarthy and C. McCarthy, 1989, p.42). The Sason riot ended with the intervention of the army and the rebels surrendered with mediations of missionaries and foreign diplomats on the condition of not being punished and disarmament (Gülmez, 2006).

Armenian sympathiser, American writer George Hepwort expressed that the goal was to achieve foreign intervention: “Revolutionists did everything possible to create the greatest outrage. They had openly declared this aim of them. Europe would have to intervene if they could provoke Muslims to kill the majority of Armenians – those apart from themselves.” British writer Edwin Pears also wrote that, “Some extremist people will cause a great massacre to be able to draw foreign intervention to the region with these attempts to harm hundreds of innocent people” (Lewy, 2011, p.45-46). With this purpose, dozens of riots broke out in the following years.

The Hunchakian Party, with the thought that the opportunity they had been waiting for came with the First World War, carried out assaults, massacres and sabotages. There were stories of those attacking Turks and burning villages with their pictures on books and magazines published by Armenians. Unionists who closely knew the Armenian organizations that they worked together with against Abdulhamid II, found it obligatory for Armenians to be deported to the Syria-Lebanon regions which were outside of the war zone for the purpose of minimalizing the loss during the war.

Despite all the efforts, provocations, and murders of many innocent people and foreign support, the Armenian state could not be founded. The reasons of this can be listed as: Armenians did not have the majority of the population in any of the provinces or towns in the geography that they claimed to found a state on. Against all the weakness and pressures that the Ottoman Empire was exposed to, it was impossible to abandon a region regarded as the heart of the country. The remark of the Sultan that, “I’d prefer death instead of giving autonomy to Armenians” shows the stability of the state on this issue (Lewy, 2011, p. 32). Though the support from the West motivated the rebels, they did not work in terms of geography. Also, it is doubtable that at least some authorities of Western states genuinely believed in the claims of the Armenians. On the other hand, the most radical organization working for independence, Hunchakian, could not itself dominate over even all Armenians and convince their people.


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