Today I participated in day two of a week-long institute for teachers on human rights in global perspective. Our center sponsored today's guest speaker, whose focus was on the Armenian Genocide. Dr. Khatchig Mouradian is a visiting professor at the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Department at Columbia University, and the coordinator of the Place and Memory Project at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. He has conducted field work on the Armenian community around the world, including China.

The speaker was not what I expected. He gave a long-term perspective on genocide, and many concepts for looking at genocide, in general. He referred to the lasting impact as a "long shadow", stating, "mass genocide does not end when the shooting stops. . . it changes form and shape." He noted that the genocide does not occur suddenly, with no historical progression toward the ideas which allowed it. Armenians were already second class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, and this status was made worse by European encroachment. There had been pogroms against Armenians leading up to the genocide, economic hardship motivating the attacks and theft, and propaganda supporting these actions from the government and religious leaders. Nationalism worsened these already strong tendencies, with its exclusionary definitions of citizenship.

What occurred from 1915-1916:

The Ottoman government gave Armenians a week to pack whatever they could carry, then forced them to leave.
  • most were killed on path to Syria due to exposure, disease, and starvation.
  • Survivors were scattered between Ar-Raqqah, Der Zor, Aleppo, other Syrian cities.
  • Concentration camps were set up in Der Zor, desert area, least populated region of entire Ottoman Empire
    • Second wave of massacre in 1916 in er Zor region completes the genocide.

    Map of the Armenian Genocide, by Sémhur, CC 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. (This is a clone of Map 224 in The Armenian Genocide, 1915 by Hewsen, Robert H. - 2001)
    Talat Pasha was the mastermind of Armenian Genocide. He had previously researched best places to populate Balkan Muslims coming into the country. He considered Der Zor, but decided against it once a report from the commission he sent there stated that would be tantamount to sending them to their death.

    Analytical Concept: Narratives of Perpetrator and Victim
    He laid out the primary narratives about genocide as an analytical starting point:

    * victims positioned firmly on the receiving end, with no agency.
    * the perpetrator vs. the groups trying to save the victims.
    * resistance in the form of certain results, often military results

    Each of these - in effect - bolster the perpetrator’s role in the crime, despite the fact that they affirm the crime, because they "put the perpetrator in the driver’s seat". He also problematized the dominant “alternative narratives of resistance", citing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. "What about non-armed resistance?" he asked. He explained that armed resistance is just one method, in a toolbox of methods. He observed that often stories of resistance speak of certain results, that are more significant to outside observers. Re framed this idea:

    "Results are [resistance is] actually about asserting one’s dignity."

    Genocide as Problem-Solving
    Next he posited a powerful way of analyzing genocide, that bypasses the perpetrator/victim perspective, by looking at it as “problem-solving". The ethnic or religious group in question is seen as a problem, and the perpetrator takes the actions he does in order to “solve the problem". The obvious example that this evokes is Nazi terminology of “The Final Solution", a very chilling historical reference.

    A related phenomenon is the way military professionals look/ed at battle as a science, with the objective of victory. They will try any “solution" that helps them address problems, or the obstacles to achieving it. Civilian lives are therefore not considered a priority.

    This idea of genocide as “problem-solving" brought up a lot of questions from the teachers in the institute. He responded to each question thoughtfully, the main take-away being that it is important not to analyze perpetrators mindset as simply a lunatic, but to understand it a little better. WWI was seen as an opportunity by Ottoman leadership to resolve problems of European encroachment. Armenians were considered a problem because they were asking for rights.

    By understanding this mindset, the obvious application is to recognize it when it happens in our own cultures - it is easy to recognize evil behavior from outside of the culture, not as easy within.