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The Kurdish Role in the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide

By

Abdulmesih BarAbraham

To address the historically still debated issue, the extent of the participation and responsibility of the Kurds in the genocide of the Armenian [and Assyrians], Fırat Aydınkaya, lawyer and writer, published on April 18, 2020 an article under the title “The Armenian Genocide and the Kurds in Eight Questions”. [1]

Originally published on nuptal.net, the article triggered a discussion among Kurds on social media with support and criticism. The conservative circles blame Aydinkaya for portraying the “innocent” Kurds as the prime perpetrators of the massacre, ignoring the role of the Young Turks Ittihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti (Committee of Union and Progress – CUP) as truely responsible for the genocide. Liberal and leftist Kurds seem to support the view that the Kurds had also participated in the genocide under the orders of local political and religious authorities and should face history.

Of course, Aydinkaya is not the first Kurdish intellectual to openly acknowledge that the Kurds participated in the genocide. And it is not clear to what extent Kurdish political parties endorse this view and include it into their political actions, be it in Turkey, northern Iraq or in northern Syria.

Assyrian media critically discussed Aydınkaya’s initial article in a short interview by AssyriaTV with the political analyst Ibrahim Seven. Pointing to the fact that Aydınkaya failed to mention Assyrians, his article has been seen as tactically and politically motivated. As the recognition of the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocide was accepted last year by the US House of Representatives, Kurds cannot hide behind the Turkish denial any more.[2] It has been further argued that Aydınkaya too often refers to Kurdistan, where he should have said Armenistan or northern Mesopotamia.

As a follow-up and reply to the Web-based discussions, a two-part interview of Aydınkaya by Ferda Balancat appeared in the Armenian newspaper Agos, on May 10, 2020 [3] and May 17, 2020 [4].

Indeed, what is striking at first glance, is, that Aydınkaya does not mention Assyrians at all as co-victims along with the Armenians in the genocide, even though as one of the former lawyers of Abdullah Öcalan he is certainly aware that Öcalan has mentioned Assyrians in various statements related to the genocide of 1915. For instance, in 2014 in a letter from the prison he stated, that the events of World War One, resulted ”in a large physical and cultural elimination of Armenians and Assyrians, heirs to millennial cultures” in the region. As a person educated in Kurdish politics, Aydınkaya also knows that in April 1995, the Kurdish Parliament in Exile recognized the genocide against Armenians and Assyrians while stating that “on April 24, 1915, the Ottoman administrators began a policy of annihilating the Armenians and the Assyrians. This was a plan long in the making, meticulously carried out with the aid of some tribal Kurds who were organized into an auxiliary force, the ‘Hamidiye Alaylari’ or Hamidiye Brigades, of the Istanbul government…In that singular act of brutality at the turn of the century, millions of Armenians, Assyrians,” were murdered.[5]

At the latest, when Aydınkaya mentions the ‘Nestorians’ as the victim of the Bedirkhan massacres, it should have become clear to him that hundreds of thousands of Assyrians were also killed by Kurds during the genocide as well. In the spirit of promoting good neighborhood, and honestly facing history, the inclusion of the Assyrians would have been important because today more Assyrians live as neighbors of the Kurds in the south-east region of Anatolia than Armenians.

Independently, the argumentation set forth by Aydınkaya relates very much to the Assyrians as well, who prior to 1915 lived in regions partially dominated by Kurds. Yet, regardless his silence about the Assyrian fate, Aydınkaya’s article deserves some attention, as he convincingly counters some usual apology statements many Kurdish intellectuals put forward when it comes to genocide.

Aydınkaya makes use of concepts such as “plunder militarism,” “booty economy,” and “genocide bureaucracy,” that help understand the role and motivation of the Kurds. He lists several well known Kurdish notables among the provincial organizers of the killings, or as he describes it, “the machine that made the genocide possible.”  In an article discussing Aydınkaya statements and reaction to them, the Journalist Feyzi Çelik elaborates further on Aydinkaya’s concept of “genocide bureaucracy”[6]:

Bureaucracy means an organization created by the political decision of the official Turkish state. This has been studied and made into a state decision. As it is known, at the beginning of the 19th century, a centralized administrative structure based on provinces was established to protect the multinational empire from nationalist influences. The main body of the holocaust genocide bureaucracy was created within the framework of this administrative system. The governors in the cities and provincial districts were the natural leaders of this bureaucracy. They also had local feet. According to the time, and unlike other nations within the empire, the Kurds saw themselves as part of the Islamic community of the Ottoman state. They were attached to the caliph.”

Çelik concludes that very often Kurds refer to Kurdish-Turkish relations, Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood, Turkish-Kurdish destiny on context of Malazgirt (1071) and the Liberation Wars of 1920. He argues, that this fraternity should not be limited to good things, and implies that this tradition of historical unity requires ”an acknowledgment that bad things were done together” as well.

Aydinkaya’s Questions and Answers

At the core of his statements and related to Question 1, Fırat Aydınkaya affirms that “while the genocide or deportation decisions were taken [by the CUP], the opinion and approval of the Kurds were not taken. In other words, Kurds have no involvement in the decision of genocide. However, while the decision was taken in the field, a significant portion of the Kurds were involved in this shameful crime.”

Assyrians like Armenian lived mostly in the countryside and in remote areas such as Tur Abdin, and in the Bohtan-Region stretching out to the Hakkari mountains. If there was no Kurdish participation in the region, “probably only the people of the city centers and locations close to city center would have been killed,” continues Aydınkaya. According to him, “the mobilization of a significant part of the population” determined the fate of the Armenians – and that of the Assyrians too. “For this reason, and as of 1918, we cannot only explain the absence of a single Armenian in the Kurdish-Armenian hinterland only with the huge crime of the state authorities. The central authority did not have the opportunity and ability to massacre the Armenians who took refuge in the mountains of Kurdistan,” he adds.

Answering Question 2 Aydınkaya turns to the argument often put forward, whether a “Kurdish will” existed that decided on behalf of them to participate, while in Question 3 the author lists key motivators that sent the Kurds to participate in the massacres. Among them he mentions the class-related resentments, Muslim-nationlism, Kurdishness and the Dhimmi issue.

The attitude of the Kurdish press and Kurdish intellectuals is critically discussed in Question 4. And in answer to Question 5 Aydınkaya counters the claim that the massacres were the natural result of the war. In relation to Question 6 the author elaborates on the phenomenon of ignorance frequently put forward by leaders of Kurdish public opinion when the topic of genocide comes to the agenda, saying “Kurds have been deceived by the state”. In answering Question 7 he counters essentialist interpretations that by saying “the Kurds participated in the Armenian genocide,” puts the blame of the genocide on the Kurds before the state. Answer 8 deals with the attitude of Kurdish politics and its actors towards the genocide and apologies to the victims. Here too, Aydinkaya misses to provide “some good-intentioned gestures at a symbolic level” to the Assyrians as well.

As mentioned, being a lawyer, Aydinkaya argues almost in legal manner for the Kurdish case. He pleads guilty for his accused “client” participating in the crime of the genocide. However, due to lack of formalized central institutional structures, as he argues, he advocates mitigating circumstances for his client. Such argument is certainly not sufficient to morally absolve the Kurds from their criminal participation in the genocide, which he describes as “an extraordinary action, a procedural event, and totalitarian.” Aydinkaya also provides a number of arguments that support the fact of religiously promoted lower/base motives, such as “plunder militarism,” or “the rightful booty” which further underline the idea of deliberate complicity in mass murder. Also cited as motivation is the “ideology of Islam” and “booty economy” coupled with historically founded nationalistic motivation of the takeover of a geographic region after the annihilation of its owners. With respect to the latter, Aydınkaya criticizes the attitude of Kurdish intellectuals in the early phases of emergence of Kurdish nationalism.

In this short review it is not possible to elaborate on the role of the varions Kurdish notables Aydinkaya mentioned in his article. Scholarly research has to deal with that. But his article is also remarkable for its omissions of the description of the role of Ziya Gökalp, for instance, who was the nephew of Arif Pirinçizade and the cousin of Feyzi Bey. According to Professor Joost Jongerden, expert on Kurdish issues, they “played a significant role in both local and state politics, not only in the province of Diyarbakir. Ziya Gökalp became a leading figure in the local branch and the central committee of the Committee of Union and Progress.“ Gökalp became later recognized as the most influential Turkish nationalist thinker and writer. Feyzi Pirinçizade would become later Minister of Public Works in three different governments of Turkey.

Aydınkaya’s Questions have been translated below, along with those portions of his original answers pertinent to an Assyrian analysis. For the original Turkish version see here [1]:

Question- 1: Did the Kurds participate in the Armenian genocide, who participated, and how did the Kurds take a stand apart from some known Tribes?

Today, we have sufficient information and evidence that a significant part of the Kurds, which should not be underestimated, participated in the genocide. Particularly, it is evident that in many places where there was a deadly tension between Armenians and Kurds, in locations close to the war, the Kurds, who resided in the tribal regions dominated the relocation routes, and participated in this… Of course Kurds’ opinion and approval were not sought while genocide or deportation decisions were taken. In other words, Kurds have no involvement in the formulation of the genocide. But, while the decision was taken in the field, a significant portion of the Kurds were involved in this shameful crime.

However, we also need to talk about the “genocide bureaucracy” as a machine that made the genocide possible. The question of where the Kurds were located in this bureaucratic chain is important. It is clear that the scale of the presence of Kurds in the upper and middle ranks of the chain in the countryside is an undisputed reality.

Sabit Bey, the governor Harput, Feyzi Pirinçizade, the provincial organizer of Diyarbekir-Mardin genocides, Mustafa Cemilpaşazade, the organizer of Muş, and Hodja Ilyas Sami should be mentioned here. In other words, while implementing of the genocide decisions from decision into action, important people of the provincial organizers of the genocide bureaucracy were drawn from the Kurds.

In short, the Kurds were not present at the central decision meetings on which the genocide decision was taken against Armenians. However, while the genocide was being carried out in Kurdistan, there were quite many in the Investigation Commission, which was established in the cities and carried out the planning, transport, and the management of the genocide. We know that the Investigation Commission were established in all the major centers and this institution worked very effectively.

In summary, and through the Investigation Commission, the Kurds have formed the local bureaucracy part of the genocide in most places. This tells us at least two things. First, if no collaboration would have existed in Kurdistan, the decision would not have been so flawless. Secondly, the presence of these collaborators in the provincial centers easily manipulated the public’s attitude and stance on this issue. For example, Feyzi Bey managed to do this in the Diyarbakır-Mardin country, Hacı Bedir Ağa along the Malatya-Adıyaman route, Gulo Ağa along the Erzincan-Dersim-Sivas line, Hoca İlyas Sami in the Muş-Bitlis region, and Sabit Bey in the Harput-Dersim-Erzincan provinces while using their local connections….

As of 1918, the total absence of Armenians in the Kurdish-Armenian hinterland cannot be explained with the huge crime of the central [state] authorities only. [without the support of the Kurds] The central authority did not have the opportunity and ability to massacre the Armenians who took refuge in the mountains of Kurdistan.

Therefore, if there was no Kurdish participation in Kurdistan, probably only the people of the city centers and locations close to city center would have been killed. The main Armenian population lived in the country-side and the majority of those in the country could not be harmed. That is why the mobilization of a significant part of the population in Kurdistan has determined the fate of the Armenians

Question -2: In context of the genocide there are also important objections. For example, according to some people who interpret what you say, “the thesis that the Kurds participated in the genocide as a people is baseless and excessive, because during the mentioned period it cannot be said that a ‘Kurdish will’ existed which decided on behalf of them.”

Yes, this counter claim is often voiced. Considering those who developed this counter-argument, there was no central will that represented the Kurds at the time; in other words: if there is no decision-making will, the action should be ignored by itself, meaning they voice an apology. Clearly, this pattern of reasoning seems to me very problematic….

Secondly, of course, I am not saying that the Kurds all came together and decided that “let’s kill the Armenians”.

Finally, genocide is already an extraordinary action, the event is procedural, totalitarian, fragmented and anonymous. Hence, this huge death machine cannot be explained by just mentioning the names of several tribes. If we talk in the context of actor tradition and in order for the tribes to massacre the most people in Kurdistan, conduct a genocide, more than tribe a is required.

Question -3: Who were the agents that sent the Kurds to this massacre, can you list them in order of importance?

Of course, class issue is the most important reason for me. A class-like resentment was at work, which Fanon described, saying that” in colonies the economic infrastructure is also superstructure”. I believe that the culture of plundering among the Kurds was the main actor that motivated this business.…

In the second place, the Muslim nationalism, which the state and sheikhs considered as a doctrine, was the most important theological-political instrument. The Kurdish provinces and places that the sheikhs were ruling had both the idea of ensuring that by killing the Armenians they would go to heaven in the other world, while they ‘deserved’ to loot Armenian property from within the religious tradition.

In other words, when we dig a bit into Muslim nationalism, we will see “booty economic” pure and simple. Thirdly, popular Kurdish sentiments had been asking for the punishment of the Armenians somehow since some time.

For a long time common sentiment was the Armenians “were getting richer, modern, claiming positive rights.” According to this view, this new situation was canceling the implied contract between Kurds and Armenians in the provinces. The verbal norm of the Kurdish-Armenian hinterland was shaped on the basis of an unequal hierarchy through the patronage of the Kurds and the nature of the Armenians in need of protection…Islam called it the law of Dhimmi. While Kurdish aristocrats certainly did not want to be equalized with Armenians whom they saw as Dhimmi, Kurdish sheikhs also saw the demand for Muslim-Christian equality as a violation of the law of immorality. For this reason, according to them, punishment was mandatory.

The fourth reason was to some extend related to Kurdishness. The idea of establishing a Russian-backed Armenia in the region, which was considered as the old Kurdistan, had prompted Kurdish intellectuals to vigilance.

Question- 4: What was the attitude of the Kurdish press and Kurdish intellectuals, or more precisely, those who represented Kurdishness during the genocide?

Let’s start with the Kurdish intellectuals. … We do not know exactly what the Kurdish intellectuals thought of the Kurdish participation in the genocide. Because, as if a common decision was taken, almost nobody talked about it in detail…

To be more specific, they thought that Armenians deserved a lesson that they could not forget. Let me just give two examples. Salih Bedirhan, one of the authors of the publishing of Rojî Kurd at that time, used the term “internal enemy” for Armenians by resorting to the cruel discourse of the Unionists at that time….

Kurdish intellectuals were very pleased with the De-Armenianisation of the Kurdish-Armenian hinterland. Even those like Nuri Dersimi were going so far as to say that the Armenians were massacring the Kurds.

Question -5: There are many who claim that the massacres you mention are the natural result of the war. What do say?

No, absolutely not. For one thing, this was not a war between Kurds and Armenians, namely the two peoples, on the war front. In addition, those who were murdered were not killed on the battlefield, but in the barn, the plain, the village, and their houses without weapons. Villages were burned, women and children were burned in stables, old and vulnerable men were thrown from the rocks.

In other words, the vast majority of those who were murdered had no relation with the war anyway, and a significant number of them were already killed far away from the war front. Let’s not count the city of Van, which experienced an inner-city war. While the genocide was taking place, what had Muş, Bitlis, Siirt, Diyarbekir, Mardin, Urfa, Harput, Erzincan, Adıyaman to do with the war front?…

Question – 6: The leaders of the Kurdish public opinion frequently draw attention to the phenomenon of ignorance, by saying “Kurds are deceived by the state” when these issues come to the agenda.

When it comes to Kurdish-Armenian massacres, the editorial of the Kurdistan Newspaper first introduced the discourse of ignorance. Later, Kurdish intellectuals like Cegerxwîn and finally politicians like Ahmet Türk reproduced this “useful” rational. …

It is necessary here to ask the question of what it is what they did not know. Is killing a person, burning a people in stables, and destroying a people, something related to consciousness? Besides that, only the ignorant kills? Therefore, “literature of ignorance” is a kind of empathy doctrine, a kind of laundering document that says “understand the Kurds involved in the incidents.” However, for the vast majority of Kurds who participated in pogrom and genocide, especially the Hamidiye Kurds, it is more correct to say that “they knew, and precisely therefore they did it.” Those who did this work were fond of the thought that killing Armenians would bring them prestige in the community, power before other tribes, acceptance before the state, seizure to the land and surplus value, to share ownership relations and finally have the means of production.

Question – 7: On a historical scale in which the state persistently denies genocide, there are those who claim that your findings that “Kurds participated in the Armenian genocide” imposes the preponderant weight of the genocide on the Kurds rather than on the state; how do you respond to such a comment?

Yes, this is a common assertion. But this is essentially a sterile denial, a way of obfuscating the subject. Many also think that discussing this issue in this way “stigmatizes” the Kurdishness. No, it is not so, it should not be perceived as such. … If Kurdishness (some of our friends call it feudal Kurdish nationalism) has made a fatal mistake in the early phase of its formation, if a wrong has been committed, it is best to face it sincerely instead of covering it up.…Let’s face it, not only the state but also the Kurds and Kurdishness had an “Armenian problem”….Since the reign of Sheikh Ubeydullah, “the Armenian state will be established” has been provoking the Kurdish political public. This is reality, we can’t ignore it.

Moreover, the only sin of the Kurdishness during the early phase of its formation was not only the participation in the Armenian massacres. We have to admit that a cycle of massacre, which began with the Bedirxan Bey killing tens of thousands of Nestorian [Assyrians], accompanied the political period of the emergence of Kurdishness.

Most of us think that “the victim will not have a victim” or “the oppressed will not have the oppressed”. In other words, throughout history “who suffered injustice, murdered; doesn’t do injustice, does not kill.” I can understand the innocent and moral nature of this thought, but this healing thought is both unhistorical and highly essentialist.…

For Example: Some of the Cemilpaşazades, who had moved Kurdishness to a certain extent, among them Feyzi Pirinçizade, Xoytili Musa Bey, Kör Huseyin Pasha played active roles in the genocide. Let’s not forget that just before the genocide, we know that the Kurdish Support and Progress Association (Kürt Teavün Terakki Cemiyeti), under the leadership of Seyyid Abdülkadir, acted as bondsman to the Pirinçizades in the Diyarbakir elections, attended a meeting of Hevi, the first youth organization of Feyzi Pirinçizade, and made a speech there.

Let’s face it, anti-Armenianism was evident in the founding of Kurdishness. It is time to come to terms with this.

Question – 8: Kurdish political actors have made statements about the victims of genocide and made apologies. How do you see the attitude of Kurdish politics towards genocide?

To make a comparison: it is certain that we are far ahead of the state and the Turkish people. Kurds can empathize with the Armenians because we have gone through the massacre that Armenians have gone through.

This empathy, however, often pays off in a technical and pragmatist context. As long as this happens, there are often problems in the language of empathy. The Kurdish right, for example, thinks that the Armenians killed the Kurds and that the Kurds responded in the context of protecting themselves.

Kurdish conservatives consider what was done to the Armenians as an inevitable consequence of the war, but see the act partially inhuman. Kurdish leftists accept the genocide discourse, but they think that Kurdish feudalism, not the Kurds, is the sinner. The mainstream Kurdish policy admits that it is not genocide….However, what needs to be done is simple, sincere acceptance of genocide and at least some well-intentioned gestures at a symbolic level.

[1] https://nupel.net/firat-aydinkaya-8-soruda-kurtler-ve-ermeni-soykirimi-85131h.html

[2] See http://www.aina.org/news/20191029181758.htm, and http://www.aina.org/news/20191212151200.htm

[3] See http://www.agos.com.tr/tr/yazi/24009/kurtler-arasindaki-sessizlik-suikasti-onemli-olcude-kirildi

[4] http://www.agos.com.tr/tr/yazi/24038/kurt-sagi-turk-saginin-ideolojik-refakatcisi-gorunumu-veriyor

[5] http://www.aina.org/releases/parexile.htm

[6] https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/forum/2020/04/25/firat-aydinkayanin-kurtler-ve-ermeni-soykirimi-yazisi-uzerine/

 

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