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