Posts Tagged ‘Juhailiyya’

Commemorating Christian Martyrdom: The Armenian Genocide

April 24, 2015

Armenian Gospels

Armenian Gospel Book from the Monastery of Gladjor, c. 1321

Today is the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. This was a series of massacres carried out by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian people. The Armenians had risen up, like the other, majority Christians subject nations in the Balkans across the Black Sea to gain their freedom from the decaying Turkish empire. To counter this, the last Turkish sultan, Talat Pasha issued a firman ordering that the Armenians should be rounded up and slaughtered. 1.5 million Armenians, men, women and children were butchered.

The Pope caused controversy earlier this week when he marked the massacres, calling it the first genocide of the 20th century. I’m not sure if this is quite true, as I think about ten years or so previously the German colonial authorities in East Africa had also organised a genocide of the indigenous Herrero people. The occasion has a wider, European significance than just its attempt to exterminate the Armenians. Hitler noted the way the other European powers remained silent and did not act to stop it. This convinced him that they also wouldn’t act to save the Jews when the Nazi state began to persecute and murder them in turn. As he said ‘Who remembers the Armenians?’

Denial of Genocide by Turkish Authorities

Unfortunately, the genocide is still controversial. Robert Fisk in his article in Monday’s Independent discussed the Turkish government’s refusal to recognise the massacres as a genocide. Pope Francis’ comments sparked outrage amongst the Turkish authorities, and the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey was summoned to meet the prime minister. Fisk himself recalled the abuse he had received from Turks outraged by his discussion of the genocide. He stated he began receiving mail about the issue when he personally dug the bones of some of the Armenians out of the sands of the Syrian desert in 1992. He stated that some of the letters were supportive. Most were, in his words, ‘little short of pernicious’.

In Turkey any discussion or depiction of the Armenian genocide as genocide was brutally suppressed. A few years ago, the Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was killed for writing about them. Liberal Turks, who wish their nation face up to this dark episode of their history, have been imprisoned. The great Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, was sent to jail a few years ago. His writing on the genocide was judged to be ‘insulting to Turkish nationhood’, a criminal offence.

Fatih Arkin, Turkish Director, on Movie about Genocide

Dink’s assassination has, however, acted to promote a greater discussion and awareness of the genocide, and a large number of both Armenians and Turks are now pressing for the Turkish government to recognise it as such. Indeed, the Turkish-German film director, Fatih Arkin, made a film about the genocide, The Cut which premiered in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in January.

In the interview below, Mr Arkin talks about he was moved to make the film following Dink’s assassination, and the number of Turks, who also join with the Armenians in demanding their government officially recognise the atrocity. Among those is the grandson of one of the leading perpetrators. What is interesting is that the film received a wide release in Turkey with no opposition or move to ban it.

Fisk on Turks Who Saved Armenians

This seems to show a new openness amongst the Turkish people as a whole about the genocide. And Fisk in his article notes that there many courageous and humane Turks, who refused to comply with Sultan’s orders, and saved Armenians. He stated in his article that these included at least one provincial governor, as well as lesser Turkish soldiers and policemen. Fisk felt that the Armenians should compile a list of these heroes, not least because it would make it harder for politicians like Erdogan, the country’s prime minister, not to sign a book of condolences, which included their names.

And these men were courageous: they risked their lives to save others from the carnage. There is absolutely no reason why they should not also be commemorated. In Judaism, I understand that righteous gentiles, who save Jews from persecution, are commemorated and believed to have a part in the olam ha-ba, the world to come. There is a section of the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem, which displays the names of such righteous gentiles, who saved Jews during the Third Reich.

Syriac Evangelistary

The Miracle at the Pool of Bethesda, from a Syriac Evangelistary

Massacre of Syriac Christians as Part of Wider Pattern of Massacres

The massacre of the Empire’s Christian minorities was not confined to the Armenians, although they are the best known victims. Other Christian peoples, including the Syriac-speaking churches in what is now Iraq and Syria, were also attacked and massacred, in what has become known as ‘the Day of the Sword’. The massacres also spread into Iran, where the Christian communities there also suffered massacres. They too deserve commemoration.

Peaceful Relations between Christians and Muslims Normal in Ottoman Empire

Historians of the Turkish Empire have pointed out that the Armenian genocide, and similar massacres committed by the Ottoman forces in the Balkans during the nationalist wars of the 19th century, were largely the exception. For most of the time Christian and Muslim lived peacefully side by side. Quite often Muslims and Christians shared the same cemeteries. And in one part of Bosnia, at least, the local Roman Catholic church stood bang right next to the local mosque. There were even a small group of worshippers, who seem not to have differentiated between Christianity and Islam.

There’s a story that one orthodox priest, while officiating mass at his church, noticed a group of people at the back wearing Muslim dress. He went and asked them why they were attending a Christian church, if they were Muslims. The people replied that they didn’t really make much difference between the two faiths. On Friday, they prayed at the mosque, and on Sunday they went to church.

Historical Bias and Nationalist Violence by Christians in 19th century Balkans

Historians of the Balkans have also pointed out the dangers of religious bias when discussing the various nationalist wars in the 19th century. In the 1870s the Ottoman Turks committed a series of atrocities suppressing a nationalist uprising in Bulgaria. This outraged public opinion in England, and provoked the Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, to demand that the Turks be ‘thrown out of Europe, bag and baggage’. Other British and American observers noted that atrocities were hardly one sided. Christians also committed them, but these were ignored by the West. One author of a book on the Balkans I read back in the 1990s argued that the various atrocities committed in this period were caused not so much by religious differences, but from nationalism, and so were no different from other atrocities committed by other countries across the world, and in western Europe today as part of ethnic and nationalist conflicts, such as Northern Ireland.

British Empire and Atrocities in Kenya

Other decaying empires have also committed horrific atrocities, and attempted to cover them up. It was only after a very long legal campaign, for example, that the British government admitted the existence and complicity in the regimes of mass murder, torture, mutilation and internment in Kenya to suppress the Mao Mao rebellion. See the book, Africa’s Secret Gulags, for a complete history of this.

ISIS and the Massacre of Christians

The commemoration of the genocide of the Armenians, and by extension the other Christian subject peoples of the Ottoman and Persian Empires at the time, has become pressing relevant because the persecution today of Christians in the region by the resurgent Islamist movements, like ISIS, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Yet these groups differ in their attitude to the massacre of non-Muslim civilians from that of the Turkish government. The official Turkish attitude has been silence and an attempt to suppress or rebut the genocide’s existence. This points to an attitude of shame towards them. ISIS, which last Monday murdered 30 Ethiopian Coptic Christians, shows absolutely no shame whatsoever. Far from it: they actually boast about their murder and enslavement of innocent civilians.

Conversion of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians by Force, and Murder of Civilians Contrary to Muslim Law

I was taught at College that their actions contravene sharia law. Islamic law also has a set of regulations for the conduct of warfare, which rule out the conversion of the ‘Peoples of the Book’ – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – by force. Nor may women, children and non-combatants be harmed. And this has been invoked by the ulema in the past to protect Christian and other minorities in the Ottoman Empire. In the 17th century one of the Turkish sultans decided he was going to use military force to make the Christians in the Balkans convert to Islam. He sought approval for his course of action from the majlis, the governing assembly of leading Muslim clerics, who issued legal opinions on questions of Muslim law and practice. They refused, on the grounds that it was un-Islamic. The sultan backed down, and his planned campaigns against his Christian subjects were abandoned.

ISIS Also Butcher Muslims and Yezidis

Nor do ISIS, and similar Islamist movements limit themselves to attacking Christians. We’ve also seen them butcher and enslave the Yezidis, as well as other Muslims, simply for being the ‘wrong’ type of Muslim. For ISIS, they, and only they, represent true Islam. The rest are part of the ‘juhailiyya’, the world of darkness and ignorance, who must be fought and conquered.

Need to Commemorate All Victims of Atrocities

The Armenian genocide and its victims should rightly be remembered, as should so many other holocausts since then. Not only is this owed to the victims and history itself, but also to stop similar massacres occurring. And we need to remember that the capacity for such evil is not confined to particular nations, but can be found throughout history and humanity.

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The Young Turks on ISIS’ Destruction of Ancient Assyrian Remains

March 16, 2015

This morning I blogged about ISIS’ destruction of priceless and irreplaceable antiquities from ancient Assyria. I compared it to concerns by the local people about the excavation of ancient Assyrian statues of the winged bulls in Mosul by Austin Henry Layard in the 19th century. Layard had, however, been able to allay local fears about the identity of the remains by assuring the local governor that it was not the remains of the Nimrod, mentioned in both the Bible and the Qu’ran. After allowing the excitement produced by the discovery of this massive monument to subside, Layard was able to go back to excavating it quietly.

I also mentioned some of the issues involved in archaeology in the Developing World, and particularly the Islamic nations. As much of the investigations are done by Western organisations, these can be resented as forms of Western imperialist interference. The excavation of pre-Islamic civilisation in the Gulf States can also be delicate, as this period is regarded as the Juhailiyya, the period of ignorance or darkness before the appearance of Mohammed and Islam. The Saudi authorities have sponsored excavation of the ancient civilisations, but archaeologists still have to be careful to avoid causing religious offence.

This is another video from The Young Turks. They discuss the destruction of the artefacts, and make several very good points. First of all, the smashing of these artefacts, although horrendous, is not as atrocious as the mass death that has been caused by the Western invasion and the ensuing carnage.

Secondly, the whole point of the exercise is provoke American and her allies into overreacting and responding with violence. This will, they hope, lead to further disaffection and give them further support. It is absolutely vital that we do not do so, but give a measured response designed to win hearts and minds. Only that way will ISIS be truly defeated.

ISIS’ Destruction of the Cultural Treasures of Iraq

March 16, 2015

One of the most shocking events of ISIS’ occupation of parts of Iraq was their destruction of Assyrian antiquities kept in a local museum a fortnight or so ago. This shocking destruction of priceless cultural treasures, which have immensely enriched our understanding of the history of that ancient country, was broadcast around the world. The smashing of the artefacts is not, of course, as great or as serious an atrocity as the Islamist State’s terrorisation of Iraq’s people, the capricious, brutal murder of their captives or the sale of captured women into sex slavery at their markets. It is nevertheless a truly shocking outrage and an assault on history and culture itself.

ISIS claimed to have smashed the ancient statues and works of art because they claimed they were idols. I think I recognised some of the statues from their photographs in books I’ve got here at home. One statue wasn’t a god, but was the image of one of the Assyrian kings or officials. The Victorian archaeologists, who pioneered the excavation of ancient Assyria and Babylon also encountered problems where the local people mistook some of the massive statues they uncovered for the idols of the ancient giants wiped out by Noah’s flood, or else of Nimrod himself, who is also mentioned in the Qu’ran.

Austin Henry Layard mentions the alarm and excitement that greeted the excavation of one of the great Assyrian winged bulls in his 1867 book, Nineveh and its Remains.

On the morning following these discoveries, I had ridden to the encampment of Sheikh Abd-ur rahman, and was returning to the mound, when I saw two Arabs of his tribe coming towards me and urging their mares to the top of their speed. On reaching me they stopped. ‘Hasten, O Bey’, exclaimed one of them – ‘hasten to the diggers, for the have found Nimrod himself. Wallah! it is wonderful but it is true! we have seen him with our eyes. There is no God but God’; and both joining in this pious exclamation, they galloped off, without further words, in the direction of their tents.

… As soon as the two Arabs I had met had reached their tents, and published the wonders they had seen, every one mounted his mare and rode to the mound to satisfy himself of the truth of these inconceivable reports. When they beheld the head they all cried together, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet!’ It was some time before the Sheikh could be prevailed upon to descend into the pit, and convince himself that the image he saw was of stone. ‘This is not the work of men’s hands,’ exclaimed he, ‘but of those infidel giants of whom the Prophet, peace be with him! has said, that they were higher than the tallest date tree; this is one of the idols which Noah, peace be with him! cursed before the flood,’ In this opinion, the result of a careful examination, all the bystanders occurred.

The news of the discovery of the massive head in Mosul caused some concern amongst the town’s Muslim leaders, who feared that it was indeed the ancient prophet Nimrod. Layard describes how he had to go to the town to talk to the local governor and persuade him that it was not so, and that the remains would be treated with appropriate respect.

As I had expected, the report of the discovery of the gigantic head, carried by the terrified Arab to Mosul, had thrown the town into commotion. He had scarcely checked his speed before reaching the bridge. Entering breathless into the bazaars, he announced to every one he met that Nimrod had appeared. The news soon got to the ears of the Cadi, who called the Mufti and the Ulema [cadi- Islamic judge, ulema – Muslim clergy] together, to consult upon this unexpected occurrence. Their deliberations, ended in a procession to the Governor, and a formal protest, on the part of the Mussulmans of the town, against proceedings so directly contrary to the laws of the Koran. The Cadi had no distinct idea whether the very bones of the mighty hunter had been uncovered, or only him image; nor did Ismail Pasha very clearly remember whether Nimrod was a true-believing prophet, or an infidel. I consequently received a somewhat unintelligible message from his Excellency, to the effect that the remains should be treated with respect, and be by no means further disturbed; that he wished the excavations to be stopped at once, and desired to confer with me on the subject.

I rode to Mosul at once and called upon him accordingly. I had some difficulty in making him understand the nature of my discovery. At last he was persuaded that I had only discovered part of any ancient figure in stone, and that neither the remains of Nimrod nor of any other personage mentioned in the Koran had been disturbed. However, as he requested me to discontinue my operations until the excitement in the town had somewhat subsided, I returned and dismissed the workmen, retaining only two men to dig leisurely along the walls without giving cause for further interference.

Layard himself remarks on just how awesome the statue was, and does not sneer at the local people for their reaction to it.

I was not surprised that the Arabs had been amazed and terrified at this apparition. It required no stretch of imagination to conjure up the most strange fancies. This gigantic head, blanched with age, thus rising from the bowels of the earth, might well have belonged to one of those fearful beings which are described in the traditions of the country as appearing to mortals, slowly ascending from the regions below.

Indeed, Layard states that he himself used to contemplate the sublime and truly awesome power of these statues.

There are a number of complex issues and problems with archaeology in the developing world, including Islamic countries. Much of it is carried out by Western nations, and at first little or nothing was published about the discoveries in the local languages. You can imagine that this would result in a lack of connection between the local peoples and archaeological projects and their findings, if not disaffection and hostility. Edward Said criticised the Western obsession with ancient Egypt for leading to an attitude of complete disinterest with the modern country and Islamic culture. The veteran British Egyptologist, John Romer, echoed these sentiments in his series Great Excavations. Looking around one an ancient Egyptian site, Romer remarked that there had once been an Islamic town, that had been completely cleared away in order to excavate the ancient remains, and casually picked up a piece of 12th century Islamic pottery lying on the ground.

Since the 19th century, much of the archaeological investigations in these countries have been done by the indigenous peoples themselves. In Egypt this was pioneered by Zakaria Goneim. There is the problem that pre-Islamic history and culture in the Gulf Arab states is regarded as the Juhailiyya – the period of pre-Islamic ignorance or darkness. There is a feeling that investigation of the pre-Islamic past is thus somehow contrary Islam. As a result, archaeologists have had to be very careful in the excavation and display of the remains. One archaeologist working in Saudi Arabia writing in Current Archaeology a few years ago, praised the Saudi king for allowing and patronising such excavations, while also discussing the restrictions placed on exhibition of the artefacts uncovered by the need to avoid religious offence. This was especially acute in cases of religious figures, or the nude human form, particularly female. The latter most definitely could not be placed on display.

Some of the secular leaders in the Middle East have also used archaeology to support and bolster the country’s national identity. As many of these countries, like Iraq, are the creation of the Western powers, it is not hard to see how an archaeology that supports this identity could also be rejected and attacked as part of Western imperialism and dominance in the region. And where the country was ruled by a secular dictator, it also isn’t surprising that religious extremists should see the ideological emphasis placed on ancient remains as an attempt to undermine their nation’s Islamic culture.

Even so, it is depressing and shocking that a century after Layard and the other great archaeologists uncovered these awesome and majestic remains, that archaeology and its priceless historical treasures should still be the target for such rage and destruction.