Number 252 | January 15, 2014
Orientalism: 'Terrible Turk' becomes a 'genocidal Turk'
by M. Hakan Yavuz
Published in Today's Zaman on January 15, 2014.
How does the Orientalist discourse of the past inform and restructure the present political discourse on "the other"? How can we explain the continuity of political discourses that are constructed upon the 20th century's "scientific racism" (i.e., anthropological justification of racism and thus colonial conquest)?
In the light of these broader questions, this article seeks to unpack the symbiotic relationship between past Orientalist discourses of the early 20th century and their contemporary (re)construction through the concept of genocide in the events of 1915. What is the connection between the events of 1915, the use of the term genocide, and Orientalism? How do genocide scholars use images of the "terrible Turk," backward Islam and the despotic Ottoman state to build a new, genocidal image of Turks?
The Armenian genocide paradigm, which mostly shies away from methodological, conceptual and theoretical debate in academic circles, revitalizes the arsenal of politically motivated Orientalist images to perpetuate the "bloodthirsty" Turkish image along with that of intolerant Islam. As long as we allow ourselves to be influenced by the racist discourses of John Henry Newman, William Gladstone, Viscount James Bryce and Henry Morgenthau Sr., we cannot fully understand this modern "crusade" discourse against Muslim Turks. These men were racists, and their writings are the basis for the debate over the Armenian issue against the Ottoman state and Turks. Newman, who never had anything neutral to say about the Turks, said that he considered the Ottoman state to be an "infamous power, the enemy of god and man."
Ambassador Morgenthau's memoirs provide some of the more powerful weapons to undergird the genocide thesis (Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau's Story [New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1918]). Almost all scholars who insist on naming the events of 1915 as genocide refer to this foundational text. Ronald Grigor Suny, a leading historian of Russia and the Caucasus, who identifies the memoires of Morgenthau as the most important "account" of the events of 1915 as genocide, presents his characterization of the Turks only as "essentializing nationality" rather than pure racism. Suny argues that “the ambassador reveals himself as a keen observer, privileged in his access to power, judicious in his evaluations of both the political context and the key players, and highly ethical and fearless in his defense of his government and his own values.”
Although his official reports to the Department of State were very different from his controversial memoirs, he offers the most racist and dehumanizing characterization of Turkish culture, history and the Turks themselves. The problem here is that the conceptual outcome of this thesis is totally built on the Orientalist-essentialist historiography within this text. The depiction of "the Turk" as the inferior and backward "other" can be read throughout the text. For Morgenthau, the Turk is "psychologically primitive," a "bully and a coward" who can be "brave as a lion when things are going his way, but cringing, abject and nerveless when reverses are overwhelming him." Morgenthau does not stop there: For him, the Turks, "like most primitive peoples, wear their emotions on the surface." Morgenthau describes the Turks variously as "inarticulate, ignorant, and poverty-ridden slaves," "barbarous," "brutal," "ragged and unkempt" and "parasites." The ambassador's hatred of the Turks allows him to conclude that "the descendants of Osman hardly resemble any people I have ever known. They do not hate, they do not love; they have no lasting animosities or affections. They only fear."
Of course, this discourse was not independent of the European justifications of the colonial conquest of the "Orient" through the scientific racism within the discipline of anthropology. As far as Ottoman history is concerned, his racism has no boundaries and he argues that "after five hundred years of close contact with European civilization, the Turk remained precisely the same individual as the one who had emerged from the steppes of Asia in the Middle Ages." The Turks, for the ambassador, are sub-human; when they conquered land, they "found it occupied by a certain number of camels, horses, buffaloes, dogs, swine, and human beings. Of all these living things the object that physically most resembled themselves they regarded as the least important." Morgenthau tried to explain the violence-prone Turkish character in terms of Islam. Violence, for him, is innate and endorsed in Islam. Suny aptly argues that Morgenthau's text "became foundational for Western and Armenian historiography of the genocide." Given his deep hatred of the Turks and Islam, and considering that the text was war propaganda, I wonder why Suny takes Morgenthau's alleged conversation with then-Interior Minister Talaat Paşa seriously, since he hardly mentions those conversations in his official reports to the State Department.
When it comes to his description of Armenians, he argues that they "are known for their industry, their intelligence, and their decent and orderly lives. They are so superior to the Turks intellectually and morally." Morgenthau applauds the rebellion against the Ottoman state and gives his full support to the Armenian rebellion by arguing that the Armenians "would also have welcomed an opportunity to strengthen the hands of the Allies." The reason this racist text has become the main source of the genocide thesis in the West has to do with what can only be described as an ingrained hatred of the Turks. Without questioning the racist and dehumanizing tone of this war propaganda book, Suny argues that "the themes of Morgenthau's memoir remain among the most powerful elements constituting both the narrative of the genocide and its explanation up to the present." In fact, this racist text has become the main source of dehumanization of the Turks and Muslims as "genocidal."
The writings of Arnold J. Toynbee and Viscount Bryce are not much different from the American ambassador's racist text. The second most damning weapon in the arsenal of the genocide thesis is the writings of these two British officials/scholars. Bryce in the preface of "The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks" proudly announces the Allies' determination to "deliver the Christian population of what is called the Turkish Empire, whether in Asia or in Europe, from a Government which during those five centuries has done nothing but oppress them." The Turk, for Bryce, "cannot administer… cannot secure justice. As a governing power, he has always shown himself incapable, corrupt and cruel. He has always destroyed."
The genocide label has become a surrogate discourse of Orientalism to portray the Turks as bloody, backward and despotic. One wonders why Bryce and Toynbee did not care about contemporary massacres in the British colonial empire, but wanted instead to focus on the Ottoman domain and construe a barbaric image of the Turks. This is the case for Morgenthau, who says nothing about US policies in the Philippines or discrimination against African Americans, but rather became a moral preacher against the "Oriental" Turk. Why are the killings carried out by Britain and America not labeled genocide, and why did these three racists provide the intellectual arsenal for the "bloody" images of Turks?
Today, the Armenian "genocide" discourse is used to perpetuate the image of "the terrible Turk," to undermine the legitimacy of the Turkish Republic and to keep Turkey out of the European Union. The genocide narrative is put into use and shared by many who share little else except their dislike of the Turks.