Beirut – As Armenians and Turks mark the centenary of the disputed events of 1915 – what Armenians claim was “genocide” and Turks insist were counterinsurgency measures – a number of events have taken place to commemorate the tragedy and give voice to the families impacted.
But little has been said of the role played by Arabs in addressing the humanitarian disaster that ensued as tens of thousands of refugees and orphans streamed out of Anatolia.
“The Arab role in helping the Armenians during [these events] is very much understudied,” Reverend Paul Haidostian, president of Hagazian University and an Armenian scholar, told Al Jazeera.
“It started with individual Arabs, especially tribal leaders from the Syrian desert, [who] tried to save the Armenians who were forced on their death marches,” he explained. “They tried to help in any way they were able to; either by adopting the orphans or feeding the people – trying to save them somehow.”
After the Turks deported the Armenians in what have been called “death marches” to Deir Ezzor in Syria and the deserts in Iraq, areas considered to be predominantly Muslim-inhabited, many survivor accounts describe how Arabs offered help and shelter.
“When Armenian communities were able to reach cities like Aleppo, one task was to try and reunite with each other, find the orphans and bring them back [into the communities],” Haidostian said. Through contacts and word of mouth, many Arab families who had adopted the orphans returned them to their communities. “This was a very common theme; that the orphans would be ‘lost’ for a few years and then they would find their way back to their families. It happened to thousands of Armenians.”
In the period leading up to the mass killings, the Turks reportedly used religion as a cover to justify committing atrocities against the Armenians. There are reports of preachers urging Turks to attack and drive out Armenians, claiming they were against Muslims. Ethnic minorities, especially non-Muslims, were forced to live as second-class citizens, obliged to pay “jizya” – protection money – for being non-Muslim. This is the same tax being levied today by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant against Christians in the areas they control in Syria and Iraq.
“The Turks wielded religion as an instrument … but it certainly was not a religious issue,” Vera Yacoubian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee in the Middle East, told Al Jazeera. “First off, there were many Arabs who faced the same fate as the Armenians at the time. The Turks were pushing a pan-Turkic agenda, not a Muslim one.”
Arab religious figures condemned the use of religion by the Turks, issuing fatwas and decrees calling on Arabs to help the Armenians. In 1909, a Turkish mufti issued a religious ruling urging Turks to kill Armenians. Sheikh al-Bishri of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo – one of the world’s leading Islamic institutions – issued a counter-fatwa, calling such acts un-Islamic and urging Muslims to protect minorities.
This was reinforced by another decree issued by the Sharif of Mecca in 1917, calling on Arab Muslims to protect Armenians: “What is requested from you … is to protect everyone who may be staying or living in your quarters or neighbourhood or among your tribes of the Armenian Jacobite community.”