Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2010

Abstract

I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to deliver some remarks this morning. By way of background, I am not a historian or genocide scholar, but a law professor with an interest in comparative law and religion. Comparative law and religion is a relatively new field. It explores how different legal regimes reflect, and influence, the relationships that religious communities have with the state and with each other. My recent work compares Islamic and Christian conceptions of law, a subject that has engaged Muslims and Christians since their first encounters in the seventh century.

When I approach the Armenian Genocide as a scholar, then, I think in terms of Ottoman law and the status of religious communities in that law. These topics may not seem directly relevant at first, but they are. Changes in the legal status of Ottoman Christians—including, of course, Armenians—in the nineteenth century had a significant impact on the events of 1915.

The seeds of the Genocide were sown a generation earlier, in the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, in which hundreds of thousands of Armenians died. And the Hamidian massacres themselves were influenced by dramatic changes in the classical Islamic legal system that had existed in the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The Tanzimat, or "reorganization," granted legal equality, in theory, for the first time to the Empire's Christian subjects. Legal equality, even in theory, subverted the classical Islamic hierarchy and shocked Muslim opinion. In classical jurisprudence, Christians had been dhimmis (in Turkish, zimmis), parties to a notional contract, known as the dhimma, which granted them protection in exchange for a promise to accept subordination. For Armenians to seek, or even accept, legal equality was to repudiate the dhimma. This repudiation caused deep resentment among Ottoman Muslims—so deep, in fact, that the Tanzimat reforms were never fully implemented. The Tanizmat's failure, and, in particular, the bitterness created by Armenians' attempt to assert equality, forms a significant part of the background of the Hamidian massacres and, ultimately, the Genocide itself.

I am dealing with emotional subjects this morning, and some clarifications may be necessary. First, I am not arguing that efforts at legal reform caused the Armenian Genocide. Like all major historical events, the Genocide resulted from many factors—cultural, economic, military, political, and religious. If one is to understand genocidal conflict, though, one must appreciate the history of the relationship between perpetrator and victim, and the Tanzimat—in fact, the classical Ottoman legal system itself—is an important part of the history that Turks and Armenians shared. Second, I am not suggesting that Armenians and other Christians brought their troubles on themselves by seeking equality. That would be to blame the victims. Unless one believes that minorities must accept whatever oppressive treatment the majority metes out, Armenians and other Christians had a right to seek justice in Ottoman society.

Third, I understand that the classical Sunni paradigm does not constitute the whole of Islam. Some contemporary Muslim thinkers critique the centrality of law in the classical model, which exists, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, nowhere today. I do not mean to suggest that classical Islam represents the religion's only expression or its "true" essence. I simply describe what that model was, in the context of the Ottoman Empire, and in doing so I rely on a standard account. Finally, in short remarks like these, I must leave out many details. Even in outline, though, an understanding of the Tanzimat, and the classical Islamic legal regime it tried to replace, can illuminate the crisis that Ottoman Armenians endured at the start of the twentieth century.