RIYADH: Eyad Abu Shakra, a Middle East specialist, said there were three things that needed to be considered when researching how the Ottoman Empire handled Armenia during the First World War. Approaching the subject in this way made it possible to understand the violent repression of non-Muslim minorities in the Ottoman Empire, especially the Armenians.
Speaking to Arab News on Tuesday, Abu Shakra said the first point was related to Armenian history and heritage. They were among the first people to convert to Christianity, which was the dominant religion in Anatolia prior to Islam. The majority of Armenians belong to the Armenian Orthodox Church, which is one of the oldest churches in the world. It was founded in the first century A.D. by St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, two of Jesus Christ’s disciples.
Abu Shakra said the second point was related to the “Eastern question,” a reference to the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and the mounting pressure it faced from European powers that were competing to carve out their own territories.
He said the historical roots of the Eastern question dated back to the 16th century, when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and Emperor Francis I reached an understanding by which France was granted special status as protector of the non-Muslim minorities in the Ottoman Empire, which was at the time at the height of its power.
But what started as a generous grant bestowed by a powerful state in the 16th century, became in the 19th century a tool of European pressure, and impositions from Christian powers on a weakened Ottoman state. This imbalance was reflected in the military losses of the Ottomans at the hands of the Europeans.
The Ottoman Empire was known during the 19th and early 20th centuries as the sick man of Europe.
The worst setbacks were during the Russo-Ottoman war of 1768-1774, when the Ottoman Empire lost territories in the northern Black Sea region. The Ottoman decline climaxed by the end of the 19th century, when they lost much of the Balkans to separatist Serbs and Bulgarians.
“The Eastern question was finally answered after the First World War with the total collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which was forced to sign the Treaty of Sevres and then the Treaty of Lausanne. It gave up its claims to the Balkans and the Middle East. New states came into existence, such as Serbia, Bulgaria, and Turkey which was established in Anatolia, Istanbul and the Straits, while other territories came under direct rule of the allied victors,” said Abu Shakra.
The third point, according to Abu Shakra, lay in the Ottoman reforms that started during the reign of Sultan Abdul Majid I and continued until the First World War in 1914. For a long time the Ottoman Empire occupied swathes of territory across the continents of the ancient world. It included diverse populations and religions and this great power had an influential role in world politics. However, from the 18th century onward it became a decaying power.
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The European powers, on the other hand, were on the rise despite their rivalries. So while the Ottoman state bureaucracy and military deteriorated, its army suffered from defeats in various wars that it fought on various fronts, draining the empire’s resources.
These defeats made the Ottoman intelligentsia consider going through reforms to save whatever could be saved and modernize the empire. This reform movement made important achievements, but it was argued by conservatives that the internal fabric could not withstand the pace of reforms. This tension became a pretext for questioning the validity of the reforms which increased the confidence of non-Muslims (including Armenians), non-Turks (especially Arabs), who started to have a growing sense of identity. This friction was encouraged by the European powers, who had been interfering in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire.
As a result, Sultan Abdul Hamid II came to power representing the conservative nationalist line, which was apathetic to the aspirations of non-Turks, especially the European ones. Although Abdul Hamid was removed from power after 30 years, the theater was prepared for the “Armenian Genocide” during the years of the First World War.