Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh - A Conflict of Civilizations
Ethnic cleansings
Roots of conflicts
Legal aspects
Press archive
Operation Ring

Sumgait 1988
Baku 1990
Maraghar 1992


Caroline Cox and John Eibner

Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh

[Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [Basic Facts] [A Conflict of Civilizations] [The Genocide] [The Pincers of Pan-Turkism] [Soviet Rule] [The Karabakh Question Revived] [Operation Ring] [The Post-Soviet Conflict] [The Characteristics of the People of Nagorno Karabakh] [The Prognosis: Continuing Bloodshed] [Conclusions] [Recommendations]

A Conflict of Civilizations


The roots of the war in Nagorno Karabakh are embedded in a fundamental conflict of civilizations. The ancient Armenian homeland has been a strategically important battlefield of competing civilizations since the dawn of history. In the 4th century Armenia decisively cast its lot with the Christian faith. As a result, Armenia subsequently became linked to the Greco-Roman world. Yet, while cherishing its cultural and spiritual lifeline to the west, the country strove to retain autonomous Armenian political and religious institutions. For centuries thereafter Armenia was caught in the middle of an often bloody tug-of-war between the Greek Byzantine Empire and Zoroastrian Persia. In the 7th century the Arab Empire of the Abbasid dynasty brought Armenians their first exposure to Islamic domination. But since the conquest of Transcaucasia and Anatolia by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, the main theme of Armenian history has been the struggle for survival against the encroachment of Turkic power.


Holy War
Herdsman and Herd
Turkey in Decline



The Turkic domination of Anatolia and Transcaucasia, first by the Seljuk and then by the Ottoman Empire, has resulted in the Turkification and Islamization of most of the region. This process of ethnic and religious cleansing has virtually extinguished the historic non-Turkic Christian population of Anatolia. When the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the decisive battle of Manzikert in 1071 A.D. the population of western and central Anatolia was overwhelmingly Greek, while the Armenians and Aramaic-speaking Syrian Orthodox were predominant in the East. By the 15th century the gradual process of Turkification and Islamization had produced a Turkic majority. Since the expulsion of 1.25 million Greek Orthodox Christians between 1923 and 1930, which marked the last major phase of the virtual 'cleansing' of the Christian population from Turkey, only numerically insignificant communities of Greeks, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox have remained there. The Muslim Kurds, against whom the Turkish state is now waging war in southeastern Anatolia, currently stands alone as Turkey's sole surviving numerically significant ethnic minority.

Turkic civilization is based largely on a synthesis of the Turks' nomadic heritage and their Islamic faith. While Islam is ostensibly a supra-national faith, it served as an effective vehicle for Turkish national interests. The Turks have drawn liberally from both their nomadic traditions and Islam as they pursued their national and imperial aspirations.


Holy War

Both the Seljuk and the Ottoman dynasties understood themselves as 'soldiers of Islam' and their mission as the establishment of a world Islamic empire. For the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the conquest of Anatolia and Transcaucasia was Holy War - or ghaza in Turkish. The Turkish historian Dr. Halil Inalcik has underlined the central position this Islamic institution played in the culture of the Turkic invaders:


"This culture was dominated by the Islamic conception of Holy War or ghaza. By God's command the ghaza had to be fought against the infidels' dominions, dar al-harb (the abode of war), ceaselessly and relentlessly until they submitted. According to the Shari'a the property of the infidels, captured in these raids, could be kept as booty, their country could be destroyed, and the population taken into captivity or killed. The actions of the ghazis (Turkic holy warriors - ed.) were regulated by the Shari 'a to which they paid heed." (Inalcik, Halil, 'The Emergence of the Ottomans", in Holt, p. 263.)


The holy wars of the Turks in Anatolia and Transcaucasia were followed by the mass immigration of Turkic nomads from the East.


Herdsman and Herd

The ancient nomadic traditions shaped the political instincts of the Turkic tribes and determined, perhaps subliminally, the pattern for imperial administration. Toynbee and Kirkwood observed that the relationship between the rulers and the ruled of the Turkic empires was strikingly similar to the relationship between the nomadic herdsman, the watch-dog and the herd:


"The nomad's energies are suddenly diverted from herding cattle to governing an empire; and, like all human beings, he sets out to solve the new problem with which he is confronted by applying to it his own particular experience of the past. He thinks of himself as still a herdsman, though no longer of animals but of men, and, in order to keep these 'human cattle' (a less docile herd than sheep and cows) under control, he selects and trains 'human watch-dogs' to help him and takes greater pains over their breeding and education than his ancestors took, on the steppes, in providing themselves with animal auxiliaries... In detail the method of nomadic empires has been to treat the majority of their sedentary subjects as 'human cattle' who are to be periodically milked and shorn and are to be kept in order by a ferocious repression at the first symptoms of insubordination, but are otherwise allowed to live their own lives in their own way; and to control these 'human cattle' through the agency of a small, select body of 'watch-dog' slaves recruited partly from prisoners-of-war, partly from the victims of professional slave-raiders and slave-dealers, and partly from children who are rounded-up periodically from the 'human herd' in order to be broken-in by their master, with no more compunction than a shepherd feels in separating the lamb from its mother or the calf from the cow." (Toynbee & Kirkwood, p. 19-21)


Borrowing from classical Islam, the Turks differentiated the members of the 'human herd' - to continue with Toynbee and Kirkwood's analogy - not on the basis of language or ethnic group, but on the basis of millet - i.e. religious community. Muslims, Jews, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and all other recognized religious communities constituted separate millets. The millets formed the basic units of Ottoman local government. The Muslim millet was equivalent to the umma, the community of Islamic believers, and represented the supreme religious community, enjoying rights and privileges denied to the non-Muslim millets. Christians and Jews had a subordinate legal status as dhimmis, meaning protected persons in Arabic. The Turks, however, often used the word rayah - i.e. herd of cattle - rather than the somewhat more dignified expression, dhimmi.

The dhimmi, or rayah, doctrine of Islam is rooted in Muhammed's practice of forging pacts with conquered Jewish and Christian communities. These pacts enabled the conquered dhimmi communities to avoid extinction. The Islamic state would allow the dhimmis to practice their faith and to enjoy limited autonomous self-administration. In return the dhimmis were expected to offer political loyalty to the Islamic state, accept a second-class status in society and pay the jizya - a poll tax. Arab jurists subsequently developed elaborate regulations for the restriction and humiliation of Christians and Jews, which were then implemented in the Ottoman Empire.

In Ottoman Turkey Christians and Jews were strictly segregated from the Muslim community. They had to pay higher taxes and wear distinctive clothing. The ability of the non-Muslim communities to defend themselves from violence was impaired by the prohibition on the rayah from bearing arms. Their communities were periodically subjected to the Ottoman institution of devshirme - that is to say, the harvesting of the boys, whereby physically attractive and intelligent rayah boys were taken from their families, forced to convert to Islam and obliged to serve the Sultan as slaves in the military or administration. Legal disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims were normally settled in a religious court where non-Muslim testimony was forbidden. The Armenians suffered a special disadvantage, from which the other Christians of the empire were exempt. Armenians were required to provide free winter quarters to nomadic Kurds and their cattle during the winter season. Some individual rayah were permitted to acquire great wealth by serving the Ottoman state in banking and commerce. But the privileges of these few were not extended to their communities as a whole. The regulations imposed on the rayah were intended to render the Christian and Jewish communities incapable of posing a political threat and to make them serve the interests of the Ottoman state.


Turkey in Decline

The well-established Islamic framework for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Turkey underwent radical change in the 100 years immediately preceding the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1922. This change was determined by the decline of the Ottoman empire, and had a profound effect on the Armenians and other minorities of Turkey. Since the failure of the Ottoman armies to occupy Vienna in 1683, the power of the Ottoman empire declined rapidly in relation to the great Christian powers of Europe. By the 19th century the empire of the mighty Ghazi warriors had become the 'sick man of Europe', propped up by its adversaries - the Christian states of Europe. Under intense pressure from the European powers, the Ottoman authorities were obliged to graft certain western institutions, such as a parliamentary form of government and the equality of citizens before the law, onto the essentially Islamic constitutional framework of the empire.

The implementation of the liberal reforms proved to be largely superficial. They were intended to satisfy western governments, and in many cases were not implemented in the provinces. Prof. Uriel Heyd notes that the mid-19th century reform of the status of Turkey's non-Muslims "was brought about by western pressure, not an increasingly liberal public opinion in Turkey". The Islamic tradition proved to be incompatible with the concept of the legal equality of religions. Prof. Heyd states:


"The religious axiom of the superiority of Islam and the centuries-old tradition of Muslim domination over unbelievers, had created an attitude that did not easily lend itself to change. The transformation of the Ottoman empire, spearhead of Islam, into a secular state where non-Muslims were granted complete equality was inconceivable." (Uriel Heyd, "The Later Ottoman Empire in Rumelia and Anatolia," in Holt, p. 366)


Nevertheless, the reforms had an important impact on the non-Muslim communities of Ottoman Turkey. By signalling the desperate weakness of the Islamic empire, they stimulated a cultural renaissance amongst the Christian population and an associated longing for freedom from Ottoman oppression. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ottoman Turkey lost nearly all of its provinces in the Balkans one by one to the Greek, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian independence movements. The success of these nationalist movements emboldened political leaders of the Armenian community - which had earned the reputation of the 'loyal millet' - to strive for the realization of long-repressed national aspirations.

The success of the Christian nationalities of the Balkans in achieving independence also had the effect of stimulating the dynamic growth of Turkish nationalism. Supra-national classical Islam was increasingly viewed as an outmoded vehicle for the fulfilment of Turkish national aspirations. Conservative Islam and modern Turkish nationalism became engaged in a brutal tug of war for political ascendancy as the Ottoman Empire approached its end. By the eve of the First World War, militant Turkish nationalism in the form of 'pan-Turkism' had replaced classical Islam as the ideology of state.



Pan-Turkism, like the ideology of the founders of the Ottoman Empire, drew for inspiration on two familiar sources: ancient Turkic tradition and Islam. But in pan-Turkism the emphasis shifted radically away from classical Islam towards Turkic tradition. The grey-wolf, or Bozkurt, which was worshipped by the pre-Islamic Turks as the mother of their race, became venerated as a symbol of the common pan-Turkic nation. Attila the Hun and Jenghiz Khan were elevated to the pan-Turkic pantheon as heroic prototypes of modern Turkic man. While Islam as a spiritual and cultural force remained an integral component of pan-Turkism, the political and social aspects of Islamic law were regarded by the pan-Turkists as dispensible. Pan-Turkism also drew two elements from the West: firstly modern scientific and technological means to material progress; and secondly the 19th-century concept of national statehood based on language. The Judeo-Christian cultural tradition of the western world remained entirely alien to pan-Turkism.

Pan-Turkism had two principal aims. The first was the elimination of the non-Turkic nationalities of Turkey. The Turkish Minister of War and disciple of pan-Turkism, Nazim Bey, openly declared on the eve of the First World War:


"Our state must be purely Turkish, because the existence of other nationalities inside our borders gives only an excuse to foreign powers for intervention on their behalf. We must Turkify non-Turkish nationalities by force." (Hostler, p. 99)


The proponents of pan-Turkism were not dogmatic about the means to this end. The 'Young Turks', who came to power in 1908, at first naively believed the Turkification of the non-Turks of the Empire could be achieved non-violently within the framework of constitutional government. But when it became apparent that the non-Turkic peoples would not willingly submit to non-violent assimilation policies, massacre and forced deportation - the time-honoured means of the ancient Turkic warriors - were seen as justifiable, according to pan-Turkist political thought.

The second aim of pan-Turkism was the political union of all Turkic peoples. More Turks lived outside the Ottoman Empire under Russian and Persian rule than within. Historically the Ottomans had greater success expanding their empire westwards into Europe than eastwards towards Transcaucasia and Central Asia. But by the 19th century the Ottoman Empire in Europe was in rapid retreat. The first generation of pan-Turkists looked primarily to the East for the restoration of Ottoman glory. The territory inhabited by Turkic peoples stretched from the Balkans to the Great Wall of China. This vast territory was called Turan by the pan-Turkists - the Persian name for the pseudo-mythological birthplace of the Turkic peoples. The most prominent of the ideologists of pan-Turkism, Ziya Gokalp, defined the imperial ambition of the ideology in his poem Turan:


"The country of the Turks is not Turkey, nor yet Turkistan, Their country is a vast and eternal land: Turan!" (Lewis, p.345)


And again at the outbreak of World War I, Gokalp wrote:


"The land of the enemy shall be devastated, Turkey shall be enlarged and become Turan." (Lewis, p.345)


Pan-Turkism in Turkey and Azerbaijan developed in tandem. The decades preceding World War I witnessed a Turkish cultural renaissance among Azeri-Turks.

The Azeri-Turk intellectual elite strove to create the cultural conditions for the political union of Turks. Turkish replaced Persian as the Azeri-Turks' literary language. The writer and member of the 'Young Turk' leadership, Ali bey Huseynzada of Baku, was the first of the Azeri-Turk intellectuals to carry pan-Turkism from the cultural to the political sphere. Huseynzada, who wrote under the pseudonym Turan, was one of the great formative influences on his friend Ziya Gokalp. Huseynzada's slogan "Turkism, Islam and European civilization" was adopted by Gokalp and the pan-Turkist movement. By the eve of World War I, pan-Turkism was the strongest undercurrent of political life amongst the Turks in both the Ottoman Empire and Azerbaijan.

The power of the pan-Turkic vision continues to be a powerful factor in the political life of Turkey and Azerbaijan. The leaders of both countries do not publicly embrace the term pan-Turkism, which creates unease amongst their neighbours and allies. But their rhetoric and policies reveal strong pan-Turkic tendencies. Turkey has seized the opportunity created by the collapse of the Soviet Union to work towards the establishment of a Turkic commonwealth, comprising Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Turkic republics of Central Asia. At the first pan-Turkic summit in October 1992, Turkey's Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, declared according to Turkish TV: "The Turkic world, which... stretches from the Adriatic Sea to China, has now emerged as a concrete reality. This is the realisation of our 100-year-old dream." Throughout 1992, Turkey has taken the lead in laying the foundations for the economic, cultural and political integration of the Turkic states. An Ankara-led Turkic bloc has emerged to promote Turkic interests in international forums, such as the United Nations, the CSCE and the Islamic Conference Organisation. Turkey has achieved the greatest results with Azerbaijan, her nearest Turkic neighbour both geographically and linguistically. Since independence from the Soviet Union Azerbaijan has moved steadily toward Turkey. Azerbaijan's President Abulfez Elchibey, who had been imprisoned by the Soviets for 'pan-Turkic' activity, was elected in June 1992 on the basis of a programme calling for the adoption of the Turkish model for the new Azeri-Turk state. Azerbaijan's principal opposition groups are also in favour of the Turkish model. In January 1993, Turkish was made the official language of Azerbaijan. The naming of Azerbaijan's press agency and network of trade unions 'Turan' points to the prevalence of pan-Turkic ideals in Azeri-Turk society.

Turkey's Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel: Striving to integrate the Turkish world extending from the Adriatic to China. (Keystone)

Azerbaijan's President Abulfez Elchibey: Imprisoned for two years for promoting "pan-Turkism". (Keystone)


The extreme nationalism and anti-Armenianism of Azerbaijan's political leadership was made strikingly clear when the country's Interior Minister, Iskandar Gamidov, threatened Armenia with a nuclear attack and advocated the creation of a pan-Turkic state at a political rally in Baku in November 1992. Azerbaijan and Turkey now have well-established common foreign policy goals and a military alliance. The consequences of the ascendancy of pan-Turkism have been historically, and continue today to be tragic for the Armenians and other non-Turkic communities of Turkey and Transcaucasia.






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