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Fa’iz al-Ghusein (1883-1968): An Arab Eye-Witness to the Armenian Genocide

When it comes to the Armenian Genocide, there is no shortage of documents and sources written in multiple languages ranging from Ottoman Turkish, Russian, French, German, English, Armenian and Greek, that shed light on this historical fact. Despite the fact that most of the most atrocious massacres during the genocide took place in Arabic-speaking Syria, the Arabic sources have been largely ignored in discussions of the genocide. As early as the Hamidian massacres (1894–1896) and the Adana massacre (1909), Arabs—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—were concerned with the increasingly repressive direction that the Ottoman Empire was heading towards. In 1909, the Shaykh of al-Azhar Salīm al-Bishrī (d. 1916) even issued an edict condemning the violence against Armenian Christians in Adana as racially-motivated and in violation of the principles of Islam (for my translation of this document, see: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/condemnation-of-the-adana-massacre-1909-by-shaykh-al-azhar-salim-al-bishri-d-1916/) . In this post, I want to highlight another document of major importance for understanding the Armenian genocide from the perspective of Arabic sources: Fā’iz al-Ghusein’s “Martyred Armenia”. (For an excellent overview on the importance of Arabic sources for the history of the Armenian genocide, see: http://www.ancme.net/studies/407).

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Fā’iz al-Ghusein (1883–1968) was born into a notable Arab tribe in Hauran in southern Syria. He received his early education in Damascus before attending the Imperial Tribal School (Mekteb-i Aşiret-i Humayun) in Istanbul and subsequently enrolling in the royal college. He then entered the Ottoman administration, serving as part of the staff of the governor of Syria before going on to hold the position of Kaymakam (deputy governor) of Mamuretülaziz (modern-day Elazığ). He practiced law in Damascus for several years, before becoming a member General Assembly representing his home province of Hauran. Eventually, he became a member of the Committee of the General Assembly. Up until 1915, therefore, he was intimately connected with the Ottoman imperial government and administration and had an opportunity to travel throughout much of Anatolia and the Levant.

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In 1915, he was arrested by the Ottomans on the charge of being involved in subversive nationalistic activities and inciting the Syrian Arab tribes against the imperial government. He was transported to Diyarbekir where he was briefly imprisoned for about a month. He remained in Diyarbekir for several months, until early 1916, where he became an eye-witness to the massive atrocities perpetrated against the Christian Assyrian and Armenian populations. He subsequently made his way across eastern Anatolia into Iraq before eventually reaching Jeddah, where he joined the British-sponsored Arab Revolt against the Ottomans led by Sharīf al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī (d. 1931). He entered the service of Sharīf Ḥusayn’s son, Faysal (d. 1933) as a secretary and was present in his army when the Arab Revolt captured Damascus from the Ottomans. He was also present at the subsequent peace talks. Following the First World War, al-Ghusein returned to practicing law in Damascus and served in a minor clerical position during the French Mandate in Syria. He died in 1968.

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Although al-Ghusein’s most famous work is al-Madhābiḥ fī Armīnīya (“The Massacres in Armenia” [1916] about which more will be said below), he also authored two other works: al-Maẓālim fī Sūrīya wal ‘Irāq wal Ḥijāz (“Oppression in Syria, Iraq and the Hejaz” [1918]) and Madhkarātī ‘an al-Thawrah al-‘Arabīyah (“Memoirs about the Arab Revolt” [1939]), both of which deal with the situation in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire in the period leading up to and during the so-called Great Arab Revolt.

Al-Ghusein was an important witness of the Armenian Genocide during 1915–1916 and his work, al-Madhābiḥ fī Armīnīya (translated into English as “Martyred Armenia” as early as 1916 and can be read here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Martyred_Armenia) is an invaluable eye-witness account for those tragic events. Al-Ghusein composed the book for a number of reasons, including his grievances against the Ottoman government, his being deeply affected by the large-scale violence against the Armenians and Assyrians, and also his desire to ensure that the atrocities were appropriately contextualized as stemming from the Ottoman government’s chauvinistic and racial policies. As he says in the preface of the work:

“The war must come to an end after a while, and it will then be plain to readers of this book that all I have written is the truth, and that it contains only a small part of the atrocities committed by the Turks against the helpless Armenian people.” Al-Ghusein also adds: “After great sufferings, during which I was often exposed to death and slaughter, I reached Basra, and conceived the idea of publishing this book, as a service to the cause of truth and of a people oppressed by the Turks, and also, as I have stated at the close, to defend the faith of Islam against the charge of fanaticism which will be brought against it by Europeans.”

The book is a significant testimony because it provides specific details—names, dates, places, statistics—about the events that it describes. Drawing upon his knowledge as a former Ottoman official, as well as his own experience in eastern Anatolia during most of 1915, al-Ghusein is able to provide unique insight into the deportations and massacres of Assyrians and Armenians by Ottoman soldiers and Kurdish tribesmen. Significantly, he places the genocide of 1915–1917 within the broader framework of violence against the Armenians that had begun during the Hamidian massacres of 1894–1896. As an individual who was part of the Ottoman Arab elite and who shared the Islamic faith of the perpetrators of the genocide, he was also able to represent the genocide in a way that took into account the various ideological, social, economic and political dimensions, rather than attributing it—as some contemporary European observers had done—solely to religious fanaticism. It cannot be doubted that, as an Arab nationalist who was imprisoned and mistreated by the Ottoman government, al-Ghusein held a strong grudge against the Young Turks, something which is evident in his use of language and the manner in which he racially characterizes Turks. His antagonism towards the Ottoman government also explains the many sweeping statements that he makes throughout the work. With this in mind, his account should be read with a critical eye and its valuable insights separated from polemical sentiments.

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Al-Ghusein’s main objective is to demonstrate the injustice of the Ottoman policy towards the Armenians by demonstrating that the latter were completely innocent of the charges of treason brought against them by the Ottoman state. He argues that the deportations and massacres were a result of the authorities’ racialist thinking, which deemed the Armenians a major obstacle to the realization of their broader political objectives. He ascribes the actions of the Kurdish auxiliaries, which were responsible for many of the atrocities in eastern Anatolia, to economic motives and self-interest.

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Al-Ghusein’s testimony demonstrates that the perpetration of the genocide against the Armenians was not only well-organized—including rounding up and the deportation of entire communities, forced marches, starvation, torture, rape, forced conversion, the appropriation of property and material possessions in addition to large-scale massacres—but was also perpetrated with enthusiasm by those involved. However, his testimony also shows that there was also strong resistance to this genocidal policy from many among the local population—including leading Muslim clerics and figures of authority—who viewed the oppression and murder of the Armenians as incompatible with their own religious and human values. The following are quotes taken from the work which are particularly notable:

“I have published this pamphlet in order to refute beforehand inventions and slanders against the faith of Islam and against Muslims generally, and I affirm that what the Armenians have suffered is to be attributed to the Committee of Union and Progress, who deal with the empire as they please; it has been due to their nationalist fanaticism and their jealousy of the Armenians, and to these alone; the Faith of Islam is innocent of their deeds” (p. 49)

“Is it right that these people [the Young Turks] should transgress the command of God, should transgress the Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet and humanity?! Truly they have committed an act at which Islam is revolted, as well as the Muslims and all the other people of the earth, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, or polytheists. By God, it is a shameful deed, the like of which has not been done by any people counting themselves as civilized” (p. 15)

“As to their preparations, the flags, bombs and the like, even assuming there to be some truth in the statement, it does not justify the annihilation of the whole people, men and women, old men and children, in a way which revolts all humanity and more especially Islam and the whole body of Muslims, as those unacquainted with the true facts might impute these deeds to Muslim fanaticism” (p. 48)

“We knew that the Armenians have committed no act justifying the Turks in inflicting on them this horrible retribution, unprecedented even in the dark ages. What, then, was the reason which impelled the Turkish Government to kill off a whole people of whom they used to say that they were their brothers in patriotism, the principal factor in bringing about the downfall of the despotic rule of [Ottoman Sultan] Abdul-Hamid [r.1876-1909] and the introduction of the constitution, loyal to the empire, and fighting side by side with the Turks in the Balkan War? The Turks sanctioned and approved the institution of Armenian political societies, which they did not do in the case of other nationalities. It is that, previous to the proclamation of the Constitution, the Unionists [Young Turks] hated despotic rule, they preached equality, and inspired the people with hatred of the despotism of Abdul-Hamid. But as soon as they had themselves seized the reins of authority, and tasted the sweets of power, they found that despotism was the best means to confirm themselves in ease and property, and to limit to the Turks alone the rule over the Ottoman peoples. On considering these peoples, they found that the Armenian race was the only one which would resent their despotism, and fight against it as they previously fought against Abdul-Hamid. Annihilation seemed to be the sole means of deliverance; they found their opportunity in a time of war, and they proceeded to this atrocious deed, which they carried out with every circumstance of brutality — a deed which is contrary to the law of Islam…” (pp. 50–51)

“I am of opinion that the Muslims are now under the necessity of defending themselves, for unless Europeans are made acquainted with the true facts they will regard this deed as a black stain on the history of Islam, which ages will not efface. From the Verses, Traditions, and historical instances, it is abundantly clear that the action of the Turkish Government has been in complete contradiction to the principles of the Faith of Islam; a Government which professes to be the protector of Islam, and claims to hold the Caliphate, cannot act in opposition to Islamic law; and a Government which does so act is not an Islamic Government, and has no rightful pretension to be such. It is incumbent on the Muslims to declare themselves innocent of such a Government, and not to render obedience to those who trample underfoot the Verses of the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet, and shed the innocent blood of women, old men and infants, who have done no wrong. Otherwise they make themselves accomplices in this crime, which stands unequaled in history” (p. 51)

Overall, al-Ghusein’s work is an invaluable eye-witness account that is necessary reading for anyone seeking to better understand the Armenian genocide. By providing so much detail about the events he describes, he has left historians with an important document which provides insight into the specifics of the Armenian genocide as it took place in the region of Diyarbekir. By presenting these facts within a broader ethical and humanistic framework of the sanctity of human life and the abhorrence for such brutal acts of violence, al-Ghusein’s work provides readers in the 21st century with a much-needed reminder that such acts of genocide should awaken every human being’s conscience and compel all those who are able to prevent its occurrence. He also demonstrates to readers that a shared cultural or religious allegiance should not affect their stance towards the perpetrator of such atrocities. Although he was a deeply religious Muslim, he does not shy away from condemning in the harshest terms his Turkish and Kurdish coreligionists who inflicted such extreme violence upon the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire.

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His work is a model for how we in the modern world should think about taking a moral and conscientious stance towards atrocities and oppression. Too often in the modern world are political, religious, ideological, cultural and sectarian ties made to overshadow the value of human life. Al-Ghusein reminds his Muslim readers (his primary audience) that the values of love, compassion, mercy and justice espoused by Islam should always take precedence over any ‘asabīyya (kinship or communal loyalties) and that these ideals should be the guiding principle which determines one’s actions and beliefs.

Even as we approach the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide, let us never forget this historical injustice. In a Middle East dominated by massive violence, communal hatred, chauvinism, sectarianism and oppression, it is necessary to remember April 24th 1915. It is imperative to reflect on the fact that over 100 years after the genocidal massacres against the Armenians and Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire, the situation of minorities (particularly Christians) remains precarious in the Middle East, tyrannical government is a reality and oppression remains ever-present. In order to work towards a better world, built on the foundations of justice and compassion, we must never forget the Armenian Genocide and all other acts which have demonstrated the evil that human beings have too often demonstrated that they are capable of perpetrating.

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