The Karabakh war, the Armenian genocide and what religion has to do with it

Svante Lundgren

On September 27, Azerbaijan launched a massive military attack against Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian controlled self-proclaimed republic which during Soviet times was a part of Azerbaijan. More than five weeks into the war, Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, has the upper hand militarily. Azerbaijan has been able to “liberate” a substantial territory, but it still far from a total victory, i.e., driving the Armenians out from the region or “chasing them like dogs” to use the expression of the Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev. Thousands have died on both sides and in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, civilians have been bombarded for weeks.

Stepanakert. Image: Svante Lundgren

Not a religious war but it has a religious dimension

The Karabakh war is not a religious war, but it has – like many other conflicts – a religious dimension. Whereas most on the Armenian side see this as a national struggle for survival against an increasingly aggressive Turkish-Azerbaijani expansionism, there are those who give the war a religious significance. Baroness Cox, member of the UK House of Lords and a long-time supporter of Armenia and Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh), has said that the Armenians in this struggle “are holding that precious frontline of faith and freedom”.

Azerbaijan is a Muslim, but quite secular country. The religious dimension is, however, strengthened by close alliance with Turkey ruled by an Islamist government, and especially by the fact that thousands of Syrian jihadi mercenaries have been recruited to fight against the “infidels”, i.e., the Armenians.

Cathedral in Shushi/Şuşa. Image: Svante Lundgren

A new genocide in the making?

In this extremely dangerous situation, Armenians are reminded of their tragic history. Many are convinced that if they are not able to repel the attack there will be a new genocide. This opinion has been strengthened by the despicable statements by the Turkish president that “[w]e will continue to fulfil this mission, which our grandfathers have carried out for centuries, in the Caucasian again.” He has also disparagingly spoken about the Armenians as “leftovers of the sword”.

It is, thus, not an expression of unfounded alarmism when Armenians fear a new genocide. Dozens of genocide scholars recently issued a statement in which they, referring to utterances of Turkish officials, say that these “amount to tacit recognition and approval of the genocide; it is, in other words, hate speech that threatens [with] a new genocide.” Therefore, according to the scholars, the international community should raise its voice against the war “for the prevention of a new genocide”.

The Armenian genocide, which was not restricted to the year 1915 and also targeted other Christian groups than Armenians, is widely seen as a result of a clash of nationalisms. A developing Armenian nationalism was viewed by the governing Young Turks, who themselves subscribed to an aggressive Turkish or Pan-Turkic nationalism, as a security threat and the significance of this Armenian nationalism was highly exaggerated by them. Therefore, the regime decided to solve the “Armenian question” by eliminating the Armenian people.

As the leading figures in the Young Turk government were secular, religion has been viewed as having played a marginal role in the genocide. This is not correct. In order to rally the Muslim masses behind their anti-Armenian policy the Young Turks used religion and were able to get imams to declare jihad against the infidels. That religion was central is shown by the fact that many Armenians were able to save themselves by converting to Islam.

Although some speak of a struggle for faith and freedom, and others about waging war against “infidels” the Karabakh war has fortunately not been transformed into a religious conflict. The neighbouring Islamic republic of Iran has always been neutral in this conflict and has in fact retained good relations with Armenia. A surprising element in the on-going war was a well-known Muslim cleric who urged Muslims to support Armenia.

Who will heal the wounds of war?

It is going to be difficult to heal the wounds from this war. Armenians and Azerbaijanis already view each other very negatively. Azerbaijanis constantly talk about the massacre of Khojaly in 1992 to imbue in every citizen that Armenians are essentially brutal. Armenians point to the fact that the infamous axe-murderer Ramil Safarov is a national hero in Azerbaijan and draw the conclusion that Azerbaijanis want to see every Armenian dead. After this war is over – and let us hope this will be soon – there will be thousands of families who have lost one or sometimes several members. Their despair and bitterness will be enormous – and probably also their hatred of “the enemy”.

The mutual distrust is deep. Armenians and Azerbaijanis do not need religion to keep up the animosity. However, they might need religion for their own consolation. And I propose the Nobel peace prize to the one who, maybe on a basis of religious faith, can get a process of genuine peace-making and reconciliation going in this war-torn region.

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