Hitchens’ Legacy in Our Midst

The prominent journalist was a harsh critic of Turkey’s genocide denial

Author, journalist, and critic Christopher Hitchens died of pneumonia on Dec. 15, at the age of 62, after a long struggle with esophageal cancer. A phenomenal debater, he angered many. He was an outspoken atheist, an unforgivingly cool and passionate critic of religion. Following the attacks on the twin towers in September 2001, Hitchens voiced his contempt of what he referred to as “Islamofascism” and, to the surprise and dismay of many of his leftist supporters, became a staunch proponent of the Iraq War, turning venomous towards its critics. What many Armenians remember, however, and are grateful for, is his unyielding support—spoken and written—for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Christopher Hitchens

Speaking to an audience on April 1, 2010, Hitchens reminded them that in a few weeks’ time Armenians would be commemorating the attempted extermination of their nation: “[The survivors] all died not with just the knowledge of what happened to their families, their friends, and their communities, and the extirpation of not just them physically, but the destruction of their churches, their libraries, the renaming of their towns, the attempt to erase them from the map, the production of new atlases in Turkey that fail to show there was ever an Armenian province—the cultural erasure! [They] didn’t just die in the knowledge of that; they died in the knowledge that it was still said that it never happened to them. This, I think, is the crowning insult, and the one that above all cries out for justice,” he said.

The insult of denial was too hard for him to swallow, just as it is for the descendants of our surviving nation. Hitchens was a crafty orator, tripping and baffling his opponents in a swordsmanship of words. Debating was who he was. He sought opponents, battled, and at times bragged: “…If you go into the matter with Turkish parliamentarians—as I have—[you will only get a] flat stern-faced denial. Go into it a little further, and you will suddenly hear them say, ‘Well, the Armenians were taking the Russian side in the First World War. They were a subversive minority within our borders. They didn’t follow our religion.’ So you say to them, ‘Ah, so I see. You say it never happened, but it would have been very justifiable if it did happen.’ And you catch them. And you realize they see it in your face, and you see it in theirs. ‘Oh, yes, I shouldn’t have put it quite like that.’”

When news of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to deport his country’s Armenians went viral, infuriating Armenians worldwide, Hitchens was outraged. He saw Erdogan’s behavior as salt on the wound. “This man is an out-of-control thug, and he’s posing as a defender of the human rights of the Palestinians,” he said. “It makes me want to throw up things that I’ve forgotten ever eating.”

In another interview, he called Erdogan “a bully.” “He goes into tantrums,” he explained. Hitchens saw the prime minister’s behavior as “vulgar,” and as an example noted Erdogan’s response to an Armenian Genocide commemoration. Hitchens paid no attention to Turkey’s threats to cease its cooperation in the Iraq War if Congress recognized the genocide. He saw Turkey as a tunnel, not a bridge, between Europe and Asia. Turkey’s suppression of the press, intellectuals, and activists within its own borders, and its expectations from others to do the same, worried him. The “Ankara government had the nerve to try to hold up the appointment of a serious Danish politician, Anders Rasmussen, as the next secretary-general of the [NATO] alliance, on the grounds that as Denmark’s prime minister he had refused to censor Danish newspapers to Muslim satisfaction!” he wrote in Slate. “It is now being hinted that if either President Obama or Congress goes ahead with the endorsement of the genocide resolution, Turkey will prove uncooperative on a range of issues, including the normalization of the frontier between Turkey and Armenia and the transit of oil and gas pipelines across the Caucasus.”

Exactly a week after Hitchens’ death, the French parliament passed a bill rendering the denial of the Armenian Genocide punishable by a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000). Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu used threats and insults to dissuade lawmakers from ratifying the bill.

Almost two years ago, in another column for Slate, Hitchens unleashed his fury on the modern Turkish state for not only denying what its predecessor inflicted on the Armenians, but also for threatening countries who considered officially recognizing the genocide. “History is cunning: The dead of Armenia will never cease to cry out. Nor, on their behalf, should we cease to do so,” he wrote. “Let Turkey’s unstable leader [Erdogan] foam all he wants when other parliaments and congresses discuss Armenia and seek the truth about it.”

“The grotesque fact remains that the one parliament that should be debating the question—the Turkish Parliament—is forbidden by its own law to do so. While this remains the case, we shall do it for them, and without any apology, until they produce the one that is forthcoming from them,” he added.

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
Nanore Barsoumian

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  1. Heartfelt thanks to Christopher Hitchens, the great intellectual and thinker of our time. What a miserable place would our world be without principled and courageous men like him. May his soul rest in peace.

  2. Avetis, it looks like you think the real intellectual is the one who believes in God or at least is not against religion. If that is so, I’m afraid you are wrong. A real intellectual knows no taboo and will go where sound reason will take him.

    • Arshag, it looks like you think the real intellectual is someone who believes there is no God and just slanders theists and portrays them as stupid. If that is so, I’m afraid you are wrong. A real intellectual knows logic, sound analyses; and, like you said, will go where reason will take him or her. Just because someone has the same opinion as yours doesn’t automatically make him an intellectual. It’s okay, though; people often get confused between opinions and facts.

      While I don’t always agree with him, Avetis does have a valid point that Hitchens is a pseudo-intellectual. All the books that Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and the rest of the New Atheists have written are simply just angry rants against religion; not scholarship material. On the other hand, Dr. William Lane Craig, the Christian apologist and author of “Reasonable Faith” (as well as several other books), is a real scholar with a Ph.D. So philosophically, the New Atheists are no match for him. I invite you to watch the debate “Does God Exist?” between Dr. Craig and Hitchens on YouTube and see how it goes. There’s a reason why it’s not shown among Hitchens’ highlights (because it’s far from it). Richard Dawkins, the king of atheists, is afraid to have a debate with Dr. Craig. Basically, Dr. Craig uses philosophical and scientific reasoning to argue that God’s existence is much more logical than atheism.

  3. Thanks to Nanore Barsoumian for introducing this brave journalist,to say the least.Defender of Armenian rights.Nanore desserves to be denominated a s our journalist without frontiers chief.Hope she gets to travel ,where news is re Armenia and Armenians and report such interesting news.
    Going back to Chirstospher Hitchens,is he an Englishman like Christopher Walker?
    Or is he an American.Does anyone know more about him.Or else Ms Nanore can throw some light on this brave man,who defied the adversary of the Armenian people as an independent individual.May his soul rest in peace!
    There are very few such journalists(non Armenian) that is like Robert Fisk and I personally know Jose Antonio Gurriaran (Spanish) who also defends our rights and has written two books introduicng our case to the Spanish speaking 5/600 million,who harldy know miuch about us , albeit prof. Ohanian of B-Aires who also wrote about our CAUSE, but then he is .Armenian

  4. Thanks David,
    I did a cursary overview through the link.Quite a fellow,but there is no mention ed w/*rgd to his views re our Cause/case.
    Anyhow, Nanore must have picked it up elsewhere,in some other site or whatever-

  5. Greetings from Istanbul. I didn’t know much about Hitchens before. But after having read about him in various sources after his death and after having read dear Nanore’s article, I appreciated him (except for his pro-Iraq war stance).

    I am sad and angry that my country’s governments keep denying the genocide. In Turkey, we need to have our local ‘Hitchens’es if we are to have any hope that Turkey will one day accept the truth about 1915. Sadly, we have very few intellectuals like him here. We have some of course but their percentage in the whole population is very small.

    • If turkey had intellectuals like Hitchens, their fate is well known. Remember Hrant Dink?

      It is up to people like you to ring the wake-up bell to your government to recognize what your ancestors did and to clear your consciences, allowing millions of our fallen fathers to finally rest in peace.

  6. Դրօ
    I didn’t say the real intellectual is someone who necessarily does not believe in God or at least is against religion. That’s your wrong conclusion form what I have said. I said if one thinks that the real intellectuals are only the ones who believe in God, then he is on the wrong track. Intellectuals are not categorized in “real or pseudo” on the basis of their belief or the lack of it in God.

  7. Anti_racist

    It is heartwarming to hear poeple like you from a country who spares no effort to brainwash its people in regard to their history. The existence of persons like you, who, in my opinion, are not that few and are growing daily, is in itself proof that the policy of denial has failed. Be sure change will come to Turkey too and that individuals like you, like Gunaysu, Rajib Zarakolu, the mayor of Diarbakir and many others can make a difference.

  8. To Arshag : Thanks for your thoughts.

    However, I am not as opitimistic as you. In the end, it will have to be the government/politicians who will make the change and I see very little hope when I look at the AKP, CHP and MHP politicians. As an example, just consider what has happened with the Turkey-Armenia protocols.

    I hope I am proven wrong.

  9. Change may come from totally unexpected corners. Look at the Arab spring, which so far has toppled two heads of governments and shows no signs of abetting. Rather, its waves are even transcending to other areas of the world, such as Russia. Turkey can hardly stay immune to these dvelopments, especially if Syria disintegrates, which I hope will not.
    Further, many observers believe that by offering an apology to the Alevi Kurds Mr. Erdogan has opened a pandora box whose ramifications we are yet to witness in the comeing years. The pandora box may show its wonders very slowly, but it surely cannot be shut once more.
    As of the failed Turkish-Armenian protocols which you have mentioned, I can say the following. One important reason why they failed was the intervention of Azerbaijan in the process. If the protocols had gone throug Azerbaijan would have been further isolated. At least, this was how Azerbaijan saw the development and was panicky about this. It therefore used its vast lobby in Turkey to torpedo the agreement and as we witnessed it succeeded. Turkey retracted at the last moment citing the Karabakh issue, which was not at all at issue in the protocols.
    The time may come when Turkish political leaders will find that it is to the best interests of their country not to make their foreign policy hostage to the psychotics sitting in Baku.

  10. Why give a person such gushing credit for just saying what is obviously true in a situation where saying that obvious truth costs that person nothing?
    It is unfortunate that there are many Armenians who will excuse all manner of intellectual misdemeanors and seriously flawed views as long as they are committed by a person who just happens to have “recognised the Armenian Genocide”.

  11. Steve
    For you information, I first learned about Christopher Hitchens from an account of his biography in BBC online just after his death. There was no mention that he “happend to have recognized the Armenian Genocide”. But his life story caught my attention and my appreciation of him became even greater when I got to know his stand on AG and the denialists. Naturally, we don’t have to accept everything what he stood for, because no one in this world is hundred percent correct. But, it would be quite unfair to minimalize his intellectual achievements just because you find some of his views “flawed”.
    Could you please just name some of his “intelledctual misdemeanors and seriously flawed views”?

  12. “Commandments ” Commented on Christopher Hitchens Youtube
    Are only phrases…
    No-one applied…
    If everyone applied…
    Then there was no place for Jesus to appear…
    Jesus gave more Soulful Phrases…
    But no-one applied and still …

    So religious books remain on the shelves.
    Only to be read
    Not applied
    Not felt

    I believe, everyone has his
    ‘Own Faith-His Own Genes’,
    No-one can rule on all the creatures,
    Whatever genus I.Q thee possess…
    Everyone is born free and will die free…
    If thee isn’t killed…or genocided by scavenger flying from tree…

    If anyone applied one of 10 commandments
    Why 1.5 Armenians were slayed ?!
    Why till now Jewish Politicians don’t recognize our genocide
    If they believe in their Moses … in their God…
    The God that they created …
    To whom we pray
    and They ignore to apply one of his rules
    On other humans…

  13. We certainly are grateful for his clear voice regarding the Genocide. And, let us remember how he would urge all people to do more noble ACTIONS which would change the world around us.

  14. I for one am indifferent as to his passing.

    He was a boorish closet marxist pretending to be a “run of the mill atheist, just trying to be reasonable.” I found his cheering of Communist massacres (and his great praise of Lenin and Stalin for this) of common folk to be revolting beyond description.

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