Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023
Sectarianism is deeply rooted in Lebanon’s everyday life, particularly in the education system which shapes the political opinions and beliefs of students. Sectarian identity plays a crucial role in political mobilization in Lebanon, whereby an individual is not directly connected to the state but is bridged to it through the sectarian institution or community to which he or she belongs. Hence, this factor pushes Lebanese to naturally divide the world into categories of “us” and “them,” or “in-groups” and “out-groups,” which can boost one’s self-image and may entail prejudiced views against members of particular groups, in this case the Armenians.
Within this context, in the Lebanese education system, the lack of unified history textbooks complicates the situation as history teaching is highly politicized, and each sectarian educational institution has its own history textbook. For example, while in Muslim schools the Arab “opening” to the Middle East is praised, in Christian schools, the period is viewed as an “occupation.” In addition, one of the factors that hinders genocide education in Lebanon is the Arab-Israeli conflict, where any academic or educational discussion about the Jewish Holocaust is directly related to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Hence, many Arab nationalist scholars tend to ignore the Holocaust and compare the Armenian Genocide to the Palestinian Nakba (1948). Meanwhile, Christian private schools, mainly Catholic and Greek Orthodox schools, tend to view the Armenian Genocide as part of a “Christian Genocide” perpetrated by the Muslim Ottoman Empire that includes the Assyrian (Seyfo) and Greek Genocides, the starvation of Mount Lebanon and the execution of the Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals on May 5-6, 1916.
Schools located in Muslim Sunni majority areas either ignore these events or portray the Armenian Genocide and the starvation of Mount Lebanon as exaggerated events and their victims as tools of Western imperialism to intervene in the domestic affairs of the Ottoman Empire. This narrative became a dominant factor among some Sunni political circles, especially after the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, and with the growth of Turkish soft power in northern Lebanon and Beirut, with the rise of political Islam in the Middle East.
Therefore, throughout the years, the events dedicated to the Armenian Genocide commemoration in Lebanon became highly politicized and turned into a tool of the domestic political bazaar, sometimes used in political elections to win over Armenian voters. Moreover, the Turkish embassy, along with its cultural and social centers, started sending political messages against the Armenian community through its proxies on the ground. These developments began challenging the discourse of the Armenian Genocide in Lebanese politics. To analyze these events, this article will highlight how sectarianism has shaped, and sometimes hindered, (mainly Armenian) genocide education in Lebanon.
Sectarianism and the Education System in Lebanon
With the absence of a centralized state over the decades, the sectarian structure of the Lebanese political system has penetrated the educational system largely contributing to the current sectarian division in Lebanese society. This led to the inability of the Lebanese to agree on a unified history textbook. The period textbook ends in 1943 when the French mandate ends, and thereafter, Lebanese sectarian leaders couldn’t agree on describing the nature of the state and the roots of the civil war.
For example, in relation to history curricula, some religious groups opposed a unified single history textbook out of concern that their community would lose the monopoly of “historical truth.” Their opposition was deeply rooted in religious ideologies. Sectarian politicians also were successful after the civil war in imposing religious education in public schools, which was traditionally absent before the war, despite the opposition of many leftist and secular parties in the country. To add fuel to the fire, two separate religious textbooks were created for each faith with no information about the other religion. It is worth mentioning that 60-percent of the schools in Lebanon are private, which have a long history of using textbooks for religious teachings. The language used in these textbooks is discriminatory and biased based upon “us and them,ˮ “our faith and their faith,ˮ and “Christian and Muslim.ˮ
These teaching methods and textbooks shaped the narrative of education relative to the study of World War I – Muslim schools viewed it as an imperialist attempt to overthrow the Islamic Khalifate, while Christian schools pushed the narrative that the events (starvation, genocide, massacres…) that took place in the Ottoman Empire constituted war crimes perpetrated by the Ottoman state to depopulate the region of its indigenous Christians. Moreover, similar to Arab states when it comes to genocide education, Lebanon lacks this subject matter both on the secondary and university levels either due to a lack of interest or reluctance to recognize the Jewish Holocaust due to the Arabs’ enmity towards the Israeli state. For this reason, some Muslim schools and education centers teach the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians (Nakba) through political and historical lenses, while Christian schools tend to ignore the Palestinian Nakba and instead concentrate on the “Christian Genocide” during WWI.
Some attempts were made by Armenian political parties and educational centers to promote the Armenian Genocide courses at Haigazian University and the American University of Beirut. Additionally, student organizations have pushed to organize Armenian Genocide events (lectures, exhibitions, round tables) in private and public universities, sometimes in coordination with Palestinian and African clubs, to target a large number of Lebanese and foreign students. Moreover, the May 6, 1916 events when the Ottoman government publicly executed hundreds of Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals is also a matter of debate between sectarian groups. While Armenians, along with some other Christian groups, commemorate the Martyrs’ Day dedicated to those executed by the Ottomans, Sunnis tend to ignore it out of fear of antagonizing Turkey, despite the fact that most of the Arab intellectuals killed on that day were Muslim Sunnis.
A Christian perspective of the Armenian Genocide
The Christian perspective of the Armenian Genocide is a reflection of the horrors of the starvation that took place in Mount Lebanon as the Ottomans imposed a blockade on the region. In fact, the Christian community has not overcome the memory of the Ottoman occupation and continues to look back at Ottoman rule as an era of repression.
As WWI began, the Ottomans were highly suspicious of the Maronites and their contact with France. As a result, Jamal Pasha—the military governor of Greater Syria also known as “al safah” in Arabic (butcher)—abolished the autonomous region of Mount Lebanon within the Ottoman Empire, imposed martial law and deployed thousands of Ottoman troops in Mount Lebanon early in the war to prevent Christians from aiding the allies. He later detained the Maronite intellectuals and religious leaders, imposed a blockade and cut off all supply lines to Mount Lebanon, resulting in a severe food shortage and later starvation. “Meanwhile, despite the harsh conditions in Mount Lebanon, the Patriarch welcomed Armenian survivors of Ottoman atrocities, defiantly declaring, ‘the piece of bread that we have, we will share it with our Armenian brothers.’”
According to a French intelligence report, Jamal Pasha claimed: “We have rid ourselves of the Armenians by the sword. We shall do away with the Lebanese by famine.” By the winter of 1916, famine was widespread in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. By the time the Entente powers had captured Beirut and Mount Lebanon in October 1918, dozens of villages were destroyed and almost one-third of the population of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, or approximately 175,000 Lebanese were starved to death. It’s debatable whether Ottoman authorities actually envisioned the engineered extermination of the Maronites. There were neither coded Ottoman instructions to murder Maronites en masse nor a fatwa by religious authorities to attack Maronites, as there had been for the Armenians. Nevertheless, the result of Ottoman policies during the First World War was the mass killing of a majority Maronite population in Mount Lebanon.
Although some historians have written about the famine of Mount Lebanon, the event has largely gone unrecognized in contemporary political or social discourse outside of the Maronite community itself. The Maronites and other Christians stress the topic while studying the events of WWI, and the subject is also asked in public exams. However, Maronites and other Christians view the event from a religious (pan-Islamist) perspective rather than an ethnic-nationalist position. For them, the Genocide perpetrated against the Armenians, Assyrians, Pontic Greeks and others was interconnected, as the crime was against a particular religious group. This factor is very important as it mobilizes the Christian community along religious and sectarian lines, and the narrative became dominant with the rise of ISIS and the return of political Islam during the Arab Spring.
Hence, during Armenian Genocide commemoration events, some Christian private schools and institutions organize public commemoration events to remember the Christian Genocide and express Christian solidarity.
Turkey’s soft power and the rise of anti-Armenianism
It is clear that Turkish diplomacy towards Lebanon improved dramatically following the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. Many Lebanese considered Turkey’s role in the country cross-sectarian. Turkey’s involvement in sending peacekeepers to the south as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) troops and increased humanitarian aid to the country fostered a socio-economic environment in which Turkish influence deepened and was translated into soft power. However, the outbreak of the Syrian crisis has transformed this dynamic and Turkey’s diplomacy faced many challenges.
After Ahmet Davutoglu’s (2009) and Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s (2010) visits to Lebanon, Turkey started directly helping and investing in Akkar, Tripoli and other areas. While in Beirut, the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Center and TIKA Lebanon Coordination Office were opened respectively in 2012 and 2014. According to the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper, in 10 years around 15,000 Lebanese graduated from TIKA by learning the Turkish language and participating in cultural activities and workshops. These two organizations were crucial in advancing Turkey’s soft power by working to improve the living standards of Turkmen and other Turkish communities and protecting their cultural identity. Meanwhile, complementing their work with the “Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities,” an agency of the Prime Minister’s office, many Lebanese of Turkish descent and Turkmen were granted scholarships to study in Turkey. This step has strengthened the bond between Turkey and these communities and further enhanced Turkish culture and language.
Overall, Ankara has invested in two domains: the socio-economic empowerment of the Turkish communities and Sunnis through the provision of development aid and capacity-building projects and the reawakening of ethnic sentiment among the Turkmen community. In both cases, the objective is to expand its influence by conquering hearts and minds.
It is important to mention that a key lever of Turkish soft power in Lebanon, and in the region more broadly, is popular culture embodied by Turkish television series. The popularity of these dramas encouraged Lebanese to visit Turkey, and some travel agencies proposed packages that include a tour of the locations where the top television series were shot. Turkey’s soft power initiatives also targeted the elites. By opening offices of the Yunus Emre Institute in Beirut and Tripoli, Ankara sought to shape a Turcophone elite. The primary goal was to recruit a new kind of elite who is attracted to Turkish culture and civilization and has positive perceptions of Turkey.
Turkey infiltrated Lebanese domestic politics through the gates of humanitarianism. Meanwhile, the rise of Sunni Islamist movements in the region encouraged Islamist movements in Lebanon to flourish. The Jama’a Islamiya Party (Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Lebanon considered itself a sister party of AKP and sought to forge a strong relationship with Turkey. This was clear during the centennial of the Armenian Genocide (April 24, 2015), when the Jama’a organized anti-Armenian rallies and meetings and declared its support for Turkey against the “false genocide accusation.” Moreover, some Sunni MPs also joined the call and officially visited Turkey and attended the centennial of the Gallipoli ceremony. Armenians today are shocked to see counterdemonstrations organized by Lebanese Turkmen and some Sunni clerics and activists, along with public justification of the Genocide. This type of rhetoric became very common against the Armenians in Lebanon beginning after the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. In 2015, a group of pro-Turkey Muslim clerics in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli announced that they would no longer accept the “insults towards the grandchildren of the Ottomans.” It is not surprising that many Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated websites and social media pages spread fake publications about “Armenians committing genocide against Muslims.” Similar anti-Armenianism and genocide denial are also spread in mosque sermons and conferences “exposing the Armenian lies.”
On June 11, 2020, in response to criticism against the Turkish President by an Armenian reporter, a demonstration was staged in parts of Beirut’s western quarter, primarily inhabited by Muslim Sunni, with slogans directed against Armenians and accompanied by the waving of the Turkish and Lebanese flags. On the same day in a viral video, a Lebanese of Turkish descent threatened to slaughter Armenians in Bourj Hammoud, called the Ottomans “his ancestors” who did a good job slaughtering Armenians and called Armenians traitors and evil people. Here, it became clear that the issue was no longer denial of the Genocide but justifying it. Such justifications also were present in the speeches of many Islamist clerics during the early phase of the Syrian civil war. Often, justification of a crime instigates new crimes and opens the path to the repetition of crimes against a community that has been demonized over time.
The narrative justifying the Armenian Genocide has been part of Turkish denialist propaganda in the Sunni community, where Armenians have been portrayed as the “fifth column,” “tools of imperialism,” “stabbers and traitors,” “separatists” and “Muslim killers.” Events have been organized by the Turkish embassy where photos have been displayed of Armenians allegedly killing innocent Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.
Assessment and Conclusion
The lack of a unified history textbook and the absence of genocide education for political reasons has left the Armenians alone to raise awareness about the Armenian Genocide and the atrocities committed by Ottoman Turkey against the indigenous non-Muslim nations in the region. Unlike in other Arab countries, the Christian presence in Lebanon has helped Armenians to coordinate their efforts with other Christian organizations and communities; however, this action gave the Genocide commemoration a religious tone. Despite the fact that Armenian schools and their educational system stress the ethnic dimension of the Genocide (pan-Turkism), Christians concentrated on the religious (pan-Islamist) dimension of genocide.1 This phenomenon has made it difficult for Muslim Sunnis to have a positive view towards the Armenian Genocide commemoration events.
Moreover, the Turkmen and Turkish communities residing in Lebanon began to be viewed as Ankara’s voice and an essential means to serve its policy and ambitions, thus consolidating Turkey’s influence abroad. In some ways, this has counter-balanced the efforts of the Armenians and increased pressure on private education institutions (schools and universities) addressing the Genocide issue from a humanitarian angle.
1 Interview with Dr. Zaven Meserlian, former principle of Armenian Evangelical College, 3/9/2022.