In this seminal piece in the Jerusalem Post timed to coincide with the nakba, Hen Mazzig wishes that all the people who have sympathy for the Palestinians showed an ounce of it to the victims of Arab, Persian and Turkish imperialism – Jews, Berbers, Assyrians, Copts.
Commemorating the Armenian genocide (Photo: Reuters)
Indeed, much noise is made around the world about the “sexy” Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians (the Arab community at the time) and their advocates are extremely vocal. But lost in the debate over what happened or didn’t happen to the Palestinians in their catastrophe are the stories of the tens of millions – yes, tens of millions – of victims of genocide, expulsion and forced assimilation (cultural genocide) from Arab and Turkish imperialism.
My family are Berber Jews on my father’s side and Iraqi Jews on my mother’s. Both were expelled from their lands, and because of this persecution I came to learn about these largely untold stories. Over time I have learned that many other groups were persecuted, en masse, without any restitution or “right of return,” and the global community is (and was) silent. Why the double standards? In the last 150 years, “nakbas” occurred to those indigenous to North Africa, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The approximate number of victims from genocides one rarely hears about include: The Assyrians (300,000 from 1914-1920); Armenians (1.5 million from 1914-1923); Kurds (50,000-180,000 from 1986-1989); Greeks (450,000-750,000 from 1913-1920); Yazidis (10,000 in 2014 alone, other numbers unknown); and the Sudanese in Darfur (300,000 from 2003-2009).
The victims of expulsion and persecution leading to emigration include: Lebanese Maronites (eight million-14 million Lebanese in the diaspora, and four million in Lebanon); Assyrian Christians (15 million in the diaspora and in Syria); and the Armenians under the Turkish Empire (11 million in the diaspora today).
In Lebanon and Syria, both states deliberately created nationality laws that would bar Christians from returning, ensuring a Muslim Arab majority in these countries.
From North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, 850 000 Jews were expelled or forced to flee North Africa and the Middle East. Additionally, one million Copts have left Egypt.
But even where expulsions or emigration did not occur, widespread persecution did.
Who hears about the forced assimilation of the Berbers, Kurds and Sudanese? Since the 1960s, these communities have been suffered under forced Arabization in schools and government institutions. For example, Berber only became an official language in Algeria in 2002; prior to 2002, Kurdish was forbidden in Turkish media; and apartheid laws against Jewish communities in Yemen dictated that Jewish children be taken from their families and given to Muslims in forced conversions. There are numerous similar examples against Jewish communities throughout the Middle East – even in the late 20th century. To this day, no restitution has been made by the persecutors of these heinous crimes.
As I noted in the opening, these are not stories you will hear in the newspaper, or in the universities, or at chic parties in London or in Paris and certainly on Al Jazeera, AJ+, Turkish television and sadly, even in the mainstream international media.
INSTEAD, CNN, BBC and Middle Eastern studies faculties around the globe will tell you that the Middle East is Turkish, Arab and Iranian since the dawn of time. These same journalists will wax eloquent about how these peoples have been the victim of European and Zionist aggression, all the while ignoring the histories of every other group in the region.
If that’s not enough, when presented with the historical realities of how the Turks and Arabs have oppressed communities all over the Middle East, they will whitewash these crimes of colonialism by claiming the Arab, and later Ottoman Turkish Empires, were peaceful and tolerant, allowing minorities to flourish, even going so far as to say how Europeans led the Turks and Arabs to violence.
They sought independence separate from the empires. This was true for the Armenians, Georgians, Assyrians, Kurds, Jews and Lebanese Christians. And before them, even the Greeks and the Serbs. And yes, many of these smaller groups of peoples appealed to Western Europeans for help.
In response to the national awakening of these smaller groups in the late 1900s, the imperialist nations, the Turks, Arabs and Iranians not only sought to preserve their power but even claimed the land of these nations in a process called irredentism. In a narrative flip, these imperial peoples of the region (particularly the Turks and Arabs) claimed the nations seeking independence were stealing land from them and used violence to retrieve it.
From the 1880s until 1923, The Pan-Turks not only sought to unite the various Turkish peoples, but they were also central in claiming the places that Turks had conquered as settler colonialists like Armenia, parts of Greece and the Assyrian parts of present-day Turkey. They were also instigators of genocides in these areas when groups subject to their rule showed any sign of pursuing independence, including the Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians.
Turks ensured the Kurds and Assyrians who remained would be subjected to forced assimilation and they expelled all of the Greeks and Armenians from Turkey.
Pan-Arabs, who were also active from the 1880s, claimed areas where Arabs had settled under settler colonialism in the Middle Ages and sometimes later, as original Arab homelands. In aiding the British in overcoming the Ottoman Empire, Arab leaders positioned themselves to take over multicultural countries and pursue their own imperialistic goals.
Thus, Pan-Arabs forced Arab culture and customs upon the Assyrians, Berbers, Maronites and Egyptian Copts. By the 1940s, they had created the Arab League and tried to Arabize all of North Africa and the Middle East. In fact, Pan-Arabs – even more than the Pan-Turks – were different from the Pan-Germans, for example, in accepting the assimilation of non-Arab peoples as Arabs in principle, even though in practice they still viewed them as different.
Hence, the policies of Arabization and forced assimilation.
In fact, all of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East – from the Kurds to the Assyrians, to the Jews and the Maronites, many already diminished by mass murder – were present at the Versailles Treaty and called for their national self-determination.
Of all of these people, only the Jews and the Armenians (both under the rule of rival empires, the Jews under the British and the Armenians under the Russians) were able to obtain independence.