Mass murder is all too easy when you've got religion behind you

God diminishes us, whether we are Christians, Muslims or Jews, when He urges us to kill in His name
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The Independent Online

Some time in 1916, an Armenian priest is keeping company with a young Turkish captain. Picture them on horseback, riding toward Yozgat in Ankara Province where, only the year before, tens of thousands of Armenians had been massacred by Turks. I do not know the climate in Ankara Province, so I cannot speak for the temperature. Let us just assume it's warmish. Let us also assume, since the priest has been in prison and is on a deportation trail - most deportation trails involving Armenians at that time and place ending in their slaughter - that the captain, who if you like is riding guard, imagines he is conversing with a man as good as dead. And that he is not afraid, for that reason, of talking freely.

Some time in 1916, an Armenian priest is keeping company with a young Turkish captain. Picture them on horseback, riding toward Yozgat in Ankara Province where, only the year before, tens of thousands of Armenians had been massacred by Turks. I do not know the climate in Ankara Province, so I cannot speak for the temperature. Let us just assume it's warmish. Let us also assume, since the priest has been in prison and is on a deportation trail - most deportation trails involving Armenians at that time and place ending in their slaughter - that the captain, who if you like is riding guard, imagines he is conversing with a man as good as dead. And that he is not afraid, for that reason, of talking freely.

You know what it's like when you're riding along, on opposing sides, but enjoying each other's company, man to man. And when it's warm. You say more than you should. So, yes, since the Armenian priest happens to mention it, these human bones we keep seeing are indeed Armenian and of recent origin, washed up by the winter floods from the shallow graves into which they had been perfunctorily bundled. Not difficult to imagine the priest's distress. That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. This might be the pate of a politician, one that would circumvent God, might it not?

It might, Your Reverence.

That's assuming the captain, who is a Muslim and a patriot, sees anything to revere in an infidel Armenian priest.

After all, it is "in the name of the holy jihad" and by "order of the government" that the captain has himself wallowed knee-high in Armenian blood, having supervised a death march in this very region which saw 6,000 or more Armenian women lured out of their homes with the promise that they were to be reunited with their husbands, and then hacked to death by the local Turkish population with "axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, pickaxes, shovels" - you name your agricultural implement.

Funny you should mention holy jihad, says the priest. How do you - um - square that?

Square what?

In my mind's eye I see the priest not wanting to be a bore, so pleasurable their conversation thus far, so fine a fellow the captain. But then again ... "You know - massacre and God."

So the captain tells him exactly how he squares it. By spreading out his prayer rug and praying, "giving glory to Allah and the Prophet who made me worthy of personally participating in the holy jihad...".

I borrow this narrative, without any sensation of moral or religious complacency, from Peter Balakian's magisterial The Burning Tigris, a history of the Armenian genocide just published in this country. A subject I have been anxious to pursue, not least as I am sometimes accused of privileging the Jewish Holocaust over the Armenian. My reply to this has always been that I do not see the Holocaust - "our" Holocaust - as a privilege. You want it? You take it! My only concern has been to avoid blurring distinctions in our rush to equalise wickedness. Give everyone a holocaust and in the end no one has one. But I take the point. We should not argue about who gets the capital H. The more especially as it's a little victory for revisionists the world over, every time we do.

Though some will try to refute it, The Burning Tigris irrefutably establishes that what happened to the Armenians in Turkey wasn't just a bloodier than usual outcome of bad relations - bloodier to the tune of a million and a half Armenian lives - but calculated annihilation of a people. And it asks the question the Armenian priest asks of the Turkish captain: how a God-fearing country was able to harness religion to its campaign of slaughter.

George Carey has been asking similar questions of contemporary Muslims recently, and has received a bloody nose for his impertinence. We will have no Christian, thank you, in the name of whose God rivers of blood have flowed, pointing the finger.

In the end, the answer is the same no matter which faith is confronting the other: when it comes to murder, having God behind you makes it easier. Of the many methods employed to acculturate us to cruelty, religion is among the most efficient. This need not make one an atheist, considering that atheism too is a religious ideology and facilitates murder just as well.

"The very worst things that men have ever done have been done when they were performing acts of violence in the name of religion," wrote Gladstone, casting an eye on the practice-run Turkish iniquities of the 1870s. Though, as Peter Balakian makes clear, Gladstone avoided stigmatising "Mohammedanism" in general, noting that the cause of the problem lay in the specifics of a system that allowed Turks to "exercise a perfectly unnatural domination over their fellow creatures", and for which the Turks themselves were to be pitied no less than were their victims.

And why pitied? Well, you could call that the magniloquence of Victorian Christianity, gesturing at universal charity. But I prefer another explanation. We are to be pitied whenever we make ourselves morally smaller than we are capable of being. At full stretch we are in a state of perpetual argument, now listening to this side of our natures, now that. Close the argument down, put paid to the adversary who is necessary to our completeness, and we are a shadow of ourselves. Pitiable in our murderousness. And if that means pitiable in the faith that makes us murderous, so be it.

Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide is genocide all over again. A further act of expunging. Not only of Armenian history but of Turkish history too. God diminishes us, whether we are Muslims, Christians or Jews, when He urges us to kill in His name. War might sometimes be necessary, but it is never Holy. And we diminish ourselves doubly when we deny that.

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