A peace to be won*

by Azad Alik

 Hans – Lukas Kieser

A book title like The Missed Peace, as I had entitled my book eleven years ago, inevitably raises the question about a peace to be won.

In this talk, dear audience, I would like to say a few words on the sources, topics and the human rights perspective of The Missed Peace, and first on how I came to write it.

While studying history in Basel in the 1980s, I was confronted with unrest in Turkey at the time because I met refugees of my own age who had fled the military junta of 1980, not a few of whom had been tortured. More generally, I met a number of migrant families who had fled situations devoid of prospects for the future in eastern Anatolia and elsewhere.

Peace is a huge challenge; something very precious. It has many dimensions. One can describe it as the result of good and fair interactions based on elementary human rights. Their lack or, on the contrary, their functioning are mostly the result of a long history. This is what led me to study the history of the country, from where my new acquaintances came.

I soon realized that the roots of many questions went back to the early 20th century and thus to the way Turkey was remade in the 1910s and 1920s. I learnt the national master narrative of Turkey’s foundation, and also some counter narratives as articulated, angrily and fragmentarily, among the exiles.

I realized also that behind those turbulent decades stood a century of ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reform the Ottoman state and to make it a rechtsstaat, i.e. where the rule of law prevails.

In all this, there was Ottoman, there was European, and there was global history. Thus an intriguing challenge to a student of history.

I ransacked libraries and bookshops, including in Istanbul and Ankara, looking after a comprehensive and – hopefully – readymade, ultimate account. I found a lot of instructive material, but not the account I was looking for: a history book that bridged the development from then to now; fathomed it both analytically and emotionally; and included all involved groups. Both the aporias and the ressources of history had to be addressed. They had been, as I began to feel, submerged, “buried alive” as it were.

In those years, I had the chance to meet a number of inspiring colleagues, among them a few Türkiyeli, who helped me a lot to develop my own approach. As an example I may mention the accidental encounter with Hamit Bozarslan in the Kurdish Institute in Paris in July 1990. I may als mention a book chapter of 1996 on nationalist history writing and the Armenians by Fikret Adanır, or the Tanzimat’tan Cumhuriyet’e Türkiye Ansikolopedisi, etc. Historical researches depend on intense interactions with colleagues, existing literature, sources and, if possible, witnesses.

Early on I found the writings of missionaries on the spot, which again I encountered accidentally, particularly helpful. They gave insights into the realities and late Ottoman dramas of a number of the regions from where the refugees came. At that first stage I particularly remember to have read books by Jakob Künzler, an orderly but de facto medical doctor, who lived in Urfa from 1899 to 1922. He gave fresh and sober accounts of the life in and around late Ottoman Urfa – the occasional use of neo-pietist language or a few clichés notwithstanding.


Human rights have been formulated in the 18th century in what we are used to call “secular language”, but in their substance they go back thousands of years. Already in antiquity, humanly inspired authors criticised slavery. The famous words “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” and “treat others as you’d like others to treat yourself” are early interactive definitions of what the Enlightenment enshrined as a catalogue of positive rights. They were commands as well as utopian statements.

The Missed Peace took a human rights perspective insofar as it attempted to consider all human beings involved in its approach as bearers of (potential) human rights and to look at history through the eyes of ordinary people, not exclusively of elites or particular groups, and their preoccupations.

This was a methodological decision. It served to question situations, decisions and developments according to a general, though utopian benchmark that was well known also in the late Ottoman Empire. I may remind that the Ottoman Reform Edict of 1856 established individual and collective rights, abolished torture and banned contemptuous speech, including the word gavur.

The Missed Peace chose the benchmark of human rights, because it wanted to be, first of all, a history of human beings and their interactions in the eastern provinces, not of abstract forces or categories, though it considered those as well.

Human rights served as a benchmark to clarify how to conceive of a human being and of human society. In this vein, the book attempted to combine a finding of facts and factors with a lively conscience of the often unrealized basic rights, and the human dignity, of the people involved.

The Missed Peace’s approach was not naive, but I bore in mind Hannah Arendt’s words in her book on The Origins of Totalitarianism. There, she underlines with regard to Eastern Europe how serious the challenge of a fair ethnoreligious cohabitation was; and that a liberal humanism could not suffice to meet this challenge. A holy seriousness and a horror at human abysses was required. –

There are multiple categories of historical narratives, the oldest and most common probably a narrative that confirms the historical identity and legitimacy of particular groups or rulers. Generally, such narratives are not possible without devaluing others, in particular victims or critics of the rule and of the group to which they are addressed.

The horizon of human rights, on the contrary, is an open, utopian horizon which allows to address soberly different actors and groups, and to present all kinds of facts.

Opting for a human rights perspective, The Missed Peace attempted to restore a minimum of dignity to people who had been drastically deprived of even their most elementary rights, if not their lives, as was the case with hundred thousands of them. A fair historiographical treatment was this minimum – if historiography ever was a science that had to do with truth(s). Good departments of history insist that it has.

Though it finally amounted to the size of a brick, The Missed Peace could not provide an encyclopaedic history of a century. It had to make choices and emphasized some places and groups in the history of the eastern provinces. It focused in particular on those groups who had not only been refused a future in their native home, but – as I just mentioned – also a minimally fair and dignified place in the established, general historiography in and outside Turkey. It therefore elaborated on groups, actors and problematic interactions that had hitherto been considered only little.

Coincidently, an over proportional part of victim groups and of their offspring respectively  came to live as refugees and migrants to Switzerland in the 20th, in particular the late 20th century. –

The Missed Peace attempted not only to provide an overview, but to gain a holistic view that included sharp microhistorical insights. It looked at particular actors and questioned responsibility on different levels.

It attempted to raise awareness to missed chances, misjudgments, conditioned judgments, manipulations and – at least retrospectively speaking – too easily dismissed potentials for peace. It challenged a writing of history that presented war and mass violence as unavoidable, if not as functional.

Misdevelopments and dead-ends in the eastern provinces stood before my eyes; and with them the necessity to rethink the situation historically.

Therefore The Missed Peace invited to seriously revisit that course of history and the terms used for its description. Even though it emphasized responsibility, respectively its lack, it did and could however not determine how a definite peace would have been possible.

In the final analysis, I may add, this final answer does not matter today, because change lies only in the future. Writing history is, consciously or not, an intervention within today’s contexts.


The challenge for me, 20 years ago, was to write, even if only in paradigmatic fragments, a professional history of the eastern provinces that encompassed the period from the Tanzimat to the early republic. There a human landscape had been destroyed to an extent unseen in any other part of the late Ottoman world, not even in the Balkans. The eastern provinces were the principal arena of the first modern genocide in the so-called Old world of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

In terms of peace, all historically involved groups had to come to terms with lasting damages that had a vast impact upon the present. This has become even more manifest in the last twenty years.

In a strange logical correlation with this matter of fact however, the history of that region had remained under-articulated. And the responsibility for this situation, 20 years ago, lay mainly with political and academic Turkey. This again had reasons of its own that needed to be grasped.

For my research a variety of sources was required in order to achieve dense descriptions and multiple perspectives. As mentioned, in particular missionary sources, especially of Americans, proved to be useful. The missionaries were both insiders and outsiders in late Ottoman society, in touch both with different internal and external actors, which made them privileged participative observers. More intensely than others they questioned existing conditions.

Let me say a few words more about those missionaries, in particular the Americans.

They were insiders, insofar as, after a higher education in the US, they came to remain, at least many of them, and not to turn back after a few years of work on the ground. There were a few families of which several generations settled down in the Ottoman world. They knew its languages, life and social realities.

They were outsiders, because they came from quite another world. In 1819, when the first missionaries arrived from Boston, the Americans and the Ottomans knew very little about each other. The people sent from Boston had only read a couple of books on the Ottoman world available at that time.

Most Protestant missionaries were part of a network that historians call the Protestant International. This informal NGO network – in contrast to the more formal catholic organizations under the control of Rome – emerged from Calvinist and Huguenot networks of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 18th century it began to establish first Protestant missions. The first American overseas mission, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the ABCFM, was founded in 1810 in Boston.

The ABCFM men and women brought with them strong notions of what we can call a modern millennialism. The notion of a millennium, or global kingdom of Jesus to be established, was particularly strong among Americans. This had to do with the own experience of a history that led, within 250 years, from first migrant settlements to the foundation of a propserous and modern US-American republic that was widely seen as a model for the future. As this achievement had been possible, surely much more was possible still.

For the ABCFM community, the young US was clearly not the fulfilment of history; it left them unsatisfied and unsettled, namely because it lacked fair and equal interactions with the native Americans, or Indians, and the Afro-Americans. Thus it remained far from what the ABCFM community wished to be a modern society in accordance with the Gospel.

This, in short, was the historical starting point for an American overseas mission. This mission was a project beyond the new republic, and it was inspired by a modern, prophetic reading of the Gospel and by contemporary progresses in science, industry and democratic thought.

All this informed the missionaries’ projection of a better future. To this new future they wanted to contribute at the forefront and become agents of an educational and spiritual globalization – in the Ottoman eastern provinces, beginning with the early Tanzimat.

In a way they were utopian activists, and, compared with most continental Europeans, optimists with regard to historical progress. However, they combined their visions with a strong pragmatism. They founded seminal institutions in the Ottoman world.

In rare moments of outspokenness, ABCFM members in the early 19th century gave voice to the vision that within a further 200 years science and technology would have transformed the material conditions on the globe, while the Gospel, understood in a modern fashion, would then have reached its remotest corners. They concluded that then the earth would be ready for the millennium, that is for the establishment of peace and justice on earth, in other words for Jesus’ omnipresence.

For those in the ABCFM community who were rather optimistic, this would happen in a more or less linear evolution; others saw apocalyptical breakdowns on the road to what they believed to be the goal of humanity. They did not, however, promote breakdowns in order to reach this goal.

In contrast, e.g., to the Socialist International. What Karl Marx a few decades later called the classless society, which would put an end to human alienation, reminds of course of the prophetic millennial vision. Marx elaborated his vision in the secular language of a dialectical, class-struggle-centered materialism. Religious legacy he dismissed as useless or even detrimental.  For him the French Revolution was as a seminal paradigm to be developed and to become a global social revolution wherefrom the road would lead to that classless society.

The French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, including the invasion of Egypt and Palestine, were important too for the Protestant International, because in its eyes they proved that history was greatly in motion and had to be actively shaped.

The Missed Peace, in short, has profited a great deal from missionary reports and from analysing the new interactions and perspectives these outsider-insiders brought into the Ottoman world. At the same time, however, it used sources from Catholic missionaries, natives on the ground, diplomats and the Ottoman archives.

Id’ much have liked to use sources like those recently published by Arsen Yarman, or the postcards published by Osman Köker, or relevant new researches like that by Ohannes Kılıçdağı who went through Armenian newspapers in the eastern provinces, or the research by Edip Gölbaş on Hamidian Yezidi policy, or by Selim Deringil on mass conversions of Armenians in the 1890s, etc. But they were not yet available. Let me also mention the substantial recent research outside Turkey on late Ottoman history and on the Armenian genocide. In fact, a fair amount of relevant research has been done in and outside Turkey since The Missed Peace was published.


My new bookThe Nearest East, if I may shortly mention it, adopts a different approach. It is more concerned with the American side about which I have now just spoken. Moreover it focuses on the whole Middle East. It locates the American religious and educational experience within a history of American interaction with the Middle East from the late 18th century up to the late 20th century.

It is in that book that I emphasize the notion of a modern American millennialism which I understand as a powerful, arguably the most powerful modern ideology. Those motivated by its ideas have achieved a lot. They founded lasting institutions. They have often demonstrated a tremendous capacity of spiritual and material recreation after trial and error. Turkey has appropriated a lot of that American imput, last not least the private universities based on the American model.

However, American millennialism, as explored in The Nearest East, also included risks, blind spots, too hasty logics, too much trial and error, too less patience, and in particular, as I’d argue, an insufficient fathoming of the Ottoman destruction in the 1910s as measured by its own, again and again optimistic language.

After 1917, President Wilson’s “missionary Near East diplomacy”, as the historian Grabill has called it, was refused the opportunity to implement any of its goals, namely  an Armenian autonomy. The missionaries, by the way, favoured federal models rather than independent nation-states. In retrospective, it is easy to argue that they were not realistic enough. Their part of truth at least has today also to be taken into account – and, if we want to be realistic, the high price political Turkey has paid up to the early 21st century for the inauspicious way that it chose in the 1910s and 1920s to reign over the eastern provinces.

The experience of the World Wars, President Wilson’s unfulfilled visions, and the American exercise of super power since World War II induced a change: in the second half of the 20th century it was often no longer the peacefully evolutive, but an apocalypticist millennialism that prevailed, especially with regard to the Middle East.

This kind of millennialism reflected the experience of National Socialist Germany. Thus it anticipated global clashes in which sides had to be taken timely for strategical reasons. Since 1948, and even more so since the end of the Soviet Union, this American attitude again centres clearly on the Middle East.

More than any other region of the world the Middle East, we may argue, has experienced visionary, peacefully constructive as well as strategically calculated, partly destructive US attitudes during the last 200 years.

Desirous to be peacemakers, the ABCFM missionaries and a president like Jimmy Carter certainly made important positive contributions. Up to now, nevertheless, the American presidents could not become the ultimate brokers of peace in the Middle East though most of them aspired very much to do so.


Peace, we may conclude from this, has first of all to be won by those on the ground. To achieve it, all actors on the ground bear responsibility according to their strength. The benchmark of this responsibility are, again, the human rights.

This leads us back to the question of how to win peace in the eastern provinces.

The Missed Peace had focused on how the set goal of a plural, ethnically heterogenous Ottoman rechtsstaat remained unachieved. Related to this it focused on three persistent problems in the eastern provinces: a so-called Kurdish, a so-called Armenian,  and what we may call an eastern-Alevi question.

An Ottoman rechtsstaat would have demanded strong convictions and compromises from all sides for a common political project. It is intriguing to see, e.g., in the sources that many Armenians in the late Ottoman provinces supported the state much more than many of their Muslim neighbours because, as the weaker part, they had to put their hopes in a rechtsstaat. Therefore the general problem was not simply strained interactions between the state on the one hand and large parts of the Kurds, the Armenians and the eastern Alevis on the other – but first of all the absence of equal law and of clarified, inclusionary political perspectives.

In short, the hierarchical plural society could not be reformed to an egalitarian plural society during the last Ottoman century. In a general way, the problems had been addressed in the Ottoman reform edict of 1856. More concrete was the reform plan for the eastern provinces of February 8th 1914. It was based upon a similar plan of October 1895 and proposed elaborate and monitored solutions. In particular, it prescribed to implement under the control of two foreign inspectors an egalitarian ethnoreligious participation in the regional councils and the security forces as well as the official use of the regional languages.

Against such reform proposals, the main players in Turkey, to put it shortly, reacted with the fist, and they coopted those forces on the ground which were ready to lend the fist, but not to share a common political vision. In contrast, the Committee of Union and Progress had begun to share in 1907 a common, though fragile and short-lived political project with the main Armenian political party.

The Missed Peace argued that, in the final analysis,  the Young Turks wanted, once fully in power in 1913, firstly, unchecked political sovereignty and, secondly, a modern, industrial society. Shared democratic sovereignty, however, and thus a functioning, participatory society of the people living on the ground were unfamiliar notions to them.

Instead, they embraced Turkism. Radical ethnonationalism is, as again Hannah Arendt has lucidly stated, an escape from the difficult responsibilities a heterogenous, participatory society entails. The Turkism of those decades was like an ideology of salvation in the face of imperial depression. (I have tried to describe this in another book translated into Turkish, Türklüğe İhtida.)

The leaders of the 1910s and 1920s succeeded finally in establishing a republican project that combined sovereignty, Turkism and the aspiration to modernity. This was no mean achievement in those turbulent times. But it did not succeed in integrating even the people remaining on the ground – after more than three million non-Muslim Ottoman citizens had been killed or expulsed.

An attitude that reclaimed such a course of history as unavoidable and necessary was and is vertiginous, because it inscribes mass violence into its own project. It closes the door to a salutary, humble and frank historical revisiting. Instead of being exposed, crime remains inscribed like a bad seed.

The Missed Peace called to other scripts and notions and, between its lines, to a conception of citizenship that had been missed a hundred years ago: a Türkiyeli citizenship beyond the ethnoreligious boundaries that were functional in times of bloodshed.

Better wisdom includes bitter truths. In The Missed Peace I have tried to omit all what seemed me to be false and cheap compromise in history writing. But even if I used vivid and strong language, I did not pretend to be a judge. The late Ottoman challenges were huge, and the European powers, the main global players at that time, inconsistent, to say the least, toward the Ottoman world.

Let me conclude. Peace today means to come solidly to terms with dead-end notions and, above all, with unsolved crimes. They are a toxin to any society. Peace requires the strength and courage to look back to committed horrors for them not to continue to haunt the future. Turkey is stronger today than it was 20 years ago; imminent crises and inner weakness can no longer serve as an excuse against fresh and accurate terms. In fact, the last ten years have seen important openings.

Thus peace means to find new terms; to establish these in the academic and political discourse; in monuments, museums and memorial landscapes; and, hopefully, in humble acts of disarming frankness and generosity. Peace can be won, it can even be won with the main victims of chaos and mass crime; necessarily it includes horror at human abysses.

*Hans-Lukas Kieser presented his paper on 29th January 2011 in Istanbul, in a meeting organised by Human Rights Association, Turkey, Istanbul Branch, Committee Against Racism and Discrimination, with the participation of Prof. Fikret Adanir as the discussant.The meeting was sponsored by Anadolu Kultur and Iletisim Publishing house.

One Comment to “A peace to be won*”

  1. Nice words and absolutely quixotic in the context in which they are presented.

    Peace indeed has been missed and real peace is permanently lost.

    What is possible is the dry, reciprocity based stuff of “normal” (distrust based) international relations:

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