In 1915 Marmaduke Pickthall was the most informed man in England on the region governed by the Ottoman Empire. Pickthall was an English Tory and a famous novelist, as well as a journalist. Pickthall published nine novels set in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Yemen and Turkey. E.M. Forster wrote in 1921 that Pickthall was “the only contemporary English novelist who understands the Nearer East”.
Pickthall wrote a series of informative articles under the title The Black Crusade, which The New Age later published as a pamphlet. In these pieces, Pickthall condemned Christians for comparing Turks to Satan and for the approval of Bulgaria’s Christian slaughter of Muslims in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. At the end of 1912, Pickthall went to Turkey to see for himself the events he had been covering in his writings. Out of the visit came the book, With the Turks in Wartime.
What he saw happening – the slaughter of over 1 million Moslems and the ethnic cleansing of 400,000 more by Christians, with nothing being said or done in the West – led Pickthall to understand that a deep hypocrisy existed in most of Europe. There were exaggerated tales of atrocities against Christians while much greater suffering among the Moslem section of humanity was ignored.
When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Pickthall declared his willingness to be a combatant as long as he did not have to fight Turks and he argued strongly for respect for Turkish neutrality and independence.
Pickthall’s background was Church of England. His father and his father’s father were clergymen and his two step-sisters were Anglican nuns. He had an Irish mother, Mary O’Brien, one of the famous Inchiquins. It was through church contacts that Pickthall first went to the east. Gradually, however, the actions of the Christian community, especially its missionaries, undermined Pickthall’s religious devotion. He had a crisis of faith which is evident in his writings for The New Age. Finally, in November 1917, at the last of a series of talks to the Muslim Literary Society on “Islam and Progress,” Pickthall openly declared his acceptance of Islam. He took the name Mohammed and became a pillar of the British Islamic Community.
Below is reproduced an article Pickthall wrote for The New Age on 4 November 1915, around the anniversary of Britain’s declaration of War on the Ottomans. It deals with the Armenian massacres then reported in England. The Title relates to the British Defence of the Realm Act which gave the government extraordinary powers to do what was necessary for the safety of the state in wartime and which England used most thoroughly in Ireland, even after the Armistice of 1918. Pickthall was obviously making the point to his English readers that what the Ottomans were doing in defending their state was just what Britain would do if faced by a similar existential crisis.
During the article Pickthall refers to “concentration camps”. What he has in mind are not the German death camps of the 1940s but the British concentration camps used in South Africa to suppress Boer resistance in the 1900s. Tens of thousands of civilians perished in these, despite the strong control of both land and sea Britain exerted, in comparison to the dire security problems faced by the Ottomans, challenged by multiple invaders, starvation blockade and internal insurrection in relocating the Armenians from the war zones.
When reading the following article the reader should bear in mind that Pickthall has many of the British Imperial views of the time which we would consider offensive today. But it is, for all that, a very informative and balanced piece of journalism. Hopefully more of Pickthall’s writings will be reproduced in further posts.
“Defence of the Realm in Turkey by Marmaduke Pickthall
“In the year 1913 the British Government was requested by the Porte to provide a number of inspectors to super-intend the reforms which the Turks had undertaken in the Kurd-Armenian vilayets; where, as an outcome of the Balkan War, and the consequent weakening of the local garrisons on the one hand, and of Russian intrigues on the other, the situation had become extremely critical. Mr. Walter Guinness, M.P., describing a tour which he made that year in Armenia and Kurdistan, mentions ‘‘numerous indications of an active Russian propaganda” not only among Armenians but among the Kurds as well. “Many of them (the Kurds) are armed with Russian rifles, and in the mountains I found in an out-of-the-way village a Russian dressed as a Kurd, and living the life of the Kurds.”Rifles supplied to the Kurds were sure, sooner or later, to be used against the Armenians. At the same time, Russia was arming the pro-Russian – that is, Orthodox – section of the Armenians in Turkish provinces adjacent to the Russian frontier. The Armenians thus, who are by no means lambs, would be emboldened to revolt against the Turkish Government ; the Kurds would slay them in the name of law and order-a mere name in Kurdistan in these days, respected only when it suits the Kurds – and Russia, posing as protector of the slaughtered Christians, wouId cry to Europe: “See what you have done by thwarting my desire to take those provinces.”
“It was simply the old game which has been played by our Ally so many times before in Turkey, and always with some measure of success. Western Europe is so far removed from Asia Minor. So very few of us can realise, even in imagination, the condition of men’s daily lite in that far region.
“The situation was, indeed, most critical from the standpoint of the lurks, and the Turks desired to mend it by introducing real reforms into the Armenian yets. But they knew well that they were not strong enough to carry out so great a work in the face of Russia Russian-and, one may add, German-political ambitions, without the help of some great Power of Europe which was not interested in preserving the existing anarchy. England was their only hope; and England, for some time, seemed willing to befriend them to the extent of lending them some competent inspectors. But the presence of British inspectors in Armenia would have interfered with Russia’s game, might even have caused the nature of the game to be disclosed to Western Europe. So Russia, very naturally, objected, and England- prizing Russian friendship above honour-for the Turkish demand was based upon the Cyprus Convention – eventually refused to provide the inspectors. Not only the Turks and the Armenians, but we English are the sufferers by the decision; since but for that unfortunate refusal, last of a long series of rebuffs, Turkey might have been on our side now.
“And now we hear about Armenian massacres, and Englishmen are filled with pious horror, laying all the blame upon the Turks. Let us try to understand what has actually happened. Some Armenians, in Armenia proper, Turkish subjects, rose in arms and betrayed the town of Van to the Russians. When the news of this occurrence spread throughout the Empire, the common people in some places rioted against Armenians, just as the people in the East End of London rioted against the Germans upon the news of the sinking of the “Lusitania” but with this difference, that the Arab and the Kurdish mobs, being three hundred years, at least, behind the London mob in civilisation, did what the London rabble of three centuries ago would have done, and killed their victims. Following on these disorders the Turkish Government ordered the removal of the whole Armenian population from the war zones to concentration camps of some sort – as much with a view to their protection, it seems but fair to suggest, as with a view to prevent further treachery. When the Turkish forces retook Van, there was a slaughter of Armenians in that district by the Kurds, their ancient enemies, who, as we have seen, were armed with Russian rifles before the war, at a moment when the Turks were wishing to disarm them. In one American report that I have seen, the Kurds, not Turks, are specified as the offenders. But it is all one to the enemies of Islam and they are powerful just now in England – since Kurds are Muslims of a sort. Unruly as the Scottish Highlanders three centuries ago, the Kurds have always raided the Armenians at the least excuse whenever the Turkish Government had its hands too full to deal with them. They are enemies to Turkish government in time of peace, and very uncongenial and mistrusted friends in time of war. And it must be remembered that the Armenians, in their native land, are far from being the sheep-like, inoffensive crowd that they are sometimes painted. They also, when at war, commit atrocities. That the recent massacres of Armenians – whatever their extent, and that we cannot ascertain at present – took place at the command, or in any sense with the connivance, of the Turkish Government, seems most improbable. We are not now in Abdul Hamid’s reign.
“The chief desire of the present rulers in Turkey has always been to prove their country worthy to take rank among the civilised, enlightened empires or the world, and their ideas of civilisation and enlightenment are derived from English and French sources, not from German frightfulness. The most that can be fairly laid to the charge of the Turkish Government, I should say, is the military execution of proved traitors and the removal of reputedly disaffected populations from the danger zones-this last a forcible proceeding involving hardship and discomfort to the deported; but, consider- ing the state of war, and the straits in which the Turks were placed, a necessary military precaution, no “atrocity”.
“Therefore, it seems unfair to count the many thus removed among the victims, especially as it is possible that in some cases they were removed to save their lives. We have the evidence of British prisoners of war at Urfah on the Euphrates, as to the kind of treatment the Armenians received from infuriated patriots in small provincial towns, inadequately garrisoned and unpoliced, on the news of the betrayal of Van. And the general order for removal seems to have followed pretty closely upon those disorders. Yet, I came the other day upon the headline : “Armenian Horrors: 8o0,ooo Victims,” to a newspaper paragraph, which stated that the number of the victims could not be much less than eight hundred thousand killed and deported. The statement loses all its force when one reflects that the total number of the deported from a hunderd districts might easily be eight hundred thousand.
“One cannot help contrasting the publicity accorded by our Press to this Armenian tragedy with the silence of the same Press on the subject of the Balkan tragedy in 1912-13. As one of the handful of Englishmen who tried to get a hearing for the Turkish case on that occasion, I can personally testify to the firmness of the censorship which we encountered. Yet, the tale we had to tell was much more horrible than anything which we have yet heard from Armenia; and the perpetrators were our “fellow Christians.” A few men who knew the East thought the facts deserved to be published, in the interests of religious toleration, as showing that bad Christians in those lands could be as bestial as bad Mohammedans in time of war. But our rulers, in their wisdom, thought it inadvisable that such enlightenment should reach the general public, who were told that the atrocities Committed by the Balkan Christians were “no more than is customary in all Eastern warfare.” Quite so. And on behalf of the whole Muslim world to-day, I claim that these atrocities committed by the Kurds and Arabs are no more than is customary in Eastern warfare.” We are talking of Asia Minor, not of England; of a nearly savage country, where men are sheep when under discipline, but devils if enlarged.
“The fact is, that we should have furnished those inspectors.”