- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009

Friday is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, commemorating the mass killings of up to 1.5 million Christian Armenians overseen by the Muslim leaders of the Ottoman Empire starting in 1915.

With the centenary anniversary coming up in six years, this issue is not going to fade away. President Obama handled the issue gingerly and avoided calling the killing “genocide” during his recent visit to Turkey, but some 1 million Armenian Americans - who helped to get him elected last year - are happy to keep reminding Mr. Obama of his campaign promise to call attention to the massacre.

“People are advising Turkey to recognize it and apologize on behalf of their ancestors and be done with it,” says Wadi Haddad, retired professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. “The Armenians are not going to ask for reparations.”

What would contrition for the genocide look like from a secular state based on a religious tradition - Islam - that does not practice corporate repentance?

Muslim scholars tell me the holy month of Ramadan takes care of the sins of the individual, but not those of a nation. There’s no concept of national sin, which may be why the Shi’ite Iranians have never apologized for their sacking of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

The concept of national repentance started with Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Christians then ran with the idea, with modern examples including President Lincoln’s 1863 call to a day of national repentance and fasting. His idea lives on in the National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of each May.

Plus, Christians ranging from the late Pope John Paul II to bands of evangelical Protestant missionaries have apologized for the excesses of the Crusades. But what Islamic entity has apologized for the 300 years of conquest that provoked the Crusades?

“The idea of being sorry for what’s happened in the past is a Western way of expressing things,” Mr. Haddad says. “Nations elsewhere in the world do not do this.”

However, he added that his wife, Georgetown University professor Yvonne Haddad, lost two Armenian Orthodox ancestors during the genocide.

“Individual Muslims can express regret or repentance, but I don’t know what the appropriate institution would be to express Islamic regret,” Georgetown University Islamic history professor John Voll told me. Christianity has corporate bodies representing its various divisions, he added, but “in Islam, there is no corporate structure that represents the umma [world Muslim community].”

Corporate repentance requires an acceptance of corporate guilt, an idea that dates back to original sin.

“Islamic theological tradition does not involve a concept of original sin,” he said. “Muslims think Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were expelled from the garden, but God did not curse them.”

If the majority religion of Turkey does not have a concept of common guilt, can Turks apologize for their past?

“If there is an expression of regret, it’d be from the Turkish parliament,” he said. “But one of the important dimensions of Kamalist Turkey is that it represents an institutional break with the Ottoman Empire. A lot of Turks would say the parliament cannot speak for the actions of the old empire.”

• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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