Genocide and Identity cont.

The following piece is an excerpt of Nina-Nevart Minassian’s Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entitled ‘How The Armenian Genocide Of 1915 Affected The Identity Of The Armenian Diaspora Today’. Nevart will commence her university studies at University College London from 2015, reading for a degree in History.

As the first country to adopt Christianity in 301 A.D, decades before the Romans, Armenia has one of the most ancient Christian traditions in the world.  What constitutes religion as such an integral part of the Armenian identity is their biblical lineage, giving them a great sense of pride in their roots. Their biblical heritage can be traced back to Hayk, a descendent of Noah, whose Ark rested on Mount Ararat, an iconic symbol of Armenian faith. However in 1921, Mount Ararat was allocated to Turkey and symbolises a great cultural loss to the homeland whose religious values are at the core of her heritage and identity. Labelled as “an East Christian Island in a Muslim Ocean” by Edmund Herzig, Armenia throughout history has been a Christian neighbour to the surrounding Islamic countries of Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. It is this fundamental difference in belief which has served as both the cause and catalyst for their assimilation in 1915. Indeed, the circumstances of the genocide did impact the ability to preserve the Armenian faith, particularly when the people were forced to flee to Turkey where they were made to reject their beliefs and adopt Islam in order to survive. However in the majority of the diaspora, the Armenians have successfully preserved their religious beliefs and consciously practice their faith in order to prevent further damage. It is for this reason that although there is not an ‘Armenian religion’ per se as is found in the case of the Jews, many Armenians would assert that a true Armenian is a Christian. Therefore, whereas in the case of the Islamised Armenians, where the decision to convert was not a choice as much as a necessity, there is a prejudice surrounding this group who are viewed, by some, to be less-Armenian. However, the question of whether the religion and ethnicity are contingent upon the other is far more complex.

Following the dispersion of 1915, those who immigrated to the western diaspora strived to maintain an unshakeable faith in God – which is as strong today as before the genocide. At present, the United States of America is the largest Armenian Diaspora; accommodating as many as one-third of the population in the Republic of Armenia today. Despite a number of Armenians repatriating back to the republic in 1918-1919, a surge of around 10,212 Armenian deportees entered the United States in 1920. They were greeted by an alien set of morals and customs and were labelled with stereotypes and prejudice comparable to that of the Jews, Greeks and Assyrians. Branded as a sly and cunning people, famous for their advancement, the Armenians were not highly perceived in society, and worked tirelessly at laborious tasks, measly in comparison to their highly skilled background – which was one of the greatest threats perceived by the Ottoman Empire. In saying this, over a number of decades, the Armenians in America and indeed other western countries have progressed in the social ranks due to their respect, integration and adaptation to the cultures of their host nations. Undoubtedly, the devotion to the Armenian Orthodox Church has not wavered in the western community, and indeed plays a central part in the diaspora as a whole today. This is evidenced by the fact that at present, America houses 90 Armenian Apostolic Churches which highlights the integral influence of the Church in daily life. From this data it is clear that in the western world, the emphasis on maintaining faith in God shows how the Armenian Genocide has perhaps strengthened the sense of Armenian identity, as without the Church, the diaspora may not have been able to preserve their heritage. Therefore, the survival of the Armenians is largely connected with the survival of faith in Christ.

The importance of faith in preserving the identity can also be seen in the diaspora in the Middle East. Although this region was and still is largely occupied by Islamic people, the Armenians were welcomed by an indigenous people who empathised with their strife and allowed able to practice their faith, without the threat of persecution. This idea of tolerance is demonstrated by the fact that the Armenian Community set up prominent churches which were regarded as sacred and even worshipped by some of the Muslims. Therefore, it appears that in the majority of the diaspora, the only factor which differentiates an Armenian who lives in America from an Armenian living in Iraq for example, is in fact the country they reside in. They have demonstrated that it is possible to remain true to your heritage in the face of assimilation by preserving the factors traditionally associated with your ethnicity.

On the other hand, exploring the identity of those living in modern day Turkey is far less straightforward. Whilst for the Armenians living in the rest of the Diaspora, the religion is an inseparable part of the identity, non-Christian Armenians in Turkey would argue that their different religious beliefs does not make them inferior or any-less Armenian. There are many cases demonstrating the co-existence of the Armenian and Turkish identity as a result of the convoys during the genocide, which profoundly affected the traditional image of the Armenian. Some Armenians resorted to Islam in order to survive from persecution, thus inevitably interweaving their heritage with Islam. To say that the genocide affected the identity of Armenians in Turkey is somewhat of an understatement, as some sources reveal that many had no choice but to compromise their belief for survival. In the book, ‘The Sound of Silence Diyarbakir’s Armenian’s Speak’, a set of interviews by Islamised Armenians in Turkey presents the life of “hidden Armenians” in the Turkish Diaspora, who despite converting to Islam, were branded as having “sinful bones”.

From the interviews, it is clear that indeed Armenian identity was impacted by the Islamic surroundings. To be Armenian was transformed from a lifestyle to a memory. One interview presents the life of an Armenian man, Denca Kartun who moved from Diyarbakir to Istanbul. Kartun recalls his experience of meeting Armenians in Istanbul who had undergone conversion from Christianity to Islam in order to protect themselves. He says that the “Armenians changed their names out of fear” and that the Turks “converted them to Islam”, and then put “convert” on their birth certificate. Another interview given by Lora Baytar depicts her experience of life as an Armenian Muslim. This largely occurred due to the convoys during the genocide as babies were at times taken into Kurdish homes in Diyarbakir and raised as Muslims. Baytar’s account suggests that the Armenian identity should not be restricted to faith, as one does not need to be a Christian to feel Armenian. In conversation with a governor in Istanbul, Baytar says, “I am Armenian, and I am a Muslim. One is a religion, the other an ethnicity. If you don’t believe me, look at history”. From this quote, it appears that whilst the genocide undoubtedly changed the life-style of some Armenians, their sense of identity was not in fact compromised, and in some ways, perhaps the challenge posed by the convoys strengthened the strength of pride.  Baytar then goes on to say, “…there is no difference for me between a church and a mosque. I am equally satisfied by both”.  To a certain extent, the account presented in this compilation challenge the traditional belief that Christianity and the Armenian identity are inseparable, and instead poses the question of what it truly means to be an Armenian.

In saying this, it is important to take into account that the select few interviews compiled in this source are not representative of the beliefs of all Islamised Armenians. It is an exaggeration to assume that the sense of Armenian identity held by Kartun and Baytar is in fact the attitude of all the Muslim Armenians in Turkey. Therefore, it is arguably invalid to infer that all non-Christian Armenians count themselves as Armenian as well as Muslim. This is because there are many unrecorded cases of Muslims residing in Turkey who are perhaps unaware of the fact that they are of Armenian descent, and have throughout the years, adopted the customs of their nation as their own. In this case, it would be valid to assume that the Armenian Genocide has greatly affected some, although not all Armenians despite the beliefs held in the interviews previously discussed.

Nevart’s full EPQ will be on our website in the near future.

— Nina-Nevart Minassian

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