Istanbul Conference Opens Discussion on Islamized Armenians

A scene from the conference in Istanbul

BY HRANT GADARIGIAN
From Hetq.am

ISTANBUL—Over the centuries, untold numbers of Christian Armenians have converted to Islam. The vast majority have done so under various degrees of pressure and given the exigencies of the time.

While relatively subtle on occasion, the imperative to convert to a religion mostly regarded as the faith of the “enemy” was often clear-cut – convert or perish.

Over the past decade or so, a new sub-grouping of Armenians, either called Islamized or Muslim Armenians, has come to the fore.

While the existence of such Armenians is not new per say, the issue of who they exactly are in terms of overall Armenian identity has been gaining greater exposure, both in Armenian circles and in Turkey.

One such attempt to grapple with this issue is the conference now taking place in Istanbul that I’ve been attending.

Entitled, “Islamized (Islamicized) Armenians” and organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation, the conference began yesterday and will end tomorrow.

The scope of the conference is immense and has attracted a number of prominent scholars and heretofore unknown speakers commenting and analyzing the centuries-old conversion process of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, with a special focus on the 1915 Genocide and its aftermath.

Bogazici University’s Albert Long Hall was packed the other day when the conference kicked off.

I would estimate that there were at least 700 people in the hall to listen to what speakers like Taner Akcam, Ayse Gul Altinay, Hranush Kharatyan, Laurence Ritter and Anoush Suni, and Adnan Celik, amongst others, had to say on the subject.

Rakel Dink, representing the Hrant Dink Foundation, welcomed speakers and audience alike, stressing that the conference was merely an initial step in discussing both the history, and more importantly, the present reality of Islamized Armenians.

Religion, identity, memory, ethnicity, are just a few of the intertwined topics that the speakers touched in their presentations.

Naturally, I cannot delve into all the subjects that the 30 speakers will raise over the course of three days, but I can give readers a concise overview.

After an opening conversation amongst Fethiye Cetin, Nabahat Akkoc and Sibel Asna, the first day saw three separate panels exploring such topics as: Burden of History, politics of Naming; The Recent and Distant History of the Islamization; and Islamized in 1915.

Avedis Hadjian, an independent journalist based in New York, spoke about Constantinople Patriarch Shnork Kaloustian’s “Four categories of Anatolian Armenians and Today’s Muslim Armenians.”

It was interesting to hear that some 40 years ago, Kaloustian had come up with different classifications of Armenians who had converted based on when the conversion had taken place, whether it was a conscious decision or not, and whether they had converted back to Christianity when conditions allowed them to do so.

Hadjian, who has been touring Western Armenia for the past two years, is in the process of writing a book entitled “A Secret Nation” that will present his findings regarding Islamized Armenians he has come into contact with.

The author, a native of Aleppo who then moved to Argentina at an early age, says his work is a journalistic investigation into the lives of these people and will serve as an introduction for a wider audience.

“My purpose is not to proselytize or to make judgmental declarations. We must first come to recognize one another without preconditions or preconceived notions. This conference is a step in the right direction,” Hadjian says, adding that the book should be out in a few months. The first edition will be in Turkish and then translated into English.

Hadjian added that tragically, the Armenian diaspora lacks the facilities to engage this new group of Armenians given that the Church, as a religious organization, cannot by its nature initiate a dialogue with individuals who profess another religion.

Another speaker whom I caught up with was Vahe Tachjian, an historian and chief editor of the website Houshamadyan.

Tachjian spoke at this morning’s panel entitled “Islamized in 1915: History and Bearing Witness”.

His focus was on how many Armenian women during the Genocide entered into mixed marriages and prostitution as a means of survival. Tachjian talked about attempts to reintegrate these women into post-Ottoman Armenian communities and how many were ostracized and shunned by the dominant Armenian society and organizations.

“Many of these women could never return to the larger Armenian fold, especially if they had children with Muslim men,” Tachjian noted, adding that the fact that so many “converted” Armenians were present at the conference underscored the need for a platform on this issue that has now taken on a greater sense of urgency.

“These individuals, naturally, are interested to hear what the wider world, especially Armenians, have to say on the subject. We must approach this issue on a human level and shy away from making snap judgments as to whether these people are Armenian or not,” Tachjian stressed.

During our conversation, Rakel Dink walked by and hearing the word “judgment”, noted that identity is a concept that is not merely based on religion and that all of us have a duty to build bridges between these newly discovered Armenians and the traditional communities.

I also had the chance to briefly speak with Hilmar Kaiser, a German historian, whose presentation dealt with the assimilation of Armenian deportees between 1915 and 1917.

In his presentation, Kaiser noted that the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress), was split on the issue of converting Armenians to Islam. One grouping tolerated such conversions, which physically “saved” many Armenians from certain death, while others in the CUP saw it as presenting a future danger to the state.

During my conversation with Kaiser, the historian noted that this conference and an earlier one in Diyarbekir has returned the Armenian debate back to Turkey where it naturally belongs.

“We are witnessing the reemergence of the Armenian community of Constantinople as the intellectual powerhouse that it once was. Armenian intellectualism is returning to the very place that it was cut down in 1915. And the Turkish colleagues are back. Thus the logic of the killers is denied,” Kaiser argued.

He also pulled no punches in criticizing the academic work carried out in Armenia for the past twenty years, labeling it as not only academically inferior but also damaging giving its nationalist, even racist overtones. Luckily, Kaiser noted, there is a new generation of academics coming of age in Armenia who are raising the bar when it comes to academic scholarship, pointing to the presence of two young scholars from Armenia as panelists.

Kaiser then turned his criticism to Armenian academics in the States who, he argues, haven’t produced anything new in the past forty years.

“Tell me one publication on the extermination, as I call it since I don’t like the term genocide anymore, which has been published in the last ten years in the U.S. What comes to mind? You really have to scratch your head. And this is after millions of dollars and university chairs. It’s basically a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy. They are stuck in their own mental prison,” Kaiser said.

I last spoke with Raymond Kevorkian, the prominent Genocide scholar based in Paris, who moderated yesterday’s “Islamized in 1915” panel.

An old friend, I had no problem convincing Raymond to share his thoughts on the issue.

“This is an issue that will only grow in significance in the future. And it is an issue that blows away the Turkish state’s decades old argument of a homogenous populace. As such, the issue of Islamized Armenians should be seen as an integral part of the overall internal Turkish process now going on in various ethnic communities regarding a search for identity, and that there are actually several Turkish identities,” Kevorkian said.

He stressed that the entire issue demands greater research on a social level and that the anecdotal studies carried out to date aren’t sufficient.

“The diaspora must come to grips with the fact that the bulk of these converted Armenians will remain as they are. So how do we relate to them and, in particular, how shall we relate to those who display a willingness to come into contact with traditional Armenian communities and structures,” Kevorkian added.

Summing up the challenge that these converted Armenians now pose to the greater Armenian community, Kevorkian said, “We face a new reality today. A significant segment of us had disappeared and are now resurfacing, but in a new form.”

When I asked my friend, if we are able, and willingly, to come to grips with this new reality, he responded, “We have to come up with an answer, better yet, a set of answers. This conference is a preliminary step in the search for answers, and I have no doubt that the search will continue.”

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13 Comments

  1. Nshan said:

    This is an extremely sensitive issue. We should welcome and nurture these people even if majority of them decides to keep its Muslim faith as I’m sure that their future generations will voluntarily convert to Christianity. We will make tragic mistake if we deny and label them.

    • hayrenaser said:

      who carved on stone that an armenian has to be christian??? enough with this jewish brainwashing we should send all the abrahamic religions judaism, christianity islam and all the other world religions to hell where they all came from
      the only religion we need is the one of love harmony and equal sharing, not preferring one people over another, favoritisms, reward for obedience and punishment for defiance, enough already….
      you reap what you saw, and that is all we need
      an armenian should not be identified by his/her religious affiliation but rather by their blood line, birth right, love of county, willingness to defend and protect our homeland, and most of all speaking nourishing and improving our mother tongue.

    • GeorgeMardig said:

      We can’t be shortsighted, you should remember that these people live on Armenian land, what would you do if these lands are returned to Armenians, keep them as Armenians with a different religion or Deport them with it’s dangerous consequences, Religioun and State should be seperate, and human rights also should be respected, forget having the mindset of, if you are not Christian you are not Armenian.

  2. Artoush said:

    Interesting article. Why wasn’t there any mention of Roupina Peroumian’s works on the subject?

  3. Norin Radd said:

    As usual, Armenian chobans are stirring the pot. Despite how tragic and horrendous the end result of these groups of “crypto” muslim “Armenians” may be, they are far too removed from Armenian beliefs, way of life, culture, and ethnic identity to be considered as such.

    Many of these muslim “Armenians” may or may not have had an Armenian grandmother or grandfather, in some cases even a great grandparent may have been Armenian as a result of Genocidal activities of Turks, etc. etc. But it begs the question, SO WHAT? After 2 to 3 generations of being ethnic Turks, what exactly will they be contributing to our Armenian identity except yet another avenue for divisive confusion? Are we going to attempt to wipe their rear end when we still cannot properly wipe our own? Are we going to move forward and try and “rehabilitate” and “win back” their loyalty towards the identity of their grandmother only to find out they are “beyond saving” 50 year from now and as a result having introduced Islam into our culture as a further “sub-branch” of being Hye?

    We already have “Parska Hye”, “Lipana Hye”, Suria Hye”, “Rusa Hye”, “Amerka Hye”, “Esha Hye”, “Tavara Hye”, “Himara Hye”, now we are fast working towards “Muslemana Hye” with this STUPID and classically naive Armenian endeavor by yet another group of our CHOBAN Armenian leaders and pseudo-intellectuals. We need to focus efforts on bringing our highly fragmented communities worldwide together with Armenian and Arstakh as the center piece for all of that, NOT create more fragments and avenues of identity confusion. There are are more pressing concerns for our transnational efforts to be spent on instead of this ridiculous pipe dream of “resurrecting” the “hidden Armenians” and risking creating a religious dichotomy for the coming generations.

    These people are no more “hidden” then the raisin and walnut farmers in northern CA from whom only small percentage still yet identifies themselves with being Armenian much less gives a hoot about Armenia/Arstakh. In many ways, “hidden Armenians” in Turkey are far more removed due to their new found faiths. If they are so resolute in being Armenian, they can start by denouncing their muslim faith and taking the first step of converting back to Christianity, the small group that will actually do this can then MAYBE be folded back into Armenian communities. This idiotic path being sought is a VERY DANGEROUS game all of these imbecile Armenians are playing in Istanbul which can have catastrophic results 50 to 100 years from now if it backfires in our faces. Our losses have been made, we need to cut them and move on while we still have a homeland and an Arstakh to see prosper.

    Who gave all of these Chobans the right to jump on such radical bandwagons on behalf of Armenians worldwide?

    • ronnie said:

      We are simply tracing lost and distant relatives in a way.
      There are other communities go and find and reach out to their lost sheep.
      Sorry you feel that way!
      And yes they are “hidden”, when you are the only one of your kind your naturally blend in .it all comes back when stay with people who think alike. Go outside where no Armenian exits and learn.

    • hayrenaser said:

      I agree with the gist of what you are saying, but because we are not as powerful as our foe we need to recruit as many allies as we possibly can, even if it means to connect bridges with long lost national relatives compatriots, don’t forget most in turkia are not original turks, they are turkified, a segmented turkia is a manageable turkia… GET IT????
      and please read the comment I wrote to nshan…let’s redirect our hostilities on those who are trying desperately hard to annihilate us, instead of each other

  4. Sis said:

    What a negative and rude comment about such a tragic situation.No one has the right to call these intellectuals “choban” even he or she does not agree with them. Kudos for the Hrant Dink Foundation and all the participants for this very important conference. As a nation we need to know how to deal with this huge problem and find the right solution.Negativism does not solve the problem, nor can find new ways to approach to the core.Probably some people are envy that like German scholar Hilmar Kaiser was saying, ” Armenian intellectualism is returning to the very place.”Yes, that place was Bolis and is again.

  5. Armanen said:

    kaiser needs to worry about his own genocidal peoples past and current racist tones, not lecture Armenians on historiography.

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