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Hrant Gadarigian

Islamized Armenians: Coming to Grips With a New Reality

3 Day Istanbul Conference seen as a first step in opening a much needed dialogue and discussion

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 of 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 Istanbulthat 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 Argentine 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 Tachian, 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 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 or so since independence, 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 United States who, he argues, haven’t produced anything new in the past twenty 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."

Comments (22)

What does one call the ethnic minorities who live in Armenia, then, if not Armenian? For example, for the Jewish community, which has been born and raised their for many generations, often with names that are indistinguishable from other Armenians, whose thoughts and dreams are in Armenian. Whose food and drink are the same as other Armenians. Would you not call them Armenian? What else would you call them?
One armenian
The prodigal son has returned we can each choose to play the father or the resentful brother !
Not Impressed
So Hilmar Kaiser comes out of the bag as a GENOCIDE DENIER. I would say nothing new has come out of his rhetoric for the past 20 years either. And this pseudo-scholar needs to be watched closely and put in his place each time he starts meddling in our affairs.
Pardon me, but I am skeptical. These Islamized Armenians are by blood probably only partly Armenian. Hence, I do not know why they would choose to identify as Armenian when they have other ethnicities to choose from. Why would Armenian take precedence over their other ethnicities? Moreover, many Turks have the blood of other ethnicities. I do not see a rush by them to identify with these other ethnicities. And even if they did, which of their several ethnicities would they choose? Are their Turks who identify as Greek? I don't see many. So why would there be many Turks who identify as Armenian? I am just asking.
@Greg, being Armenian is not necessary u should be christian too, plz don't spread such false propaganda, we were armenians before being christians, we are civilization thousand years old
Let them remain Turkish citizens of Armenian ancestry and claim their property and lands from the Turkish Republic.
Hrant Gadarigian
Dear Readers....During my conversation with Hilmar Kaiser he actually stated that nothing new had been produced in the US for the past 20, not 40, years. That was my mistake and I've corrected it in the above text.
Although, as I said above, the complexity of this possible discourse needs to be developed in its completeness, while necessarily addressing the factor of the state and possible new state inside the territory where these people live.. the current Armenian state will gain its much needed neutrality in the eyes of the surrounding Muslim cultures if it promotes the religious diversity. The old Christian tradition of valuing the human dignity and equality cannot be taken away from our identity if these people become included in it,. quite the opposite, our culture of living (in its historically formed rigidity) is capable to accustom these people into the European mindset, get them assimilated, while promoting the values of Democracy and Equality.. we eventually may define what it means to be European, and show the possible resolution path to the conflicting nature of Islam and Europe.. If Armenian state intends to become the Switzerland of Caucasus, it can use this chance. . We all will still remain the predecessors of the First Christian State, and of people who heroically fought to protect Christianity during the Battle of Avarayr. Again, what is to be an Armenian, will be defined within Armenia, by the generation of freedom - young people like us, who will finally establish the perfect democracy in our home.
Hagop Karlozian
Any Armenian Christian or Muslim is welcom in my heart as long as they feel Armenian.
Karnig Oughourlian
what about Jews, can a Jew have any other religion, can there be an Armenian Jew I think for practical purposes Armenians for the last 1700 years have associated themselves with Christianity and have suffered and been persecuted immensely because of it have to cling to their religion and hold on to their traditions. By the same token, most if not all Islamicized Armenians can remain just that and still be considered every bit as any other Armenian, simply as a result of the circumstances of the extermination of 1895-1923.
Dikran6, If the Islamized Armenians choose to identify themselves with other (mainstream) Armenians, there is nothing to prevent them, morally, legally or otherwise. We should approach the issue with the understanding of a matured people. Should welcome them to the Armenian fold and leave religion to personal conscience.
anon anonymous
If today an Armenian living in Armenia converts to Islam, is he or is he not an Armenian ?
Ara Stepan Melkonian
We know that there were Islamised Armenians living in the Izmid province of the Ottoman Empire around 1910, in the village of Almalu, around the town of Geyve etc. Almalu had 42 houses and the inhabitants spoke Armenian. See Kasabian, Minas: The Armenians of the province of Nicomedia, Azadamard Press, Bardizag, 1913, pages 143-145.
They must be willing to change the culture and LANGUAGE.
Armenians before accepting Christianity weren't they of Armenian race. So religion changes but the race remains. When we were pagans we had different culturewhen we lived as Christians our culture changed. And still its changing, sometimes we are Christians byame only without experimenting, but we are stillf Armenian race. During theSoviet reign some confessed Atheism, some exercised Christianity secretly, but no one said they are not Armenians. We must accept those Turkified Armenians if they feel or have a sympathy towards us which will change gradually if we work on them to make them feel more like Armenians by interacting with them to convert them. What did the Protestants and Catholics do to convert the Orthodox Christians. Didn't they work hard enough using every means money, food, education , by opening colleges. There was a time Armenians would not accept the converts as Armenians. Nowadays, the aghantavors, aren't they Armenians but we are trying to reconvert them. It needs time, great effort, money to return them to us.
Many of these Turkified Armenians are only partially Armenian, as they are partially Turkish. They get to choose whether they identify with their Turkish or Armenian roots. These arguments about Armenian genes are hot air. Armenian genes are mixed with all the surrounding ethnic groups. As for the Turks, they are the descents of the Mongols, who throughout the years Turkified/Islamized millions of Christians. Once you identify as a Turkish Muslim, that is exactly what you are, unless you renounce these identities and pick up your lost Armenian roots.
I personally believe that a Muslim Armenian is not really an Armenian. For centuries Armenians have been persecuted and killed for being Christian. Christianity defined all Armenians and this was something they could not get away from in the Ottoman Empire as they were organized under the Millet system. Unless a Turkified Armenian converts back to Christianity, they cannot be defined as Armenian--of course it is undeniable that they have Armenian roots--being a practicing Muslim cannot fit in with the wider Armenian population. Look at diasporan communities like Iran and Lebanon; they do everything in their power to lead their lives independent of the Muslims around them. We should reach out to these hidden Armenians--but I see no purpose in trying to pull staunch Muslims back into Armenian life. As liberal and impartial one might be, in the end Armenians are defined by their religion and their culture (among other things)--and if you take that away, very little remains.
An Armenian is an Armenian regardless of his religion.Religion has nothing to do with nationality.Weren t Armenians Armenian before christianity ?Armenians should stop segregating one another.Those poor islamized Armenians were segregated enough in Turkey ,lets not segregate them within our own communities.They suffered enough.
Armenians are who they are, because they are the predecessors of the First Christian state; people who heroically fought for their right to preserve their Christian Identity during the Battle of Avarayr.. Also people of a Kingdom which acted in unity with historically European crusader states.. Christianity with its good/positive and for some, possibly bad associations wraps a big portion of our history, and our identity/.. Islam never ever intersected it.. States like France or UK also historically Christian, have many Muslim citizens, but they don't have diasporas.. not all of them will identify themselves as French or English; but they will gladly associate themselves with the state.. So we simply cannot discuss these without the variable of the state.. If these people formed i.e. an Autonomous Armenian Muslim state or something within their country of and acted in unity to promote the interests of all Armenians, they would certainly be perceived differently by the Christian Majority.. Otherwise its too unlikely for them to be a 'complete' Armenian.. You are not simply born as Armenian; you are raised as such by the culture,. Its unfair to simply name yourself an Armenian if you don't struggle for the cultivation and growth of Armenian state, and culture that created it.. Ultimately, what is to be an Armenian, will be defined within Armenia, by the generation of freedom.
Religion should be outlawed.
No they are not. Being armenian means that you are indeed Christian, amongst other requirements or definitions.
anon anonymous
If an Armenian girl marries a Muslim Armenian and come to live and work in Armenia and have children are they not Armenian ?

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