Reflections on a Groundbreaking Conference in Istanbul
In early November, the Hrant Dink Foundation held a conference on “Islamicized Armenians” at the Istanbul Bosphorus University, breaking one more taboo in Turkey. Islamicized Armenians were hitherto a hidden reality, a secret known by many, but which couldn’t be revealed to anyone, whispered behind closed doors but filed in government intelligence offices, and it finally broke free into the public.
The late Hrant Dink would have been elated to see this conference become a reality, eight years after the first conference on “Armenians during the late Ottoman Empire era and the 1915 events” was held at Istanbul Bilgi University, when protesters hurled insults at the conference participants and government ministers labelled them as “traitors stabbing Turks in the back.” That conference had also broken a taboo, but Hrant was already a marked man for revealing the identity of the most famous Islamicized Armenian—Sabiha Gokcen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter and the first female Turkish combat pilot, who was an Armenian orphan named Hatun Sebilciyan.
It is a known fact that in 1915, tens of thousands of Armenian orphans were forcibly Islamicized and Turkified; that tens of thousands of Armenian girls and young women were captured by Kurds and Turks as slaves, maids, or wives; that tens of thousands Armenians converted to Islam to escape the deportations and massacres; and that tens of thousands of Armenians found shelter in friendly Kurdish and Alevi villages, but lost their identity. What happened to these survivors, these living victims of the 1915 genocide? Hrant was obsessed with them: “We keep talking about the ones ‘gone’ in 1915. Let us start talking about the ones who ‘remained.’”
These remaining people survived, but mostly in living hells. Remarkably, their children and grandchildren are now “coming out,” are no longer hiding their Armenian roots. One of the first was the famous Turkish lawyer Fethiye Cetin, who revealed that her grandmother was Armenian, in her book My Grandmother. This was followed by another book edited by Aysegul Altinay and Fethiye Cetin, titled The Grandchildren, about dozens of Turkish/Kurdish people describing their Armenian roots, without revealing their real identities. Then came the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd, which became a destination for many hidden Armenians in Eastern Anatolia. On average, over a hundred people visit the church daily, most of them hidden Armenians. Some come to pray, get baptized, or married, but most just visit to feel Armenian, without converting back to Christianity.
This has created a new identity of Muslim Armenians, in addition to the historical and traditional identity of Christian Armenians. In a country where only Muslim Turks can work for the government, where being non-Muslim is sufficient excuse for persecution, harassment and attacks, where the word Armenian is used as the biggest insult, it takes real courage for someone to reveal that he is now an Armenian and no longer a Turk/Kurd/Muslim. People can easily lose their jobs, livelihood, or even lives for changing their identity. As an example of the level of racism and discrimination in the country, an ultra-nationalist opposition member of parliament years ago accused Turkish President Abdullah Gul of having Armenian roots in his family from Kayseri. Gul sued her for defamation, and the courts sided with him, ordering her to pay compensation for such an insult.
It is difficult to estimate the number of Islamicized Armenians in Turkey, and even more difficult to predict what proportion of them are aware of their Armenian roots, or how many are willing to regain their Armenian identity. Based on independent studies of the 1915 events, one can conclude that more than 100,000 orphans were forcibly Islamicized/Turkified, and that another 200,000 Armenians survived by converting to Islam or by finding shelter in friendly Kurdish and Alevi regions. It is therefore conceivable that 300,000 souls survived as Muslims. The population of Turkey has increased seven fold since then; using the same multiple, one can extrapolate that there may be two million people with Armenian roots in Turkey today, originating from the 1915 survivors. There were even more widespread conversions to Islam during the 1894-96 massacres, when entire villages were forcibly Islamicized. A couple centuries before, Hamshen Armenians were Islamicized in northeast Anatolia. The Muslim Hamshentsis, numbering about 500,000, speak a dialect based on Armenian, but had never identified themselves as Armenian, until recently. Adding all these forced conversions prior to and during 1915, one can conclude that the number of people with Armenian roots in present-day Turkey reaches several million. (The numbers are difficult to accurately estimate, but in any case, they easily exceed the present population of Armenia.)
The reality is that the secrets of “Armenianness” whispered for three or four generations after 1915 are now becoming loud revelations of new identities. As evidenced in the recent conference, even Hamshen Armenians have started exploring and reclaiming their long lost roots. During the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Church and in my travels in eastern and southeastern Anatolia, one out of every three Kurds that I met had an Armenian grandmother in the family. This fact, hidden until recently, is now revealed openly, often leading young generations to reclaim their Armenian identities, but without giving up Islam. One interesting observation is that the hidden Armenians were aware of other hidden ones and all attempted to intermarry, resulting in many couples who ended up having Armenian roots from both parents.
The conference attracted numerous academicians, historians, and journalists from both within and outside Turkey, as well as dozens of presenters of oral history. One of the most dramatic presentations was about Sara, a 15-year-old Armenian girl from Urfa Viranshehir, who was captured by the Turkish strongman of the region, Eyup Aga. Eyup wanted to take Sara as his third wife. When Sara refused, Eyup killed her mother. When Sara refused again, Eyup killed her father. When Eyup threatened to kill Sara’s little brother, Sara couldn’t resist any more, and married the killer of her parents, on the condition that her brother be spared and she be allowed to keep her name. But her brother was also eventually killed. As she resisted Eyup’s advances, she was repeatedly raped and was pregnant 15 times, giving birth to 15 babies, who all died prematurely. Eyup constantly tortured her, even marking a cross in her body with a knife. His family also mistreated her, viewing her as an outcast, and she had a hellish life to the end. At the end of the story, the presenter, a Turkish academician, revealed that Eyup and the family who committed these crimes against Sara was her own family. Her final statement was even more dramatic than the story: “We always hear stories told by the victims. It is now time for the perpetrators to start talking about and owning their crimes.”
There are new revelations about how the Turkish government kept tabs on Islamicized Armenians. Apparently, the government kept records of every Armenian village or large Armenian clan that was forcibly Islamicized in 1915. It was recently discovered that the identification cards of hidden or known Armenians had a special numbering system to secretly identify them. There are anecdotes that a few Turkish candidates for air force pilot positions were turned away even though they qualified after rigorous tests, when government records revealed that they come from Islamicized Armenian families.
It is of greater concern to us how the Islamicized Armenians are being dealt with by Armenians. It seems that the Istanbul Armenian community and, more critically, the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate are unable or unwilling to accept the hidden Armenians coming out as Armenians, unless these people accept Christianity, get baptized, and learn to speak Armenian. But it is unrealistic to expect the new Armenians to comply with these requirements. Since Armenians in Turkey are all defined as belonging to the Armenian Church, if the newcomers are rejected by the Patriarchate, they become double outcasts, not only from their previous Muslim Turkish/Kurdish community, but also from the Armenian community, as they cannot get married, baptized, or buried by the church and cannot send their children to Armenian schools. If they have made a conscious decision to identify themselves as Armenian—a risky and dangerous initiative under the present circumstances—they should be readily accepted as Armenians, regardless of whether they stay Muslim or atheist or anything else. Relationships get even more complicated as there are now many families with one branch carrying on life as Muslim Turks/Kurds, another branch as Muslim Armenian, and a third branch as Christian Armenian. The Etchmiadzin Church in Armenia is more tolerant, and has issued the following statement: “Common ethnicity, land, language, history, cultural heritage, and religion are general measures in defining a nation. Even if one or more of these measures can be missing due to historic reasons, such as the inability to speak the language, or practice the religion, or the lack of knowledge of cultural and historic heritage, this should not be used to exclude one’s Armenian identity.” Yet, Charles Aznavour’s approach is the most welcoming: “Armenia should embrace the Islamicized Armenians and open its doors to them.”
After Armenia, Karabagh, and the Armenian Diaspora, there is now an emerging fourth Armenian world—the Islamicized Armenians of Turkey. Accepting this new reality will help both Turks and Armenians understand the realities and consequences of 1915.