Kasbarian: The Lessons of Lisbon

Lisbon reminds me that we must avoid lapsing back into conformism.
Lisbon reminds me that we must avoid lapsing back into conformism.

On July 27, 1983, five young Armenians—Sarkis Abrahamian, Setrak Ajemian, Vatche Daghlian, Ara Kuhrjlian, and Simon Yahniyan—stormed the Turkish Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal, seeking to occupy it in an effort to publicize Turkey’s ongoing denial of the Armenian Genocide. While the attempt ultimately failed—the five became trapped inside the Embassy and eventually committed suicide—it is worth looking at the Lisbon incident, and more broadly, the years of armed struggle in the 1970s and ‘80s, to evaluate the impact of those years and where we’ve come since that time.

Armed struggle was carried out largely by two groups—the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG)—and their offshoots. While the groups varied considerably in tactics and allegiances, they came out of the same period of ferment, marked by civil rights activism, anti-colonial movements, the rise of national liberation struggles in the Third World, and a broad tendency toward radicalism among the youth. Far from being a band of hotheads or quixotic adventurers, many of the young avengers were part of this broader, worldwide tendency, and thus reflected the spirit of their times: Conventional political means had yielded little results, and the Great Powers—both US and USSR—despite their professed idealism and concern for human rights, were seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution; in the US’s case especially, viewed no longer as the bastion of the free world but rather as an imperialist power that backed dictatorships and other criminal states, including modern Turkey.

Bearing these trends in mind, we must view the rise of armed struggle for what it was: A movement that, frustrated by the seeming impotence of mainstream advocacy, began to call for more extreme actions (such as targeted assassinations of high-ranking Turkish diplomats) that could shake the system’s foundations. The effort was designed essentially as a wake-up call, and on two fronts:

  • Aiming to send shock waves through Turkey, as well as international public opinion.
  • Seeking to repoliticize Armenian communities worldwide, replacing conventional notions of democracy and human rights with bolder, ideologically sharper notions of self-sacrifice, liberation, and revolutionary zeal in pursuit of our cause.

On the first front, the wave of political assassinations did indeed wake up Turkey. In fact, in the early years Turkish opinionmakers were frankly startled, having grown accustomed to seeing Armenians as modest and unthreatening, hardly a bold or formidable adversary. It took a few years, but by the late 1970s Turkey’s elite had regained its balance: At first, Ankara sought quick remedies to defuse its “Armenian problem”: Recall then-Foreign Minister Çaglayangil, who invited the leaders of the Armenian political parties—ARF, Hunchak and ADL—to meet secretly in Switzerland. The Foreign Minister expressed his country’s dismay over the rise in political violence, and sought the Armenian groups’ assistance, but was kindly rebuffed. He was told that while the parties did not condone such violence per se, a) the cessation of hostilities was beyond their means; and b) nothing short of justice would cause the assassins to lay down their arms. Soon thereafter, Turkey evaluated these results and decided to drop the possibility of subsequent meetings.

Soon thereafter, Turkey became more pro-active. Both directly and indirectly, it began to pressure Armenian leaders and community institutions inside Turkey. More ominously, it began to pour millions of dollars into organized denial efforts, creating a political machine that has continued to grow till this day.

We may look upon this today as cause for concern, but at the time Armenians believed that armed struggle had made headway in a limited sense: It had forced Turkey to blink, and it had drawn widespread reaction—both positive and negative—from international public opinion, as mainstream media voraciously devoured news of every assassination. For a period, it seemed that the Armenian Cause had gone from being yesterday’s news to emerging as a serious matter of contemporary relevance.

However, the armed struggle did not have staying power. Some believe that by the 1980s it had gone too far, particularly in the wanton destruction of Paris’s Orly Airport and other cases where innocent bystanders were recklessly killed. This likely caused a decline in support from many Armenians, especially in Europe where the avengers had won widespread sympathy. And yet, others say the decline in political violence came because it perhaps did not go far enough: As long as politicized Armenians did not have presence on the ground inside Turkey, the assassination attempts were increasingly cast as isolated incidents staged by the diaspora, which had no foothold on its historic lands, and was not part of any organic struggle inside Turkey. (It would have been interesting to see such organic struggle, but of course the tentative openings inside Turkish society were still over 20 years away.) Still others rightly point to another factor: ASALA and JCAG also didn’t have staying power because another organic struggle on the ground—Karabagh—soon emerged to occupy Armenians’ attention.

On the second front, the movement did often repoliticize Armenian communities. But it also generated controversies, especially in the US, where Armenian-Americans had grown up for decades seeking to integrate with their host societies, not by challenging the mainstream but by accepting it. The image of the ‘peaceful Armenian’ had been tarnished, if not shattered, by the armed struggle, and people reacted in different ways to this. For those who viewed their Armenian identity in simple or conservative terms, the wave of political violence was often too much too handle: “Good Armenians” sought to distance themselves not just from so-called “terrorism,” but from activism of any kind, often avoiding the faintest mention or involvement with the Armenian Cause.

But for others who were more reflective, the years of armed struggle gave important meaning to being Armenian. Now, all of a sudden, being Armenian involved making choices, often difficult choices, tied to one’s belief system. I can recall the numerous examples when newspaper reporters and federal investigators began questioning our community leadership, who by and large stood together, saying that while we do not condone such violence, we understand the causes behind it, and that fundamental solutions require justice for the crime of Genocide. For many of us, there was a maturation process involved, as such pressures caused us to think more deeply and clearly about what we did and didn’t believe in.

Meanwhile for those—fewer in number—who were even more politicized, the years of armed struggle offered existential shifts. The old narratives, alliances, even worldviews were all challenged by the new order that was seemingly upon us: Armenians as the US’s “little ally” was replaced for me by a horizontal view where our most natural, nourishing alliances came not from the Great Powers but from other struggling, dispossessed peoples such as the Kurds, Basques, and Palestinians. I recall being moved by an influential article in the New York Times by a Columbia University professor (I believe it was Steele Commager) who pointed to the hypocrisy of condemning such acts of “terrorism” when the greatest, most lethal violence against innocent people comes from the large, ostensibly democratic states we reside in (and the military-industrial complexes that sustain them). “What do you expect?” was his question, reminding that “terrorism” is the obvious weapon-of-the-weak, used by those who do not have a state apparatus to legitimize their use of violence. Either condemn violence across the board, he seemed to say, or don’t condemn it at all. In such a milieu, being Armenian was no longer something you simply wore on your skin; it was a choice, an attitude, a stance on life-writ-large. And for some of us, being Armenian became a choice increasingly not to conform to dominant values, but to stand by our principles even if those principles aren’t always fashionable.

In this spirit, I would affirm that the incident in Lisbon—and the five martyrs who gave their lives there—was not reckless, merely destructive or without purpose. If anything, it reminds me that we must avoid lapsing back into conformism. Lisbon reminds us to be creative, demanding, and to push the envelope—remaining aware of ‘inside strategies’ as well as ‘outside strategies’ in pursuit of our goals. More plainly, we must remain ready to work, when necessary, through established institutions in pursuit of our cause; but we must also stand ready to question the foundations, and the legitimacy, of such institutions, rather than simply accepting them as the natural order of things.

This article is adapted from an address delivered at a July 28, 2013 commemoration organized by the ARF “Soghomon Tehlirian” gomideh in Fresno, Calif. The author is a member of the ARF Central Committee, Eastern United States.

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Antranig Kasbarian

Antranig Kasbarian is a member of the ARF Central Committee, Eastern United States. Over the past 20 years, he has been a lecturer, activist, and community leader; he has also worked regularly as a journalist, activist, and researcher in Nagorno-Karabagh. He is a former editor of the Armenian Weekly, and holds a Ph.D. in geography from Rutgers University. He joined the Tufenkian Foundation in 2003, launching its program in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh), and served as its executive director until 2015. He is currently the Director of Development of the Tufenkian Foundation, pursuing a range of charitable/strategic projects in Armenia and Artsakh.

18 Comments

  1. I’m sorry but violence and murder is unacceptable. What ASALA and JCAG did was to use terrorism to publicize the denial and seek justice as they saw it. Armed struggle is when you fight guerrilla war against an occupying country, from within the occupied territory.

    We all understand the pain, the insults, the loss and frustration and the injustice. I lost family in the genocide, but murder is not a means to address these.

    What Tehlirian did was justice because he went after the man who was actually guilty of crimes. And as Lemkin had noted Tehlirian did this because there were no international laws to address such crimes committed by the Young Turks. Assassinating Turkish diplomats who were born after the genocide and had no hand in it is not justice.

    Should people believe us through assassinations or continuous research and acceptance through academic and historical understanding?

    I’m sorry but I find ASALA and JCAG arrogant in their thinking that they thought they can speak for all of us through violence and murder. If you want to avenge the deaths of your family in the genocide, that’s your choice. The wider Armenian community did not ask for justice through these means.

    What all of these guys, who were willing to sacrifice their lives, should have done was to set themselves on fire, self-immolation, like the Buddhist who protested the Vietnam war. His action is still remembered widely. From a practical point of view, terrorism shifts sympathy towards the victim of that immediate act.

  2. Completely agree with Random Armenian. Am disturbed every year by the outpouring of sympathy and heroic mythmaking heaped upon the Lisbon 5 and ASALA. Just in the past year I’ve met people who would regularly walk around town wearing ASALA baseball caps. Quite disturbing and surreal. These groups blackened the name of the Armenian people, and their actions are given far too much credit as somehow having pushed the recognition movement forward.

    • These baseball caps are an emotional reaction and not a thought out, rational, morally justifiable act.

      This article tries to justify the assassinations by presenting them as legitimate way of pursuing our just cause, even if not “always fashionable.”

      How we go about pursuing our just cause is just as important as the cause itself.

      Those who seek to right a wrong through violence do it because they were *not* creative and could not think of a better and non-destructive means to achieve it.

      I’m sorry these 5 lost their lives. They should have instead been alive now, raising families and contributing to the Armenian community.

  3. I am certainly confused by Dr. Antranig Kasparian’s article. I have huge respect for him and greatly value his opinions. It is unclear to me whether he is condoning terrorism or not?
    The lesson learnt from Lisbon is that we lost five young Armenian men in a seriously flawed and miscalculated move, that at the time
    generated more negative sentiment than any positive impact.
    No terrorist activity has yielded tangible positive results. It merely causes loss of innocent lives and hardens positions because the victims garner sympathy.
    Our cause is just. In spite of Turkey’s denial machine, it is an
    irrefutable fact and we should continue our efforts by pursuing all political and diplomatic venues.
    In my opinion, the organizations in the Diaspora, like the ANCA are doing as good a job as possible. What is lacking is activism and serious involvement by the Government in Armenia. May be, one day, they will wake up .
    Vart Adjemian

  4. Thank you for a very good analysis of this page of our history covering the late 70s and the early 80s. You very well explained the political implication of the “years of armed struggle”. Indeed many of us with the help of many intellectuals we started to see the political reality we were in after many years of political lethargy. Maybe the impact of the armed struggle years were less among the US Diaspora (which is largely more conservative) however in Europe an entire generation had their national consciousness reawakened. A healthy political discourse occurred during those years which shaped and politicized the youth. Many from that generation have continued to serve the community as organizers, artists,writers with a sense of conviction and sacrifice for a cause for which others gave their lives.

  5. I agree with Varujan regarding the impact that the “armed struggle” had in Europe (particularly France), in comparison to the U.S. What Kasbarian glosses over is how the traditional Armenian establishment (political parties, etc) in the U.S. failed to utilize these events to foster a healthy critical dialogue within the community regarding the overall “Armenian Question”. I refer to the ARF in particular, which actually mounted a campaign to quash any political debate within the community that included ASALA supporters and those turned off by “politics as usual”. In the 30-35 years that have ensued, the conservative establishment in the Spyurk has done precious little to build on the momentum forged during those years. Disagreeing with the act itself is no justification for such inaction.

  6. From the structure of the article, it is clear that the author sees how important it is to see things in a historical context. Armenians engaged in armed struggle because that was the card to play during those years; the same way that lobbying is today. The fact is that Turkey thought it was untouchable because all we were doing was talking and complaining. With these acts, we showed them that we have teeth, and most importantly we showed our own people that we have teeth, and that we’re committed, and that achieving our goals is an actual possibility. Even though it is not the preference, is violence EVER justified? Yes, it is. The assassination of Talaat by Tehlirian was not a case of one man murdering another, and would be foolish to be seen as such. It was a political act of Armenians striking a physical blow back at Turkey in this unfinished conflict. It is an act of armed struggle by a people whose land IS under occupation, and they are using guerilla warfare to gain some ground. Lisbon 5 should be seen in the same light.

    • I do not see the acts of the 70’s and 80’s in the same light as Tehlirian. The people killed were not guilty of genocide. They did not deserve to be killed. And I do not want terrorism to be the means to find justice for the Armenian genocide. And I’m not alone in this.

      And the fact that it should take killings to motivate us to participate in Armenian causes is a poor reflection on us.

      Putting the acts in historical context is a cop-out. It’s essentially saying, everyone else was doing it, so it’s ok. No. The Lisbon 5 caused the death of a Portuguese policeman. Why? How is his death justified?

      All these acts of terrorism, like many acts of terrorism, happened on foreign lands where bystanders were killed. It’s idiotic and makes no sense.

      “Even though it is not the preference, is violence EVER justified? Yes, it is. ”
      It is not a matter of preference, but right and wrong. Yes violence is justified in self defense for example, but not in the case that the article discusses.

  7. The Turkish consul’s wife should be alive today, just as members of my family should have had full lives. The Lisbon 5 murdered her and a Portuguese police officer for nothing. Are we Christian, or are we merely people who profess it?

  8. This is a shameful episode orchestrated by party bosses who sent five Armenian men and two non-Armenians to their deaths for no reason other than to get publicity for their party. The same party (and the other diasporan parties) have done little or nothing to help the families of the tens of thousands who died in Karabakh. Therein lies their moral bankruptcy

  9. Zeitgeists come and go, but universal truths remain the same. Mobilization of our cause at the cost of murdering innocent people can not be condoned and euphemistically referred to as being “creative, demanding, and (pushing) the envelope.”

    Kasbarian has failed to show the lasting positive outcomes of the events in Lisbon. What have we truly gained as a result of those who lost their lives? How is Armenia better off? How much closer to paying for its crimes is Turkey today? What are those who ‘don’t condone the violence, but understand the causes behind it’ doing to keep the momentum going? The war in Karabagh was a greater mobilizer, as was the tragic murder of Hrant Dink. I can’t join with those who want to glorify and mythologize the senseless loss of innocent lives, regardless of the so-called ‘positive’ outcomes for our cause.

  10. I think we should be proud of the many commenters who reject violence. If a comparable article appeared in T nationalist publications, T commenters would have v few dissenting.

  11. I don’t view this article as an apology for terrorism. It points to matters much deeper and thornier. Above all, I was reminded of the need to ask difficult questions: Not the simple ‘yes or no’ questions asked by many on this forum, but the probing, really tough questions that come from challenging the status quo. During the 1970s and ‘80s, questions like the following became common:
    -When is political violence acceptable, if at all? Who is authorized to judge?
    -In a world defined by violence, why is terrorism singled out as evil, while state-sanctioned violence against innocent people is given a pass?
    -Do diasporan Armenians have the luxury of pursuing conventional means (lobbying, academic research, etc.) exclusively, when these means have proven largely ineffective in combating our dispossession? If these conventional means aren’t working, then maybe something is wrong with ‘the system.’
    -If political assassinations are unacceptable, can we search for creative new ways of pursuing our just cause?
    -Right or wrong, the terrorists were devoted to a cause. How can we channel their commitment, self-sacrifice, and idealism into something that packs a punch but without the violence?
    -Many of us have condemned the acts of terrorism. OK, now do we remain smugly satisfied with condemnation, or do we seek better ways to solve the underlying problem? In short, What are you doing about it?
    The above questions, and more, were asked increasingly during this period. I believe such questioning was a healthy development for our community – one that had become largely conservative and assimilated. It is doubtful to me whether such questions would ever have been raised without the armed struggle. In that context, I would urge greater caution before simply condemning the acts of this period.

  12. My responses to your rhetorical q’s:

    When is political violence acceptable, if at all? Who is authorized to judge? [Murder is never acceptable; legitimate self-defense and war under limited conditions are] [God is the Judge, not us].

    -In a world defined by violence, why is terrorism singled out as evil, while state-sanctioned violence against innocent people is given a pass? [I was not aware that state sanctioned evil gets a pass. If a state uses violence in self-defense of its people or lands, from invasion, it gets a pass.] [You say the world is defined by violence. Hardly. Our lives are gifts from God, evil is a human aberration]
    -Do diasporan Armenians have the luxury of pursuing conventional means (lobbying, academic research, etc.) exclusively, when these means have proven largely ineffective in combating our dispossession?
    [These efforts are far from easy or luxurious. Do we have the moral right to pursue evil means for some national purpose?] [What did all the ASALA, JCOG etc. acts accomplish? Old men spurred young men to kill and terrorize, accomplishing nothing but blackening our reputation and endangering our brethren in Turkey.]
    If these conventional means aren’t working, then maybe something is wrong with ‘the system.’ [Maybe. But what will murdering innocent wives and policemen do? And murdering Turkish noncombatant state employees just ensures Turkish nationalists’ hold on power and persuasion for the next three generations in their country.]
    -If political assassinations are unacceptable, can we search for creative new ways of pursuing our just cause? [Yes]
    -Right or wrong, the terrorists were devoted to a cause. How can we channel their commitment, self-sacrifice, and idealism into something that packs a punch but without the violence? [Good Question]
    -Many of us have condemned the acts of terrorism. OK, now do we remain smugly satisfied with condemnation, or do we seek better ways to solve the underlying problem? In short, What are you doing about it? [Many things. But condemning violence is also important to follow Christ]
    The above questions, and more, were asked increasingly during this period. I believe such questioning was a healthy development for our community – one that had become largely conservative and assimilated. [If murder and terror prevent assimilation, which is ludicrous, better to assimilate].It is doubtful to me whether such questions would ever have been raised without the armed struggle. In that context, I would urge greater caution before simply condemning the acts of this period.[The Commandments are not subject to national whims. Murdering noncombatants is always wrong. Shall we “win” by murder and terror and find at the successful end of our struggle we abandoned the Legacy of Christ, Sts. Mary, Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Hripsime, Gayane, Krikor,Nerses, Mesrop among others? Such victory I don’t want; such victory 2.5M martyrs refused to accept.]

  13. It is shameful that articles are written to condone murder and terrorism and I’m am glad to see that most comment condone it. I also lost family in the genocide, but glorifying terrorists is no way to honor the memory of our dead. ASALA et al did nothing whatsoever to help the Armenian Diaspora or the Armenian Cause.

  14. great commentary. the Lisbon five fought and died as did the defenders of Armenia. they gave their lives for a cause, and pray tell if you believe you fight for a noble cause. the Armenian cause is our cause. god bless the Lisbon five.–mitch kehetian

  15. Enjoyed reading this article. I don’t think it shies away from the reality of the Lisbon 5 and ASALA and I think it asks the right kind of questions. ASALA’s use of hostage-taking and political assassination is ethically problematic, sure, but it is equally ethically problematic to sign up to be a Turkish diplomat, or even to be an American or British diplomat for that matter. No moral question can be asked in a vacuum.

    I do respect that many of those commenting are against the political violence of ASALA and don’t see any value in that approach. But there was a time when political violence was a viable option (maybe the only viable option) because that was the only language power spoke and because it seemed the only way to achieve social revolution. Renouncing political violence during that period would have made you a reactionary, make no bones about it. Nowadays, though nobody should rule out all types of armed struggle, it has much less utility because the nature of power, war-making, and social life has changed so much.

    ASALA shook Turkish society to its core – at at time when it had done all it could to forget about Armenians and erase them from its history – and for this at least, it should be considered successful. Hagop Hagopian may have been deranged and the wrong man to run ASALA, which I suppose is why they devolved into reckless counter-productive criminality. But the legacy of the group is more than just the fear instilled in Turkish diplomats. As Kasbarian alludes to, ASALA linked our struggle with the PKK, ETA, and the PLO, and in doing so we matured politically and could see ourselves in relation to similarly oppressed groups, and see a shared history and future. I like how Kasbarian said it made Armenians have to make decisions. I think what is pivotal about this is that ASALA revealed two very broad options – sucking up to imperial powers to try achieve justice or aligning and forming anti-imperialist movements. The latter option, for me is the only option, but before ASALA perhaps apolitical Armenians did not know they had a choice.

    This is still the best way forward. Because of the collaboration with the PKK and the Kurdish awakening since the 1970’s, Kurds have recognized their role in the genocide and tried to atone for it. A current incarnation of ASALA could easily be on the ground in Syria and Iraq with the PYD and PKK. Sooner rather than later, I think these groups will win out and we should be helping to hasten this. Our collaboration with the PKK originates with ASALA, and despite all the mistakes made this group and however you feel about its legacy, it has left us with something we can build on.

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