With its rich history and diverse involvements, the ARF has played a unique and often vital role in the life of our nation. Indeed, if we look at the party’s resumé broadly, we find a remarkable versatility that is unusual for any one organization. Think, for a moment, of the different roles the party has played—across time and space—in pursuit of our national ideals:
– It has been a party of resistance, rebellion, even revolution. Think of the role it played in enlightening, organizing, and arming the Armenian masses of Eastern Anatolia, during the repressive final decades of Ottoman rule. More recently, think of the role it played as catalyst for the national self-determination movement in Mountainous Karabagh.
– It has been a party of state. The most prominent example, of course, is the formative role it played in the first Independent Republic of Armenia (1918-1920).
– It has been a community-builder. Think of the enormous role it played in organizing, orienting, and sustaining our diaspora—essentially communities in exile—following the successive upheavals of Genocide and Sovietization.
– It has been a protector and promoter of national ideology and culture. Whether battling against cultural assimilation or keeping alive the ideals of national sovereignty, the ARF has led the effort to uphold Armenian nationalism, most prominently in Diaspora during the long years of Soviet rule.
– It has been a lobbyist toward foreign powers. Whether as government-in-exile, or more recently, as an advocate operating in its host countries, the ARF has led the drive to influence decision-makers and opinion-makers who wield power vis-a-vis the Armenian Cause.
– It has been at the forefront of social movements, within and beyond Armenia’s borders. Think of the various roles it has played, e.g. as an integral part of the Iranian Revolution and Ottoman reform movements of the early 20th century, as a leader within the multi-ethnic Baku Commune of 1918, and as a dissident force in Armenia at various points during Soviet rule.
– It has been a party of justice. Whether punishing czarist officials for pitting Armenians against Muslims, avenging the atrocities of Talaat and his comrades, or more recently pressing claims for reparations, ARF activists have sought—through all possible means—to gain justice for the lives, lands, and rights of which Armenians have been dispossessed.
Taken together, such roles tell the story of a party that has remained resilient, adaptable, open to change, and ready to meet the challenges of the day. And yet, such diversity is not always celebrated; indeed, sometimes it is cause for confusion, criticism, or both. How so?
First, such a dazzling array of positions has led some to assert a lack of coherence, an ARF tendency to “be all things to all people.” Indeed, critics have asked how any party can maintain integrity of vision and belief when it has housed under one roof anglophiles and russophiles; socialists and Cold Warriors, pragmatists and revolutionaries, those who wear suits and those who wear khakis, and so forth. This is a valid concern, and deserves separate treatment.
Second, some critics assert that the abovementioned variety no longer exists; that it was a hallmark of the ARF during its early and middle decades of activity, whereas today the party has settled into more predictable and routine functions. This, too, cannot be dismissed and must be treated under separate cover.
Here, however, I wish to deal with a third set of concerns; concerns that are perhaps more immediate and worrisome. It is the tendency among many supporters—even party members themselves—to mistake the part for the whole, to take a piece of the ARF’s resume, magnify it, and assert its primacy at the expense of other pieces that are equally vital and necessary.
On numerous occasions, we have heard comments about what the ARF’s real mission is or should be. I’m not talking about hypothetical straw-men, but actual comments made in the ebb-and-flow of our community life. For some, today’s ARF should stick to lobbying—especially in the West—instead of involving itself in community affairs which presumably fall in the domain of the church and other organizations. For others, the dividing line is found elsewhere: Some assert that the ARF’s primary focus is naturally Hai Tahd (Armenian Cause), and that social issues, especially in Armenia, are really a secondary concern. Others argue exactly the reverse. Still others say that the ARF’s focus should be on the Diaspora because, well, Armenia may be our homeland but it has its own government and society while we sit thousands of miles away with more immediate preoccupations.
How does one respond to such assertions? With great difficulty, I suppose, because all of the proposed foci are important. And perhaps that is the point, i.e. that there are no shortcuts, no easy solutions, because the ARF ultimately is not about this instead of that, but rather about this and that simultaneously. True, there should remain a sense of priority about what matters most at a given time or place, but we must remember that the ARF is distinctive among organizations precisely because of its commitment to the totality of our national ideals. If I had to boil these ideals down to their essence, I’d cite three fundamental pillars that have been present throughout the history of the party:
a) A commitment to Armenia’s sovereignty: This includes a wide range of goals, from autonomy for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and Transcaucasia, to the drive to attain and maintain Armenia’s independence, to a pro-independence position during the long years of Soviet rule, to a more recent commitment to bolster Armenia’s newfound independence. (The latter would include, by the way, not only foreign policy and national security issues, but matters of social justice and the rule of law, which are equally part of the fabric of a sovereign Armenia.)
b) Pursuit of the Armenian Cause: This includes all of those efforts, over so many years, to gain justice/redress for historical grievances, including but not limited to the Armenian Genocide. Obviously, the methods have varied – governmental lobbying, publicity, international legal claims, armed struggle, as well as efforts on the ground – but the overarching goal has been the same.
c) Armenopreservation (Hayabahbanum): This covers all of the various efforts to keep Armenians Armenian. This ranges from the reawakening of Western Armenia in the late 19th century, to keeping language, culture, and history alive in Diaspora, to current efforts to forge new and vital links between homeland and diaspora.
Many organizations embrace one, even two, of these programmatic foci. But the ARF alone has been the one to embrace all three, which accounts for much of its drawing power among the masses. Imagine, for a moment, an ARF that pursued Hai Tahd alone, without regard for Armenia’s current polity, society, and economy; such an ARF would risk becoming dry and devoid of all social relevance – a narrow, single-interest lobby. Conversely, imagine an ARF that solely embraced the Armenia we have today, without regard for the Armenia that we’ve lost; such an ARF would risk falling out of touch with our roots, with the Western Armenian history and culture that have nourished us through Genocide and into our current predicament in Diaspora.
In sum, the ARF by its nature embraces a diverse whole. It is the totality of its vision, above all else, that has inspired legions to join its ranks or follow its path. True, this path may seem cluttered or overburdened at times, but that is a small price to pay for a legacy of this kind. Such a legacy should not be ignored, nor should it be simply upheld; rather, the ARF’s legacy must be understood, built upon, and ultimately guided with care and intelligence.
This article is adapted from an ARF Day speech delivered in Detroit, Mich. on December 7, 2013.