Logo de Turquie Européenne
Home > Articles > Articles 2007 > The reconstruction of Armenian identity in Turkey (1)

The reconstruction of Armenian identity in Turkey (1)

Saturday 9 December 2006, by Baskın Oran

Since about five or six years the Armenian identity in Turkey has been going through a very radical process of reconstruction. This non-Muslim minority, to use the terms of the Lausanne Peace Treaty of 1923, has started to participate to the country’s politico-cultural life very actively.

JPEG - 22.1 kb

The Road to the Birth of Agos

Every other day one of the community members writes in the newspapers or speaks at the TV channels. Bookstore shelves are full of story books or novels by some twenty Turkish-Armenians writing in Turkish. Armenians are running in municipal elections and one of them is now vice-mayor of Sisli, Istanbul. Since a few years, the Armenian Patriarcate has been servicing e-mail news to a growing list of intellectuals.

Nowadays no CD with a title like “Anatolian Folk Songs” is recorded without one or more song in Armenian. A folk song group called “Knar” that started as a church choir has produced two CDs, “Anadolu Ermeni Türküleri” (Armenian Songs of Anatolia) and “Anadolu’dan Kafkasya’ya Ermeni Müzigi” (Armenian Music from Anatolia to the Caucasus). As much important was the fact that a joint album by Gasparian (the most famous “duduk” player, Armenian national instrument) and Erkan Ogur (the most famous “kopuz” player, Turkish national instrument from Central Asia) made it to the best selling list; music critics unanimously felt that it was a “must”.

In a recent movie about the notorious Wealth Tax of 1942 (“Salkim Hanim’in Taneleri”) a folk song called Sari Gelin (The Blond Bride) was sang in both languages, and the high level of the discussion that followed about the ethnic origin (Turk or Armenian?) of the song could not even be dreamed of just a few years ago.

One last and most surprising case is about Eddie (“Edi” in Turkish), an Armenian boy about 20 years of age. Crossing his heart and speaking in Armenian to himself in difficult moments during the entire program, Edi was declared by the public jury the winner of the very popular TV program “Biri Bizi Gozetliyor” (Someone’s Watching Us), the Turkish version of “Big Brother” in the US or the “Loft Story” in France...

These developments that would be sheer dream just a while ago have three important qualifications: First, the Community is entering the socio-political scene of Turkey, openly, with its own identity (Armenians had always been on the artistic and scientific scene but with Muslim-Turkish names, not with their own identity), and in a way to influence the national agenda strongly when the political atmosphere is rather unfavorable. Second, this process is making a vital contribution to Turkey’s democratization process mainly under EU’s influence. Third, this change of skin is paralleling to the recent developments of international human and minority rights.
The weekly Agos (in Armenian: trace of the plow) that started this process and that now plays the role of both its steering wheel and engine has been the outcome of certain particular needs, which should be examined carefully.

* *

Students of minorities know it well: Minorities formed by immigration easily integrate to their new country and even get assimilated. This is the position of Pomak, Bosnian, Circassian, etc. communities in Turkey. Those who resist to the dominant culture of the country are those autochthonous populations, peoples living on the land since time immemorial and getting their strength from being on their historical territory; this is the position of the Rum (=Hellenes of the Ottoman Empire and of Turkey) and Kurds of Anatolia.

Although Armenians were one of these few autocthonous peoples, they perfectly integrated. The reason was twofold :

- One, unlike the Rum, the Armenians were not the heirs of a universal empire; they were also somehow isolated as a result of having seceded from the Orthodox Church at the Khalkedon Council of 451 and their particular alphabet also separated them from the rest of the Christendom. Consequently they perfectly integrated to the Ottomans, generally spoke Turkish at home, took Turkish family names by adding “ian” (son of) to it, gave innumerable artists, scientists, and administrators to the Empire, and very actively contributed to its modernization (For example Ohannes Odyan Efendi was Prime Minister Mithat Pasa’s council in the preparation of the first constitution in 1876) . As a result, in an Empire where the Turks (Turcomans) revolted very frequently, Armenians never caused any problem well until the second half of the 19th century (after 1821 they were called Millet-i Sadika – The Faithful Nation).

- Second, as a result of living on Silk and Spice roads, the Armenians had dwelled in handicrafts and trade, and the Ottomans encouraged them to go and settle in Istanbul to counterbalance the all-powerful Rum community and also let them set up an autocephalous Patriarchate in Istanbul in 1461.

In time, mainly four factors destroyed this harmony :

1) Oppression and exploitation of the administrators and of Kurdish/Circassian tribal leaders (suzerains) became unbearable as a result of the weakening of the central government in a period where the industrial goods of the West invaded and impoverished the market, slowly killing the handicrafts;

2) Great impact of 1789 ideas on the emergent Armenian petty bourgeoisie of Anatolia and of Diaspora; and also the class conflict between this rising bourgeoisie and the Amira, Armenian aristocrat-grand bourgeois class;

3) Provocations by the Great Britain and Russian Empire among the Armenian petty bourgeoisie with a view to use the latter in the European power struggle called the Eastern Question;

4) The grudge of the Ottomans unable to accede to mercantilism against those who did (the non-Muslims), and also the matching grudge that Muslims (Millet-i Hakime, the Dominant Nation) started to feel against the non-Muslims when the latter became their theoretical equals by virtue of Tanzimat (1839) and Islahat (1856) firmans.

These four factors created a milieu in which Armenians of Anatolia started armed organizations in a view to obtain territorial autonomy; hence the start of mutual killings in Anatolia. This created panic and reaction in Istanbul. A syndrome of disintegration slowly developed because unrest in the Balkans had now spread to the eternal enemy (Russian) border and also because the actor was now the Faithful Nation, which was confessionwise very close to the Russians. In this atmosphere, Abdulhamit II set up the notorious Hamidiye Regiments to curb the Armenian uprisings.

The dramatic drop of the curtain took place in the chaos of the First World War. For the Ottomans, who after the loss of the Balkans immediately faced the shocks of Sarikamis (Caucasus) and Dardanelles, the terrible feeling was that the Empire would soon be driven back to its cradle, Anatolia where the Armenian revolutionaries now cooperated with the advancing Russians. This chaotic socio-psychological atmosphere created an ideal milieu of relative administrative autonomy for a nucleus* among the pan-Turkist Ittihat ve Terakki Party to get rid of the Armenians who were also blocking the road to Turan, Central Asia; hence the notorious Tehcir (deportation) of 1915 .

- *This nucleus can be translated in the terms of contemporary Turkey as the “Derin Devlet”, the Deep State usually identified as “Gladio” in Europe (see interviews by Halil Berktay in the newspapers Radikal, 09 October 2000 (www.radikal.com.tr) and Milliyet, 20 October 2000 (www.milliyet.com.tr) . On the other hand, because it was conducted by this “Deep State” and not by “the State”, the Deportation did not follow a standard model. In some vilayets it was not applied. In some places people backed it up, in some hindered it. But the fact that Armenians owned big properties that local notables and tribes could plunder has been detrimental. The fear that Armenians would return and retake their property according to Sevres Peace Treaty art. 144 was also the strongest reason why these same notables and tribes in eastern Anatolia sided with Ankara against the Allies and Greeks during the Turkish war of independence. See B. Oran, ed., Turk Dis Politikasi, Kurtulus Savasindan Bugune Olgular, Belgeler, Yorumlar (Turkish Foreign Policy, Facts-Documents-Comments, 1919-2001), Vol. I, Istanbul, Iletisim Publishers, December 2001, p.133-134.

* *

The Armenian population in the Republic of Turkey in 1923 was 300.000, 170.000 of which in Anatolia and 130.000 in Istanbul. This figure is around 50.000-80.000 now. This dramatic fall points to a large scale migration from Anatolia to Istanbul and from there to the West.
Aside from the fact that material conditions were far better in the West, the real reason of this exodus was the negative impact on the Community of certain braking points. Although the Ataturk period (1923-38) was relatively peaceful, these major braking points, such as the notorious Varlik Vergisi (Wealth Tax) of 1942, Yirmi Kura Askerlik (Work Battalions), 6-7 September 1955 riots and the 1964 deportation of the Greeks , caused serious unrest among the Armenian community.

In this atmosphere the Community isolated itself from the majority and started a secluded life to protect its identity. But incidents of the next three decades were to prove that this self-isolation was no remedy for the protection of communal integrity.

As a matter of fact, in the 70s the Armenian nationalist organization ASALA started to kill Turkish diplomats, which yielded two important results: First, a very strong reaction in Turkey against ASALA, which was generalized as “Armenian terror” without distinction as to who the “Armenian” was. Second, the Armenians of Turkey who had absolutely nothing to do with this terror entered in a depressive mood, which greatly augmented their self-isolation. One of the dramatic outward expressions of this psychology was the self-cremation of a member of the Community, Artin Penik , in Taksim, the main square of Istanbul.

The PKK within an Armenian context

80s witnessed the intensification of this atmosphere when the notorious 12 September military coup strongly backed the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” to replace the Leftist ideology. Shaken by the ASALA terror, Turkish State and media went to the search of “Armenian Lackeys” behind the Leftist organizations, never qualifying the expression “Armenian”. What’s more, immediately after ASALA quitted the stage because its last bombing in the Orly airport in Paris (July 1983) created strong European reaction as it killed Europeans also, the Kurdish nationalist organization PKK started the terror in 1984. This was inevitably interpreted by everyone in Turkey as the Leftist, Armenian, and Kurdish organizations taking a coordinated row in a race to split Turkey. In this fight, soon degenerated into an undeclared civil war, the State and the media did not want to identify PKK with Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin and started to declare that the PKK leader Ocalan (“Apo”) was no Kurd but Armenian. We even know that at the time, an academic from Ankara was commissioned to search the family tree of Ocalan (apparently, with no positive result). The capture of some non-circumcised PKK militants was enough to spread the contention that “Armenian militants” were fighting in the PKK . The photo of Ocalan with a cleric declared to be an Armenian priest and published in the large selling daily Sabah completed this picture.

Finally, in the 90s, the Armenian community of Turkey was shaken by a brand new problem. USSR had disintegrated, Armenia declared its independence and soon after invaded Nagorno Karabag, an Armenian-majority region of Azerbaijan. At this time Turkey had recognized the Republic of Armenia along with other ex-Soviet republics and was even giving this country electric power and wheat. But after it became clear that the invasion was not temporary, a strong reaction came to settle in the Turkish public opinion, and relations were severed as a result pressures from the public opinion and Azerbaijan. This meant more enmity towards the “Armenians”.

In all these cases, the term “Armenian” was used without any qualification and therefore Armenians of Turkey felt accused. This term soon became an insult in the media and was also used by the Minister of Interior herself as Ermeni Dölü (the Armenian Sperm).
Every time this happened, the self-isolation of Armenians of Turkey was further accentuated. Some militants of the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” in the Ministry of National Education found this milieu very profitable and went so far as to abolish the use of Armenian language in Armenian minority schools (Lausanne Treaty, art. 40). However, the democrat circles in the media strongly reacted and the right was restored a week later .

- To be continued...

Télécharger au format PDFTélécharger le texte de l'article au format PDF

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow site activity RSS 2.0