Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Remembering the Armenian Genocide, part II

Tuesday night, I attended an event at St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church, here in Vancouver (see the photo in/and Charles' previous post), to mark the ninety-second anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide. After a brief service in the church, the participants moved to the adjoining hall to listen to speeches, some beautiful singing, and to watch a slide show with photographs depicting Armenian-Ottoman towns, institutions and peoples before the genocide, as well as victims of the genocide in various horrific states of life and death.

At the outset, two messages from local politicians were read. Bill Siksay, Member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas, sent a message expressing regret that he could not be present at the commemoration as in past years, due to obligations in Ottawa. Adrian Dix, a Vancouver member of the provincial legislature, sent a transcript of his remarks to the legislature, mentioning the "avalanche of evidence" for the murder of about 1.5 million people over eight years, from 1915-23, noting the "well-financed effort to deny the Armenia genocide", and claiming there was "no room for dissembling" in the fight against such inhumanity.

Two speakers were invited to address the meeting. Prof. Andre Gerolymatos of Simon Fraser University, a historian and the local media's go-to guy on matters pertaining the Balkans, terrorism, and the Middle East, spoke first, mentioning that he could not do justice to the Armenian genocide in the fifteen minutes allotted, let alone in a lifetime. Prof. Gerolymatos nonetheless displayed his skill in addressing the public and offering a number of suitable thoughts for the occasion.

On the question of why there was a genocide, Gerolymatos offered the view that as the Ottoman empire became a dying corpse at the end of the nineteenth century, its representatives wanted to drag others with it into the grave. At the same time, the Young Turks were inventing a somewhat artificial identity for a modern Turkey, one that seemed to require a transformation of the formerly multi-ethnic imperial state into something more homogeneous; though this, because it entailed genocide or its later denial, was a fatal mistake at the moment of birth that haunts the nation still.

Just why the Young Turks felt this way was not made clear, though Gerolymatos pointed out that Armenians were not the only group targeted for mass murder. 350, 000 Greeks living around the Black Sea were almost entirely eliminated, along with 275, 000 Syrian Christians. Thus one learned, though Gerolymatos did not discuss the point, that the genocide targeted Christian peoples in general. Just why this "religious cleansing" was necessary to the Ottomans, or to those anticipating a modern secular Turkish state, was not made clear. No one at the event mentioned Islam. The murderers were merely Ottomans or Turks.

Gerolymatos concluded by noting that a good part of Turkish identity is based on a lie, on denial of the genocide. This, he suggested, has been a tragedy for Turkey; he called genocide an act of inhumanity and stupidity. Until Turkey's denial is rectified, there can be no future for Turkey in the European Union.

The second speaker on the evening was the Armenian Catholic priest, Gabriel de Chadarevian, Chaplain of St. Mark's College, University of British Columbia, who accented the inherently Christian nature of Armenian identity. He told of growing up in Aleppo and Beirut, in a highly multilingual environment with an Armenian father, and Greek mother. While his childhood was marked by stories of the genocide, of heroic women throwing themselves and their babies off cliffs while making the sign of the cross, in order to avoid horrible rape and deaths at the hands of the Turks, it was not until university days - he first studied chemistry at the American University of Beirut - that he seriously began to study and learn the Armenian language and struggle to understand his Armenian identity that grew in tandem with violent feelings for the Turks. It was only when he studied to join the Dominican order and met a Turkish fellow student, who immediately asked him forgiveness for his people, that Father Gabriel felt freed from his resentment.

Father Gabriel highlighted two points: the power of forgiveness as key to the Christian, and hence Armenian, soul; and, the need for the world's big powers to put non-violent pressure on Turkey to recognize the genocide. We must fight with the weapons of truth which are incompatible with violence he said. While he stressed the importance of forgiveness in his personal journey, he did not explain how we can forgive a people or state that continues to commit the wrong which we would like to be able to forgive. Turkey continues to deny the genocide and has succeeded, through continuing persecution, in all but eliminating Christian life in that country. Father Gabriel concluded by suggesting we pray for the Turks.

The Armenian community of Vancouver is small. But it testifies to a fundamental fact of human society, the power of national identities to survive the rise and fall of empires. This small nation, founded when the Armenians converted to Christianity in the opening years of the fourth century of the Christian era, is, along with the Jewish and Ethiopian, one of humanity's oldest nations and high cultures. It has survived great hardships and maintains itself not only in Armenia but in diaspora around the world. Here in Vancouver, we may be on a remote edge of the Pacific Basin, as Dr. Gerolymatos noted, but we nonetheless find an Armenian community active in maintaining its identity, culture, and faith. The cultural vitality of nations, as opposed to the empires that hold disparate cultures together with a parasitic and syncretic ideology of state, was a theme the historian might have explored. Given the violence that attended the collapse of the Ottoman empire it is easy for us to imply that the multicultural empire (not that it was ever a peaceful utopia) was superior to what came after. Yet the power of Armenian national identity testifies in many ways to the superiority of nations (if not nation-states) as self-renewing cultural entities that can survive millennia, through good and bad. Such a sense of nationhood was surely, if not consciously, an attractive model for the Young Turks in attempting to construct a Turkish national identity out of the Ottoman empire. How can one nation get it right, and its historical "apprentice" get it so wrong? As Father Gabriel suggested, the key may well lie with Christianity.

At the beginning of the evening, the hundred-odd people in the hall cheerfully sung O'Canada, suggesting that it is possible to be simultaneously a proud member, if not citizen, of two strong nations. I did not have the impression that Canada is merely a state or multicultural empire to those who called on God to keep our land glorious and free. In renewing our Canadian national covenant, we can learn much from the experiences of one of the first nations to emerge as part of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the partnership of God and man.


DRL1 said...

2Interesting article:
1. Genocide of Herero and Nama peoples of German Southwest Africa was first genocide of 20th century (an unenviable title)
2. Massacres of Armenians began during the late 1890s by Sultan Abdul Hamid II
3. Decision to commit genocide was not made on basis of a collapsing Ottoman Empire's desire to take everyone else along with it.
4. Young Turks, who took power in 1908, initially sought (with Armenian and Jewish support) to reform the empire but by 1911 a radical internal coup brought Tamal, Enver and Djemal Pashas into power. They and others believed in pan-Turkism and pan-Turanism which espoused a homogeneous Turkish and Muslim country (ideology was similar to the pan-Aryanism of Nazism). Non-Turks did not have a place in such a nation.
5. World War I (with much German support from Kaiser Wilhelm II on down) provided the opportunity and cover to commit genocide (of course, the term "genocide" had not been devised at that point)
6. The post-war policies of the new Republic of Turkey under Attaturk continued the policies of expulsion and genocide.
7. It has been argued that failure to admit guilt for a genocide continues the victimization of the survivors and their descendents. This had been true for survivors of the Holocaust and holds true for the Armenian Genocide as well.
8. Athough it has been labeled the "Armenian Genocide" hundreds of thousands (or more) of Pontic Greeks and Assyrian Christians were victims as well and should not be forgotten.
8. The greater question is what have these genocides taught us? Gauged by the number of genocides and ethnic cleansings committed since 1915 there certainly is room for pessimism. Perhaps, one method of prevention would be the indictment of those who incite genocide, such as the President of Iran, in contravention of the UN Declaration Against the Committment of Genocide which criminalized incitement. Those ethnic groups who were the victims should be at the forefront of efforts to prevent recurrence; remembrance is essential---never forget--but preventative action is critical if we all are to survive. Dennis L.

truepeers said...

Dennis L,

Thanks for your informative comment. I certainly agree that something should be done about Ahmadinejad, and Darfur; but it will take a lot of will and self-confidence in the West, a re-assertion of our ability and desire to defend a higher sense of right, internationally, in a world where every major culture seems to be something of a sick man.

In a world of sick men, there is a lot of resentment and not enough love; and genocides, it seems to me, are essentially the product of a resentful desire to eliminate all those seen to be alienating one from what one deems sacred, alienating one from one's supposedly proper, proximate, place in relationship to the sacred. Ultimately, if we are to better understand genocide, we must delve into the anthropology of the sacred and its bestowal, on everyone, of a basic choice of a loving or resentful relationship to 1) what society deems sacred; and 2) the divine guarantors of the meaningfulness of the signs and things we deem sacred.

If this line of thought is of interest to you, it is a theme I touch on from time to time in this blog. See also the GAblog, linked in our sidebar.