The Consultation on the Armenian Diaspora and its changing self-understanding continues at St Mary’s Monastery in Bikfaya

19 July 2017

12 July 2017. On the second day of the event, the consultation began with a presentation on and discussion of “identity and genocide; recognition and reparation.” The panel members were: Hovsep Der Kevorkian (France), Sevak Hagopian (Lebanon) and Moushegh Bedirian (UAE). The speakers referred to diverse perceptions of Armenian identity between Armenia, the pluralist diaspora and Turkey and the lack of objective demographic data to analyse. Noting that the Genocide and a strong Armenia are two components in determining Armenian identity, they proposed cultivating a new understanding of identity, one that is responsive to current contextual differences in the diaspora and is also sensitive to the geopolitical and technological challenges.

The second panel discussed identity and genocide; recognition and reparation. The participants were: Shahan Kandaharian (Lebanon), Dr Ara Sanjian (USA) and Dr Haroutiun Maroutian (Armenia). Among the most important ideas that came up in discussion were the following: The Soviet era should not be overlooked when referring to Armenia because it left such a heavy mark on the culture; Independent Armenia and Artzakh have strengthened the sense of belonging in Armenia and the diaspora; because language is fading as a strong identity marker for the new generation, ways should be found to encourage the youth to learn Armenian; change the prevalent victim mentality to one of endurance, which should not prove difficult because endurance characterizes our historical experience. The panel also affirmed the strong need for cooperation between Armenia the homeland and the diaspora, because a strong Armenia would also strengthen the Armenian diaspora.

The third panel discussed identity and Islamized Armenians. Dr. Haigazoun Alvertsian (Armenia), Teny Pirri-Simonian (Switzerland), Guiro Manoyan (Armenia) and Prof. Mihran Dabbagh (Germany). The presenters approached this new topic from the different perspectives of statistics, conceptual framework, methodology and politics, and they provided relevant input for the continuing reflection.

The statistics show that Islamized Armenians currently identify themselves ethnically as either Kurd or Turk and as Sunni or Shi’ite. Some have reclaimed their original identity and were baptized, while others are afraid to disclose their Armenian origin, fearing social and political repercussions. For some, accepting Islam was the only way to avoid deportation and remain on their land. The panel presented a conceptual framework for an inclusive Armenian identity; the framework describes identity as a triangle, with Armenia, the diaspora and Islamized Armenians at the three corners of the triangle and indicators of religion, language, culture, place of birth, family and community relations in the middle as the criteria for measurement. The methodology proposed was to use history and memory, rather than religion, as indicators of identity. It was added that the self-definition or self-perception of the person is a crucial factor. The political analysis considered that Turkey might manipulate the issue by claiming the origin of Islamized Armenians as a tactic in its application to join the European Community, challenging the figure of 1.5 million victims of the Genocide, and coercing hidden Armenians to become mediators in peace-building.

The fourth panel, safeguarding Armenian identity in a pluralist Armenian diaspora, was presented by Ara Ardzrouni, Araz Kojaian and Dr Antranig Dakessian. The panel began with a reflection on the role of Armenian revolutionary literature and songs in shaping identity. They discussed songs of the past century that were created to change peoples’ attitude from defeatism to rebellion and to influence their self-understanding as Armenians. They described the gap between the vision of the leadership with that of the people, and called for this gap to be addressed through education and improved communication. The participants were invited to reconsider the scope of Armenian identity and self-understanding in the context of technological and social changes and to consider the new expressions of the collective “I,” defined as an experiential construct of the youth, making its way from bottom up. The Armenian-American heavy metal band, ‘System of A Down,’ was mentioned as a group that has brought together a large number of diaspora youth. In addition, identity was described by the following terms: consciousness, instinct, a psychological state and an expression of the subconscious. It was emphasized that because identity is contextual and relational, the traditional objective indicators such as church, language, culture and homeland may shift their order of priority, Therefore, identity depends on the continuing self-awareness of the individual.

The different academic backgrounds and experiences of the speakers provoked rich discussion after each panel, which demonstrated the scope of differing perspectives and convictions in describing who is and what makes the Armenian today.