Another taboo finally addressed: Muslim(ized) Armenians of Turkey (by Cumali Önal)

4 Nov

Another taboo finally addressed: Muslim(ized) Armenians of Turkey

Turkish and Armenian scholars address attendees of the Islamized Armenians Conference, held by the Hrant Dink Foundation in İstanbul on Nov. 2-4.

Turkish and Armenian scholars address attendees of the Islamized Armenians Conference, held by the Hrant Dink Foundation in İstanbul on Nov. 2-4.

A recent conference held in Turkey dealt with a topic which, though it has been widely discussed on a private level, has not received much open focus: Muslim Armenians.

Many academics from abroad and within Turkey attended the “Islamized (Islamicized) Armenians” conference held at İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University in partnership with the Hrant Dink Foundation and the Association of Philanthropic Malatya Armenians (HAYDER).

Speaking to Today’s Zaman, many academics noted that while the topic of Armenians who were forced to convert to Islam in one way or another is an important aspect of the tragedy of 1915, it is not a topic which has been widely discussed or debated.

Ayşegül Altınay, the director of the Hrant Dink Foundation and one of the organizers of the conference, said that Muslimized Armenians in fact played a very important role in the re-shaping of Turkish society at the start of the century. Altınay, who is also one of the authors of the book “Torunlar” (Grandchildren), a work which focuses on Turkish families with Armenians in them, maintained that Turkey has remained deaf and blind to this important topic for the past century.

Another conference organizer, HAYDER head Hosrof Köletavitoğlu, noted that while the topic of Muslimized Armenians is one which many have wanted to confront, it is a topic which has not been faced. “This society needs to throw off some of this baggage so that it can run,” Köletavitoğlu said.

The three-day conference dealt with topics such as the Hemşin Muslims, the Hamidiye massacres and mass religious conversions, assimilation, the problem of Arabized Armenians and stories from the actual unfolding of the tragedies in 1915. Attendees also heard from people who were forced to convert to Islam and those who had spoken directly with such people about their experiences. In addition, there was some focus on topics like Armenian food, literature and music.

Altınay noted that some historians say the number of Armenians who became Muslim through marriages, adoptions or after being taken under protection by other families and were thus saved during the forced relocations of 1915 could be around 200,000.

She said that even if these numbers were only around 100,000, keeping in mind all the children who have since been born to these Armenians in the meantime, the numbers would now be in the millions.

Simply mentioning that there was an Armenian in one’s family was for many years a significant factor in people being excluded, Altınay said. “We saw how for years, having an Armenian mother or grandmother meant that people would lose their jobs or cause more difficulties for them during their military service. For example, one well-known pious name from society was going to join this conference but decided not to at the last minute.”

Ethnically Armenian Sami Boyacı joined this conference as an attendee. He noted that widespread fear that Armenians were going to be targeted around the time he was born was what caused his parents to give him the Turkish-sounding name “Sami.” He noted that many people around the time gave their otherwise Armenian children Turkish names. Boyacı spoke about how his grandfather and his grandaunt in fact survived the tragedies of 1915 but, like so many others, it was only through the help of Muslim neighbors that they were able to do so.

Conference participant Ishkhan Chiftjian, who attended this conference from Germany, has roots that go back to Adana. He noted that, for Armenians, this Boğaziçi University conference was extremely unusual. Chiftjian, a professor at Hamburg University, maintained that the whole topic of Muslimized Armenians is a very different and new area for Armenians.

In the meantime, Sarkis Saropian, one of the founders of the well-known Armenian-language Agos newspaper, noted that “there ought to have been more Muslims in attendance at this conference.” He underlined that, in terms of the topic, the conference carried off a first in the world.

Saropian, noting that it is impossible to actually determine the number of Muslim Armenians living in Turkey, said: “Since we don’t even know how many Armenians are living in this country, figuring out how many Muslim Armenians there are is really impossible. During census counts taken after the 1930s, asking people about their ethnic roots was forbidden. So even the state — which labeled us as non-Muslims — does not know the number of people with Armenians in their family.”

Saropian said that while he had made a request to gain access to code numbers allegedly used by public agencies to tag individuals according to their ethnic background, in order to learn how many Armenians there were in İstanbul, no response had been given. Saropian also added that one of the heads of one of Turkey’s most famous football clubs was Armenian but that he had never publically acknowledged this.

Altınay noted that while she had spoken to many people while doing the research for her book “Torunlar,” most of the people had not wanted their names and locations included in the book. She added that some factors, such as there being as of yet no result from the Hrant Dink murder case and some people still receiving death threats, underscore just some of the problems that Armenians still face in this country.

Altınay, who noted that Dink was personally called into the governor’s offices and threatened in the wake of his announcement that Sabiha Gökçen was in fact an Armenian orphan, said that 2004 marked the starting point of work on the important topic of Muslim Armenians.

Within this framework, Altınay noted that in the wake of Dink’s murder, people throughout Turkey began to feel more and more responsibility for this topic.

Altınay also spoke about allegations made by the former head of the Turkish Historical Society (TTK), Yusuf Halaçoğlu, that some Kurdish Alevis were in fact Armenians, noting that these are not realistic assertions. She said that in talking to the descendants of Armenians throughout Turkey, very few of them are in fact now Alevi Muslims and that, in addition, very few actually converted back to Christianity after discovering their true ethnic roots.

Noting that Turkey is now carrying on its shoulders a very heavy legacy where this is all concerned, Altınay said: “There are currently very many Muslim Armenians. While some deny their true identity, others describe themselves as ethnically Armenian but Muslim. These are things which completely overturn our entire perception of identities. We are actually shouldering a very heavy legacy here. And the most important thing here is to explain this legacy well. While listening to old stories, we are hearing stories not only of pain and violence, but also of vital interaction. In sharing this legacy, we are contributing to the normalization of this entire period.”

Köletavitoğlu, the founder of HAYDER, noted that his own ideas about Muslim Armenians were formed when he went to find his grandmother’s gravesite in Hekimhan, Malatya province, in 2001. It was only after the local mayor had announced that one or two of the local villages were actually Armenian originally and later, when an Armenian from France did a study on the topic of Muslim Armenians in Turkey, that Köletavitoğlu decided to move into action and organize a conference on the matter.

Köletavitoğlu, who said that after HAYDER was formed, many people had come to the organization wanting to share how their ethnic roots were actually Armenian, noted: “These types of conferences and meetings need to continue. We have made an important start with this one. When everyone is able to talk openly about their roots, it will give people great confidence.”

4 November 2013 /CUMALİ ÖNAL, İSTANBUL

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