The topic of Armenian identity is a popular one. Everyone has a strong opinion about it. Yet, it is this very popularity that obfuscates the debate with the multitude of interpretations that are often unfounded and even factually wrong. One such article by a certain Tamar Kevonian titled “Who is an Armenian?” was recently published on the web page of the English edition of Asbarez.com 1 . In a nutshell, the reader of this article comes away with the impression that just about anyone in this world may consider himself or herself Armenian, if he or she wishes to be one, or if he or she has ever wished Armenia well (silently or out loud? – I am still confused about that). However, this article not only makes pretentious claims with a hostile tone towards the Armenian Apostolic Church, but these claims are based on false statements regarding our reality and Armenian history.
First of all, she states that the legend taught to Armenian children today does not include the fact that St. Gregory was the son of Anak, the assassin of King Trdat’s father. This is false. The many readers of Tamar’s article refute her statement in their own comments under her article. Besides, it is interesting to know how did Tamar, who knows history at best at the level of an amateur, found out such a dearly held secret, yet other Armenians have been kept in the dark about this historical detail?
Tamar Kevonian’s article makes false claims on Armenian history. For example, she claims that at the time of conversion to Christianity “in one brief decade, Armenia went from a culturally diverse nation without an official national language to one that espoused uniformity and conformity where the use of Armenian became a requirement and strictly enforced.” I hope Tamar could provide her sources for these claims, because they directly contradict the writings of ancient Greek historian Strabo, who informs us that in the II century B.C. the predominant language in the entire territory of the Armenian kingdom was Armenian 2. Furthermore, the New Encyclopedia Britannica notes that in the VII century B.C. Armenian was the predominant language in the Armenian Highlands 3 . Apparently, Tamar Kevonian knows better or has more reliable sources than the editors of the new Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps Movses Khorenatsi was wrong as well, when he wrote that Armenian kings of VII century B.C. required the subjects of all new territories incorporated into the Armenian kingdom to learn Armenian 4 .
Tamar Kevonian’s superficial knowledge of Armenian history is also evident in her imprudent and careless use of terminology. Grigor Lusavoritch is called the founder of our Armenian Apostolic Church. Apparently, the author does not know that our Church is called Apostolic, because it was founded by the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, not Grigor Lusavoritch. Tamar would also benefit from researching the commonalities and close conceptual proximities between the ancient Armenian pagan beliefs and the new Christian faith, which greatly facilitated the embrace of the new faith.
As if misrepresenting the Armenian history is not enough, Tamar Kevonian ventures into the tempest of the Armenian-Turkish conflict. She alludes that Turkey may actually be using the infamous Protocols on Armenia’s capitulation to improve the relations between the two countries, with an implied positive outcome for Armenia. That the authoritarian Turkey, where calling one an Armenian is a grave insult, may allow some fictitious Muslims with distant Armenian roots and “the several million ‘hidden’ Armenians in Turkey … stand up and reclaim their Armenian identity.” The author goes on to say that these Muslims have maintained “their Armenian identity and their distinctive Armenian dialect”, without ever offering her own interpretation of what, after all, defines the Armenian identity?
The Armenian Apostolic Church (just as the Armenian language, the living sense of connection and dedication to our motherland, culture and other big or small attributes that define the Armenian identity) is one aspect or trait of an Armenian’s identity. Losing the Apostolic faith does not mean that an individual becomes a non-Armenian as of the moment of conversion. However, that retreat does mark a major weakening of his or her identity. Depending on the faith (Islam or another branch of Christianity), circumstances of the conversion (forced or voluntary) and other determinants the gradual assimilation of the individual’s identity will be fast or slow, but it cannot be stopped. Just recall the experience of the various Armenian Christian denominations in the US. The Evangelical (and other protestant branches), Catholic and other non-Apostolic Christian Armenian congregations assimilate and disappear the first and the fastest. During a recent visit to the United Armenian Evangelical Church in Studio City I observed the complete absence of youth in the congregation. The older attendees confirmed that the youth does not frequent the church and they may be the last generation of that congregation.
One of the reasons of this phenomenon lies in the ethnocentric nature of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Other Armenian Christian denominations do not have such an ethnic focus. As the number of new non-Armenian church members in the Armenian Catholic or Evangelical churches increases, the language used in the churches gradually shifts to non-Armenian to accommodate the newcomers, following with the eventual complete assimilation of the entire congregation. This does not occur in Armenian Apostolic churches, because no other nationality or ethnicity has that church. A Catholic Mexican will not attend an Armenian Apostolic church, because he will have hard time understanding why he must ask God’s blessing for the armed forces of Armenia, as heard during the Armenian Liturgy (Patarag). But he will be able to relate to an Armenian Catholic service, dress and other Catholic religious paraphernalia with ease.
To eliminate the defensive wall that is instinctively erected by non-Apostolic Armenians every time such an argument arises, let us not discuss of who is or isn’t an Armenian. Instead, let us discuss who has more traits of “Armenianness”, who is an Armenian with a stronger identity.
One of the important (if not the most important) motivations for adopting Christianity as a state religion in Armenia was the added layer of distinction that would set apart Armenians from their more powerful neighbors and safeguard the nation from assimilation. However, this became insufficient as Rome adopted Christianity shortly thereafter. As a new safeguard against assimilation (in addition to all other humanitarian and scientific motivations), an Armenian alphabet was commissioned, which would add a new distinctive trait to the Christian Armenia from her more powerful neighbor, Christian Rome/Byzantium. Therefore, the Apostolic Armenian Church and the Armenian alphabet were intended to become those defining elements of the Armenian nation that would set it apart from other nations – the elements of the identity of an Armenian. The ethnocentric nature of the Armenian Church further reinforced the faith as a distinctive element.
I do not want to regurgitate what many other authors (e.g. Armen Ayvazyan, Albert Nalchajyan) have already observed regarding Armenian identity 5 . Nor do I want to list the influence that the Armenian Church had on the culture, arts and literature over the centuries, thus defining the Armenian culture and civilization through the Apostolic Armenian Christian ideology and moral values 6. By the way, this aspect alone is sufficient for atheists to continue to remain connected (even if not spiritually, but merely in terms of rituals and ceremonies) to the Armenian Church, as it is interwoven and synonymous with the Armenian culture.
When arguing for equally strong and valid Armenian identities in various faiths, the debaters do not really delve into details regarding the other prevailing non-Apostolic Christian (or non-Christian) denominations. Instead, they simply resort to using generalized rationalizations, often unaware of the irreconcilable doctrinal differences. For example, the Protestant Church was created in direct opposition to the Catholic, or any other traditional church, which includes the Armenian Apostolic Church. We all know the numerous wars that the Catholics and Protestants have waged against each other throughout centuries. For example, how are we going to reconcile two churches (Apostolic and Evangelical/Protestant Armenian) with opposing doctrines? The Evangelicals do believe that a person is spiritually saved (has a guaranteed place in heaven) during his lifetime if he or she proclaims belief in Christ. The Apostolic Church believes that the deeds in the person’s lifetime will be judged after his death, only then determining whether the person is saved or not. These two are mutually exclusive. While most of us will find these differences irrelevant minutia, congregations generate animosity towards each other over these. Combine this with other national or political differences and one ends up with perpetual conflict a la Ireland, Lebanon, etc. Is this new bifurcation of identities what Armenians need? Is this not a new trait of distinction that will alter or at least affect the prevailing Armenian identity? Other differences are abound, the Evangelicals, Jehova’s Witnesses and other sects condemn and do not accept the ceremonies of the Armenian Apostolic Church. These ceremonies and rituals are engrained in each of us and are incorporated in our daily lifestyles, values systems, cultures, even of those who proclaim themselves atheists. Would changing or opposing them due to a new religion not be deviations from our established Armenian identities?
Most importantly, no other Armenian denomination has the kind of ethnocentric nature that the Armenian Apostolic Church possesses. This has been used to strengthen the unity of all Armenians and focus them on national goals, instead of diluting the unity or re-orienting Armenians away from those same national goals. For example, the Evangelical Church does not have the same intensity of focus on Armenians as the Apostolic Church does. The evangelizing of others (converting into the Evangelical Church and spreading the Evangelical version of the Bible), be they Armenians or non-Armenians, is an important part of that Church. Also, the nature of the Evangelical faith is very de-centralized. Is the Armenian nation in need for further decentralization or, instead, more focus and coordination of efforts?
What about those sects and denominations that are centralized? Let’s take the Jehova’s Witnesses. This is a very centralized and disciplined sect that is directed from outside of Armenia. Any directive sent from the outside is carried out. What about the Catholic Armenians? Will they not have to obey the Vatican? Does anybody remember the collaboration of the Vatican with the Nazis and the support given to the Nazi henchmen in their escape from Europe?
During the rebellion of the 1720’s the Armenian Apostolic Church was not only supporting the liberation struggle, but was directly involved in the organization of the rebellion. How are the Catholic and other non-Apostolic Christian Armenians going to react if a new such liberation struggle went against the interests of the Vatican or other non-Armenian Christian groups? Is the Catholic Cardinal of Armenia going to issue a call to arms or plea for restraint under pressure from the Vatican? How then do these potential conflicts with national unity and struggles not represent a dilution of a strong Armenian identity?
Finally, on the topic of the fictional “Muslim Armenians”. When you call someone Armenian in front of an Armenian audience, the latter interpret him or her to be someone who is fully cognizant of his or her Armenian identity and relates to the problems of Armenia and the Armenian world the way that an average Armenian residing in Armenia relates. Therefore, calling Turkish Muslims with distant Armenian roots Armenians misrepresents the reality. Instead, let us see how the relationship between the religion and identity in Turkey were perceived right before the Genocide.
The 1915 October edition of The National Geographic Magazine discusses Armenia and Armenians in the beginning of the 20th century and offers very interesting and useful descriptions by an American observer 7 :
“Mohammed the Conqueror had not enough Moslem subjects to fill his empire or his conquered city, so he accepted his great body of Christian subjects with tolerance of their laws, customs and religion. Many Turks today [in 1915 – SS] think that if he had pursued a policy similar to that of modern Russia and Germany, ruthlessly Turkifying and converting to Islam his foreign subjects, he would have made a homogeneous and happy Turkey.” (pg 346)
As this passage shows, conversion to Islam did not merely mean change of religion; rather it implied a practical change of ethnicity/nationality. The following passage further explains why:
“It will readily be seen that when an Armenian leaves the Gregorian [Apostolic – SS] to join a Catholic or Protestant Church he in some sense loses touch with his nation, for nation or millet and church are practically one in Turkey.” (pg 347)
While United States is not organized in the form of millets, this same phenomenon of weakening identity (weakened sense of association with the Apostolic Christian Armenian identity, which is predominant in the modern Armenian nation) also exists today within the Evangelical/Protestant, Catholic or other non-Apostolic Christian Armenian denominations in the US. This is especially evident among the youth in those denominations, the segment that is more vulnerable to assimilation. The younger members of these denominations confess to carrying a complex of inferiority vis-à-vis their Apostolic counterparts, a sense of being kind of inferior or incomplete Armenians. This problem is so acute that the church leaders within these non-Apostolic denominations express their concerns in articles and working papers addressed to their congregations.
In the case of Islam this is even more pronounced and unavoidable. How is a fictitious “Muslim Armenian” supposed to spread and strengthen the Armenian language, one of the key elements of our national identity and the foundation of the Armenian civilization (culture, literature, music and everything else), when every Muslim is required to use Arabic in one of the most intimate and important acts – praying? What will the message be to the children in these families: Armenian is not important enough for use in prayer, not sophisticated and holly enough to allow communication with Allah? Such a mentality does not leave room for devotion to the national language – a necessity for a strong national identity. And what will be more sacred and endearing to the fictitious Muslim Armenian: the sacred grounds of Etchmiadzin or Mecca? Such a bifurcation of identity and incompatible/conflicting priorities create fertile ground for an impending personal crisis of identity for these individuals in their adult lives, who will find it easier and less painful to melt away in the multinational Islam, rather than endure emotional discomfort. The National Geographic article continues:
“The [Russian] government next attempted to bribe the Armenians to join the Orthodox Church; but neither coercion nor bribe could turn the faithful Armenian from the church of his fathers. This loyalty can hardly be said to spring from religious principle; for, as we have said, the two great Eastern churches differ practically not at all; it was merely another expression of the intense national feeling of the Armenians. Bandied from one political rule to another, never knowing political independence nor unity, they have sought that unity in their church.” (pg 357)
In conclusion, the idea that Armenian identity is so abstract that anyone can be deemed to have equally strong and valid Armenian identity is generally espoused in those circles of the Diaspora, where the idea of eventual return to the homeland has been abandoned. These circles have embraced the self-delusional idea that it is possible to remain indefinitely Armenian in foreign lands, without the need of repatriation, even though the historical experience proves the opposite. As a logical consequence, the assimilated and assimilating segments of the community experience the need to redefine the Armenian identity in their new, assimilated image, in order to continue to retain the name Armenian. Unfortunately, this revised definition of identity no longer carries the same notion that the previous generation envisioned under the name Armenian. If being Armenian previously meant to live in Armenia, speak Armenian, be of Apostolic faith and proliferate Armenian culture, the assimilated generation discards all those attributes that it no longer possesses (place of residence, language, faith and culture) and clings to the name Armenian, redefining (or diluting) it down to the last remaining attribute common in all Armenians all over the world – a mere memory of Armenian origin. Eventually, Armenian becomes an abstract notion with no substance or dimension. This may as well be called something else, because this new version of Armenian is not what our ancestors fought and died for!
What is most unfortunate, Asbarez has picked up the torch of this movement to redefine and dilute the Armenian identity. This is not the first article of this type that is being posted on the web pages of Asbarez.com (both its English and Armenian versions). The article directly questions the logic of the ARF’s activities. If Tamar Kevorian is correct, then one wonders why does the ARF, the only remaining truly nationalist party that still carries the national-liberation ideals of the Armenian nation, continues to spend millions of dollars in the Diaspora on Armenian schools. If the Armenian language is no longer definitive of one’s Armenian identity, why do the intensely patriotic young members of the AYF bother to learn such fluent and perfect Armenian? Why does the ARF continue to support the Armenian Apostolic Church (i.e. the Catholicosate of Antelias), if the Apostolic faith is no longer important? Or, perhaps, the real question is whether this and other articles so willingly published by the editors of Asbarez represent the ARF’s view on the topic of Armenian identity? Knowing many truly patriotic and dedicated ARF members, my answer is a resounding no!
Contributing Correspondent (Los Angeles)
ARARAT Center for Strategic Research
- Kevonian Tamar “Who is an Armenian”, retrieved from http://www.asbarez.com/2009/11/20/who-is-an-armenian/ ↩
- Strabo, Geography, op.cit., book XI, Chapters 14, 5 (Coll. G. Bude, vol. VIII, p. 123). ↩
- The New Encyclopedia Britannica (Fifteenth ed., 1984, Macropedia, Vol. 2), p. 23. ↩
- Ayvazyan, Armen “The Cornerstones of Armenian Identity”, Lusakn 2007, p. 60. ↩
- Ayvazyan, Armen “The Fundamentals of Armenian Identity or Who is an Armenian?”, published in Azg Daily, #217, 24/11/2007, retreived from www.ararat-center.org;
Nalchajyan, Albert “Ethnic Identity or National Self-defence”, retrieved from http://blog.ararat-center.org/?p=172.
- “Conversations on Armenian Identity”, aired on Shoghakat TV Station on 09/04/2009, available at http://blog.ararat-center.org/?p=246. ↩
- 1915 October edition of The National Geographic Magazine: http://www.noravank.am/am/?page=news&nid=1828. ↩
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Կայքի մոդերատորներն իրավունք ունեն հեռացնելու այն գրառումները, որոնք պարունակում են անձնական վիրավորանքներ, բռնության կոչեր, թեմայից դուրս գրառումներ, գովազդային նյութեր։ Նաև չի խրախուսվում շատախոսությունը (flood):
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