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From Silence to Silence? Armenian Identity and Islamized Armenians

  Other point of view

From Silence to Silence? Armenian Identity and Islamized Armenians

Laurence Ritter


Laurence Ritter

Doctor in Sociology

In recent years, the question of “hidden” and “Islamized” Armenians has come to the fore. Advances in lifting some taboos in Turkey led to an identity awakening among those Armenians and raised awareness of that phenomenon. In this article sociologist Laurence Ritter, the author of a book about the so-called “remains of the sword”, co-written with Max Sivaslian, presents the difficulties met by these Armenians to define themselves within the Turkish society. She also draws a parallel between them and Armenians in the Diaspora, who also experienced acculturation in their various countries of arrival. The identity debate over “Islamized” Armenians is shown to be connected to the topics of assimilation and Armenian identity in the Diaspora. Laurence Ritter concludes by describing how the recent movement of identity recovery among Armenians in Turkey is threatened by the authoritarian drift of the current regime.

The question of the “hidden Armenians” or “Islamized Armenians” in Turkey has emerged in the beginning of the 2000s. The two books by Fethiye Çetin1 as well as the influential Agos weekly newspaper and some articles in the Turkish press have gradually torn the shroud of silence over the Armenian survivors who had remained in the former Armenian provinces2. After the 1915 Genocide, survivors found themselves living either in Middle Eastern countries or, for many, in Europe (particularly in France), in the United States or in the little Caucasian Republic of Armenia turned Soviet. The fate of those who were left in the Eastern territories of Anatolia – which were mostly peopled with Armenians prior to 1915 – has long remained unknown. A majority of them – and evidence collected by the Patriarchate of Constantinople immediately after the Genocide testifies to it – were women and children, their numbers reaching an estimated 100,000 in 1919-20, while the Patriarchate itself counted around 100,000 orphans in its care3. Some of those “in-country survivors” only owed their survival to the rather ambiguous protection of some Kurdish tribes, the women and young women being most often kidnapped and forcibly married and the orphans, found wandering, being integrated into Turkish or Kurdish families in the regions devastated by the massacres. For decades, these “nameless” Armenians whom Hrant Dink called “wandering souls” have survived and some, after the first post-genocide generation, were able to intermarry between survivors.

In addition to the timid opening of Turkey in the years 2005-2012, another factor also explains that this subject is now better known beyond the small Armenian community in Istanbul. Those Armenians who had managed not only to survive but to maintain themselves in their villages were forced, like Kurds, to flee to the large Turkish urban centers, especially to Istanbul, as the repression against Kurdish rebels of the PKK (created in 1978) intensified. Those who found themselves in Istanbul then connected with the Armenian community and knocked on the doors of the Armenian Patriarchate. Being Kurdish or Turkish-speaking, many are still today unable to prove their Armenian ancestry.

Hrant Dink himself, born in Malatya, has strongly contributed through his Agos newspaper to raising awareness of the issue, a disturbing one for the negationist Turkish state but also to a certain extent for Armenians in the Diaspora and in Armenia as well as for the Istanbul community. At least, the subject was now in the open, with all the questions it raised, including finding a proper phrase to designate the “remains of the sword”4.

Hrant Dink’s own wife, Rakel, is a member of one of these clans of “hidden Armenians”, a phrase meaning that they never converted. They were identified by sending “missionaries” in the 1960s and 70s to look for Armenians still stranded in Anatolia. Those “missions”, known of only some Armenians in Istanbul, were organized by Patriarch Shnork Galoustian, himself a native of Yozgat, who had known since the beginning of the 1960s that many “vanished” Armenians had survived. Other Armenians from Istanbul also joined the group but, at least in the eyes of the Patriarchate, the instruction was to only account for those Armenians who had effectively never converted to Islam – this in order to prevent any potential accusation of proselytizing from being voiced by the Turkish authorities. Many families were thus identified, including Rakel Dink’s, and were offered to have their children sent to Istanbul to be educated in Armenian schools. The idea was then to send them back to their provinces, but mounting suppression of the PKK as mentioned above, as well as the under-development of Eastern Anatolia caused instead families to regroup in Istanbul rather than stay in villages with growing insecurity. Besides, from the 1980s onwards, many other families came on their own after the missions were terminated by the 1980 military coup and their main organizers arrested and tortured.

Difficult naming and classification due to the multiplicity of cases

In Istanbul, some of those Armenians, who had remained Christians, could obtain to be officially baptized by the Patriarchate, a sine qua non condition to be recognized as Armenians, as members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, by the Turkish law. Indeed, the Armenian minority has no other legal existence in modern Turkey than as a religious community, no differently than in the Ottoman Empire. The stance of the Istanbul Patriarchate is to this day unchanged: any person wishing to be recognized as Armenian is first requested to take Catechism lessons, then to go through the name-changing process with Turkish registration authorities, and finally only then can the Church baptize them and they will be considered part of the community. Such an ordeal was discouraging to many, and some preferred to get baptized in Echmiadzin (Vagharshapat),  Armenia, the Armenian Apostolic Church holding a somewhat ambiguous stance in relation to those Armenian “converts”, but generally not refusing baptism. In that respect, the Armenian Mother See or the Diaspora doesn’t have the same constraints as the Patriarchate of Constantinople. But in both cases, the question of compulsory baptism raises the issue of connecting Armenian-ness to Christianity, and more specifically to belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Most importantly, when looking at the case of those “Armenians of silence”, the descendants of survivors hidden in the Eastern territories as well as today’s Turkish big cities, one must distinguish several cases which however cannot cover all the various realities of identity – or rather identities – encountered.

Drawing from documented cases, it is possible to make out several configurations:

- Armenians who have always remained endogamous and preserved some Christian practices and were genuinely never converted to Islam.

- Those who, although remaining endogamous, were converted, either along the generations or right after the genocide but have preserved the awareness of their Armenian belonging. It is in that sub-group that claims to Armenian identity is most vocal at the moment, on the part of third or fourth generation descendants.

- Those who did not remain endogamous, most often descendants of the women and young women converted and kidnapped at the time of the genocide. Those are the cases documented by Fethye Çetin, the “grandchildren”, but also in such families with complicated stories, individuals who undertake a search for the reality of their origins. Nothing has survived of the Armenian identity but it doesn’t mean that the  discovery, often disturbing because it has been silenced for so long through generations until recent times, will not lead descendants to speak out and find ways of recapturing their identity. Such steps are often very poorly accepted among Turkish or Kurdish families, as well as in the already existing Armenian community of Istanbul.

This attempt to define groups should not obscure the important fact that hidden Armenians – namely the first two categories – as well as those who are in fact just descendants, are therefore all categorized as “crypto-Armenians” in Turkey and that the phrase “remains of the sword” is still widely used, and in a very derogatory manner at that. The way Turkish and Kurdish people living in those villages of Eastern Anatolia perceive such individuals remains marked by the strict separation between a Muslim space and other people still seen as intrinsically dissimilar. Thus, the phrases in use do not describe family destinies and, in turn, these groups also make distinctions. For instance, in the Sasun province, a man who has remained Christian introduces us to a cousin in a formerly Armenian village, a village in which a church is left. He talks to her in the local Armenian dialect then tells us, “She married a Muslim, to us, she’s no longer one of ours.” It remains difficult in this case to know whether he is a Kurd or an Islamized Armenian. But for this man, in any case, belonging to the group has been broken – whereas in remote villages, Islamized Armenians are still often viewed as “Giaours” – an insult meaning infidels which many of them have had to hear.

Still more revealingly, in a family from Adıyaman, the whole generation of Bedros, a man in his fifties, goes to the Syriac church since it reopened, and 70 or 80 percent of those meeting at the Sunday service are Armenian. Bedros’s wife explains: “I am from Malatya, my father always kept his Bible, but at the same time he always went to the Mosque, whereas I only go to church….” The youngest in this micro-community explain that they have in fact no idea what it means to be Armenian. Going to this Syriac church is a sort of expression of belonging to Christianity but, to them, the references underlying that sense of belonging are lacking – above all the language but also the history, the customs, and traditions. Although the memory of the massacres has been passed down those still endogamous families, the identity itself is a legacy passed on in bits and pieces.

A mirror image of the Diaspora?

Much more than the “degree” of Islamization, this acculturation is the most striking feature of these people and it raises key questions: are some of these families in that respect very different from the established Diaspora? A hundred years after the Genocide, how do you only assess the real number of Armenians throughout the world? What is passed on within the Diaspora? From the 1920s already, the Diaspora has been able to recreate their own spaces, the Church, political parties, associations of fellowmen in their places of exile, and they have played a major role for all those who came together in particular neighborhoods where that identity left its mark on the first exiled generations. Later on, the movements of the 1970s and 80s contributed to the “awakening” of those communities, particularly in France. However, the personal itineraries within Armenian families of Marseille, Lyon or Fresno are often very diverse: one brother is an activist and defines himself as such, and another is only Armenian by name…

We can thus see that the question of “Islamized” Armenians is in fact rather similar to the problem of defining the Armenian sense of belonging among the Diaspora. In our eyes, beyond what cements any identity, in an age when an independent Armenia exists, Armenian can no longer define themselves solely by what has forged diasporas throughout the world after the genocide. And the Republic of Armenia may not be the gravity center of that Diaspora either. In order to continue to exist, the Diaspora must reinvent itself – it must keep redefining itself, and not solely within the frameworks inherited from how the last three generations of Diaspora.

We can see that islamization is undoubtedly a major trait of those various people in Turkey, but that it is their acculturation that is most striking, and in that respect, there is a definite similarity with the Diaspora. 

Existing between two worlds: “We are in the middle of a bridge.”

Today, many of the Armenians staying in Turkey are in an ambiguous in-between: in several neighborhoods of Istanbul some have Kurds as neighbors who have come from the same provinces, sometimes the same villages as themselves. The only trace of Armenian-ness they have kept is their intermarrying between converts, some of them being practicing Muslims. In a family from the Sasun county, the eldest now over 70 years old is Christian, baptized in his youth in a Syriac church, recognized as an Armenian upon his arrival in Istanbul in the 1980s, while his younger brother who joined him much later in the 1990s is a pious Muslim whose wife, also Armenian, wears the headscarf and prays every day at the local mosque.

To categorize these Armenians, or even call them Armenians, thus poses a problem: some, even endogamous, are converts, and even practicing believers; others also endogamous, have remained Christian in that they were never converted in any other way than bearing the “Islam” tag on their identity papers, and they passed on a special Armenian identity among themselves. It is made of a deep closeness to the ancestral land, of the memory of 1915, and fueled by this “keeping to ourselves” – the practice of endogamous marriages which, as we see, does not guarantee transmission – as well as a sense of difference even if the way of life in mostly Kurdish villages is very largely the same. As a Sasun-born woman in her forties explains to us, many members in her family, all Armenians, thus remain “in the middle of a bridge,” between two worlds of allegiance, one Christian, the other Muslim, between two sides of an identity – one fractured, denied, hidden, the other imposed on them.

The vast majority of those Armenians of silence have been dispossessed of their names when the law of the young Turkish Republic of Mustafa Kemal forced all Turkish citizens to take a surname. Most of them quickly dropped their Armenian first names in the first generation, either to better hide or through the rapid acculturation of surviving orphans; they also forgot the language – except in some areas, in particular in Sasun – and only kept a smattering of religion – the memory of a prayer, signing oneself or remembering traditional holy days. A 60-year old woman of Sasun was married very young in S, a neighboring village. Her family, originally Armenian, had been converted, which means that, out of conformism or fear, survivors would go to the mosque  while marrying among themselves in the area. During that marriage, her husband being a Armenian who had remained Christian, she could come back into the fold and “become Christian again” as she puts it herself.

To call these Armenians “Islamized” or “converts” thus does not take into account the main character that defines them: the violence of 1915 was followed for these unlikely survivors by the cultural genocide which devastated those millenary living places of Armenians, which are now lie mostly in ruins. The genocide was not just physical annihilation but the destruction of everything that formed a nation and marked its land, as well as its mindscape: religious buildings, monuments, cemeteries, villages and, of course, schools, clubs, and shops in the towns… This had less to do with linear processes of Islamization either during the Genocide, to spare one’s life or just after, affecting frightened survivors, than with a massive process of acculturation prolonging and completing the genocide.  Both the Patriarchate of Constantinople and modern Turkey keep strictly applying to Armenians a “status” which, in the end, is nothing but a hardly updated version of the Ottoman millet – Armenians are considered as part of a religious community. However Armenians are before all a nation, whose act of birth was, all things considered, the fact that they were the first people to adopt Christianity as a state religion (between 301 and 307) but whose history does not start with Christianity. Indeed, adopting the Christian religion was even politically motivated, a way to state their difference from the Byzantines as well as other communities in the region,  and – this is less known – it was accomplished by violently eradicating any older forms of faith and belief, generally connected to Zoroastrianism.

A movement of identity recovery currently threatened

The authoritarian drift of Turkey in the last couple of years, the murderous repression against Eastern Kurdish people systematically suspected of belonging to the PKK, seem to put a stop to all the real advances observed in the years 2010s.

In Diyarbakir, the re-consecration of the Surp Giragos cathedral allowed many of those Armenians to rediscover their splintered identity, not just through religions – there is no permanent priest – but by recreating an Armenian place in that enormous Eastern city, a bastion of Kurds of Turkey – a meeting place where Armenian-language courses have been organized and a few masses also celebrated. In the Dersim province, mostly peopled with Alevis, another strongly persecuted minority in Turkey, Armenians have spoken up by creating an organization of Dersim Armenians in Tunceli. The same was seen happening in Mush recently although during our 2007 survey, the families we met there totally excluded the possibility of such a formal gathering because of the hostility of the Kurdish population and fear of state repression.

This new outspokenness translated into actions: to recreate spaces marked by the Armenian presence in those cities and provinces, even if it is still a limited phenomenon, has been a powerful sign: a fear had been overcome. After Hrant Dink’s assassination, the voice of the “voiceless” in the East was silence but his legacy was taken up by the Nor Zartonk movement in particular and by the continuation of Agos, both as a newspaper and a foundation, in an effort to break the taboos of the Turkish society. Having now three representatives in the Turkish Parliament – one of them, Garo Paylan, on the Kurdish party’s list, being under serious threat – is also a major change, although partly obscured by the repressive climate maintained by the ruling power in Ankara. The current government has put an end to the hoped for reforms in Turkey and is pursuing a murderous escalation which in many ways recalls the leaden years of the 1980s military regimes and the authoritarianism practiced at the end of the Ottoman Empire or by Kemal Atatürk. Off has come the mask of a moderate Islamist party – a contradiction in terms, as is the oxymoron “moderate extremists”. President Erdogan does not hesitate to tamper with elections when they do not favor his absolute majority in the country, to suppress not only the Kurdish people in the East but also all those who had started to form a freer civil society, working for an incipient democracy – journalists, academics, the young mobilized at Gezi Park, etc.

In such a context, what we have seen recently as the real beginning of a renaissance of Armenians, coming from families with complex histories but who nevertheless claim to belong, appears to be threatened. But that renaissance may also be threatened by the way Armenians have defined their own identity: the Armenian memory of survivors who came to France, for instance, was passed on from the 1915 trauma and often remained fixed on the massacre – not on the life of before or even less on the life of the very first generation of exiles. Until the 1940s, some women in Armenian neighborhoods of Marseille would still wear traditional clothing and Turkish was widely spoken by survivors, the Sunday schools where Armenian was taught being in fact a response to the fear of acculturation. In those same neighborhoods, some black and white photos of the 1920s or 30s will tell little of the way survivors lived their daily lives.  The Armenian survivors who found themselves in the most diverse countries after 1915, in the Western movement that made the Diaspora, were Anatolians with customs which must have been quite similar to those of the Eastern Armenians who turned up from the 1980s in the streets of Istanbul.

For the Turkish community, the Turkish law, and for the Patriarchate, the confines of the Armenian identity are fixed. In the Diaspora, however, which is multiple, that identity has evolved through four generations, although of course it keeps to paradigms which consciously or not underpin any people and nation. Whether you find yourself today in Armenia, in a Marseille neighborhood or in an Istanbul church in front of those Armenians directly descended from survivors from inside Turkey, you are forced to make a double move: first, to reflect upon what are the foundations, today and yesterday, of the Armenian identity; secondly, to ask yourself which place can the already established communities open up to entire families largely acculturated and sometimes effectively Islamized. In our view, this is less a religious problem than a cultural challenge, with an added political dimension in Turkey because of the limitations of the legal status imposed on Armenians acknowledged as such.

1 My Grandmother: A Memoir, Verso, 2008. (First published in Turkish as Anneannem, Metis, 2004.) Fethiye Çetin and Ayse Gül Altinay,  The Grandchildren, Transaction Publishers, 2014. In Turkish: Torunlar, Metis, 2010.

2 Our own research, Les restes de l’épée (the remains of the sword), Editions Thaddée, 2012, is focused on the Eastern provinces, and not on the whole of  today’s Turkey. 

3 Raymond KEvorkian, The Armenian Genocide, I.B. Tauris, 2011.

4 This is -Cetin confirmed in the interview- a pejorative term used in Turkish to actually designate the descendants of genocide survivors in Turkey. 



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