Islamized Armenians in Turkey represent age-long assimilation policy



The Islamization of Armenians in Turkey is the product of a long-term and systematic political strategy of assimilating and Turkifying the Armenian community, according to documents from the late Ottoman era, said Taner Akçam, a Turkish-German historian and sociologist, at the Conference on Islamized Armenians held in İstanbul over the weekend.

“The term ‘genocide’ has always been defined in relation to the Holocaust. The genocide of European Jews has always been at the center of discussions. Whether a mass killing should be called genocide or not has always been decided by comparison with the Holocaust. If the case resembles the Holocaust it is a genocide; if not, it cannot be a genocide,” said Akçam on Saturday, adding that the same applies to the mass killing of Armenians that some call the Armenian genocide. The Conference on Islamized Armenians was held by the Hrant Dink Foundation, which is named after a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was fatally shot outside his office by an extremist in 2007.

Many academics and analysts came together at İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University for a three-day conference which addressed the overlooked and unknown stories of Armenians who converted to Islam since 1915, when Armenians say the Ottoman Turks began to commit an alleged genocide against more than 1 million Armenians.

Speaking at the conference’s opening ceremony, Rakel Dink, the widow of Hrant Dink, illuminated the conference’s purpose, saying, “We are going to open the pages of history that have so far never been questioned and hear and witness the riddles that have never been put into words.”

“We never want to hear what they have done. We never talk about what has happened to them and how it occurred. Our conscience was only able to deny the genocide,” Dink said in her opening speech, adding that the facts should not be kept hidden in the dark.

Dink’s widow emphasized that Dink was paying special attention to the issue of Islamized Armenians, saying, “Hrant wanted this issue to be discussed, not only for the ones who passed away but for the ones who are alive.” There is a claim that Dink was killed because he began to research Islamized Armenians across the Ottoman Empire.

Addressing the conference, Akçam said that as the alleged Armenian genocide had for a long time been researched and defined in connection with the Holocaust, the very important issue of assimilation was disregarded and the events were understood only in terms of the number of dead and exiled Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

The alleged Armenian genocide is a sensitive issue in Turkey, as Turks and Armenians have not reached a common understanding of events. While Armenians all over the world urge the international community to recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide, Turkey denies that those deaths constituted genocide. Ankara says both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks died in large numbers during the war while the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Akçam, who is the first Turkish academic to acknowledge and openly discuss the topic, said that the Armenian community has been crushed by the denial of the “genocide” by the Turkish government, and that for quite a while Armenian academics have studied the issue by drawing parallels between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. “And thus they have ignored and separated some parts of the genocide such as forcible conversions to Islam, forced relocation of Armenian kids into the orphanages and accommodation of Armenians in certain regions of the country, as they did not fit into the framework of the Holocaust,” Akçam said. He also added that the Turkish policies of assimilation for Armenians were not considered systematic for a long time, as Armenians who converted from Christianity to Islam were even moved from modern Turkey to other parts of the empire. “However, assimilation was an integral part of the genocide since its start,” he underlined.

In Armenian society, those who converted from Christianity are generally not considered to be Armenians. Sergey Vardanian, an Armenian scholar from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, began with this topic in his speech.

Saying that the history of Armenians has been a “history of victimization,” Vardanian told the audience about the Islamized Armenians of Hemşin, a town in Rize province in the Black Sea region of Turkey. He said that Hemşin Armenians were forcibly converted to Islam, and that they converted “in order to survive.” However, “they have never forgotten that they are Armenian, and they never married with other Muslim groups,” according to Vardanian.

Neither diaspora Armenians nor those in Armenia have fully studied and discussed Islamized Armenians yet. However, academic research has begun in recent years, and the Conference on Islamized Armenians aims to raise public awareness of the issue and will be continuing until Nov. 4.


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