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13 01 2009 - Why I Cannot Be a Conservative
Why I Cannot Be a Conservative

Part III: The Armenian Perspective

A. A Conservative’s Public Statement about Conservatism
In a public interview (Horizon Armenian Weekly, October 6 2008), an Armenian candidate, running recently under the Conservative banner for Canadian parliamentary elections, said that although he was a lifelong servant of the Liberal Party, he came to realize that most Armenians were of a Conservative mentality, particularly after the vote on same-sex marriages passed in Parliament, after which he could no longer face questions of his children and hence that was one of the main reasons he switched allegiance.
Now this gentleman is fairly articulate. If you speak with him, you will immediately be struck by the impressiveness of his mastery of the spoken Armenian, English and French languages. It says on his website that he has studied political science and business administration and has a “rich public experience at municipal, provincial, federal and international levels” in several public service fields, ranging from immigration to status of women, from official languages to aboriginal issues and so on. The natural assumption should be that he at least understands the basics of the legislative process if not the details, and as a candidate who had a fair chance of getting into Parliament to “make the Armenian voice be heard in Ottawa” (as he publicly claimed in several speeches), his statements need to be taken very seriously indeed.
In the above mentioned excerpt he actually makes three distinct statements:
a) That he has served the Liberal Party of Canada.
b) That the issues of same-sex marriage made him face his personal conscience and he could not face that reality as a Liberal, suggesting that he was personally opposed to the matter (i.e. that Liberals forced it on the population and that Conservatives have a more principled approach to this issue).
c) That Armenians are in general of a Conservative mentality, therefore suggesting that he would feel more at home within the Conservative Party.
I will not comment on part a) as that is of course a personal matter of definition. What does “service” mean? Whether it includes employment or not? In what proportions? 20% volunteerism and 80% paid positions or the reverse? The assumption should always be that he is truthful.
As for part b) I would like to state that at best, it represents a profound misunderstanding of the Canadian legislative process; at worst, it would be an even profounder misleading of the Armenian electorate. Here is why:
i) Marriage and civil union is actually a provincial jurisdiction from a ceremonial perspective. No Canadian-Armenian I know can show me a marriage certificate issued by the Federal government. Federal legislation on the topic defines the overall legal framework of how rights and obligations flow from the definition of marriage, to ensure uniformity of treatment of the topic across the country, and to ensure the protection of rights. In this specific case, Quebec and seven other provinces and jurisdictions (i.e. the vast majority
of the Canadian jurisdictions) had already either passed legislation legalizing civil same-sex marriages and had in fact enforced all other aspects related to the matter (e.g. spousal pensions, disability benefits etc.)., or their highest courts had pronounced in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages on the basis of non-discrimination. As far as the suggested “outrage” goes, the time for it had long been in the past.
ii) Any Supreme Court decision automatically creates new law; that is the reason why that court chooses the cases it takes on very carefully and takes great care in explaining the decisions. It does not want to create legislative vacuum. Grace periods are allocated to Parliament to bring legislation in-line with the court decisions and so on. In the specific case of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court had already pronounced an opinion on the matter and not only had they explained that defining same-sex marriage would be legal and within the broader legislative jurisdiction of Parliament, but that the religious freedoms defined in the Canadian Charter of Rights would protect religious officials and communities, should they refuse to perform them. Therefore, in the end, the issue was a matter of detail as to who voted for and who voted against. Parliament had no choice but to enact it, because by not doing so, it would have gone against the Supreme Court and, under the current level of division of powers with vast decentralization given away to the Provinces, it would have made the Federal government unable to ensure the application of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Something which is its constitutional duty to uphold.
iii) The actual piece of legislation is called The Civil Marriage Act; note the title of the act. It is only relevant to civil marriage; in fact, it goes to great length to ensure that the rights of religious communities and institutions are protected and that they are not forced to perform religious ceremonies that they feel would go against their religious principles. Therefore, to suggest that Canadian law brought in by a Liberal government actually could force Armenian churches to perform same-sex marriages is either blatantly ignorant or just a gigantic lie of Goebbelsian proportions. Furthermore, some religious congregations, themselves bitterly divided over the issue, have actually split up; for example, some congregations in the Anglican Church of Canada have decided to allow such marriages in a religious ceremony and some have decided not to. To further suggest, as some of our religious leaders have done so, that this matter is uniformly antichristian and therefore un-Armenian (whatever that may mean) is not having one’s facts straight.
iv) The real issue is not even related to homosexuality. The real issue in this case is related to the rights and privileges that flow in matters like taxation, pension legislation, disability and insurance benefits, inheritance rights etc. that result from the definition of marriage and what such a committed relationship entails. Marriage is defined in a variety of forms of legal contracts and rights as well as different types of sharing of different assets etc., etc. Armenians might not know it or understand it (except that those contractual details hit them in the face when they get divorced), but ignorance of the law is no excuse. In fact, it is up to our so-called leaders to educate our community about these issues, and up to our representatives (especially elected ones!!!) to ensure that we understand the laws of the land we live in. The other alternative is of course to keep them ignorant of reality because ignorance allows for easier manipulation.
So much for points a) and b) but, I think the candidate in question is making a profound statement in his point c).
This, of course, regardless of the fact whether he is expressing a personal conviction or suggesting that he would have a better chance of being elected as a Conservative because of an ideological position of the electorate. If he is truthful, and he was a Liberal for twenty years, then at least for some of that period he must have been living with a personal lie. His statement about Armenian conservatism though merits very serious analysis.
B. The Origins of Armenian Conservatism: Tribalism, Subjugation, the Armenian Church and Anti-secularism
The conservative mentality has deep roots in the Armenian community both in the Diaspora, and in Armenia proper.
I think that this kind of worldview has its roots in four other concepts that have been a key part of our history and have shaped our identity. Furthermore, these four concepts are not in isolation but have in the past, and also largely in the present, interacted in a mutually reinforcing way to entrap our thought and to limit the way we look at ourselves today.
1. The first is tribalism. Tribalism is the seed form of nationalism. It does not necessarily always evolve as such, but all forms of nationalism have germinated from a historical tribal origin. It could be argued that monolithic nation-states like Armenia, of almost exclusively a single ethnicity, actually come the closest to a tribe; both from the point of view of its identity and from the point of view of collective behavior.
I chose tribalism, because the tribe does not tolerate dissent from existing structures, rituals and social norms. Why? Because a tribe has determined that whatever is its state it is the optimal for survival. That is why tribes are vulnerable since they cannot rapidly adapt to changing conditions. In the modern world, all tribes or groups manifesting tribal behavior are doomed to become extinct. It is not a question of if, but of when.
A tribe is essentially the human equivalent of an ant colony. Ant colonies have evolved to a quasi-stable evolutionary behavior over millions of years and it would be hard to imagine them otherwise. I have one of the trees in my backyard infested by carpenter ants. My gardener tells me that the best way to get rid of them is to feed them syrupy water laced with boric acid, by putting it in a couple of dishes around the tree. The worker ants always carry the nutrition to their queen and they will feed her poison until she dies. Once she dies, the colony will leave as it will lose the purpose of its existence. The evolutionary progression of carpenter ants has not prepared them for human assault based on treachery.
Why are tribes formed? The anthropological answer is, to cooperate to control access to scarce resources like land, water and food. This would also mean to deny those resources to those outside the tribe, and to protect the tribe from external aggression of other tribes.
Tribalism, as a raison-d’être, divides the world into US and THEM.
Tribalism is a typical reaction of groups under siege (or who think they are under siege). Now, that aggression could be real or could be imagined, but tribalism is also invoked by those who are in a privileged position within the tribe to either continue to hold that position or to expand it. In other words, they control by invoking fear. In the extreme case, tribal behavior leads to xenophobia, racism and even genocide. Almost all of these reprehensible positions are the results of ultra-nationalism which in its essence adopts the lowest form of tribal behavior.
Individualism and free thinking have no place in a tribe. It has no use for it and deems it downright dangerous. Extreme conservatism is the norm. That is why Nazis hated culture. So did Stalinists and Ittihadists and Kemalists and Falangists and Fascists. So did the Catholic Inquisition that stifled scientific thought. Burning of dissenters at the stake is ultimately a tribal “invention”.
Does this mean that an evolution of tribal attitudes is never justified? Of course not. One of the
reasons Armenians are tribal is because they have been truly under siege and have been on the verge of extermination. The threat to our existence has been and continues to be very real. In a sense, our geography demands tribalism. However, tribalism carries in itself the seeds of its own destruction for two reasons a) Because it eliminates dissent and hence opportunities to learn to face newer threats and b) The siege mentality creates tremendous opportunities for demagogues, dictators, false prophets, fake Messiahs, snake oil salesmen and all the other panoply of fraudsters and power hungry “leaders” to exploit the tribe. Since critical thinking is eliminated, mind control is very easy.
Both Armenia and the Diaspora suffer from both of these syndromes. That is the reason why they are still struggling with the implementation of democracy in Armenia, although many are arguing that it is because we have not had enough time after over 70 years of Communist rule. They fail to realize that, historically, successful democracies have been implemented in Latin America or Africa after centuries of colonial rule within a comparable time frame. Another such example would be India, the world’s largest democratic state.
The Diaspora has actually never had a single successful example of democratic institutionalization (those who think that the church is democratic, please read paragraph 3. of this section). This is even more striking, since a large part of the Diasporan Armenian population has been living over half a century in Western liberal democratic societies. I believe that tribalism is the main culprit here as well. An attitude of “haygagan eh, badvagan eh” (“what is Armenian, is always honorable”), which pushes any institutional critique or organizational attempt at critical review into the margins.
In a striking example of tribalism, when I and several others decided not to support the above-mentioned candidate, we were branded by some of our community “leaders” as “traitors to our nation”. At least one of us was actually physically assaulted by a gang of about ten goons sent by a known community organization. And this happened in Canada, in October of the year 2008. One of my good friends actually told me that regardless of who the candidate is and regardless of his/her personal qualities and regardless of his/her political positions, it is our duty to support them because he/she is an Armenian. This is a clear illustration of tribalism, because it is essentially saying that opinions do not matter, policy does not matter, personal qualities do not matter, freedom of thought does not matter, furthermore it clearly suggests that I as a person, even with a long and public track record of not only serving the community but working for helping Armenia and the cause of Genocide recognition, I would be branded a “traitor” and hence physical violence would be justified against me or others who are also independent thinkers.
In an extreme related analogy of such tribalism, one would rightfully conclude that electing Armenians into the Ottoman Parliament ultimately did not help any Armenians in the Empire whose “leaders” had essentially decided to cooperate with the CUP. Who was opposed to this position? The legendary General Antranig. His reward for this lucidity was expulsion from the ranks of the ARF in the 1907 Congress of Vienna!!!
2. The second reason for the inherent conservatism of Armenians is subjugation.
Conquered people are essentially conquered by their spirit. Subjugation is the loss of that spirit, as the conquered subject becomes only worried about one thing. Physical survival.
The Armenian spirit was conquered by the Ottomans and later by the Stalinists. Likely through the extreme violence perpetrated throughout the earlier period of the Ottoman conquest. We know what the later period brought. The greatest of all crimes, The Genocide.
Subjugation also differs from tribalism, because ultimately, any conquered people are kept conquered with two extremely effective methods. A network of informants, and a “ruling” elite from within them to ensure the continuation of the conquest. This is the only way empires can survive. King Herod was a member of such a co-opted elite during Roman times. The British Empire was kept alive in India due to the “tolerance of the rule” of the maharajas. The Nazis always put in local collaborators in charge, even among the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. The American empire of modern times has left CIA supported tin-pot dictators all over the globe. The Soviets ruled by local Communist chiefs in the Soviet republics and the other Eastern European countries. This is a much more cost-effective method of control than stationing vast armies in all the territories.
The ultimate purpose of these two methods to subjugate is to ensure that a) the financial wealth and economic resources of the conquered is transferred to the conqueror and b) that the conquered are kept under control not to rebel, not to think about their collective future, not to aspire for improvement of their sort and so on. And of course, the local intermediaries acquire part of the transferred wealth but mostly also get a certain “leadership” status. If they do not fulfill their function, then they are immediately replaced.
Who has played this role in assisting the conquerors in our subjugation? It could very well be argued that since we lost our last historical state (The Kingdom of Cilicia) in 1375, that role was largely played by the Armenian Church. It came to be viewed as the replacement of the state, occasionally acted as our tax collector, and in Ottoman times, that role that it played was finally enshrined in the Ottoman legislation as the millet (community) system for non-Moslems. It recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as the highest authority representing the Armenian Ottoman subjects in all matters, whether religious or secular or political and the only institution that had official direct access to the Sublime Porte or the Sultan himself.
During the Stalinist regime, that same role was played by local party chiefs and Commissars in Armenia. In the Diaspora, that role was transferred to the political parties co-opted by the CIA and the KGB.
Another example of a country actually governed to this day by millet-ism is the country that was my birthplace, Lebanon. Its governance is built around structures of religious communities. Secterianism is king. The notion of citizenry and the rights and privileges that flow from it is only relevant within the context of their religious affiliation. We all know the consequences.
If you look at the common thread amongst all of these structures in the appropriate time periods, you will rapidly notice two prominent characteristics. Firstly, an extreme conservatism that tries to keep and literally enforce the status quo, secondly a major disdain for free thinking and critical analysis. While you could argue that it is natural for any structure in power to resist its opponents, these ones had the additional task and a whole raison-d’être to assist other masters. If you overlay this reality with a network of informants, you could perhaps reach a conclusion that they did not have much choice. I happen to think otherwise, as we have remarkable exceptions that have shown great courage; these include people like His Holiness Khrimyan Hayrig, His Holiness Karekin I Hovsepian, Yeghishe Tcharents, Shahan Natali, Antranig Dzarougian and many others. These people made tough choices in favor of a critical approach to the issues they were facing.
Therefore, the structures that perpetuated and assisted in our subjugation, by their very nature, must be conservative. That is why Hagop Baronian starved to death. That is why
Gostan Zarian and Shahan Shahnour, the two greatest Armenian writers of modern times were both vilified by the Armenian established structures. That is why many of our intellectuals were literally denounced to the Ittihadists and the Stalinists.
3. The third agent of conservatism is the Armenian Church. By this I mean the Armenian Apostolic Gregorian Church that is one of the oldest in the world and has now been around for over 17 centuries. Conservatism of course is part of any Orthodox religious dogma. And since, the Armenian identity is very much wrapped around the concept of this church, its institutions, its traditions and so on, therefore its impact on the Armenian psyche is more than profound.
There is however an untold and hence lesser known story of our people which is this. For close to one thousand years of those seventeen centuries Armenia was the cradle of amazing social reformist movements based on different interpretations of Christianity. From the 3rd century AD and up to the 13th, the region of Armenia has been the birthplace of vast heretical movements inspired by Gnostic Christianity that had converts among millions of Armenians and whose influence extended all the way to the Byzantine emperors, the two major of these movements being the Paulicians and the Thontracites. These heretical doctrines (by the measure of their times) espoused concepts such as the equality of sexes, inheritance rights for women, the right of women to choose who to marry, a simpler and populist conduct for the clergy, and an interpretation of the Holy Scriptures based on concepts of social justice and resource sharing, rejection of dogmatic ritual and religious intermediary in favor of a direct interlocution with God and so on. In short, these concepts were extremely forward looking for their period and had a long term influence on European reformist movements of later times like the Cathars, the Bogomils, and all the way to the Protestant Reformation.
Needless to say that the Armenian Church, in alliance with the ruling class of the time, waged a war of extermination against these dissenters. Their campaigns included vicious propaganda, forced conversions, torture and downright murder that would number in the tens of thousands per incident. Still, to imagine that even with such violence perpetrated against them, these movements managed to survive close to a thousand years, so how deeply rooted they must have been among the population. This part of the history of the Armenian Church remains to be discovered and analyzed, but more than clearly demonstrates the level of conservatism our church espouses and the lengths it would go to for the preservation of the status quo. A feat that was slightly later matched and exceeded by no lesser an institution than the Catholic Church, its wars, its Inquisition and its intrigues.
One could further argue that the true Ottoman subjugation period arrives at the tail end of this period, i.e. in the late 14th century and by that time, the population had been so exhausted and intellectually, spiritually and militarily depleted that it became easy prey to the invading hordes. It is in this period that the Church essentially became the de facto stand-in for an Armenian state and by the 19th century was ready to step in as the legal structure that takes over that function fully.
To further illustrate this institutional conservatism, it is interesting to note that the last organizational reform of the Armenian Church dates back to the 19th century inspired largely from the Ottoman milletist structure and is touted as a great democratic achievement, it is called the National Constitution (Azkayin Sahmanatroutyoun); on the Russian Tzarist regime side (Eastern Armenia) it is called Polozhenie (Statutes) and was put in place in 1836. Notice that none of these nomenclatures in anyway suggest that they are about the governance of a church. Imagine if the regulations governing the Church of England were
called the National Constitution. That would be unthinkable.
4. The fourth and final force for conservatism is the strong anti-secularism among Armenians, in Armenia and especially in the Diaspora.
The anti-secularist behavior comes primarily from the domination of the Church in the Diasporan governance structures. Most Armenians regard their church leaders as the head of the community. As explained earlier, this is largely caused by the historical unfolding of the role of the Church. In Armenia, because religious freedom was largely suppressed during the Communist period, a return of those freedoms has now swung the pendulum in the completely opposite direction, once again reinforcing the position of the Church.
The other main reason is that because of the disappearance of our intellectuals, due to successive waves of murder and persecution, the concept of a civic society (whether in the Diaspora or Armenia) based on a secular discourse has neither had the time to form nor the opportunity to hold root.
This leadership and institutional void has been filled by the most obvious candidate, the Church, basically getting us right back where we started from. That is the mutually reinforcing result of these forces that feed Armenian conservatism. A Diaspora that embraces a secular worldview would allow a very serious questioning of itself and its tenets, its beliefs about equal rights for everyone, its educational structures and contents, its self organization and so on. A Diaspora where the fundamental organizational definition revolves around a religious doctrinal axis can only be what it is today. That is why many Diasporan institutions, even when they are secular, feel that they need the official seal of approval of a Catholicos or an Archbishop or a Bishop. That is why, the lion’s share of expenditures in the Diaspora, donations and community investment projects are based on church construction and/or church-based initiatives.
C. Long Term Attitudes towards Intellectual Output
In a lecture I gave at Columbia University in March of 2008, I argued that the modern day Armenian intellectual has disappeared from the Diasporan public stage, largely
because there is actually no more demand for Armenian intellectuals. You can download that lecture in its entirety from my download site here.
However, that is only part of the picture. While Armenians like to project the image of a nation that has produced a lot of intellectuals, and of international caliber at that, it is still very debatable whether our intellectuals are taken seriously or even listened to at all.
All writers and free thinkers of all nations have their respective detractors. In the case of Armenians, our intellectuals have been persecuted, despised, exiled and murdered by our oppressors, but also denounced, isolated and literally starved to death by fellow Armenians. Shahnour and Zarian, the two greatest Armenian writers were viciously attacked to the very end.
This anti-intellectualism leads to an interesting wide spread phenomena. In the absence of any strong state or organizational constructs with any semblance of legitimacy, there is also a wide absence of accountability towards the community. Accountability not only in the financial sense, but in the sense of decision making that impacts the community itself. For example, many community “leader”s speak in the name of the whole community essentially suggesting that there is such legitimacy when there is none. When bishops or chairmen or presidents speak in the public media they do not speak in the name of their respective organizations, they speak in the
name of the whole or part of the community. This is quite frustrating to anyone who pays serious attention.
Another example is the haphazard approach to institution building (or dismantling) without public consultation. Churches, schools, community centers etc. are built, sold off, dismantled or shut down with a decision making process that is extremely closed and is usually taken by the very few in charge. Yet those decisions impact the lives of all the community and its future. Furthermore, the fundraising for those institutions is also largely done from within the communities who again have no say in how these institutions evolve in the end. This would be the equivalent of taxation without any representation.
Finally, there is the “living in a bubble syndrome”. Recently, a good and erudite friend of mine told me that as he regularly reads the Diasporan Armenian mass printed media, he was stunned that the main issues of the day of the countries that these media are published in are rarely, if at all reflected in them. There is almost no coverage of big societal debates there (e.g. the issue of same-sex marriage in Canada, the coverage of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, environmental issues and how to tackle climate change). It is as if the community is completely isolated from the outside world. This was a startling observation reflective of the state of the tribal existence of the community. When was the last time any of our community centers actually held public debates on these key topics of the day? When was the last time we had public political debates (as in politics of the countries we live in) in any shape or form in our centers or church basements? When was the last time that our traditional organizations and media, whether print or electronic had any reader or listener input, published letters to the editor, had a comment section on their websites? This could of course be explained by the fact that the average Armenian does not care to write, comment or express an opinion. I happen to believe otherwise, but even if this were true, it would demonstrate how we as a community have reached a point of apathy and are now mere “consumer”s in the eyes of our “leadership”. The role of us as people is only relevant when we are solicited for funds. Again, taxation without any representation whatsoever.
Why is this related to anti-intellectualism? Because in the absence of organizational checks and balances, the critical thinkers, the intellectuals, the ones who think beyond the boundaries of their tribes provide the healthy stimulus to allow the other members of the community to think critically as well. Hence our thinkers, rare as they are, have a doubly important role, to hold a mirror to our face to allow us to see ourselves the way we are.
And perhaps therein lies the reason they are disliked. As demonstrated by Part I of this essay, in the vast majority of cases, intellectuals cannot be conservatives. In fact, it would almost be a contradiction.
Armenian conservatism has successfully driven away the Armenian intellectuals. Unfortunately, we ignore them at our own peril. Every society that has eliminated critical thinking has either disappeared or has been relegated to the status of a third, fourth or even fifth world society. Today, we are definitely in that company and descending down the ladder.
D. Education, Demographics and the Multiple Solitudes They Create
From the high level perspective of organized populations, the Diaspora can be viewed as two “substructure”s. One that is “organized” around the traditional institutions, mainly the Church, and then the traditional political parties, the schools, the community centers etc. Along with a second “substructure” that is more fluid, less organized in the traditional sense but that can be
arguably mobilized around key issues, e.g. Genocide recognition, helping Armenia etc.
From a demographic perspective, it is increasingly clearer that the second group is the one that is likely larger in numbers, is more affluent, particularly in the communities of the Western liberal democracies, is more educated and also most likely of a younger average age.
Now, if we assume that this is a realistic representation, we can see that the demographic inertia is in favour of the second group. However, the organizational vehicles which can act and channel the energy of the community are permanently locked in the old ways that reject innovation, as outlined above. The organizational structures will be of a more conservative outlook, both on a political compass, and from approaches to issues facing the community. Yet, the growing demographic force pushes us away from Conservatism. This is a source of serious conflict.
It is precisely for this reason that the youth are not present in Diasporan institutions. Exceptions only confirm the overall trend. The youth are disinterested because they are ultimately in a conflict and they see no common ground between who they are as individuals and what the traditional institutions stand for. That is also why the fewer and fewer youth who are active become eventually disinterested, disillusioned and usually leave never to come back.
This could also be the reason that explains our “dividedness”. The traditional organizations continuously trumpet that we do not have “unity”. But their version of unity is understood to mean hegemony of ideas. This is fundamentally unacceptable for the second group, especially within the lack of the larger context of any truly representative and publicly accountable structure with any legitimacy. The prediction of course being that such a “unity” will never be achieved within the current framework of any traditional organizational structure. Therefore, spending time and resources on trying to achieve them is at best a Quixotic quest. At worst, it is a waste of severely limited resources.
From the perspective of Armenia, the two larger societal divisions are actually the “haves” and the “have-not”s. The former are only interested in accumulating wealth and power at any cost. Any political position is therefore filtered purely through this specific prismatic view, and hence by definition they will be major resistors to any initiative that can challenge that position. Therefore, they will be of a conservative outlook. That is largely why the numerous political parties in the Armenian Parliament are either mostly of a right-of-center ideology or nationalistic or ultra-nationalistic. The “have-not”s are actually devoid of any power. The only interesting characteristic of the “have-not” group is that it is now also largely populated with the older and now increasingly with newer intellectuals that have the brain power to sustain a deeper discourse of societal evolution. What will be the outcome, or whether they will become at all relevant remains to be seen.
E. Examples of “Thinking Outside the Box”: Failures and Successes
It would however be intellectually dishonest to present a picture of the evolution of Armenian history form the conservative perspective alone. The fact remains that throughout the course of the past 3-4 centuries we have seen several attempts at anticonservatism. This would be termed today as thinking outside the box (lateral thinking).
Not all of these attempts were successful, in fact some had downright disastrous outcomes for us as a people; the latter would include the adoption of a European socialist political ideology by our older political parties from outside the Ottoman Empire, which essentially tried to bring in a
discourse based on a working class that had been “revolutionized” in a capitalistic manufacturing and production facilities and then to forcefully overlay it on a largely backwards, illiterate, feudal and Medieval social setting based on a purely oppressive and violent Ottoman power structure. Yervant Odian does much better than anyone else in satirizing this with his immortal Unger Panchoonie (Comrade Panchoonie). This was either “incredibly brave or incredibly stupid” as popular wisdom would characterize it, but it definitely was not very smart. The incident at the Ottoman Bank and the collaboration by the ARF with the CUP would fall under the same category.
All of the above are actually the result of extreme short-sightedness and show a lack of proper evaluation of both tactical and strategic alternatives of the times. I think that we must accept that these moments in history belong to all Armenians, not just to a faction, and we must be able to analyze them critically with the modern intellectual tools at our disposal. To date, we have either mythologized this history, or dismissed it; neither approach leading to any improvement of our sort.
There are at least four other cases, of our relatively recent history, which merit close scrutiny. All of them would appear to be projects with no initial hope of success. All of them were in fact successful and have literally saved us as a people. These successes occurred because of lateral thinking, but also because their initiators looked at our historical evolution and conceived a vision of our future as a very long-term strategic option. Thus steering us towards those options gradually and one small step at a time, making many adjustments along the way. They chose a heading instead of a specific short-term goal.
1. The first of these examples is the case of Israel Ori. He was a unique character in our history of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Imagine an Armenian from the backward Syunik region (granted the son of a Melik), almost single handedly planning to achieve the liberation of Armenia from under the Ottoman and Persian yokes, through the assistance of Western powers. He ends up serving in the army of Louis the XIV, achieving high favor with the political circles there, then moving on to Dusseldorf, befriending the German prince who in turn refers him to the Austrian Emperor, and then on to befriend the Prince of Florence, and Pope Clement XI, all the while, throughout these years, “lobbying” for the liberation of Armenia, and by the way shuttling back to Armenia and again to Europe. Finally learning the greatest of the lessons of diplomacy, that for states to help other people, there should be common interests at play. Once again, arriving at the correct conclusion that Russia would be the only great power that would have interest in the Caucasus, he departs for Moscow to meet Peter the Great to deliver to him the request of Armenians and Georgians to be liberated from Turkish and Persian rule. Further on, once securing agreement, he actually uses his military knowledge to logistically plan the deployment of the Russian forces into the Caucasus. Even more, he volunteers to go to Armenia leading a factfinding mission, essentially acting as a spy for the Russians in Persia, to map out the terrain for the advancement of the Russian army.
Ori died suddenly in 1711 in Astrakhan at the age of 53. It is due to his efforts that the attention of the Russian court turned towards the Caucasus, and the Russians realized that they would have Armenians as long term allies in the region. His dream was realized about a century later by the advancement of Russian rule into what was then Eastern Armenia. One could argue that although the Tsarist rule was not easy on Armenians, they were certainly better off than their fellow countrymen in Iran or the Ottoman Empire. The core of the population of Eastern Armenia was likely preserved due to this turn of historical events, and perhaps as a result, even the existence of the Armenia of today could be traced back to the
efforts of the visionary Israel Ori.
2. The second example of lateral thinking within a strategic vision is that of Fr. Mekhitar Sepasdatsi, the founder of the order of the Mekhitarist monks.
Fr. Mekhitar was of course from Sebaste or Sepasdia, he founded his order in Constantinople in 1701 and in 1715 moved to Venice. There he negotiated to be granted an abandoned island outside the boundaries of the city. The reason that this island was abandoned is because it used to be a quarantine station and a leper colony.
Imagine Fr. Mekhitar settling with his monks on this island. Imagine the hardships of simply living there in the early eighteenth century. Imagine how the place was provisioned with food and water in those times. It must have taken several hours by boat just to get there. Let alone the stigma of leprosy that hung over the place. Imagine how the monastery was literally built by the hands of Mekhitar and his seventeen monks.
The Mekhitarist order transformed the Armenian reality. From that remote location in Italy, for close to three centuries, a beacon of intellectual light shone throughout the darkness of the Armenian existence. The island of St. Lazarus became the center of an intellectual activity that remains unmatched to this day in Armenian history, except perhaps for the Golden Age after the invention of the modern Armenian alphabet in 405 AD. The Mekhitarist Order literally invented the structure of modern Western Armenian, and contributed tremendously to its philological and linguistic evolution. They embarked on a superhuman effort of research and publication in linguistics, grammar, history, language evolution and so on. They published monumental dictionaries. They published Western Armenian translations of the great writers of the time. They even taught Armenian to Lord Byron
They also prepared generations of teaching monks who throughout the history of the order established dozens of schools in Armenian communities around the world and in Armenia. These schools have graduated hundreds of thousands of students. The order published literary and cultural periodicals that kept qualitative pace with the leading international publications of their time. Then, an offshoot of the order established itself in Vienna. For close to two hundred years, the printing presses of the Mekhitarist order were second to none in the world. The combined libraries of the two orders today hold more than 350,000 volumes of books, many of them being unique and ancient publications. The combined scriptural treasury of the Mekhitarists includes more than 6700 illuminated manuscripts (i.e. equivalent to more than the 2/3 of the ancient manuscripts of the great scriptorium in Yerevan, the Madenataran). Many of the monks, like Fr. Ghevont Alishan, became great literary figures. The Renaissance of Armenian language and culture of the nineteenth century, especially that of Western Armenia, can be said to be almost exclusively the achievement of the Mekhitarists.
The greatest of all the Mekhitarist schools, and perhaps of all Armenian schools ever, became the boarding school of Moorat-Raphaelian in Venice proper (named after rich Armenian merchant benefactors from India, Agha Samvel Mgrditch Moorat and Edward Raphael). Throughout the 162 years of its existence it retained one of the highest academic standards in the world and graduated thousands of our community leaders in every field, including some of our greatest writers, intellectuals and political leaders.
Fr. Mekhitar would arguably qualify as one of the greatest Armenians who ever lived. Equal in stature to non other than St. Mesrob Mashdots. He died in 1749 and is buried in St. Lazarus. Three centuries of incredible contributions to our nation, from a vision built
around an abandoned leper colony. How lateral and anti-conservative is that.
3. The third example is the one of a much better known institution, the Armenian General Benevolent Union or AGBU.
The general history of the AGBU is widely known, and its impact and prevalence in our communities and in Armenia is well understood. However, the radical issues surrounding its founding and the nation saving impact it had during the post-Genocide period is not appreciated by the general public.
The context of the founding of the AGBU is very important. Here was a philanthropic organization being founded in 1906 in Cairo (which was at the time under British rule) mostly by dissidents from the Ottoman Empire. Its basic concept was to introduce education and emancipation into the feudal and poor hinterland of the Ottoman territory, to assist Armenian families living on the historical lands, to encourage them to stay in their villages and to learn trades in order to discourage migration to the large urban centers. This was an unprecedented initiative in its kind and in magnitude. Furthermore, to achieve this, it was decided to build a unique corporate structure, based on funds and donations earmarked for specific projects, again never before attempted by any Armenian organization; the third characteristic was an apolitical as well as a totally secular approach, the purpose being twofold, to encourage participation of all Armenians from all denominations around the world in this initiative, and to ensure that the Ottoman power structure does not feel threatened politically, particularly because the idea required a mobilization of the population around local chapters to be founded in the Ottoman territories.
Remembering that the founding of the AGBU coincided with one of the bloodiest periods in Armenian history, it is equally amazing how the concept captured the imagination of the majority of the Armenian population of the time. Considering that the Armenian political parties (the Armenagans, the Henchagians and the ARF) had similarly tried to establish themselves among the backward villagers, while running their political organizations from outside the Empire and that they had failed dismally, this achievement by the AGBU is striking. By 1909, the AGBU had chapters in Constantinople, Smyrna, Magnesia (suburb of Smyrna), Mersin, Bursa, Sivas, Erzinjan, Diyarbekir, Aleppo, Ankara, Harput, Erzerum and Dardanelles. In 1913, there were over 80 officially registered chapters in the Ottoman Empire!!!!! The reason for this success vs. the previous failure of the political parties is twofold. The AGBU came to fill in a great need for social support among the population, and its operational model fitted with the needs of the times, inspiring full trust among the donor communities worldwide. The change desired by the AGBU was truly to be brought about over the very long term. It was actually designed like a long-term policy initiative of a government; after all, its founders came from a long tradition of public policy makers.
The Genocide of course wreaked havoc with those plans. The role of the AGBU changed radically, from the role of a nurturer of change, to the role of the preserver of the nation. I will not go into the details of how it mobilized to save the hundreds of thousands of refugees, how the surviving women and children were literally kidnapped back from the clutches of their enslavers, how the orphanages were built, how food, shelter, clothing and medical care was provided in the various camps and so on. These are all on record for the curious to discover. The activities of the AGBU today in the Diaspora and in Armenia are also on public record; therefore they need not be repeated. It is though noteworthy to point out that over 400,000 Armenians receive AGBU services every day.
What is even more astonishing is that during the AGBU nation-saving phase, the precursor institution to the UN was the Ligue of Nations; the Ligue had established an explicit institution called the HCR (High Commission for Refugees) under the leadership of Fridjof Nansen, and which was created exclusively to assist the Armenian refugees. The HCR closely collaborated with and effectively “outsourced” a large part of its operational role to the AGBU. The HCR was so successful in its mission that it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Furthermore, when the Ligue of Nations was dismantled after WWII, its only sub-organization that was deemed worthwhile to emulate, was carried over to the UN, and that formed the core of services of the nascent international organization was none other than the HCR under its new name, the UNHCR. Thus the AGBU finds itself at the historical point where its actions actually give birth to the greatest international organization, the UN itself. The UN in turn rises from the ashes of the HCR, which ironically was founded to assist the surviving victims of the Genocide of the Armenians. It is therefore a multiple irony that today, many of the member countries of the UN, actively deny that Genocide.
4. The fourth and final example of radical lateral thinking is the Zoryan Institute.
Today, the Zoryan Institute is the primary source of academic information, publications and eyewitness recordings of genocide survivors. Its initiatives have spawned several joint projects like the Genocide Studies program at the University of Toronto, research and publication by great scholars, oral history projects, Turkish-Armenian scholarly dialogue of historians, organizing conferences, advocating for human rights around the world and specifically for freedom of speech in Turkey. You can learn more about them from their website here.
The modern struggle for the recognition of the Genocide of Armenians simply cannot be imagined without the presence of the Zoryan Institute. It is arguably the scholarly foundational pillar from which all other modern initiatives have sprung and from which they receive intellectual nourishment. Still with all due respect to be given to the numerous Armenian Studies programs in the various universities in North America, which however, remained more of local initiatives, rather than being engaged in building networks and programs at the scale that Zoryan has achieved.
Yet once again, this unique institution came about as a radically different thought in the early nineteen eighties. It came about because G. Libaridian and K. Sarkissian realized that to win the battle for Genocide recognition it was not enough to pursue a political approach through the traditional Armenian political party structures in the Diaspora. They realized that a) the Genocide survivors were rapidly disappearing and would soon be all gone and with them all the thousands of eyewitness accounts that remained to be recorded; b) that such work needed to be led by serious modern professionals equipped with modern tools that would enhance the documentation about the Genocide; c) that it was important to start serious academic dialogue with honest Turkish historians, because the history of the Genocide of Armenians is as much a part of the history of Turkey as it is of Armenia; d) that it was important to tell also the numerous positive stories of good-hearted Turks who saved Armenians by risking their lives; e) that the issue of the Genocide of Armenians must be framed as fundamentally a human rights’ issue in order to garner broad international support; and finally, that f) Armenians need to lead an effort in understanding and supporting initiatives to condemn all genocides in order to build alliances with civil society, academics, human rights’ activists, independent and free thinking publishers in Turkey etc. to move the issue of recognition forward by a quantum leap; all of this was necessary, specifically because Turkey was mobilizing at the state level with huge resources allocated to their
official campaign of denial.
In hindsight, it turned out that the Zoryan founders were of course right and they might have actually literally saved the cause of Genocide recognition from certain defeat by the state-sponsored propaganda of Turkey. One has to look though at the context of the founding of this unique institution. It was in the period of 1982-84 that the Institute took shape first in the US and then in Canada. What was the state of recognition of the Genocide of Armenians around the world at that time? Politically, there was stagnation; on the ground, the issue of the Genocide was being completely obfuscated by the issue of Armenian terrorism, and by the intra-organizational conflict and murder going on between these various groups. The militant groups that sprung out structurally during the Lebanese civil war had degenerated into mafia-style hit squads. Basically there was no hope on the horizon.
Therefore the founding of the Zoryan Institute was one of the most forward looking events in the history of the Diaspora. By the very act of its birth it challenged the status quo. That is why it was almost immediately undermined by the traditional organizations in the Diaspora. The political parties were at best neutral. At worst, they worked actively to undermine the Institute because it challenged not only their accomplishments to date but in fact their legitimacy as the torch bearers of the Armenian cause (whatever that meant). That is why party members were threatened with expulsion and effective “excommunication” for supporting the Zoryan Institute. This was conservatism par excellence. Not only the rejection of the new, but also an active mobilization to stifle this innovation and to nip it in the bud.
We should be grateful that they failed miserably.
F. Anti-Conservatism and Secularism as the Way Out of Our Quagmire.
As these four examples clearly illustrate, our anti-conservative initiatives have had profound effects on us as a nation. I am deliberately limiting myself to the last 3 centuries, as it would be difficult (although not impossible) to argue this position for events in the more distant past, where the actual details on the ground would be relatively blurred.
However, at least three of the last four cases mentioned are within the experiential frame of most Armenians alive today. The achievement of Israel Ori can be substantiated within the context of the Armenia that exists and even the successful liberation war in Artsakh can be ultimately linked to his vision of Russian advancement into the Caucasus. The point is though that such amazing achievements were possible and were in fact arrived at against enormous odds.
Another characteristic of all four of these efforts were that they were at the core profoundly secular. The Mekhitarists, while Catholics, never limited their schools, their education programs, their publications and so on to Catholics only, quite the contrary. Israel Ori who worked jointly with the Catholicos of the time, soon realized that true power did not lie in the religious institutions, but that only the secular leaders of his time would help him. It is true that he befriended the Pope, but let us not forget that the Pope of the period was also a worldly leader of the Papal States and led his own armies. In other words, there was rarely any religious connotation to any of these four initiatives.
A secular discourse will by definition also bring a secular worldview. This is not meant to suggest that the Armenian Church should have no place within our institutional framework. The
Armenian Church should absolutely play the only role it is best suited and designed to play. That being to focus on the spiritual evolution and emancipation of our people. Its contribution to the shaping of our identity has been historically significant, however, when it acts beyond its initial scope today it would be contributing to an arrested development. There is a valid reason that the fundamental tenets of democracy start to blossom under a clear separation of the state from the church (or religion). Otherwise we have theocracies. Theocracies are not paragons of progressive societies. Apart from the Vatican, almost all the theocracies of the world are Iran, Saudi Arabia and a myriad of states that have the word Islamic attached to their official names. How many Armenians would like to live their lives in such states? Imagine if you are a Christian in Pakistan or a woman in Saudi Arabia? Granted this is an extreme view, but why continue to espouse such a discourse for our country or for the Diaspora?
We are not what we say we are, we are always what we do. One way to look at what defines societies is to look at their overall expenditures. If one, for example, looks at the USA, the overwhelming budgetary allocations of the revenues of the state are spent on the military and defense sector initiatives. Any social spending pales in comparison. That is why the United States is largely a militaristic society, its uneven societal wealth is created through companies engaged in defense related projects, its state priorities are set according to that agenda, and many Americans are directly or indirectly tied to this construct, whether they want to or not. If one looks at Canada, the largest single item spent by all governments combined is related to health care and social services. That is why Canada is the society that it is, and compared to the US it would be considered as largely a welfare state. If one looks at Armenia, close to 10% of its official budgetary expenditures disappear through various corruption channels into the pockets of the oligarchs. That is why Armenia is the country that it is.
If we apply this kind of analysis to the Diasporan communities for instance, one would likely see a picture where over 80% of community capital and operational expenditures are in some way tied into or through projects of Church initiatives. This would suggest that the Diasporan communities are ultimately caught into a self-view that can only (or largely) manifest itself as revolving around a religious axis. This would also further suggest that the Diaspora cannot imagine itself otherwise. Sure we need churches, but those churches should serve for mass, religious celebrations, weddings, baptisms and burials; but most of all to provide spiritual guidance. Anything beyond that, and they actually hinder our evolution and box us in an intellectual mind trap.
The innovative social scientist Abraham Maslow, who literally invented modern marketing, has said “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem will look to you like a nail”. This is particularly relevant for Diasporan communities because they see the solution of every community issue to be implemented through a church initiative. We need social services? OK, let’s build this church and attach a social service program to it. We need something to attract the youth? Let’s create a youth program under the umbrella of our parish. We need family counseling services? Let’s have the church hire some professionals who could also occasionally volunteer their services. We need a school? Let’s build a Sunday school first attached to the Church. And so on.
Now this approach might have been relevant in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But what it describes is the inability to imagine ourselves except as a church community or a congregation. That is why a vision of ourselves as something greater is practically inexistent. That is also why for instance that we have not managed to build a single art and culture center in all of North America even when the world’s most affluent Armenian communities have lived here for over a century. That is also why we do not have a single Armenian historical museum or
gallery that can be of any acceptable caliber to be visited by school children. That is also why we do not have a single Armenian institution in the Diaspora dedicated to producing university level graduate teachers of Armenian language and topics for our numerous schools. That is also why we do not have specialized curriculum experts etc. etc. The list of things we lack and we should have had after such a long existence as a Diaspora is long and it can only be explained at the big picture level.
The big picture level is clear, we are trapped as communities as to how we see ourselves. Yes there are exceptions, but these exceptions confirm the reality that is evident, rather than contradict it. We only know how to use hammers, yet to build new things we also need screw drivers, saws, power tools, wrenches and so on. We cannot
just hammer away to build a house. It should be quite obvious though that we can demolish a house by just hammering.
What would be achieved by an aggressive secular view of ourselves and an anticonservative approach?
• We would release the huge potential that exists in the communities and be able to mobilize the youth who are largely disillusioned and do not see our communities as relevant places allowing them the exercise of their intellectual abilities and imagination at its fullest.
• We would be able to attract the diversity of Armenians who have abandoned the communities (and now constitute a majority), because they see themselves more as full-functioning citizens of their countries. Their Armenian identity is just one part of their reality. In other words, their multiple identities are equally important and evolved, and enhance each other. They are not in conflict with themselves. The “organized” communities are.
And that alone is worth a serious try. In fact, anti-conservatism is probably our only guarantee of survival.
I want us to survive, and that is why, as an Armenian, I cannot be a conservative.
Montreal, Canada

Viken Attarian

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