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Istanbul Armenians: The Diaspora's 'Outsiders'?

By Vahe Sarukhanyan

Arus Yumul, an Armenian sociologist who lectures at the Bilgi University in Istanbul, says that if the dominance of Muslims over non-Muslims during the Ottoman Empire was a hierarchical division, after the founding of the Republic in Turkey that difference theoretically disappeared, but that this phenomenon still exists today in Turkey but not in an overt way.

Yozge Genc, another expert with the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), told me that the main problem of Armenians today in Turkey is that they are not regarded as full citizens of the Turkish state.

"Armenians are still identified by their religion and ethnic affiliation," says Genc, adding that the other minorities in Turkey have the same problem but that in the case of Armenians such a thing is expressed in a slightly different way.

Pakrat Estukyan, the Armenian edition editor at Agos weekly expressed the same thought, noting that at one time Armenians in Turkey constituted a nationality, a people, but that they had been reduced to a mere "community" today; and a religious one at that.

For years the number of Armenians living in Turkey has hovered between 60,000 - 70,000 and that's not counting the number of crypto-Armenians living in Anatolia and western Armenia. Experts say their number is quite large.

Estukyan said that even though only a citizen's religion is noted in passports, government agencies have a good handle on nationality data as well.

As the largest non-Muslim minority in Turkey, Armenians are not represented in political or social sectors and do not hold state office. Yozge Genc said that the employment process for state office is quite complicated for Armenians, especially when national security issues come up.

Armenians serve on the Sisli Municipal Council, but it's one district in Istanbul where most of the city's non-Muslims reside.

Ozge Genc says that an Armenian was recently assigned to the government's Central Secretariat for EU Affairs, but this was a singular event. Mensur Akgun, Director of the Global Political Trends Center (GPOT) says that a lot has to do with personal and practical contacts and not just a person being Armenian.

Silvia Tiryaki, his deputy, says that the Turkish "deep-state" avoided assigning Armenians to top posts after the operations of ASALA in the 1970s and 1980s.

Pakrat Estukyan disagrees with this belief and stresses that the divide was created not because of ASALA but the 1915 Genocide; something the Turks don't talk about.

Sociologist Yumul says that for the worldwide Armenian diaspora, the Istanbul-Armenian community is akin to a "lost lamb", an "outsider". She says that other Armenians have taken them to task for being non-active in Armenian affairs and for cow-towing to the government in Ankara. Yumul says she agrees with these assessments when it comes to the Ottoman period, but that after Turkish independence Armenians not only didn't get involved in Armenian politics but also Turkish affairs. It was kind of a survival strategy she noted.

Yumul added that the community is slowly integrating into the larger Turkish society and that mixed marriages are paving the way.

"At one time Armenian parents resisted but this too has faded. The next generation will be more like a hybrid, free to chose whether they are Armenian, Turk..."

She was quick to add that this doesn't mean that Armenians will disappear in Turkey.

However, the use of Armenian as a daily language of communication is also on the decline; the number of Armenians who can't speak the mother tongue is growing. Parents send their kids to Armenian elementary schools but afterwards many go to private or foreign high schools so that they won't have problems with the Turkish language in college.

The 1990s were a turning point for the community in many ways. Armenians, like the other minority communities, began to voice their concerns, speak about the discrimination they faced, and even raise the taboo subject of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Twenty years ago, all this was unthinkable. What the next twenty will bring for the community remains a big question mark.

Source: Hetq.am, 04 May 2011

Added: Saturday, May 07, 2011
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