Crises activate diasporas, galvanising them around particular issues for a critical period. Once the cause loses its urgency or potency, most people resume their normal lives, leaving the professional activists or institutions to continue the marathon. Crises are a unifying and coalescing moment for the multi-layered Armenian diaspora, otherwise defined by rich heterogeneity. My own earliest memory of such a collective mobilization was the humanitarian response to the devastating earthquake in Armenia on December 7, 1988. It killed more than 25,000 people, and left half a million homeless – the repercussions are still felt more than 30 years later.
More recently, the diaspora mobilized to address the continuing crises in Lebanon and Syria, both homes to significant Armenian communities. When asked to consider the impact the recent Artsakh war has had on the Armenian diaspora, as a scholar of diasporas I might logically assume that it was simply the latest crisis around which to mobilize. However, as a member of the Armenian diaspora, my preliminary observations suggest it was a defining moment that holds transformative potential.
Anny Bakalian in her celebrated study of Armenian Americans captured the diaspora shift through generations, as moving from “traditional” to “symbolic” identity, from “being” to “feeling” Armenian. “Feeling Armenian” is mostly a private and voluntary matter confined to the intimacies of home, and occasional church and community engagement, based around varying degrees of cultural and symbolic practice and interests. The war certainly intensified “feeling Armenian” in the diaspora, witnessing the struggle of the tiny, post-Soviet state that had so recently been hailed as a beacon of hope and democracy in the region after the Velvet Revolution. But it did more than that. The wider environment and geopolitical landscape compelled diasporans not just to “feel,” but to “be” or indeed to “be-come” Armenian.
Narration and Representation
The war was fought on several fronts, but for most diasporans, it was experienced at the level of narrative. From the outset, Turkish and Azerbaijani propaganda machines set the narrative through sheer force and magnitude. In this (post) modern warfare of words, Azerbaijan had the foundational advantage, having “infiltrated” European governments, an army of PR agencies, legions of paid lobbyists, some of them with academic credentials; reinforced by a tangled web of corruption and years of caviar diplomacy, lucrative international contracts and apparent impunity limited to the extremely wealthy.
So the war was said to have “erupted” or even that the Armenians had started it. The depiction of Armenians as aggressors entered the public sphere by Erdogan’s statement that “Armenians are the biggest threat to regional peace” on the day the war began. All this put Armenians on the back foot, forcing them into a defensive position, at odds with actualities. That truth is the first casualty of war is a well-worn truism, but what we saw in this war was an unprecedented level and scope of organized disinformation designed to discredit and undermine Armenians on all fronts: their right to self-determination, their long history and culture, ultimately their very right to exist as Armenians. The Azerbaijani and Turkish state narrative, reinforced by their legions (paid and voluntary) on social media, set the international framing and tone of the war. The state-sponsored army of Turkish trolls is so mundane that it has its own Wikipedia entry and Azerbaijan’s trolls are also well-known. While the war was still raging, Azerbaijani academics were issuing calls for papers about it (now published) as if its conclusions were foregone and its details irrelevant.
Most mainstream media in seeking to appear neutral collapsed into the false equivalence of two sideism, presenting the conflict as one between two evenly-matched age-old adversaries, rather than one between an oil-rich repressive authoritarian state scoring 10 out of 100 in Freedom House ratings, and a burgeoning democracy with a small, struggling economy. The perpetuation of narratives of false equivalence removed the power asymmetry in the war, and flattened the complex histories of the region. The sheer volume of social media in particular led to a creeping gaslighting that sought to insert doubt, spread speculation and obscure the facts. The worst tenet of the gaslighting was the branding of Armenians as “occupiers” of Nagorno Karabakh instead of indigenous people with the right to self-determination, thereby delegitimizing their claims.
Armenians worldwide are very familiar with the gaslighting strategies of Turkey in its continuing denial of the 1915 genocide by adaptive tropes of historical revisionism. It has taken many years and much toil, but the weight of scholarship has firmly established the genocide as fact, its denial now confined to those whose interests it serves. The global gaslighting by Turkey has put the onus for decades on Armenians to “prove” their “story.” This has been a heavy burden for the diaspora, and an extension of genocidal victimhood and trauma. Indeed it has shaped and blighted Armenian diasporic life for decades.
The war, waged in partnership with Turkey, triggered intergenerational trauma for the diaspora. Armenians across the globe responded to the crisis in unity and unison. Western diasporans, the core, descendants of the Armenians who survived the 1915-23 genocide by the Ottoman Turkish state, survivors and refugees, instilled in their descendants not just the value of education and toil, of embracing the world and others, but also a pride and dignity in having survived and endured. Western diasporans no matter how they relate to their background or practice their Armenianness in their day to day life, all share that thread of survival. Armenians, from celebrated artists and global celebrities, to the tiniest of communities (like the Ethiopian) stepped up. The global mobilization consisted of two familiar strands – fundraising for humanitarian relief and raising awareness; but also a distinct third strand – that of advocacy and representation.
This global advocacy cut across gender, class, age, background, politics, location – making activists of everyone. Armenia’s ‘A list diaspora’ composed of luminaries like Serj Tankian, and Cher, and Hollywood actors, also used their platforms to speak out throughout the war. This was underpinned by the tireless work of Armenian leaders, groups and institutions, local and global, alongside allies and partnerships across civil society. It is important to note that there were variations of tone, intensity, pitch and volume within the diaspora chorus, but these were in perfect harmony on the need to speak out, to challenge the monolithic narratives and representations coming from the Azerbaijani and Turkish state (and their followers) and to insert Armenian voices and experiences into the story. These narratives were set against a wider environment of apathy regarding the war. This created an urgent need for diasporans to intercede and to articulate, as Armenians and for Armenians, testifying for over a century of oppression and violence against their ancestors, and speaking today on behalf of the most beleaguered of Armenians, those in Artsakh – all subjected to violence for being Armenian. This was a spontaneous free-flowing movement in response to a crisis of representation in the public sphere and was taken on as a responsibility and moral duty. For many diasporans like myself for whom being Armenian is conjoined with an organic adaptive cosmopolitanism and an intellectual position that identifies with the universal oppressed and marginalized, this was a seminal moment. Suddenly our many layers of identity, in my case, my being British, Cypriot, European, Middle Eastern etc. were stripped back. We were only “Armenian” as “othered” by war – whether of words or drones.
The emerging polyphony of the Armenian diaspora was little understood or engaged with in the public sphere. For some it was dismissed as “nationalism,” no different from the militant exclusionary nationalisms that have contributed to previous conflicts in the region. As a tiny, Caucasian, Christian nation, majority diasporic, Armenians fall outside reigning frameworks of interest, in a regional context where indigenous Christians are being erased. It was hard not to detect in the subtle disapproval an underlying condescension and racism – that Armenians are somehow only acceptable as (quiet) victims condemned to subalternity, and should know their place. In addition, the campaign of the Turkish state to demonize Armenians and the diaspora in particular has resulted in derogatory stereotypes that all Armenians have encountered both at home and on travels.
Beyond the war of words, Armenians were physically targeted in Turkey, in France, in the US. Scores of Turkish and Azerbaijani thugs hunting Armenians and calling for their deaths led to France banning the Grey Wolves, the ultra-nationalist Turkish paramilitary organization (Azerbaijan is now building a Grey Wolves school, in the historic city of Shushi). The diasporic space remains a symbolic zone of conflict of representation. At the end of March, Azerbaijani propaganda billboards were emblazoned in London underground stations, proclaiming “Shusha, Karabakh – Cultural Capital of Azerbaijan” and “Azerbaijan, Centre of Multiculturalism.” They were taken down after complaints.
Azerbaijan has been emboldened to continue its pre-war erasure of Armenian culture, rebranding Armenian cultural heritage as “Caucasian Albanian” and continuing what the Guardian has called “the worst cultural genocide of the 21st century.” The jingoistic triumphalism of the military “victory parade” on December 10 where the leaders of “one nation, two states” held court, left no doubt that a peace agreement brought neither peace nor security. This was reinforced by the grotesque surrealism of the “museum park of trophies” opened by Aliyev in full military garb on April 12 parading through an exhibition of helmets of dead Armenians soldiers. The widely disseminated photo gallery of Azerbaijani children playing with the monstrous waxworks representing Armenian soldiers and abused prisoners of war (at least 200 still in Azerbaijani prisons) offer warning signs for what lies ahead if things carry on as they do. These ongoing spectacles of violence leave little room for ambiguity or hope, especially when there is little reaction from the global community.
Solidarity and Silences
It was not surprising that there were almost no voices of dissent from Azerbaijanis, but the silence of Turkish friends and colleagues was unexpected and painful for many diasporans. For over two decades, in civil society, small groups of Armenians, Kurds, Turks and others, have come together as part of a transnational movement to address the violences upon which the Turkish state is founded. This small, bridge-building movement emerged tentatively at first, gathering pace in the run up to the 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide. By this point it had produced a transnational cadre of scholars and civil society activists, underpinned by serious research and friendships. The war on Artsakh has put a dent in this movement – its cracks exposed by the silences from Turkish colleagues. This void is worrying on several levels, not least its backdrop, the continuing intimidation that the small remaining Armenian community in Turkey is subjected to. For this movement to be salvaged, difficult conversations and hard work lie ahead.
More broadly, beyond distress caused by the war’s devastation, the experience shared by diasporan Armenians was a sense of isolation and lack of wider solidarity. No doubt COVID-19 contributed to this sense of human disconnection, and perhaps it is no coincidence that the war was waged when the world was preoccupied with a pandemic. Global civil society was slow and reticent to speak. For many Armenian activists who have been committed to global solidarity causes fighting injustice and inequalities, this was an unexpected blow. Even “progressive” colleagues were reluctant to show support, for reasons ranging from indifference to fear of repercussions.
The statement by a group of prominent U.S. public intellectuals and a strong demonstration of moral leadership from Cornel West were rare and much-needed public acts of validation, recognition and solidarity. These will not be forgotten. Nor will the networks of the friends, colleagues and experts who were companions in the trenches.
The Geopolitical Context
As part of its state-building project Soviet Armenia encouraged diasporan immigration in several organized drives, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been projecting itself as a “homeland” for diasporans. In practice, Armenia has become by default, a sanctuary for diasporans forced to leave their homes because of war and crises. Around 22,000 Syrians have fled to Armenia since the start of the Syrian war, of which 14,000 remain. In a population of less than three million, that makes Armenia the third largest recipient of refugees from Syria per capita with little international fanfare or support. The ongoing war in Syria, and the increasingly inhospitable conditions in Lebanon and Turkey have meant that many Middle Eastern Armenians have taken refuge in Armenia, joining earlier waves of refugees and migrants from Azerbaijan, Iran, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and previous waves from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Since the Velvet Revolution in 2018 more diasporans have chosen to move to Armenia to support this fledgling democracy, building on the small trend for short-term volunteering schemes. Leaving your home of generations is not an easy choice for anyone, but diasporans, while fully aware of the difficult economic realities and other challenges of living in Armenia, at least knew they would be safe. The war has changed that perception. The increased connections between Armenia and the diaspora also meant that the thousands who died or were injured in the war were often personally known and connected to the diaspora communities.
Despite living in the Middle East for well over a century, with historical roots going back centuries, the Armenian status in the region is being questioned and reduced to “guesthood” by covert and overt campaigns. The growing influence of Turkey in Lebanon, the most Armenian of the Arab countries, has been particularly difficult to witness for Armenians who “made Lebanon their own” as proud and active Lebanese citizens. Turkey’s brand of populist nationalism, neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism, underpinned by soft power initiatives and investment has widespread global appeal and reach. In the past, Turkey has relied on its economic emigrants, remoulded as a diaspora by the state, but now can draw upon a much wider constituency.
In Lebanon where the Armenians are part of the sectarian state fabric, in recent years there has been a normalization of anti-Armenian inflammatory speech permeating the public sphere orchestrated or mobilized by Turkey’s extended power base in the region. This proliferates in social media especially around April 24, the date that the genocide is commemorated annually. The current wave of Armenophobia has been on display at least since the centenary of the genocide in 2015 with certain leaders, without irony, simultaneously denying the genocide and calling for its resumption/completion, while proclaiming solidarity with Turkey. After surviving genocide and rebuilding their lives and reaching a point of security and normality, Armenians are being subjected to genocidal language, threats and intimidation in their homes in the diaspora today, a century on, by the same forces, in new forms.
A recent episode concerned Nishan Der Haroutunian, the host of a popular television program on Al Jadeed TV who, upon receiving a social media message from a viewer calling him “a refugee and insidious foreigner” responded strongly on air. This opened up the floodgates, resulting in anti-Armenian street protests in west Beirut on June 11, 2020, with Turkish and Lebanese flags on display among the anti-Armenian banners and slogans. Lebanese Armenians were unequivocally reminded of their vulnerability. Such is the expansionism of the Turkish state, that Der-Haroutunian is to stand trial for “insulting Turkey.” This suggests that regardless of deep roots and rootedness, the Middle East is a precarious and insecure space for Armenians as a diasporic and liminal people.
In the diaspora consciousness, the war cannot but be viewed through this geopolitical lens and the pressures Armenians are under in the region, and beyond. The mechanisms of globalization have led to diasporas being ever more interconnected, so Armenian concerns, whether in the Middle East, in America, in Europe or in Armenia are shared and experienced as an integrated whole regardless of where one is situated.
Post-War Diaspora Reflections and Recalibrations
Studies of diasporas show that moments of crisis create transnational unity, but what happens next is less conclusive. New networks, alliances and solidarities may replace old ones, existing ones may be reinvigorated or redirected. Undoubtedly the horrors of the war (still unfolding) have made Armenia closer and more connected to the diaspora, the latter now having a greater stake and interest in its future. The reverse is also true – the diaspora as global advocate for Armenia is likely to mean that Armenia will have a greater influence in the diaspora’s future iterations.
The diaspora’s divergences and differences, often decried by traditionalists as being its weakness, conversely is also its inherent dynamism. The war confirmed that the Armenian diaspora, regardless of its many permutations and dilutions, does coalesce and unite at critical moments. Diasporans resolutely rose to the occasion, putting aside their differences to represent and advocate for Armenians in Artsakh and Armenia.
The complex relationship of the diaspora to Armenia has also been widely documented and discussed. The war demonstrated definitively that diasporan Armenians of all hues can and will take on the struggles of Armenians in Armenia and Artsakh as their own, thereby collapsing differences and divisions at a time of need. Returning to Anny Bakalian’s framework, diasporans in this case can be said to have shifted from “feeling” Armenian to actively “being Armenian.” This suggests that it is possible for even “symbolic” Armenians to “be” Armenian at a moment collectively perceived and experienced as an existential crisis.
Situating these reflections in-between emic and etic approaches to diaspora, my sense is that this defining moment of “being Armenian” across diaspora will not be forgotten. As individuals and groups, diasporans voiced and embodied the collective Armenian experience in powerful and meaningful ways; they have not resumed their everyday lives unscathed and unchanged. This makes this moment a potentially transformative one for diasporans, not just in terms of identification and priorities, but also in terms of future trajectories and commitments.
Post-war, the focus of the diaspora remains on providing aid to the thousands displaced, protecting and helping to rebuild shattered lives. These are both pressing and long-term undertakings. Alongside this, the aftermath of the war has precipitated a period of reflection, a time to process, re-evaluate and recalibrate.
*My thanks to Talar Chahinian, Vazken Khachig Davidian, Samer El-Karanshawy and Vassilis Paipais for their feedback on a draft of this piece, and for helping to crystallize my thoughts.
1- Am grateful to Talar Chahinian for this important point.