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Revisiting the Relationship Between Armenians and Kurds

By Monday, April 18, 2016

The Philos Project recently interviewed Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, and spoke to him about Armenian-Kurdish relations and the future of Armenians in the Middle East.


PP: Many influential Kurdish non-governmental organizations, intellectuals and political parties spanning ideology and geography have condemned the Kurds’ historical role in the Armenian genocide. Why do you think that is?

AH: The historical and political experiences Kurds have had has sensitized them to the Armenian narrative. We say, “Let us all raise our voices.” We recognize that the decision-makers in the Ottoman Empire were not Kurds, and only Turks truly benefitted from the genocide. And when they were finished with us, they turned their attention on the Kurds.

 

PP: In modern times, there have been increasingly close relations between Armenians and Kurds, both politically and in general. Can you provide us with some context to this?

AH: Both Armenians and Kurds have lived in the same region for many generations, but the worst period, of course, was during the Armenian genocide. There were some groups of Kurds that were enlisted by the Ottoman Empire to commit atrocities, but nowadays, the pro-Kurdish HDP [People’s Democratic Party] in Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq have largely come to terms with this dark, regretful period of their history. The legacy of pain is now one based on an honest reckoning.

Coming out of the genocide, however, there was a common cause shortly afterward. Turkey became a homogeneous state and did not have a place for ethnic or religious minorities, and Kurds were targeted themselves by the state. Armenians were helpful and sympathetic to the Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s. It is also noteworthy that today there is a solid relationship among these diaspora communities in the United States, Canada and in Europe. For example, there are many Kurds and Yazidis in Armenia and are very well respected.

Also, this close relationship is reflected in Turkey presently, as Armenians there frequently cooperate with HDP. The HDP representatives are helpful to Armenian causes in the U.S., as well as is the KRG. We Armenians cooperate in many ways with Kurds, from grassroots interactions to governmental levels. Some parties such as the ARF [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] cooperates with HDP. Both are members of Socialist International and hold a common worldview vis-à-vis Turkey. Also it is important to note that many members of HDP are Armenians.

Another important example concerning our cooperation surrounds the St. Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir (a mostly Kurdish city that once had a large Armenian minority). Kurdish leaders deeded the Armenian church back to the community; it was recently restored and rebuilt with the help of the local Kurdish population. Until very recently, it was operating as a church in the full sense: It held masses, baptisms and weddings. This project was unprecedented; for decades, the Turkish state let it sit in disrepair. Only a couple of weeks ago it was confiscated by the state “for the safety of the population,” and this phrasing is deeply worrying since the deportations of Armenians in 1915 were also meant for the “safety of the community.”

 

PP: What is the situation for Armenians in Syria? Are they inclined to remain neutral, become part of the regime, or support opposition forces (including Kurds – as have several other Christian communities)?

AH: Armenians in Syria maintain an official position of neutrality. They are a very vulnerable community and are still at risk. They do not have a political agenda, per se.

 

PP: The Constitution of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq mandates one seat in parliament allocated for Armenians (five seats are allocated for Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac candidates). What message does this send to Armenians in the Kurdistan Region, Armenia and the diaspora?

AH: It’s very healthy. Every democracy must do what is most reflective of its culture. We are very glad for this, and to us it reflects that our futures are closely intertwined. In the coming decades, this relationship will grow even more, I believe. Ankara has become more increasingly paranoid regarding Armenia and Kurds’ collaborating. But the bottom line is that Armenian-Kurdish connections and relations do matter.

 

PP: In recent months and weeks, there has been racist graffiti presumably by nationalist Turks plastered throughout southeastern, predominantly Kurdish cities shared on social media. One read, “Armenian bastards” in Cizre, for example. In May 2015, HDP Cochairman Selahattin Demits was labeled as an Armenian. In December 2015, AKP parliamentarian Metin Klink told the media, “One hundred years ago it was the Armenian gangs who were burning mosques and schools. Today it is the terror gangs of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party].” Explain the conflation between Armenians and Kurds for some Turks.

AH: Before one of the recent elections in Turkey a flyer was widely circulated of Demits’ meeting with members of ANCA, essentially claiming that a vote for Kurds is a vote for Armenians. This comment of “Armenian gangs” is very chilling. The subtext is that Armenians were and still are traitors and a “fifth column.” In the 1980s, former Turkish President Turgut Ozal even said in reference to Armenians, “We’re going to teach them a lesson.” To paraphrase the famous genocide scholar, Israel Charny, denial of genocide means one is complicit and able to repeat such atrocities again. Unfortunately, to many Turks, the genocide was and still is justified. Connecting the dots between Armenian-Kurdish relations is crude and crass and they are intended as scare tactics. The Turkish state seems preoccupied with a “traitorous minority.”

 

PP: Much of the attention given to the Yazidi religious minority focuses on the attempted genocide in Sinjar, Iraq beginning in 2014. What can you share about the somewhat large Yazidi population in Armenia?

AH: Armenia has a prosperous Ezidi [Yazidi] population. By and large, most are satisfied with their lives there and there is a good relationship between Armenians and Ezidis. There is strong solidarity with the Ezidi people of Sinjar in Iraq and the Kurds in Kobani in Syria, and at the community level, we Armenians in the U.S. raise these issues with Congress, since all of these issues are related and all of the same cloth. What happened to the Armenian community of Kesab, Syria is largely due to Turkey’s hand and the same is true in Kobani and Sinjar [Note: Approximately 40,000 Yazidi Kurds live in Armenia; this is the largest minority in that country. Many Yazidis fought and died with Armenians during the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh War].

 

PP: How are Armenian-Kurdish relations today and where are they headed?

AH: The bonds are very deep at this point. I mentioned the example of the church in Diyarbakir. The election of Garo Paylon, HDP delegate, and two other Armenians illustrates this, too. There is also a great deal of mutual advocacy in European countries and in Washington, D.C., to a lesser degree. For instance, seminars were held in our ANCA office and many Kurds participated. Yerevan has sent diplomats to KRG in the past, which is a very positive step. As we know, it is a difficult time in Turkey these days, but post-Erdogan, the situation could and should improve.

Benjamin Kweskin

Benjamin Kweskin specializes in Middle East-U.S. foreign policy and international studies. He has been researching and writing academically and journalistically for more than 15 years and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. In 2013-2014, he lived in the Kurdistan Region for a year as an educator, lecturer, journalist and tour guide. He was also the primary historical researcher for the official Kurdistan Region Tour Guide. He was also senior editor and policy writer for Kurdistan24 English. He holds two masters of arts degrees (international studies and political science).

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