Medz Yeghern: The 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

armenia logo

The official banner commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Armenian genocide in the UK.

 

 

armenia 2

A depiction of the Syrian desert death marches.

ottoman map

A map of the Ottoman empire of 1914.

 

April 24, 1915 marks the date that started the carnage sealing the fate of an estimated 800 thousand to 1.5 million Armenian people who were systematically murdered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in what has come to be known as the Armenian Genocide. Similar to the Jewish holocaust of World War II, the Armenian genocide was the governmental extermination of Armenians as a minority within the region that is now known as the Republic of Turkey. The first cycle of this bloodbath (that didn’t end until 7 years later in 1922), involved the mass murders and forced subjugation of physical labor of the young and robust male population. The second cycle of the Armenian genocide involved the Syrian death marches.

Women, children, and elderly in large numbers were marched southward to the Syrian deserts where they were then subject to frequent incidents of rape, robbery, and physical abuse. Many died on these marches from starvation, and lack of water. Those who tried to stop and take a break were shot on site.

The ancient Armenians had inhabited what was known as their homeland for many years prior to the Turk invasion in the eleventh century. With this invasion came significant problems for the Armenian population. For one, the Turks were mostly followers of the Muslim religion and began to rule while labeling Armenian Christians as second class citizens denying them their right to vote and going so far as to tax them for identifying as Christian.

young turks

A painted depiction of a meeting of the Young Turks political group.

 

With the growing trend of Turkish nationalism came the creation of a political group known as the Young Turks who were an ultra nationalist organization whose political ideologies included the end goal of a wholly Muslim and Turkish state. Behind the smoke of World War I, the Ottoman Turks began their attack on the Armenians starting by targeting the thousands of Armenian soldiers enlisted in the Turkish army. This event is known to the Armenian people as “Medz Yeghern” meaning Great Crime. On the 24th of this month, the Armenian community, along with its sympathizers remembered this time of sadness in fellowship with marches, rallies and speeches centered around this harrowing topic. However, Armenians today face another hurdle concerning this 20th century genocide—recognition that it was a genocide in the first place.

 

100 years later, the modern Turkish government does not recognize the massacre at Anatolia to be deemed a genocide. Perhaps even more surprising (to me anyway) is the fact that the United States and Israel are also among the ranks of the few nations who also refuse to use the language specific to genocide when talking about the event. Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide comes from claims within the Turkish and Azerbaijan governments that there was no plot to exterminate the Armenian race, but that there was a more complicated inter-ethnic war taking place, that Muslim Turks were also killed during that time, and that the numbers produced by scholars concerning the number of Armenian dead are inflated.

Speculation has been made that President Obama’s refusal to use the term genocide is largely because of the United State’s alliance with Turkey— despite that a majority of 43 states have declared their agreement that the massacre of 1915 was indeed a genocide. This year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event, a recorded 130 thousand people marched in Los Angeles from Little Armenia to the Turkish Consulate in solidarity. On the eastern side of the United States, there was also a gathering of thousands of Armenian-American youth in Times Square where they marched waving the Armenian flag,  wearing Red carnations and chanting, “Turkey is responsible for genocide”.

It would seem that 100 years later, Armenia still has something to fight for—even if it’s just the recognition their bloodied history deserves.

Armenian-American rally in New York for the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Armenian-American rally in New York for the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Secularism: inclusion, or exclusion?

If secularism boils down to the separation of church and state, then theoretically it should allow for religious freedom since the state is not dictating what you, as a citizen, can and cannot believe, right? Your religion is your private affair.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

However, the secularism practiced in France, also known as laïcité, seems to stomp out religious sentiments of any kind, making non-religion a sort of national religion in and of itself.

French people obsess quite a lot over religion. While they are proud of their grand cathedrals, and appreciate their artistic and historic value, many French people are skeptical at best when it comes to religious beliefs. On my first day  in France (I studied abroad the summer after my Freshman year, in Lyon), my host family took me to a basilica near their house. One of the first things my host mom asked me was, “Tu crois en Dieu?” Do you believe in God?

I was taken aback by the question. It seems like a rather personal question to ask a practical stranger, as well as a big faux pas according to American culture.

“oui?” I answered, unsure of what she was getting at.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France

“Nous ne croyons pas en Dieu.” We don’t believe in God.

“Ah, je vois.” Oh, I see. I replied vaguely, both because I did not know how to say much more in French at the time, and because I was, quite frankly, not sure how to carry on the conversation. Her statement was  just so blunt.

Originally (that is over 100 years ago), the idea of laïcité in France was not so anti-religion. It was setup to keep the Catholic church from gaining too much control over French citizens and their institutions, which, I will agree, seems like a pretty good check of power. After all, this freedom of belief and the idea of separatism from the church was a large motivating force behind the French Revolution, and is consequently  still a central part of France’s national identity.

While perhaps the intentions behind French secularism were pure in the moment, France clearly didn’t know what was coming. France diversified, bringing in large immigrant populations from its North African protectorates. As it turns out, keeping the Catholic church at bay would not prove to be the challenge at hand, rather the integration of a new religion, Islam, would capture the attention of the French people.

My second night in France, around the dinner table, we ate North African sausage, merguez, with our salad, bread, cheese and wine, as we discussed the government housing that had been installed on the street right behind us, just a few years earlier. In a whisper, my host mom said, “Those are the immigrants. They are, well, poor. Tu as compris? You understand?

When my family asked me what I thought of it, I explained to them the best that I could that it was like America. We, too, have government housing in the suburbs sometimes, and honestly, I didn’t think much of it. I guess this response was to my host mom’s delight as she exclaimed. “O, elle est progressive!” Oh, she’s progressive!

Very quickly into my stay in France I became aware of the many contradictions of French culture. My host family (whom I love dearly) considered themselves to be very modern, progressive and most of all, secular. They loved North African food and we ate couscous and merguez on a regular basis, yet when it came to encountering the immigrants, they were bitter that they had moved into their middle-upper class neighborhood, le point du jour (sunrise).

My host family's house with the government funded apartments in the background

My host family’s house with the government funded apartments in the background

One day as I was walking along le point du jour with a family friend of theirs, Marie.  She clenched my arm and dragged me backwards when two Muslim boys passed us, whispering in my ear, “Nous ne les aimons pas” We don’t like them. I played dumb and asked her, “Pourquoi, ils sont egalement humains, non?” Why not, they are also human, right? To which she said coldly, “Ils sont dangereux” They are dangerous.

From my American point of view, it seemed that French secularism had moved its citizens to fear religion, and to think of it as the enemy.  I do not claim to say that all religious folks in France are perfect; I know that is not true. But I do mean to say that really, they are not well protected by the government’s secular policy, and considering their minority status in the country, especially those who practice Islam, they are une cible facile, an easy target,  and a scapegoat for many social issues in France.

Just this past weekend there was a march on Paris led by French Nationalists who chanted the national anthem and held signs calling Muslims fascists and saying that they do not have a place in French culture (Washington Post).

One anti-islam protester was quoted as saying:

“France was always a welcoming country, but for the first time we have to deal with a religion which can’t and doesn’t want to integrate itself.”

This blogger from Islamaphobia Today makes fun of the protestors, saying:

“Golly jee, I wonder how you get rid of Islam in France? Oh yes, by expelling and or otherwise repressing its 6 million adherents!”

On the other end of the spectrum, Muslim activists openly combat discrimination from their fellow citizens in quite a bold way as well. During their recent celebration of Eid, Muslims handed out free pastries to people on the streets in response to a controversial comment made by French politician Jean-Francois Copé who claimed that Muslim “thugs” were stealing pain au chocolats during their Ramadan Fast. Seems rather brazen, not to mention hilarious, to me!

That’s just it though, the French are more brash about their opinion and they display it in a much more public way than Americans. We are not immune to these social conflicts. Really, the parallel that we can draw is alarming. Think of our neighbors to the south and all of the immigrants who come from there to live here. Then think of people like my 80 year old grandmother (sorry, Grandma!) who send chain emails on a daily basis full of fear and often hatred, rejecting and demeaning our immigrant population.

I think that it is part of the human condition to have fear of people who are different than ourselves. We find comfort in what is familiar and when that identity is threatened, we, as humans, respond. It’s just a matter of how we choose to do so.

It’s all the same game; it’s just that France deals with its controversial issues out in the open, rather than over the Internet, and, perhaps, it is their deeply rooted secularism that leads the culture in this direction.

I asked a French friend of mine what his thoughts on the subject were, and he was quick to respond.

“Secularism and religion are at two, opposite ends of the spectrum that can never meet”


To me, French laïcité is contradictory in this sense. Secularism should mean that you are open minded, that you don’t care which religion your neighbor practices, so long as it is not harmful and (s)he does not push it onto you. But ask a Frenchman and much like my friend he may argue that religion has no place in a secular society.

 

Louvre Islamic Art Exhibit: Perfect Timing?

The Mona Lisa recently got some new company at the Louvre in Paris. In September the Islamic Art wing of the world-famous museum opened in a time when racial tension in France is high.

The aim of the wing is to “showcase the radiant face of a civilization,” according to museum director Henri Loyrette. It also aims to heighten a cross-cultural understanding at a time when tensions are high in France, especially after a French weekly publication published lewd caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.

The wing, which cost about 130 million euro and took ten years to complete, is the museum’s largest development since the completion of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid 20 years ago, according to an article from CBS News. The exhibit  features works from 632 A.D. all the way up to 1800.

Before this new addition, Islamic art was only displayed in the museum sporadically, according to an article from Al-Ahram Weekly. In the new gallery “the pieces have been inserted into a chronological and thematic display.” The article criticizes this organization because although its size and permanence is significant, the gallery does not give visitors proper context for the pieces.

Obviously the gallery has a high cultural significance because of its showcasing of Islamic art, but the political significance was emphasized when French president Francois Hollande paid a visit to the exhibit before its opening last month. Hollande was joined by the presidents of Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.

Hollande called the gallery a “political gesture in the service of respect for peace,” according to the CBS News article. “The best weapons for fighting fanaticism that claims to be coming from Islam are found in Islam itself,” he said. “What more beautiful message than that demonstrated here by these works?”

I agree with the president. I think the gallery is an excellent way to educate Europe about the rich Islamic culture, and I think it’s great that the French president is supportive of the new wing. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe and tensions are high recently after the burqa bill and the cartoons in the French newspaper. This exhibition could serve as a way to unite the western world with the Muslim world through creating tolerance and an understanding of Muslim culture.

The Al-Ahram article points out that the Louvre is a perfect venue for a large Islamic art display because of its fame and prestige. The article states that the Louvre will attract a long list of donors and a lot of attention from the public. I agree with this statement. Visitors will come for the pyramid and the Mona Lisa, stick around for the new exhibition and will hopefully leave with a greater understanding and respect for a culture that has faced quite a bit of adversity in France and throughout other parts of the western world.

A “Burqa bill” in France

Recently, seven people in France were brought into questioning following a demonstration in support of Pussy Riot, according to an article from The Age. The people were not in trouble for the content of their protest or for becoming violent, but for wearing burqas, traditional full-face veils worn by Muslim women. They were brought in for questioning because, as of April of last year, wearing burqas publicly in France is illegal and punishable with a fine of up to €150.

The government justified the ban by saying it was introduced to combat a rise in Muslim extremism, according to The Age. It is also argued that the ban is to further gender equality in France, which is an important value in the country.

Another aspect of the bill is that people who force another to wear an article of clothing similar to the burqa could be sentenced to jail time. The article from The Age says that this measure was clearly aimed at Muslims and I could see how people would think that.

I can see the point behind the ban, especially in a time of higher racial tension. However, I don’t think the ban necessarily makes sense for France. With 5 million Muslims, the largest population of any country in Europe according to a Seattle Times opinion piece, can France afford to make such a large group feel inferior? The piece from The Age also pointed out that the ban has not been heavily enforced because officers feel that it would cause tension. Wasn’t the reason for the ban and its enforcement to combat racial tension?

I don’t see the point of creating a law that causes controversy and targets a specific group of people if it is not going to be enforced.

Finally, supporters of the ban say that it is a step in the right direction for women’s’ rights in France. However, I see it as the opposite. Banning the wearing of the burqa limits the practice of Islam. Women should have the choice to wear the burqa and practice their religion to the fullest. I don’t think true feminism would take away a woman’s right to choose what she wears.

Germany banning Muslim tradition?

Currently in Germany, there is a law being proposed by Angela Merkel’s cabinet designed to criminalize forced marriages.  However, this presents a huge controversy since forced marriages are prevalent in the Arab/Turk communities and are considered a Muslim tradition. Adding to the controversy, there are a lot of Turkish (along with other nationalities) immigrants living in Germany.

As an American who very much values my freedom, I was initially for the banning of these marriages. As I delved deeper into the subject, I began to question the right that Germany has to do away with a tradition that has been around longer than Germany has officially been a country! I came across compelling evidence which well supported both sides.
Obviously, the woman in the video had an extremely negative experience with her forced marriage and I think it is safe to assume there are many more like her. Also, different rights groups have said that young immigrants in Germany are beginning to identify with Western values and value the freedom of choosing their own partner.

However, it is important to note the difference between forced marriages and arranged marriages. In an arranged marriage, the bride and groom are matched by a third party but consent is given by both people being marries. In a forced marriage, the partners are matched without consent (usually from the woman) to marry.

This video is a bit lengthy, but shows that arranged marriages can be very successful in terms of both people being happy.

I believe banning forced marriages is a great move on Germany’s part. However, if they were looking to ban arranged marriages that would be an entirely different story. On the other hand, does a government have the right to ban something that some (a vast minority of Muslims) people consider part of their religion? My answer is yes.

My final position on the subject was that this issue was that it is a human rights violation to allow people to be forcefully married. Too often, this results in the bride being victimized in a variety of ways.

Mesut ist Deutscher

Since the highly controversial publication of Sarrazin’s book “Deutschland schafft sich ab,” Germany finds itself in the midst of a lively debate about integration.

One group of people that has been especially in the spotlight are the Muslims. Just a few weeks ago, when Germany played Turkey in a European Cup qualifying game, the debate reached soccer fans, because both teams had players of German-Turkish origin in their lines.

Mesut Özil (center) during the German national anthem. On the left is Serdar Tasci, who also is of Turkish descent.

Many Germans with Turkish roots also have a Turkish passport and thus can decide what country they want to play for. When Mesut Özil – who is at the verge of becoming a world-class player for Real Madrid – decided that he wanted to play for Germany instead of Turkey, many Turkish soccer fans were in total disbelief. Fortunately, he was mainly treated with a lot of respect for what he has achieved in such an early point of his career, and even Turks are proud of “their Mesut.”

Since then, Mesut Özil has become one of the prime examples for integration. He is portrayed as the friendly young man from a working class background who has truly embraced his German nationality. (And most importantly plays well for the German national team, one might think.)

For 22-year-old Muslima Kübra Yücel, this couldn’t be further from the truth. On her blog Ein Fremdwörterbuch, which was intended to be a blog about her life but now focuses on questions concerning her religious background, she claims that the current debate about integration is a farce.

Ich will nicht wissen, wann und unter welchen Umständen ich als Mensch mit nichtdeutscher Abstammung und nichtchristlicher Religion ein Du-bist-deutsch-Siegel bekommen könnte. Das sind Scheindebatten. Die Realität sieht so aus: Mesut Özil kann – wie übrigens viele seiner biodeutschen Kollegen auch – keinen grammatikalisch korrekten deutschen Satz hervorbringen, ich hingegen schon. Trotzdem gilt er als integriert und deutsch, ich aber nicht.[…] Großartig. Ich habe also einen deutschen Pass, engagiere mich hier, spreche die Sprache und gehe wählen. Aber das reicht anscheinend nicht. Leider kann ich kein Fußball.

[I don’t want to know when and under which circumstances I – a person of non-German origin and non-Christian religion – could get the you-are-German-predicate. These are make-believe debates. Reality is different. Mesut Özil cannot utter a grammatically correct sentence like many of his biologically German peers, whereas I can. Nonetheless, he is considered to be integrated and German and I am not. […] Great. I have a German passport, I am involved socially, speak the language and I vote. But that doesn’t seem to be enough. Unfortunately, I don’t play soccer.]

Kübra Yücel

This incident shows that the current debates about integration are merely touching the surface of the problem. (If you browse through her blog or the blog Just another Hidjabi by her friend Yasmina Abd el Khader, you will find many more.)For Kübra, the debate about integration is ridiculous due to the results and misjudgements about what it means to be integrated when it comes to celebrities (or someone with celebrity status).

She sees nationality as an empty term. She doesn’t say she is German, nor that she is Turkish. On the contrary, she feels that these terms only limit her in what she is and as what she is seen as. She wants to be seen for what she really is: her qualities, ideas, and her character. Maybe Kübra is right and thinking in terms of nationality is outdated. Europe is coming closer together and the EU has been an important step in this development. Furthermore, the western world shares both ideologies and values, and people travel freely between countries. The next logical step would be to include the remaining parts of the world, including the Islamic world. Both blogs give insight into the views of two young Muslimas and utter a call for an open-minded approach to people of foreign cultures in general. As Yasmina puts it: “Wir wollen keine Schubladen mehr.” (We don’t want to be pigeonholed any longer.)

Controversial Couture

Victoria Andreyanova, a fashion designer, has caused quite a stir because of her new line of clothing that is based on attire that a nun might wear. Russia Today tells the story of why Andreyanova chose this particular clothing line for her new design.

It is interesting to see where the fashion world is heading. Who knows, maybe in a year or so this line will become popular in the United States. Instead of sporting jeans and a t-shirt, women might switch to long robes and skirts. Is it controversy that makes it so much more appealing to wear?

The video below also taken from Russia Today, is about fashion in Chechnya. They are trying to reach a compromise between European and Islamic fashions. Clothing stores are even at risk of getting shut down, if the clothing they sell is too revealing.



Trendhunter.com
explains that the fashion world has been butting heads with religion for a long time.

Some years ago, Versace was forced to retire a t-shirt in Italy that bared the sentence “the devil made me do it.”

They also have galleries filled with controversial fashion that has made the Catholic Church upset. This ad for Equinox gym has made a few heads turn, and has lead Catholics to be critical of the fashion industry.

This is what the Catholic Church had to say about it.

“It says a great deal about this perverse obsession in both the fashion industry and the advertising industry of exploiting and mocking and sexualizing Catholic religious imagery,” — C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts.

This blog talks about religious accessories hitting up mainstream clothing stores such as Urban Outfitters. It also explains the controversy behind certain items and why they are being pulled from store shelves.

Personally, I believe “more is less” and the Russian fashion world is heading in that direction with clothing that are meant to be more conservative.  Adding a hint of religion in fashion is not a bad idea, in fact controversy sells. So what do you think about the new clothing line? Is it okay to incorporate tradition with every day attire?

Print no evil in Germany

DomskyIslamA certain degree of censorship is generally accepted in Germany. But when a media outlet takes it to a whole new level by self-censoring, the outrage becomes personal.

A Düsseldorf publisher backed out of printing a murder mystery because of fears that the subject matter of the book – an honor killing – would put its employees at risk of an Islamic retaliation, according to news magazine Der Speigel.

The Droste Verlag was supposed to release Wem Ehre Gebührt, or “To Whom Honor is Due” on the shelves this September. However, shortly before it went to print, the publisher removed it from its list because author Gabriele Brinkmann – who writes under the pseudonym W.W. Domsky – refused to tone down certain phrases.

Speigel reported that Brinkmann refused to change a line of dialogue from “You can shove your Koran up…” to “You can shove your honor up…” She reportedly told Bild am Sonntag that she was outraged by the decision, saying that it’s “a scandal for a publisher to tuck its tail between its legs” and that it was an act of “anticipatory obedience”.

The story has attracted media attention, with German papers, pundits and bloggers accusing the publisher of self-censorship and bowing to intimidation from extremists, Deutche Welle reported.

Company executive Felix Droste reportedly had asked an expert on Islamic society to review the manuscript for things that might cause extremists to want to harm his family or his business. The expert had suggested changing that line.

“After the Mohammed caricatures, one knows that one cannot publish words or drawings that defame Islam without incurring a security risk” to his staff or family, Droste told Spiegel.

A spokeswoman for Dusseldorf-based Droste said that the company has a tradition of publishing controversial books, but would not publish those that insulted religions – whether Islam, Christianity or others.

A Israeli-German news site said that willingness to self-censor in this context could work two ways: That it might “please” the feelings of Muslims, but it will once again prove that Westerners are “whimps” who aren’t willing to defend their own ideals.

“Und die Islamisten können sich darin bestätigt fühlen, dass es sich bei diesen Westlern ja doch ganz überwiegend um Weicheier handelt, die nicht einmal ihre eigenen Ideale zu verteidigen bereit sind.”

An American pundit called the publisher’s actions “cowardly” and its reasoning a “lame excuse”.

FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHT VS RIGHT TO AMEND

While Germany, like America, has constitution that guarantees freedom of speech (it also has a very established freedom of the press), it does have some harsh censorship laws, some of which seem entrenched in the history of the country.

Wikipedia writes: Membership in a Nazi party, incitement of hatred against a segment of the population, or Volksverhetzung, and Holocaust denial are illegal in Germany. Publishing, television, public correspondence (including lectures), and music are censored accordingly, with harsh legal consequences, including jail time.

The country also takes measures to protect its youth from violence or ideology that the government thinks might be harmful. The BPjM, or Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons, censored popular American game Command and Conquer Generals and Zero Hero, citing that it idea of war in the game was too real. Its creators got around the censors eventually by changing human characters in the game to look like cyborgs.

In this case, author Brinkmann is not budging. A forum user on thelocal.de wrote: “I could almost understand if the book was printed and then removed due to controversy, but to not even release the book for fear is simply cowardice.”

Was the German publisher being too paranoid? Do you think this book would have been published in the US? Is it fair to ask authors and producers to alter their works to met censorship guidelines?

French Finance: Islamic Intrusion?

France has the largest Muslim population in all of Europe, so it’s no wonder why the country has plans to become a hub for Islamic finance.

One problem though: Laïcité France’s strict policy on the separation of church and state.

euros

According to one website, the French hold this division to an even higher standard than that of the United States and most other European countries.

“Given this outlook, some French fear the Muslim community here is seeking to nurture its own identity in a way that sets them apart from ordinary French citizens and undermines the unity of the nation. The way in which Muslims openly speak about religion, rather than keeping their faith to themselves, looks to these French as a challenge to the principle of laïcité,” writes one Reuters blogger.

But other commentators on the Reuters blog say there Islamic finance has nothing to do with propagating Islam itself. Some disagree, however.

One blogger harshly states, “This sucking up to Islamic money makes one want to puke. It was bad enough giving it to them in the first place; now let’s have some dignity and tell them to use the sandbank.”

Is this fair? Is this really more of a branding issue (i.e. including the word “Islam” in a bank title)? Or is this an intentional move for Muslims to make a bigger mark on French culture than the followers of other religions?