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Christian Minorities and Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East

Date: Monday 20 April 2015
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr Vicken Cheterian (Webster University, Geneva)
Chair: Adham Smart (Programme of Armenian Studies)

The main focus of Dr Vicken Cheterian’s lecture was the sectarian conflict that has plagued the Middle East both in this century and times gone by. He discussed the general issues regarding different tribes, communities and religious groups that have been pitted against one another for political ends over the centuries and the mistakes and failures that have led to the perpetuation and repetition of sectarian conflicts in the region. Dr Cheterian stressed that the nature of these conflicts were and are not religious per se. He emphasised that the attacks on Christians today are not due to primordial religious reasons and that the polarisation between the Sunnis and Shiites that is so often portrayed as an ancient rivalry in the Western media is an artificially constructed illusion and historically false.

Dr Cheterian (left) and Adham Smart

Dr Cheterian outlined the historical role of the Christians in the Middle East over the past few centuries and the fluctuating status they enjoyed, or suffered from, under officially Islamic empires. During the rivalry between the Sunni-led Ottoman Empire and the Shia-led Safavid Empire, the Christian communities were considered to have a neutral political status. Communities in the Ottoman Empire such as the Qizilbash, who were predominantly Shia, were seen more as an internal threat due to historical ties with the Shia of the Persianate Safavid Empire. (These Qizilbash are now known as Alevis in Turkey since their former name held negative and pejorative connotations.) Only in the nineteenth century did Christians become targets of the state all within the context of power struggles between the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Christian’ empires of Europe and Russia. Before the catastrophes that blighted the end of the Ottoman Empire, Christians had played an enormous role in cultivating the empire. Dr Cheterian gave the example of the Janissaries, who were Christian boys taken by the Ottoman state and trained to become soldiers and defenders of the Sultan. Christians also played a major role in technological and cultural developments in the empire since Muslims were banned from certain trades. Dr Cheterian mentioned how he wondered about why there were so many Armenians who were photographers in the nineteenth century and even today – for example Ara Guler. Armenians had worked in trades, such as pharmacy, which then helped them to receive developments from Europe with ease and to bring them to life in the Ottoman Empire. These developments did not occur among the Muslims. Christians were both materially and politically more developed, and this sophistication among the Christians subjects allowed them to advance politically. Armenians drew up a constitution before one was drawn up by the Ottomans themselves. Armenian political parties were developing without any Turkish, Kurdish or Arab parallels.

Dr Vicken Cheterian

In Dr Cheterian’s eyes, a watershed moment in the modern history of the Middle East that is not revisited enough is the 1908 Constitutional Revolution. It was an event that unified many of the political sides in Anatolia and it harked back to the reforms initiated in the nineteenth century, such as the Tanzimat reforms. During this period the Young Turks and the Armenian revolutionary movement were not far from one another in their goals and both groups celebrated this revolution. Nevertheless, the marginalization of the Young Turks led to their radicalization which prompted them to use extra-legal means to achieve their then ultra-nationalist aims. This resulted in the eventual extermination of communities that did not fit into their radicalized ideals.

Dr Cheterian moved on to speak of the status of the Christians of the Middle East today. Despite the vanguard position which Christians held in politics and culture, they have retreated to the margins of society and are generally content with keeping the status quo. One reason for this demographic. The number of Christians in the Middle East has diminished dramatically since the twentieth century and so their communities feel vulnerable and at risk if change were to occur. Dr Cheterian compared the prominent roles that Christians played in the bearing of Arab nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their quiet existence today. The new pervading narrative with roots in Salafi-Jihadism leaves no space for Christians to play a role or to be even accepted as indigenous populations in the Middle East. Mainstream public opinion looks at Christians as foreigners. The Arab narrative of today has little or no room for non-Arabs in the Middle East.

The motivation for Dr Cheterian’s new book Open Wounds, Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide is linked to the perpetuation of conflict in the Middle East. He sees the consequences of the denial of genocide and, therefore, of mass violence committed against one or many ‘ethnicities’ as a continuation of the justification of killings against particular communities in the Middle East today. Instead of learning to talk between majorities and minorities in the Middle East we witness a continued cycle of violence.

Examining the future of Christians in the Middle East

With regards the nation-states of the Middle East today, and particularly the Arab nation-states, Dr Cheterian paints a bleak picture. There is abundant youth unemployment with a rising educated young population, the economic models based on oil rent are obsolete, political systems cannot integrate change and there is huge demographic development with societies that cannot create jobs for their young people. Instead of these issues being solved, artificial problems such as the Sunni/Shia conflict have been constructed. Despite the pessimistic future envisioned of the Middle East, Dr Cheterian believes that it is nonetheless of paramount importance to look at the history of the region and to make up for the mistakes and failures that have been committed in the past. He emphasised the debates occurring in the region in the nineteenth century and the attempts at reform from which we may draw a number of important lessons. Dr Cheterian ended the lecture by stressing the need in the Middle East for moral direction, without which conflicts in the region will continue unabated due to a lack of a vision of what is right and what is wrong.

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