A conversation with an Armenian imam: “If we’re looking for a hell, it’s been with us for a long time now.”
“If we are looking for a hell, it has been with us for a long time now.”
These words are not my own. They belong to M.O. who has been living in Switzerland since August and who is a former imam, Imam Hatip alumnus, and, up until a few months ago, a religious education teacher. On his mother’s side, he is Armenian; on his father’s, a religious Kurd.
He is one of the many that have had to leave Turkey and move abroad. But his story is fairly distinctive. You know already from the title that he was an imam. But he was an Armenian one. At first, this surprised me. From what we knew of the world, we were always told that an Armenian could not be a police officer or a professional or a career military man. But he had become an imam, and even a religious education teacher. And so, I knew that I should be paying close attention as he relayed his story, especially as he is someone who is a good conversationalist, who has received a sound theology education, and who speaks eloquently. As such, I wanted to be even more careful, which is why we spoke over a video call.
We talked at length. At times, he got emotional. At other times, I did. I pressured myself to ask the right questions in the right manner to elicit the most straightforward answer. In some parts of the conversation, I realized that he got teary-eyed, and I changed the topic. Later, we decided to put our conversation down in writing.
I will share with you the contents of our conversation and his perspective on Armenian identity, imamhood, Islam, and Christianity.
In the interview, we will be using the name he adopted for himself abroad, Sevan Terziyan, as opposed to his real name, M.O. Since he comes from a religious family and his father still operates in those circles, the last thing we wanted was to add another burden to his already heavy heart. As to why he chose Sevan Terziyan for a name, you will understand as you read the interview. Come listen to our conversation with an Armenian imam.
Let’s start with your story… Where are you from? What is your family background?
I opened my eyes to the world in Sason. My mama was the daughter of a later Islamized Armenian family, who were referred to by the public as “converts,” and who worked in a factory in the district center. My dear father was the member of a fairly renown Kurdish tribe. My mama spent her formative years in the central district, while my father was raised in the village. Though we were yet children, from time to time, even we could see the differences in opinion caused by their upbringings. In the face of my mama’s perpetually distant attitude towards religious issues, my father always maintained a serious and meticulous stance.
What, if any, is your relationship to matters of nationalism and faith? Is Armenianness an identity kept alive in the family?
Just like everyone else, I became aware of my ethnic identity in early childhood. My childhood years tragically coincided with periods when separatist Kurdish groups engaged in violent clashes with the state and these conflicts were on the rise especially in the region in which we lived. We were caught in an endless spiral of violence between the state’s official ideology and harsh repression, and the intense propaganda of Kurdish groups. The alternative to the language of hatred the state perpetrated against all those it othered was the Kurdish movement’s harsh rhetoric, partly as a consequence of the violence it was subjected to, formed within the confines of a rigid cult of personality. Relegated to one corner in this narrative was a grayish story about my mother’s Armenianness. This story was carefully hidden from me and my sister. It took us a long time to penetrate this gray area. In this sense, Armenianness remained a mystery box for me for a long time.
“I found myself in being an imam and teaching religious education.”
Can you tell us of the journey that started in religion and faith and led to imamhood?
In retrospect, there is a lot that can be said about such a journey, but when I take a critical glance at my life, I see that the formation of my personal story was more affected by environmental factors than by anything else, just as it is for everyone else. Within the context of the setting I presented, as the half-Armenian half-Kurdish protagonist of a story set in the countryside, perhaps the only safe shore I could conceive of was faith. That force pushed me into an Imam Hatip high school, which channeled me into theology school. After graduating from theology school, I naturally found myself as an imam and then a religious education teacher.
What is your perspective on Christianity and other religions? Detailing this for our readers will allow them to better understand you.
This question is truly a challenging one for me. I will do my best to respond with sincerity. I will disclose more of myself, than I ever have before. I have been trying to evade this question my entire life. Perhaps I shall try to evade it again. I might even, as the French say, ‘raise my hand as I escape,’ if you’ll excuse me.
Without a doubt, religious experience has a distinct role in human life. In the disciplines of art, architecture, poetry, music, and many others, mankind has produced its most profound works through the inspiration of religious experience. Yet that is not what I seek to emphasize here. Had there been no Hagia Sophia, no Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, no Florence Cathedral, no Baalbek Temple, no St. Sarkis Cathedral, nor even an Akdamar Church, that is, even if the relationship man forms with the sacred did not make him capable of producing magnificent artistic works, nothing would have changed for me.
It is necessary to take the issue slightly more seriously; the matter at hand here is a deep intuition and an inexhaustible world of meaning to which we are dragged by the pains of existence. This carries a tremendous meaning for me. We are talking about a world as old as nature, as objects, as our conceptualization of everything we encounter, thus a world at least as old as ourselves. Having said so much already, let me go a little further, ahparig.* Is there a God? I do not know, with all my sincerity and to the fullest extent of the word, I do not know. Yet there is a colossal thing inside of me, pressuring me to recognize an almighty Creator. There must be a God, ahparig; for if there is not, nothing has meaning. I fear this nothingness; I fear a nothingness in which our sufferings have no echo.
The genocide is a tremendous catastrophe, but if there is a tragedy greater than that, it is a nothingness in which pain has no correspondence. To me, the existence of God is an unshakeable foundation and if God does not exist, a great nothingness awaits us on a plane that does not even exist. I do not desire nothingness, ahparig! Nothingness has never been something to which I aspire.
Here, let me discuss my thoughts about Christianity. For me, Christianity is the name of the thing that characterizes the Creator in whom I want to believe as a benevolent, infinitely compassionate, solid foundation. There are deep metaphors here that have affected me from the very beginning; the Virgin Mary and Jesus’s self-sacrifice being among them. The followers of Christianity, not unlike all other religions which institutionalized over the course of history, naturally made some mistakes and were the perpetrators of evil. But to me, Christianity still maintains at its core a meaning of purity and cleanliness.
Where you lived and spent your childhood and youth, how were religious identities and Armenianness experienced?
A religiosity influenced by the rural context and suited to the local class structure was predominant where I was born. We can also add to this the religious institutions in Kurdish cities, although not as strong then as it is now which were outside the bounds of a centralized government, that provided a traditional education. The clergy raised by these institutions tended to be close-minded and traditionalist. The local people heeded the word of these mullahs from these institutions more than they did any member of the clergy appointed by the government. We can compare these to Taliban madrasahs, in a sense. So, what we were actually living was a sort of peasantry, a rural life molded to be close-minded, reactionary, primitive, and formalist by both traditional beliefs and by the religious men educated at these institutions comparable to monasteries but which I call madrasahs. On the topic of how Armenianness was perceived; frankly, people had a reductionist and othering mentality, as they do almost everywhere in Turkey.
Though Sason is an ancient residential place, it has no people native to the area. More precisely, it is a place of which natives have been “scraped.” Unfortunately, not once have I witnessed the new owners of the town demonstrating anything akin to loyalty to the memories of the previous owners. Not even the name of this people — who not that long ago created the stone and the soil, the fountains and the fields, who gathered the grapes from their beautiful vines and who left behind precious structures on the hills — was mentioned by the public anymore. As for those who remained and those Armenians who were Islamized, they never demonstrated any desire to live as Armenians. Since most of them could not escape their “criminal” pasts, they lived under the purview of some in the state and among the local people.
History has its odd twists. When the social and political events taking place somewhere come to a threshold at which a person’s dignity and honor can no longer tolerate it, the people living there consider going to other lands to continue writing their life stories. Putting aside this general principle to talk about specific reasons, the first question I asked should have been: What were the reasons that pushed you to stay here for all this time?
We were the actors in stories that appear to be distinct yet are intertwined, in which a myriad of paradoxes was forced upon our little bodies. We had to live with this reality. The early years of my adolescence were spent in a very different manner than the political atmosphere that we are living through today. And I think unlike the generations before us, it was the first time we were thrown a bone.
JULY 15 AND INVESTIGATIONS
For a long time, we did not want to wake ourselves from this sweet dream. Unfortunately, the peace process surrounding the Kurdish issue failed, and with the coup attempt that followed, we were thrust into a series of events comparable to the infamous Reichstag fire which burnt down the parliamentary building and which was the first step in the formation of Nazi Germany. Just as Hitler and the Nazis used the social democrats, communists, and Jews as scapegoats following the Reichstag fire to persecute them, so too did the Erdogan regime in Turkey. Millions of people were investigated, tens of thousands were dismissed from their jobs based on decree-laws, thousands of people were taken into custody and arrested.
Intellectuals and journalists were thrown into prison. A state of emergency was enforced throughout the country. I resisted accepting this for a long time. I do not know why I resisted for so long, but perhaps being Sasonian has some role in this. As you know, ahparig, our folks can be a tad obstinate.
Unfortunately, while all this is going on right next to you, you also feel pressured and threatened. I was investigated, alongside my other dissident friends, after the coup attempt. Though most concluded over time, I was constantly experiencing problems with the administrators at the institutions at which I worked. I assume that meant that we had been tagged. At a few demonstrations, I had problems with police officers in plainclothes. The threat that awaited me was not because I was simply a dissident. I could predict the extent of the violence I would be subject to should my cover be “blown” because I was considered an “insider.” The straw that broke the camel’s back was the personal information, down to my house number almost, disseminated on social media. These posts, made by a considerably large religious group, accused me of being a crypto-Armenian who mocked Islamic values. The moment I saw these, I chose to leave the country without wasting any more time.
During the time that you worked as an imam, did you experience any problems due to the Armenian identity in your family?
I hid this for a long time, but it eventually came out, how I do not know. The mufti where I worked one day called me to his office and told me that he had received a complaint regarding me being seen at a church. He was surprised when I told him it was for a funeral in the family. He was even more surprised when I told him my relatives were Armenian, and when I finally said my mama was Armenian, he was shocked and transferred me to a different mosque. This knowledge is enough to make you uncomfortable. It hangs over your head like the sword of Damocles.
“I AM LIKE TWO SOULS IN ONE BODY”
During our conversation, you told me that you felt you had two souls living in one body. Can you elaborate on this?
In a therapy session I attended years ago, my psychologist had asked me, “How do you feel?” to which I had responded “It’s like I am living my life harboring two souls in one body.” The first: the one I show others, the one assigned to me and shaped by society. The other soul: the one I hide away from everyone else and which I covet dearly. I was sharing a name with a secret identity, someone who was different from what everyone saw and witnessed, but this had the potential to hurt me. It is a wearisome thing indeed to live with a secret knowledge that one hides in one’s bosom and knows will cause him harm if disclosed. This is why I describe the situation as harboring two souls in one body.
The breaking point could have been that I was made the target of the hate speech of religious groups. This was something that I had feared since time immemorial, and yes, I see now that fear was pointless for it did not change the outcome. Consider that you are being accused of being a crypto-Armenian who mocks the sacred values of Islam and insults the Turkish nation. In short, the situation is ripe for a lynching. Throughout this process, my sister Emine T. especially tried to discourage me, but she was also shocked to her core by the police officers who raided my home shortly after I left. This incident caused her to change her mind. The police were constantly throwing around threats and insults. I presume that they were conservative police officers strategically placed into the force in the last years.
“I WAS HASTILY DISMISSED”
When did the complaints about you being? What were the reasons? What are the allegations and the investigations around you?
To be honest, I do not know when exactly the complaints were made, though my lawyer is trying to access the necessary documents. The fact that a complaint was called in is certain, but we only know what crime I allegedly committed based on the indictment prepared by the prosecutor.
For a long time in Turkey, there have been some laws that functionally target dissidents and especially non-Muslims. One of them, which you would be rather familiar with, is Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, on the basis of which the indictment claims that I denigrated the state and nation of the Republic of Turkey. In addition there is Article 216 of the Criminal Code. Mr. Prosecutor thus claims that I incited the people to hatred and enmity. The prosecutor accused me of two more crimes: that I mocked the sacred and that I insulted the president. The thing that constitutes evidence for "the crimes I have committed" is, in the words of the prosecutor's office, "social media posts of an unknown date." They do not even know when I made these posts. I was hastily dismissed from the institution I worked at as the judicial process was ongoing at the police force and the courthouse.
What are your thoughts on the religious culture and moral studies education in Turkey? What do you think should be done to ameliorate this system?
The problem of compulsory religious education has been a chronic source of debate in Turkey since September 12.** The relevant provision of the Constitution is as follows: “Instruction in religious culture and moral education shall be compulsory in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. Other religious education and instruction shall be subject to the individual's own desire, and in the case of minors, to the request of their legal representatives.” This anti-democratic practice, dropped into our laps by the junta constitution brought with it a litany of problems.
Those who wish can conduct a small scale research on Google under the heading of mandatory religious education. My approach to the question is guided by my belief that the state should have no intervention in the freedom of religion and conscience of its citizens. The state has no right to impose its own views on religion, faith, sexual orientation, and in short, any and all matters that concern the individual. That is an intimate matter relegated to the individual and which concerns no one, let alone the state, unless it causes a disturbance to someone else. If today we dictate what religious education should look like, tomorrow we can express an opinion on how people should dress, and the next day we can involve ourselves in a person’s sexual orientation. Before long, you will find yourself in the dark days of the Middle Ages in which people’s honor and dignity were trampled on by bigots with black flags and bands in their hands.
You changed your name. We are conducting this interview with you as Sevan Terziyan. Can you explain the reasoning behind this choice of name?
There is a special reason for my selection of this name. Prior to the genocide, my grandfather was in the cloth business. That’s where the last name comes from. Sevan, on the other hand, is the name of my folks’ youngest brother who was lost in the genocide.
1915 WAS NEVER AN EVENT THAT ENDED
Every family has a 1915 memory and a story that is told and retold. What is yours?
The first quarter of the 20th century was as deep and painful for us as it was for anyone else. The first generation who escaped the genocide, so my grandfather and his sibling, do not want to talk of it, and unless someone asks, they say nothing. What remains for us of what little he has relayed is that, as said by the great Marc Nisanyan, they became the “witnesses of their own deaths.” We can say that the brutality they witnessed as children during that time have shaped their statements which consist of ambiguous descriptions. For our folks, that is for “the remnants,” 1915 has never been an event over and done with. I do not think we emphasize this enough.
After 1915, there is a period from the dark depths of the nineties to our present day that accompanied the establishment of the modern republic, from the September 6-8 incidents to the September 12 coup. A hell for Armenians is not something that existed in the past. No, nor is it something that will come to be in the future. If we are looking for a hell, it has been with us for a long time now. This is a hell that we live in each day, and we breathe in its air. It is a hell that renews itself each moment. Living in this hell requires constant focus and education. To live writhing around in this hell, feeling the breath of its maker on your neck… If you can call this living at all…
What will you do now?
Truthfully, I do not know. This is a place of new beginnings for me. I believe in hope. We are living through a period in which war, bigotry, fascism, and totalitarianism have run amok. At this point, everyone needs to contribute and do their part. To my mind, the most important aspect of this is activism. Here, I will continue to be active, to be an opposing force, and to write bad poetry.
*Ahparig is an Armenian word meaning “brother.”
** September 12 is the date of the 1980 military coup in Turkey.
*Aris Nalci: He began to work at Agos in 1998 with Hrant Dink and his colleagues. He took on various roles as news director, editor, and editor-in-chief. He presented programs on IMC television and for some time took on the position of news director. In the same period, he worked as the editor and presenter of Gamurc – Kopru, Turkey’s first program about minorities which continues on ARTI TV. At various civil society organizations, Nalci worked in the field of minority rights, created exhibitions, and wrote reports. He is one of the editors of the book “1965.” He is also the translator of the book “Paramazlar,” published by Evrensel and Kor publications.