Alevi(zed) Armenians are speaking

Alevi(zed) Armenians are speaking
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“Besides Armenians who took refuge in Dersim, there had been native Armenians of Dersim living there for centuries. Most of them were massacred and deported.”

The interview below is an excerpt from Agos Editor-in-Chief Yetvart Danzikyan’s interview with author Kazim Gundogan. The full version can be found in Agos English.

Productor and author Kazım Gündoğan’s book, “Alevi(zed) Armenians” (“Alevileş(tiril)miş Ermeniler”) has been published by Ayrıntı Publishing House. We have had an interview with Kazım Gündoğan, whom we know as the creator of the documentary, “Lost Daughters of Dersim” (“Dersim’in Kayıp Kızları”), about his new book.

Why have you chosen the title “Alevi(zed) Armenians” for your book? Does it reflect the variety of stories about how Armenians have become Alevi?

A title reflects both the opinion of the author as well as the content and soul of the book. I have had 90 interviews during the research that lasted almost ten years because of my emigration. I have listened to them, seen the places where they lived and where they were annihilated, I touched and felt (..) those who know the history and literature of genocides can easily understand what this title includes and tells.

Even before the book is read, fervent discussions have been held, objections and critics have been articulated on the basis of its title. I cannot understand why so many critics and objections are made without reading the book!


Alevi(zed) refers to the forms of becoming Alevi: one includes direct violence, the second implies compulsion. Who has practiced physical violence? Those who follow us know that we mean genocides carried out by both the Ottoman state and the Republic. Remaining individuals or small groups as residues of communities that are annihilated by physical violence and whose history, culture, language, faith, and property are plundered stay where they are and go through a process of assimilation for the sake of survival. Depending on the context, if the influential group is Muslims, they are Islamized, if Alevi they are Alevized.


When we examine the history of genocides, we see that genocides are conducted by states or other organizations of violence. However, direct or indirect participation of societies in genocides is also a known fact. Another known fact is that (if we do not count the peculiar effort of German society) no society wants to accept this because every society regards itself distinct, superior, peaceful, and humanist than others due to its race/nation/, religion/faith. As much as they see themselves in this way, they imagine others as their opposite and make them the object of evil and hate or try to show them under this light.

(…) Armenians became Alevi not voluntarily but compulsorily as their religious leaders were killed, their churches and monasteries where they could follow their faith were demolished by the state. Local people do not protect remaining churches and monasteries, either; on the contrary, some used the stones of churches to build their houses and schools. In fact, it is revealing that in some regions of Dersim, when one mentions Armenians the first thing that comes to mind is “Armenian gold”. They have dug almost every Armenian church, monastery and grave to find and own these golds.

Moreover, Armenians lost their properties which were their most important support as some tribes and families seized a significant part of their properties. The sentence by an interviewee, “we became serfs on the land we own”, succinctly summarizes this situation.

Under this kind of political, economic, social, and cultural circumstances those living among Alevis have become Alevi; those living among Muslims have become Muslim.

In fact, when Alevized or Islamized Armenians migrate to places such as Istanbul, or Europe where their churches and communities exist and when compulsion ended, most of them preferred to return to their original religion.

I have formulated my point in the title of the book as “Alevi(zed) Armenians: We are followers of Jesus but Ali’s subjects” under the light of social realities and state’s role in genocides.

Whom have you interviewed? I think you have interviewees from different countries.

I have interviewed Dersim Armenians most of whom are still living in Dersim today, but I have also interviewed with Dersim Armenians who have migrated to Istanbul, France, Germany, Lebanon, Australia, and the United states. The common point of almost all of them is their acceptance of Armenian ethnic identity and Dersim identity at the same time. However, as for faith they variously define themselves Alevi, Christian, atheist, and Muslim (very few).

The book has 3 chapters. The first chapter is about “Alevi(zed) Armenians” where I have had 72 interviews with Dersim Armenians. The second chapter, entitled “Armenian Memory of Dersim Alevis”, focuses on memories and observations of 12 Alevi opinion leaders about their neighbors. In the third chapter I aim to contribute to discussions and research by presenting a document entitled “Armenian settlement and population in Dersim before 1915”.

One of the people whom I consulted with for the book was late Sarkis Seropyan, one of Agos contributors. I would like to mention him with respect and longing.

Recently, there have been some accusing remarks coming from state that most of the Dersim Alevis are indeed Armenians. Interestingly, some other people have also articulated this argument. But, I think, the real situation is not so, and it is more complicated, isn’t it?

(…) Firstly, defenders of official history thesis, who are poisoned with racism, want to keep the hate against Alevis alive by pouring the Armenian hate that they have accumulated over the heads of Dersim Alevis. The discourse of [Yusuf] Halaçoğlu, who was one of the previous president of Turkish Historical Society, is a product of such a hate and poisoning.

The second was [deputy] Armenian Patriarch Ateşyan’s similar remarks. Those communities that go through genocide requires a root and they seek for it. Although I understand the reasons of respectful Ateşyan’s remarks parallel to Halaçoğlu, I have repeatedly mentioned that I do not find them right.

Of course, communities that live side by side may mix up for several reasons in different periods of history; they may merge with other communities. However, I think, the ratios in question and the way of their articulation are highly problematic.


However, there must be some Armenians who took refuge or immigrate Dersim in 1915. Those Armenians were banished once more in 1938. Can we speak about two great tragedies for these people?

Yes, we can because Dersim Armenians is a community that saw two genocides and live with the trauma they caused. Dersim people call the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as “Tertele u peen” (previous massacre/genocide). The trauma of these two genocides has been transmitted from generation to generation and turned into a collective memory. (...)

I want to underline here a key point. While talking about Dersim Armenians, some perceive and present them as only those who went there and took refuge in 1915. Yes, there were some coming to Dersim and took refuge during the genocide and most of the Dersim tribes protected them. This is an act that should be appreciated. However, some of other Dersim tribes directly participated in massacres, plunder and robbery and became the subject of evil and shame.

If we imagine Dersim society as a homogeneous structure with a [single] consciousness, we make a huge mistake. Accordingly, based on the fact that a society, where feudal tribal relations are dominant and where conflicts are lived harshly, cannot be homogeneous, it would not be right approach to consider every god or bad action as a product of collective reason of Dersim Alevis. Neither a community can be defined as bad because of evil actions of some tribes nor completely clean because of good actions of some other tribes.

On the other hand, besides Armenians who took refuge in Dersim in 1915 and subsequently passed other places, there had been native Armenians of Dersim living there for centuries. Most of them were massacred and deported, too. A portion of remaining community gradually emigrated, and the rest has been actually assimilated.

Some of them who have chosen Alevism for this or that reason but also conscious of their Armenian roots have preferred to live with Alevi identity peacefully. Some others return to their Armenian identity after finding out their roots. Are there also those who have identity confusion?

(…) They do not hesitate to introduce themselves as Alevi Armenian and defend this identity. Christian Armenians usually criticize this saying, “If you are Armenian then you are Christian; an Armenian cannot have any other faith”. Those who defend their identity very consciously reply to this criticism as such: “Armenianness is a race whereas Christianity is a religion. I cannot choose my race, but I can choose my religion. Just like someone with Turkish ethnic identity may be Muslim, Alevi, Christian, or even atheist then an Armenian might be Alevi, Muslim, Christian, or atheist.”

Besides those who try to continue their life by saying “we converted once we will not for a second time”, there are also others saying, “Alevi was an identity that did not belong to me, my parents were obliged to follow it. But I do not have such an obligation. I went to Yerevan and got baptized, even if I do not go to church regularly, this makes me peaceful”. Parents who want to stay as Alevi find the journey of their children and grandchildren to Christian identity normal; in some cases, they follow them. The number of those who take a journey to Christian Armenian identity has increased for last 15 years, and the book includes their story.

Meanwhile, an unignorable portion of Alevi Armenians say they are atheist and although Armenian identity is important, religion is meaningless for them. This is another approach in identity construction.


Consequently, just like islamized Armenians we can talk about a group that can be called “Alevized Armenians,” is this correct?

(...) As far as I know, the subject of “Alevi(zed) Armenians” is handled and conceptualized at such a comprehensive extent for the first time [in my book]. Conceptualization is the most crucial element of producing thought and weaving memory. Just like “Lost Daughters of Dersim” [has done]. Before it, single stories of lost daughters had been known and told but its conceptualization has become possible as we turned our research into documentary and book.

Of course, there is a group that can be called “Alevi(zed) Armenians” although they are not crowded and extended as much as Islamized Armenians. It is difficult to mention a certain number. However, we can say that they continue to live as small communities and families in various places especially in Dersim.

I have collected human stories and commended them to the readers. Find an Armenian and touch him/her to turn these stories into a light in questioning the official history and social reproachment. Let him/her and you heal.