Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Restorative Justice, A Century-Old Sin, and My Family: Part I of III

This post is the first of a three-part series this week for a class on restorative justice that I am taking as a part of my Doctor of Ministry studies at Seattle University. As a part of this class, we have been explicitly asked to engage with our social media circles regarding our work on a particular violent conflict that restorative justice--a framework that has been used in post-apartheid South Africa and post-reunification Germany, among other nations--might help address. Because advocacy on behalf of recognition of the Armenian Genocide has been a cause of mine for many years, this was a natural topic for me to write about.
What follows is the first of three parts of my paper (parts two and three will appear tomorrow and Thursday, respectively). This first part provides an outline of the conflict at hand and exposition of my aims as well as details my own family's story of the genocide, dating back to my great-great grandfather, Sarkis Mouradian. Any and all feedback--reflections, questions, constructive critiques, what have you--from you, my dear readers and friends, would be much appreciated. This feedback may be used in a future paper for this class, and so I would ask for you to include a line specifically giving me permission to use your feedback in that paper.
As always, it remains a blessing to write for you. Thank you! ~E.A.
If nothing else, the coursing rush of time from one century to another offers to humanity ample opportunity to change its story, to get its version of events straight, and to focus on justifying its past sins rather than focus on preventing future sins. Sometimes, say, when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt solemnly genuflected before the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto under Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the focus on past sins provided a soul-searching, graphic message for preventing future sins.
Then again, twenty-five years after Brandt’s profound gesture, another genocide was being perpetrated in Rwanda, another genocide had already been executed in Cambodia under Pol Pot, and still more genocides would be attempted in Bosnia and Darfur. How effective humanity has actually been at preventing additional crimes against humanity—especially the crime of genocide—is an open question; at a minimum, the frequency with which genocides have occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries suggests that we really and truly have learned very little.
Except for how to further kill and dehumanize people, for which the Armenian Genocide of the First World War remains the prototypical blueprint. The methods of rounding up and deporting mass numbers of citizens was echoed in the Nazi Holocaust, and the incitement to genocide by use of exaggerated, embellished propaganda was a part of the genocides in the Third Reich, Cambodia, and more. These efforts at propaganda—both before and after the genocide itself—served as blatantly transparent attempts at justifying history-changing sins that ended—and affected—human life on a genuinely massive scale.
On that colossally catastrophic scale, 1-1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children were murdered between the years 1915-1918 within the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Though the verdicts on precise numbers vary (hence the citation of a range of 1-1.5 million souls), the balance of evidence from firsthand accounts from a variety of sources—missionaries, officials, and journalists alike—has led a substantial supermajority of historical genocide scholars to conclude that what took place was, in fact, a genocide.
However, much as the minority opinion receives outsized attention and utilizes a disproportionately noisy microphone on questions of, say, human-caused climate change or the safety of vaccinations, so too does the small minority of non-Turkish scholars who deny the Armenian Genocide hold considerable sway within academia, the media, and, by extension, the platforms for dialogue.
The stubborn refusal of such figures to even countenance the notion that the Ottoman Empire was indeed guilty of a genocide does more than simply provide cover for a recalcitrant and increasingly stubborn Turkish government: it also raises the proverbial stakes on the United States and its interests, which overlap greatly with Turkey in areas of military strategy and economic convenience.
Because of these interests, I believe, the United States government has been tremendously reluctant to proffer any sort of formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide as a genocide. Perhaps most disheartening has been the regression of President Obama, who openly referred to the Armenian Genocide as a genocide as a senator, but who immediately ceased doing so as president.
These sorts of regressions are a part of the exponential harm that is discussed within the precepts of the restorative justice framework. They add to the emotional harm, the humiliation, the mental anguish and pain that the descendants of genocide survivors live, and relive, every year that passes with what happened to their families and to their people going unrepentantly unrecognized.
The unrepentance of this reality is both important and difficult to understate. A myriad of excuses are used for denial of the Armenian Genocide, and many of them resemble the same excuses for denying, say, the Jewish Holocaust perpetrated by the Third Reich—that the Armenians, like the Jews, somehow posed an existential threat to their statist overlords, that the numbers of those killed are somehow grossly overstated, that the Armenians engaged in armed resistance in some cases just as the Jews did in, say, the ghetto uprisings (which is implicitly irrelevant in defining genocide).
These excuses and justifications are often proffered not as objective conclusions, but as weaponized arguing points, which suggests the absence of repentance, and, thus, the need for some sort of restorative justice process. However, until the governments of Turkey, Armenia, and (to a lesser extent) the United States substantively change, such a process remains more a hope than a reality.
Both Turkey and Armenia are currently ruled by “democratic” strongmen—Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Serzh Sargsyan, respectively—who may have been initially democratically elected to their respective posts but have subsequently demonstrated a clear and repeated disrespect for the democratic process.[1][2] The United States, while demonstrably far more respectful of democratic outcomes than either Turkey or Armenia, has repeatedly quashed on the Congressional floor multiple attempts to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide. Ergo, they too are perpetrators in this ongoing conflict and infliction of emotional, spiritual, and existential harm upon Armenians.
This reality points toward a multifaceted, multilayered restorative justice process. While the victims—at least directly—are relative easily to label and define (the Armenian people, both native Armenians and diaspora Armenians alike), the perpetrators have, over the course of time, grown to be many and widespread, and restorative reconciliation between them and the victims of the Armenian Genocide and its continued denial needs to happen sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than to stem the growing tide of further perpetrators.
Assuming no substantive change in the governments of either Turkey or Armenia, this would be when and where the churches could step in. The Armenian Apostolic Church, while having a fraught relationship with non-Orthodox Armenians, still largely speaks for Armenian interests on the question of genocide recognition and has a proven track record of ecumenical outreach and inclusion to Roman Catholicism in particular—Pope Francis’s recent trip to Armenia, and recognition of the Armenian Genocide while he was there, is on-face evidence of this commitment.
Armenian Protestants and evangelicals will also have a role to play. Especially in the Armenian-American diaspora, many Armenian Christians—this writer included—were raised, or converted to, Protestantism, but have maintained their deep ties to the cause of genocide recognition. Additional progress has been made within American Protestant denominations—my own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, being one such sect—to recognize the Armenian Genocide as genocide.[3] All of these bodies can play roles, and especially as they are not Armenian-centric, they may well have additional moral credibility to act as facilitators of the process, rather than necessarily as advocates—a valuable distinction when Turkey’s response to recognition is often knee-jerk in nature.
To demonstrate the emotional, spiritual, and cathartic value of such a process, though, it is necessary to begin with a human story—my family’s story. Specifically, the story of my great-great grandfather, Sarkis Bedros Mouradian, a wealthy merchant with commercial interests across Asia, from a dozen family-run leather goods stores in Syria to Singapore, from which they sourced much of their leather, with interests in the soap, silk, and rice trades in between. Sarkis and his wife, Mariam, had five children: a daughter, Sarah, and four sons: Madiros, Hagop, Krikor, and Avedis, who all oversaw different aspects of the family’s business interests at different points in Asia. Krikor Mouradian was my great-grandfather and was in Singapore at 1915, which in all probability ultimately saved his life and that of his wife, my great-grandmother, Satenig Mouradian.
On April 24, 1915, a day referred to as “Red Sunday” in the Armenian community, the Armenian Genocide began with the roundup and execution of hundreds of Armenians in Istanbul. Many of these Armenians were prominent community leaders, academics, and scholars. Much like the Babylonian policy of taking Judah’s intelligentsia class into exile to Babylon back in 586 BCE, the Ottoman Empire saw a need to decapitate its Armenian community by executing its most prominent figures.
This sparked further rounds of arrests, deportations, and executions. One week to the day after Red Sunday, Madiros Mouradian, the eldest of Sarkis’s sons, was arrest, tortured, and executed by Ottoman forces in Harput, Turkey. Two days later, Sarkis, distraught with grief over not only his eldest son’s murder but the horrifically brutal manner of the murder, took his own life. According to Hagop Mouradian, Sarkis’s next-eldest son, Sarkis did so after uttering the words, “With all my wealth, how could I have not foreseen this and saved my family?”
The terror continued for Sarkis’s bereft family as his youngest son, Avedis, who, like Sarkis and Madiros, was in Turkey in 1915, and was arrested with the intention of likewise being executed. Madiros’s widow, Esther, bribed Avedis’s guards to release him under the auspices of having his last meal with his family, but she then also bribed a clan of Kurdish peoples to smuggle Avedis out of the country and escort him safely into Russia. When Avedis’s guards returned for him to remand him back to prison, Esther defiantly told them that Avedis had long since made his way to Russia and safety, and she was immediately summarily executed, joining her husband in eternal rest.
Sarkis’s middle son, Hagop, returned to Turkey from Syria and smuggled Sarkis’s widow Mariam, his own wife Victoria, and their own two sons Levon and Zaven, to safety in Lebanon, where Mariam, having seen her family torn apart at the seams, very quickly passed away and was buried.
Meanwhile, Krikor, having learned of what happened to his family while he was in Singapore, managed to, like Avedis, smuggle himself and Satenig into Russia, and then across the entire breadth of Russia, through Siberia to Vladivostok. From Vladivostok, Krikor and Satenig used fake passports to illegally immigrate into the United States via Alaska. They then settled in a culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, where they had a son, Albert, who served in the Marines in World War II and was K.I.A. at Okinawa in 1945, and two daughters, Florence and my grandmother, Marianne.
In addition to losing their patriarch and matriarch indirectly to the Armenian Genocide, my family lost one of its sons and his wife, was scattered across Asia and the United States, and had their entire livelihood—their businesses and merchant interests—taken from them. And my family’s story is not atypical from those of the families of the other 1-1.5 million victims of the genocide.
How, then, can restorative justice act as a possible solution for myself and for the millions of other diasporic and native Armenians, especially when the crime itself—the Armenian Genocide—remains denied by the descendants of the original perpetrators, to the extent that the depth and repetition of this denial necessitates referring to genocide deniers as perpetrators themselves?
Image of the forget-me-not logo courtesy of armeniangenocide100.org

[1] Marianna Grigoryan, “Armenia: Widespread Reports of Irregularities Mar Constitutional Referendum,” Eurasia.net, December 7, 2015, last accessed August 2, 2016, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/76461
[2] Yuksel Sezgin, “How Erdogan’s Anti-Democratic Government Made Turkey Ripe for Unrest,” Washington Post, July 16, 2016, last accessed August 2, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/07/16/how-erdogans-anti-democratic-government-made-turkey-ripe-for-unrest/
[3] At the 2015 General Assembly, the assembled delegates near-unanimously passed Resolution 1519, “Commemorating 100 Years Since The Armenian Genocide.” I was, to my knowledge, the only Armenian-American delegate present, and spoke in favor of its passage. http://ga.disciples.org/resolutions/2015/1519-commemorating-100-years-since-the-armenian-genocide/

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