Muslim Assyrians? Who are they?
By Sabri Atman
Many readers will wonder, who are these Assyrians? Moreover, aren’t all Assyrians Christian? Apparently not!
The majority of Assyrians are Christians – some agnostic and some atheists as well. Now; however, we also have Muslim Assyrians that are proud of their Assyrian identity.
Crypto- Assyrians, is a term to describe those Assyrians that are full-fledged ethnic Assyrians or those that of partial Assyrian origin; yet they feel obliged to hide their Assyrian identity from the Turkish and the Kurdish society. These people are the descendants of Assyrians in Ottoman Turkey. Their parents were killed; many orphans were taken as slaves and worked for the Kurdish aghas. Assyrian women were taken into harems by Muslim husbands and were converted to Islam, forced into slavery, and raised as Turks or Kurds. Orphans, girls, and women were forcefully taken from their parents and were sold on the markets in a very similar way to many Yezidi women and girls in Iraq in the hands of ISIS.
During my work on the Assyrian genocide, Seyfo, I came across many stories related to this topic. I was, and I am, still contacted by some hidden Assyrians who want to find their relatives. Some of them want to convert to Christianity and some of them want only to tell me their stories. However, all these stories are very sad stories. There are dramas; there are some tragedies behind all of them. These all occurred during the persecution of the Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire. Some of these tragedies happened during the Assyrian Genocide, Seyfo, and some prior to Seyfo.
A few weeks ago, I came across a page on Facebook. I was very happy. The first thing that came to my mind was finally these Crypto- Assyrians were fed up of hiding themselves and wanted to come out and express their identity. I shared the page immediately. The reactions that I received regarding my post were very interesting: It was a new topic for the majority of us, and as Assyrians we haven’t dealt with such questions before. Many people were shocked and some of these people started to use vulgar language. They forgot that we, as Assyrians, existed long before we were even Christians. Moreover, perhaps they forgot that we went through many persecutions in the Ottoman Turkey and the rest of Middle Eastern countries. Many other Assyrians who reacted to my post forgot to create any simple empathy with these people whose ancestors went through many genocidal acts. Some of the Assyrians who reacted negatively to my post gave themselves the right of having “monopoly of being Assyrians.” According to these individuals: if somebody ever claims that he or she is an Assyrian, they must be “Christian” or reconvert to Christianity.
Some of those who reacted negatively to my post forgot also that many Assyrians were killed during the genocide and their children were taken and converted forcefully into Islam. Others that reacted negatively to my post forgot that the grandchildren of those wretched Assyrians grew up in a religious and a Muslim setting and they were forced to declare and follow certain régulations, enforced on these Crypto- Assyrians by their Kurds-Turkish society. They forgot that the ‘faith’ should be a personal matter. They forgot that people should be free to believe or not to believe. Furthermore, if we try to forces people what to believe or not to believe, then what is the difference between our mentality and that of Seyfo’s perpetrators?
The Assyrians, who have established the Diyarbekir Assyrian Association, are having difficulties with some of their Muslim neighbors and relatives for asking about their ethnic roots. They number in the thousands. They are proud of their Assyrian identity. They don’t want to be denied by their ancestors too. They are realistic and seek to understand what they went and go through. Do we understand them? Are we mature enough to understand them? With hope to shine some light of these questions, I contacted the president of the Assyrian Association in Diyarbekir (Omid), Eylem Dönen and interviewed her. I hope this interview will be a good start on having discussions about such an important matter. The readers should keep in mind, that we are not the only people who deal with such questions, which are not easy but very complex questions. Armenians, Yezidis, the people of Bosnia in Ruanda, and people in many corners around the world, who also went through many persecutions, deal with such questions. We should learn from each other’s experiences.
These are my questions and Eylem Dönen’s answers:
Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Eylem Dönen. I am the president of the Assyrian Culture Association and live in (Omid) Diyarbakir.
Where were you born and where did you spend your childhood? Where were your parents and grandparents from? Why do you remember from your childhood when people spoke about their past?
I was born and raised in Diyarbakir. My father Mehmet Dönen was born in the village of Şımşım that belongs to Lice, Diyarbakir. My mother Emine Dönen was born in Diyarbakir. My grandfather Baki Dönen was born and raised in the village of Orman Kaya. I slightly remember my grandfather talking about the genocide. He was telling us his life story and how he survived the genocide.
When was the first time you heard you were Assyrian and from whom? How did you feel about it? When you started to be aware of your Assyrian identity did you face any emotional difficulties? Before you became aware of your Assyrian identity which national identity and religious describe yourself as?
Since my childhood, my family and grandparents taught us about our identity. For that reason, I didn’t face any difficulties with my Assyrian identity. My national identity was always Assyrian. My family and I are Muslim.
With whom did you share your national identity? What was the reaction of your family and close relatives?
My family and close relatives knew about my national identity and I did not face any problems. However, people from other ethnicities in our geographical region had a confused reaction. Some of them had positive thoughts and some became prejudice towards me.
Are you a Muslim believer? Moreover, are you a believer in general? If you had the opportunity to convert would you convert to Christianity or remain what you are?
Yes, I am Muslim and I will remain Muslim. I have huge respect to Christianity. However, I believe Islam is the latest religion and I will continue my life this way and remain to believe in my faith.
How did you get in contact with others like you and how did you come together? What types of difficulties did you face?
We did have contact with other families from our village always. We had no problems coming together. However, with other people from other places, when we met we did not have any problem with our national identity but we did have some challenges with our faith.
Can you please inform us about the process on how you establish your association? What did you aim with this association?
Our main purpose for the association was to find Assyrians like us with a Muslim faith and that were “in hiding”. We want to give them a platform so they can speak up and share their thoughts. Moreover, we want to strengthen the Assyrian identity.
How many members do you currently have? How many people have you reached in Turkey?
We have 100 registered members that belong to families similar to ours. With social media and other tools, we are in contact with 5,000 Assyrians like us in Turkey.
What regions are your members from?
They are from Diyarbakir and all of eastern Turkey.
What do you know about the Assyrian Genocide Seyfo?
“Seyfo” means “sword “which was the tool that was used to exterminate the Assyrians in 1915. This is the reason why we call it Seyfo and it was one of the darkest times in our history because as Assyrians we lost 2/3 of our nation.
How did your family, grandparents first become Muslim? Who were these people captured from or were they bought from markets? What were their ethnicities? Were they Turks or Kurds? From whom did you hear this matter from and what did you hear?
My grandfather told us that during the Seyfo genocide, he and his sister were taken by a Kurdish family, and in this way, they survived the genocide. My grandfather was 8 years old and his sister was 6 years old. They were living with this family. My grandfather was working as a shepherd and his sister did house work. While they were living with this family they were forced to convert to Islam.
What can you tell us about the background of other members in your association? Who converted them forcefully to Islam? What was the government’s role in this? What do you know about this matter? Did the local authorities do this independently through the government?
Most of our members have very similar stories to my grandfather and his sister; there were some who were captured, there were also some that were “bought” in markets. These people were forced to convert to Islam because they were living in Muslim households. The government (at that time) and local authorities implemented the Assyrian genocide Seyfo together.
How was the reaction of relatives from the members of the association when they stressed their Assyrian ethnicity? Did they face or are they facing any problems? What can you share with us about this matter?
They are not free to express their ethnic background because of the reactions of their surroundings. They are facing difficulties.
With your similar background, what is the Assyrian population in Turkey?
With only the work our association did in one year, we have reached 100 families. However, we don’t know the exact number due to society’s pressure. Therefore, not many people express themselves freely. But, we do know the numbers are very high.
How did you come to this estimation?
We came to this estimation because my members and I together did research about our own backgrounds in our villages, cities, and region.
What can you share about your members’ current ethnic-religious identity? Do they want to describe themselves as Muslims, Christians, or non-believers?
Our work doesn’t contain anything about religious choice. There are some who are Muslim, some Christians, and also some that are non-believers. The main goal of our association is to find the Assyrians who are hiding them selves.
What were the reactions of your Assyrian ancestors toward you when you established your association and become known? How do you interpret these reactions?
I wish I could say the reactions were good. Unfortunately, some of our ancestors forgot they belong to the same ethnicity and started to discuss about our faith. If you start to analyze the Seyfo period, converting to Islam was the only option of survival. I hope the Assyrians will follow our activities and support us with their knowledge and not focus on our choice of religion.
What was the reaction of the Kurds, Turks, and other Muslims groups towards you when you started to establish your association? How do you interpret these reactions?
To be Assyrian in this geographical region, the circumstances are very difficult. However, if we don’t deny ourselves, the other Muslims and other ethnicities will recognize us in the future. The aim of our association is this.
How do you interpret and feel about how the Assyrians in Iraq, Syria, and other Middle East countries face?
Assyrians in all of history faced violence and war with other nations because of their identity. As Assyrians, we have existed in Mesopotamia before written history and we still exist. However, many have tried to exterminate us with multiple acts of genocide, as people, we have kept our identity. I am very confident that we will struggle and never give up for our survival.
Do you need permission from anybody to be identified as an Assyrian?
No. It’s very clear in which geography we still exist. It is very clear where we grew up. It’s very clear who our ancestors were. It is very clear who my grandfather and his sister were. Therefore, we don’t need any permission from anyone to call ourselves Assyrian.
What can you tell those that say, leave Islam and convert to Christianity?
I hope these people understand that religion is a personal choice. Just as I respect people that belong to Christianity or other faiths, I expect from those to respect my faith as well.
Which kind of message would you like to give to the Assyrian diaspora who are spread across the world?
We are not able to decide the past but we should also not forget the past. The time is in our hands. We have choices. It is the time that we put our differences aside and unite. I will stress again, this is the time to unite as Assyrians and to make the world hear us.
Thank you for your answers.
Thank you for giving us your time and for concerning us.