Late last month, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute organized a three-day international conference titled “Challenges of Armenian Genocide Education in the 21st Century.” More than 30 educators, scholars and genocide experts participated with speakers from Armenia, Lebanon, Israel, Rwanda and the US. The speakers discussed the ethical and moral issues surrounding genocide education, comparative study for elementary and secondary schools in different countries, the role of museums and genocide institutes, the impact of oral genocide education and the importance of genocide education for national identity building for future generations and its methodological challenges.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Harutyun Marutyan, director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (AGMI), stressed the role of teachers and how researchers and experts at AGMI coordinate genocide education with Armenian schools.
In her comments on the importance of organizing this conference, Sara Cohan, education director at The Genocide Education Project, told the Armenian Weekly that AGMI created an invaluable opportunity for diasporan Armenians, international guests with a shared history marred by genocide and Armenian scholars and educators to share their perspectives on genocide education. This conference gave them a chance to share their achievements and struggles when teaching these hard histories with each other. “We left with a greater understanding of the complex nature of teaching about genocide in countries with distinctive needs and experiences,” said Cohan.
For Dr. Jean-Damascène Gasanabo, a researcher from Rwanda, teaching about genocide is associated with a desire to impress upon current and future generations the necessity to prevent mass atrocities. Commenting on the instruction of genocide education in Rwanda, Dr. Gasanabo said that in addition to explanations from the teacher and learning materials, students visit genocide memorial sites and museums. In collaboration with school administrators and an association of genocide survivors, selected individuals are invited to give testimonies to students. Genocide education, however, also has some challenges; some teachers, especially those who have family members in prison because of the crime of genocide, are afraid of teaching about genocide. They still refuse to recognize that their family members committed such crimes.
Meanwhile, Sedda Antekelian, a learning and development specialist at USC Shoah Foundation, told the Weekly that through the study of genocide education, the next generation will be able to recognize the worst and best of humanity by discovering the power of human choices and behaviors. Students must become aware of the consequences that can arise when hate, discrimination and prejudice go unchallenged. They also must be made aware of the courage demonstrated by individuals who risked their lives to save others against the odds. For this reason, the USC Shoah Foundation (IWitness) uses these testimonies to teach middle and high school students worldwide the importance of compassion, tolerance and critical thinking.
As one of the speakers, I was honored to present my paper “Sectarianism and the Armenian Genocide: The Politics of the Absence of the Genocide Education in Lebanon.” I argued that sectarianism in Lebanon is embedded in everyday life, particularly in the education system, which structures the ways in which students and later citizens attempt to address their political opinions and beliefs. Sectarian identity plays a key role in political mobilization in Lebanon. This factor pushes the people of Lebanon to naturally divide the world into categories of “us” and “them,” or “in-groups” and “out-groups,” which can boost one’s self-image and may entail prejudiced views against members of particular groups, in this case Armenians.
Within this context, the lack of unified history textbooks complicates the situation as history teaching in Lebanon is highly politicized. Moreover, one of the factors that hinders genocide education in Lebanon is the Arab-Israeli conflict; any academic or educational discussion about the Holocaust is directly related to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. That’s why many Arab nationalist scholars tend to ignore the Holocaust and compare the Armenian Genocide to the Palestinian Nakba (1948). Meanwhile, Christian private schools, mainly Catholic schools, tend to view the Armenian Genocide as part of a “Christian Genocide” perpetrated by the Muslim Ottoman Empire that includes the Assyrian (Seyfo) and Greek Genocides, the starvation of Mount Lebanon and the execution of the Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals on May 5-6, 1916. Unlike in other Arab countries, the Christian presence in Lebanon has helped Armenians coordinate their efforts with other Christian organizations and communities. However, this gave the genocide commemoration a religious cover. Despite the fact that Armenian schools and their education system stress the ethnic dimension of the genocide (pan-Turkism), Christians concentrated on the religious (pan-Islamist) dimension of genocide. This phenomenon has made it difficult for Muslim Sunnis to support Armenian Genocide commemoration events.
Schools located in Muslim Sunni majority areas either ignore these events or portray the Armenian Genocide and the starvation in Mount Lebanon as exaggerations and their victims as “tools of Western imperialism to intervene in the domestic affairs of the Ottoman Empire.” This narrative became a dominant factor among some Sunni political circles especially after the centennial of the Armenian Genocide and with the growth of Turkish soft power in Lebanon and the rise of political Islam in the Middle East.
Over the years, events dedicated to Armenian Genocide commemorations in Lebanon have become highly politicized and turned into tools of the domestic political bazaar. Moreover, the Turkish Embassy and its cultural and social centers started sending political messages against the Armenian community through their proxies on the ground. These developments started challenging the discourse of the Armenian Genocide in Lebanese politics. Moreover, the Turkmens and the Turkish communities of Lebanon started to be viewed as Ankara’s voice and an essential means to serve its policy and ambitions, thus consolidating Turkey’s influence abroad. However, they have failed to counterbalance the efforts of the Armenians or increase pressure on private education institutions addressing the genocide issue.
On the last day, the conference addressed:
- The history of the Armenian Genocide with a comprehensive and modern methodology
- The preservation of historical memory and entrusting it to different age groups
- The basic elements of adolescents’ Armenian identity
- The education of a responsible citizen on the lessons of the Armenian Genocide
- Societal values on the memory of the Armenian Genocide and a comparison of those values of the past and the present
- Overcoming memory complexes and traumatic nuances; connecting the emotional elements in them with value perceptions; gaining positive energy from the lessons of the Armenian Genocide.
The panelists also emphasized the need for organizing a course on Armenian Genocide issues for secondary and higher education institutions, emphasizing:
- The armed resistance of Armenians during the Armenian Genocide, the manifestations of freedom and courage with the aim to illustrate that Armenians were not only slaughtered, but also resisted the enemy with courage
- The rescue of the victims by the Armenians, in particular, the rescue mission under the slogan “One Armenian, One gold,” the establishment of self-help networks, the humanitarian activities of Armenian organizations and the church;
- The genocidal ideology of the perpetrators (pan-Turkism), in parallel with Nazism and other extremist ideologies that led to the Genocide;
- Other genocides of the 20th century as crimes against humanity, creating a basis for comparative studies and general recognition of the phenomenon, prevention of genocide, struggle against denial; using survivors’ eyewitness accounts, memoirs and other genocide research materials for this purpose;
- The study of the formation of the post-Genocide national identity formation (individual and collective) of the Diaspora and the process of state-building during the First Republic (1918-1920) and revenge against the Genocide perpetrators.