ysu.am has interviewed Svante Lundgren.
- Tell us, please, about your research.
- I am originally from Finland and I received a doctoral degree there. Now I am working at the Center of Middle East Studies at the Lund University (Sweden). My original field was Jewish studies.
Then I focused on broadening from Judaism a Christian communities in the Middle East, especially Assyrians and Armenians.
I have done some research on Judaism, my original field but more about the different aspects of Assyrian and other Christian communities.
In Sweden there is a huge community of Assyrians and other Christians from the Middle East. I also studied their life challenges in Diaspora.
Unfortunately, I am not very optimistic about the future of this community, because they have real challenges.
The most difficult aspect is that in their traditional homeland, north of Mesopotamia, their number has decreased, especially during the last 15 years. In Northern Mesopotamia and in the northern Iraq not so long ago there probably were one million Assyrians and today nobody knows their exact number but one estimate says that the number is about 250.000 in the whole of Iraq.
The main problem is a critical number of people with this ethnic religious identity. Even though they don’t have state authority and autonomy, they try to develop their culture and preserve their language. Today it is becoming more difficult because their number is decreasing. Today more and more Assyrians are living in Diaspora.
But their survival in the Diaspora is also difficult not because of fear of violence and aggression but because life in the Diaspora is so good that you live slowly assimilating. If not you or your children, but maybe your grandchildren. So in the long run even in their historic homeland, because of the political situation, extremist groups, jihadists and so on, there would be less and less of them than in the Diaspora. They slowly assimilate. That is the challenge.
-Is the main conflict in religious differences?
-In Iraq it is definitely so. In the last 15 years the problem of Assyrians is based on the fact that they are a Christian community. And there have been extremist Islamists, ISIS of course, and other hundred extremist groups who have seen them as a target. They try to scare them so much that they would leave. And all these because they are Christians.
Then, there is another conflict which is not as wild and but it's still there. And that is indeed in the north of Iraq, it is the Kurdish autonomy. And in that region they are not persecuted because of religion as well. But there is a kind of pressure from the Kurdish population, from the Kurdish regime against Assyrians they want to Kurdify this region. They change the names of traditional Assyrians villages to Kurdish names, there were even attempts to Kurdify history, they taught Kurdish history to Assyrians children in schools.
-And what about everyday relations between Assyrians and Iraqi?
- It's difficult to say, I think different people have different experiences. Some would say that they get along well, they had Muslim neighbours and no problems when it was Christmas, they greeted each other and so on. But we also hear that for example when ISIS attacked them, Sunni Arab neighbours betrayed them, so they can’t trust them anymore. Relations have become more difficult.
I think the best relations Assyrians in Iraq probably have with Yazidis but both are small vulnerable and minorities that have really supported each other during these terrible years.
- Something like that happened to Armenians in Karabakh and other zones of conflict. Some of their Azerbaijani neighbours hid them and helped to escape and they remember them with gratitude.
-Yes, I think it's a similar situation that you had in many places of conflict. You have the same fate. Take for example the tragedy in Yugoslavia. Those people were living side by side with Serbs, Croats, Bosnians There have been many mixed marriages. They thought that this is not a problem. But then the crisis came and the problems began.
Let’s go back to the Assyrian Diaspora and compare it with Armenian Diaspora. What keeps people together in Diaspora? The church and the language.
Armenians belong to one church, they are divided into east Armenians and west Armenians but they belong to one church, but Assyrians are divided, they adhere East Assyrian and West Assyrian rite of Christianity. So the problem is more complicated with Assyrians. As regards the language, it is very essential when it comes to preserving the identity, but it’s difficult in a modern society because if you live in the US, Germany or Sweden, everything around you is in the local language, and your computer, your mobile phone is either in English or in the local language. I think, now it is a second generation and they have lost the language. Assyrians are stateless people. When compared with Armenians it is obvious that Armenians have their country where the infrastructures, schools, universities preserve and develop the birth language of Armenians. So, the Armenians of the Diaspora have the possibility to study their language. Without state it is a big challenge for small Diaspora communities to take the responsibility of struggling for the language. They try to speak their language in their families but children go to school where they study the local language, their friends are locals and they communicate in this language, they can still understand their own language but they certainly speak the language of the country better than their native one.
-This problem is actual for the Armenian Diaspora as well. It seems somewhat a duality: you speak in one language with friends, as school or university but at home you speak your own language with your parents and relatives, and maybe think in two languages.
-So, Assyrians started therefore a national movement which was born in the late 19th century. The idea of this movement is that we have the right to national self-determination and have the right to establish a state of our own in our historical homeland. The problem is that there are few of them left in this historical homeland. So the idea of establishing a state is growing less and less likely every year.
A good friend of mine has been a very active member of this movement for decades. And when I ask him if he believes that one day there will be a state of their own he says, “Yes. To survive we need to have our state otherwise what is the reason for preserving our identity?”. But he is quite lonely. If you look at Assyrians say in Sweden you will see that many of them are successful. They had a good education, a good careers and their families live a very secure life in many ways. And if I ask them, “Do you believe that by some miracle in 10,20, 30 years from now there would be maybe not an independent state but an autonomy? And if yes, would you move to live there?” they answer, “No, our life is much better here. Why should I risk everything for going into a very uncertain future? The problem of the Assyrian movement is that it is based on an idea. Many Assyrians would agree that it is not a realistic dream for us to have our own state.
-Are there any benefits for Assyrians in Sweden, Finland or other European countries maybe in educational programs or in some other way?
-For example in Sweden, where the Assyrian Diaspora is huge, they have the National Federation with its local branches; they have a Youth Federation, TV channels and Web magazines. Sweden is a very generous country. It provides real support to all those organizations. A huge part of the budget of the National Federation comes from the state. Sweden has been extremely generous in supporting these ethnic organizations. Assyrians in Turkey or Syria or Iraq are seen only as religious communities, they have a church but nothing else. But in Sweden they have facilities and state support. Even in schools they have the rights to get teaching in their native language. So, Sweden has been very good to Assyrian emigrants to provide them with state support so that they could create all these organizations.
-Are Assyrians involved in governmental structures?
-Yes, they have been quite active and successful in political life in Sweden. There were elections in September and there were five members of parliament with Assyrian background. There is also one minister of the government who is Assyrian born in Turkey. Besides, they are very active on the local level in some cities with a huge Assyrian population.
-It’s great. Because in Armenia where there is a numerous community of Yezidis there is only one representative of this national minority in the National Assembly.
-I think Sweden is a very easy country for minorities to mobilize and get influence. The official Sweden, political parties support this inclusiveness. We have to include minority groups and immigrants in our parties.
-Where is the situation with Assyrians is more serious-in Turkey or in Iraq?
-It is definitely in Iraq. The situation is worse because there's been so much violence against them. In Turkey there is no violence, no persecution. There is also some kind of discrimination of non Turkish, non-Muslim groups. Besides, the number of Assyrians in Turkey decreased and the community is weak.
-How can the problem be overcome?
-I don’t think there is much hope for the situation to change for the better. Even if the ISIS is defeated there are other aspects of conflicts. I think the problem in the Middle East is the mentality. We need a new mentality to declare Iraq for everybody, we must develop a country for the benefit of its all citizens, all inhabitants, all religious and ethnic groups. But is is not the traditions in the Middle East. The tradition is for them to benefit your own, your own tribe or your own ethnic or religious community. So hopefully there will be a new Iraq, a more democratic one to understand the idea of minority rights, but inshallah, let’s hope to see other Baghdad. I am not very optimistic about it either, because the tradition is very different and it goes for almost the whole Middle East.
Lecture about Assyrians in Turkey is available here.