Post-Soviet territorial changes, Karabakh’s self-determination, and irredentism

Armenians in the diaspora were – and still are – quite rightly concerned about the struggle of their brethren in Nagorno-Karabakh. An enclave of Armenians inside neighbouring Azerbaijan, the most recent war between the two nations resulted in Azeri military victories, followed by the implementation of a Moscow-brokered peace agreement. This dispute, originating in the immediate aftermath of the post-Soviet dissolution, contains lessons for us today.

There is no shortage of self-proclaimed experts on the Armenian question among the Sydney Armenians. There is no shortage of commentary about on solutions of international geopolitical tensions among the diasporan Armenians. Ethnic chauvinism seems to be a mini-national pastime, and not only among the Armenian diaspora.

While I have gladly avoided joining this highly esteemed club of scholars on the Armenian question, the Karabakh issue does raise important observations about self-determination, ethnic separatism and irredentism, particularly with regard to the dysfunctional monstrosities that emerged after the breakup of the USSR.

Seceding from Azerbaijani control is a serious step. The Azeris, in the post-Soviet era, have launched a pan-Turkish ideology that seeks to unite all Turkic peoples into one massive confederation. There were killings of Armenians in Baku and Sumgait as early as 1988-89, in the immediate wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Gorbachev allowed all kinds of nationalist sentiment to surface, each advocating an irredentist outlook.

Karabagh, or Artsakh as the Armenians like to call it, was given autonomous status within the Azerbaijani Soviet republic back in the 1920s by the Communist authorities. As far as I am aware, there is no evidentiary basis for the claim that Stalin surreptitiously betrayed Bolshevik party policy, and secretly awarded Karabagh to Azerbaijan. Be that as it may, is the Armenian claim to Karabagh based on irredentism, arising from the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR?

The weakening of socialist internationalism – a consequence of the USSR’s dissolution – provided an ideological vacuum into which all sorts of ethnic separatist and nationalist sentiments poured. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh, disputed since 1988-89, is an example of the clash of rival nationalisms claiming victim hood status. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war, in abeyance since 1994, resulted in the effective secession of the territory from Azerbaijani control. The Karabakh Armenians also seized territory from Azerbaijan proper to establish a land corridor to the Armenian republic.

Irredentism and ethnic separatism

Irredentism proposes that a national community, regardless of borders, should be reclaimed into one territorial unit. Mussolini, back in his day, claimed that Italians living in Istria and Dalmatia were subjected to forcible Slavicisation by the then Austro-Hungarian empire. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. He launched an aggressive campaign to reclaim these territories hiding behind the principle of self determination. Italian politicians until today like to claim Istria and Dalmatia as long lost Italian possessions, much to the chagrin of their neighbours.

The Nazi party used the same irredentist argument, claiming that the Sudetenland Germans were being persecuted by the Czechoslovak government. The leader of the Sudetenland Germans, Henlein, turned out to be a Nazi agent. In the current political climate, the United States, through the mechanism of the Helsinki commission, promotes ethnic separatists in Russia (such as Circassian figures), disguising its predatory objectives under the cloak of ‘decolonisation.’

Have the Karabakh Armenians reached out to the independent regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? The latter two republics, part of the nation of Georgia, faced discrimination and persecution by the post-Soviet national chauvinist Georgian authorities. Fighting a secessionist war (in similar fashion to Karabakh), these two republics agreed to the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the 1990s.

For that matter, you could draw a direct parallel between the Karabakh issue and the newly formed pro-Russian republics in the Donbas region of Lugansk and Donetsk. The latter two regions, facing a protracted war by the ethnic chauvinist Ukrainian regime, decided to seek the protection of Russia. To my knowledge, the diaspora Armenians have not come out in support of neither the Donbas republics, nor Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

I am very happy that the Karabagh Armenians defended themselves. They achieved independent status in 1994, and the conflict with Azerbaijan was frozen until 2020-21. The Azeri regime’s policy of pan-Turkism makes any chances of autonomy within Azerbaijan impossible.

However, irredentism is not a long term solution. Moscow has put in place a peace plan, and I think we should stick to it. Perhaps Karabagh became a cause célèbre among diasporan Armenians because it arose out of the anticommunist aftermath of the USSR’s dissolution, rather than any commitment to human rights or social justice.

Muslim Spain, the Moors, Afrocentrism and scientific advances

In the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Morgan Freeman plays a Moorish character, one of the few positive representations of Muslims in Hollywood movies. The Moor is depicted as more educated and worldly than his Christian counterparts. The most famous Moor in the English-speaking world is of course the titular character in Shakespeare Othello. But who were the Moors, mostly known as the Islamic conquerors of Spain and Portugal?

Before we get to that, let’s relate some important background; in the late 1980s Saul Bellow, a right wing culture warrior, shouted at his readership ‘who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?’ He carried out a culture war which included dismissing the black African civilisations and upholding Western civilisation as the cynosure of rationalism and scientific enquiry. We will see that this position is absolutely false.

It is perfectly true that the Muslims civilised the peoples of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Named by the Europeans as Moors, the Al-Andalus caliphate flourished, and made great advances in science, engineering, mathematics and philosophy. Called Moorish, this term was used by the Europeans as a blanket term for anyone of darker complexion – Arabs, Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans.

The designation Moorish – which we use in common parlance for a type of art or architecture from Muslim Spain – lazily lumps together different ethnicities. Islamic Arabs, black Africans, and the pre-Islamic indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, the Berbers – have been encompassed by the generic term Moors. First applied by the Romans to darker skinned people from Northern Africa, the term Moor was gradually extended to describe Arab, Muslim, Berber and sub-Saharan Africans.

The term Berber is actually a misnomer. The indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, prior to the Islamic Arab conquest, are self-described Amazigh. Defeated by the Arab Muslim armies, the Berbers converted to Islam or assimilated. One of their number, an Islamised Berber Tariq Ibn Ziyad, became a military commander in the Muslim armies. He led the Islamic conquest of Spain, in 711 AD, defeating the Visigoths, a Germanic people.

Al Andalus became a centre of scientific accomplishments and education, at a time when most of Europe and Britain were illiterate. Averroes (1126 – 1198 CE, Arabic name Ibn Rushd) was one of a number of astronomers and polymaths produced by Islamic Spain. Ibn Zuhr (1094 – 1162 CE) was an Andalusian surgeon who can lay claim to be the earliest to detect cancerous tissues in the oesophagus, stomach and uterus.

To be sure, sub-Saharan African civilisations made their own scientific and philosophical accomplishments independently of Europe. Decades before John Locke, David Hume and the philosophers we all regard as founders of the Enlightenment, the Ethiopian philosopher and writer Zera Yacob (1599 – 1692) already developed the ideas of rational enquiry and scientific skepticism we associate with Enlightenment values. Here is one example of an African philosopher Tolstoy which Bellow never encountered.

Yacob, building on the long tradition of philosophy in black African Ethiopia, went further than Locke or Hume. Questioning the unchallenged supremacy of faith, he not only counterposed reason, but also explicitly opposed slavery, and advocated for the rights of women. Enlightenment ideas pop up in places which are ignored by the Anglocentric mind.

It is completely inaccurate however, to characterise Islamic Spain as a uniquely black African Moorish establishment, as Garikai Chengu does in his article. While correct in responding to European cultural arrogance, and highlighting the achievements of non-European civilisations, Chengu’s advocacy of an Afrocentrist approach, subsuming ancient Egypt and the Moors into one black sub-Saharan African identity, is wildly off the mark.

To emphasise the allegedly black African character of Islamic Spain, and ignore the contribution of Arab Islamic people, results in the dismissal of the significant achievement of Al Andalus under the Muslim rulers. Let us accept the fact that the Arab Muslims cannot be disrespected as just a marauding bunch of slave traders. Chengu, a brilliant scholar in his own right, is a fascinating writer. His articles are always worth reading.

For that reason, it is disappointing to see him recycling discredited Afrocentric myths, such as the tired old cliche that black African peoples sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the Americas before Columbus. Islamic Spain already has a contested legacy in Europe. Both Spain and Portugal are still wrestling with the historical fact that Islam made a huge imprint on their collective histories.

In Portugal, archaeologists and historians are still discovering just how integral the Islamic contributions were to the nation’s identity. The construction of a specifically Iberian identity was made in opposition to the Islamic states, emphasising the centrality of Christianity in the formation of Spain and Portugal as modern states.

The Reconquista, the systematic multi-century expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, was an early example of religio-ethnic cleansing. Filomena Barros, a professor at the University of Evora, made a salient observation; we never talk about the Roman or Visigothic conquest of Spain and Portugal, but we always refer to the Islamic conquest.

Let’s end with the words of Garikai Chengu, to be fair; he concludes with the following observations, which we would do well to follow:

If Africans re-write their true history, they will reveal a glory that they will inevitably seek to recapture. After all, the greatest threat towards Africa having a glorious future is her people’s ignorance of Africa’s glorious past.

Exactly. The same applies to the glories of Islamic Spain.

Being a non-drinker in Australia

When I explain to people that I do not drink alcohol, I am usually confronted with a look of stunned outrage, followed by the question ‘You don’t drink?! why not?’ My interlocutor has trouble getting over the shock that I choose, for non-religious reasons, to abstain from alcohol. They look at me like an alien being from another planet.

Rather than elaborate my reasons every time, I thought it would be best to write down why I am very happy being a teetotaller (that means non-drinker for the non-Australian readers). First off, while Australians have a strong culture of drinking – at social occasions, or a tipple over dinner in the evenings – that picture is changing. The ABC news reported in 2020 that the number of ex-drinkers in Australia over the three year period 2016 – 19 increased from 1.5 to 1.9 million Australians. Secondly, respondents listed their reasons for non-drinking, and religious reasons were hardly the only motivation for living the teetotal life.

Health reasons were often cited as the main concern for avoiding or giving up alcohol. Better health, less calories and sugar, avoiding hangovers, lessening liver damage, avoiding the harmful social consequences of excessive drinking, reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes – all these reasons featured in the decision of increasing numbers of people to abstain from, or give up, alcohol consumption. Greater numbers of young people are choosing to become non-drinkers.

The academic and researcher Dr Amy Pennay of La Trobe University found the following result:

Twenty-one per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 24 per cent of 25- to 29-year-olds don’t drink, and both those figures have more than doubled since 2001.

“We haven’t seen one particular age group driving consumption before, to my knowledge,” Dr Pennay says.

“So the fact that it’s young people is quite new and unique.”

No, there is no moralising judgement about people who decide to partake of alcohol; no need to pester or lecture alcohol-drinkers. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends pacing yourself – yes, we are all familiar with the generic statement, ‘everything in moderation.’ That saying is all well and good, but is completely inadequate in dealing with the harmful social and health impacts of alcohol consumption.

I have never needed alcohol to have an enjoyable time. I have never liked the taste or smell of alcohol. It seems to me that if a person requires alcohol to have a good time, they must be lacking in social skills, or perhaps there is something lacking in their life which they fill with drinking. Consider the following – think of a hobby or sport you do not like. You may have tried it in the past, but it is just not for you. That is the way I regard alcohol. Beers, whisky, liquor, spirits, ouzo – while I have sampled each, I would not miss them if they were all poured down the drain.

That leads me to my next point – the Sudanese government, in the last few days, abolished in 1980s era ban on alcohol consumption for non-Muslims in the nation. Reducing the Islamically-influenced body of laws introduced by the previous regime, the current Khartoum government stipulated that while alcohol may be consumed, it must be done in private, and on condition that the public peace not be disturbed.

I remember in the late 1980s or early 1990s, watching a documentary about the Sudan, when the former leader of that nation, Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry outlawed alcohol in 1983. He led a public procession where the contents of thousands of whisky and liquor bottles were poured down the drains and into the Nile. In my own naive way at the time, I thought, well, I am not Muslim, but if he has his reasons to encourage non-drinking in his own nation, then maybe I am not so alone in my alcohol abstinence in Western Sydney.

So, thank you Colonel Nimeiry for giving me the courage to recognise my own non-drinking, and the resilience to stick with it in an alcohol-saturated culture.

Public intoxication has always been a sad sight to behold, in my opinion. After observing the antisocial behaviour of public drunkenness, I became even more determined to never end up like that. Once again, for the simpletons and clods out there – I have no problem with any adult deciding to drink. It is your decision and I accept it. Be aware of the risks of alcohol consumption, and please do not try to convince me that I am missing anything by remaining sober.

In that spirit, please understand and accept my reasons to abstain from alcohol. The only alcohol I taste is in the mouthwash I use for dental hygiene – which I then spit out.

The late great Albert Facey, Australian writer and World War 1 veteran, relates an episode in his classic memoirs A Fortunate Life. While working as a farm boy, he poured alcohol down the drain after observing his employer behave violently towards his subordinates. As a consequence, Facey was horsewhipped by his employer. Escaping, he taught himself to read and write, and went on to have, in his words, a fortunate life.

Facey, as an adolescent, was aware of the adverse impacts of alcohol-fuelled behaviour. My hope is that more of my fellow Australians become just as aware as him.

Shinzo Abe’s assassination, emotional shock and falling on your own sword

No doubt the news about the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (1954 – 2022) sent shock waves throughout the world. The longest serving Japanese PM, Abe is being remembered as a successful political figure. The shock of his assassination – and our condemnation of political killings – should not blind us to the fact that Abe was an ultranationalist and militarist politician, who sought to whitewash Imperial Japan’s war crimes at the expense of historical accountability.

There are events, years apart, that serve as timely reminders of the passing of an age. Abe’s assassination, and the circumstances surrounding his career, are eerily reminiscent of an earlier event – the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister, the right wing militarist Yitzhak Rabin, in November 1995. The parallels between the two horrific killings are striking, but we will get to that a little later.

Throughout his political career, Abe was a leading proponent of remilitarising Japan, working to repudiate Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. The popularly named pacifist clause, this article of the post-World War 2 constitution stipulates that Japanese armed forces cannot be used for waging aggressive war, and must not be deployed outside of Japanese territory. Abe and his fellow militarists worked to repudiate this clause – or at least to provide the Japanese self-defence forces with wider powers and increased capabilities.

Hand-in-hand with his remilitarisation drive was Abe’s concerted efforts to revise the criminal history of Japanese imperialism in World War 2. He denied or downplayed the sensitive issue of ‘comfort women’ – the enforced recruitment of thousands of women as sex workers for the Japanese military in China, Korea and other nations occupied by Japan. He finally apologised for that crime, specifically to South Korea, in order to patch up differences and recruit Seoul for a war drive against China.

Minimising the terrible crimes of Japanese forces in China and Korea was part of his foreign policy to renew Japan as a re-assertive power. Domestically, he promoted neoliberal capitalist measures given the grandiose title of ‘Abenomics’, a hat-tip to the discredited ‘Reaganomics’ of the 1980s. Indeed, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, in describing Abe’s economic and social programme, referred to Abe as ‘Trump before Trump’.

Earlier, mention was made of the 1995 assassination of former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin. The latter, hailed as a visionary peacemaker for signing the 1993 Oslo accords, was assassinated by an ultranationalist Judeo-supremacist Yigal Amir. Rabin’s murder was greeted with a chorus of shock and anger – another ostensibly moderate politician gunned down by an extremist. However, a closer look at the political and military career of Yitzhak Rabin reveals, not a courageous man of peace, but a hardened and vicious anti-Arab racist.

He participated and led numerous military operations, in 1948 and 1967, which resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns and the occupation of Palestinian land. During the first intifada of 1987, he vowed to ‘break the bones’ of the Palestinians. In 1993, the year he was awarded the Nobel peace prize, Rabin carried out Operation Accountability, a whole scale attack on Southern Lebanon, which displaced thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. The use of force, rationalised as a simple ‘response’ to Hezbollah rockets, destroyed Lebanese infrastructure and inflicted collective punishment.

These kinds of attacks, rather than being an aberration for the allegedly ‘liberal’ Rabin, were actually part and parcel of his character as a dedicated soldier of Zionism. Rabin, as a commander in the Israeli army, participated in the 1948 conquest of Lydda and Ramle, which resulted in the exodus of the Palestinian population. Nothing in Rabin’s career suggests that he regarded the Palestinians as anything but unwanted people to be expelled.

Denounced as a traitor for signing the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, Rabin faced a growing ultranationalist insurgency inside Israeli society. Finally, in 1995, Rabin was felled by a Zionist extremist. It was shocking and horrific to see such an assassination. For all the simpletons and clods out there; no, there is no justification for assassination, whether of Abe, Rabin, or JFK for that matter. The ideologies and practices of Abe and Rabin ensured that they would eventually fall on their own swords.

Before anyone provides moralising lectures about the sanctity of all human life, and not trampling on anyone’s grave, consider the following. I grieve for Alex Odeh. Who was that? Alex Odeh was a Palestinian American, born in 1944 in British-Mandate Palestine. A talented and dedicated student, he migrated to the United States in the 1970s, organised the Arab American Anti-Discrimination committee, and worked to promote peaceful dialogue and solutions between the Arab American and Jewish communities.

A trailblazing human rights activist, Odeh was assassinated in his offices in 1985. Zionist extremists had planted a bomb on his premises. Until today, no-one has been arrested or prosecuted for his murder. The FBI, while initially naming suspects, has left Odeh’s case unsolved. Two suspects, both American-raised Zionists, are still living openly in Israel.

Justice delayed is justice denied. I have no tears for Shinzo Abe, Yitzhak Rabin, nor JFK. I used them up for Alex Odeh. I look forward to the day when Odeh’s assassins are brought to justice, and the ideology which motivated them is discredited.

The humanities, being employable and a cross-cultural perspective

It is always great to be proud of your ethnic heritage. It is also the case that such pride can quickly translate into narrow ethnic chauvinism, blinding us to the achievements and perspectives of other cultures. The Armenians in diaspora have accomplished success against the odds. However, this must not cause us to be indifferent to interethnic solidarity, and we must learn about and respect the tremendous achievements of non-Armenian civilisations.

No, I am not singling out the Armenians for specific condemnation. I am relating a problem that I have found in Australia’s particular variety of multiculturalism. While we are more culturally diverse than ever, according to the latest census data, we are lagging in interethnic awareness and solidarity. While we need more ethnic diversity reflected in our institutions, we also require greater cross-cultural awareness to increase bonds of solidarity between ethnic minorities.

The most practical subjects that I have studied are the humanities, sometimes called the social sciences. There is nothing wrong with tackling subjects to increase employability. The law, accountancy, medicine – these are all essential professions. However, to dismiss the humanities as just time-wasting topics rendering their graduates unemployable is a perverse and narrow-minded perspective.

Consider the observations of Charlotte Colombo, in an article for The Independent. The problem is not that humanities graduates are unemployable or unfit for the business community, but that government policy and corporations are creating and sustaining employment conditions rendering more jobs precarious and casual. The rise of the gig economy makes the workforce the precariat. Do not scapegoat the humanities for the economic problems plaguing neoliberal capitalism.

What relevance does this have for interethnic cooperation? Migrant communities have focused on achieving material prosperity in the host nation. However, each group has exclusively highlighted their own stories while ignoring that which we have in common. One of the issues which my late father took seriously was the cause of the Palestinians. Why would an Egyptian-born Armenian and descendant of Armenian genocide survivors be interested in Palestine? Because of interethnic and anti-imperialist solidarity.

The issue of human rights is not the exclusive province of one ethnic or religious group. Promoting the cause of the Palestinians is not to ignore or belittle the issues of the Armenians. Cross-cultural solidarity is an essential requirement for the construction of a socially just society. As Araxie Cass explained why she went to rallies in support of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem under attack:

I attended the rally because I believe that the attacks, apartheid and ethnic cleansing imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli government is wrong. But it also reminded me of an important lesson I learned in the past year about solidarity.

As Cass elaborated, solidarity is not a transactional issue – going opportunistically to a Palestine event just so they can attend Armenian events is definitely not the purpose. It is important to have a cross-cultural perspective to understand the problems of apartheid, settler-colonialism and imperial power in the modern world.

Decades ago, while going through school, we learnt about Isaac Newton, the father of optics, but how many of us in the Australian school system know of Ibn Haytham (c. 965 – 1040 CE), an Islamic scientist and polymath who first suggested that light reaches our eyes in the form of rays? This observation overturned centuries of received Aristotelian wisdom, and he conducted experiments which established optics as a separate branch of physics, predating Newton by hundreds of years.

We all learn about, or are at least acquainted with, the mind-body dualism as elaborated by Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), a great accomplishment in the Western philosophical tradition. However, how many of us in the Anglophone world are aware of the thought experiments of Avicenna (c. 980 – 1037 CE), whose ‘flying man’ scenario was an earlier elaboration of the issue of human self-awareness; what we today would call the psyche.

There is a more contemporary comparison which can be made. Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) was a pioneering poet, who influenced his peers and followers in the decades of the twentieth century. His poetry is still regarded in great esteem, even in the light of his fascist collaboration during the war years. That is all well and good; but how many of us are familiar with the poets, novelists, musicians and writers of the Harlem Renaissance? The poetry of Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967) was just one product of the cultural and intellectual revival of African American culture in the 1920s. This movement rejuvenated the fields of art, music, fashion, politics and literature.

The social sciences – history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology and so on – have proven to be quite practical in understanding the contentious sociopolitical issues of our times.