9 Things Assyrians should do in 2019
1. Reject Sectarianism
The elephant in the room always deserves to be addressed first. There is no doubt that the positions of Chaldeanists and Arameanists are slowly getting stronger in diaspora by virtue of the fact that a unifying Assyrian movement is in a state of inertia, not because of any compelling argument to its contrary. Any power and influence they are developing is being projected back onto our people in Assyria who have repeatedly rejected sectarianism— from high-minded narrative formation present in the media to petty bribing on the ground. We can thank the respective leadership of each church for encouraging and incubating this.
Yet, there is one wonderful thing I want to remind Assyrians and the wider public: there are a great number of self-identifying Assyrians in each of these churches, whilst Chaldeanists and Arameanists are confined to singular churches. That is the difference between an inclusive identity built on the truth of peoples and collective cultural memory vs sectarian movements specifically developed to strengthen an exclusive handful of individuals.
We should also not forget that the Church of the East effectively stole the Assyrian name after the assassination of Mar Shimun Eshai in 1975. Leadership figures were realising that the momentum was with a secular, non-church led Assyrian movement throughout the 20th Century thanks to Assyrian writers and thinkers from each church. Individuals like David Perley, Freydun Atturaya, Naum Faik, and Ashur Yousif to name a few were part of various churches and elevated (or liberated) our identity from the poverty of Ottoman milletism.
And yet, with this theft, the Church of the East wanted to do more than merely ride on the coattails of this embryonic movement, but take ownership of it and designate themselves as the Assyrian Church — taking us back to milletism and the fusion of national and religious identity. This degraded the Assyrian name and rendered it confessional, undoing the work-in-progress to render it national and unifying in this new English speaking world we find ourselves in. Naturally, the other churches associated with the Assyrian people could see the benefits of this strategy and followed suit — the results of which we can see today.
So no, the theft was not carried out as a response to Ba’athism. Yes, the name wont be changed back now but we should still reject it all the same.
The task is to identify similar people to you, from whatever church ministering sections of our people and work with them to serve the whole. 2019 should be the year we start strengthening cross-communal lines, build fluid networks, and move away from our increasingly opulent diaspora bunkers overseen by individuals who insist on siloed socialisation and prosperity. Change does not come to those who wait for others benefiting from the status quo.
The leadership of each church enjoy their pet projects, their multi-million dollar purchases (whilst calling for donations for our people in…Armenia?), and the power bestowed on them to determine the nature of all of our tomorrows. All of that trust depends on concealing this fact: as they move away from each other and into these bunkers, they strengthen themselves and their authority, and as they come closer together, they weaken themselves. That is how institutional power dynamics work in this context, and that is why its so important to create their own holistic identity. If there was a meaningful consensus, they, by definition, sacrifice their existing power — not gain new sources of it.
Thus, these institutions only value agreements that are crafted recognising and reinforcing their modern identities. Amusingly, they are only unified in pursuing agendas of division — and that is why they relish photo ops which demonstrate that (side note: I lament every time I see Assyrians celebrate these superficial occurrences as glimmers of “unity” since they are only undertaken with a mutual understanding of the opposite). Assyrian individuals must take personal responsibility and become active agents of community building.
If we truly loved our churches and their leaders, we would not be relying on them to forge this impossible and bureaucratic consensus among themselves in order to move us forward as one body towards a better future — that is a residual behaviour instinct nurtured by hundreds of years of milletism and we should leave it behind. We should instead be creating these movements as one body of people horizontally among ourselves. There is no “get-rich-quick” scheme here: it involves a lot of hard work, and crucially, mature conversations.
2. Resist Toxic Encounters on Social Media
This section dovetails nicely from the above: its really important that Assyrians, like everyone else, put their use of social media into perspective. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are environments which are created to serve a very specific purpose: to encourage repeat usage, to sell data we provide to them for free, and to have us compete with each other and even ourselves.
Behavioural psychologists have known for a very long time that the difference between addiction (commonly associated with certain drugs) and conditioning are subtle but profound. Addiction can be internalised in a way that people are consciously acting out their lives knowing what they are doing is unhealthy. Conditioning is more perverse: in short, it simply subtracts this awareness. The individual becomes totally locked into a way of behaving and perceiving things, regardless of the negative effect it may be having on their relationships and mental health.
For Assyrians, an already traumatised people burdened by intergenerational pain, displacement and erasure, social media platforms have provided us with a digital means to connect our diaspora communities together as well as a platform with which we can try and ‘set the record straight’ on our suffering. The intention here is noble, but the outcomes are often a distortion of what we had intended. For example, my own use of social media became paired with Assyrian work on an inseparable level, but I have realised that whilst it may have served as a platform to share stories and form some positive relationships with Assyrians and non-Assyrians alike, the wiring beneath the arena is set up to create echo chambers and encourage pointless conflict.
I don’t actually want to preach to the choir, nor do I want to be assailed by hordes of anonymous people who say ridiculous things because they are unhappy and have nothing to lose. Facebook shows you things according to an algorithm which guesses what you are most likely to interact with — and these things are often negative. Twitter’s character limitation is deliberate: you can tell someone to “fuck off” and that will effectively communicate what you had intended without any elaboration needed. Telling someone you admire in as many words will often be deflating and underwhelming — after all, when you enjoy or love something you naturally want to elaborate.
Studies are finally emerging that withdrawal from social media entails a boost in confidence, attention span, happiness and well-being. Teenagers today will find withdrawal the hardest, but many are realising it is in their best interests too. These two interviews, one with computer scientist Jaron Lanier, and a second with writer Sam Vaknin, are key and go into much needed detail on this phenomenon.
Karl Sharro is the perfect example of the sort of cartoon characters Twitter can create and then have their influence ooze into major publications. Here he is being interviewed in the New Yorker this month:
On Twitter, he often pokes fun at the habit some Middle Easterners have of claiming long-lost civilizations like the Phoenicians and the Assyrians as their cultural ancestors. “They don’t want to identify as Arabs, so they pretend to be the direct descendants of these ancient empires, which is just silly,” he said. An Assyrian-ancestry group has been heckling him on Twitter, which he finds funny. “I mean, they have a fucking flag.” He asked a museum guard for directions to the Phoenician collection. “I’m not even sure what you’re talking about,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
This is a man with a Lebanese passport who describes himself as someone from the Syriac Orthodox Church, maliciously presenting Assyrians as frauds to Arab writers in respected publications, whilst embracing an Arab identity himself — all in a mercantile-hustler-operating-in-a-provincial-trading-outpost-in-the-5th-Century kind of way. He is someone who is celebrated for mocking sectarianism among Middle East communities, but partakes in it himself within his own obscure community due to his own personal traumas, dogmas and prejudices.
He could be attacked over the same medium he has developed his following over, but aren’t these attacks what he has successfully leveraged against us in prominent media outlets? An “ancestry group” with “a fucking flag?” This is what is often published about us in less jarring and more cloaked terms — not our stories.
Assyrians and others would be better off creating new channels to communicate our stories. The only reaction we can give to the above is negative, as intended, and therefore the only outcome will reflect badly on us as a whole for being ‘reactionary’ and proving Mr Sharro right. This is the way the dice are loaded in academia, the media and politics on matters concerning the Assyrian identity and the Assyrian people. We are not unique in this respect: I think with more people radically scaling back their social media usage or abandoning it altogether, more constructive means of communication can be developed in which we are afforded the same dignity as everyone else. Until then, we are hostage to thought and communication platforms which excel at providing spaces to degrade us.
3. Nurture Relationships which are Mutually Beneficial
I can’t emphasise this enough: we are all human so we are not beyond conforming to transmutable interests or hypocrisy. There is a reason why I don’t wade into political conflicts taking place around the world — firstly, why should I? And secondly, will anything I say be loaded with the thoughtfulness and seriousness it deserves? To coin one phrase, I don’t have “skin in the game” here. I’m not pro or anti any group of people by definition: individuals bond with individuals — not groups, and nevermind states.
I’m not the biggest believer in solidarity as a universally enduring concept unbound by peculiar instances and actions — it usually comes saddled with absolutes and/or a poor reading of politics and history. What I do believe in is the manifestation of converging interests. That is why the U.S. armed and trained Assyrians in Iraq to fight ISIS. This is why Israel supports any iteration of an imagined Kurdistan. That is why America values Turkey more than the Kurds in Syria. That is why Putin and Erdogan speak to each other more than any other state leaders do. There are levels of coordination and cooperation relative to the geopolitical power groups hold and it should all be understood coldly and rationally, not emotionally.
Of course Assyrians can ‘have a say’ in these affairs, but it should also be understood that Assyrians are at the very back of the queue and will be heard the least: we do not even register as sub-state actors like Kurds do (who have obsessively tried to dominate our ascension into this category in both Syria and Iraq by absorbing us and our lands into their own political projects), let alone state actors. Crucially, that does not mean we are inferior — although we are told in a dizzying number of ways that we are by our neighbours and aspiring saviours. As human beings, we are complete, functioning, and both flawed and brilliant just like everyone else.
Our external relationships are always going to be secondary to me because I see so much work that needs to be done internally, but that may not be true for other Assyrians. Others may be more interested in building these external relationships than looking inward — and that’s fine. I just want these relationships to be formed with the awareness that we have always given far more than we have received, and that we are forced into hierarchies and patronage more than embraced in respectful partnerships: that is why Arabs and Kurds use Assyrians as a stick to beat each other with whilst rewarding the handful of those willing to sell the Assyrian name for their own personal benefit.
4. Stop Begging, Look Inward.
Be wary of all gatekeepers. If someone tells you we can achieve what we want if we only asked the right people for it properly, or sent the right people, or were ambitious enough, you can rest assured that they are either doing so maliciously or they are innocently repeating the mistakes of the past century. Both at this stage in our history are unforgivable.
Assyrians have less on the ground than ever before, but certain individuals promise the world then point the finger when others are not as ambitious as they are in their ‘demands’. This is when it is malicious. Making demands entails that action needs to be taken to fulfil them by foreign groups — and all actions have so far indicated very much the opposite: our continued erasure and displacement. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
I consider the state of Iraq as much as an alien entity to Assyrians as the states of Australia, Indonesia, and Germany. The only difference is the state of Iraq, as well as its subsidised Kurdish region, has played a direct role in our continued genocide and is actively erasing Assyrians from its modern composition. The state has no interest in recognising and making amends for past atrocities like Simele either. It has demonstrated its loathing of us through its laws and its gangsterism which we, as usual, suffer disproportionately from. The state of Iraq, on a very deep level, is a state for Arabs and Kurds.
The key is separating the land from any occupational forces which pretend to govern it. The land is Assyria and it is where we have lived since all records began. States come and go and we owe no loyalty to any which dislocate us from our land and erase us from its past, present and future. But the land remains, and so will we.
We are now locked out of the political arena in these states after having our representation fully stolen both in the north and south. Western sympathisers are more interested in determining our fate with their own flawed strategies and vanities than listening to and being informed by our own experiences. The mayor of Alqosh was kidnapped, tortured and threatened by the KDP last year— all of this was meticulously documented and passed onto state actors and relevant NGOs. Nobody cared. Today, Western officials pose for pictures with Lara Yousif, who won an “election” to be mayor where she was the only one running.
If we can’t even acquire help to overturn this outcome and have the rightful mayor of a small Assyrian town reinstated, what makes us think talking to the same people about carving out administrative regions complete with a fair enforcement of law and the recognition of our indigenous rights (a concept the Middle East violently and universally suppresses) will be fruitful?
There must be a change in mentality: we can only now look inward and help each other after having exhausted these other externally prescribed methods of national rehabilitation and liberation. It really does not make a difference how serious and eloquent you are in any meeting — you only need to read our modern history. The time for having confidence in the mechanisms and processes in place right now is over. They aid nobody but the people who flatter themselves by merely engaging with us since it only serves to legitimise their own professional positions and does almost nothing to relieve our problems.
5. Identify and Support Assyrian Initiatives
This is an exercise in practicalities: we need to be maximise our existing capacities. If you run a search on the non-profit register in the U.S. for any organisations which contain the word “Assyrian” or “Chaldean” in their name, their declared funds for the last financial year total over $60m. This is without considering new and undeclared funds, or private funds and greater untapped capacities. That is what is out there right now in terms of potential material support. How much of this are we using well, if at all? How much is available in our global diaspora in similar organisational registers?
And what does it mean to use it well anyway? Lets see, how about we invest in our communities. We have long established organisations with little to no visibility among our wider diaspora. We have remarkably talented individuals who feel stuck, unable to explore their capabilities professionally and academically. We have literary projects we urgently need to commission and undertake. We have able and tireless individuals who want to contribute to national work but do not know where to start or how if any of this work is sustainable.
We have no funding bodies to help with non-commercial initiatives who are actually doing the work they need to do. Perhaps its because of laziness, perhaps inability or miserliness. Either way, it is our reality and we need to change it as soon as possible. Our generation presides over profound institutional failure but fortunately we have everything we need to fix it. We have the capacity, talent and long established and highly skilled diaspora communities — that is why I’m optimistic. The only thing that remains is to do the work. Join organisations and make them better. Start your own ones about things you are passionate about. Explore funding opportunities internally and externally.
Thinking Assyrian isn’t enough — you have to animate that word and bring it to life through action.
6. Stop Saying These Phrases:
I understand why political parties say it. I understand why churches say it. I understand why other organisations say it. What I don’t understand is why individuals say it. Stop. Individuals are under no pressure to accommodate and perpetuate fractious and needless splicing. This nomenclature reinforces sectarianism by placing the Assyrian national name alongside Chaldean and Syriac — two confessional identities.
I won’t support the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) because I don’t like the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa).
This was a common sentiment during the ISIS years and its almost endearingly petty. The most important thing about the NPU is what it embodies: Assyrians reasserting our agency and taking responsibility to protect our own people in our own lands. Anyone against the NPU is also against Assyrians empowering ourselves and casting aside a victim mentality. The NPU is the single biggest expression of our will in the last one hundred years. The group can be called something else, they be part of something else etc… The most important thing is maintaining the expression of our people resisting annihilation in our homeland.
We can’t do x because we are not united.
Unity is the ultimate red herring and it has proved to be durable in discussions on Assyrian issues. People wringing their hands in the air pining for unity are excusing failure, not working to amend it. “Unity” has never been a driving force in successful national mobilisation: power, violence, compelling ideas, and converging interests are the bricks and mortar of that endeavour. Some of the most powerful states in the world are some of the most divided.
More Kurds have targeted and killed each other than any other group has targeted them throughout history, but the U.S. continues to send their various factions hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and weapons in separate packages. The U.S. supported innumerable opposition militias operating in Syria because they all were prepared to fulfill specific U.S. policy objectives despite the fact that they were literally at war with each other. “Unity” is a fanciful thing to call for that absolves Westerners of taking any responsibility for our suffering, and excuses them from taking any action to address it.
Lets not repeat this lie. We do work together — we just need to maximise these efforts inwardly, not package them as performative pieces for others.
This is why we don’t have a country.
Used tongue-in-cheek endlessly for years for the smallest of grievances, I always sigh when I hear or read it. I welcome serious criticism and reflection of where we are today, but I resent this casual nonsense. Its just lazy and serves to end a conversation, not spark one. Ah, the silence is comforting.
We are not organized.
On the contrary, we are. We have a vast number of organisations around the world. The problem is many of the people comprising them are either ill-suited to particular roles, or have no help. By correcting this through participation and accountability, we can work on fulfilling potential. The problem is not organisation per se, the problem is mobilisation. A lot of people have the energy but don’t know what to do — it is those conversations which must be started and elaborated on.
We owe everything to our churches.
We owe some things to them, both terrible and wonderful. The problem with this sentiment isn’t in the verb “owe”, but rather the possessive pronoun “our”. These have never really been our churches — it is milletism which has engendered that idea (see more in my long essay here). The Church of the East was the most successful and prolific missionary church in history, covering vast territories and boasting tens of millions of non-Assyrian followers. The Syriac Orthodox Church currently has more ethnic Indians among its flock than any other group including Assyrians. These are churches after all, and to them, all followers are rightly welcome and equal. If they were not, it would be conceding some kind of hierarchy where there is truly none in place. Love these churches and cherish them, but by no means live entirely within them.
If you cared, you would do it for free.
This is not so much a verbalised statement as it is an unspoken feeling. It must be understood that there is no honour in poverty. Many of us have undertaken an expensive education and live in expensive cities. If we want the best work to emerge internally as a community, we need to almost always pay for it to make it sustainable. That is how the world works, and we are part of it.
We need to be like x people.
Idolisation of Jews, Kurds, Westerners or any other groups are common among us. The problem is, this idolisation is ignorant of context. We have our own special circumstances and we have to live with them (and eventually transcend them). We can learn from the experience of others, but it is impossible to fit them wholly into our own as a template to follow.
I’m a victim.
We have suffered unthinkable tragedies and continue to suffer marooned and disconnected from each other in our diaspora communities. We continue to be targeted and nothing would suit our neighbours better than our disappearance from not only the world today, but history altogether. The problem for them is, we’re more than just victims of their will — we have our own will and it has seen us survive and thrive where we have managed to carve out a space to. We can largely develop now outside of the parameters set for us under successive occupying forces which thrive in our misery.
Most Assyrians are growing up in relative freedom thanks to the sacrifices made by older generations of Assyrians. We are more than the sum of our pain, whether we are in our homeland or in diaspora, and we have a lot to offer each other.
7. Develop Yourself
Working on yourself is by the far the best way to start helping our people. We want something to offer, and we cannot offer anything if we don’t achieve our own personal goals. Luckily, I don’t think we’re in any danger of having an army of miserable nationalists with no skills or talents. The problem is that we have no robust networks in place to nurture our youth whilst maintaining an Assyrian consciousness and sense of community.
The lack of development of young Assyrians with this mentality is an organisational and institutional failure — where are the cross-confessional youth networks around the world? Where are the mentoring schemes? Where is the Assyrian economy both of learning and practice? These are all things that need to be developed alongside our support of Assyrian enterprises and initiatives. We cannot forget the individual in the pursuit of the collective.
8. Don’t be Afraid to Open Up
We don’t take our physical and mental health as seriously as we should do both in diaspora and in our homeland. The level of trauma we have endured collectively and often individually is so vast it often manifests in thoughts and behaviours we are not conscious of until terrible things happen. We need to take care of each other far more — and I don’t just mean seeking help from healthcare professionals, but in small ways anyone can offer. Affording each other a space to confront this trauma is one of the biggest tasks ahead of us as a people. Many people, Assyrians and non-Assyrians, underestimate how much it has influenced decision making among our people, how much it is impacting families and our futures.
We have to put exploring and dealing with personal and collective trauma firmly on any agenda which seeks to address our experience. We need to do this without pinning everything on some state or another’s recognition of it that will never arrive. There is so much healing we need to try and undertake we are almost scared to start any of it.
9. Take Control
I will be as succinct as possible for such a mammoth task by using a single example: what if Assyrians create a website that contains the highest quality news stories, commentary pieces, interviews, food recipes and so on about our own affairs? What if we had a go-to platform which can house all of this in one place: from the most compelling argument to support the KDP to the best recipe for prakheh/dolma? What if the first thing non-Assyrians think of when trying to learn about our modern, living nation is the contents of this website? What if they can contribute to it too?
This effectively produces the effect of taking back control of our own affairs on a platform we have primacy over, rather than the endlessly refreshed swamp of social media where posts slide deeper into irrelevance, or other websites which drive anti-Assyrian agendas and present them to their audiences as objective. This new, hypothetical Assyrian website is professional, slick and non-commercial (i.e. free to access with commissioned written material). It is something supported by existing and new funding bodies, much like the way Tablet Magazine and The Walrus are run. It is something which is both highbrow and lowbrow. It has artwork, cartoons, and podcasts. It is the source for Assyrian knowledge making and sharing.
Why don’t we have it yet? Instead of working in specialist silos via our current media offerings, or heckling journalists who get our stories wrong — let us write them ourselves. Instead of attacking individuals online who present a repulsive political position, why don’t we invite them to share their argument over a medium where we can assess it on its own merits? We have what we need to do it so lets do it.