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Neo-Assyrianism and the End of the Confounded Identity

Posted: Friday, August 19, 2011 at 10:17 AM CT

authorFor the last few years we engrossed ourselves in endless debates defending one name over another, defending the use of a compound name, ridiculing the "other" names, and in every step of the way fomenting more hatred and disunity. We have even created new names never used before, names we believe are historic and genuine, names that we feel better describe us and our aspirations. At the end, we are left more confused and less known to ourselves and worse yet, to the outside world.

At every corner where two or more of us strike a conversation about our political condition we immediately howl our indignation about our inability to reach a consensus on this issue. After so many years of futile debating and no clear direction from our national leaders the civic outcry and our public wrath has now turned to national fatigue. The chaos has numbed our minds.

What do we call ourselves now - Chaldo-Assyrian? Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac? With how many more combinations can we declare our identity and be able to solemnly pull ourselves up to a full political stature, next to the Kurds, Turkoman, and Arabs of Iraq? Must we banish the name “Assyrian” from the myriad layers of our memories as an undignified political name?

The last few years were an excellent example of how a few screaming perplexed individuals can throw the masses into a panic. For the screamers, as myself, numbers mattered more than the name. We believed that once we gained a political foothold we would then have an opportunity for reconciliation. This was a new approach, an alternative to what was once called “Assyrianism” – which in its most basic form refers to an accommodation tactic. It goes something like this: we are all of one nation and Assyrians are also known as Chaldean and Syriac. The followers of “Assyrianism” object to any change in the political identity of this nation as “Assyrian”, yet they allow the use of the terms “Chaldean” and “Syriac” to include the undecided populations. In 2003 the leadership of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and a few other parties and churches decided that “Assyrianism” was not the norm in today’s Middle East and a new approach had to be followed in dealing with the demands of the Americans in Iraq. Ambassador Bremer expected that all Christians be identified as one.

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Baghdad Conference
October 22-23, 2003

When in October 2003 in Baghdad a group of representatives of several parties and churches chose to call themselves "Chaldo-Assyrian" the name seemed like a suitable description. It was initially praised as a mechanism of unity, but soon after it was derided as the source of all historic inaccuracies. The main reason for the rejection of this name was that it paid tribute to the influence of the Chaldean Catholic Church and consequently, the Vatican. And “Assyrians” following the direction of their “Patriarch of the East” would not have this.

To the Chaldeans (or more appropriately the Catholics among us) the name Assyrian means anti-Catholic, Nestorian, and antipapal. Because of their historic significance, both Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church fought equally hard to keep the words “Assyrian” and “Chaldean” separate.

The result of this “religious feud” was costly. The Assyrian Church of the East was determined to eliminate any pro-Chaldean voice as far as banishing the most promising leader in today’s rank of its bishops, namely Bishop Mar Bawai Soro. The political ramifications of the Church’s anti-Chaldean movement was even darker. The Assyrian Democratic Movement which has been the most ardent supporter of the compound name was also rejected by many Assyrian voters in Iraq’s national elections in January 2006. A vote for ADM was explained by the pro-Church of the East media as a vote against “Assyrians” and for the Vatican in Mesopotamia.

Ironically, the “Chaldeans” did not come to the rescue of the ADM and the pro-unity groups. While the Assyrian groups in Chicago and Arizona continued to swiftly change the names of their associations and building to “Chaldo-Assyrian”, the “Chaldeans” in Detroit and San Diego hardly moved an inch from their original position. No buildings, clubs, parishes were re-named. To add fuel to this ancient fire, the new proposed cultural club and museum in Detroit were named “Chaldean” only. The Assyrian compromise had changed nothing; and nothing was all that Assyrians are left with today. Assyrians were once again betrayed.

We have now reached a new phase in our search for common grounds, one that respects the reality of hundreds of years of arabization and false social indoctrinations guided by our church leaders, in turn bullied by the Moslem rulers.

After a stormy seven-year debate on the name issue, we now recognize that as long as we recognize the authority of our churches above and beyond our national and political rights, the Catholics and the Nestorians among us will never allow a designation that would best suit our political aspirations. Today, only a very few of us seem pleased by the compromise, which merely sanctifies what other politicians and national leaders before us have been noting all along.

The fact remains that throughout the last seven years and the last 150 years for that matter the name Assyrian has always been attached to our political ambitions in the Middle East. Any time, any one of us from any of our church and tribal groups targets a political goal we present our case as Assyrians, Chaldean-Assyrians, or Syriac-Assyrians – making a connection to our “Assyrian” heritage.

The late Chaldean Patriarch,
Mar Raphael Bidawid.

Chaldean Catholic Church Bishop, Mar Sarhad Jammo
USA, May 24, 1996.

This is because our politics have always been Assyrian. Men like Naom Faiq and David Perley emerging from a “Syriac” or “Jacobite” background understood this as well as our Chaldean heroes, General Agha Petros d’Baz and the late Chaldean Patriarch Mar Raphael Bidawid. Unfortunately in the last decade, our politics have been successfully overrun by Chaldean businessmen, Assyrian usurpers, and patriarchs in bed with the Kurdish and Arab leaders. The concept of unity is benefiting the rich looking for business opportunities in Iraq, while the poor leave Bet-Nahrain in thousands.

The name, Chaldo-Assyrian, found favor only with the students, supporters of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, and those who despise the influence of the churches in our politics. The students prefer it because it sounds progressive, experimental, and original. The term “Assyrian” to the iPod-generation sounds old and stuffy.  Nevertheless, these sponsors of the compound name do not necessarily form a formidable support group for the pro-ChaldoAssyrian voices. Usually they are rejected as naïve, anti-Church, and pro-Zowaa.  In turn, the “Assyrian only” group is always quick to correct those who refer to the group by any other term. The “Chaldean only” group is omitted as favoring the Chaldean Church supremacy and “Vatican over Nineveh”.  Finally, the “Syriac only” backers are often perceived as slaves to the Arabist bishops and patriarchs of the Syrian Orthodox and/or Catholic Churches, who see themselves as Christian Arabs with a different “Christian” language. The same argument is also associated with the Chaldeans in Iraq.

To the Chaldean purists, the name “Assyrian” conjures up images of “heretical” Christians who detest the ascendancy of Vatican in the Middle East. The Syriac sticklers are less critical of the Assyrian view of the Vatican, yet they decry the Assyrian “political” notion of “I was here first and you are me” attitude.

What is interesting is that at one point in time all of us were there first together, all of us detested the ascendancy of anything but our own ambitions, and had a common adversary who professed a different faith and looked upon us as infidels. How ironic that our Churches, in order to survive in the sea of Islamic extremism, so successfully divided us in a way that our singular ambitions would not result in our total annihilation. Today, we exist as ghosts from a distant past, while our comatose bodies subsist only to provide for our churches.

Taking a new name is a quintessential Middle Eastern act. There were no “Iraqi” citizens before 1920s, neither were there any Iranians in the 1800s. They were either Arabs or Persians. The same goes for nearly all other ethnicities in the Middle East. In our case, the Church of the East was at one time called the Church of Persia or the Nestorian Church. In fact many “Nestorian” bishops despised the name “Assyrian” well into the 20th century. There was no Chaldean Catholic Church before 1552 and the Syriacs were called Jacobites.

The notion of “Assyrianism” starting in the late 1940s which culminated in the founding of the Assyrian Democratic Organization (Takasta) and the Assyrian Universal Alliance (Khoyada) in 1968 was our undeniable answer to the mass confusion built by our churches for hundreds of years. However, it did not prove to be a match for the Baathist arabization policies and the pro-Kurdish Assyrians working directly with the fighters in north Iraq.

What we did in 2003 was an experiment to build consensus.  But we miscalculated and the experiment failed. Now we have no true “independent” voice in the Iraqi cabinet ministries and we are spoken to through a single-person representation, similar to that we have in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The experiment initiated three years ago in Baghdad failed, because it was connected to the proud and unequivocal voice of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, and ADM was incapable of producing a consensus even among the Assyrians in the Nineveh Plain.  In the Diaspora, neither the churches nor other political parties desired an elevation in status for Zowaa in Iraq. The enormous popularity of ADM was quickly crushed after the appointment of Yonadam Kanna to the 25-member Iraqi National Council in 2003.  Some among us preferred a disunited population over the authority of a political group in Iraq. Such political immaturity is the firewood for the increasingly dangerous domination of our churches over our politics.

For many of us, the choice of a word by which others will know us has a special significance. We can be called Syriac because we speak Syriac or belong to the Syriac(n) Orthodox Church. We may be proud of our religious affiliation and connection to the Vatican and declare ourselves “Chaldean” (last time I checked there were not too many Chaldean Pentecostals in Detroit). However, when we feel a connection to the Might that was Assyria, 150 years of uncompromising nationalism, struggle against arabization and now kurdofication, the genocides and the massacres, we kneel down before one name alone – ASSYRIAN.

This brings us to a very powerful conclusion: in order to realize our political ambitions in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East and to survive the forces of rapid assimilation in the Diaspora, and to bring to an end the classification of our identity as a religious expression, we MUST transform our “Nestorian”, “Chaldean”, “Syriac”, and “Aramean” designations into one overarching POLITICAL identity, embodied in the name ASSYRIAN.

Ours is a struggle for equality with the Moslem majority in the Middle East. As long as we continue to use different or compound names, our status will always remain “religious” and “minority”. This is what our Churches desire the most, for it is in this state – the new Millet system – that they benefit from our undivided loyalty. After all, this continuous skirmish and concern with our name is a clear reflection of our powerlessness before the primacy of our Churches. In this state we shall never find a political solution to our political challenges.

The use of Chaldo-Assyrian, Assyro-Chaldean, Chaldean Assyrian Syriac or any other combination of names establishes a cultural context for separate agenda set by various disconnected groups. This does not bode fairly with a comprehensive national agenda that first and foremost should takes into consideration the establishment of an administrative region for the preservation of a Christian culture rooted in 7000 years of history, the only indigenous ethos in Iraq.

Assyrians, as myself and generations before me, contend that there will always be those among us who will find the names “Chaldean” and “Syriac” as gratifying as “Assyrian”, one that captures their unique heritage. Sadly, these groups and individuals will melt into the Arab, Turkish, and western cultures – believing that our unique “Christianity” will save them from the external cultural and biological forces. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rosie Malek-Yonan

Ms. Rosie Malek-Yonan at the U.S. Congressional Hearing on June 30, 2006.

The names “Syriac”, “Chaldean”, “Nestorian”, and “Aramean” belong to all of us and no one can deny us these attributes of our unique identity. Yet in order to survive and propagate within a Moslem majority, we must adopt a POLITICAL identity in addition to our cultural, religious, and linguistic characters. This can only be defined in our Assyrian self, a self that must not be redefined by any other appellation. In her presentation to the Congressional representatives in Washington a few weeks ago (click here), Ms. Rosie Malek-Yonan challenged the lawmakers to pay close attention to the plight of the Assyrians. She skillfully assembled all our religious and ethnic groups under one name – Assyrian – and presented all our problems as the challenges faced by one nation and one people. Ms. Malek-Yonan spoke for every Syriac and Chaldean, Nestorian and Jacobite, Aramean and even Maronite who considers him/herself connected to the Assyrian future. All our political leaders ought to follow suit.

Our Moslem neighbors are quite aware of our internal struggles and prefer that we use a name other than “Assyrian”. They view this issue differently and more broadly. Because to a politically savvy person, the term Assyrian implies one thing only – a claim to a territory.

Geo-politically speaking, the terms "Assyrian", “Syriac” and “Chaldean” refer to those individuals who claim to originate from "Assyria", “Syria” and “Chaldea”, respectively . Syria is a modern Arab country created in the 20th century and "Chaldea" is a geographical region that lived only in the minds of the Jewish writers of the Bible.  There exist no ancient tablets from Mesopotamia that show a specific region south of Babylon that was called "Chaldea".  In fact, the "Chaldean" rulers referred to themselves as rulers of Babylon.  The correct name of the region used by our forefathers was Babylon(ia) or Sumer. The name “Assyria” is rooted in history, can be traced via existing documents back to millennia B.C., all through modern times. After the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C., Greeks and Romans used it, so did the Persians, the Turks, and even the Vatican - who chose to use the name "Chaldean" to distinguish Assyrians following the Roman Catholic faith from Assyrians adhering to the ancient church of the East theology.

If we use “Assyrian” for political ambitions, then should we let go of our other names?

This brings us to a growing sentiment among the Assyrians of different religious and linguistic background – one that is built on the notion of “Assyrianism”, but goes one step further to the left. This new radical movement, one that this author believes is the fitting solution to our current social and political maladies, can be best described as the New Assyrianism or Neo-Assyrianism. The followers of this movement, as myself, believe that Assyrians have done more than their required share of concession-building and have compromised much of their status to accommodate the religious factions within. For a neo-Assyrianist there is only one answer: accept the name "Assyrian" with no conditions attached.

The Neo-Assyrianists believe that the accommodative nature of the classic “Assyrianism” and the pro-“Chaldo-Assyrian (Syriac)” ideologists have relegated this nation to a weaker position, rendering us powerless and incapable of negotiating a tenable future for Assyrians in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.  The fact remains:  only Assyrians will continue to bear the burden of conveying the will of the majority – regardless of their religious and linguistic backgrounds – and recognize the terms Chaldean, Syriac, Aramean, and Nestorian as the jewels of the Mesopotamian treasure we have inherited – without which our family portrait will never be complete.  Only Assyrians maintain a parental obligation to ensure the survival of the various linguistic and religious delineations within our nation.

St. Peter talking to a dead man. Published in The New Yorker, July 24, 2006.

St. Peter talking to a dead man.
Published in The New Yorker, July 24, 2006.

No longer is it necessary to justify the use of the name "Assyrian" and none of us should misuse more of our precious time to validate the existence of the Assyrians. Assyrians exist. Period. We exist as members of different church groups, speak various dialects, and are proud of our colorful mosaic of ethnic, religious and linguistic identities.  Any other designation and objective is simply doomed to disappear within the Arab, Kurdish, and Turkish dispositions.

No more concessions, “also known as”, slashes and dashes, re-writing of our history, and negotiating the terms of our rightful inheritance.  Assyrian it is!

The neo-Assyrianists hold a crucial dice in their weary hands. With all these designations in our possession, we hold six unbeatable numbers and in the hands of our experienced players the dice can fall on the side that would create the greatest advantage in dealing with our Moslem neighbors. And as long as our players know themselves as ASSYRIAN and remain detached from religious and tribal affiliations, what is written on the sides of the dice will remain a subject of conditional proclivity, favoring the survival of our unique Mesopotamian, Christian, Aramaic culture.

Welcome on-board the speeding train of Neo-Assyrianism ! Next stop… Nineveh.

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