A suspected arson caused extensive damage at an Armenian church in San Francisco’s Laurel Heights neighborhood. <ins>(Courtesy Alex Bastian)</ins>

A suspected arson caused extensive damage at an Armenian church in San Francisco’s Laurel Heights neighborhood. (Courtesy Alex Bastian)

Rising hate crimes against Armenians serve as a warning

By Stephan Pechdimaldji

Over the past year the number of hate crimes committed against the Armenian-American community has been on the rise. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, there have been four hate crimes committed against the Armenian community over the last six months including a local Armenian School being vandalized with hateful and racist graffiti, which was followed by an arson attack on St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church. There are about 2,500 Armenian-Americans living in the San Francisco Bay Area, so these crimes per capita is a very high number given how small the community is. For a region of the country that prides itself on its progressivism, diversity and acceptance of all cultures, these latest attacks should be a warning sign that hate, and violence can rear its ugly head irrespective on where you may live.

While the timing of these latest incidents might be circumspect, they both occurred right before Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey, launched an attack on Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in September. The vandals at the Armenian School in San Francisco spray-painted the colors of the Azerbaijan flag and used threatening language in Azerbaijani. In many ways, these latest hate crimes, coupled with the resurgence of hostilities in the South Caucasus, are a continuation of the Armenian Genocide that is now finding its way to the San Francisco Bay Area.

It is often said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We are clearly seeing these prophetic words come to life for Armenians in the San Francisco Bay Area who have fought for decades for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. As victims of oppression, Armenians see these latest attacks as an extension of Turkey and Azerbaijan’s denial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and a threat to their very existence.

These latest hate crimes should be an inflection point in the U.S.-Turkey-Azerbaijan relationship that has seen Washington for years turn a blind eye to Ankara and Baku’s malfeasance and wanton disrespect for the rule of law, including its ongoing campaign to deny the Armenian Genocide. For the United States and the international community to condemn and punish Turkey and Azerbaijan for its human rights violations, rampant expansionism and ethnic cleansing, they must hold them to account for its history and role in perpetuating an unequivocal lie and a revisionist look at the past.

For decades, Turkey embarked on an impracticable campaign to rewrite the world’s history books by questioning the veracity of the Armenian Genocide by calling for dubious panels and historical commissions to refute and contest Turkey’s eradication of the Armenians. And as part of Turkish pressure to suppress recognition of the Armenian Genocide, they are now turning to social media platforms to help in those efforts.

In the age of social media, we clearly know the influence many of these platforms have in influencing the hearts and minds of people. What is more, words matter, and it is one of the reasons why Mark Zuckerberg updated his company’s terms of service by expanding its hate speech policies to include content that denies or distorts the Holocaust. In announcing the policy change, the company cited a recent survey that found that the number of people who believe that the Holocaust was a myth is on the rise. And while Facebook deserves much credit for updating its policies, it still has not gone far enough, as content that denies the Armenian Genocide is still allowed on the platform. Pages like “Armenian Genocide Lie” are just some examples of how Turkey and Azerbaijan are exploiting social media to disseminate propaganda which incites hatred and violence. Zuckerberg said that this thinking around this issue evolved as he saw an increase in anti-Semitic violence increasing. Clearly, he saw a connection between the content on his site and hate crimes being committed because of it.

And we can clearly make the connection between denial of the Armenian Genocide and these latest hate crimes committed against Armenians, especially when governments do in fact recognize the genocide. After all, it is in Ankara and Baku’s playbook to use intimidation and fear to silence its detractors both inside and outside its borders. For example, France has been one of the more vocal critics of Turkey and as a result the country has seen a significant uptick in the number of hate crimes committed against French citizens of Armenian descent. In recent weeks, memorial sites dedicated to the Armenian Genocide in France have been defaced with anti-Armenian graffiti paying homage to the “Grey Wolves” and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while pro Armenian protesters were attacked and stabbed by pro-Turkey assailants over Nagorno-Karabakh. And here in the United States, hate crimes committed against Armenian-Americans have been on the rise since Congress passed a non-binding resolution last year that formally affirmed recognition.

Unfortunately, anti-Armenian hate crime is not new and something the Armenian-American community has been dealing with for a long time. However, recent global events including the war over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as progress in the movement to recognize the Armenian Genocide have contributed to a new wave of hate crimes against Armenian-Americans, especially for those living the San Francisco Bay Area. Until Turkey comes to terms with its past and Azerbaijan reckons with its present, we can expect more of these types of hate crimes. The Armenian people have suffered much pain and loss throughout their long and rich history. That is why we need to make sure these hateful attacks stop. Recognizing the Armenian Genocide is just one step in that direction.

Stephan Pechdimaldji is a public relations professional who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s a first-generation Armenian American and grandson to survivors of the Armenian Genocide.

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