Since the early 2000s, hundreds of officially Muslim Turkish citizens embarked upon return journeys to the religion and ethnicity of their ancestors, Christian Ottoman Armenians. Their ancestors had to adopt Islam in the context of the massacres that culminated in the genocide of 1915. Without parents or relatives to claim them, and their ties to the surviving Armenian community severely mutilated by the preceding violence, they were subsequently immersed into the Muslim majority of the Turkish Republic that succeeded the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The Turkish state denies the Armenian genocide, and instead calls the annihilation of Ottoman Armenians tehcir (deportation).

Here, Maryam, a young female convert, puts the key moments of these conversions in a linear chronology:

When I was a teenager my mother told me that we were Armenians. My father used to say that after tehcir (deportation) they were forced to pretend to be Muslim Turks. I married an Armenian. I have also decided to return to my roots and got baptized [in the Armenian Church].

What is a return conversion? What possibilities do these converts’ experiences offer us to understand minority difference beyond the juridico-political language of secularism that paradoxically locates it in interiorized belief? I argue that Armenian return conversions create ethnic and religious difference by forging new links among the key concepts of this language: belief, kinship, belonging, subjectivity, genealogy, and truth.

The politics of Turkish secularism does not only impose a radical break with the multi-religious Ottoman past, but simultaneously aims to deny the political violence—Armenian genocide—that constituted Turks and Armenians as majority and minority respectively. This politics also aims to erase and penalize practices of ethnic and religious minority difference that evoke the genocide.

In Maryam’s short account lies just the kind of material that has fueled continuing debate over the authorized version of national history and the governance of minority difference in Turkey. Her account starts with a claim to Armenianness located in the violent past of the country. The initial conversion of her grandparents was a way to survive the genocide as individuals and families. Maryam’s words “pretending to be Muslims” reveal the existence of, in Yael Navaro’s incisive wording, “human remnants” of the genocide who were living as Muslims in the midst of the Sunni-Muslim Turkish nation. This “pretense” was not only allowed but also demanded by a Turkish secularism that rests on the idea of rejecting violence that created the ethnically and religiously ‘homogeneous’ Turkish nation. Thus, when officially Muslim citizens claim Armenian identity, including Christian belief, their claims interrupt the linear temporality of political secularism in Turkey. Maryam’s account of her family’s Armenian history performs as unauthorized history that “dislocates the present from the past and calls for their revision and reconnection.” In these conversion stories, Armenian ancestors of Muslim Turks challenge the Turkish secular nationalist project that aims to erase difference and violence.

It is not coincidental, then, that the Armenian return conversions are simultaneously circumscribed by the debates on ethnic and religious pluralism that dominated the Turkish political scene in the 2000s during a brief period of democratic reforms. In the changing political geography, the emergence of these conversions on the Turkish public scene were interpreted as courageous acts of a hidden minority now embracing its real identity despite the longstanding national sensibilities against a mentioning of the Armenian genocide. The proponents of pluralism challenged national homogeneity and argued for the Turkish state’s proper acknowledgment of the Armenian identities of the converts. Thus Armenian return conversions are included into the discourse of pluralism as an important case for recognition of “real” identities, and protection of minority difference, as such.

Crucially, however, what is left unattended by a historicist or pluralist understanding of return conversions are the ways of creating that minority difference in the present—ways of claiming, establishing, and embodying it. To follow the complexity of return conversions to its ethnographic and analytical limits, let us reconsider Maryam’s conversion narrative. She does not convert to an Armenianness that waits simultaneously “out there” and “in her.” Return conversion is not a synonym for an emergence of essential or real identities per se. Rather, she relates to this identity through an account of the past and Armenian ancestors through her parents. Thus, Armenian family genealogy does not simply represent unchanging individual identity over time, but emerges as a “meaningful way of thinking” about religious and ethnic difference in the present. As such, genealogy is not simply a marker of minority difference but a way to actively create ethnic and religious identity.

Nevertheless, genealogy is not the only way to build these connections; they take multiple forms. As converts claim Armenianness through ancestors in the past, they also strive to establish it through creating relations with Armenians in Turkey and elsewhere today. They search for distant relatives in Armenia and in the Armenian diaspora, marry Armenians, and join a church, baptizing their kids and creating new extended families with their godparents.

A second issue these conversions raise is the way they re-link belief with relations that were presumed to be external to the individual. Maryam’s last two statements, “I married an Armenian (…) and got baptized” point to this reconnection of two categories, kinship and belief, that secular modernity ostensibly sets apart. In this particular employment, ethnic and religious belonging goes beyond—even contradicts—the effort to isolate religion in the realm of individual belief. It destabilizes the central status of the autonomous individual believer of secular modernity, and renders it simultaneously relational. In both these instances of relating convert’s interiority and exteriority, these conversions invite us to reconsider the subject in the totality of its relations, as part of a genealogy, an ethnicity, a family, a religious minority, and the nation-state. The converts and the greater political frame, in interaction with each other, construct and link interiority and exteriority as embedded in these relations.

Yet, Maryam’s conversion narrative could be read as a return to pre-secular forms of minority existence and experience of religion, and thus as a paradox for the Turkish secularism borrowed from a multiethnic, multi-religious Ottoman past. In this regard, Armenian return conversions do not squarely fit contemporary anthropological analysis of religious conversion as a constitutive moment in the formation of secular modern subjectivity and religion as interiorized belief. However, I suggest these return conversions rise out of and contribute to some central discussions of anthropology and beyond over the subject, its interiority and relations, and the larger political framework. They invite us to ask questions about the changing roles genealogy, religion, and belief, as well as violence, consent, freedom, and pretense play in the formation of new subjectivities and political regimes of truth. Further, the unique perspective they provide for ethnographic scrutiny is not limited to an analysis of periods of democratization and pluralism, during which claims for difference challenge the established forms of secular governance of minorities. More urgently, today we witness the formation of neoliberal and authoritarian regimes. Furthering this analysis of return conversions in one such regime also offers a glimpse into the emerging struggles over proper moral, political, and religious subjectivities in Turkey and beyond.