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Would Doves Still Flutter in Turkey Today?
The Murder of Hrant Dink

30 January 2007   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Murder of Hrant Dink

Hrant Dink, the 52-year-old Armenian Turkish editor-in-chief of the bilingual weekly Agos (furrow, in Armenian) was murdered in cold blood on 19 th January by the so-called ultra-nationalist teenager Ogun Samast from Trabzon. Hrant's crime resided in his being an Armenian Turkish citizen from Istanbul who spoke out about the Armenian Genocide, pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression and often called for dialogue and reconciliation between Armenians and Turks.

I remember clearly how I first heard about this murder. Steve, a friend, texted me a short message in which he stated simply that "Dink was killed". So befuddled was I that I texted back asking whether he meant "Hrant Dink". Yes was the ominous answer, and with it came the realisation that another Armenian voice in Turkey had been muffled forever. After that initial shock, the tributes poured in from all quarters, from those who knew him or did not, from those who had liked him in the past or had not, and numerous articles were written about Dink and his mission. At his funeral, Turkish Istanbul transmogrified into Armenian Istanbul, and there was both a popular movement to show respect to Dink who had been cheated by the insidious angel of death and a rallying round his wife Rakel, their children and other members of his family.

I had met Dink twice only, so cannot claim to know him at all. For me, he was the man who had frequently ended up in Turkish courts after being indicted for "insulting Turkishness" according to Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. In fact, the last judgment against him was a suspended six-month sentence (meaning he would have been imprisoned if found guilty of the same offence again), although two more cases were pending in the Turkish judicial pipeline. It seems that just before Dink's death, his lawyer Erdal Dogan had also seised the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on his behalf.

So I set out to read some of his Agos editorials and listen to a couple of interviews he had given last year, including one to VEM in Armenia during the Armenia-Diaspora annual forum. My own mental portrait of this man is of someone who was embedded in his native Armenian Turkish homeland, culture, values and traditions, and who wished to stay in his country despite the 'psychological torture' he - and his family - were being subjected to from different corners. But there was also the winningly naïve side to this man that shone through - and possibly helped him surmount the enormous stress. For instance, in one of his vignettes , he writes that 'my only weapon is my sincerity', whereas in another he adds that 'unfortunately, I am more popular nowadays and feel the look of the people telling each other: "Look, isn't it that Armenian?" And just as a reflex action, I start to torture myself. One side of this torture is curiosity, the other uneasiness. One side is caution, the other side is skittishness.' And with much foreboding, he concludes that 'probably the year 2007 will be a more difficult year for me. Trials will continue, new cases will come up in court. Who knows what kind of injustice I will encounter?'

So why would a man with such a fervent wish for reconciliation who acknowledged the Armenian Genocide on the one hand whilst he also encouraged Armenians to bolster Armenia and Armenia-Turkey relations be murdered with such malice aforethought? And was Ogun Samast - besides the other six suspects who were detained, one of whom having apparently incited the killing - a lone culprit in committing this murder? Or is Turkey in its institutional sense also guilty of this crime?

What struck me most in the wake of Dink's murder were the conciliatory gestures between Turkey and Armenia, let alone the throngs of people who gathered spontaneously in front of the Agos building or walked at his funeral. Despite the fact that Armenia and Turkey entertain no diplomatic relations, and that Turkey has kept the Armenian-Turkish border sealed since 1993, Armenia sent its deputy foreign minister, Arman Kirakosyan, to attend the funeral. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, from the eastern diocese of the Armenian Church of America, also attended the interment. Those and other gestures - the write-ups, the interviews, the popular rallies, the representations, and the statements from ordinary Turks or Armenians as well as from officialdom - together represented hopeful stations at a painful moment of history for both peoples.

For the space of one moment, I actually felt that common humanity and mutual solidarity had transcended the deep furrows cleaving both peoples' lives. But although such decent gestures were indeed promising and healthy, I fear that they remain ephemeral in the present climate. Besides, they do not facilely exonerate Turkey. Why? Simply because successive Turkish governments - including the incumbent government of Recep Teyyip Erdogan and his Justice & Development party - have nourished [rather than challenged] the culture of fear, intimidation and persecution within Turkey against those who protest the injustices and discrimination that are still part and parcel of everyday Turkey today. It is true that the chief culprit for the recent spate of persecutions (from which Dink suffered during his latter years, as have others like Ragip Zarakolu, Orhan Pamuk, Elif Safak and Murat Belge) is the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. After all, this Article has incited virulent negative nationalism within some Turkish ranks and led to its judicial misapplication time and again by nationalist lawyers the likes of the ubiquitous leader of the Turkish Lawyers' Union Kemal Kerincsiz who are hell-bent on keeping Turkey out of the EU and in the process also vilifying anybody who dared speak about the Armenian Genocide.

Following Dink's murder, the parliamentary chairman of the ruling party Bulent Arinç stated that he would back efforts to abolish Article 301 - adding that members of Parliament were open to its total abolition or complete revision. But I would argue that such sanguine statements become redundant if they are devoid of any concrete strategy that is matched by equally concrete steps. For Turkey to move forward in its broader EU-friendly agenda, it must not only repeal this article or - more likely - tinker with it in order to make it harder for courts to apply it. Rather, Turkey must invest in this grassroots wave of goodwill to push through a reformist and forward-looking agenda that tackles a host of issues (defined in the Chapters under negotiation with the EU) and create a suitably EU-friendly legal environment. Otherwise, how could it aspire toward accession when its standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms, for instance, do not subscribe to the normative values of the free world? To take one simple illustration, is it not telling that Hrant Dink (alongside other Armenians in Turkey) would not use his Armenian first name in his passport, but used h is designated official Turkish name of Firat?

One elegiac reflection to Dink came from Dr Fatma Müge Goçek who wrote In Memoriam: Hrant Dink, 1954-2007 :

"How had Hrant Dink achieved, how he had managed to overcome that ever-consuming, destructive, dangerous anger to fill himself instead with so much love and hope for humanity, for Turkish society, for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation? How could he have done so in spite of the memory of 1915 and in spite of the subsequent prejudice and discrimination he faced in Turkey?

It was for me that particular quality which made Hrant Dink a great human being and a great role model: his unwavering belief in the fundamental goodness of all humans regardless of their race, ethnic origin, regardless of what they had personally or communally experienced; his unwavering vision that we in Turkey were going to one day be able to finally confront our past and come to terms without faults, mistakes and violence as well as our so brandied about virtues; his unwavering trust that we all would manage to live together in peace one day."

Addressing issues of ethnicity, Dink often emphasised that identities need not be mutually incompatible. As an Armenian from Turkey, he considered himself a good Turkish citizen, believed in the republic and strove to make it stronger and more democratic. He also encouraged people to keep the dialogue between Armenians and Turks going, just as he sought to redress Turkey's amnesia about its role in the slaughter of over one million Armenians in 1915. In promoting freedom of speech, even when it came to a subject as sensitive as the genocide, he was still even-handed and stressed that legislation in Western European countries outlawing the denial of this holocaust was also an affront to free speech. Yet, his liberal philosophy antagonised those who adhere to the belief that nationalities are hermetically sealed and mutually opposed.

In Turkey today, there is clear pressure for reform from the EU as well as from some intellectual resources within Turkey. In my opinion, this battle for reform - and that would include historical memory in my own thinking - has not yet seriously impacted Turkey's stance toward the genocide. In fact, I am not even sure that Dink's murder would lead to more openness for recognition. Whether it is due to rabid nationalism, a fear of facing up to the past with its gruesome conclusions, or even possible reparations and restitution, Turkey today is still entrenched in a denial that is fomenting hatred, violence and homicide. Dink, who described himself as an optimist, often voiced the opinion that such recognition would happen - but later rather than sooner. However, he also thought that the pressures for reform, just like those for recognition, should come from the bottom up, rather than imposed from the top. This is perhaps why it is vital to try and encourage ordinary Turks to come face-to-face with their history, wrestle with it, and liberate themselves - and Armenians - from its debilitating hold. As the prize-winning Turkish author Kemal Yalçin stated once, I bow to the memory of Armenians and Assyrians who lost their lives on the road of deportation through planned killings. This is the great pain of our century, the stigma on the face of humanity. Your pain is my pain. I beg forgiveness from you and from mankind . This will not be easy, or quick, especially when the country and its press are still muzzled by noxious laws that oppose transparency. But it must be facilitated - or at least not opposed - by the top echelons. This is where Turkey today is also failing: denialist groups, such as the Association on Struggle Against Armenian Genocide Acknowledgement, should no longer be permitted to control the future agenda of civil society so the legal and political cultures of Turkey would transform gradually and Armenians, let alone Assyrians, Kurds and other minorities, could move forward in their legitimate quest for fundamental freedoms, rights and claims.

In an editorial, Dink described himself as a restless dove, adding that he was confident the people in Turkey would not touch or disturb doves. But a criminal hand both touched and disturbed this dove. Still, once the immediacy of his murder wanes from our short memories, we should not lose sight of the fact that he lost his life for his peaceful but insistent quest for inclusiveness, dialogue, recognition and reconciliation. I therefore suggest it is the duty of every Armenian and Turk to follow the optimistic path he charted in order to exorcise the ghosts of the past, build bridges for the future and pave the way toward mutual understanding. We witnessed an unusual glimpse of such optimism last week, so could we possibly try to help recreate it? Could we perhaps prove that doves would still flutter in Turkey today?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   30 January 2007


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