19 01 2008 - ZAMAN ; Hrant Dink, a man who believed that Turkey would change from within
Thousands of people hold his pictures and placards that read: "We are all Hrant Dink" and "We are all Armenians" as they march behind the coffin of slain journalist Hrant Dink during a funeral ceremony in Ýstanbul, on Jan. 23, 2007.
A year ago this afternoon, television-viewers who tuned into 24-hour news channels saw a man in a brown suit lying facedown on the pavement of an Istanbul boulevard.
He lay all alone and from underneath the white plastic sheet over his torso there seeped a small pool of blood.
A small percentage of Turks then knew the identity of the man who had been shot outside his office’s building. But the next day the whole country would know the name of Hrant Dink, 52, the editor of Agos weekly and champion of the Armenian cause. Newspapers splashed his assassination across their front pages, with banner headlines such as “The biggest treachery” (Sabah) and “Hrant Dink is Turkey” (Milliyet).
Like a low-magnitude earthquake that cracks a house rather than flattens it, the murder of Dink frightened all thinking Turks, exposing the fault lines of their society. The aftershocks went beyond Turkey. As the European Union and US Congress condemned the assassination, critics of Turkey said it showed the country could not tolerate free speech. Friends of Turkey hung their heads in shame.
The killing turned out to be the start of two debates that would endure through 2007. The first was between liberal and conservative Turks over freedom of expression and, in particular, the Armenian question. The second was between Turkish Armenians and US Armenians over how to pursue the tragedy of 1915-22.
Dink’s body lay on the gray paving stones for an unconscionably long time. Television channels interspersed the live scene on the street with archive footage of Dink, showing his sensitive eyes and ruggedly handsome face. Viewers, such as this correspondent who watched from the Associated Press newsroom in Cairo, were appalled that the police continued to keep him lying in the cold for hours because of the slow-moving forensic scientists.
A burly man burst through the police line like a rugby player going for a try, yelling “Abi!” (older brother). This was Dink’s brother, Yervant, who was allowed to see what death had wrought before being ushered back to the edge of the cordon, where he squatted, crying his eyes out.
Eventually Dink’s corpse was removed by ambulance. But people did not go back to their daily lives. Some 5,000 Turks came together in Taksim Square, the end of the boulevard where he was shot. They did not know who had killed Dink, but they knew the mentality behind the many death threats he had received.
Fed up with the bigotry that masquerades as patriotism, they took felt-tip pens and sheets of white cardboard and scrawled two slogans that were to become icons of Dink’s death. “We are all Hrants,” “We are all Armenians,” they wrote in Turkish and Armenian.
From Malatya to Ýstanbul
It was a tribute to a man born in the provincial city of Malatya, raised in an Armenian orphanage and who saw himself as such a mixture of Turk and Armenian that he was hurt when the military refused to give him a commission even though he had scored 100 percent on his national service examination.
In 1996 Dink had founded Agos, the only Armenian newspaper that pulled no punches in a society where Armenians have long felt they are second-class citizens. The paper publishes its articles in Turkish as well as Armenian because Dink wanted Agos to reach out to Turks.
Agos scored a scoop in 2004 when it revealed that Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk’s adopted daughter, was Armenian. Hrant had found her relatives in Armenia and published the story hoping it would serve to bring Turks and Armenians closer together. After all, the late Gökçen had been a role model for Turkish women, the first female pilot.
But many Turks found the story a nasty surprise. The head of the armed forces called it “a crime against national unity.”
However Dink persevered in championing equal rights for Armenians and that what had happened to his community in 1915-22 was not a case of the unfortunate excesses of war, as the officials would have it. To call those events an atrocity or genocide had been a Turkish taboo for decades, but Dink managed to argue that position in such a sensitive way that he won the respect of those who flatly disagreed with him.
When the state finally granted him a passport -- after many refusals -- he told audiences in Europe and America that today’s Turks should not be punished for the sins of 90 years ago. And he followed this through to the point of criticizing laws in countries such as France and Switzerland that penalize people who deny that Armenians suffered genocide.
“A bullet has been shot at free thought and our democratic way of life,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan hours after the murder. Erdoðan called Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II and assured him that the killer would be caught.
Turkey has a long record of unsolved murders of prominent journalists and freethinkers, but this time the police performed.
They found a picture of the killer running with a pistol on a shop’s security camera. It was broadcast on television and seen by his father, who called the authorities. Within 32 hours of the murder, the killer was arrested.
He was 17, an unemployed high school dropout from the Black Sea city of Trabzon. His uncle told TGRT television he had been living “aimlessly” and must have been manipulated by his older associates. Foremost among his associates, and subsequently arrested, was an ultra-nationalist who had previously been jailed for bombing a McDonald’s restaurant.
The matter did not stop there. Everybody knew this was not just one small group of extremists. As Radikal columnist Ýsmet Berkan put it: “Those who created nationalist sentiment in Turkey have fed such a monster that there are many youngsters on the streets who do not find the ... state nationalist enough and are ready to take the law into their own hands.”
Thousands of people thought likewise and flocked to Dink’s funeral. Traffic officers closed off the area in front of Agos’s office for the cortege to start, but more and more mourners came and the officers scrambled to close the whole boulevard and redirect traffic. Eventually some 100,000 people were walking behind Dink’s hearse, a river of humanity flowing across the city.
Many of the mourners had never read Agos and they did not accept that 1915-22 was genocide, but they marched to affirm that Turkey must not be a country that kills people for their opinions.
To the placards carried by the mourners, reading “We are all Hrant Dinks” and “We are all Armenians,” a new one was added: “The killer is 301” -- a reference to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which outlaws “insulting Turkishness.” Dink had received a six-month suspended sentence for violating 301 in an editorial and at the time of his death he was facing another prosecution under the same law.
“It is unacceptable to judge and imprison someone because of his thoughts, let alone to kill him,” Patriarch Mesrob said during the funeral mass. In the Holy Mother of God Church sat the deputy prime minister, the interior minister and two generals. In death Dink had won the respect of those who harassed him in life.
The mourning of Dink continued after the funeral and evolved into something else. At media parties it became chic to talk glowingly of Hrant and say how much one missed him. But some journalists had the candor to puncture this hypocrisy by asking where all these “friends” were when Dink was on trial under 301.
Then the uglier side of Turkey reared its head. The weekend after the funeral, fans at a football stadium hoisted placards reading: “We are all Turks.” Vicious comments about Dink and his death began appearing on nationalistic Web sites. It emerged that the teenager who shot Dink had posed with two officers in front of a Turkish flag at the Samsun police station where he was initially detained. Worse still, a video appeared on YouTube that showed Dink’s body on the pavement as a man sang a song which contained the line: “If someone betrays his country, he will be taken care of immediately.”
Clearly there are two Turkeys: one is cosmopolitan and liberal, the other is ethnically chauvinist and conservative. Fortunately, the first Turkey dominates the media. Newspapers denounced the YouTube song and the police who posed with the killer, forcing prosecutors to investigate both.
The division between these Turkeys retarded moves to reform Article 301. After Dink’s death, Erdoðan invited NGOs to suggest amendments to the law but, aware of popular sentiments, he took no action until after the July elections.
The European Union warned Turkey that it could never join the club with 301. And then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, now president, responded by repeatedly promising the law would be revised. The amendment was presented to the Cabinet earlier this month but contrary to forecasts, it was not quickly approved and sent to Parliament. The ruling Justice and Development Party is wrangling over it, with Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çicek seen as a leading advocate of the view that the original wording should be preserved as much as possible.
In America, Dink was deeply mourned among the country’s estimated 1 million Armenians. But during his life many American Armenians opposed him.
In three articles in Agos in 2004, Dink had argued that the time had come for Armenians to step back from insisting that Turkey recognize the “genocide” of 1915-22, as this had become an unhealthy fixation.
(In one article, he wrote that the craving for empathy from Turks, which he termed the “Turk,” had become like a tumor in the Armenian soul. “It is obvious that the ‘Turk’ is both the poison and the antidote of Armenian identity,” he said. Unfortunately, Internet cafe browsers misread these lines. The teenage killer reportedly told his interrogators that he shot Dink because he had said Turkish blood was poisonous.)
The Armenian world should not “enchain itself to the sense of fairness of others,” Dink wrote. “The time has come to leave everybody alone with their conscience.” Armenians should re-channel their energies into improving the state of Armenia.
These ideas were radical for the mainstream of the Armenian diaspora, for whom the campaign for genocide recognition has become a “principle of community organization and power legitimation,’’ said Gerard Libaridian, professor of modern Armenian history at Michigan University.
Dink had said other things that were not appreciated by the mainstream, recalled Razmik Panossian, a writer on Armenian affairs who lives in Montreal.
“He portrayed an image of Armenians in Turkey which did not fit into the traditional thinking of the diaspora of how awful things are,” Panossian recalled. “Hrant Dink was saying, ‘Yes, things aren’t perfect, there are lots of problems, but Turkey is democratizing ... and we do have a community life.’”
The Armenian lobby in the US also objected to Dink’s advocacy of Turkey’s bid to join the EU. “A lot of Armenians in the diaspora don’t agree with this ... They just can’t see Turkey being progressive enough to be part of this club,” Panossian said.
Libaridian recalled that the criticism of Dink went as far as his being “branded as someone who was working for the Turkish state.”
“But once he was assassinated by a Turk, he became a hero,” Libaridian said.
Bill in the Congress
Within hours of the assassination, a principal group in the lobby called on the White House not to oppose the coming bill in the Congress on 1915-22. “In light of this terrible tragedy, it is all the more inappropriate for the administration to oppose congressional reaffirmation of the Armenian Genocide,” said Hirair Hovnanian, chairman of the board of the Armenian Assembly of America.
Eleven days later the bill itself, House Resolution 106, was introduced in the Congress. It did not require the president to take any steps against Turkey, but it said 1915-22 did constitute genocide -- and that would have cast a long shadow over relations with Turkey.
President George W. Bush and Turkey mobilized against the bill. Turkey sent envoys to lobby Washington and the head of its armed forces warned that relations with the United States would never be the same. Eight former secretaries of state urged the Congress to drop the bill as potentially damaging to US military interests in Iraq and Afghanistan and harmful to reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Armenia.
Eventually congressional support for the bill collapsed, the decisive argument being the impact of Turkish retaliation on the military campaign in Iraq.
Surprisingly little heed was paid to the views of Turkish Armenians, who also opposed the bill.
Patriarch Mesrob spoke against 106, but members of the lobby dismissed his remarks as being made under the “intimidation” of the Turkish government.
The patriarch did himself no favors in September when he issued a mealy-mouthed statement about 1915-22. Asked by Today’s Zaman whether there had been genocide, he replied: “We had big problems in the past. I find in particular the approach of … collective punishment of Armenians quite wrong. It wasn’t the whole Armenian community who took up arms against the government, but I believe the Turkish Republic should not be accused of what happened then.”
An American Armenian, who knew Turkey and spoke the language, published an open letter to Mesrob rebuking him for his pusillanimity in the Today’s Zaman interview. Writing on the eve of Mesrob’s visit to America, Rachel Goshgarian told the patriarch to speak with a “strong voice. Let it not be a voice mitigated by fear.”
The same criticism could not be leveled at Agos, which regularly refers to the “systematic massacres” of 1915-22. And Agos’s new editor, Dink’s replacement, also opposed bill 106.
Etyen Mahçupyan said the paper wanted Turks to re-appraise 1915-22 on “moral grounds alone.” If the bill had been passed, then the issue would have become part of Washington-Ankara negotiations. And if Turkey were later to shift its position on 1915-22, “then Turks will view it not as a sincere re-evaluation, but as part of the bargaining between Washington and Ankara.”
Today’s Zaman tried to get the lobby’s response to this argument. Both the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America did not reply to repeated requests emailed to their press officers. A prominent US Armenian, Harut Sassounian, publisher of The California Courier, refused to respond, saying: “I have no guarantees that anything I say to you will be properly reported, or allowed to be reported, by your editors who have to be concerned about Article 301 to avoid being put in jail.” But Libaridian and Panossian agreed to give what they perceived to be the lobby’s response to objections from Istanbul. They both said that the lobby views Turkish Armenians as speaking under intimidation.
“Their voice does not count because they are seen as a hostage community that is not free to say what it feels,” said Libaridian who, like Panossian, added this was not his view. Libaridian said the lobby’s argument against Mahçupyan’s objection would be that the “internationalization of the Armenian question is a valid strategy.”
JASPER MORTIMER ANKARA