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The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey

About the author
Hrant Dink was from 1996 the editor-in-chief of and a columnist on the Armenian-language weekly newspaper Agos in Istanbul. The paper aims to provide a voice for the Armenian community in Turkey and to further dialogue between Turks and Armenians. On 19 January 2007, he was assassinated outside Agos's offices in Istanbul

Five years after Hrant Dink was assassinated in 2007 his spirit lives on. The Turkish courts are still refusing to track down the network that set up his killings and many thousands of Turks are demonstrating with the slogan that emerged spontaneously in the protests immediately after he was slain: "We are all Hrant. We are all Armenian". This is the first of his two openDemocracy articles, published in 2005. Our 2007 tribute on his death by Anthony Barnett, who had met him, and Isabel Hilton is here.

The interest of foreign journalists, politicians and intellectuals in Turkey is more intense than ever. Their opening inquiries are clear and strong: “Where is Turkey going? Will nationalism increase? If it does, to what kind of a regime can Turkey slide?”

Then comes a special question, the one that people like me – a Turkish citizen and an Armenian – can always expect: “Are you minorities afraid of the way things are going?”

Hrant Dink was a journalist and editor of the bilingual (Armenian-Turkish) weekly newspaper Agos.

Dink was best known for advocating Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and human and minority rights in Turkey; he was often critical of both Turkey's denial of the Armenian Genocide, and of the Armenian diaspora's campaign for its international recognition.

Dink was prosecuted three times for denigrating Turkishness under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. He was acquitted the first time, convicted and received a suspended 6-month jail sentence the second time, which he had appealed at the European Court of Human Rights. At the time of his death, the prosecutor's office was preparing to press charges in a third case.

He was assassinated in Istanbul in January 2007.

It is striking that those looking at Turkey from the outside are much more impatient, eager for quick answers and solutions, than those on the inside. To what degree is this impatience realistic? After all, throughout the period of the modern republic since 1923, Turkey is a country where changes have been dictated from top to bottom and thus one where inner dynamics from bottom to top are not easily activated. Turkish society is far more used to accepting change, allowing it to happen, than to initiating it.

This consistent structural character has allowed the “deep state” – the network of military and security forces that exercises real political control in Turkey – to survive the three major international developments influencing the country in recent decades.

First, the cold-war years of conflict (1940s-1980s) between the United States-led capitalist world and the Soviet Union-led socialist world. This external dynamic favoured the emergence of a radical, social left in Turkey, but the state’s preference for western capitalism – aided by successive military coups d’état – crushed the left’s challenge before it could become too powerful.

Second, the mullahs’ revolution in Iran (1979). This external dynamic too had a harsh effect on Turkey; those in power instinctively saw its influence among religious Muslims in Turkey as equivalent to the demand for a change of regime, and thus something to be opposed by all means.

Third, the European Union (1960s-2000s). This outer dynamic is very different in its impact on Turkey than the first two. The main reason is that the EU finds nearly all elements of Turkish society and its institutions divided against itself on the issue. Political left and right, secular and religious, nationalist and liberal, state bureaucracy and military – the situation is the same in that everywhere there are internal conflicts over Europe at least as much as conflicts between the camps.

Since no part of Turkish society is homogeneously “for” or “against” the European Union, the EU process has had a singular effect: dissolving Turkey’s existing polarisations and becoming itself the main inner dynamic of Turkish development. As the negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU continue over the next decade, this dilemma will increasingly constitute the basis of Turkish politics. Every change experienced in the near future will “touch the skin” of nearly every section of society, creating widespread friction and probably a lot of annoyance.

From the inside, therefore, the questions facing Turkey are different from those posed by outsiders: “How can the oligarchic state, so accustomed to holding power, consent to share its sovereignty as a member of the European Union? Why is it so desperate to abandon the world it knows for an unknown future in Europe – is it the desire to be western, or the fear of remaining eastern?”

The great taboo

But the questions are not all one way. When the European Union is asked why it wishes to include Turkey, with its lower economic and democratic standards, the answer suggests an uncomfortable truth – that the relationship between Turkey and the EU is governed less by reciprocal desire than by fear. The military elite of the Turkish republic probably calculates that a Turkey unable to enter the European Union is in danger of becoming a strategical irrelevance, while the European Union’s power-brokers must consider that a Turkey remaining outside of Europe might become a combatant on the other side of a “clash of civilisations”.

As long as the engine of fear pushing from the back is stronger than the engine of desire pulling from the front, the dynamics of Turkish-European Union relations will be uneasy and contested on all sides – not just in Turkey.

Where fear is dominant, it produces symptoms of resistance to change at all levels of society. The more some people yearn and work for openness and enlightenment, the more others who are afraid of such changes struggle to keep society closed. In Turkey, the legal cases against Hrant Dink, Orhan Pamuk, Ragıp Zarakolu or Murat Belge are examples of how the breaking of every taboo causes panic in the end. This is especially true of the Armenian issue: the greatest of all taboos in Turkey, one that was present at the creation of the state and which represents the principal “other” of Turkish national identity.

In this atmosphere, a guiding watchword can be found in the first words of our national anthem. Indeed, I concluded my presentation to the conference at Bilgi University, Istanbul on “Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy " on 24-25 September 2005 with these very words: “Do not fear”.

The real desire

The best contribution to the understanding of modern Turkey I can make at this stage is through a theme I developed at that Istanbul conference.

The relation between every living being and its area of existence is contained within it and (in the case of human beings) embodied in its very name. The animate is present, together with its area of living existence, inside and not outside this being. If you take this animate away from its area, even on a golden plate, it means that it is being cut at its very root. Deportation is something like that. People who lived on this territory for 3,000 years, people who produced culture and civilisation on this territory, were torn from the land they had lived on and those who survived were dispersed all over the world.

If this axe to the root dominates the psychological condition of generations of this people, you cannot simply act as if the rupture does not exist. The experience is already internalised, recorded on its people’s memory, its genetic code. What is its name? The discipline of law can be preoccupied with this question, but whatever it decides we know exactly what we have lived through. It can be understood, even if I should not use the word genocide, as being a tearing up of the roots. There is nothing to do at this point, but this should be understood very well.

Also in openDemocracy on Turkey , Europe and Armenians:

Fred Halliday, “Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe” (December 2004)

Fadi Hakura, “Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning” (October 2005)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, “The Armenian shadow over Turkey’s democratisation” (October 2005)

Sabine Freizer, “Armenia’s emptying democracy” (November 2005)

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I would like to illustrate this internalising of experience with a personal anecdote from several years ago. An old Turkish man called me from a village in the region of Sivas and said: “Son, we searched everywhere until we found you. There is an old woman here. I guess she is from your people. She has passed away. Can you find any relative of her, or we will bury her with a Muslim service”.

He gave me her name; she was a 70-year-old woman called Beatrice who had been visiting on holiday from France. “Okay, uncle, I will search”, I said.

I looked around and within ten minutes I had found a close relative; we knew each other because we are so few. I went to the family’s store and asked: “Do you know this person?” The middle-aged woman there turned to me and said “She is my mother”. Her mother, she told me, lives in France and comes to Turkey three or four times a year, but after a very short time in Istanbul prefers to go directly to the village she left many years earlier.

I told her daughter the sad news and she immediately travelled to the village. The next day she phoned me from there. She had found her mother but she suddenly began to cry. I begged her not to cry and asked her whether or not she will bring her body back for burial. “Brother”, she said, “I want to bring her but there is an uncle here saying something”, and gave the phone to him while crying.

I got angry with the man. “Why are you making her cry?”, I said. “Son”, he said, “I didn’t say anything... I only said: ‘Daughter, it is your mother, your blood; but if you ask me, let her stay here. Let her be buried here...the water has found its crack’.”

I became thrown away at that moment. I lost and found myself in this saying produced by Anatolian people. Indeed, the water had found its crack.

A lady at the Istanbul conference implied that remembering the dead meant coveting territory. Yes, it is true that Armenians long for this soil. But let me repeat what I wrote soon after this experience. At the time the then president of Turkey, Suleyman Demirel, used to say: “We will not give even three pebblestones to Armenians.” I told the story of this woman and said: “We Armenians do desire this territory because our root is here. But don’t worry. We desire not to take this territory away, but to come and be buried under it.”


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