Hrant Dink: forging an Armenian identity in Turkey

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart
7 February 2006

On 8 October 2005, a court in Şişli, Istanbul sentenced Hrant Dink, the editor-in-chief of Agos, the Armenian newspaper in Turkey, to six months in prison (suspended for good behaviour), for having written an article that "insulted and belittled Turkishness". He still faces charges for remarks he made at a conference in Urfa, southeastern Turkey in December 2002; and in December 2005 another suit was opened against him and two Agos colleagues by the Turkish Union of Lawyers. These two additional cases carry possible sentences of six years and four-and-a-half years respectively; the first comes to court on Thursday 9 February 2006.

Hrant Dink was devastated by the October conviction. "I was found guilty of racism!" he says. "How can this be? All my life I have struggled against ethnic discrimination and racism. I would never belittle Turkishness or Armenianness. I wouldn't allow anyone else to do it, either."

If the court of appeal does not overturn the ruling, Dink says he will leave Turkey, "my country of three thousand years."

"In my article, I was talking about the Armenian identity", Dink explains in an interview at Agos's office in Istanbul's bustling commercial neighbourhood of Osmanbey. "It's not my job to criticise the Turkish identity – that's up to the Turks."

"I've come up from the ranks of the left in this country", he says. "I know what you can and cannot do here. I have shared all the pain inflicted on the left since the 1970s. I thought I knew this country well, but this ruling took me by surprise."

It is ironic that Dink got into trouble for suggesting to diaspora Armenians that it was time to rid themselves of their rage against the Turks. "Armenians, especially of the diaspora, tend to have a problem associated with the role of other that the Turk has played in forming the Armenian identity", Dink says. "There is a certain history. A trauma. The Turk has become such a source of pain that it "poisons the Armenian blood", as the Anatolian saying goes. In my article, I was addressing the Armenian world and saying: "There are two ways of getting rid of this poison. One way is for the Turks to empathise with you, and take action to reduce your trauma. At the moment this seems unlikely. The second way is for you to rid yourself of it yourself. Turn your attention towards the state of Armenia and replace the poisoned blood associated with the Turk, with fresh blood associated with Armenia.'

It was the reference to "poisoned blood associated with the Turk" that got Dink in court.

Also in openDemocracy on Armenians in Turkey, including an article by Hrant Dink himself:

"Love me, or leave me?" The strange case of Orhan Pamuk"
(October 2005)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation" (October 2005)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (December 2005)

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The legacy of 1915

The "trauma" he refers to goes back ninety years, to the convulsions of the first world war and the dying days of the Ottoman empire.

Once a mighty empire spanning three continents, the Ottomans faced staggering losses during the late 19th century. In 1911, Ottoman territories in north Africa were lost to the Italians. In 1913, the Balkan wars ended with defeat, and as Bulgarians and Serbs won their independence, close to 5 million impoverished and bitter Muslim Turks fled from southeastern Europe to seek refuge in Anatolia. Then the "great war" that was to convulse Europe broke. European empires were shaken to the core, while uprisings shook the Ottoman empire.

In eastern Anatolia, some Armenian nationalists took up arms for independence and joined the invading Russian army. The hardline leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress in the Ottoman government – known as "Young Turks " – were all from Balkan stock. They felt betrayed by the non-Muslim peoples of the empire. They promised the remaining lands would not become a second 'Macedonia' as they called the bulk of the Balkans (see Dogu Ergil, Ottoman Armenians During the Collapse of the Empire). They decided to rid Anatolia of its Armenian population.

In 1915, the majority of Anatolia's 2 million Armenians were deported to Syria and Mesopotamia. Hundreds of thousands (the highest estimate is 1.5 million) died or were killed in the process.

The strength of diversity

Today, as Turkey starts accession talks with the European Union, the country is under pressure to recognise those deaths as "genocide." Turkey refuses the term. In fact, the subject has long been taboo in Turkey. A crucial event in overcoming the silence occurred in September 2005, when the first conference discussing "Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy" was held – amidst a storm of controversy – at Bilgi University in Istanbul.

Hrant Dink says the fact that he lives in Turkey, with the Turks, has kept him emotionally healthy and free of the "disease that afflicts many diaspora Armenians." But he also knows something about discrimination.

"As a child, I didn't know what it meant to be Turkish or Armenian. At Armenian boarding school in Istanbul, I recited the Turkish credo every morning, but I was also told I should preserve my Armenian identity. I never came across my own name in school books – only Turkish names. As an adolescent, I heard the word 'Armenian' used as a swearword. As a Turkish citizen, I saw high-court decisions that referred to Armenians as 'foreigners living in Turkey'. The Armenian orphanage that I worked so hard to establish was confiscated by the state."

Dink says no one at home or at school ever spoke about the events of 1915, but throughout his childhood, he sensed loss and trauma through an internalised feeling of history. "We all have an intuition about something broken in the past", he says. "It's in our genetic code. Each Armenian family has losses that go back to the time when survivors were scattered all over the world. "

"Even if you flee from that sense of history", he adds, "history doesn't let go of you. In Turkey, you face so many attacks against the Armenian identity that you find yourself in a defensive position whether you want it or not. During the 1970s, there was news of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (Asala) and the killing of Turkish diplomats. My identity was always other, and often belittled. I saw again and again that I was different. Many people who were like me were leaving this country, but I didn't want to leave – I wanted to stay and fight for what I thought was right."

"In the end, I decided that how they defined me wasn't important. I had to define myself. I am an Armenian of Turkey, and a good Turkish citizen. I believe in the republic, in fact I would like it to become stronger and more democratic. I don't want my country to be divided, but I want all the citizens to be able to live fully and contribute their diversity to this society – as a source of richness."

Despite the October court sentence – one "that has done me great harm", he says – Dink is surprisingly optimistic about Turkey's future. "Turkey is going through a process of internal dynamism," he says. "It is experiencing the interaction of the east and the west within itself. This interaction can lead sometimes to confrontation and sometimes to agreement, but if it results in a kind of harmony, that would be a positive outcome."

Far from viewing Turkey's moderate Islamist government as a threat, Dink sees it as a potential instrument of harmony. "No authoritarian pressure has been able to suppress religious movements in this country. We see today that in power they seem less radical than they were in previous years; that they tend to tame themselves in order to remain on the political stage. They're satisfied with the freedom to perform their religious rituals. In this country, Islam will renew and reform itself, without harming either the republic or secularism; and when this happens, it will set an incredible example for Europe and the world. It will show the world that the east can renew and reform itself – without the intervention of outsiders like Bush with his bombs in Iraq. The transformation that will result from Turkey's own internal dynamics will set a great example of the interaction, reconciliation and harmony of the east and the west."

"You must find it surprising that I'm so hopeful", Dink smiles. But when asked about the appeal of his sentence, his face darkens. "If the high court does not exonerate me", he says, "The only honourable option for me is to leave. If I am judged guilty of racism, I can no longer live with the Turks. I cannot bear to think that people who meet me on the street might think: 'This is the guy who said the Turks have poisoned blood.'"

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