Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy

Peter Balakian
29 January 2007

The killing in Istanbul of the Armenian-Turkish journalist highlights the need for Turkey to confront the 1915 genocide of the Armenians, says Peter Balakian.

The assassination of Hrant Dink in front of his newspaper office in Istanbul on 19 January 2007 is an irreparable loss. One of a group of brave Turkish intellectuals, Dink gave his life for intellectual freedom and democracy in Turkey. He was the editor of the bilingual Armenian weekly Agos, and he spoke and wrote about human-rights issues and various taboo subjects in Turkey. He was a strong advocate of the abolition of Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, which made "insulting Turkishness" a crime punishable by imprisonment. In speaking openly about the Armenian genocide of 1915 he had been charged with a violation of this article.

In the face of repression, Dink stood tall with courage and integrity. He lived with constant death threats, which he described as "psychological torture", yet he carried on his work with grace and fortitude. Everyone who knew Hrank Dink spoke of him as a warm, humane, gentle man whose goal was to bring peace and reconciliation between Armenian and Turkish societies (see his openDemocracy article "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey", 13 December 2005).

Peter Balakian is the Donald M and Constance H Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University. His book The Burning Tigris: the Armenian Genocide and America's Response (Harper Collins, 2003) was awarded the Raphael Lemkin Prize in 2005

The flame and the candle

Dink's murder resonates around the world and is an emblem of the struggle for freedom of speech and thought in the face of government-sanctioned violence and repression everywhere. But Dink's assassination also cuts to the heart of Turkey's struggle to meet the standards for European Union admission. At the centre of Turkey's problems remain its repressive treatment of minorities today and its refusal to acknowledge past crimes - most notably its state-sponsored denial of the Armenian genocide, something the international community has been urging Turkey to acknowledge.

In the 1990s, according to PEN International and Human Rights Watch, Turkey had more writers and journalists in legal detention than any country in the world. Though the situation has improved slightly since then, in the past decade eighteen journalists have been killed in Turkey; in the past six years, 241 books have been banned, and in 2006 seventy-seven journalists had to face the courts.

For Armenians and Turks, Dink's murder bears a particular significance. Turkey's modern history of violence against intellectuals began when 250 Armenian writers, journalists, clergy, and teachers were arrested in Istanbul (then Constantinople) on 24 April 1915 and transported to prisons in the interior, where almost all of them were murdered. Now that Hrant Dink has joined the legacy of those intellectuals of 1915, his own legacy has become profoundly important.

Turkey's two faces

However, in the aftermath of the assassination, two dramatically opposed voices are being heard in Turkey. The 120,000 people who crowded the streets outside of Dink's funeral expressing solidarity, chanting "We are all Hrant Dink", "We are all Armenian", represent an opposition to Turkey's violent nationalism that is associated with the deep state and its military infrastructure; they represent the hope for democracy, civil rights, and ethnic tolerance.

On the other side are voices of extreme Turkish nationalism, including from within the state, which blame Dink's death on calls from the international community (for which they hold the Armenian diaspora responsible) for recognition of the Armenian genocide. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet now reports that Ankara wants to "slug it out" on the issue of the Armenian genocide and will pursue legal means (whatever folly this may be) to deny the Armenian genocide in the international courts.

The ultra-nationalist groups are making death threats at other "enemies of the state" like Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk; making violent statements to the Armenian community ("if you claim to have endured a genocide in 1915, then you don't know what a genocide is. A real genocide will begin now"); and threatening that they will blow up the building in which Agos is housed.

This is doubly tragic. To claim that the Armenian genocide is the problem is tantamount to blaming the victims, but it also embodies the paranoia of nationalists who seek to find scapegoats outside their country rather than looking inward to see the need for reform. At the heart of the matter is Turkey's urgent need to repeal Article 301, a law that enables the ultra-nationalists and others to bring intellectuals and writers to trial; the law is also a powerful means of fomenting a culture of repression and race-hatred. Lip-service is not enough if Turkey is to show where it stands on minority rights and intellectual freedom.

Turkey's prospects of joining the European Union are contingent upon a new age of intellectual freedom and democracy, and progressive forces in Turkey need to be allowed to evolve in an atmosphere of tolerance. It seems clear from Hrant Dink's murder, and the numerous trials brought forth by extremists, that ultra-nationalists in Turkey are working hard to undermine the government and Turkey's hope for the EU. But the tens of thousands of citizens protesting Dink's murder embody an affirmation of Dink's life's work, and it is up to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to embrace this legacy. That means bringing the perpetrators and their aides to justice properly, and showing the extremists that terrorism will not be allowed to undermine Turkey's movement toward democracy.

Also in openDemocracy on Hrant Dink and Turkey:

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart, "Hrant Dink: forging an Armenian identity in Turkey"
(7 February 2006)

Anthony Barnett, Isabel Hilton, "Hrant Dink: an openDemocracy tribute" (19 January 2007)

Fatma Müge Göçek, "Hrant Dink (1954-2007): in memoriam"
(22 January 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom"
(23 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue"
(23 January 2006)

Elif Shafak, Rakel Dink, "Hrant Dink's funeral" (25 January 2007)

The truth of the past

As for the issue of the Armenian genocide, Ankara would be wise if it came to understand the work of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish legal scholar and holocaust exile who invented the concept of genocide. Then the government could find a way to come to accept the historical record that has accrued over the past fifty years.

In an open letter from the International Association of Genocide Scholars to Erdogan in June 2006, the world's major organisation of genocide scholars reminded the Turkish premier that the scholarly record on the Armenian genocide is unambiguous, and that Turkey's calls for an international body to examine the events that befell the Armenians is a political ploy aimed at trying to undermine the definitive historical record.

Raphael Lemkin was the first person to use the word genocide in conjunction with what happened to the Armenians in 1915. The many books on genocide in the English language - every one of which has a segment on the Armenian genocide - might also be the place for Ankara to begin educating itself. Blaming the victims with a variety of stock clichés supported by a few denialist scholars will have no more success than Nazi holocaust-denial with its small cadre of denialist scholars.

The German Bundestag in June 2005, with its own country's history deeply in mind, urged Turkey to come to terms with the Armenian genocide: "facing one's own history fairly and squarely is necessary and constitutes an important basis for reconciliation." Turkey can only go forward to its longed-for future in the European Union by allowing mechanisms for critical self-evaluation to become part of its cultural life. That way, the Armenian genocide will no longer be taboo, and Turkey's best and brightest - like Hrant Dink - will not become victims of repression and race-hatred.

Moreover, as much as anything, it is crucial for Agos, that small, bilingual Armenian newspaper in Istanbul, to be kept alive by the good forces in Turkish society; for Agos embodies Turkey's hope for a new age, and it is a living symbol of the need for openness and dialogue between Armenians and Turks at this historic juncture.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData