Turkey after Hrant Dink

Gunes Murat Tezcur
18 January 2008

It has been a year since a teenager callously murdered Turkish-Armenian journalist and activist Hrant Dink on a busy sideway in the middle of the day in Istanbul. Dink's murder awoke Turkish democrats from a dream that promised much optimism: of a Turkey on the verge of joining Europe, that would be able to overcome its troubled history of political assassinations and expose clandestine forces acting with impunity against citizens who dare to question national taboos.

Hrant Dink was from 1996 the editor-in-chief and a columnist of 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

A journalist consistent and courageous in his efforts to speak the truth, defend justice and human rights, and promote understanding, Hrant Dink was a key figure in democratic dialogue in Turkey and beyond. On 19 January 2007, Hrant Dink was assassinated outside Agos's offices in Istanbul

Also by Hrant Dink in openDemocracy:

"The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (13 December 2005)

"Orhan Pamuk's epic journey" (16 October 2006)

"A pigeon-like unease of spirit" (22 January 2007)

The fact that Hrant Dink was a minority within a minority made him extremely vulnerable. He was an Armenian in a country where the fate of his ancestors was tragic. Furthermore, his outspoken nature and courage to speak truth to power - amid much popular ignorance - made him an obvious target for forces that equate any deviation from their dogmas with treason.

Dink was legally persecuted several times on charges that he denigrated Turkishness. This, and the negative publicity about him in sections of the Turkish media, guaranteed that he received death threats. The police were long aware of cliques that harboured the intent to kill him, yet he was not offered any protection. In essence, his murder was preventable. His family now seeks justice against state officials who failed to offer protection to Dink.

The murder of Hrant Dink is a bitter reminder that stakes are high for dissidents who disagree with national taboos on critical issues - most prominently, in the case of Turkey, the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 and the counterinsurgency tactics of the Turkish state during the war against Kurdish militants in the southeast since the 1980s.

Turkey's ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) - convincingly re-elected in July 2007 - commands huge popular support in its ambition to consolidate civilian rule; but it lacks the political acumen to end the impunity of pursue the clandestine forces (Turkey's derin devlet, or "deep state") inside the bureaucracy and armed forces. Besides, Turkish public opinion and the media can still be easily mobilised against dissidents and critics who are perceived to be acting against the interests of the Turkish state and nation. Turkey's thoroughgoing democrats and internal critics are not yet able to lead public opinion and marginalise xenophobic forces and voices.

The events surrounding Dink's murder indicate that the young murderer had a number of accomplices, some of whom were in contact with security officials. The long history of political assassinations in Turkey means that this is not surprising. Indeed, political killing of the state's "enemies" has remained the preferred tactic to sow seeds of confusion and fear among the population. It undermines public confidence in civilian and democratic rule, intimidates dissident voices, and facilitates the conditions for authoritarian politics that are then proclaimed as the vehicle to re-establish "order".

Much of this history remains secret, and awaits proper exposure. Some recent journalistic investigation in Turkey reveals that state elements protected groups that were responsible for a series of politically motivated murders in the turbulent late 1970s. A growing number of studies - including confessions by those directly involved - now demonstrate that the tactics used against Kurdish nationalists in the early 1990s included summary executions. It is too too early to conclude which forces premeditated the murder of Hrant Dink, but a sketch of this larger history is enough to suggest that his killing was not an isolated incident.

Gunes Murat Tezcur is a native of Turkey who teaches political science at Loyola University, Chicago. He is a scholar of Turkish and Iranian politics, Islam and democracy, and Shi‘a Islam

Also by Gunes Murat Tezcur in openDemocracy:

"The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation" (13 October 2005)

"Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom" (23 January 2007)

"Turkey divided: politics, faith and democracy" (4 May 2007)

"Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007) A knowledge of this background also tends to dampen any high expectations of the trial of the individuals directly involved in Hrant Dink's murder. Several individuals who were immediately responsible for organising the shooting are likely to receive relatively long prison sentences, but any agency that sponsored these perpetrators will probably remain in the dark. When cases involve clandestine networks with links to the state do come to court, the Turkish judiciary comes under immense pressure.

In December 2007, a military court released two non-commissioned officers of the Turkish army and a Kurdish militant-turned-state agent who had bombed a civilian bookstore in Semdinli, a small town in Turkey's far southeast, in November 2005. The trio was expert in counterinsurgency tactics that sought to reinforce state authority by instilling fear among the local population. A group of civilian justices who had found them guilty were demoted, and a public prosecutor who had written a bold indictment criticising such extra-legal operations was expelled from the profession. In these conditions, few members of the Turkish judiciary are now expected to have the necessary stamina to investigate the web of deeper connections (including the possible role of security officers) behind Dink's murder.

None of this will extinguish the positive upsurge of a spirit of social unity that followed Dink's murder. This was vividly displayed at his funeral, when tens of thousands of Turkish citizens marched in the streets of Istanbul shouting: "We are all Armenians" (see Elif Shafak, Rakel Dink, "Hrant Dink's funeral" 25 January 2007). This was the first time in modern history that large numbers of Turkish citizens empathised with the Armenians and transcended the gap of "otherness" dividing the two peoples. It was a clear signal that Turkish civil society has now matured into a viable force capable of challenging the nation's historical biases.

A year on, however, a key issue in Turkey's democratisation remains the culture of impunity that pervades the actions of security forces and their civilian accomplices. Hrant Dink's murder tragically revealed that these groups are still capable of inflicting terrible harm on citizens who speak truth to the power of the state and public opinion. It would be naïve to expect that Turkey's accession process to the European Union (even if it proceeds smoothly, which is far from certain) will automatically unravel this culture and practices. More than anything else, the capacity and determination of Turkish social movements to confront the state's violent practices and unravel their history will make the country safer for citizens who seek to emulate Hrant Dink's courage and social responsibility.

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