The Pigeon on the Bridge Is Shot

by Ayşe Kadıoğlu | published February 16, 2007

Hrant Dink’s last column was published in English translation by Open Democracy on January 22.

For background on the “deep state,” see Kerem Öktem, “Return of the Turkish ‘State of Exception,’” Middle East Report Online, June 3, 2006.

“Sometimes they ask me what it is like to be an Armenian. I tell them that it is a wonderful thing and I recommend it to everyone.” These were Hrant Dink’s opening remarks at a conference entitled “Ottoman Armenians During the Collapse of the Ottoman Empire,” held in Istanbul on September 24 and 25, 2005. Those of us lucky enough to hear the mischievous introductory lines received them with joyous laughter, but we also knew we were witnesses to a lecture of historic significance, a momentous step forward in the efforts of Armenians and Turks to come to terms with the horrors of the past.

Little more than a year later, on January 19, 2007, Dink, the editor-in-chief of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos, was assassinated in front of his office on a busy street in Istanbul. On the day of his funeral, when more than 100,000 people (mostly Muslim Turks) marched with banners proclaiming “We are all Armenians” and “We are all Hrant Dink,” I could not help but think that we had indeed taken him up on his advice. Yet this time, most of us were crying.

Hrant Dink was a meticulous writer and speaker. He chose his words carefully, including the ones for which he was prosecuted by the Turkish state. I think he was referring to two things when he recommended becoming Armenian to his audience at the conference. First, he was pointing to the need for empathy in modern societies—an essential theme that he underlined on other occasions. He urged Turks to listen to the grievances of Armenians and empathize with these people, whose ancestors were deported and massacred by the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1915. He also exhorted diaspora Armenians to empathize with the Turks, who do not want to think of their ancestors and themselves as perpetrators of genocide. Second, he wanted to make clear that one could belong to a national or religious community by voluntary declaration. Dink was against ascriptive criteria for community membership; these inevitably led, in his opinion, to racism. Citizenship, in his eyes, was really an allegiance to a multi-national, constitutional state, rather than loyalty to a single nationality or religion. As a country, Turkey belonged to all the groups that inhabited its territory, not just the Turks. He saw that Anatolian soil had been a mosaic prior to the Turkification policies instigated by the Turkish state in the twentieth century. In that soil Dink found his salvation.

Hrant Dink and Agos

Hrant Dink was born in the inner Anatolian town of Malatya on September 15, 1954. He moved to Istanbul with his family when he was seven years old. When the family faced financial problems and his parents divorced, he was placed, with his two brothers, in the orphanage of an Armenian church in Istanbul. Dink spent ten years at the orphanage. After attending Armenian primary and secondary schools, he studied zoology and later philosophy at Istanbul University. He met Rakel in the orphanage. She was 17 and he was 22 when they got married. They had three beautiful children and a granddaughter. His wife called him “Çutak,” meaning “violin” in Armenian, because he was tall and slim. He used this nickname in his column in the Marmara newspaper. His granddaughter, who is just learning to speak, changed this word to “Tutak” in the language of a toddler. For three summers in a row, Dink and his wife Rakel worked together with the children of the orphanage on the construction of a summer camp in Tuzla, Istanbul. They planted trees and created a dreamland for the orphans. The camp was taken away by the state in 1983 as part of a confiscation policy directed at non-Muslim religious foundations.

In 1996, Dink and a few friends founded a weekly newspaper called Agos, with the encouragement of the Armenian patriarch. From this point onward, Agos became the most visible platform for descriptions of the injustices faced by Armenians in Turkey today and in the past. Of the paper’s 12 pages, nine are in Turkish and three are in Armenian. This distribution, by the interpretation of Baskın Oran, an Ankara University political scientist and Agos contributor, is symbolic of the wish on the part of the Armenian community in Turkey to “integrate” into Turkish society “without being assimilated.” A month before Dink’s assassination, the staff celebrated the newspaper’s tenth anniversary with a party featuring Armenian and Turkish songs.

Despite the fact that Dink’s name became increasingly associated with the Armenian community, he always found continuities with the injustices suffered by other groups in Turkey—the Kurds, for instance, and women who wear the headscarf. He was a democrat in that he was interested in a common venue for exposing all such injustices. At one roundtable discussion on civil society organizations held in Istanbul, he talked about the daily discrimination faced by Armenians. When I murmured during his talk, “Just like the issues of women,” he turned to me in excitement and said, “Yes, that is exactly what we need to talk about: manifestations of discrimination that are shared by various underprivileged groups.”

Minorities and the State

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline. As the Ottomans lost territory to the Russians, Austrians and Greeks, Muslims from these lands began to migrate to the center of the empire in the Anatolian peninsula, leading to unease among non-Muslims residing there. At the end of the Balkan wars in 1914, Ottoman elites embraced the idea of formal population exchanges, geared toward creating a modern and more homogeneous Turkish state. The Ottoman embassy in Athens raised official objections to pressures upon Muslims in western Thrace. The Ottoman and Greek states reached a verbal agreement upon a non-coerced exchange of Anatolian Greeks and Muslims in Greece, but implementation came to a halt with the outbreak of World War I. During the war, reactionary pressure increased to address the “problem” of the non-Muslims within the empire and, in 1915, the rump imperial state oversaw the deportation and massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians.

The official population exchange of Anatolian Greeks and the Muslims in Greece took place pursuant to the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923 between the Western powers and the Republic of Turkey that emerged on the Anatolian peninsula following the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution. While the number of non-Muslims in the lands that constitute today’s Turkey was “one in every five persons” in 1913, this ratio had fallen to “one in forty” by the time of the proclamation of the republic. The Treaty of Lausanne assured equal treatment under the law to Turkey’s “non-Muslim minorities”—Armenian Christians, Greek Christians and Jews. In practice, however, all of these official minorities, as well as unofficial Muslim “minorities,” have faced discrimination from state and society. Such Muslim groups as the Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, Georgians and Lazes are perceived as “different,” mainly because their native tongue is not Turkish. Alevis, whether they are Kurdish, Arab or Turkman, are ill-treated because they adhere to a non-Sunni sect of Islam. The state viewed all these groups as obstacles to the formation of a Turkish national identity built upon a single religion and language. 

By 1928, the state was engaged in efforts to create a single language at the expense of the other languages that existed in Turkey. The “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaigns led to policies that outlawed the use of languages other than Turkish in public places such as movie theaters, restaurants and hotels. Such policies, and riots and vandalism targeted at Jews and Christians, prompted further migrations of non-Muslims out of Turkey over the ensuing decades.

The daily lives of the remaining Armenians in Turkey became increasingly more difficult, and anti-Armenian sentiment rose, in the 1970s, when the Armenian nationalist organization ASALA began assasinating Turkish diplomats all over the world. In the 1980s, bogus allegations of ties between ASALA and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had launched an insurgency in southeastern Turkey, surfaced in major Turkish newspapers. Amidst these developments, Armenians in Turkey increasingly felt they had to mask the Armenian aspects of their identity, and began to assimilate more and more into Turkish society at the expense of their language and religion. The 1990s brought still greater pressures on the Armenian community in Turkey since Armenia, which declared its independence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, invaded the Armenian-populated part of Azerbaijan (a Turkic-language country considered by Turkey as within its sphere of influence). Relations between Turkey and Armenia were curtailed.

A prevalent theme in Turkish politics has been preservation of the state and its autonomy in the face of popular or political pressures. Appointed state officials, whether military officers, civilian bureaucrats or the president of the republic, have always regarded elected politicians as well as the people as immature and in need of guidance. These officials encouraged the growth of religious and nationalist organizations to debilitate those political currents that opted for mobilization and empowerment of the people. Turkey’s recurrent military coups were legitimized in terms of preservation of the state. Fear of losing a unified state has always been the key motivator for various nationalist organizations, including those inclined to a kind of fascism.

All these developments accelerated the coupling of demos and ethnos in Turkey: the view that full citizenship was (or should be) tantamount to Turkish national identity. Despite the fact that Armenians in Turkey were legal citizens, more and more they found they had to hide their non-Turkish and non-Muslim identities. Citizenship had become an instrument of assimilation with a Turkish national identity rather than a guaranteee of a set of rights, including the right to a “different” identity in Turkey.

New Political Cleavages

Following the 1999 Helsinki summit, when Turkey became an official candidate for membership in the European Union, the Turkish parliament began to pass major legislative reforms with respect to minority rights, including the lifting of barriers to the use of minority languages and the practice of minority religions. These reforms became the backdrop for a nationalist backlash.

Contemporary Turkish politics are, in many ways, defined by a tension between two fundamental currents. The first current consists of those pushing for democratization by, among other things, furthering the rights of the non-Turkish and non-Muslim citizens of Turkey. The second is made up of those who fear that the ground beneath “the Turks” is slipping—so much so that “the Turks” are losing their privileged status. Despite all the legislative reforms, there are still laws that uphold this privilege. On October 7, 2005, Hrant Dink was convicted of violating one such law, Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which makes it a crime to “denigrate Turkishness.”

Dink had published a series of articles concerning Armenian identity in Agos in February 2004. In one article, he criticized the inflexible views of some diaspora Armenians, saying that “the clean blood that the Armenians need in order to establish a noble current of relations with Armenia [will be found] if/when they can cleanse their blood of the poison of Turks.” By “the poison of Turks,” he meant hatred of Turks. He was calling upon diaspora hardliners to let go of this hatred (using the expression “clean blood” as a metaphor for a clean break with old habits) and focus on building relations with Armenia instead. But nationalists in Turkey blinded themselves to context and chose to read Dink as saying that Turkish blood is poisonous. Thus did this sentence inspire charges against Dink for “denigrating Turkishness.” Nationalist bullies vandalized the courtroom hearing his case and dared him to “come and see the clean Turkish blood.” A report of experts presented to the local criminal court underlined the importance of reading Dink’s lines “in context” in order to comprehend his intentions, and opposed the charge against him. Nevertheless, the court handed down a verdict of guilty. The conviction was approved by the Court of Appeals on June 6, 2006, and Dink was given a suspended sentence. He was taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights when he was killed.

Legal codes like Article 301 make it possible to read every criticism directed at past and present policies of the Turkish state, regardless of their moral content, as a basis for the accusation of “denigrating Turkishness.” Indeed, when taken to its logical conclusion, the law makes it impossible to be critical of activities carried out by Turks. Certainly, the law has become the weapon of nationalist groups who oppose multiculturalism in Turkey as much as they oppose Turkey’s membership in the European Union. They maintain that Turkey belongs only to Turks. They expect Turkish citizens who are not Turks to adopt a Turkish mask, sublimating their religious, linguistic and cultural identities in order to enjoy the fruits of citizenship.

Though several writers and journalists, including Turkey’s Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have faced charges under Article 301, Dink is the only one to date whose “guilty” verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeals. He was visibly very sad on this occasion, saying that he would never denigrate Turkishness, because all his life he had opposed racism. Indeed, it is possible to argue that it is the very existence of such legal codes that denigrates Turkishness. After his conviction, Dink considered leaving Turkey. But whenever he traveled abroad, he missed his country. He had tried so hard to construct a life for himself and his family in Istanbul. In the end, he decided to stay.

Hrant Dink labored to open channels of communication between Armenians in Turkey, Turks, diaspora Armenians (who are mostly in the United States) and the government and people of Armenia. He invited all parties to be self-critical to facilitate dialogue. Use of the word “genocide” to refer to the mass deportations and massacres of Armenians in 1915 is, of course, the biggest bone of contention between Turks and Armenians. Dink had a distinctive approach to the controversy. In his speech at the conference on Ottoman Armenians, he uttered the phrase “Armenian genocide,” and immediately added, “All right, perhaps it is better not to use that expression.” Dink did not want that one word to close the ears of some in the audience to the rest of his words. He wanted to move the debate over the past away from the term “genocide” to the possibility of dialogue. While he advised Turks to grow out of their denial of the enormity of the massacres, at the same time he admonished Armenians to be careful not to bring indignity to Turks by constantly dwelling on the atrocities of their ancestors. (Ironically, in fact, the words that led to his conviction for “denigrating Turkishness” were directed at negative Armenian attitudes about Turks.) In sum, Dink suggested that Armenians and Turks both “get out of this 1,915-meter deep well” and start listening to one another. Since the Anatolian people carried pain with dignity, he thought, Armenians and Turks could carry their pain without dishonoring each other.

His funeral, with its mixed procession of Armenians and Turks, was an occasion for such dignity. An Agos contributor at the funeral said he heard Turkish kids shouting, “Long live the Armenians,” quite a change from earlier experiences when expressions such as “Armenian dogs” or “deceitful Armenians” were more common.

The Water Found Its Crack

Hrant Dink was buried in a cemetery in Istanbul. As his wife told the thousands who had gathered, while he had left her embrace and his children, granddaughter and loved ones, he would never leave his country.

Dink’s friends could not help but be reminded of a story he told: He once received a phone call from an elderly man in a village in Sivas who told him that an old Armenian woman had passed away. The villagers wanted Dink to help them find her family. He located the woman’s daughter in France and told her about her mother’s death. The daughter said the old woman’s family had been deported from that village in Sivas; every year she had been traveling from France in order to spend a few months in her birthplace. When the daughter came to get her mother’s body, she called Dink from the village and started crying on the phone -- because of what that the old man in the village had told her. “Uncle, what have you told her?” Dink asked, prepared to be angry. But the man responded, “I did not say anything bad. I just told her that this village was her mother’s home.” He quoted the Turkish proverb: “‘The water found its crack.’ She should bury her mother here rather than taking her body to France.” After telling this story, Dink would conclude, with tears in his eyes: “Yes, Armenians have an eye on Turkish soil—not to come and take it, but to come and be buried under it.”

In his last column in Agos, Hrant Dink wrote about the threats he had received. Nationalist organizations had vandalized the courtroom hearing his case and demonstrated in front of Agos. He admitted to being intimidated. “It is unfortunate that I am now better known than I once was,” he wrote. “I feel much more the people who throw me that glance that says, ‘Oh look, isn’t he that Armenian guy?’ And I reflexively start torturing myself. One aspect of this torture is curiosity, the other unease…. I am just like a pigeon, obsessed equally by what goes on to my left, to my right, in front of me and in back.” His only consolation in such anxiety was his faith that the pigeons could live freely in crowded urban centers, even if fearfully. He thought the pigeons would not be harmed.

Yet Dink also maintained the people after him were not as ordinary and visible as they seemed. He was, in other words, pointing his finger at what reformers in Turkey call the “deep state”—the relations between the military and security establishment and clandestine, paramilitary organizations. The 17-year old man who gunned Dink down was arrested shortly after the assassination. He is from Trabzon, a city on the Black Sea known as a center of right-wing nationalist activity. Soon, the police chief of Trabzon was removed from his post. A brief look into the chief’s past, provided on January 27 by the journalist Can Dündar in his column in the daily Milliyet, revealed his web of affiliations with police chiefs, retired military officers, lawyers and paramilitary youth working to “save” Turkey from disintegration in the hands of the pro-European Union civil society groups and policymakers.

Soon after Dink’s murder, some of the nationalist groups donned the same white beret worn by the gunman when he fired the fatal shot. These “white berets” aim to frighten Turkish democrats who, like Dink, are interested in constructing bridges of dialogue. Undoubtedly, they have allies inside the organs of the state. On February 2, police in Trabzon posed Dink’s killer in front of a Turkish flag. Video footage of the scene, which made the assassin out to be a national hero, shocked many Turks but undoubtedly pleased many others. The crude nationalists in soccer stadiums shouting slogans exalting Dink’s killer, as well as the white berets in the streets of Istanbul, are indicators that a dangerous number of citizens are willing to endorse crimes committed in the name of preserving the state.

Nowadays, one can observe competition between various “nationalisms” on Turkey’s primetime television programs. People feel compelled to say they are nationalists in order to render the rest of their claims legitimate. Some of the nationalists are loaded down with fears that the privileged status of ethnic Turks in Turkey will soon be lost. In their zeal to sever Turkey’s ties with everyone except ethnic Turks, they are like trench diggers on a battlefield.

Hrant Dink lived his life like a pigeon on a bridge connecting the feelings and thoughts of Armenians in Turkey with those outside, as well as with Turks. He was a pigeon on a mission to make such bridges more than symbolic. He was shot by trench diggers, who remain powerful opponents of his mission. On the day of his funeral, however, Hrant Dink’s bridge was flooded by thousands who wanted to guard it in his name. He would have loved the sight.

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