Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Our Opinion

Assassination of a Turkish Citizen: Hrant Dink, 1954-2007

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.
—Hrant Dink
Those who wanted to harm Turkey couldn’t have chosen a better target….As opposed to other killings in the past, Turkish public reaction against this murder will show us where Turkey stands in the world.
—Haluk Şahin, columnist, Radikal
We are not all Armenians now. We are Turks and we will remain Turks.
—Hasan Ünal, professor of international relations, Bilkent University
I have killed an Armenian!
—Ogün Samast, Hrant Dink’s assassin

Unhappy is the land that needs a hero, the eponymous anti-hero famously warns in Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. By that measure, Turkey stands as a wretchedly unhappy land today.

Please click here to view this article’s associated slide show.

Make no mistake. Hrant Dink was a hero. And, as Brecht well understood, he was one precisely because his country’s unhappiness demanded it of him. In the end, Dink sacrificed his life not because he wanted to—he had two daughters, a son, a wife (truly a comrade), and that driving sense of mission that only comes from a deep attachment to the world—but because his country was so thoroughly, pathologically unhappy that it needed to make him a hero for all time, which is to say a martyr.

The only fate more abject for a country than the need for heroes is the grim compulsion to transform them into martyrs. Blood will have blood, another playwright wrote centuries before Brecht. It is one of the sadder truths of the history of nations (invariably the history of mass murder) that those who openly reject facile identities are the least understood by—and, therefore, the most conspicuous scapegoats for whatever ails—the particular nation. Ironically, of course, these defenders of historical humility (and, so, of historical integrity) are—and this is where the irony swerves into tragedy—the truest and most unwavering patriots. Although he was viscerally opposed to partition, for example, Gandhi was, in the end, assassinated by a Hindu nationalist, not a Muslim separatist, since he was just as viscerally committed to Hindu-Muslim unity and saw an amputated India as artificial (and colonial) a creation as a monoconfessional “Land of the Pure” (aka Pakistan).

Here, in the United States, Malcolm X was murdered by hitmen of the Nation of Islam, that is, by his former co-religionists and comrades. Malcolm, too, had come to reject facile interpretations (idiocies, more accurately) of “white devils” and “original people.” During his umrah to Mecca just months before his assassination, he had finally witnessed authentic Islam, “a true brotherhood…of all colors and races,” he wrote to his followers back in Harlem. “You may be shocked by these words coming from me,” he continued, “[b]ut on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.” That rearrangement had not been “too difficult,” he continued, as “I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.” Above all, Malcolm concluded, “I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

An “open mind…necessary to…every form of intelligent search for truth”: there is no more concise description of Hrant Dink’s civic plea to his fellow Turkish citizens and—it should not be forgotten—to his fellow Armenians. All Dink wanted, both for the society and country in which he was born and lived, and for the Armenian diaspora from whose political program he often conspicuously dissented, was an intelligent—that is, a conscientious and, above all, honest—search for the truth. He knew, however, that such a moral passage was impossible without the preparation of an open mind. Dink wanted Turkey to face up to itself, to its past crimes and current incapacities. He wanted his fellow Armenians, however, to move on, to liberate themselves from the moral deadend of increasingly pointless, and debilitating, historical recriminations. Does it matter if the systematic extermination of 800,000 to 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians is labeled a “genocide”? Of course it does. Should this one question, nonetheless, precondition or preempt the relations of Turks and Armenians till the end of time? Of course it shouldn’t. Dink famously counseled his fellow Armenians to pull Turkish-Armenian relations from the pit “of a 1915 meters-deep well.” As Baskın Oran, the prominent Turkish political scientist, human-rights activist, and columnist for Agos, Hrant Dink’s newspaper, said of his colleague and friend, Dink implored Armenians to look at past and present “through the eyes of the other side.”

Still, if Dink wanted Armenians to examine the world through Turkish eyes, he also very much wanted his fellow Turkish citizens to reexamine their historical presence—and national rationale and self-constitution—through the eyes, ears, mouths, and hearts of the countless Armenians (and other minorities) who had been annihilated on the way to “modern” Turkey. The historical facts have been known to almost everyone outside of Turkey from the very beginning, namely, that the Turkish republic was predicated on a series of—for lack of a less controversial term—ethnic cleansings.

This in itself is not the problem, however. The United States was founded on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. The “United Kingdom” is a euphemism for the often sanguinary suppression of Scots, Welsh, and, especially, Irish. No one knows what “Spain” will look like 100 years from now, as the current configuration (of 17 “autonomous communities”) is the result of centuries of inquisitions, national repressions (of Basques and Catalans, most notoriously), and reconquistas of every sort, from that of Los Reyes Católicos to the most recent one of El Caudillo de la Última Cruzada y de la Hispanidad, which is being contested today as vigorously (and in more parts of the country) as ever. As for republican France, we know the human cost of that particular exercise in national formation—essentially, a civil war that lasted from 1789 to 1945. (We’ve manifestly refrained from delving into American and European crimes beyond the respective nations’ borders, as that would drown us in veritable oceans of blood.) So, no, the problem with modern Turkey is not its foundation, which it shares with all nation-states, including all currently democratic ones. The problem with modern Turkey, as Hrant Dink never ceased in trying to make his fellow citizens understand, was—and remains—its subsequent national development.

Or lack thereof. Which is to say that, in Turkey, as in most countries (including the United States), a republic is not the same as a democracy, and it certainly does not automatically endow its citizens with the inalienable constitutional refuge of either liberty or equality (especially before the law), let alone that most mystical of notions, fraternity, which was so brutally imposed in Turkey’s case that Atatürk’s infamous formulation—“Happy is he who says, ‘I am a Turk’”—quickly degenerated from an avowal of national pride to one of ethnic peril.

Eight months ago, we wrote:

We believe that [Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s major problem right now is…the Kemalist regime: both overt and hidden in what Turks call “the deep state.” He must finally decide to take it on, in one fell swoop….
There really is no other way….Kemalism is dying. Unfortunately, it falls to Mr. Erdoğan—and to everyone who wishes only the best for Turkey—to ensure that its death throes do not claim more innocent victims.

Eight months before that, we had written:

We know European bigotry when we see it, and hear it. But we can also discern Turkish ambivalence, and panic, and arrogance, and, yes, even a reverse anti-European bigotry, and—worst of all, and something that only Turks can struggle against and defeat among themselves—active opposition to conforming to European values because they are considered to be “anti-Turkish.”
Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, recently said that no country “can shoot itself in the foot like Turkey can.” Turkey runs the risk of shooting itself in the head.

The person who was shot in the head—three times in the neck and head, to be precise—was, of course, Hrant Dink. It is to Mr. Erdoğan’s credit that, immediately upon learning of the crime, he made it clear, both to his fellow Turks and the world at large, that the perpetrator had also “fired at freedom of thought and democratic life in Turkey.” Still, the lifeless body on the pavement of Halaskargazi Caddesi, covered with a white sheet, was that of Hrant Dink. There are few worse abuses of the truth than the posthumous appropriation by the powers-that-be of those who are ceaselessly persecuted by those powers until the moment they die (violently, more often than not, by what always seem to be feebleminded defenders of offended collective “values”). Turkey might have been “fired at” by a 17-year-old high-school dropout, but it was Hrant Dink who ended up dead on the pavement of central Istanbul.

As for the teenaged “ultranationalist” himself, we can only shake our heads at the depth of the moral morass in which Turkey finds itself as the rest of Europe proceeds toward the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Are we the only ones who feel impelled to ask the most obvious question? Namely, how, exactly, does a 17-year-old become an ultranationalist? We understand perfectly well how he or she can become, say, a soccer fan, or a precocious violinist, or a budding entrepreneur, but what perverse abdication of responsibility—or, even worse, active complicity—by the adults responsible for Turkey’s youth can lead a young person still on the threshold of worldly understanding to “ultranationalism” and, much more tragically, to the crimes that inevitably ensue from it.

What makes all of this particularly germane and disturbing (and poignant) is the fact that Ogün Samast was apparently caught so quickly because his parents recognized him on the surveillance video broadcast directly after the crime and immediately notified the authorities. It is apparent, therefore, that, regardless of what he had heard around the kitchen table growing up, Samast did not hear his parents urging him to murder Armenians.

What he heard daily at school and on the media about Turkey’s alleged “enemies,” external and, especially, internal, and their supposed threat to split up the country, is another matter. There is no point in belaboring the obvious other than to say that the founding myths of the Turkish republic have coalesced into a cancer that, itself, is the most dangerous and direct threat to Turkey’s future. We will only add that we know something about founding myths since the defining event of the Greek national psyche in the twentieth century, the Asia Minor Disaster, was the catastrophic (and arrogant) consequence of that psyche’s egotistical compulsion in the nineteenth century: the Megalê Idea. It is one of many historical ironies in the intimate (and intimately entwined), centuries-long relationship binding Turks and Greeks that the latter’s ruin eighty-five years ago was the foundation of the former’s modern rebirth. We fear that that historical lesson of decline and rise (and decline yet again) has been lost on most of the elites in Turkey today.

It is yet another irony (do they never cease?) that Ogün Samast hails from that hotbed of Turkish nationalism, Trabzon. Yes, Trabzon, formerly Trebizond, once Trapezounta, née Trapezus, the Pontic emporion founded in the eighth century BCE by Milesian merchants. Thousands of years before there was any notion of “Turkey” (or “Greece,” for that matter), there was Trapezus, that Black Sea port—which is to say, by definition, that node of exchange, of commerce and trade, and association and intercourse, with the world beyond itself—whose rejection of insularity, and embrace of the possibilities beyond its shores, was its very reason for being (and continuing existence). It is this city—whose most important tourist sites to this day are Christian churches—that has now become a vortex of Kemalist extremism. There is nothing unusual in this, of course, as historians can attest (Thessalonikê, birthplace of Mustafa Kemal, just to name a familiar example, is the capital of Greek historical denial). Still, it is not only distressing to behold, but—as the fate of Hrant Dink proves—murderously dangerous.

As incredible as this might seem, after serving his compulsory military service, Dink actually wanted to make the Turkish armed forces his life. We quote from the last interview he gave, to the Russian news agency Novosti, two days before his death:

…I wanted to go on with my military career and become a commissioned officer….My wife was expecting our third child. I passed officer examinations with many of my Turkish fellow servicemen. After that, all applicants were called one by one to get their certificates. I was never summoned—the only one on the list. That was when I realized that although Turkey was a secular state, a non-Muslim could never qualify as an officer. That day, I first knew what it truly felt like to be an Armenian in Turkey.

As we said before, those who reject facile identities are usually the most profound patriots, mostly because they understand the contradictions and internal conflicts of individual identity. Hrant Dink was never an ethnic nationalist; in fact, he was a man of the left (a Maoist in his youth). But he realized early on that the left had its own taboos and bigotries. We quote again from the Novosti interview:

When I was a young man, I thought class struggle rested on the truth and social rights, not ethnicity. That’s where I was wrong. I was shocked to see even the Left forces in Turkey refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. They turn a blind eye to everything that has a bearing on ethnic identity. That’s the worst of it all.

Yes, it is. It is bad enough for a human being of progressive, radically liberated spirit to be shunned by organized reaction; it is especially painful when the rejection emanates from people he would otherwise consider his natural comrades and allies. Of course, in the West, the left has gone completely in the opposite direction, privileging “identity” to the point that it has effectively debased any coherent notion of what was once the revolutionary constitutional concept of “citizenship.” But somewhere between the Stalinist inheritance of the (traditional) Turkish left and the solipsistic corruption of the Western left, there must be a different, and more enlightened, path.

There is, of course, and it was broken by Hrant Dink. His wife, Rakel, asked that no political slogans or other demonstrations be made at her husband’s funeral, which was attended by over 100,000 people. “Today,” she said, “we are going to generate immense sound through our silence.” “Today,” she said, “begins the moment when the darkness of the valleys rises towards brightness.” And then: “Whoever the assassin may be, whether he was 17 or 27 years old, I know that he was once a baby. My brothers and sisters, one cannot accomplish anything without first questioning the darkness that creates an assassin from such a baby…” (translated for by Fatma Müge Göçek).

Hrant Dink was opposed to legislation that made denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. Indeed, last fall, when the French National Assembly passed such legislation, he had said that, should it be enacted into law (it hasn’t yet), he’d be the first to travel to Paris to break it. Dink felt that every democratic nation needed to confront its past and, more important, guarantee the future of the many minorities that come together in most nations, but he also felt that democracy imposed another, equally heavy, obligation: freedom of speech. Affirming the fact of the Armenian genocide in France is an empty, and fundamentally meaningless, gesture as long as Turkey itself refuses to do so. More to the point, the politically correct fashion of criminalizing speech—even the most abhorrent speech, including denial of the Holocaust—is not only fraught with danger, but completely ignores the crux of the issue of democratic citizenship: Rakel Dink’s plea to question, and combat, the darkness that creates assassins out of babies.

In the wake of Hrant Dink’s assassination, Haluk Şahin, a Turkish colleague and supporter (who has also been prosecuted under the notorious Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code that proscribes “insulting Turkishness”), went to the heart of the matter: “Turkish public reaction against this murder will show us where Turkey stands in the world.” The nature of this reaction is, to be charitable, far from clear at the moment. It is true that tens of thousand of people attended Dink’s funeral carrying signs reading, “We are all Hrant Dink, we are all Armenians.” It is also true, however, that other Turks (albeit fewer in number and usually in soccer stadiums) demonstrated with signs declaiming, “We are all Mustafa Kemal, we are all Turks.” And lest anyone think that these are just the kneejerk reactions of lumproletarians, we remind our readers of the sentiments of Prof. Hasan Ünal, which we quoted at the outset of this editorial and which represent the consensus of many hardline academics, intellectuals, and the Kemalist “secular” establishment—especially in the armed forces. Indeed, there is more than a hint here of the old, late-Ottoman division between the noble and “pure” Turkish Anatolian hinterland and “gavur İzmir.” Today, as ever in the history of Turkey, the division remains between Kemalist Ankara and “gavur İstanbul.”

Rakel Dink concluded her eulogy with an assurance to her husband (and the world): “You departed from those you loved; you departed from your children, your grandchildren. You departed from those here who came to send you off. You departed from my embrace. You did not depart from your country, my beloved.” We hope she is right about the permanence of Hrant Dink’s presence in Turkey’s future; we believe she is. We will know for certain the day when one of his grandchildren, “a good Turkish citizen” like he was, will decide to join the Turkish armed forces, pass the examinations, and be duly awarded his—or her—commission as an officer.

Page 1 of 1 pages