The Martyrdom of Hrant Dink

26 January 2007

The Martyrdom of Hrant Dink

By Gwynne Dyer

When they buried Hrant Dink in Istanbul last Tuesday (23 January), more than 100,000 Turks came to his funeral, filling the streets and chanting “We are all Armenians.” There is a war going on for the soul of Turkey, but at least a lot of Turks are on the right side.

Dink, who called himself “an Armenian from Turkey and a good Turkish citizen,” was murdered because he insisted on talking about the great crime that happened in the country 92 years ago: the mass murder of most of Turkey’s Armenian population in eastern Anatolia. The newspaper he founded and edited, a bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly called Agos, had only a small circulation, but his outspoken editorials had made him one of Turkey’s most famous journalists — and a target for assassination.

His killer, 17-year-old Ogun Samast, was a semi-educated young thug from Trabzon in the far north-east of Anatolia. He was given the gun by a group of older ultra-nationalists including Yusuf Hayal, who was convicted of bombing a McDonald’s restaurant in Trabzon in 2004. But these marginal characters are just pawns in the larger war between those who want a more democratic, more tolerant Turkey and those who are desperately defending the power and privileges of the old “republican” elite.

Samast shot Dink from behind in the street in front of his newspaper office. “I feel no remorse,” the killer allegedly told investigators. “He said that Turkish blood was dirty blood.” Of course, Dink never said any such thing. What he actually said, in a newspaper article addressed to his fellow Armenians, was that their obsession with the massacres of 1915-17 was having “a poisonous effect on your blood.”

But it’s east to see how a useful idiot like Samast could have believed that Hrant Dink was an enemy of the Turks, because just over a year ago a Turkish court took that phrase out of context, found Dink guilty of “insulting Turkishness”, and gave him a six-month suspended sentence under Article 301 of the Criminal Code. A number of other Turkish citizens including Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk have been prosecuted under the same law for daring to discuss what happened to the Armenians, and most of them have received death threats too.

It really is a kind of war, and the villains of the piece are precisely the army officers, judges and senior civil servants who were once seen as the guardians of the “republican” tradition, the people who were going to modernise and democratise Turkey. Unfortunately, “republican” doesn’t really mean the same as “democratic.”

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk put the Ottoman Empire out of its misery and declared a Turkish republic in 1923, his model was the democracies of Western Europe, but his own countrymen were still largely sunk in feudal obscurantism. Literacy was about 20 percent, and most rural people still saw themselves as Muslim subjects of the Caliphate (which he abolished in the following year), not as Turkish citizens.

The forms of the Turkish republic were democratic from the start, but for a very long time the reality was a mass of illiterate peasants under the harsh tutelage of a narrow educated elite who were determined to Westernise the country. The “republican” elite rewrote history (including the denial of the Armenian massacres) in order to mould a new Turkish national consciousness, and saw religion as a retrograde force that must be banned from politics.

The decades passed, and much of the elite’s dream came to pass. Turkey today has a per capita income higher than Romania or Bulgaria, the most recent countries to join the European Union. Democracy is a reality, and the current prime minister, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, leads a party whose members openly refer to themselves as “Muslim Democrats.” Under Erdogan, there has been a wave of legal and administrative reforms designed to qualify Turkey for EU membership. But all this threatens both the rigidly secular ideology and the autocratic privileges of the old republican elite.

From their powerful positions in the army, the judiciary and the bureaucracy, they work to undermine the reforms and to wreck Turkey’s chances of joining the EU. In de facto alliance with ultra-nationalist right-wing parties that also oppose EU membership, they incite hatred of minorities, bring false prosecutions against the advocates of a more open and democratic Turkish society, and pursue the long-term goal of destabilising the democratic order.

It was they who smuggled the notorious Article 301 into the Criminal Code when it was being reformed to align Turkish law with EU standards, they who brought false prosecutions for “insulting Turkishness” against Hrant Dink, Orhan Pamuk, and other well-known writers, journalists and scholars, they who spread the lies about what Dink had actually said. It is they, not some ignorant, angry teenager, who are really responsible for his death.

But the war is not over yet, and the good guys have not lost. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul vowed last November to change or abolish Article 301, and last week 100,000 Turks thronged streets of Istanbul to mourn the country’s best-known Armenian and condemn his murderers.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“When…citizens”; and”It was…death”)