January 19: Today is a day for us to commemorate; we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. who struggled throughout his life, ultimately sacrificing it as an advocate for equality and free speech within the segregated and tainted streets of America’s past.
Today, however, Armenia’s and Turks alike also commemorate this day for another figure of justice, equality, and truth. A figure who also gave his life in a struggle for human justice, not only of his own ethnic people but also for the citizens of a nation caught between their past and present history.
Armenian Genocide Recognition: a controversial issue in many countries today, in many communities, and in many cities. A true act of terror committed in 1915 against millions of Armenia’s and other minorities living within the Ottoman Empire, today’s Turkey. This is a topic that even when mentioned or referred to can cause great uproar and commotion, whether it be discussed among politicians or common men in Washington Yerevan, or Ankara. These past few years have seen the passion and tragedy this issue can genuinely stir up, passion that not only continues to take lives and ignite political battles but also continues to divide a nation.
Hrant Dink, an Armenian news editor, intellectual, and political activist who was born and raised in Turkey and who stood as an advocate for individual rights in a country where not only Armenia’s are silenced by nationalist and government forces, but also the Turkish population itself.
Dink was the editor and founder of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos. He was an academic and political personality among other Turkish nationals such as Orhan Pamuk, who fell as legal victims to the infamous Turkish penal code (Article 301) that considers any statement in recognition of the genocide as illegal–an insult to “Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions.” Article 301 is as a crime punishable by imprisonment. For Dink, it was punishable by death.
When asked in a 2005 interview why he founded the controversial Agos newspaper in a country where such a step, especially as an Armenian, assured not only the danger of his reputation but also of his own life, Dink replied: “I was obliged to. I was obliged to because in Turkey the pressure against Armenia’s had reached its climax. Everywhere enmity against the Armenia’s in TV stations, in the press, in political life, academic life, everywhere the word %u218Armenian’ had become a swearword.”
Dink was gunned down two years later on January 19, 2007 in front of his Agos newspaper headquarters by a 17-year-old Turkish ultra-nationalist, Ogun Samast, whom many suspect had links to “deep government and state forces.”
Just months prior to his assassination, during a visit in November of 2006 to the largely Armenian populated city of Glendale, California, Dink predicted, in great foresight, the fate that was to fall upon him and as a result, the people of Turkey:
“I get threats, of course. But I never asked for protection. And I will not ask the police, because I don’t know whom to trust more. That is what I don’t know; If something is going to happen, it’s good to struggle on your feet, and die on your feet. And not in bed. That way is better.”
The immediate public backlash in Turkey and throughout the world was astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of Turks and Armenia’s alike gathered in the streets of Ankara chanting “We are all Hran’s! We are all Armenia’s!” representing the true role Hrant played in this society as a Turkish citizen and not just as an ethnic-Armenian minority.
Today, the population in Turkey continues to live under constant censorship and oppression by the state, not just in terms of the genocide, but also in terms of free speech and individual expression. To the Turkish people, Hrant served as a leader and a hero who fought along side other compatriots to bring this oppression against individual rights and the Turkish people to an end.
The genocide issue, however, has not only affected the citizens of Turkey or the Armenian nation independently. This is an issue that has affected Turkish-Armenian relations as well, both on the level of state diplomacy and more importantly between two historically divided peoples. Armenia’s in the United States and abroad have invested countless man-hours, political resources, and financial assets to assure the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, an effort which the state of Turkey has invested overwhelmingly to prevent.
In the same interview mentioned previously, the reporter commen’s on statemen’s Dink made in the past about thousands and millions of Turkish citizens and youth who know virtually nothing about the genocide against Armenia’s that took place in their country almost a hundred years ago.
“Yes, they don’t,” Dink acknowledged, noting how Turkish schoolchildren are taught that Armenia’s massacred Turks. “When a young man is bred on this, his identity has been mixed with this. This is very clear. That’s why I say, %u218do you think the Turks know the truth and they deny it? Or no?’ Whatever they know is what they defend.”
Hrant believed that Turkey would eventually come to recognize the truth about its past. He was an advocate of an approach to genocide recognition that avoided forcing or pressuring the State of Turkey and the Turkish people to acknowledge the past. The Turkish people, he said, could not be forced to acknowledge and accept that their ancestors had committed such a severe a crime against humanity as genocide.
“This people [the Turkish people] needs neither to admit or deny. It needs to know, to know the truth. To learn the truth. For this you need free speech, free knowledge, free education. We must learn. This people has to learn. After learning the truth it will use its own conscience,” Hrant said.
And this is exactly what Hrant Dink stood for–what he saw as his responsibility, not just as an Armenian, but as a Turkish citizen and as a human being. When asked what it is that ties him to Turkey, Dink simply answered: “This is my country, it is the country of my grandparents, my roots are here. Why is the Diaspora [Armenia’s] always looking here? It is here that we have schools and churches.”
And when asked about the destruction of an Armenian church in the Turkish city of Diyarbekir, Dink replied with resolve, saying “they will destroy and we will rebuild.”
Since Hrant Dink’s assassination, many events in Turkey and the Armenian Diaspora have come to fruition in regards to Turkish-Armenian relations and the genocide issue.
In 2007, Armenian political organizations were successful in their campaign to garner support in the United States Congress to pass a resolution formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee, however, the resolution was never brought to a vote by the full House of Representatives, as Turkey’s lobby had effectively tied it with US security in Iraq.
In 2008, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian formerly invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Armenia for a World Cup qualifying soccer match between the two nations. Gul became the first Turkish President to step foot in independent Armenia.
The most important event, however, which Hrant Dink himself would be proud to see was one that took place in Turkey and the Turkish parliament itself late last year. Turkish academics and intellectuals came together and established an internet-campaign to apologize to the Armenia’s.
The campaign, titled “We apologize to Armenia’s,” brought thousands of Turkish citizens to its website to sign a petition condemning what they called “the Great Catastrophe” of 1915. This apology was unprecedented in Turkey’s history. The campaign sparked mass controversy in Turkey, to the point where the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, publicly condemned the campaign as damaging to the State of Turkey and Turkish identity. The campaign also sparked a verbal bout in the Turkish Parliament between parliamentarians when a group of politicians demanded an apology by the government for the crime against humanity.
But with the Turkish government struggling harder than ever to keep a lid on the truth, it seems that Hrant Dink’s efforts were not in vain and that justice for both the Armenian and Turkish people is within reach. Members of Turkey’s government are now begining to question the state’s version of history within the very institutions that have denied the Armenian Genocide for so many decades. This is an unprecedented development.