On January 19, 2007, a journalist named Hrant Dink was shot dead by a seventeen-year-old militant on one of Istanbul’s busiest avenues. In just thirty-two hours, the Turkish police caught the reckless killer, who confessed his crime quite proudly. “I shot the Armenian,” he said smugly, “because he had insulted Turkishness.”
Hrant Dink was a member of Turkey’s seventy-thousand-strong Armenian community. But he was not just any member. As the founder and editor of the weekly Agos , the bilingual Turkish/Armenian newspaper, he was certainly the most prominent Armenian public intellectual in the country. He was, like many Turkish democrats, critical of the authoritarian measures of the state, with a particular emphasis on the taboos about the Armenian tragedy of 1915. Mr. Dink, like many others, believed that the tragedy was indeed a planned genocide. (The Turkish view, on the other hand, is that hundreds of thousands Armenians did indeed perish in 1915, but so did many Turks and Kurds, and what happened should be defined as intercommunal violence, not as a campaign of extermination.)
Yet, while Mr. Dink continued to make his case in the face of reaction from Turkish authorities and nationalist groups, he also criticized the anti-Turkish stance in some circles of the Armenian Diaspora. Turks were not bad people who deserve to be seen as the enemy, he insisted; they just needed to be informed about the other side of the story.
Mr. Dink’s principled stance placed him right in the center of the ideological war between those who strive to create an open and democratic Turkey and those who want to avoid it. The dividing line between these two camps is not religion, as some would presume, but nationalism. The proponents of the latter ideology, which is strong both in the state bureaucracy and in society at large, are particularly against the democratic reforms inspired by the European Union accession process. They want their good old Turkey, in which the all-powerful state oversees society, and civil liberties are sacrificed for its narrow definition of “Turkishness.”
Mr. Dink’s killer, Ogun Samast, is just one of the many chauvinistic young militants inspired by the most radical version of the cult of Turkishness. One of his predecessors is Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot Pope Jean Paul II in 1979. Another one is the sixteen-year-old militant from Trabzon—which is also Samast’s hometown—who killed Father Andrea Santoro last year. And of course these young apparatchiks have their elder “brothers,” who indoctrinate, train, and arm them.
The relationship between this hysterical type of Turkish nationalism—or, to use a more appropriate term, Turkish fascism—and Islam is worth clarifying. There are of course many militant Islamists in the world today, but Turkish fascists are not among them. In fact, they are clearly distinguished from and often at odds with Turkey’s Islamic circles, some of which are strong proponents of democratization and the EU bid. The fascists defend Islam and use it in some of their slogans, to be sure, but this is because they see religion as an important component of the Turkish identity. They hate the “infidel” Jews, Armenians, or Americans, but they detest Muslim Kurds and Arabs, too. Indeed, some of their most extreme factions don’t like Islam because of its trans-nationalism; instead they yearn for the pagan faiths of the pre-Islamic Turks.
Threats and violence have been the traditional tools these fascist cadres use to silence the intellectuals they hate—including liberal novelists such as the recent Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, and the Sufi-inspired Elif Safak. With the murder of Hrant Dink, they probably wanted to give a warning to them all. But the reaction of Turkish society to this political assassination suggests that their plan has backfired. Right after Dink’s murder, thousands of people gathered in front of his office to protest the crime. Their maxim was dramatic: “We are all Hrant Dink.” And the Turkish media, save for a few extremist dailies that support the fascist line, published heartfelt praise for Dink and grave condemnation of his murder.
Moreover, Hrant Dink’s funeral turned into an unprecedented rally against fascism in Turkish society. About one hundred thousand people from all walks of life and faiths marched in the wide avenues of Istanbul, creating a scenic river of bodies. The motto of the day was “We are all Armenians.”
In the following days, this motto was criticized by some nationalist figures as “going too far.” To gauge public opinion, the mainstream daily Hurriyet launched an online poll to which more than 450,000 people replied. To the question “Is it rightful to say ‘We are all Armenians’ to protest the Dink murder,” nearly half the respondents said yes.
All this implies that there is an important trend in Turkish society toward embracing its historical “others.” The “others” note this, too. In his piece published in the Turkish Daily News , the former prime minister of Armenia, Armen Darbinyan, wrote, “Armenians in Armenia did not anticipate such a sincere manifestation of solidarity” in Turkey for Hrant Dink. “This leaves no doubt that a core transformation in the worldview of today’s Turkey has occurred,” added Mr. Darbinyan, “[which] should become a turning point in the relations between Turkish and Armenian nations.”
He is right. These two great nations, which lived peacefully side by side for centuries until the curse of modern nationalism, should seek reconciliation. An Islamic principle reads, “From every evil, there emerges a good.” Perhaps the good emerging from the evil murder of Hrant Dink might be the chance to build that mutual understanding. Had he lived, that would have been his advice to us all.
Mustafa Akyol is a journalist in Istanbul, Turkey.