The long shadow

January 22, 2007
Source: National Post (Canada)

By Payam Akhavan

The prominent journalist and voice of Turkey's dwindling Armenian minority, Hrant Dink, was shot dead on Jan. 19 as he left his office in Istanbul. Dink was editor of Agos, the sole Armenian newspaper in Turkey. He had been prosecuted because of his call for recognition of Ottoman Turkey's 1915 massacre of 1.5 million of its ethnic Armenian citizens -- a crime against humanity that the Canadian House of Commons formally acknowledged in April, 2004. His murder starkly demonstrates how Turkish denial of this abomination, the first genocide of the 20th century, amounts to continuing violence against multi-ethnic democracy and pluralism. It is a painful reminder that without redemption for past injustices, the ghosts of history will cast a long shadow on Turkey's future.

Mr. Dink was convicted in October, 2005, of the crime of "insulting Turkishness" under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. In being branded as a criminal for calling attention to the 1915 genocide, he joined the ranks of prominent fellow ethnic Turkish citizens, including the famous novelist Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, the renowned intellectual Murat Belge, who organized a conference on the Armenian genocide in 2005, and the courageous historian Taner Akcam, author of A Shameful Act which details Turkish responsibility for the events of 1915. These eminent Turks would argue that the greatest insult to "Turkishness" is the continuing denial of this historical tragedy, which brutally ripped Turkey's multiethnic fibre apart, and that the greatest disgrace is the appeasement of ethnic chauvinists who seek to destroy its modest but precious remnants. The truth that Mr. Dink and his fellow citizens upheld transcends ties of blood and soil. This was poignantly expressed at the candlelight vigil after his murder, where hundreds of Turks held signs reading: "We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians."

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, condemned Mr. Dink's murder as a "bullet aimed at free speech." But so long as Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code criminalizes "insulting Turkishness," these remain empty words. Limitations on freedom of speech should apply to hate speech, not to speech against hate. Recognition of past injustice promotes mutual respect and redeems a shared humanity. But its denial sows the seeds of hatred, by perpetuating both the dehumanization of its victims and the moral depravity of its perpetrators. In a world where Holocaust denial is a crime, state-sanctioned denial of genocide is all the more reproachable. It is telling that when the House of Commons recognized the Armenian genocide in 2004, Turkey condemned "narrow minded Canadian politicians" who failed to understand that their decision "will awaken feelings of hatred among people of different [ethnic] roots and disturb social harmony." The murder of Mr. Dink should leave no doubt that social harmony is not achieved through appeasement of ethnic chauvinists.

Mr. Dink's last op-ed, written on Jan. 10, a few days prior to his murder, is a testament to his nobility and heroism. He speaks of death threats against him, but he fears for his family and not for himself. And despite his ordeal, he speaks of his abiding commitment to Turkey and its people: "There were moments when I seriously thought about leaving the country and moving far away. And especially when the threats started to involve those close to me." But to stay in Turkey "was necessary because we truly desired it and [had to do so] out of respect to the thousands of friends in Turkey [who] struggled for democracy and who supported us. We were going to stay and we were going to resist." In an allusion to the recurring trauma of collective destruction and exile, he reveals how strongly he was clinging to his beloved home: "If we were forced to leave one day, however? We were going to set out just as in 1915? Like our ancestors? Without knowing where we were going? Walking the roads they walked through? Feeling the ordeal, experiencing the pain? With such a reproach we were going to leave our homeland. And we would go where our feet took us, but not our hearts." It is in light of this vivid memory of 1915 that the magnitude of his murder becomes apparent, almost as if those unspeakable events have continued unabated to the present day.

In his last days, Mr. Dink wrote that he felt the "unease of a pigeon" that must constantly live in fear of being preyed upon. But in an expression of unfailing hope and trust in his fellow Turkish citizens, he remained confident that "in this country people do not touch pigeons. Pigeons live their lives all the way deep into the city, even amidst the human throngs. Yes, somewhat apprehensive but just as much free." Yet, it was in the busy streets of Istanbul, amidst the human throngs, that he was shot to death. At least if this shocking betrayal awakens the Turkish people to the paramount necessity of atonement for the past, Mr. Dink's confidence in his fellow citizens may still be vindicated, and the restless ghosts of Ottoman times may finally repose in their sepulchers.

Payam Akhavan is a professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal and a former UN war crimes prosecutor at The Hague.