The murder of an outspoken Armenian journalist has sent shockwaves throughout Turkey, raising questions about whether a recent nationalist upsurge in the country has taken a violent turn against the country’s minorities.
Last week’s murder of Hrant Dink also presents the government with a serious challenge to its already embattled democratization and political reform efforts.
Although Turkey’s 25,000-member Jewish community has not been targeted — the 2003 bombings of two Istanbul synagogues were attributed to al-Qaida-type Islamists rather than Turkish nationalists — community officials are expressing concern about the nationalist atmosphere in Turkey.
“The fact that nationalism is on the rise is very troubling for us,” one senior Jewish community leader said. “As a minority, we see [Dink’s murder] as a result of the rise of nationalism in the society, of the encouragement of nationalism in many parts of the society.”
In a massive outpouring of grief, tens of thousands of Turks gathered Tuesday in the heart of Istanbul for the funeral procession.
Dink was editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos and a vocal critic of Turkey’s treatment of its religious minorities as well as its policy of rejecting claims that the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 was genocide.
He had been put on trial several times for “insulting” Turkish identity with his writings. In 2005 he was convicted in one case and given a six-month suspended sentence.
Last Friday he was shot three times near the entrance to the newspaper’s offices. Turkish police arrested Ogun Samast, 17, from the Black Sea city of Trabzon, in connection with the murder.
“Those who created nationalist sentiment in Turkey have fed such a monster that there are many youngsters on the streets who do not find the state nationalist enough and are ready to take the law into their own hands,” Ismet Berkan wrote in Radikal, one of Turkey’s main dailies.
The last few years have seen Turkey engaged in a deep internal struggle. The country’s push for European Union membership has resulted in significant political reforms, particularly regarding democratization and human rights, and the freeing up of debate on what previously had been taboo subjects, such as the Armenian question.
But the E.U.-related reforms have prompted a strong nationalist backlash. Nationalist lawyers and prosecutors have been able to use a law, known as Article 301, to charge writers and journalists like Dink and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk with the crime of insulting the state as a way of stifling the emerging debates and putting the brakes on Turkey’s E.U. bid.
Some say the backlash also explains why various conspiracy theory books about the United States and Israel have become popular, as has a Turkish translation of “Mein Kampf.” The murder early last year of a Catholic priest in Trabzon also was seen as an expression of the nationalist wave.
“In a sense, both sides have been sharpening their axes thinking that the E.U. question is the final intellectual battle in Turkey,” said Ali Carkoglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University. “It touches on everything that is salient in Turkish politics: the Islam vs. secularism debate, democratization and the extent to which individual human rights are to be protected.”
For many Turks, Dink’s murder harkens back to the turbulent 1970s and ’80s, when journalists and intellectuals often were the victims of ideologically motivated violence. Though Turkey has moved forward since then, some wonder whether the murder is an indication that the political gains made over the past few years really have been consolidated.
“By Turkish standards [Dink] was playing in a way that the nationalists were not used to,” said Rifat Bali, a Jewish, Istanbul-based researcher who studies Turkey’s minorities and is an expert on the Jewish community. “In a way he took too many risks, he underestimated his opponents.
“The message of the murder is you shut up, know your limits as an Armenian or a non-Muslim, and do not go public often and repeatedly, otherwise it will turn out bad for you,” Bali said.
Turkey’s government was quick to respond to the murder, sending top officials to oversee the investigation. The quick arrest of Samast also is seen as a positive sign, since perpetrators of such crimes were rarely caught in the past.
According to press reports, Samast has confessed, saying he decided to murder Dink after reading on the Internet that he had insulted Turkey.
“A bullet has been fired at democracy and freedom of expression,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on television. “I condemn the traitorous hands behind this disgraceful murder. This was an attack on our peace and stability.”
But experts here say the murder poses a major challenge for the Turkish government, led by the moderately Islamic Justice and Development Party.
“Domestically speaking, we have a big challenge,” Carkoglu said. “If we cannot protect our small minorities, other big talk about democratization in our country is not worth much.”
Dink, who founded Agos in 1996, used his last few columns to write about his legal woes. His final column dealt with the increasing amount of hate mail he was getting, including one letter that scared him enough that he went to the local prosecutor to ask, unsuccessfully, for protection.
“I don’t know anyone else like him who raised his voice for minorities and democracy in Turkey,” veteran journalist and human rights activist Murat Celikkan said. “Intellectually he was a very important figure for Turkey. We don’t have anyone else like him.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.