The Role of Hrant Dink in Armenian-Turkish Social Developments

Ruben Melkonyan (*)

Hrant Dink, who gained fame due to his journalistic and editorial activity since 1996, was definitely known to a small part of Armenian and Turkish societies.  Even the majority of Turkologists had a shallow understanding of Dink and this was limited to brief information on his active participation in left-wing movements in Turkey.  
In the initial phase, the establishment of "Agos" newspaper was of essential and serious significance mostly for the Istanbul Armenian community, later on expanding its geographical impact. The existing "traditional" media of the Istanbul Armenian community had more community-like, so called limited targets, but "Agos" and Hrant Dink initially acted beyond "narrow community" newspaper limits and at last succeeded in it. Within a certain period of time Dink became more famous due to his willingness to present Armenian issues to the Turkish and Turkish-speaking audience, as well as due to the consecutive steps in this direction. As a result, he found himself in the maelstrom of the Armenian-Turkish relations.
It should be mentioned as well that Hrant Dink's name was not accepted so definitely within Armenian scopes (that is to say, in Armenia and the Diaspora), since Dink's viewpoints on Armenian-Turkish relations, dialogue, and mutual perception sometimes did not correspond to the traditional viewpoints. However, at the beginning of the 2000s Dink's viewpoints and actions regarding Armenian-Turkish relationships were more and more broadly considered in sociopolitical discussions. Indeed, the approaches offered by Dink resulted in double perceptions, but mostly because these approaches were new and out of traditional patterns. Moreover, such approaches were suggested by a man who knew both Armenians and Turks almost equally. As a reader of "Agos" and follower of Dink's public activity, I can say that both the newspaper and Hrant underwent certain evolution during those years, which directly impacted both the direction of the newspaper and Dink’s more complete viewpoints. In particular, "Agos" reached another level: it became a platform for free discussion of Armenian-Turkish relations, Armenian community and general Armenian topics. These were the discussions that at last led to the breaking of certain taboos rooted in Turkey for decades. By facing Armenian reality more, Dink, at his turn, began definitely proofreading and sometimes reformulating his viewpoints. Thus, Hrant Dink became a social diplomat in fact, who knew Turkey and Turkish society very well and already managed to get to know Armenia and Armenian society. That is why Hrant Dink took a special role and place in the Armenian-Turkish relations and became a social figure who best pictured the  communication ways of societies and had influence upon them.
Before Hrant Dink was assassinated, there were mainly three approaches towards him in the Armenian society: 1. Interest towards his approaches and sometimes approval thereof, 2. Rejection of approaches and strict criticism towards Dink, 3. Indifference. Broader scopes of Armenian society (both in Armenia and the Diaspora) began learning about Hrant Dink after 2005, but Dink’s assassination brought him all-Armenian fame. Thereafter, the "hero-making" process of Dink began in the Armenian environment. It is distinctive that Dink was immediately perceived as a new victim of the Armenian Genocide and the expression 1 500 000+1, as well as posters were not something accidental. The fact that people visited the monument of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan and put flowers on the Malatia memorial wall, as he was from Malatia, on the day of his death comes to proof that Dink was understood as a new victim of the Armenian Genocide. Both Hrant Dink’s funerals and the actions thereafter had also a double perception in the Armenian environment. The first was a superficial perception, according to which there were thousands of Armenians in Turkey who took part in a protest march and openly announced that they were Armenians. This is known to be a wrong opinion and Armenians did not make a majority among the participants in the protest march at all. The second perception, much more spread in specialized circles, was that Dink with his activity and death managed to break a serious taboo and change the way of thinking in certain areas of Turkish society. It would be desirable to see a more frequent treatment of this perception in the Armenian environment and a more professional approach to show this, which is the phenomenon of Dink’s activities. 
As a Turkish Studies scholar, I am much more interested in the developments taking place in the Turkish society. I think that Dink's public activity opened a way for two realities: first, the number of persons who were ready to listen and sometimes study and present to the society viewpoints significantly different from the ones in the official thesis increased and coalesced around Dink’s personality. Second, Dink became a target of various government agencies and a chauvinist society. The issue of the Armenian Genocide is number one among taboos and closed topics of the Turkish society. Dink's selected method was to slowly and sometimes indirectly provide the Turkish society with information on the Armenian Genocide. This method was justified and began producing results.  The issue of Armenians and their offspring that were forced to adopt Islam during those years has an important place in the issue of the Genocide. Hrant Dink seriously took up the issue of Islamized Armenians by providing space in his newspaper for case studies and personal stories on that issue. All these are also direct consequences of the Armenian Genocide, since the last much broader islamization of the Armenians took place in 1915. The issue of the Armenians that were forced to adopt Islam, on its turn, is among the issues of ethnic identity in Turkey, “identity crisis,” and it may be stated that it seems to take a serious dimension. It is interesting and at the same time natural that the issue of ethnic identity in Turkey is much more widespread among Islamized Armenians and their offspring. The integral part of this issue is that the generations of Islamized Armenians in Turkey began to look for their roots and "Agos" became a platform for publishing such stories and searching for people. On this point, Hrant Dink said: "It is a spirit of times. Today many people in Turkey are wandering in the labyrinth of their identity." The article published in "Agos" by Hrant Dink and Tiran Lokmagyozyan in 2006 shocked the Turkish society.  The article was based on facts and said that the adoptive daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey, called Sabiha Gokcen, who is the first female pilot of the country and one of the symbols of Turkey, was indeed Armenian indeed and her name was Khatun Sebiljyan.   This article became, in the literal sense of the word, the top issue of the Turkish political and social agenda in those days and it would be enough to mention that the General Staff of Armed Forces made an announcement on this issue and qualified Dink’s findings as a threat to the national security of the country. Many think that Dink's real persecution started and became more severe after this article.
The process that started after Dink's death resulted in a number of social changes in Turkey. Among them are the publication of books on Armenian Genocide and the increase of articles, discussions, newspapers touching upon this very topic. We may say that today a certain layer, albeit small, has been formed in the Turkish society that has a different viewpoint on the Armenian Genocide and rejects the state thesis.   The fact that there is a certain number of scholars and analysts in today's Turkey who study and disseminates several taboo issues is very important for me as a scholar. The articles of these scholars were and are published in "Agos" newspaper and, in fact, the influence of Dink’s activity here cannot be denied.
In sum, we can state that both Hrant Dink's activity and death played a pivotal role in the development of mutual awareness of Armenian and Turkish societies. Prior to Dink, the layer that allowed different viewpoints about the Armenian issue was more wordless and disorganized, and thanks to "Agos" and Dink's actions, today we have a layer in the Turkish public that contributes to the formation and development of the civil society in Turkey. The formation of such a layer will contribute to the Armenian-Turkish dialogue and will help the Turkish society to face historical truths more quickly and correctly, which is an important pledge for natural communication between Armenian and Turkish societies.
(*) Dean of the School of Oriental Studies at Yerevan State University.
"Repair" (www.repairfuture.net), June 13, 2013

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