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12.2.15

Not Another ‘Je Suis’ Article



Harout Ekmanian
 
The attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last month prompted millions of French citizens and people from around the world to celebrate the slain journalists as martyrs of freedom of speech. We have seen similar waves of reactions in Turkey, Armenia, and the Armenian Diaspora every January since 2007, when editor/journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated in daylight on his newspaper’s doorstep in central Istanbul by Turkish nationalists.
Although in both cases the victim(s) pushed the boundaries of free speech, the circumstances were different in essence. Charlie Hebdo has never made an effort to be considerate of any religious, political, or other sensitivities. Hebdo’s humor is creative and challenging, but also provocative and offensive. Dink, on the other hand, made every effort to engage in dialogue with his readers while writing about the Armenian Genocide and human rights issues in Turkey. He was careful to not antagonize the public. In other words, the French newspaper’s understanding of free speech could be considered a luxury compared to the suppressed minority voice that Dink and his newspaper Agos represented.
The journalists of Charlie Hebdo were massacred by Islamist fundamentalists, who were later killed in clashes with the police. They were condemned and denounced by the French public, including by wide segments of the Muslim communities in Europe, which rejected their radical ideology. In comparison, Dink’s assassin was lionized by the Turkish police; the masterminds behind the plot remained unpunished; and the ensuing investigation and trials have turned into a circus.
Impunity and injustice in Turkey have led to numerous other infringements against the media. Several journalists and columnists have either been jailed or fired from their newspapers for being critical of government policies and the ideology of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party. The latest example is the imprisonment of Istanbul-born Armenian writer and intellectual Sevan Nisanyan.
Nisanyan is an eccentric and provocative figure. He is known for his tough stance against the Turkish government and his sharp criticism towards Turkish nationalists and conservatives. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Wrong Republic, criticizing Kemalism and the foundations of modern Turkey; Index Anatolicus, about the original names of places in Turkey; The Etymological Dictionary of Modern Turkish; and Master, Can I Criticize God and the Prophet.
Nisanyan is also famous for the “Nisanyan Houses” After settling in Sirince, a former Greek village in the Aegean hills of western Turkey, he renovated ruined historic houses using traditional materials and building techniques, and converted them into highly acclaimed boutique hotels. He also constructed the Mathematics Village near Sirince with his friend Ali Nesin, as well as the Theatrical School and the Nisanyan Memorial Library. However, Nisanyan often ignored bureaucratic hurdles and defied local authorities who wanted to hinder his work.
In September 2012, in response to reactions to the film “Innocence of Islam” in countries with a Muslim majority, Nisanyan wrote in his blog that “Mocking an Arab leader who centuries ago claimed to have contacted God and made political, financial, and sexual benefits out of this is not a crime of hatred. It is an almost kindergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression.”
In May 2013, he was charged with insulting the Prophet Mohammed, which comes with a prison sentence of 1.5 years. The charges were soon dropped, but Nisanyan’s words brought about an increase in harassment and threats, which eventually landed him in jail in early 2014. Even though the official pretext of his 6.5-year jail sentence was the illegal construction in Sirince, there is no doubt in Turkey that the real reasons are his offensive comments about the Prophet Mohammed. Pro-government newspapers ran headlines declaring, “He got what he deserved” and “This is what happens when you insult our prophet.”
Nisanyan’s jail sentence could be increased by more than two-dozen years, considering he is still facing similar charges in 12 other cases. He has been transported from one prison to another since his sentencing, each time placed in worse conditions. In an interview with CivilNet before going to prison, Nisanyan stressed that his crime was being Armenian.
In a recent interview from prison, a pale and thinner Nisanyan said, “Maybe there is a price for going into too many personal and political fights, and I am paying for them.”
Yet, Dink’s peaceful conduct and attempts to find a common language didn’t save his life in the end. Unfortunately, it was only after his death that we began to see a shift in Turkey. While Armenians in Turkey were still thinking “One life is too much,” another shock came when Armenian conscript Sevag Balikci was killed by a fellow soldier while serving in the Turkish Army—on April 24, 2011, the 96th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
While we can cry out and use hashtags claiming “We are all Hrant” or “We are all Sevag,” none of it will bring them back, nor will it stop more abuses against Armenians, minorities, human rights, and free speech in Turkey. Nisanyan is struggling against those who took away his freedom and the lives of many others. We must stand by him.
While we can cry out and use hashtags claiming “We are all Hrant” or “We are all Sevag,” none of it will bring them back, nor will it stop more abuses against Armenians, minorities, human rights, and free speech in Turkey. Nisanyan is struggling against those who took away his freedom and the lives of many others. We must stand by him.
I am not Sevan Nisanyan, and I do not desire to be in his shoes. But I want Nisanyan to be free, as he has always been, to say what others are afraid to say.

"The Armenian Weekly," February 12, 2015

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