Half a Legacy

Half a legacy simply won’t do!

Today is January 19. It’s Martin Luther King Junior Day in the United States. Across the Atlantic, in Turkey, today marks the eighth anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink. MLK and Dink are incontestably two great men who have left indelible marks on their respective countries’ human rights records. Two men with lasting legacies. But while MLK is being remembered with a day dedicated to his legacy, I am disturbed by the fact that Turkey and most Turkish people are splitting Dink’s legacy in half: by honoring the portion that may be easier to swallow than the rest. Let me explain.

It’s no secret that both Turkey and its citizens went through a transformation after the murder of Hrant Dink. Thousands marched in the streets with signs proclaiming they were all “Hrant Dink.” And an increasingly robust civil society has been working tirelessly, and making strides, to fulfill Dink’s dream of a more democratic, enlightened Turkey. In the years following his assassination, most of these dedicated individuals and groups followed the unfinished trail of the Dink investigation. And millions (including myself) got acquainted with exactly what this Turkish citizen of Armenian ancestry was trying to accomplish through his writings and presentations.

Most of us are still dissatisfied by the opaque process that characterizes the failure to solve Dink’s murder. [1] But we can’t deny that his assassination marked a unique opening in the way the Armenian genocide and other related subjects are being discussed and dissected in Turkey, where taboos once ruled the day.

This all may seem positive and inspiring, yet I can’t help but detect a willingness to ride the wave of only half of Dink’s legacy. Starting in my own environment of Massachusetts, with its ever-growing population of Turks, I have observed many people who, justifiably, fell in love with the notion of Dink’s call for a “dialogue” among the conflicted communities of Armenians and Turks around the world. In my conversations, observations, and meetings with several Turkish people, I’ve had the sense that most were more than ready to simply “get” to that phase of holding each other’s hands and riding into the sunset for the sake of peace and reconciliation . . . at the expense of jumping over a big clump of history that has yet to be acknowledged and accepted. For the record, I admit that I have used a few of those Dink quotes calling for a “dialogue” instead of a “monologue” in some of my own writings and videos.[2] Yet today, on this eighth anniversary of his brutal killing, I believe it’s high time to examine just how this concept of a dialogue among Armenian and Turkish people came to be.

So the question to ponder is this: “Why was Dink speaking about a dialogue in the first place?” (Answer: Because of the history of the Turkish Republic, a history that includes the Armenian genocide!) To understand the answer, we need to dig deeper.

Would Dink have become the man he was by the time of his murder—a symbol of the shared history of Armenians and Turks and their native land of Anatolia—if the nightmare of the 1915 genocide had not occurred? Would he have led Agos, and made it a unique newspaper that exposed countless stories of Armenians who never had the chance to speak out, and of others who discovered their Armenian ancestors? Probably not!

So what first sparked the fire in Dink and made him such an outspoken Turkish Armenian in Turkey? It was the Armenian genocide, or the “events of 1915” as the official Turkey calls it. If the nation-state of Turkey had not gone through its war of independence with the firm belief it should Turkify whatever land it could in order to remain a viable power; if it had not pursued a committed policy of making Turkishness the law of the land and Turkish the official language; if it had not created taboos around identifying its war crimes during WWI and accepting the rights of the country’s Kurdish population; if someone of Dink’s ethnicity hadn’t needed to be known as Fırat (instead of his actual name, Hrant) to make life easier; if discussing the events of 1915—and worse yet, if using the term genocide—hadn’t been a criminal act until very recently in a country that calls itself a democracy . . . If all these things hadn’t happened, Dink would not have been the man he was, and he would not have been speaking about our shared histories and the need for dialogue.

So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that because we all make similar dolmas and köftes in our kitchens, and because Turkish and Armenian musicians can hum the same melodies together, and because hope-filled films are being made by a collaboration of Turkish and Armenian filmmakers, and because books with the word soykırım (genocide) in the title are now freely being bought and sold in Turkey, the legacy of Hrant Dink is being justly respected in Turkey. As I write these words, I’ve been informed that a newly minted PhD candidate in political science from a prestigious university in Turkey was barred from using the term genocide in her dissertation. The head of the committee overseeing her defense made it clear that she simply could not sign off on her PhD unless she removed some of the provocative language!

As Dink said time and time again, what Turkey needs most of all is idrak (the dictionary translation may say comprehension, but I prefer to translate this as internalization). Until every Turkish person living inside or outside of Turkey can reach a point where the word genocide rolls off the tongue without hesitation, apprehension or fear, Dink’s legacy will remain half of what it should be. Because not only Dink himself, but all of Turkey’s people deserve no less. Facing our history, whether on an individual or national level, requires us to swallow a bitter pill. The word genocide is that pill, and it’s time for all Turkish people to start the process of getting its bitter taste down with a big tall glass of idrak.

[1] For those who can read Turkish, a thorough analysis of the flawed process marking the investigation of the Dink murder can be found in Utanç Duyuyorum (I am ashamed) by Fethiye Çetin, Metis Yayınları, 2013, Istanbul.

[2] One such quote out of many is: “We have lived together on this land for a very long time and therefore possess a common memory. And yet we have transformed this common memory into a string of one-note memories. We are speaking to our own choirs. Isn’t it time we changed these monologues into a dialogue so that we can work on reconstructing our common memory?”