Hrant Dink, the courageous editor of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos, was murdered in the middle of the day on Friday, January 19, on a city street in front of his office in Istanbul, by a 17-year-old man he had never met. Shot three times in the nape of the neck, he lay face down on the sidewalk, the blood pooling under him. His killer fled, brandishing his pistol and shouting, “I have killed an Armenian!” Dink was not killed for any deed or personal grudge but for who he was and for his words–words that were thought by nationalist Turks and right-wing opponents to be a threat to the Turkish state and to “Turkishness.” He was 52 years old, a man of enormous energy and passion, someone who embraced those who met him, enveloping them both physically and with his charm and charisma. The circles of his admirers extended far beyond the small, beleaguered community of Turkish Armenians.
Thousands gathered in Istanbul’s central square, Taksim, in the hours after his killing and chanted, “We are all Armenians! We are all Hrant Dink!” For those who loved him or were moved by his words, it is impossible to believe he is dead.
Whatever the immediate motives of the young assassin from Trebizond to stop Dink’s pen, Dink knew that he was extraordinarily vulnerable in the corrosive political atmosphere gathering in Turkey, an atmosphere enflamed by state prosecutions of dissident voices and nationalist media. “My computer’s memory,” he wrote in his last editorial, “is loaded with sentences full of hatred and threats. I am just like a pigeon…. I look around to my left and right, in front and behind me.” Like novelist Elif Shafak and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, both of whom have raised the issue of the genocidal deportations and massacres of hundreds of thousands of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire, so Dink had been brought before Turkish courts and accused under the infamous Article 301 of “insulting Turkishness.” And like the others he had not been jailed but given a suspended sentence, a gesture signaling that the Turkish state was still wavering between adopting the legal norms of Europe and turning its back on the invitation to join the European Union.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials from the government condemned the murder, and the culprit–Ogun Samast–was quickly apprehended. But in statements from the authorities some of the blame was placed on those outside Turkey who have brought forth parliamentary resolutions, as in France recently, to recognize the events of 1915 officially as a genocide. For eleven years Dink had edited Agos, a small-circulation newspaper, and though it had but 6,000 subscribers, its resonance was like a bell in a quiet night. In an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists in February 2006, he remarked, “The prosecutions are not a surprise for me. They want to teach me a lesson because I am Armenian. They try to keep me quiet.” When asked who “they” are, he answered as many in the Turkish opposition answer: “the deep state in Turkey,” referring to the dark forces within the military and power ministries, as well as nationalist elements, to which even the mildly Islamist Erdogan government must defer.
The paradox of Dink’s death is that he was killed in the name of a particularly narrow notion of patriotism while he was himself a fervent Turkish patriot. His vision of his native country was of a modern democratic, tolerant state on the eastern edge of Europe, in which his own people, the Armenians, could live with Turks, Kurds, Jews, Greeks and the other peoples who had coexisted, however uneasily, in the cosmopolitan empire out of which the Turkish Republic had emerged. What he could not tolerate was the denial of the shared history of those peoples, a history that involved mass killing of Armenians and more recent repression of Kurds. Dink was an active participant in the vital civil society in Turkey, key members of which have taken up the question of the Armenian genocide as an opening wedge to investigate the blank spots of Turkey’s past. He participated in international meetings that included Armenian and Turkish scholars exploring the causes and consequences of the policies of the Young Turk government during World War I. Last year he spoke at a Turkish academic conference on this theme at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, a breakthrough meeting that clearly frightened those nationalists who want to bury the inconvenient past.
While he was vitally interested in setting the record straight on 1915, Dink was more interested in the movement for Turkish democracy than in international recognition of the Armenian massacres as a genocide. Democracy in Turkey, he believed, would easily settle that historical matter. For some Armenians in the diaspora who know Turks far less well than their compatriots who live in Turkey, Dink’s lack of fanaticism on this issue made him suspect, though his outspokenness in the face of official sanction gave him a heroic aura. Last year the Norwegians awarded him the Bjornson Academy Prize for protection of freedom of expression. In his speech at Bilgi University last year, he told the largely Turkish audience, “We want this land; not to take it away but to lie under it!”