An historical heroine; Turkey and the Armenians

The Economist
March 27 2004

An historical heroine; Turkey and the Armenians

Sabiha Gokcen, a Turkish aviator

A row over the ethnicity of a Turkish icon

WAS she Armenian? The question was on the minds of generals marking
the third anniversary, on March 22nd, of the death of Sabiha Gokcen,
Turkey’s first woman pilot and the adopted daughter of modern
Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. The generals denounced claims that
Turkey’s feminist icon was an Armenian by birth when they appeared
last month in Agos, a Turkish-Armenian paper in Istanbul.

Any such debate mocked national values and was not conducive to
social peace, fumed the top brass. Hrant Dink, Agos’s managing
editor, counters that it shows that Turks cannot confront their
identity and past. He has been deluged with death threats and mobbed
by ultra-nationalists ever since publishing claims by Hripsime
Sebilciyan Gazalyan, an Armenian, that Miss Gokcen was her aunt. The
official version is that she was an orphan from Bursa, in western
Turkey, who was adopted by Ataturk in 1925. Mrs Gazalyan says that
Ataturk plucked her from an orphanage in the south-eastern town of
Sanliurfa, where she was dumped after losing her father in the mass
slaughter of Armenians in 1915.

Armenians insist that as many as 1.5m of their kin were murdered by
Ottoman forces in what they term genocide. The Turks say at most
300,000 Armenians perished, in a conflict Armenians instigated by
allying with invading Russian troops. The few Turkish scholars who
have challenged the official line have been called traitors. Taner
Akcam, the only Turkish historian to have talked of genocide, had to
seek refuge in America after a string of Turkish universities refused
to hire him.

Despite the row over Miss Gokcen, Mr Dink argues that attitudes to
Turkey’s 80,000 Armenians are changing. The mildly Islamist
government led by the Justice and Development Party has nominated
several Armenians for local elections on March 28th. Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, the prime minister, vows to restore an exquisite Armenian
church in the eastern province of Van. There is talk of resuming
diplomatic ties with Armenia – so long as the Armenians drop demands
that Turkey admit to genocide.

GRAPHIC: A magnificent Turk – or Armenian?