Will a murder help Turkey?

The Japan Times, Japan
Jan 30 2007

EDITORIAL
Will a murder help Turkey?

The assassination of Turkish journalist Hrant Dink has forced Turks
to face their past. Mr. Dink was killed because he had called the
mass killings of Armenians in the early 20th century a genocide.
While his rhetoric angered many Turks, his death appears to have
prompted many more of them to think twice about the dangers of
unbridled nationalism. Mr. Dink’s murder has given Turkey the
opportunity to examine its past and heal the wounds that continue to
poison relations with its Armenian minority.

The exact number of Armenians that died between 1915 and 1917 is
unknown: Estimates range from 300,000 to 1.5 million, out of a
population reckoned to be over 2 million before 1914. Whatever the
exact figure, the scale is immense. Even more hotly disputed is the
cause of those deaths. The official Turkish government narrative is
that they were the result of ethnic strife, disease and famine, the
tragic but inevitable product of the chaos and confusion of World War
I.

Armenians counter that the deaths were the result of a deliberate
policy of the Ottoman Empire, an attempt to cleanse the territory of
a group of citizens that were not Turks. They demand that the
killings be recognized as the first case of genocide in the 20th
century. Historians are deeply divided, but a growing number accept
the argument that genocide is an apt description for what happened.

The historical dispute is tangled up in Turkish nationalism. Not only
are the two communities still deeply divided about what actually
happened and why, but Turks see the charge as an attack on the
legitimacy of their state. Allegations of mass murder are interpreted
as a slur against the country and its founding father Mustafa Kemal
Ataturk. Turkish nationalists are intolerant of such criticism. Nor
is the dispute purely historical: Some worry that the genocide charge
could legitimize the demands of ethnic Kurds in southern Turkey for
their own state.

Aggrieved Turks have legal recourse against such attacks. Article 301
of the Turkish Penal Code prohibits "insulting Turkishness," a
catch-all provision that has been used to punish or intimidate anyone
who supports the charges of genocide, along with a slew of lesser
inflammatory allegations. (To their credit, Turkish courts have
acquitted all those so charged.) Nobel Literature Prize Winner Orhan
Pamuk was charged with violating the statute in 2005, but that
allegation was dropped when it sparked an international uproar.

Mr. Dink was also prosecuted under 301 for his reiteration of the
genocide claim. His defense — that he only wanted to improve
relations between Armenians and Turks — was enough for the tribunal
but not for some of his critics. On Jan. 19, Mr. Ogun Samast, a
17-year-old Turkish nationalist, shot and killed Mr. Dink on the
street in front of his office. Mr. Samast was captured days later and
confessed to the crime, but questions have been raised about the
ability of someone of that age to pull off the act and then flee as
he did to another city. Many suspect he was part of a wider network.

The murder has shocked Turkey. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer
called the murder a "repugnant and shameful attack" that "deeply
wounded" Turkey. While many Turks may have disagreed with Mr. Dink’s
comments, only the most extreme nationalists are prepared to condone
the murder of such critics. The proof is in the estimated 100,000
mourners who marched the streets in solidarity at Mr. Dink’s funeral,
demanding freedom of expression and reconciliation between the
Turkish and Armenian communities. This mass outpouring of sympathy
suggests that such hopes are not misplaced. The Turkish government
even invited Armenian officials, religious leaders and members of the
Armenian diaspora to the funeral.

Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul admitted that
Article 301 was "problematic," and hinted that changes may be on the
way. This is part of a more general liberalization process, nudged
along by the prospect of Turkey’s membership in the European Union:
The EU has demanded various reforms as the price of Ankara’s entry
into the group.

Those changes must reflect more than political expediency if they are
to lead to real reconciliation. The perception that the Turkish
government is somehow diluting its authority as a result of foreign
pressure will only increase nationalism. Ankara must be seen as
leading the reform process and taking the initiative because it is
truly in the national interest, rather than merely responding to
European demands and adopting a path of least resistance. The
reaction to Mr. Dink’s murder suggests that a foundation for national
reconciliation exists in Turkey. A government that sought legitimacy
and support from all its citizens would seize the moment to condemn
the extremists and propose a truly nationalist agenda that embraced
all Turkey’s citizens.

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