Journalist’s Murder Worries Turkish Jews

Yigal Schleifer
JTA Wire Service

Baltimore Jewish Times, MD
Feb 8 2007

The murder of an outspoken Armenian journalist has sent shockwaves
throughout Turkey, raising questions about whether a recent nationalist
upsurge in the country has taken a violent turn against the country’s

Last week’s murder of Hrant Dink also presents the government with
a serious challenge to its already embattled democratization and
political reform efforts.

Although Turkey’s 25,000-member Jewish community has not been targeted
— the 2003 bombings of two Istanbul synagogues were attributed to
al-Qaida-type Islamists rather than Turkish nationalists — community
officials are expressing concern about the nationalist atmosphere
in Turkey.

"The fact that nationalism is on the rise is very troubling for
us," one senior Jewish community leader said. "As a minority, we see
[Dink’s murder] as a result of the rise of nationalism in the society,
of the encouragement of nationalism in many parts of the society."

In a massive outpouring of grief, tens of thousands of Turks gathered
Tuesday in the heart of Istanbul for the funeral procession.

Dink was editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos
and a vocal critic of Turkey’s treatment of its religious minorities
as well as its policy of rejecting claims that the mass killing of
Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 was genocide.

He had been put on trial several times for "insulting" Turkish identity
with his writings. In 2005 he was convicted in one case and given a
six-month suspended sentence.

Last Friday he was shot three times near the entrance to the
newspaper’s offices. Turkish police arrested Ogun Samast, 17, from
the Black Sea city of Trabzon, in connection with the murder. "Those
who created nationalist sentiment in Turkey have fed such a monster
that there are many youngsters on the streets who do not find the
state nationalist enough and are ready to take the law into their own
hands," Ismet Berkan wrote in Radikal, one of Turkey’s main dailies.

The last few years have seen Turkey engaged in a deep internal
struggle. The country’s push for European Union membership has
resulted in significant political reforms, particularly regarding
democratization and human rights, and the freeing up of debate on
what previously had been taboo subjects, such as the Armenian question.

But the E.U.-related reforms have prompted a strong nationalist
backlash. Nationalist lawyers and prosecutors have been able to use
a law, known as Article 301, to charge writers and journalists like
Dink and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk with the crime of insulting the
state as a way of stifling the emerging debates and putting the brakes
on Turkey’s E.U. bid.

Some say the backlash also explains why various conspiracy theory
books about the United States and Israel have become popular, as has
a Turkish translation of "Mein Kampf." The murder early last year of
a Catholic priest in Trabzon also was seen as an expression of the
nationalist wave.

"In a sense, both sides have been sharpening their axes thinking
that the E.U. question is the final intellectual battle in Turkey,"
said Ali Carkoglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University.

"It touches on everything that is salient in Turkish politics: the
Islam vs. secularism debate, democratization and the extent to which
individual human rights are to be protected."

For many Turks, Dink’s murder harkens back to the turbulent 1970s and
’80s, when journalists and intellectuals often were the victims of
ideologically motivated violence. Though Turkey has moved forward
since then, some wonder whether the murder is an indication that
the political gains made over the past few years really have been

"By Turkish standards [Dink] was playing in a way that the nationalists
were not used to," said Rifat Bali, a Jewish, Istanbul-based
researcher who studies Turkey’s minorities and is an expert on the
Jewish community. "In a way he took too many risks, he underestimated
his opponents.

"The message of the murder is you shut up, know your limits as an
Armenian or a non-Muslim, and do not go public often and repeatedly,
otherwise it will turn out bad for you," Bali said.

Turkey’s government was quick to respond to the murder, sending top
officials to oversee the investigation. The quick arrest of Samast
also is seen as a positive sign, since perpetrators of such crimes
were rarely caught in the past.

According to press reports, Samast has confessed, saying he decided to
murder Dink after reading on the Internet that he had insulted Turkey.

"A bullet has been fired at democracy and freedom of expression,"
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on television. "I condemn the
traitorous hands behind this disgraceful murder. This was an attack
on our peace and stability."

But experts here say the murder poses a major challenge for the
Turkish government, led by the moderately Islamic Justice and
Development Party.

"Domestically speaking, we have a big challenge," Carkoglu said. "If
we cannot protect our small minorities, other big talk about
democratization in our country is not worth much."

Dink, who founded Agos in 1996, used his last few columns to write
about his legal woes. His final column dealt with the increasing
amount of hate mail he was getting, including one letter that scared
him enough that he went to the local prosecutor to ask, unsuccessfully,
for protection.

"I don’t know anyone else like him who raised his voice for minorities
and democracy in Turkey," veteran journalist and human rights activist
Murat Celikkan said. "Intellectually he was a very important figure
for Turkey. We don’t have anyone else like him."

This story reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS