An article by Oguz Alyanak, appeared in AnthroNews on the current state of affairs in Turkey, January 2017.
Alyanak writes, “To write a critical piece on Turkey today is not only a risky affair but also an unfeasible one as access to critical voices is severely limited.”
Copyright 2017 American Anthropological Association
Searching For a Stone of Hope in Turkey
The third Monday of January marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. In commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, many Americans reflect on the legacy of this civil rights advocate, whose famous speech on equality of all people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on a late August day in 1963 reminds us of our shared roots as human beings, and our struggles for freedom, regardless of the differences in our ethnicity, skin color, religion or class.
In 2015, January 19th marked Dr. King’s commemoration. The day also held a special meaning in Turkey for it coincided with the annual march to commemorate Hrant Dink. A journalist of Armenian origin, Dink was shot in 2007 as he exited his office in Istanbul at the Armenian daily Agos, for which he served as the editor. His recognition of the Armenian Genocide—which constitutes a taboo among the Turkish public and the state—as well as his outspoken commentary on the issue had made him the target of public uproar and prosecution. Prior to his assassination, Dink was tried several times under the much-debated Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code on denigrating Turkishness. Many other journalists and public figures, including the Nobel Prize Winner novelist Orhan Pamuk were tried under the same article. Those accused of denigrating Turkishness also received numerous death threats. Having been acquitted the first time, Dink’s assassination came at a time when he was going through another trial for his comments on the Armenian Genocide. He was facing up to two years in prison.
Following his assassination, thousands gathered in the streets of Istanbul and marched to the headquarters of the Armenian daily Agos. The march continues to be part of the ritual to commemorate Dink’s legacy. Carrying banners that read, “We are All Armenian”, “We are here ahparig” [my brother, in Armenian] and chanting “Murderer state will be accountable”, thousands march every January 19 to show their solidarity, to remind us all that his death cannot be tolerated as yet another casualty (62 other journalists have been assassinated in Turkish history prior to Dink), and to seek justice for him and many others like him who put their lives at risk by freely speaking their minds.
In 2015, January 19 also came at a time when the Turkish government was facing criticism for its heavy-handed policies to suppress the freedom of the press. According to Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index in 2014, Turkey is 154 in a list of 180 countries. The Report identifies Turkey as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.” Other international advocacy groups such as Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International point to the increasing number of detained journalists in the country and to the government’s lack of tolerance for free and critical expression and investigative reporting. One such journalist was Nedim Şener, whose reporting on the investigation of Dink’s assassination led to his allegation that a larger organization—that included police officers—was behind the killing. This led to Sener’s arrest in March 2011 and he was held in detention until March of the following year.
As we reflect in the United States on the wise words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and remember him in all his kindness, across the Atlantic in Turkey, we are left with yet another moment to reflect on things that make us human—compassion, brotherhood, difference, dialogue, freedom. Dr. King’s dialogue between black and white Americans found a different form in Hrant Dink’s discourse, which attempted to bring Turks and Armenians closer. Sadly, their considerate words were not taken to heart which leaves us today with marches, chants and slogans through which we perpetuate their memories.
2015 marked the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Despite continuous efforts by the Turkish state to deny the systematic looting, forced migration and killing of Armenians that took place during the First World War under the supervision of the then disintegrating Ottoman Empire (which reached its apex in April 1915), the international community has been reminded of the atrocities committed in the past and has asked that they not repeated. This was not an easy time either for Turks or for Armenians. It tested the limits of freedom of speech and expression, and limits to tolerate difference. It would have required a free press that would enable critical discussion to ensue. These are tenets that are sadly lacking in Turkey.
I choose not to cave into sorrow, though, for I know that even at a time of great despair we will find our stone of hope. That the marches—be they to commemorate Hrant Dink or Martin Luther King, or dozens of other lives taken each year by the state or others, Turkish and American alike—will provide us with the platforms to demand the justice we seek, and “to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day”.