The elephant in the room in Istanbul

armenia 447 genocidememorial4There is no way to come to Turkey to talk about issues of journalism and religious freedom without realizing that, the whole time you are here, there is a very large elephant in the room, a subject that is hard to talk about openly.

This issue has a name — Hrant Dink.

Who was this man? Reporters Without Borders tells us this:

Turkey’s journalists are mourning the death of Hrant Dink, 52, a newspaper editor of Armenian origin who was gunned down on 19 January. The barbaric action of Ogun Samast, a 17-year-old Turkish ultra-nationalist, silenced an advocate of peace and democracy. Throughout his career, Dink fought passionately for acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide, and was awarded the Henri Nannen Press Freedom Prize in recognition of his efforts. His death has exacerbated the divisions between nationalists and the more progressive sectors of Turkish society. Tirelessly committed and always controversial, Dink never lost faith in the possibility of national reconciliation.

“I have the right to die in the country where I was born.”

I cannot begin to even hint at all the layers in this story. It is, of course, a story about religious freedom for a minority here in Turkey. It is, of course, a story about the freedom of the press. It is a story about the tensions here between a global tide of Islamist power and Turkey’s unique, fragile and flawed (ask the Armenians) concept of a “secular Muslim state.” It is a story about those who deny that the Armenian genocide took place.

But, more than anything else, the death of Dink is the headline on another story — the fact that there are still people, Muslims and Christians and Jews, who dream that they can all be Turks, that this can be one nation.

Who am I to try to talk about that?

So, as I pack up to leave the old city in Istanbul, let me point you to a remarkable column by Orhan Kemal Cengiz in the Turkish Daily News that ran with the headline “We Cannot Afford to Lose Our Armenians!”

You must read all of this column. But here is a long, long quote, one that is very hard to edit. You have to read it to believe it.

I would like to bring to your attention a new kind of threat especially directed towards Armenian schools, which evidently aims at scaring away Armenians from Turkey. I would like to quote from a recent threat letter received by Armenian schools.

The following text was on the first page of the message: “This was sent to all institutions concerned with the matter. This movement was started for the sake of Turkey’s future and its unity.”

The following pages featured a long text, entitled “The Last Warning and Ultimatum,” accusing Turkish Armenians of separatism and efforts to ruin the Turkish state.

The message also mentioned the murder of Hrant Dink: “… exclamations saying ‘We are all Armenians, we are all Hrant Dink’ are examples of extreme chauvinism and summons for revolution. Do not forget that besides the Armenian citizens of Turkey, there are also Armenians from Armenia in our land, and they number over one hundred thousand. Both their addresses and their workplaces are well known. Henceforth we hope to see our Armenian citizens as advocates of truth, concerning the Armenian genocide or any other matter, and as defenders of the Turkish statehood.

“We shall keep an eye on how the Armenians are playing this role. Otherwise, the Armenians shall be those to lie in the grave and count how many Armenians and how many Turks there were in the ‘ages long past’. This land has never pardoned treachery and shall not. Who does not stand for our paradise homeland is against us and shall be vanquished.”

The text ends with the following words: “There is no defense line. That line is the entire territory. Anything else is just a trifle when the fate of the homeland is concerned. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk … This is the last ultimatum. It is not to be repeated.”

… It is also quite thought provoking, isn’t it, that this racist letter threatens Armenians with a total extinction if they talk about the Armenian genocide — “Do not talk about genocide or you may be the victim of a new one!”

What can you say after that?

Photo: Rites at the Armenian genocide memorial.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • alan

    My great-grandfather was a great philanthropist who had set up free food kitchens in a city on the Tigris where indigent persons of all religions, Turk, Jew, Assyrian, Kurd alike could come to be fed. He was brutally disembowled while alive by the personal security forces of the provincial Governor, who believed that Armenians were vermin who should be eradicated, just like bacteria. Just being Armenian was enough of a reason for the Governor to order the brutal killing of him and his three sons.

  • Bible Belt Blogger

    I visited Istanbul in February 2005 along with my wife and a group of University of Michigan journalism fellows. From our hotel room overlooking Taksim Square, my wife and I were able to watch security forces tear-gas peaceful protesters and chase them through the streets on a chilly Sunday afternoon. The protesters’ crime — attempting to exercise free speech in a semi-authoritarian state.

    Later, I was able to have lunch with Hrant Dink, a gentle, soft-spoken and courageous journalist who sought the truth — and was murdered for doing so.

    During the trip, I met with Turkish military leaders who wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another coup if they disapproved of the elected leadership. (They were gracious hosts, serving us excellent tea and cookies and gave us commemorative coffee-table books about the Turkish defense forces.)

    Later, we learned about the religious persecution that Christians face across Turkey.

    Turkey is a beautiful country. But don’t call it a full-fledged democracy. Not yet.

  • Bible Belt Blogger

    One other thing. It’s not just Christians who face persecution in Turkey. Shi’a Muslims and the Alevi are also targets.

    In Turkey, the Imams (Sunnis) are employees of the state. Government funds pay for mosques. The sermons are approved by government bureaucrats before they’re delivered.

    That doesn’t mean that Sunnis can breathe easy, however. The military stands ready to intervene if it considers the Sunni Muslim political candidates too radical or not sufficiently secular.

  • Larry Tekvori

    Great article. has some videos on hrant dink, one from aljazeera and one from bbc are must-see. The caus eof the hate are people like the webmaster of, a new york Turk who has influenced millions with his hate site. See or (June 5) for his expose. Once people like him are rooted out, then HRANT DINKs and freedom can live. P.S. The Armenian Genocid eis irrefutable and incontestible. THANKS!