Altan Captivates Large Audience with Message of Hope at ALMA


Ahmet Altan at the Armenian Library and Museum of America

By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN, Mass. — Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan was not sure what reception he would receive at the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA), where he spoke on Saturday at a program organized by the Friends of Hrant Dink. He need not have worried, as the exchange was one that was mellow and positive.

Altan, the founding editor of Taraf, a leading left-wing publication in Turkey, has picked up the mantle of getting recognition for the Armenian Genocide within Turkey, one of many reasons that he and the staff of Taraf are routinely hauled into court.

In fact, during most of his time at the podium, a picture of a Taraf front page with the headline “1915 is a Genocide” was projected on a large screen.

Altan, in a humorous yet authoritative manner, said that Armenians can indeed teach Turks to do the right thing and recognize the Armenian Genocide, but that they have to appeal to the Turks’ hearts, rather than minds, in order to succeed.

Speaking English fluently, Altan was also intent on making it clear to the Armenians in attendance that the views of Turks are changing, though perhaps not as fast as Armenians would like.

“If you want Turkey to accept it, doing it by force is very hard. Only one man [the late Hrant Dink] managed to touch millions of Turks. Forget the state; go to the people. When they understand, they will force the state to change,” he said.

The late Agos editor’s assassination changed Turkish people, he explained. “They couldn’t understand what had happened. Two hundred thousand shouted, ‘we are Armenian, we are Hrant.’ They showed Hrant’s funeral live on television. Millions of Turks watched that funeral and they started to talk and discuss the Armenian issue.”

He also spoke at length about Dink, both in life and in death, and what both have meant — and mean and will mean.

“He was so gentle, so courageous. When he spoke about his childhood on television, millions of people cried. Turks have hearts and consciences, believe me. We need to proceed to overcome the bloody line of 1915,” he said.

“Now there is a lot of debate on TV about the Genocide,” Altan said, referring to the post-Dink period. “It was unthinkable 10 years ago to write this,” he added, referring to the headline “1915 is a genocide” on the front page of Taraf.

“I hope and wish that Turkey would accept and apologize for what happened. Once we start to talk, they will accept it. You must change your perception of Turkey. Maybe you can help Turkey change,” he said. One way for Armenians to enable that change is to visit Turkey often and tell the ordinary Turks about their family histories, he said.

Altan stressed that Turks and Turkey should accept and admit committing the Armenian Genocide not only to help the Armenians, but themselves. “If we confess our great sin, we could become a better race, a better people. We must suffer [as a result of the recognition of the past] the way that you suffered. If you tell them the stories of your families, the killed babies, women and old people, they will understand with their hearts,” Altan said. “The way between Armenians and Turks is through emotions.”

Armenian and Turkish pasts, he noted, including culture, are intertwined. “As far as I am concerned, Armenian culture was a huge part of Ottoman culture. I don’t believe there was a Turkish architect in the Ottoman Empire.”

He said he realized that many Armenians hated Turks but stressed often that many Turks simply do not know their country’s past. The current generation of Turks, he said, “think they should protect their butcher ancestors. I am ready to help you let them learn.”

He continued, “Turks must understand what [Armenian] families suffered. I offer every Armenian I meet the chance to tell their stories. Our newspaper is willing to publish their stories.”

Altan said that he did not necessarily favor the resolution passed in France making the denial of the Armenian Genocide punishable by law. “These kinds of resolutions help only the Turkish military and the Turkish government. They believe the world hates them and then [as a result of the adoption of such laws] they come together.”

Prof. Taner Akçam, who holds the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University, introduced Altan at the ALMA program. The two are not simply friends who are ideologically similar, but both were close friends of Dink.

Said Akçam in his introduction, “My friend Ahmet is one of the really best literary minds in Turkey. However, it is his journalistic activity that is important for us.” He added that Altan is “one of the leading journalists in Turkey. There have been more than 100 cases against him [in the courts].”

In fact, on Saturday, there was another case filed against him by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of an article in Taraf.

Akçam said that Taraf is more than a newspaper; “it is a movement in itself.” Since Turkey lacks a serious political opposition, Taraf is able to fill that role, he explained. “It is the leading opinion maker,” he said, noting that the current Ergenekon [deep state] trials that have sent hundreds of military officials to jail have been mostly due to the efforts of Altan and Taraf.

“Taraf revealed a lot of secret journals and information from the military, Ergenekon,” he added.

Altan has been a strong defender of Akçam himself, the scholar said, when the later faced threats because of his tireless work to get recognition for the Armenian Genocide.

Altan was born 1950 in Ankara, Turkey to the journalist and writer Çetin Altan. In addition to having written columns in several Turkish newspapers, including Hürriyet, Milliyet and Radikal, Altan has produced news programming for television. He was fired from Milliyet after writing a column on April 17, 1995, titled “Atakurd,” which presented an alternate history of Turkey in which he imagined what would have happened had Ataturk been a Kurd.

In September 2008, when Altan published an article titled “Oh, My Brother,” dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, he was charged under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for “denigrating Turkishness.”