By Alin K. Gregorian
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The third annual Hrant Dink Memorial Peace and Justice Lecture took place on April 5 on the topic of minorities and human rights in Turkey. The panel discussion, sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, featured panelists Ayse Gul Altinay, Gerard Libaridian and Etyen Mahçupyan, with moderator Malika Zeghal.
The three panelists brought very different sensibilities and viewpoints to the discussion.
Altinay, who is a professor of anthropology at Sabançi University, discussed her personal journey growing up knowing nothing about the Armenian Genocide to her later collaboration with Fethiye Çetin on The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of “Lost” Armenians in Turkey, which was published in 2014.
Altinay spoke about her early interest in studying the tendency toward militarization in Turkish culture. Her first book, The Myth of the Military-Nation: Militarism, Gender and Education, had only one reference to the Armenian Genocide, and it was a footnote and the phrase itself was put in quotation marks. She expressed shame and blamed herself for her lack of curiosity in investigating what the real story was.
In effect, she said, “I was contributing to the silence” about the Armenian Genocide.
In the early 2000s, several books were published in Turkey about the Armenians, including one by Takuhi Tovmasyan, about food and the family table, as well as Çetin’s book about her Armenian grandmother, which became a turning point for Altinay. The notion that about 200,000 Armenian women were coerced into marrying Turkish men during the time of the Genocide, means that millions of Turks have Armenian ancestry.
In November 2013, the first national conference on Islamized Armenians was held in Istanbul, organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation. Even in this forum in which the Genocide was acknowledged, the issue of sexual violence was mentioned only once, Altinay said.
It was a short hop to get from the historical and hypothetical to the concrete for Altinay, who found out through a cousin that their great-grandfather had been in charge of counting the deportees passing through their town during the Armenian Genocide. He had also married an Armenian woman — his second wife — who had converted to Islam. With the new understanding Altinay had about the Genocide and rapes, she started wondering how consensual the relationship was.
Altinay also touched upon the changing nature of academia in Turkey, where academics are increasingly recognizing the Armenian Genocide and yet, because of the current post-coup crackdown across society, and many lose their jobs or face arrest for going against the official line.
Finally, Altinay paid tribute to Hrant Dink.
“He was a great intellectual and human being. We continue to mourn his loss and be inspired” by him, she said.
She praised the work of the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul, with which she is closely involved, saying its many activities, including conferences, exchange programs with Armenia and other educational lectures, are making a huge contribution to civil society in Turkey.
“It is an incredible space and an organization that looks at many critical issues and brings people together in a new building in an Armenian neighborhood,” she said.
Mahçupyan Talks Referendum
Journalist Etyen Mahçupyan chose to expand the definition of the evening’s topic to include the Sunni Muslim majority. As he described it, though they may numerically be a majority, they perceive themselves as a minority.
“It’s a special time in Turkish history where the minority is grabbing the chance to come to majority,” he said.
Mahçupyan is a columnist who for three years took over Agos, the newspaper Dink had founded, after the latter’s assassination. He now contributes to the Turkish dailies Sabah and Yeni Safak. A member of the Justice and Development (AKP) party, he was appointed an advisor to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu but was eventually let go after speaking about the Armenian Genocide.
In order to define the idea of a minority, he said a group or individual has to feel outside the sphere of power; there must be a power deficiency and a self-perception as minority, rather than the actual size of the group.
Thus, he summarized, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalists feel they are in the minority. They want to “become a majority and for that they need [Recep] Tayyip Erdogan.”
The Islamic community has enlarged and the movement is much stronger than it was in the 1990s, he said, when AKP came to power 15 years ago. “This is a success story. They came from the periphery,” he said, and have since replaced Kemalism, an ideology which combines nationalism with secularism. He spoke at length about the trajectory of the AKP power base, which at one time reached out to entities it has since tried to kill off: the army, the Gulenist movement (led by the US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen), the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) and the European Union. “These are actors that can change political power in Turkey,” Mahçupyan said.
AKP needed legitimacy and “that is why they needed those partners. This took them to 2013. It was understood that Gulen had a very big appetite and the partnership ended,” he said.
Once there were no more partners let, “they need to create something without the need of partners” and thus arrived as “restructuring the system.”
Mahçupyan said he was certain that the coup last summer, suggested by some to have been orchestrated by Erdogan himself to remove his enemies from the ranks of the military, judiciary and police, among others, was the real deal. He did agree, however, that the coup made his referendum possible. “Turkish nationalists from the left and the right joined together,” Mahçupyan said, post coup.
Mahçupyan spoke at length about the constitutional referendum in Turkey on April 16 (which will take place after press time), and the chances of its passage. If approved, it would alter the constitution to concentrate power in the hands of the president and abolish the office of the prime minister.
The “glue” holding the disparate group supporting Erdogan’s referendum consists of the following, he said: the fear of terror; the European Union and the US helping terrorists like Gulen and the PKK; going through a survival struggle and a system that cannot deal with any of those problems.
Mahçupyan concluded that he did not think the referendum would pass and that this current political climate “would fade away in a couple of years,” as part of the cyclical nature of politics in Turkey.
During the question-and-answer period, Mahçupyan summed up his observation of the Turkish leader: “Erdogan is like a Shakespearean figure to me.”
Libaridian, the former Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History, University of Michigan and a special advisor to President Levon Ter-Petrosian, Republic of Armenia’s first president, suggested that Turkey is suffering from the “Sevres Syndrome,” in which the leadership collectively fears that the country would be divided through “a collusion of enemies.”
“Fear is nurtured and exploited,” Libaridian said.
He then spoke about Turkey’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), “the most powerful military alliance ever.” However, despite being part of such a collosal group, the Sevres Syndrome “continues to thrive,” and thus, “states that rely on enemies find enemies.”
The current situation harkens back to the days before 1915 when Armenian and Turkish leftist ideologues, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the Hnchakians, and the Committee for Union and Progress (Ittihat ve Terakki), banded together against the brutal Sultan Abdul Hamid, especially regarding land reform. In fact, he said, the Armenian partisans not only had their Armenian ideologies, but they formed the left wing in Ottoman politics.
Of course, the Armenians ended up suffering the most at the hands of their erstwhile allies when the latter came to power. “By eliminating the Armenians, they [the Turkish government] thought they were eliminating the element that was an impediment to their vision of the state. It was a collision of social political struggles,” Libaridian said.
Now, he said, the Kurds are in the same position that the Armenians were pre-genocide. The Kurdish-majority HDP party is not only promoting Kurdish rights, but is in the forefront of left-wing progressive thought across the board.
He then spoke about Dink himself, noting that he championed human rights for all and felt he was exercising his right to participate in a democracy by his actions. Libaridian explained that Dink and many like him had been made to feel “they should be thankful for not being massacred” and wanted to move toward being “a citizen with full rights.”
Zeghal, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at Harvard University, served as moderator and offered opening and concluding remarks.