One of the most striking sections of the US diplomatic cables from Turkey, published continuously these days by the Taraf daily, is about the “monster” -- a deadly mixture of ultranationalism and racism in Turkey -- which creeps in from 2004 onwards and spreads fear among all who endorse reform and culminates with the murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink.
It is early 2004. As the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) steps on the gas pedal of the EU-backed reform process, its sworn adversaries move about behind closed doors, and many dark forces regroup. The aim of the latter -- with strong links to the military, dirty warriors, judiciary and media -- is to paralyze the government by frightening in particular the non-Muslim minorities (a soft target) and create an impression abroad that Turkey is shifting into “Islamofascism.”
The existence of the reform process means that the genie is out of the bottle. Exposing the ghosts of the past is part of the game. This is exactly what happened when the Armenian-Turkish weekly AGOS published an article, saying that the adopted daughter of “founding father” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Sabiha Gökçen, was actually an Armenian orphan.
The publication created a storm within the traditionally Kemalist media. In a “how-dare-you” exclamation of a campaign, Hrant Dink, publisher of AGOS, came under fire. Soon after the then-columnist of Hürriyet Emin Çölaşan writes two threatening columns about the story, and the General Staff issues a harsh statement labeling the publication “a groundless campaign against Atatürk nationalism and national values,” David Arnett, then-Consul General of the US in İstanbul, wrote in a cable sent to Washington. The story, he said, “has exposed an ugly streak of racism in Turkish society. The reports led to a number of prominent figures to make racist remarks ‘defending’ Gokcen, which in turn prompted criticism from more open-minded columnists. Perhaps the most alarming result, however, has been an intensely personal campaign by die-hard nationalists against the editor of the Armenian weekly newspaper that first broke the story.” Arnett correctly pinpointed where the danger lay in the following paragraph and concludes with a clear warning for the days ahead.
“The publication of these claims has led die-hard nationalist members of the İstanbul branch of the Nationalist Action Party-affiliated ‘ideological hearths’ to launch a personal campaign attacking Hrant Dink, the editor of AGOS. While Dink has not been specifically criticized for publishing the story on Gokcen, the publicity it generated prompted some nationalists to use a previous Dink editorial to label him as a ‘traitor.’ This campaign has so far included hostile phone calls to Dink and a Feb. 26 demonstration outside the AGOS offices by 40 or so aggressive, taunting protesters. Clearly distraught and upset by the attacks, Dink confessed to poloff [political officer of the embassy] that he has even considered abandoning the newspaper.
“These developments spotlight the racism underlying Turkish nationalism. The outrage by Turkey’s secular establishment also reflects its hyper-sensitivity to any perceived attacks on Kemalist ideology. We can expect that any attempt to debate establishment-imposed notions of secularism or the meaning of Turkishness will continue to bring out sentiments incompatible with Turkey’s professed adherence to universal norms or EU standards.”
Let us now move to Feb. 9, 2007. It is three weeks after the heinous murder of Dink. The US Embassy in Ankara sends a detailed (“confidential”) analysis, titled “Nationalism turning nasty in Turkey.” “The Dink assassination offered a brief window of sanity,” it said, “but subsequent nationalist backlash indicates the depth of the divide in Turkish society.” The cable then goes on to describe the “shyness” of the AK Party, which, as well as its political rivals, wants to play the nationalist card in the upcoming elections. The critique addresses the entire political spectrum. It points at dangers inherent in Article 301 of the Penal Code (TCK), which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness.”
“The voices in the wilderness have come from intellectuals, who have taken a stand in favor of abolishing 301 because, in their view, it fuels nationalism and puts at risk outspoken thinkers, such as Hrant Dink, whose ideas are essential to advancing Turkey’s democratic debate and continuing to break down taboos,” the cable says. In conclusion, it criticizes the lack of leadership in the AK Party in dealing with tough issue and ends in gloomy tones:
“Erdoğan and the AKP, rather than taking bold steps and helping to shape the public debate, seem intimidated by the prospects of elections. Rather than leading, they are allowing public opinion to lead them. The Dink murder should have made it clear that playing the nationalist card may have seemed expedient, but instead unleashes danger. By not exercising leadership, [the] AKP risks a more volatile electorate and helps to revive a nationalist hydra that could prove exceedingly difficult to put back in the box once the elections are behind them.”