“My Turkish and Armenian identities are not in conflict…The two cultures embrace one another.”
Ariana, 21, Istanbul
There are many misconceptions about the situation of Armenians in Turkey. Whether it be about the lived realities and mentality of the Armenian community of Turkey or misconceptions about the attitude of the Turkish state and society towards Armenians, muddled facts, rumors and half-truths abound throughout the Armenian Diaspora, which generally demonizes anything to do with Turkey. In the Republic of Armenia, despite having seen the migration of tens of thousands of Armenian women to Turkey as housemaids and caregivers, relatively little attention is paid to the newly formed Armenian community and the one that has existed for thousands of years across the border to their west.
In Tuba Çandar’s biography of Hrant Dink, Cengiz Çandar, a Turkish journalist, writer, political analyst and friend to Dink, explains that “[Hrant was specifically] aggrieved at the way the Diaspora representatives described Turkish Armenians as ‘unfortunates fallen into the claws of the Turks’ and showing them no importance.” Indeed, Dink himself wrote that “there are significant differences in terms of the perception of the Turk among Diasporan Armenians, Armenians in Armenia, and Armenians in Turkey. The damage and impact of the trauma these three groups experience varies as heavy, moderate and mild, respectively. It is the distance in their acquaintance with Turks that leads to the differentiation in the trauma their identity suffers… For Diasporan Armenians, the Turk is the Turk they left behind [in 1915]. In their eyes, the Turk ‘never changes.’”
Of course, however, that cannot be entirely true. States and societies are never static and much has changed within the Turkish state over the past 100 years, not to mention within the Armenian community of the country. I discussed lived experiences and identity constructions with a group of young Istanbul Armenians aged 20-24. This article explores the changing and evolving mindset of the Istanbul Armenian community not only through a sociological lens but through a political one that explores the history and changing political landscape of Turkey that has shaped the experiences, perceptions, and ideas of this new generation.
Before continuing, it is important to note the distinction between Istanbul and Anatolian Armenians, as the experiences of these two groups under Turkish rule are drastically different today, as they have been throughout history. The vast majority of Turkey’s Armenians are concentrated in a small but dynamic and connected Armenian community in the country’s cultural capital. However, the experiences of Istanbul Armenians are not an all-encompassing picture of the situation of Armenians in Turkey. Indeed, even within the Istanbul Armenian community, there exist multiple sub-communities that divide themselves among lines such as neighborhood/district of residence in Istanbul, economic status, and, even more acutely, place of familial origin (i.e. Istanbul, Sasun, Malatya, Diyarbakır, Republic of Armenia, etc.).
Nonetheless, trends can still be distinguished. The new generation of Istanbul Armenians, compared to the generation before them, is much less fearful and more confident and assertive in their Armenian identity and their place, relations and interactions within Turkish society. The changing political climate of 21st century Turkey has meant that this generation of Turkish Armenian youth did not, and do not, suffer discrimination to the same extent as their parents and grandparents. Moreover, social media has allowed for closer integration with Turkish society, especially as a number of Istanbul Armenian youth are beginning to feel suffocated by the close-knit Istanbul Armenian community.
However, despite the ease of Armenian integration into Turkish society, partly owing to assimilation-based state policy, and partly owing to the Armenian youth’s growing comfort among Turks as a result of cultural similarities and a more open Turkish civil society, there still exists a clear power distinction between Armenians and Turks. Whether this distinction manifests through oftentimes harmless, yet nonethless psychologically damaging microaggressions or, more rarely, through openly racist acts of discrimination, an openly-Armenian Armenian in Istanbul cannot escape the overwhelmingly obvious fact that he/she is not regarded as equal to a Turk in modern-day Turkey.
Markar, 21, a university student in Istanbul, doesn’t think too much about his Armenian identity. “I don’t deny I’m Armenian but I don’t care what my ethnic background is [because] I’m not a nationalistic person,” he explained. He has close friends who are both Turkish and Azerbaijani but Markar still feels more comfortable among other Armenians, “than with a random Turkish person because I don't know how [a random Turkish person] would feel about minorities.”
Today, many Armenian youth are considering opportunities to emigrate as Turkey grows increasingly autocratic and unstable, despite considering it their home and ancestral motherland. Indeed, any improvements in the treatment of minorities in Turkey in the past 20 years have been only superficial in nature, as they continue to be seen through the dated lens of state security. That is, minorities are still considered a threat to the security of the Republic of Turkey, simply for not identifying as Turks. Moreover, the Erdoğan government has been growing increasingly totalitarian and oppressive. It has cracked down on dissent in all its forms, resulting in the flight of thousands of academics, journalists, entrepreneurs, and students. However, the earlier softening toward minorities in Turkey has resulted in changes to the status of Armenians in Turkish society that cannot be denied.
Improvements for Armenians and Minorities in 21st Century Turkey
“When I was little, my mom would say ‘Don’t call me mama [on the street]. Don’t speak Armenian to me,’” recounted Natali N., 24, an advertising strategist working in Istanbul, whose mother heads a foundation connected with an Armenian school. “She’s [from] an older generation. She’s 60 years old but she’s afraid… I always wear a cross [necklace] and my mother says ‘Put it inside your shirt.’ Sometimes people tsk tsk at me [when they see me wearing it] and I stare at them to respond… [My parents and their generation] are so afraid of living and being Armenian but this is not something I should hide. I should be able to express [my identity]. My parents are afraid that something will happen to me, to them. I don’t believe that way but I am ready for it and I will give [anyone who gives me trouble,] trouble back.”
Ariana S., 21, a university student in Istanbul with roots in Anatolia, echoed many of these sentiments. “In public transport, [my mom would tell me] ‘Don’t call me mama, call me anne,” she explained. “I am different than my parents and grandparents. I'm less racist, I’m less judgemental and critical. If something happens, [the adults in my life say] ‘What do you expect from a Turkish person?’ or ‘You can't trust them.’ They wouldn’t want me to have close Turkish friends or marry a Turkish guy… They’ve experienced more… lots of military attacks… We [the new generation] are lucky because we are more open today… People are getting more used to hearing about different people [and perspectives], even [from the] LGBT community and political opposition…”
“I didn't have any Turkish friends growing up. I lived in an Armenian neighborhood, in an Armenian apartment, and my parents’ friends are Armenian. My parents never invited Turkish friends over…Most Armenian people, especially the elder ones, try to keep Turkish people at a distance, to a certain point…I think the youth are more open-minded and more close to Turkish people,” explains 21 year-old university student Markar E. “Other people, my parents specifically, don't really go out with their Turkish friends. They would rather not spend time with them. But now there is social media and I met my first Turkish friends through social media… through music groups and collector groups.”
These snapshots of experiences are indicative of the changing mentality among the Armenian youth of Istanbul. Many among them are less fearful and more confident in their Armenian identity in relation to Turkish society. Those I interviewed acknowledged, however, that they have not experienced nearly the same level of discrimination as their parents. In fact, when prompted, many could name only one instance of an openly racist or malicious act of discrimination they experienced personally.
The reason for this improvement in the treatment of Armenians is multi-fold. One major factor is the acceleration of talks that took place in the beginning of the 21st century between Turkey and the European Union, as admission to the bloc came close to becoming a reality. Unlike their predecessors, Erdogan and his party (known as the Justice and Development Party, or AKP) worked to advance the situation of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. Beginning in 2002 through the removal or easing of laws and policies directed against non-Muslims, the AKP endeavored to realize European standards on minority rights into Turkish law, in an effort to advance their application to the Union.
Tatevik Sargsyan, a journalist from Armenia currently living in and reporting from Istanbul for Radio Liberty and Azatutyun, completed her master’s thesis in 2014 on the Armenian community of Istanbul. “Erdoğan’s first 10 years were really good for the Armenian community,” she explained. Under pressure from the European Union, Turkey did away with, and even reversed, certain discriminatory measures. For example, starting in 1974, minority foundations and any of their assets, such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages, were seized  after a 1974 law called for the confiscation of any property associated with a minority foundation not registered in a certain 1936 asset list. This new law also banned minority organizations from acquiring any new real estate. However, as Sargsyan notes in her thesis, “The property belonging to the three minorities [Armenians, Greeks, and Jews] seized in the  declaration, and subsequently confiscated in subsequent years began to gradually be returned to the foundations, and the latter were granted the right to acquire real estate and receive foreign assistance.” Nonetheless, she goes on to clarify that the percentage of returned confiscated property is still below 25 percent.
2008 also saw the emergence of what would come to be called “football democracy;” an attempt between Armenia and Turkey to normalize relations. Then President Serzh Sargsyan invited Turkish President Abdullah Gül in 2008 to come to Yerevan to hold bilateral talks and attend the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying football match, between the Turkish and Armenian national football teams. A year later, Armenia and Turkey signed two protocols in Zurich to start the process of normalizing relations between the two countries.
Although 2010 saw the disintegration of these efforts, and indeed, the 2010s would also see a faltering in Turkish-EU relations, other events in the country would ensure the continuation of a slow increase in confidence and participation in civil society by the Armenian community, namely the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, and the development of pressures, such as an inundation of Syrian refugees and a plunging economy, that would occupy the Turkish state’s attention and divert it from its minority community.
Varduhi Balyan, a journalist at Agos is originally from Armenia. She has worked at a variety of civil society organizations in Turkey, including the Hrant Dink Foundation and Community Volunteers Foundation (TOG). “After the assassination, the Turkish government doesn’t touch the Armenian community or newspaper,” she said. Indeed, Hrant Dink’s murder gave rise to an unexpected outpouring of support and protest from both Armenian and Turkish society alike. As Sargsyan explores in her thesis, “[Dink’s] death seemed to be a signal to break the decades-long silence in the community. An active bulk of people formed in the community who began to assert their rights, daring to submit claims to the state.”
“Hrant’s death was a catalyst,” Pakrat Estukyan, a journalist for Agos, said in an interview. “After this, people started to come out more openly, to say, ‘I am Armenian.’ Indeed, in the 2015 general elections, for the first time in Turkish history three of the candidates for parliament were openly ethnic Armenians.”
However, beginning in 2013 with the squashing of the Gezi Park protests, and increasing rapidly after the 2016 coup attempt, Turkey has begun to retreat from what has been called its “short-lived liberal moment” of the 2000s. Although the Armenian community has experienced rollbacks as a result, namely with regards to Armenian schools, which have had difficulty maintaining enrollment rates and procuring state funding, these autonomy rollbacks have had only a minimal effect when compared to the situation of the Armenian community just 20 years before. Today the Turkish state has more urgent “threats” to established order, and thus has been less focused on the affairs of the Armenian community. The same can be said for Turkish society, whose attention is on issues that impact them more directly. Such issues include the Turkish state’s ongoing dispute with its Kurdish population (especially as it relates to its struggles with the PKK), the country’s overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees, a quickly sinking economy and a political inflection point, as evidenced by the election of Ekrem Imamoğlu (a member of the opposition party) as mayor of Istanbul in June 2019. Thus, the focus has been off Armenians, allowing the new generation of Turkish-Armenian youth to grow up feeling more assertive and confident.
Integration of Istanbul Armenian Youth in Turkish Society
This increased confidence is only one factor that has allowed for a closer connection to form between Istanbul Armenian youth and their Turkish counterparts. It is quite easy for Armenians to integrate themselves into Turkish society, if that is something that they so choose. Although, as is widely noted in literature and research regarding the status of minorities in Turkey, this ease (and in fact, encouragement of) integration in part stems from Turkey’s state policy towards national minorities, which “continues to be based on Turkishization... and assimilation principles,” it does not change the fact that today’s Istanbul Armenian youth are, in addition to being less interested than their parents in remaining solely part of the Armenian community, more accepted and more content among their Turkish peers.
“Some Armenians are not interested [in their Armenian background] and live as Turks,” described Anita G., 24, an Assyrian-Armenian who grew up in Istanbul, and attended Armenian high school. Although she doesn’t consider herself Turkish, Anita explained that most of her friends are Turkish: “After high school, I stopped speaking Armenian and only spend time with a few Armenians. [My Armenian friends] gossip too much. The Armenian community is very closed and I think that’s why I don’t feel comfortable. The Armenian community is pretty typical [and traditional] and want their children to live a typical life… I’m a little bit different I don’t like… that [closed] attitude.”
Natali reiterated these sentiments: “The way that Armenians are has really pushed me away from the Armenian community. There is always a fear of what will Armenians say. You have to be careful what you wear, what you do… It is so easy for words to reach your family’s ear -- gossip that is not even true. I’m glad that I’m Armenian and that I have a [distinct] culture, [but] I feel closer to Turkish people because I have nothing to hide [with them]. I love being Armenian, but not being part of the Armenian community.”
Of course, not all Istanbul Armenians of the new generation seek integration with Turkish society. While for some it may be a result of Armenian patriotism, for many others it appears that this closeness to the Armenian community has less to do with a strong desire to “remain Armenian” or “preserve Armenianness,” than the fact that they feel more comfortable among their Armenian peers - especially if they grew up in a mostly Armenian environment and attended Armenian schools.
“Most of my Armenian friends are part of the Armenian community because they feel comfortable there. They don’t really think too much about it,” explained Tayis, 22, a resident of Istanbul and recent Birthright Armenia participant. “They are also starting to forget the Armenian they learned. My friends even asked me to translate our [Armenian high school] yearbook. They don’t read [Armenian], they don’t talk [Armenian], and they don’t really care…”
“I went to an Armenian high school and elementary school and didn’t have much social media then, so I had mostly Armenian friends and I didn’t have any Turkish friends until high school,” said Ariana. Like Markar, Ariana also feels closer to, and has mostly, Armenian friends. “Even now [my Turkish friends and I] are not that close... My neighborhood is really Armenian and I don’t have many friends from university because I work after school and the owner [at my job] is Armenian.”
This feeling of comfort in the Armenian community also comes from a place of awareness of the Armenian experience, rather than complacency, for some Istanbul Armenians.
“Nobody understands me. I don’t talk about the genocide [with my Turkish friends]. It’s too stressful. I don’t know if they would accept if I talked about it. They just know that I’m Armenian, I’m a bit different and that’s it. I’m still shy to talk about Armenian topics with friends. I don’t talk about this conflict and politic[s] to my [Turkish] friends in order to preserve my friendships,” said Tayis.
For many Istanbul Armenians like Tayis, being part of the Armenian community means being part of a community of people who understand them. Nevertheless, many of the new generation of Armenians actively engage with their Turkish counterparts and acknowledge the cultural similarities between Turks and Armenians more readily.
“[My Turkish and Armenian] identities are not in conflict. In habits, customs, I represent both cultures. They’re very similar… The two cultures embrace one another,” explained Ariana.
“I know the history. I never want to identify as a Turkish person…” said Tayis, “[But] most of the time, I act like a Turkish person. There are not that many differences because we’re raised in the same place. Here, I don’t feel [any conflict between my Armenian and Turkish identities] but when I was in Armenia and I saw how the Diaspora was against Turkey… When someone is attacking [your culture], you want to preserve it. When I’m here [in Turkey] I feel a bit like a foreigner. I want to leave… but, when I’m abroad, I preserve [this culture]. I don’t want people to talk bad about where I live.”
“I can’t say I love living in Turkey. I would prefer to live in Europe or America. There are problems here… but it is my country. If I go to Armenia, I’m sure it would be nice but it’s not my home,” explained Natali.
Indeed, at the end of the day, this is what ties the Armenians of Istanbul, and the Armenians in Turkey more generally, to the country. Many Armenians living outside of Turkey do not understand that so much of what is Armenian is Turkish and so much of what is Turkish is Armenian.
“It would be quite difficult to develop substantial proposals on Turkish-Armenian relations without an analysis of the undeniable role of the ‘Turk’ in Armenian identity, and the ‘Armenian’ in Turkish identity,” wrote Hrant Dink. “There were so many aspects of positive and negative identity exchanged during the relationship that lasted for centuries that at times it is quite difficult to differentiate between the two in terms of their behavior. The experience of coexistence is so deep that one should not be surprised that both sides use as their own argument to describe the breakdown of this coexistence as betrayal. Against the Turkish view that describes the Armenian nation as a ‘loyal nation’ which, according to their claim, later went on to betray them, the Armenians do not only describe the events of 1915 as the total destruction of a people but also perceive it as a betrayal of a relationship that had lasted centuries.”
Ariana continues this idea of homeland and roots: “If I could choose one [thing for my Turkish friends to understand], I wish they realized I'm the native. My roots are here. These are my lands,” she explains. “I wish they understood [the Armenian] roots in this country and land and how much influence we had [here]. We were merchants, architects… I wish they understood the diversity of this land.”
Although the relationship between Armenians and Turks throughout their centuries-long coexistence was far from the rosy and the peaceful picture many Turks like to paint, the intercultural exchange between the two cannot be denied.
Yet, while completing the Birthright Armenia program, Tayis met many Diasporans who would ask her “‘How can you live there?’ They said ‘All Turks can die.’ This hate was in an excessive amount and this hate is not the solution,” she said. Many Istanbul Armenians also recounted the hostility experienced by their friends who participated in the Pan-Armenian Games in Yerevan.
Etyen Mahçupyan, writer, journalist, former managing editor of Agos and Hrant Dink’s close friend, touched upon this contrast in attitude between the Armenians of Turkey and the Armenians of the Diaspora: “[Diasporans] asked why, after all they had gone through, were [Armenians] still in Turkey and why we were still living with the Turks. Whatever we said, they behaved as if they had not been persuaded.” Mahçupyan goes on to explain that he and Hrant believed that this line of questioning and resistance from Diasporans came from a “longing” for their ancestral homeland, for what Mahçupyan called “the lives that had been stolen from them” with the events of 1915. And as a result of this severance from their homeland, Mahçupyan explained, “[Diasporans] had convinced themselves that there was… no chance of ever enjoying a close association with Turks. We, on the other hand, declared that we wished to live in Turkey, not because of the land’s air or water, but because of its people; we told them that our closest friends and comrades were Turks. And they would look at us with doubtful eyes and suggest we spoke like this to console ourselves.”
In his 2009 essay entitled “To Be an Armenian in Turkey,” Vahan Isaoğlu, after describing the countless discriminations Armenians in Turkey face, ends his piece by writing, “Being Armenian means that when they tell you, 'my dear, if you don't like it, you can stretch and go...', you should be able to answer them with ‘this is also my country.’"
Continuing Distinctions Between Armenians and Turks
Regardless of this close cultural relationship and despite the growing closeness and acceptance of Armenians into Turkish society, it is clear that many Armenians still feel more comfortable among fellow Armenians. This is not only a result of the fellowship and solidarity they feel and share with Armenians but the fellowship and solidarity they cannot feel and share with Turks. That is, to one who is openly Armenian, a clear distinction is still made between Armenians and Turks in society, oftentimes through the diminishment of Armenian identity and existence, if not outright discrimination of Armenians.
“Do you know what people say to me [when I tell them I’m Armenian?” Natali asked. “I’m sorry… Olsun.”
In her memoir about the two years she spent in Turkey researching and interacting with various members of Turkish and Turkish-Armenian society, Armenian-American Melanie Toumani explains the Turkish word “olsun,” a response she would also frequently receive when telling someone she was Armenian. “[Olsun] is the sort of thing you say if a waiter tells you he’s sorry, there’s no lentil soup today but he can offer you tomato soup. ‘Olsun,’ you reply. You had hoped for lentil soup but you’ll make do. Or if a friend calls to ask whether your meeting can be postponed by an hour: ‘Olsun,’ you tell her; you’re not in a big rush. Depending on the context, olsun can mean “no problem,” or it can mean, “fine, if you must.” Over and over, when I told people I was Armenian, they said, simply, ‘Olsun.’ Olsun, we’ll manage. Olsun, it’s not your fault. Olsun so you were born into a traitorous and unpleasant people, what can you do? Olsun, it’s not as if I’m some kind of racist and am going to treat you differently because of this unfortunate new information.”
“[Because it is not a Turkish name, Turks] ask me ‘Why is your name Natali?’ ‘Oh, I see’ [they respond when I tell them]. ‘You are the first Armenian I know and you are not what I expected…’ they sometimes say. It makes me sad. What was this guy influenced to think? Here, they are growing with hate. [Armenians] have to use Turkish study books,” Natali explains. Armenian schools are mandated by law to follow a nearly identical curriculum to Turkish schools, the only exception being the addition of Armenian language classes, and the permission to teach some subjects in Armenian.[15,16] “They say ‘Turkish people have no friends other than Turks’”--- a popular Turkish proverb: Türk'ün Türk'ten başka dostu yoktur (The only friend of a Turk is a Turk.)
Ariana, whose non-Turkish name also precipitates questioning about her ethnicity, iterated: “When I started to meet Turkish people, I had to explain why my name is different. [Turks] are not taught the right things. They say ‘Oh we were so nice to [Armenians] but they betrayed us. We just sent them away, we didn't do anything…’ I don't blame them [for saying this, as this is what they are taught in schools] but I do find it ignorant because you're responsible to research about your land and country.”
“People ask about my name,” Anita adds. “‘You’re not Turkish, what are you?’ But I’m from here.”
This dissonance between knowing one’s roots and history in the country, yet constantly being made to feel as if one does not belong and is not truly part of the greater society, is a feeling of dissonance and division that most of the interviewees expressed. Many cited examples of their Turkish peers asking harmlessly curious, yet nonetheless ignorant and hurtful, questions about where they came from, such as “Isn’t it hard to come from Armenia everyday?” “When did you come to Turkey?” “Where did your family come from?” “For a concert you came all the way from Armenia?”
“There are two responses [I receive] when say I am Armenian. It can be positive: ‘My father always used to talk about his Armenian neighbors,’ or negative: ‘[Armenians] were traitors, we should have killed them all…’ About two years ago, they did graffiti on my school’s wall. They wrote the name of Hrant Dink’s murderer. My [Turkish] friends don’t understand what it means to be a minority. They don’t understand a hate crime and the weight of the past, the past traumas that you get from your parents, grandparents, all the way down,” Ariana explained.
Which is why, despite the growing openness and closeness of Istanbul Armenian youth with Turkish society, there is still a wariness towards the average Turkish person (though not to the same extent as their parents).
“Of course some people will treat you worse if they find out you are Armenian. Armenian parents are really worried about the military, specifically. You can also have positive or neutral reactions. But you are always cautious because you don't know what you will get. The judge or lawyer or soldier or commander applying the laws can do something positive or negative… [Personally] I had some trouble at my after-school program from Turkish colleagues who were cold but not from teachers or police officers… [Sometimes] you can tell [how they will react to you] from their face or from their social background. Sometimes not to risk [being asked about my name], I might even say Aleyna as my name but it’s not that common [for Armenians] to have a nickname in their pocket like that,” Ariana continued. “Yes, it’s troublesome but being a minority is special. My culture is unique. Continuing a culture when you’re a minority in a country is harder so you appreciate and love [your culture] more.”
Armenians and Turkish Minority Politics: A Continuation of the Ethnic and Religious Homogenization Practices of the Kemalist Elite
And it’s especially hard to “continue a culture” when you’re a minority in Turkey. Present-day Turkish minority politics are based on dated policies of de-Christianization and ethnic homogenization that have their roots in the Republic of Turkey’s founding ideology of Kemalism, which in turn can trace its origin back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
In his master’s thesis on the September 6-7 pogroms conducted against the Turkish state’s Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minorities in 1955, Sureyya Arioba explains these Ottoman and pre-Republic roots: “Under the leadership of Abdulhamid II, the decline of the Ottoman Empire continued rapidly. The sultan attempted to keep his empire together by trying to instill Ottomanism and Islamism; he believed this would be a counterforce to nationalism that had swept the rest of the Empire. This policy, however, was not to stop the decline of the empire and the continued failures led the Young Turks to come to power in 1908. The Young Turk leaders moved the empire toward a purely Turkish brand of nationalism, known as Turkism… The aim was to disestablish and constrain non-Turkish communities whilst instilling patriotism among the Turks. The Young Turks also pursued nationalism through economic policies, favoring the newly rising Turkish middle class at the expense of the non-Muslims; and they promoted the ascendancy of the Turks as an ethnic group over other Muslims and non-Muslims… The Young Turks period under the CUP (1908-1918) is vital to an understanding of the minorities and Armenian question in the Ottoman Empire and its successor the Turkish Republic not only because of the disaster for the Armenian people of 1915… but also because the ideological foundations for the long term strategy on dealing with ‘non-Muslim minorities’ were laid under their guidance in this period”
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, was inspired by the Ottoman Empire and the Young Turk regime. He maintained the idea of a homogenous Turkish state and identity as important pieces of the Republic’s long-term economic and political strategy. On the economic front was the wealth and property transfer from the non-Muslim minority to the Muslim majority and Turkish state, an economy-boosting strategy that was to continue after Atatürk’s death as well as through the multiple changes of power that would take place. On the political front, national non-Muslim minorities were to be decreased in number for “security” purposes, with the policy expanding to include ethnic minorities, such as Kurds, as time passed.
Hrant Dink examined this system of minority management and manipulation when he explained that “minorities have served as the main target of the state and of every succeeding government since the founding of the republic and, throughout that time, the government has been consistent in their efforts to reduce them in size. Sometimes this has meant reducing their numbers, while, at other times, it has meant reducing their assets… Thus exposed, they become easy targets for the state and also for the society, whose views it has manipulated…”
Hrant Dink experienced the effects of many of these minority-reducing policies, a first-hand experience that would influence his involvement in, and his writings on the relationship between Armenians, Turkish society and the Turkish state. “It is a truth that Armenians, like other non-Muslim minorities, have constantly been percieved as a security threath throughout the history of the Republic…” he wrote. “The policy of the mindset that perceived the existence of minorities as a constant threat never changes throughout the history of the Republic, regardless of the political power in charge… Minorities were not to increase in number. All implementations were to aim at this target… In the end, the policy achieved its purpose.” Minorities and foreigners constituted 56 percent of the population of Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century. Today non-Muslim minority groups constitute less than 1 percent of the population of Turkey.
“And still a minority in Turkey is neither the minority described by the Treaty of Lausanne, nor the citizen defined by the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey,” Dink continued. He went on to identify examples of events, policies, and laws that exemplify major periods of Turkish state endeavors to limit its minority population, some of which include the 1942 Wealth Tax (Varlık Vergisi) period, the events of September 6-7 1955, the 1964 Population Exchange, the periods before and after military coups, as well as times when the Karabakh and Kurdish issues escalated. “Because of the atmosphere of insecurity created in the Minority mindset, [these were] periods during which the slim stream of decrease thickened,” Dink explained.
Hrant Dink also gave examples of the way in which the Turkish government “seeks Armenian involvement in every threat it faces” and uses these claims of Armenian danger to state security to influence society and its attitude towards Armenians. “Official statements were made claiming Armenians were the force behind and within left wing organizations… At times, the Kurdish issue was said to be, in actual fact, nothing but the Armenian issue… Thus problems were either concealed, or deflected, by marking Armenians as the scapegoat… Transforming the word ‘Armenian’ into an invective in everyday speech did not prove difficult at all for the ‘Deep Media’. Defamatory expressions such as ‘Armenian bastard’ and ‘Armenian spawn’ entered colloquial language.”
Hrant Dink wrote these words in 2005. Since then, not much has changed in regards to minority politics. As Minority Rights Group International noted in 2018 about the status of Armenians in Turkey, “Armenians continue to be targeted with hate speech and hate crimes…” In fact, commemorations of the Genocide, which had only begun in Turkey in 2005, were heavily restricted and repressed this past April. “I came here in 2013 and started being part of Apri 24 [commemorations] since 2013… This is the first time it was this awful,” Varduhi Balyan said.
For critics outside and within Turkey, the government’s harsh response to genocide commemoration this year was simply a small part of a larger ploy to quash any dissenting views and ideas in the country. Garo Paylan explained that the restrictions placed on commemorators and protestors “are the result of the current political climate and rising nationalism. It appears the government has lost its will to resolve the Armenian issue, that it has reverted to its former position… The refusal to grant Kurds’ demands, the erosion of the rule of law, detentions of peace activists, the inability to reconcile with the Armenian genocide and our other democratic problems are all connected.”
To commemorate the Armenian Genocide this year, Sevan Nişanyan, Turkish Armenian linguist and writer currently living in exile in Greece, translated his 2015 article, “Genocide is a Corollary of the Turkish National Doctrine,” into English. At the end of the piece, Nişanyan added an endnote in which he explained the political changes that have taken place since the mid-2010s, when the Republic of Turkey, whose path to a more liberal and accepting society had already been faltering, took a complete turn towards autocracy. He went on to explain how this has affected Armenians, as well as Turkish society at large:
“What was risky enough to write in 2015, one can no longer talk about without risking rabid invective, ostracism and possible prosecution. This is a shame because it could have been different. For a brief moment, it did seem it would be otherwise. From about the turn of the millennium, the formerly untouchable taboo of the Armenian ‘disappearance’ gradually became a part of the Turkish public debate. Books were published and seminars held; there were television debates and photographic exhibitions; foreign speakers were invited to speak on Armenian matters where it would have been unimaginable before and timid demonstrations of Armenian remembrance were held without drawing the usual police violence. Opinion leaders from the right and left of the spectrum felt compelled to learn about the sins of their ancestors and face the darkest secrets of their Republic… That is all past now. An insane brand of jingoism has taken over the land, fanned furiously by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had once appeared to many as a friend of liberty. The gâvur – the infidel – is the cosmic enemy. Any aspersion on Turkish honor is a self-evident imperialist lie to be drowned in abuse and hatred. The talkers and questioners of yesteryear have mostly dropped from public view. The most articulate – like Ahmet Altan, a journalist; Osman Kavala, a civil rights activist; and Selahattin Demirtaş, a political leader – are behind the bars. Many have left the country, hoping to return one day when the storm has passed.”
And it is not just journalists or civil rights activists who feel silenced and stifled by the growing instability and increasing totalitarianism in the country. “Many of my [Turkish] friends don’t even feel themselves ‘Turkish’ because… we live in a conservative society… My Turkish friends [and I] always talk about [how] we don’t belong here, we need to go to the West,” explained Tayis. Erdoğan’s government has been narrowing the definition of what it means to be a proper Turk through its suppression of those whose beliefs and ideologies do not fall in line with its own.
In 2017, the new Constitution, which expanded Erdoğan’s power, was approved. In 2018, it was implemented. That year saw the emigration of 113,000 Turks, a sharp increase compared to 2016, when 69,000 left the country, as well as the increase of asylum applications to Europe by Turks. In Istanbul, young people said that they had many friends who wanted to leave: “Many say they’re thinking about it themselves… Recent emigres and would-be emigres… [said] their decision was about safety from persecution, having a voice in society and, even more crucially, an uncertain future in the so-called ‘new’ Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They say that Turkey went from being a haven of stability and economic growth in the region to a country with increasing societal divisions, rising violence and a government that continues to become increasingly authoritarian. Many people — particularly young, secular and educated Turks — say they have had enough.” As have Turkish Armenians, who are applying for Armenian passports. “It’s the easiest way of getting out if anything happens,” explained Varduhi Balyan.
But the environment in which a new generation of Istanbul Armenians were raised cannot be ignored. It was a period that influenced the mindset and thought processes of both Armenians and Turks alike, and allowed for a growing sense of rapprochement between Armenian and Turkish youth. While Armenians, as ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey, are still regarded through a lens of suspicion, the current political climate means that they are not the only targets of state scrutiny. Autocracy and attacks on freedom of speech and expression are on the rise in the country, dissidence and any opposition to the state regulated norms of conventional society are susceptible to backlash -- from both the state and Turkish populace at large. The early years of the 21st century saw Turkey take steps toward a more open and accepting society. Perhaps it can happen again and succeed.
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