Why Armenians and Turks are so divided, and what the Turkish side of the story is
December 12, 2019
Hepimiz Hrant Dink’iz
In 2007, after the assasination of the Turkish-born Armenian journalist Hrant Dink by a 17-year-old ultranationalist in Istanbul, Turkish demonstrators marched Taksim Square carrying signs with these words, which when translated means “We are all Hrant Dink, We are all Armenian.” The phrase was written in Turkish along with the same phrases printed in Kurdish and Armenian.
Not limited to Istanbul, demonstrations popped up all over Turkey in cities like Ankara, Antalya, Izmir, Bursa, Tunceli and Trabzon. Turkish newspapers were printed with headlines such as “The Murderer Is a Traitor” (Hürriyet), “Same Bloody Scenario” (Akşam), “It Was Turkey That Was Shot Dead” (Milliyet), “Nothing could harm Turkey more than this” (Vatan) and “They Killed Our Brother” (BirGün). Of course there were ultranationalists who praised the assasination, such as the newspaper Radikal. However, the response was mainly one of disgust and solidarity with Dink.
This is a good example of where modern Turkish opinion on Armenians is. There are nationalists who scream loudly to make up for their numbers and the government that barks and barks, but as one will see, the common Turk actually carries very little hate in their heart, if at all.
On the surface, Armenians and Turks are different on most fronts: Turks come from Central Asia while Armenians come from the southern Caucasus and Anatolia. Turks speak a Turkic language while Armenians speak a European language. Turks are predominately Sunni Muslim while Armenians are Christian. With the added fact that Armenia has no current diplomatic relations with Turkey or Azerbaijan, it seems as if the divide between these two nations comes as naturally as breathing.
One such person is Vüsal Hüseynzade. Hüseynzade currently lives and works in Istanbul, but is originally from Şirvan, Azerbaijan. “I do not see you (Armenians) as enemies. We can live in peace… peace is important to me” said Hüseynzade in an interview through WhatsApp. “There is nothing wrong with ordinary (Armenian) people. I love the Armenian people. Politicians and weapon traders want to make us enemies.”
Hüseynzade also drew an example of peaceful co-existence from his home country of Azerbaijan. “There are more than 40 nationalities living in Azerbaijan,” he said. “We did not choose them; they are citizens of Azerbaijan and our brothers and sisters.”
On what is the cause of the division, Hüseynzade cites the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh). “Our Armenian brothers must solve this problem peacefully by withdrawing forces from Karabakh. If Karabakh was out of the question, all our problems would go away,” he said. “Many Armenians hate Turks. I know this is why Armenians raise their children with the notion that Turks are their enemy.”
Karabakh is a topic that can incite more heated debate than the genocide, due to it being current. Senior Rafael Aroustamian is the child of Armenian immigrants from this region. According to him, racial divide between Turks and Armenians “… goes back to decades of anti-Christian sentiment in both the Ottoman Empire and the present day Republic of Turkey. These beliefs are still present today because of the belief of Turkish supremacy and superiority that prevails in the country and its people today. The governments also don’t really care for the normal everyday people of their countries, why would they care about ethnic minorities?”
When asked about the future of Turkish-Armenian relations, Aroustamian is hopeful. “I think our relationship will improve over time. Nationalist sentiment is slowly dying down and cracks are forming in the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey.”
Sona Keshishyan, an American-born Armenian, thinks that the main reason behind the division is the Armenian genocide. “My anger mainly stems from the Turkish government not taking responsibility for what they did to us back then. We stay divided because we (Armenians) don’t want to reach out to Turks because of that inherent anger,” she said. “Of course there are good Turks out there, but I don’t think most Armenians would really make an effort to find them.”
It seems to be that, for Armenians, the divide mainly stems from reasons of the past, specifically the massacres of Ottoman Armenians and the denial of it by the Turkish government. However, for the Turks, the divide seems to be caused by current and ongoing relations, mostly to do with the conflict going on between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
There, obviously, are people on both sides who want peace between the two nations. The story of İnsanlık Anıtı (Statue of Humanity) serves as a reminder of who holds what opinion. A statue that was built in Kars, Turkey on the border with Armenia, it showed two halves of a man with arms reaching for each other, depicting friendship between Armenia and Turkey. However, after months of criticism and being labeled as a “freak” and “monstrosity,” it was taken down. Both the criticism and the gross labeling of the statue came from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president of Turkey.
Dink was also a big voice for Turkish-Armenian solidarity. Having been the editor-in-chief of the bilingual newspaper Agos, he voiced his opinions democratically and came out with criticism for both Armenians and Turks. In a 2006 documentary called Screamers, he said that the main reason that there are Turks that deny or sugercoat the genocide is not from hate or insensitivity to the subject, but the sole fact that they cannot believe their ancestors commited such an act. They are disgusted by genocide, and that is why it’s so hard to believe.
It is not a one sided issue, as some Armenians are guilty of the same sugarcoating and outright ignorance of history. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks) is guilty of a few massacres of civilians themselves. Which Armenian has any knowledge of the Xocalı incident during the Karabakh war in the ’90s, or the “The March Days” (Azeri Turkish: Mart hadisələri), where Dashnaks massacred Azeris and other Muslim civillians in Baku during the Russian Civil war?
Even though tensions are cooling down, especially with the young population, unless the conflict in Karabakh is solved and some progress is made with the need for recognition of the genocide, Armenians and Turks will stay divided for a while. Viewpoints of this divide aren’t sought from the other side, so many Armenians would probably be shocked to hear that some people like Hüseynzade view Armenians as “very helpful and welcoming.”