Armenian community’s Paylan: Constitution should have no superior identity

An Armenian community leader who is working in civil society platforms to develop ideas on how to write Turkey’s new constitution has told Today’s Zaman for Monday Talk that the new constitution should be all-encompassing.

“There should not be a superior identity — such us Turk or Turkishness — and people should be able to express their ethnic identities as they wish without being subject to discrimination,” Garo Paylan.

“In addition, we demand from the state that disadvantaged groups, minorities, should be subject to positive discrimination,” he also said.

Several civil society groups, including minorities, have been working to replace the country’s military-prepared Constitution.

A parliamentary sub-commission working on the issue has been inviting representatives of minorities to hear their suggestions in that regard. Last week, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives of Turkey’s Arameans submitted their proposals to a sub-commission of the inter-party Constitutional Reconciliation Commission.

Turkey’s Armenians are also invited to Parliament to voice their demands.

Answering our questions, Paylan elaborated on the issue.

As there are initiatives to draft a new constitution for Turkey, what is the significance of this for Turkey’s non-Muslims?

First of all, Turkey’s Armenians are not homogenous — there are religious, less religious, more religious, non-religious and atheist people in addition to leftist or rightist Armenians — just like other people or ethnic groups living in Turkey. Calling us “non-Muslims” takes on a religion-based point of reference, and it is not fair as it does not take into consideration that the people of Turkey are heterogeneous. There are indeed even Muslim Armenians.

Is it better to call Turkey’s Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Arameans and others “minorities”?

It is. We are a minority. We are about to disappear. We need protection. The Lausanne Treaty calls us non-Muslims, but we don’t have to take that old text as it is. Years have passed since the Lausanne Treaty was signed; it’s time to update it. If we are not given minority status and if measures are not taken for our protection, we will disappear faster.

A parliamentary sub-commission working on the new constitution invites representatives of minority groups to Parliament to hear about what they would like to see in the new constitution. We see that minority groups are represented by their religious leaders in those meetings, but their demands are not only related to religion. In fact, the demands mostly relate to equal citizenship rights. What is your opinion about this?

There is a historical aspect to this. Our religious leaders are also our community leaders. The Armenians’ religious leader is chosen by the Armenian civil and religious community. In the past, we used to have a civil community assembly dealing with such issues as education and health. The assembly would work with our patriarchate. However, our assembly was dismantled in the 1950s by the Turkish government. Now, if I have problems related to educational issues, our spiritual leader has to deal with that which should not be the case. A spiritual leader should deal only with religious issues. When there are questions concerning freedom of religion in the new constitution, spiritual leaders should give their opinions. Right now we do not have a right to establish our citizens’ assembly, and the patriarch, the Armenians’ religious leader, is seen as the representative by the government. Indeed, we would like to have our assembly system back in order to have a full representation of our community, religious or not. Actually, the government’s acceptance of our representation only by religious leadership means exclusion of most of our community. Our religious leaders realize this and consult with the larger community to address the demands of the Armenians living in Turkey.
‘Some people out-Herod Herod’

The Armenian community’s leader has been invited to Ankara, to Parliament, to voice the Armenian community’s demands. What is going to be in his dossier?

First of all, we demand equal citizenship. We also ask for positive discrimination, and in that regard we would like the state to be blind to ethnicity and religion, which is a cliché now because this is how it is supposed to be. However, I am surprised [Greek Orthodox Patriarch] Bartholomew said in Parliament that he has no problem being called a Turk, as everyone who is a citizen of Turkey is called a Turk by the Constitution.

This is not our demand, and our demand is to have an all-encompassing definition of citizenship, which is the citizenship of Turkey. The Jewish community leaders also sometimes say they are Turks. First of all, this is unfair to the Turks. Are Turks going to accept it if an Armenian says he or she is a Turk? Being a Turk is an ethnic designation. We also see at times some Armenians saying that they are Turks; this is out-Heroding Herod. I am surprised Bartholomew said he has no problem with being called a Turk. And there were news reports that Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) members were emotional when Bartholomew said that. It should not be our mission to please MHP members.

Do you think your feelings and attitude on this are shared by the Armenian community?

There are some people in our community who would not like me or some others to voice these concerns because they think they will be targeted by nationalist groups or those who want to see a homogenous society. They think that things will be worse for minorities if they voice their true concerns. They say: Look what happened to Hrant [Dink, the late editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian Agos weekly and an outspoken member of the Armenian community who was shot dead in 2007 by an ultranationalist teenager].

How is the work progressing at the constitutional platform you are involved in? Can you tell us more about your common demands?

I do not want to speak on behalf of the whole community before our work has been finalized, but there are some clear issues. As I said, the concept of citizenship of Turkey is one of those clear issues for us. That means that there should be no superior identity — such as being a Turk or Turkishness — and that people should be able to express their ethnic identities as they wish without being subject to discrimination. In addition, we demand from the state that disadvantaged groups, minorities, should be subject to positive discrimination. For example, Western Armenian is about to become an extinct language. It needs to be supported. The government should develop an understanding to prevent the extinction of such languages, among which are also Ä°stanbul Greek and Syriac. We are in such a disadvantaged position that we do not have enough teachers to teach the Armenian language in our schools.
‘Western Armenian disappearing’

Armenian language classes are offered at some universities, right? And there is a university department in Kayseri.

Those language courses are private. They are nice, but they are of no use to us. There are no departments of Western Armenian literature at any of the universities in Turkey. Western Armenian’s alphabet is slightly different from the Eastern Armenian alphabet. There are great literary works in Western Armenian. Western Armenian contributed greatly to Ottoman culture. Some Ottoman magazines in the Turkish language were printed in the alphabet of Western Armenian. This is crucial to historians and researchers. There is a university in Kayseri where there is a department in Eastern Armenian literature. We would like to have Armenian language departments at universities in order to have teachers educated for our schools. There might be some Turks who would like to learn Armenian as well.

What do you think about the Lausanne Treaty and how it was implemented?

The old Lausanne Treaty can be put away today if we can develop an understanding suitable for today’s conditions. In addition, the Lausanne Treaty has never been fully implemented. Many rights were given to the minorities who were defined as non-Muslims in the treaty. Had it been implemented, we would be in a different situation today. Even right after 1915, there were about 200,000 Armenians left in Turkey. Today, that population could have been about 1.5 million, but we are only about 40,000 people. The Lausanne Treaty had many articles regarding positive discrimination measures for minorities. The Lausanne Treaty was never taken into full consideration in Turkey and we see the results: 2,000 Greeks and 40,000 Armenians are left. It was made 90 years ago. We should look at ways to find a common language for today’s sociological situation.

The most important thing with regard to the new constitution would be for it to be a vehicle for the society to face its past and reach peace. The spirit of the new constitution will be more important than its articles. It should be a short text defining freedoms. It should be pluralistic. Only then will it open ways to heal people in this country, where we would all have dreams about how to build our future instead of having concerns regarding what the United States and France will say regarding 1915.
‘We’ll file a new criminal complaint following DDK’s Dink report’

What is your opinion about whether or not there are new possibilities of further investigating Hrant Dink’s murder with the report from the State Audit Institution (DDK) of the presidency?

The report says what we have been saying for five years, since the murder of Hrant Dink. The Dink case was closed last month following a five-year murder trial with a verdict saying that the suspects had no ties to a larger crime network but acted alone; the trial ended with the conviction of the hitman and his instigator. There was public outrage. We then expected a step from the government to do something about it. But one more suspected government official, Ramazan Akyürek, was promoted! The government officials just say they are very sorry. We want to hear more than that. The DDK report clearly shows that the investigations were not effectively carried out when it came to the role some public officials played in the murder, be it in Trabzon or in İstanbul, or in the police and the gendarmerie. And obviously the government did not remove any obstacles in that regard.

Are Hrant’s Friends planning to do anything?

We are planning to file a new criminal complaint with the Ä°stanbul Prosecutor’s Office following the DDK report. We demand that suspected officials be punished under Article 83 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which relates to malicious murder by dereliction of duty. In our new criminal complaint, we will make a reference to the DDK report. We are asking the government: How is it possible for Muammer Güler, who was the governor of Ä°stanbul at the time of the murder, to now be a lawmaker in Parliament? How is it possible for Celalettin Cerrah, who was the Ä°stanbul chief of police at the time of the murder, to now be a governor? We are not very interested in the hitman or his instigators but we are interested in what happened to the government officials who obviously knew about the murder plans and failed to protect Dink.

There was a prime ministerial investigation into the case that produced a report two years ago…

Statements in that report were vaguer than the statements in the DDK report. However, that report’s recommendations were never followed by the courts. An investigation of the National Intelligence Organization (MÄ°T) faced a statute of limitations. It is hard to understand this inaction. As we all witness from time to time, the government can act quite promptly, make quick assessments and pass laws. However, when it comes to the Dink case, there is intentional inaction. What are they hiding? Are these people too close to the government to be let go of?

Were you surprised that even Judge Rüstem Eryılmaz, who delivered the verdict, said that while he personally cannot deny the murder was the work of an organized network, the evidence submitted to the court was insufficient to issue such a ruling?

Everyone in Turkey knows that the courts never act independently in political cases. Judges listen to what the government says about a political issue before reaching a verdict. In Hrant’s case, the judiciary did not fulfill its duties. In addition, the government did not take steps to make the judiciary’s job easy. But we will work tirelessly until we get justice. We will present the case to various ministries and follow up on their responses. At the end, we hope that the government is going to provide political support to obtain justice in the case.

Isn’t it curious that the plans revealed in the Ergenekon investigation show that some state elements were trying to undermine the government by creating chaotic situations in the country and those plans allegedly involved Dink’s murder? So the government should be the most willing authority to reveal the real perpetrators of the crime.

It is not easy to be in government. There is a huge bureaucracy which may not be under full government control. What we have seen in the last five years is that the government has not been parting ways with some state elements when it comes to Dink’s murder. And the reason is that too many officials seem to be involved in the murder, from the gendarmerie to the police and MÄ°T in both Ä°stanbul and Trabzon. If this was the work of Ergenekon, the government’s job would be much easier. The government seems to be protecting those officials until the time comes for the government to sacrifice them. The issue has become one of international importance, and we hope the government will see that not solving this case is a hindrance. There is no way to have peace in this land otherwise.