Sharp Rise in Hate Speech Threatens Turkey’s Armenians

Posted on October. 13. 2020

This week, Turkey’s Armenian Parliamentarian Garo Paylan of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) voiced concerns over rising hate speech against Armenians in Turkey. Three days later, he sounded the alarm over threats to his own safety. Now, others are concerned too. Meanwhile, intimidation tactics against Armenians continue, with the latest anti-Armenian convoy circling the former Agos offices and the Hrant Dink Memorial site, where a plaque marks the spot the Turkish Armenian editor of Agos was gunned down by an ultra-nationalist youth in 2007.

Paylan is once again risking his life to stand up to his government. He has denounced the hate speech that has made him and his Armenian compatriots a target. Paylan is struggling on two fronts, as thousands from his party, which has a progressive agenda that puts most Western political parties to shame, continue to be imprisoned over trumped up charges. 

Paylan knows what this war means for his Armenian community. He witnesses and experiences the ultra-nationalistic, xenophobic, intolerant and hate-fueled policies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey on a daily basis. 

“Any hate speech towards the Armenian people makes our own citizens an imminent target. The government is using this conflict for domestic consumption. Armenian-origin citizens have become scapegoats and the object of rising racism and hate speech,” Paylan said in an October 2 interview with Arab News. “The current climate reminds me of previous anti-Armenian pogroms. We have experienced this worrying trend for the past four generations,” he continued.

Following Azerbaijan’s September 27 attack on Artsakh, a caravan of Baku supporters drove through Istanbul’s Armenian neighborhood of Kumkapi (where the Armenian Patriarchate is located), waving Azerbaijani and Turkish flags in the air, presumably to intimidate the city’s Armenians.

“Hatred towards the Armenians has plagued the streets. [After September 27] there were convoys of cars in Kumkapı, where the Armenian Patriarchate is located and where many migrants from Armenia live. The cars were constantly honking, accompanied by pro-Azerbaijan and anti-Armenian slogans. Last night [on October 5] it was reported that the same thing happened in the Osmanbey neighborhood. Convoys carrying Azerbaijani flags circled where the Hrant Dink Memorial site and the former Agos offices are located,” Emine*, an Istanbul-based Turkish activist, told the Armenian Weekly.

The sighting of such overt displays of nationalism and antagonism, coupled with the long history of violence and oppression that has targeted the non-Turkic inhabitants of the country, has alarmed members of the vulnerable Armenian community.

“Most of the people around me want to leave, because we never see a decline in hate speech against us. We are always in first place. I have two children, and I have to think about them. At the moment I am wondering if something will happen to my children if I stay. That situation didn’t exist before I became a parent, but now it does,” Sarkis, an Istanbul Armenian told Duvar media following the Kumkapi incident. 

Pro-Azerbaijan demonstrations are frequently taking place, while Armenian institutions and individuals are being threatened, Lara*, an Istanbul Armenian scholar and activist, currently abroad, told the Armenian Weekly. “Once again racism against Armenians is legitimized and is violently and openly a part of everyday life,” she added.

Emine echoed Lara’s sentiments. “Armenians in Turkey, the descendants of genocide survivors, were already living under constant pressure of ardent denialism, deprived of safety of life in Turkey. Now, they are even more fearful, with the memories of past acts of violence, pogroms, the assassination of Hrant Dink, and the anti-Armenian atmosphere present throughout the Republican era in Turkey,” she said.

Paylan Targeted

Paylan has been vocal in calling for peace in Artsakh. In a September 29 interview with Bianet, he stressed that Turkey’s position should be “on the side of peace.”

“For days, it has been alleged that the Armenian forces in Karabakh attacked Azerbaijan. In fact, there is no reason for Armenia to attack. It is Azerbaijan and Turkey that want to change this situation. In that sense, I think there is a misunderstanding, and it is done with the aim of stirring nationalism and racism,” he added.

Paylan also expressed his concern for the possible rise of hate crimes in Turkey. “There are also both our Azerbaijani and Armenian citizens in Turkey. Racism has escalated sharply, which might lead to several hate crimes. I am concerned for this reason,” he said. 

For Paylan, the threats are becoming alarmingly real. A day after his interview with Arab News, he released a statement in which he asked that should a crime be perpetrated against him, the criminals be held responsible.

“It is crystal clear that some powers are mobilized to silence me. And as an Armenian from Turkey, I know very well the meaning of the recent attacks. Regardless of these intimidation tactics, I will never refrain from taking on my responsibility in the effort to stop wars. I hereby declare that should anything happen to me, in as much as the government, ASAM and similar organizations of opaque nature must be held accountable,” he wrote in the October 3 statement (printed below).

The organization Paylan is referring to is the Center for Eurasian Studies (ASAM), which targeted Paylan last week by accusing him of “treason” in a press release published in Turkish newspapers as the Artsakh war intensified, according to Bianet.

“HDP lawmaker Garo Paylan’s shameless accusations against Azerbaijan and Turkey and his remarks of explicitly backing Armenia are a proof of a betrayal which is not acceptable,” read the ASAM statement, which called on the Turkish Parliament “to do what is necessary,” and on the judiciary to prosecute him. (You can find the Turkish version here).

In response, Paylan filed a criminal complaint against the ASAM executives who signed the statement.

“Garo Paylan, who did not even say a pro-Armenia word, who just advocated for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, was declared a ‘traitor’ and became a target for nationalists,” said Emine. “The Turkish public has no access to objective information about the issue and is under a constant barrage of Azerbaijani propaganda.”

Out of concern for Paylan’s safety, some activists who have been involved in the annual Istanbul Armenian Genocide commemorations began disseminating a statement on social media titled “We are with you Garo Paylan.” 

The text reads: “MP Garo Paylan has been targeted with hate speech and was portrayed as an enemy just because he expressed his opinions. We have repeatedly witnessed great disasters and destruction caused by such acts of targeting. Therefore, we emphasize once again: Garo Paylan is not alone.”

The statement of solidarity was signed by hundreds of concerned Turks, Kurds and Armenians from all walks of life, from politicians like Abdullah Demirbaş, the former mayor of Sur, Diyarbakir, to teachers, plumbers, writers, lawyers, poets and taxi drivers.

In response, Paylan thanked his supporters on his social media pages. “I knew I was not alone. Nevertheless, I am very pleased to confirm and witness our great numbers… I am grateful to each person who has provided support. Continuing forward in our struggle to stop wars and for peace,” he wrote.

Radical Democrats: Paylan and HDP Persist

There are those in the marginalized communities in Turkey who, despite all the injustices and intimidation, continue to struggle for an equitable world. Paylan, who has continued to champion the rights of Turkey’s oppressed and marginalized, once described himself as a “radical democrat.” 

“It’s the radical democrats that for the first time are offering equality. We are radical democrats, and we have everyone sitting at our table. This is why we have to struggle for LGBT rights, for the Armenians, the Kurds and the Alevis. We have to offer equality to every identity,” he told me in an interview just three weeks after his election into Turkey’s Parliament on the HDP list in 2015. It is also noteworthy that as part of their election platform in 2015, HDP promised to recognize the Armenian Genocide if elected, and since then has called for both recognition and reparations.

Since Paylan’s election, Erdogan’s government has pursued a relentless smear campaign accompanied by intimidation, widespread arrests and purges and even physical assaults inside Parliament to weaken and ultimately destroy the HDP. Turkey cannot tolerate its oppressed speaking up or offering a brave new vision to the masses. 

On October 2, Turkish police targeted the HDP and carried out another set of arrests in Kars, a city on the Turkish border with Armenia with a large Azerbaijani population. Seventeen HDP members were taken into custody, including Kars co-mayor Ayhan Bilgen over his alleged participation in the 2014 protests against ISIS’s attacks on the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria. The arrest warrants were issued against Bilgen and 82 other HDP members on September 25, just two days before Azerbaijan’s attack on Artsakh. Bilgen was swiftly replaced by a “government trustee.” Bilgen announced his resignation on September 30.

In the 2019 local elections, the HDP won 65 municipalities (three metropolitan municipalities, including Van and Diyarbakir, five provincial, 45 district and 12 towns). Out of those 65, six elected mayors were denied their certificates of election and a total of 36 were jailed, 16 of whom remain in jail. With Bilgen’s arrest and subsequent resignation, only 17 elected HDP mayors have retained their seats. The other 48 were replaced by “government trustees,” according to a report by HDP Foreign Affairs Spokespersons Feleknas Uca and Hishyar Ozsoy.

Despite the widespread arrests, the HDP continues to adhere to its “radical democratic” principles. 

When on September 28, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the ultraconservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the opposition right-wing Good Party signed a joint statement condemning “the Armenian Armed Forces targeting Azerbaijani civilian settlements and soldiers,” the HDP did not.

Ongoing Hate Speech in the Media

Anti-Armenian sentiments drive the incessant tweets of Ibrahim Karagul, editor-in-chief of Yenisafak, a pro-Erdogan Turkish daily newspaper known for promoting hate speech. The editor-turned-bad-poet has taken to beating the drums of war, fiercely tweeting pro-Azerbaijan slogans, hoping to activate his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers. 

In a revealing tweet, he accused Iran and Russia of “dividing the Muslim Turkish World into two” with the presence (“the map”) of Armenia, implying that the eradication of independent Armenia would lead to the unification of the two Turkic nations of Azerbaijan and Turkey. 

The theme of a pan-Turkic neo-Ottoman revival recurs in Karagul’s other histrionic tweets. “100 years later, we have established another Caucasian Islamic army,” he rejoiced in one.

However, his most infamous tweet to date has been his call for the bombing of Yerevan. “A missile must accidentally fall on the exact mark of Yerevan,” he tweeted on September 27. That post was retweeted more than 11,000 times (one of his most popular tweets in recent days, second only to his tally of killed Armenian soldiers and destroyed equipment). 

And these are the tweets of just one influential figure, who happens to be the editor-in-chief of a widely read conservative Turkish newspaper.

“A rabid Armenian hatred dominates the landscape in Turkey. The state-sponsored TV channels use unbearably aggressive discourse full of hatred against Armenians. But even the supposed ‘opposition’ channels, the relatively democratic ones, are totally pro-Azerbaijan, echoing the pro-government discourse,” explained Emine.

We can conclude that the harmful role the Turkish media played in helping fuel the persecution, prosecution (for “insulting Turkishness”) and eventual cold-blooded murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 by an ultra-nationalist youth left no lasting impression on later Turkish editors like Karagul. 

In fact, one of his crazed tweets mocked the outpouring of support from Turkish activists for Dink (after his murder) with the popular slogan, “We are all Hrant, We are all Armenian.”

Hate speech, hate crimes and protests have overwhelmingly targeted Armenians in Turkey. Between January and April 2019, Armenians topped the list of 48 groups targeted for hate speech in Turkish national and local media with 287 articles, according to a report by the Hrant Dink Foundation. Between May and August of that same year, they were the fifth most targeted out of 46 groups with 169 articles containing hate speech.  

Leading up to the centennial of the Genocide, protests were organized targeting Armenians. For instance in 2012, large crowds of tens of thousands gathered in Istanbul in support of Azerbaijan, chanting and carrying banners that read, “You are all Armenians, you are all bastards!” and “Today Taksim, tomorrow Yerevan: We will descend upon you suddenly in the night!” Member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and then Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin was among the speakers at the demonstration. 

Three years later in 2015, chilling banners appeared in public spaces in some major cities in Turkey celebrating the Genocide and invoking the name of Ogun Samast, the ultra-nationalist youth who killed Hrant Dink in 2007. The banners read, “We celebrate the 100th anniversary of our country being cleared of Armenians. We are proud of our glorious ancestors.”

For Emine, the current anti-Armenian rhetoric and acts of intimidation and war are directly linked to the Armenian Genocide. 

“Above all, Azerbaijani and Turkish aggression against Armenia now is the continuation of the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey is continuing its genocidal anti-Armenian policies by supporting Azerbaijan by all means, including military aid and guidance,” she said.

Anti-Armenian sentiments have peaked in recent weeks. It is almost certain that Armenians will fall target to hate speech more than any other group in Turkey this year. 

Will there be the political will and responsibility to prevent such rabid anti-Armenian sentiments from spiraling out of control into outright violence? 

This war can have dire consequences for the Armenians in Turkey. The international community should consider their safety as they drag their heels into action.

In the meantime, it is imperative for international human rights organizations to fix their gazes on Turkey as well as Azerbaijan, since in the current ultra-nationalistic atmosphere in Turkey and Azerbaijan, no Armenian is safe.

Erdogan has erected a totalitarian regime rooted in nationalism and xenophobia. His backing of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s regime pays homage to that nationalism, crystalized in the slogan, “Two states, one nation,” which has been the rallying cry of the two autocrats.

Two states, one nation. The slogan essentially declares that the states of Turkey and Azerbaijan belong to the one Turkish nation. It is a dangerous phrase that is repeated by Erdogan, Aliyev, their top ministers, newspapers and the public. It is a phrase that harbors genocidal aspirations. It is a phrase that in theory exiles Armenians, Kurds, Alevis, Assyrians and Jews from their borders. 

And finally, it is a phrase that should alert the world to an escalating disaster.

*Author’s note: For safety concerns, the names of the activists commenting on the state of affairs in Turkey were withheld. Emine and Lara are pseudonyms.

***

Garo Paylan’s Press Statement 
3 October 2020

The ongoing tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh has regrettably evolved into a war in recent days.

Disregarding the calls for a ceasefire from all over the world, the AKP-MHP government have taken to warmongering in the dispute between our two neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The government engages in war propaganda by openly supporting the military conflict and is publicly resorting to belligerent rhetoric against the Armenian State instead of persuading both parties to start negotiations and push for de-escalation.

Turkey’s Armenian community has also been intimidated in this climate of hate speech. Provocateurs gathered at the Armenian patriarchate with Azeri flags and Turkey’s Armenian community and citizens of Armenia who live and work in Turkey no longer feel safe.

My party and I have also been targeted for calling for peace by an organization called ASAM (Eurasia Strategic Research Center) through ads published in some newspapers. I filed a criminal complaint against the people who are behind this hateful statement. I will continue to support peace initiatives in the Caucuses and will not be cowed by intimidation tactics. 

Article 20 of the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory, stipulates that “any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.” The authorities are committing a war propaganda crime.

HDP and its representatives have always advocated peace. My friends and I have relentlessly defended and will continue to defend peace by standing against war in all areas of life and politics, both domestically and abroad.

I have always stood by the peaceful solution to regional conflicts whereas the government insists on responding with hard power and threat of war. This was the case with the Eastern Mediterranean issue, the Kurdish issue and most recently the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Since the first day of the current conflict, I worked relentlessly to stop this war, for fear that it would result in a catastrophe for both the Azeri and Armenian people. In all my statements I consistently defended peace.

The ruling government is dragging our country and the region rapidly into darkness with its pro-war policies. Those that play the war drums are trying to silence those calling for peace. Yet, neither my friends nor I will cease to call for “peace”.

THERE ARE NO WINNERS IN WAR AND NO LOSERS IN PEACE!

It is crystal clear that some powers are mobilized to silence me. And as an Armenian from Turkey, I know very well the meaning of the recent attacks. Regardless of these intimidation tactics, I will never refrain from taking on my responsibility in the effort to stop wars. I hereby declare that should anything happen to me, in as much as the government, ASAM and similar organizations of opaque nature must be held accountable. 

I want to encourage friends of peace to raise their voices and defend peace against war!

Garo PAYLAN
Member of the Turkish Parliament
HDP Co-Deputy Chair

The poster disseminated by Garo Paylan’s supporters following the ASAM statements accusing him of being a traitor

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