Paylan Still Speaks out during Dangerous Era

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Turkish Armenian politician and activist Garo Paylan continues to be an extremely outspoken political actor in Turkey despite all the political risks this entails. He is a founding member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party of Turkey (HDP) and a deputy in the Turkish National Assembly representing the third district in Istanbul. He was giving talks in the United States, including in the Boston area, in October of this year, and spoke briefly in private about the state of affairs in Turkey.

At that time, the situation in the provinces was already dire, especially for Kurds during the government’s war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and many of Paylan’s fellow HDP deputies had been stripped of their parliamentary immunity and arrested. The Erdogan government was also cracking down on all opposition under the pretext of uprooting supporters of the botched coup attempt in July 2016. Paylan said then that “we almost have a civil war, with 30-40 dead bodies every day. We have to stop the fire.”

At the end of November and early December of this year, Paylan protested hate crimes against Armenians, Jews and Syriac Christians and through parliament asked the government to take appropriate measures. He also called for an apology after Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulus used the word “gavur” or infidel. Paylan has been very involved in defending the rights of Armenians living in Turkey, both as a participant in commemorations of the Armenian Genocide, and in protecting their human rights.

Kurtulmus on December 3 boasted of “new Turkey” being shaped under the wings of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which he said stood against imperialism or exploitation.

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“We need to take the issue of independence seriously. To us, independence is to stand tall and call an infidel ‘an infidel’,” he told a meeting in the northern Turkish city of Kastamonu.

Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD) lodged a complaint at an Istanbul prosecutor’s office, accusing Kurtulmus of breaching the universal human rights declaration to which Ankara is a party, as well as the Turkish penal code.

Ahmet Hakan, a columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper, wrote that Kurtulmus’s comments constituted “hate crime.”

“He should have apologized,” Paylan told AFP. “I am an MP who was chased and stoned in his childhood and was labeled an infidel.”

Kurtulmus later clarified his comments, saying they were “not meant to offend our non-Muslim citizens” but to take a firm stand against imperialism, in a statement to the official news agency Anadolu.

Paylan said the term “infidel” was a “contaminated word” and added: “When you ask people on the street who an infidel is, at least 50 percent would say he’s an Armenian.”

Like Hrant Dink, he strongly asserts the right of Armenians to continue to live as natives of this land free of oppression and discrimination. He said, “There are different realities in Anatolia. One hundred years ago, it was a more diverse territory…One hundred years ago, we [the Armenians] were not a minority. They made us a minority. My goal and my party’s goal is to make Turkey an autonomous democratic country… We will have local autonomous governments.” In those localities where Armenians used to be concentrated, he said, “Those cities have to respect that we used to be a majority there, without the community [any longer existing]. We can have that respect. The Kurds have full empathy toward the Armenians now. They recognize the genocide, and they have respect about the cultural heritage as well. There have been so many steps with the Kurds, with local governments. We have just started the recovery of Armenian culture in the Western Armenian world.”

When asked how much Armenians could trust the promises of Kurds, he said that what was important for Turkey was institutions, not individuals. He went on, “I don’t trust people who are acting today, like Selahattin Demirtas [a Kurdish leader of the HDP], or Ahmet Turk [former Kurdish mayor of Mardin]. Their goal is to have a constitution, a functioning democracy with rule of law. I trust institutions … We politicians have feelings and demands, but we don’t trust one another. We have to have these ideas, these goals, written in a constitution, and that constitution has to be controlled by the rule of law and institutions, which we do not have nowadays. People always search for heroes…but in never happens in Turkey or in other countries.”

At the same time, in a broader sense, he said, “I trust the people that I am living with, Turks and Kurds. I trust their conscience. It is still alive — I am sure of it. We are the grandsons of the civilization that Anatolia had for 10,000 years. Wherever you live, you see that people made those lands.”

During fighting, there is no rule of law, but only brute force, and, Paylan said, the ensuing suffering leads people to seek negotiations at the peace table. He said, “to live through a catastrophe sometimes facilitates this. I am not saying we are living through a catastrophe nowadays. This is a dark winter. This winter will end. One day we will go back to the negotiating table and have a well-functioning democracy.”

Paylan said that the Armenians in Turkey according to the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 were supposed to be given cultural and religious autonomy, but after almost a century still do not have this. In the Ottoman period, Armenians under the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople had a parliament, and had something akin to a government with ministers. Today, he said, “We should have that again. That is one of my goals. Of course our leader must be an elected patriarch, which we do not have now.”

Consequently, he said, the people do not respect Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the acting patriarch. Nonetheless, he stressed, “We will find a way to solve all of our problems. We will ask about our demands, with or without our patriarch.”

One of Paylan’s criticisms of the patriarchate concerns its attitude toward Islamicized Armenians, whether the Hemshin who converted in earlier centuries, or more recent converts due to violence and other reasons in the 19th and 20th centuries. Paylan said, “When we try to make a connection with them, our patriarchate says that whoever is not a Christian cannot be an Armenian. I don’t believe in that. All of us were born as Armenians but then became Christians or something else…We have to be open to them. We have to give our full support to them.”

If those Muslim for many generations want to stay Muslim, while keeping connected with Armenian culture, Paylan said we should accept this, but on the other hand we must help those whose ancestors forcibly were converted in more recent generations and now want to convert back to Christianity.

Paylan thought that it was probably not a coincidence that he and two other Armenians got elected to the Turkish National Assembly at the same time in 2015 from three different Turkish political parties. He said, “The Armenian issue is very important in the western world. The parties want to show that they have an Armenian deputy and that we believe in diversity.”

He pointed out that he was one of the founders of the HDP and an activist for 25 years, so that it was natural for him to be elected as a deputy from this party. As far as deputy Selina Dogan of the Republican People’s Party was concerned (see accompanying article), he said, “Selina is an intellectual. She is really my friend. I am so happy that she was chosen. I know that she has hopes like me.” She is working to change certain policies in her party.

However, he said, “The biggest problem of Turkey is that it is a centralized country. The RPP is the founding party of Turkey. It does not believe in diversity. I have so many friends in the RPP, like Selina. There are many democratic members of the RPP. But the board members decide. When it comes to Armenian, Kurdish and Alevi issues, they react just like Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” If someone argues against them, they accuse them of being supporters of Fethullah Gülen or the PKK.

Now, he said, President Erdogan uses the same phrase that the RPP used to, “one religion, one identity, one flag,” and, said Paylan, “whoever is against this is an enemy.” Turkish Armenian parliamentarian Markar Esayan of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, who used to be Paylan’s friend, now is supporting whatever Erdogan does, and Paylan said, “this is no good for us.”

When asked what Armenians in the diaspora can concretely do to help Armenians in Turkey without creating unnecessary complications, Paylan replied that Erdogan treats the diasporan Armenians like outsiders. In fact, Paylan said, “The diaspora always spoke like an outsider, asking for recognition of the genocide, and that was it. But we really had some years when we were about to make Turkey a democratic country. I always advised the diaspora to come to Turkey to act, to be an actor for Turkey to be a democratic country. My advice is to behave like an insider.”

(AFP contributed to this story.)

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