‘Abandoning this land is not acceptable for us’: An Interview with Selina Dogan, Member of the Turkish Parliament

By Sofia Hagopian

Translated By Goryoun Koyounian

Horizon Weekly

Endowed with a calm and confident walk, a charming smile reflecting an inner tranquility, fashionable and informed, inquisitive and explorative; these words may be best suited for Selina Dogan, the one and only Armenian woman in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

Having grown up in the Bakırköy district of Istanbul and having studied in Law, Dogan’s entry into politics, however, was not as smooth. Nominated for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), she surprised the Armenian community, but also the Turkish nationalists who did not refrain from attacking her through the press and in Parliament.

We have not seen speeches from Selina Dogan concerning the Armenian genocide, and she does not promise one. Instead, she raises issues such as the forestalling of the destruction of ancient Armenian cemeteries, the Patriarchal elections, the fight for the establishment of an Armenian-language kindergarten, the struggle to preserve Camp Armen, and so on, even discussing the one and only book in Turkish regarding Armenian feminists in the Turkish Parliament.

It is no accident that our interview with Selina, done in a district with a large minority Armenian population, Shishli, focused much more on current crises than the past.

– The official representative of the Armenian population of Turkey within Turkey and across the world is the Patriarchate, considering that the Treaty of Lausanne does not recognize ethnic minorities, designating the Armenians, the Greeks, and the Jews, among others, as religious minorities. We now see the impacts this reality has had on us in the 21st century. How successful are the efforts of the Patriarchate at dealing with some of these issues of a secular nature, particularly with the absence of official political representation within Turkey?

– During the term of the Patriarchate of Srpazan Moutafian, for instance, I can say that he managed to deal with some of the issues within the community, with the help of some people; basically, he found an appropriate way to systematize all of this. Ultimately, though, his true purpose is to be a spiritual leader and to deal with religious issues. Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the Patriarchate is also a state structure, the connecting body between the state and our community. Because of this, it would be nonsense to pretend that we are somehow independent. It would also be nonsense, however, to claim that we have no right to demand tolerance from the state. We need to be realistic. The Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul has never been independent, not in the Ottoman, nor in the Republican era. So, in my mind, it is essential that we tune and adjust these issues according to the outlook and conditions of our time.

– During one of the sessions in the Grand National Assembly, you asked for the number of Armenians living in Turkey and demanded an opening of archives dealing with those who were converted to Islam. Any answers so far?

– As of yet, we do not know exactly how many Armenians there are. Indeed, I inquired about this in a parliamentary session, as people were starting to raise the issue of identification of ethnic belonging in passports. I presented my question to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to let us know how many people there are in our community, in order to more easily resolve our internal issues. We have hospitals, schools, we should be able to know, for example, how many students a particular school can take in, etc. Of course, I’ve yet to hear a response from the government.

– The most recent data regarding the size of the Christian Armenian community of Istanbul offers an approximate number of 60 000 people. However, this number does not take into account the increasing exodus nor the information from the Patriarchate which has yet to be published. In your view, what is the number of the Armenian population in Istanbul?

– Indeed, especially in recent years there has been a significant exodus of Armenians from Istanbul. I can’t say for sure, but I believe that there are approximately 45 000 Christian Armenians in Istanbul today.

– It seems that the number one priority for Armenians living in Turkey should be the preservation of the Armenian language and/or the remembrance of the Armenian genocide. The issues being usually raised however, either social or of other nature, do not seem to find much audience in the Diaspora.

– Once you become a public official, you start noticing more and more issues. They are numerous, and perhaps the most significant is the need to guide our youth towards a more promising future. Mixed marriages, compulsory or voluntary marriages between relatives, countless socioeconomic problems, and more recently, unemployment. These are some of the many regular and significant challenges we face.

It is important to work towards a common goal. Look, we have 17 schools, a number of community organizations, hospitals, although these do not belong to the same body. That is the problem, namely that each school is funded by its own Armenian foundation, each of those foundations being entirely independent from one another. And although recently a union of community foundations was established, their meetings and discussions should be open to the public. Of course, positive developments are occurring. For example, a children’s development center is finally being built in camp Armen. This was the result of years of struggle. Likewise, the projects envisioned by the Karagozyan school are inspiring and very beneficial. Some amazing work is being done.

– Even these days where there are more possibilities of communication, of reading alternative literature or of conducting meaningful research, the level of linkage between the Armenians of Armenia, of the Diaspora, and of Turkey is as of yet unsatisfactory, with little communication and an abundance of stereotypes and fears. Do you think that the previous generation failed on this issue, and how do you view our chances for resolving it, at least in part, today?

– Indeed, this is another problem. Recently, with a select group of representatives of the community, we decided to implement a project in relation to various educational programs. There has to be an initiative to try and establish concrete links between Armenian students studying in the Diaspora and the Armenian youth studying in Turkey. Around this time, we also realized that the Diaspora and the Diasporan structures do not pay much attention to the everyday issues of the Armenian community in Turkey, such as the question of educating the youth. There is a lot we need to do. Why shouldn’t our Armenian teachers be able to, say, leave and study at the Haygazian University of Beyrut for a while, and then return to Istanbul better skilled and more knowledgeable? These can be costly projects, but deserve consideration.

– Miss. Selina, could you please describe to us your experience, as the only Armenian woman MP in the Turkish Parliament, linking up with Armenians from the Diaspora?

– I’ve had meetings with several Armenian communities in various cities across the United States. There were folks who had never even heard the names of the opposition parties of Turkey, with some exclaiming: “O, how can you be working in the Turkish Parliament?”, as if to say: “Are you crazy?”. I sat and explained them for days that in my capacity as Member of Parliament, I represent the interests of not just the Armenians of Turkey but of Armenians in general; we actually had a great time. All of the stereotypes and similar extremist views come from ignorance. People listened to Lerna Ekmekcioglu’s report concerning the struggle of Armenian women without a blink, without once leaving the hall.

– The death of Hrant Dink not only inspired a renaissance among Armenians in Turkey, but also opened a new page in our as of yet lackluster relationship with the Armenians of Turkey. It is worth noting, though, that for many among us, Hrant Dink came to be referred as ‘1 500 000+1’, a notion which seems to contradict his own professed belief that “instead of focusing on the killers and the victims, let us talk about the living ones…”.

– Whether we like it or not, the reality is that there are many more Armenians living outside of Armenia than living in it, and even though community structures differ from one Armenian community to the other, we must find a way to make the right use of the Armenian Diaspora, and this calls for a lot of work. Not to sit here and cry, but to make best use of the opportunities provided us in our current times, to work especially towards building more promising futures for our children. I constantly say this: I consider myself to be a happy person, because I know my mother tongue, I know two foreign languages, and I speak the language of the country in which I live. That is truly valuable for me. All of the children of my fellow Armenian friends know the Armenian language. My father’s case is interesting: he can more or less understand Armenian, but he has trouble in speaking. My child, though, he loves the language. We need to cultivate this awareness among our youth, so that they become not only good Armenians, but also model global citizens. Hence, there’s no point in being nationalistic.

– We’ve often heard that, since 2002, that is the election of the Justice and Development Party of Turkey (AKP) founded by Erdogan, the government’s attitude towards religious, ethnic, social and other minorities, including the Armenians, softened significantly, and it became easier to delve into societal taboos when discussing them usually otherwise entailed very harsh consequences. However, it was also during the AKP era that Hrant Dink and Sevag Balikci were murdered. What do you make of this apparent contradiction?

– It is certainly relevant to point out that, during this era, authorities returned various community buildings and territories to religious minorities. However, our rights and freedoms do not just end there. Yes, heads of districts and state officials now pay visit to our community events, but that is largely insignificant. Apart from that, there are several buildings and court cases still hanging in the air. And at the same time, our community faces a number of socio-economic issues. For instance, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul… Armenian and other Christian artists and craftsmen face particular difficulties in comparison to non-Christian people working there. Many are talking about leaving and opening a jewellery store in Armenia or in Greece. People are being left empty-handed.

– Many often fail to see the point in Armenians remaining in Turkey, they don’t seem to grasp the significance of it. This is often a result of the longtime split from these lands (not just a literal split but also a spiritual one). And on the other hand, a significant portion of Turkish Armenians are now choosing to leave the country, often for very legitimate reasons. Should more Western Armenians come here, or…?

– People always ask me: “If something bad were to happen, what is the plan B for Turkish Armenians?” I reply: “Do we have a plan A?” The plan A has always been to leave and escape. Of course, leaving may well be a good temporary solution, but ultimately, abandoning this land would not be acceptable for us.

– We often see Garo Paylan’s speeches in Parliament and the ruckus they trigger, especially from the nationalist factions within the other political parties. I presume that while he only faces repression from outside his party, being a member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, you, on the other hand, being a member of a Kemalist political party, may well face repression not only from outside, but also from within your own party…

– There are several subdivisions within our party, and indeed, there are also among them some nationalists. The repression normally comes from the government, though I’ve never faced it as of yet, or at least, they don’t say everything to my face. As would be expected, not everyone from my party shares the same interpretation of the work I carry out on a regular basis. Some of the interpretations are simply derived from ignorance and an assertion of long-held prejudices, but those ideas can be refuted over time when confronted with accurate information.

– Your party, the CHP, will challenge Turkey’s April 16 referendum result at the European Court of Human Rights, hoping that the latter would deem it to be invalid. What are the chances of success for this appeal, and what do you think will be the final verdict of the ECHR?

– The case must be presented to the ECHR in a full and thorough manner. The court generally doesn’t deal with questions such as determining the validity of referendum results, and instead concerns itself more with election results. But what is a referendum if not a proposal to enact a major change through consultation with the public? And what was the case here? Everything from the Constitution of the Republic to our justice system and to our form of government was fundamentally reshaped. We have to explain to the Europeans that this is not the kind of referendum that they’re accustomed to, ones that are actually legitimate; this here is lawlessness. From the very beginning of the campaign to the actual voting, the whole process was fundamentally unlawful. And despite even the intensive pressures, attacks, and unlawful practices, nearly 50% of the population nevertheless voted “No” at the referendum. Europe must surely be wondering how exactly to deal with this Turkey now.

– Suppose this appeal at the ECHR is successful, would such a verdict actually change anything in Turkey, and would Erdogan ever be willing to comply with it?

– Obviously, I do not expect that we will simply have a new referendum. However, the government would not be able to simply ignore such a strong verdict, and that is the significance. In terms of Turkish domestic politics, this would surely have a significant impact.

– Although Erdogan’s bid to overhaul the Turkish political system succeeded, it only did so with a very slim margin of victory. If we were to take into account the numerous electoral violations and procedural illegalities, the “No” vote would arguably have won over the “Yes” vote. Erdogan faced the most opposition from voters in the big cities, and considering all of the victories in his past, this one must surely feel at least slightly disheartening for him. What should we expect him to do? Become more aggressive in suppressing his opposition, or try to win over those who voted against his project?

– It is clear, at least in my view, that there will be some serious changes within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). After having met such strong resistance from the big cities, it is important for them to change, at least slightly, their approach in order to try and alter the electoral map in those areas. It is my humble opinion that all of those within the near-50% who voted “No” on the referendum should unite behind one suitable candidate, pursuing the struggle in a unified manner. There’s also the separate issue of what happened in the Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey, where, as a result of clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militias, many left their homes and did not participate in the voting, and in some cases untrustworthy officials were in charge of the voting process and many irregularities occurred there. During the referendum campaign, we often visited the Kurdish-populated South-Eastern regions of Turkey (a part of Western Armenia – S.H.). That is very important, because as many as 10 000 members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) are now in jail, and for that reason, they have high expectations of us as the main opposition party in Turkey today.

– Garo Paylan was recently suspended from attending three parliamentary sessions for a fiery speech in Parliament in which he referred to the “genocide against minorities” between 1913 and 1923, and CHP members, along with AKP and MHP members, voted in favor of the motion for suspension, which led to ample discussion in the Istanbul-Armenian press, particularly in relation to you…

– What happened in Parliament on that day is pretty complex to explain, certainly more than what would be depicted in the press and on TV. Especially given that the day’s topic was the proposed constitutional changes, with tensions already running high and some even having brought posters reading “dogs aren’t allowed in here” and the sort, in such an environment, it’s almost like everyone was sitting on needles. That day, we were much more focused on the nationalist factions in Parliament, as it was already clear that the Kurds, one way or another, would oppose the constitutional changes. That was the subject being discussed. And then Garo comes and mentions the word “genocide”. Obviously, it was not his intention to switch the topic to the genocide, but simply to make what was in my mind a smart allusion to a period of constitutional changes that ended in tragedy. But…this created an uproar. Up to that point, the nationalists had been incapable of justifying or explaining their support for Erdogan’s proposed constitutional overhaul, and they were in a tough spot. Garo’s speech and the uproar that followed, it seems, tilted the situation in their favor.

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