Furor Over Ataturk’s Daughter’s Armenian Ancestry Exposes Turkish Racism

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¶1. (sbu) Summary: Recent claims reported in two Turkish
newspapers that the late Sabiha Gokcen — Ataturk’s adopted
daughter and Turkey’s first female pilot — was Armenian have
exposed an ugly streak of racism in Turkish society. The
reports led a number of prominent figures to make racist
remarks “defending” Gokcen, which in turn prompted criticism
from more open-minded columnists. Perhaps the most alarming
result, however, has been an intensely personal campaign by
die-hard nationalists against the editor of the Armenian
weekly newspaper that first broke the story. End Summary.

¶2. (u) On February 21, the Hurriyet daily newspaper reprinted
a claim that had been published two weeks earlier in the
Armenian weekly newspaper AGOS to the effect that Sabiha
Gokcen, the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and
Turkey’s first female pilot, was of Armenian descent. The
claim, based on genealogical research by one of Gokcen’s
descendants, is not considered particularly new or noteworthy
among Armenian circles. Nevertheless, its widespread
circulation in Hurriyet prompted many prominent figures to
make racist and insulting remarks:

— Hurriyet columnist Emin Colasan wrote two editorials last
week on the subject. Colasan asks why such claims were put
forward when it is obvious that “dead people can’t defend
themselves” against such “slander and lies.”

— The Turkish Air Association (founded by Ataturk to promote
the Turkish Air Force) released a statement describing the
“completely fabricated and unfounded” reports “not merely as
an insult to Gokcen, but also as an insult to Ataturk.”

— The Turkish General Staff (TGS) issued a statement
criticizing the reports regarding Gokcen’s ethnic origin as
an “unfounded and unfair campaign against Ataturk
nationalism” and “a claim that abuses national values and

(Note: In contrast to the TGS statement, Aegean Army
Commander General Hurshit Tolon earlier commented that if
Gokcen was Armenian, it is important proof of the “greatness”
of Turkish nationalism and Ataturk’s vision. “It means” he
said, “that Ataturk understood many years ago that ethnic
origin has no importance in a globalizing world.” End Note).

¶3. (u) Others, including columnists Oktay Eksi (Hurriyet) and
Sahin Alpay (Zaman), criticized the racist tone of these
responses. Alpay put his finger on the crux of the
controversy in his February 28 column. “Because Turkish
identity has been defined… as “those who adopt Turkish
culture, share Islamic beliefs, and speak Turkish,” anybody
falling outside this definition was not considered part of
national society. While these politics may have been
unavoidable during the republic’s formation, in today’s
circumstances they represent a threat to Turkey’s national
unity and territorial integrity… In order to achieve the
ideal of a modern, free, and democratic Turkey, we need to
accept that no matter their language or religion, everyone
with citizenship and a bond of devotion to the Turkish
Republic is a Turk.”

¶4. (sbu) More worrying than this exchange is the fact that
the publication of these claims has led die-hard nationalist
members of the Istanbul branch of the Nationalist Action
Party-affiliated “ideological hearths” to launch a personal
campaign attacking Hrant Dink, the editor of AGOS. While
Dink has not been specifically criticized for publishing the
story on Gokcen, the publicity it generated prompted some
nationalists to use a previous Dink editorial to label him as
a “traitor.” (Note: In the article in question, Dink urges
Armenians to put aside their poisonous obsession with Turks
and the “genocide” and to focus instead on Armenia and
develop a positive Armenian identity. He is accused of
labeling Turks as “poisonous.” End Note). This campaign has
so far included hostile phone calls to Dink and a February 26
demonstration outside the AGOS offices by 40 or so
aggressive, taunting protesters. Clearly distraught and
upset by the attacks, Dink confessed to poloff that he has
even considered abandoning the newspaper.

¶5. (sbu) Comment: These developments spotlight the racism
underlying Turkish nationalism. The outrage by Turkey’s
secular establishment also reflects its hyper-sensitivity to
any perceived attacks on Kemalist ideology. We can expect
that any attempt to debate establishment-imposed notions of
secularism or the meaning of Turkishness will continue to
bring out sentiments incompatible with Turkey’s professed
adherence to universal norms or EU standards.