I MET HRANT Dink, a journalist who was assassinated earlier today in Istanbul, in 2005. A Turkish businessman organized a lunch to introduce me to a few journalists and civil society activists who had attended a recent conference on the Armenian Genocide. The successful staging of the conference, the first of its kind in Turkey where the state has long sponsored a campaign to deny the killings, came only after repeated efforts by Turkish nationalists to stop it through legal challenges.
Dink believed that efforts to block the conference were designed to undermine Turkey's bid to join the European Union by casting Turkey as irredeemably hostile to freedom of speech. And, he thought such efforts would fail. Quite possibly, there was a similar motive for his murder. "Hrant's body is lying on the ground as if those bullets were fired at Turkey," fellow journalist Can Dundar told a Turkish television station.
When I met him, Dink was awaiting sentencing for the vague crime of "insulting Turkishness," a peculiar offense that has been used against many other journalists, publishers, and the novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak in retaliation for mentioning the massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century. Ironically, the 2005 case against Dink was based on a misinterpretation of a criticism that Dink had leveled at diaspora Armenians. He was given a six month suspended sentence that kept him out of jail, but he faced the constant threat that future comments might lead to prison. Indeed, new charges were soon filed against him for criticizing the verdict, and additional cases were brought against journalists for attempting to "influence the judiciary" by writing about the case.
Dink maintained a difficult balance. He was committed to a Turkish-Armenian identity that was anathema to the most conservative elements of Turkish society. I can say little of his personality, but he gave an impression of accommodation. "I'm living together with Turks in this country," Dink told the Associated Press during the 2005 legal proceedings. "And I'm in complete solidarity with them. I don't think I could live with an identity of having insulted them in this country."
Dink's murder is part of an intensifying struggle over the kind of country Turkey is going to be. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's initial reaction, calling the assassination an attack on Turkey's unity, suggests he understands that. In the past, however, Erdogan has displayed an erratic appreciation of political violence. He embraced the Jewish victims of a synagogue bombing as Turks whose country failed to protect them. But he also responded weakly to the killing of a judge when it was assumed to be the work of an Islamist, an assumption that later crumbled. He may yet realize that the balance between religion and secularism in a Muslim country is directly linked to that country's treatment of minorities, religious or otherwise.
At lunch in the fall of 2005, I remember trying to imagine what life must be like for Dink. He believed, despite his troubles, that the taboo on acknowledging the Armenian genocide was fading. I wonder now if perhaps he thought things might get worse before they got better.
Ellen Bork is deputy director of the Project for the New American Century.