A beyond-capacity crowd gathered at Harvard's Mahindra Humanities Center on November 13, for the first annual Hrant Dink Memorial Peace and Justice Lecture. The program, founded by local Armenian activist Harry Parsekian, the president of the Friends of Hrant Dink Boston Chapter, featured Dr. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, and was titled "Unhealed Wounds of World War I: Armenia, Kurdistan and Palestine."
Dr. Homi Bhabha, the director of the center, opened the program by both paying tribute to the late Hrant Dink as well as explaining how the various advisors had named Khalidi as their first choice as speaker. He also expressed his gratitude to Parsekian for "his generosity and enthusiasm."
Dink, he said, aspired to advocate for peace and justice around the globe and a trip to Istanbul confirmed for Bhabha the late journalist's impact on Turkey.
Dr. Cemal Kafadar, the Vehbi Koç professor of Turkish Studies at Harvard, paid a particularly touching tribute to Dink, saying, "it is a very special and auspicious occasion that brings us here," to honor the "great, and alas, late Hrant Dink." Kafadar called Dink "a brilliant writer, journalist, intellectual [who was] a dedicated advocate for the rights of minorities" and someone who "imaginatively designed paths. He was an alchemist of human relations on a personal and political level."
He lamented that it is unfortunate that his death has yet to be investigated fully.
Parsekian himself praised Dink's widow, Rakel, who, he said, still continues to work for human rights both in Turkey and around the world. The lecture series at Harvard, he said, was "founded because of his sincerity. He wrote about the Armenian Genocide in Agos, about a civilization of 3,000 years that was lost in a matter of a few years."
He added, "The state knew that Hrant was targeted but did nothing." He went on to praise him for speaking out for Kurds, Alevis, Greeks, Jews and other minorities in Turkey. "Hrant Dink was the Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King of Turkey. He left a better world and a better future for all."
Rakel Dink, reading her prepared notes, seemed especially touched that an institution as prestigious as Harvard was going to be home to a lecture series dedicated to her husband. "I feel very emotional. I am encouraged and honored that my husband's name is commemorated at Harvard. I thank you from the bottom of my heart," she said.
She said that her husband's fight is still going forward. "The sound of warmongers is at its peak, but we demand peace." She then read from one of his columns, dated October 26, 1996, in which Dink wrote about his quest for seeking peace around the world.
Khalidi was a certainly a captivating speaker, but also one who seemed to create some controversy. He himself noted in his opening comments that many had suggested he not say certain things.
Khalidi tried to tie together the painful experiences of the three groups, Armenians, Kurds and Palestinians, which occurred during World War I and the aftermaths of which still linger and sting. He reserved the bulk of his wrath for the British.
Khalidi said that World War I was a major event in human history, during which 15 million lives were erased. "It was in the trenches that most suffered. This awful war," he said, toppled several ruling dynasties, including the Hapsburgs, Romanovs and the Hohenzollerns across Europe. He stressed, however, that while Europe suffered, "large swaths of Africa, the Pacific and the Middle East" also suffered.
Proportionately, he said, the Ottoman Empire lost the greatest number of its citizens. "Three million perished during World War I, which was 15 percent of its population," he said, compared to "France and Germany [who] each lost about 4 percent of their population."
At this juncture, Khalidi did not distinguish the 1.5 million Armenians' deaths ordered by the Ottoman government from the wartime deaths suffered by Ottoman soldiers and civilians as a result of war and deprivation. While he qualified the Armenian deaths as genocide, his explanation of the events and their causes sounded in some ways similar to official Turkish explanations.
He noted, "The Armenian people suffered the most" and faced a "genocidal exile." Then he added, "Wartime circumstances made the Armenians an enemy of the state," as "Tsarist Russia treated the Armenians as pawns. And Imperial Germany did nothing to protect the Armenians."
He immediately added that the situation did not justify systematic genocide, of course, though he blamed the British regarding the Armenians, saying that they were "being the apostles of independence at the Versailles Treaty" at the end of World War I, without any intention of keeping their promises.
In addition, he said, while France and Germany and much of the rest of Europe, including the Balkan tinderbox which had set off the war are now at peace, "there was no such sense of closure in the Middle East" and that there are still outbursts domestically or cross-border among countries who are suffering from the arbitrary borders drawn by the Western powers.
He spoke about the suffering of the Kurds, whose lands are divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, as well as "their cruel disappointment" when the promises given to them by the British were not kept. "Kurdish nationalism started to develop. The representative of the Kurds appealed to the British and they responded positively. They promised them some regions they had already pledged to the Armenians." At the end, they did nothing, he said.
Added Khalidi, "Again and again they were cruelly abandoned. Thus the short-lived Kurdish Republic" in the 1940s in Iran, whose leaders were executed by the Iranian government, was one example.
In the case of the Palestinians, also, Khalidi said that pledges were made by Great Britain as well as the League of Nations, which were "flatly contradicted by the Balfour Declaration" of 1917, which led to the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian lands.
"They suffer as well to this day," he said, adding that "there is systematic denial of what has happened to them."
In the case of the Palestinians, he said, sometimes they are even denied their identity as a distinct group.
"When there is denial, when it is asserted that there is no case to complain and the victim is the aggressor," wounds don't heal, he said.
Khalidi concluded that the Armenians, of the three groups, have done the best, since they have managed to have an independent country, albeit one suffering economically. In addition, he said Turkish civil society is increasingly coming to terms with what happened to the Armenians.
He also touched upon the rise of the Islamic State, ISIS, which has been able to consolidate its power and use social media to its best advantage to recruit members and solicit funding.
Serving as advisors to the Hrant Dink Memorial Peace and Justice Lecture series at Harvard are Taner Akçam, Kafadar and Jirair Libaridian.