Turkey's war on dissent
Saturday, June 10, 2006
Those of us who know only a little about politics in Turkey would expect to see the Turks trying hard, in this delicate period, to prove their devotion to civil liberties. It was only last autumn that Turkey was finally allowed to begin the official talks that precede joining the European Union, a preliminary move celebrated with grandiose dawn-of-a-new-era speeches.
For four decades, Turkey has been trying to get this process under way. Opinion polls report that two-thirds of its citizens want to join the EU. Britain welcomes the idea but Austria, among others, has been reluctant. Recent events have made France and the Netherlands suspicious of Turkey's Islamic majority. Germans, as Hugh Eakin wrote last winter in Slate magazine, see Turkey "as a society of headscarves and honor killings," definitely unEuropean. They fear that admitting Turkey could encourage Muslims in Germany to form an uncontrollable "parallel society." That must infuriate moderate Muslims in the Turkish government, who mostly favour the EU.
Since the acceptance process takes years, those opinions can change. Meanwhile, the EU will be watching.
Inner conflicts and contradictions have always defined modern Turkey, and it appears that elements in the judiciary, the army and the government have chosen this of all times to harass journalists, novelists and publishers. The authorities have exhibited amazingly sensitive nationalist feelings. They are infuriated when anyone talks about the Armenian genocide or sees imperfections in their democracy. Courts are ruling that it's still illegal to publish unpleasant remarks about the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938).
Even a novel can outrage national pride. A best-seller by Elif Safak, Father and Bastard, concerning a Turkish family and an Armenian family over nine decades, has been charged because the dialogue includes "I am the grandchild of a family whose children were slaughtered by the Turkish butchers" and "I was brought up having to deny my roots and say that genocide did not exist."
A court will decide if those fictional remarks violate Article 301 of the penal code, now the key to many prosecutions. It makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime and provides prison terms up to three years for anyone who explicitly insults the Republic, the national assembly, or "being a Turk." This peculiarly wide-ranging section is one reason that British PEN has been monitoring 60 Turkish cases this year.
The army, always powerful in Turkey, is another reason. The General Staff objected to a recent magazine article, "Conscientious Objection is a Human Right," in which Perihan Magden, a columnist and novelist with an international reputation, argued for alternatives to national military service. She expressed sympathy for a man who was sentenced to four years in army prison for refusing to fight (against Kurds, probably), though he was willing to serve in any other way. For that article, the army demanded that Magden be charged with "alienating the people against military service." If found guilty she could get three years.
Hers was only one of six freedom-of-expression cases before the Turkish courts this week, but it was the one that attracted the attention of Hansjorg Kretschmer, the German who serves as EU ambassador to Turkey. He asked, "If you think there should be a right to conscientious objection in Turkey, why can't you say it? Why is this a ground for prosecution?" He also said Turkey has many cases that are similarly "unacceptable from a European point of view."
Last winter, the government withdrew a charge against Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most admired novelist, for denigrating Turkishness. But other writers, less famous, continue to be prosecuted. Pamuk asked, "What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk world-wide?"
The answer lies somewhere in the labyrinthine politics of Turkey. There are nationalist forces that have no enthusiasm for the EU. They tend to be secular rather than Islamic and belong to what Turks call the "deep state," dominated by bureaucrats and the military establishment. They know a new Turkey is slowly being born, and they aren't at all sure they want it to imitate Europe. In their fight with the government for control of Turkish identity, they don't at all mind if the courts displease Eurocrats like Kretschmer and create barriers to acceptance. Official Turkey is fighting a war of opinion in its own ranks, with authors, journalists and publishers as collateral victims.
© National Post 2006