Turkish Authors Face Controversy
EDITOR’S NOTE: On Friday, January 19, 2007, prominent Armenian-Turkish Journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead
outside his Istanbul office. Dink, like Elif Shafak and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, had been charged with Article 301 of the
Turkish penal code for insulting Turkishness. And yet, Dink was recognized and praised by his countrymen and by a worldwide
audience for promoting open dialogue between Turks and Armenians, and for professing his profound love for his country.
Turkish author Elif Shafak figuratively dodged a political bullet recently when she was cleared of the charges brought against her under Turkey’s Article 301, a controversial article of the Turkish penal code that makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness”.
Ms. Shafak’s charge resulted from a passage in her latest book, The Bastard of Istanbul, in which a fictional character confronts, head-on, the issue of genocide against Armenians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
Says author Maureen Freely, translator of Orhan Pamuk’s internationally acclaimed Snow, and Istanbul, Memories and the City, “We at English PEN were very pleased that Elif Shafak was acquitted, but we remain seriously concerned about Article 301, several other related articles in the new penal code, and the prosecution of writers deemed to have insulted the memory of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. As many as eighty writers, academics, artists, musicians, and activists have been prosecuted in the past year for expressing their ideas, and there are forty-five more cases yet to go to court. This number is sure to rise.”
In the west, we think of censorship as coming from the religious right, so it is more than confusing for us to understand that in Turkey it is primarily secularists, not Islamic fundamentalists, behind the enforcement of Draconian laws against the state. In fact, the current charges brought upon the literary community appear aimed to ensure that Turkey does not gain acceptance into the European Union.
It’s interesting to note that so far no one has gone to prison for Article 301 crimes. It may be enough for the nationalists to bring internationally acclaimed authors such as Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk to trial, creating bad press and hampering the European Union cause.
Turkey has long been a land of independent spirit, and it’s been less than one hundred years since Kemal Ataturk, backed by a strong military, founded the Turkish Republic in 1920, ending the six-hundred-year reign of the Ottoman Empire, and successfully fending off a bid by the Great European Powers to divide Turkey up for themselves.
Last year, I asked friends in Istanbul to share their thoughts about the charges brought against Orhan Pamuk, and to discuss Turkey’s chances of entering the European Union. Their responses, and that of others on the street, were surprising. Instead of feeling embarrassed by the government restrictions, most lashed out against Pamuk, their shinning star.
“He is only seeking publicity” was a common view.
“He wants the notoriety to win awards for his books” was another.
“Yes, he’s a good writer, but it was wrong of him to say anything against Turkey. Especially now with the world watching us.”
One group of friends from Istanbul’s Jewish elite repeated what I’d heard throughout the city. “Turkey needs to change laws, which are outdated, and improve our human rights. For this reason, the effort to join the European Union has been a good. But, to be a member of the EU? Ah, it is not necessary for us, and I really hope it does not happen.”
Later, while he was awaiting trial and ignoring death threats, I had the opportunity to interview Orhan Pamuk in New York. In spite of the opinions of the people I spoke with in Turkey, Pamuk appeared frustrated and embarrassed by the scandal, preferring to talk of crafting words into beautifully written novels full of complex characters and innovative story narratives. He acknowledged the statements he had made to a Swiss journalist that Turks were responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of Turkish Armenians. But since his comments were spoken off the record, he felt betrayed.
It’s not that Pamuk shies away from controversy. He often writes of politically charged topics, and sees the rise in nationalism as not only an inevitable result of Turkey’s move toward the west, but also a backlash to change.
“People are worried that they will be looked down upon by Europe, by Western Civilization. They want that approval so much, Pamuk said.”
Pamuk says that he grew up “living in his head, ” not embroiled in the government, but within the culture of Istanbul’s intellectual society. He avoided politics for most of his life, even during the 1980’s coup when the military took control of the government and many writers were thrown in prison for the smallest infraction against the state. The irony that Pamuk, an author who has put Turkey on the map, and who writes so eloquently about the country he loves, would be charged with crimes against the state, speaks volumes about a country in flux.
Shafak doesn’t shriek from the spotlight of controversy. She regularly shares opinions and dispenses wisdom in her regular Op-Ed column of the Turkish Daily News, and the occasional Washington Post or New York Times article. As assistant professor for Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona, she comfortably divides her time between Arizona and Istanbul.
Last month, between writing articles, giving interviews, and having the charges of Article 301 against her dismissed, Ms. Shafak gave birth to her first child, a baby girl. Like Pamuk, she and her counterparts, if given the opportunity, can be Turkey’s visionary leaders, pulling their country into the twenty-first century; and helping bridge the divide between ideas and ideals in this secular Muslim Republic.