Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Trial of the Turkish Century

In a possibly apocryphal but often quoted story, Adolf Hitler justified his Final Solution by admonishing his advisers, "who now remembers the Armenians?" One Turkish writer is facing three years in prison for doing just that.

Orhan Pamuk, future Nobel laureate and Turkey's greatest living novelist, is set to stand trial in early February on charges that he "insulted Turkishness." In question is a quote from an interview Pamuk gave to the Swiss publication Das Magazin last year: "Thirty-thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

Pamuk is referring both to the genocide against Armenians who lived in what is now eastern Turkey during World War I in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, and the more recent brutal clashes between Kurdish guerrillas and government troops—clashes that have been devastating to the civilian Kurdish population—in the country's south and east over the past few decades (hostilities have declined greatly in recent years).

Few serious scholars would dispute the veracity of Pamuk's claims, but discussion of the Armenian genocide and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the Kurdish "problem," is taboo in Turkey. Turks are taught in school that the Armenian genocide is a total fabrication designed to cripple the Turkish republic and the prohibition on frank discussion of the event is so complete that most Turks today not only vehemently deny that the massacres and forced deportations took place; they believe that most people outside of Turkey learn the same things and feel the same way they do.

Article 301 of Turkey's criminal code, which prohibits publicly "insulting" Turkish National identity, the republic, or the Grand National Assembly, is what Pamuk is charged with violating. The article, and many other similar curbs on the freedom of expression and the press, are firmly rooted in Turkey's history as a republic. Kemal Atatürk resurected Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman collapse, and, after a decisive if brutal military campaign against Greek troops, declared the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Built on the blood and sweat of Atatürk (who is Turkey's Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin all rolled into one), and based on the tenets of strict nationalism and secularism, the Turkish republic was an astonishing and improbable success—in large part because Atatürk willed the idea of "Turkishness" into existence.

It continues to be so today, with one of the most robust economies in the Muslim world and, despite the heavy-handedness of the government (in which the military plays an official role), one of the most Western and democratic, too. Among the great stumbling blocks, however, have been the Turkish government's inability to permit meaningful opposition and its inability to admit mistakes. (Apart from Armenia and the Kurds, the Turks have a long and painful history with Greece and they are largely unwilling to admit their part in perpetrating the enmity).

It seems like the dark years of military rule are solidly in Turkey's past, and a testament to the success of the Turkish experiment is the fact that the nation is poised to join the European Union. If it succeeds, it will be the first Muslim nation to do so. But, thanks to the Turks' inability to work with Greece in reuniting the bifurcated island of Cyprus (which Turkey invaded and occupied the northern portion of in the early 1970s) amongst other failings, Turkey's accession to the EU is anything but guaranteed. A high-profile trial against one of the world's great novelists is yet another nail in the coffin.

Some EU opposition to Turkish membership is pure racism and bigotry. Some, however, is based on the understandable fear that Turkey is not committed to European standards of democracy. An ideological show-trial against the most famous living Turk other than Tarkan (Google him if you don't know) seems beyond unwise—it's more like suicide.

In a slight bit of bright news, author Zulkuf Kisanak and his publisher Aziz Ozer, who were also brought up on charges for violating Article 301 because of Kisanak's book Lost Villages, which discusses the Armenian and Kurdish issues, were fined instead of being sentenced to jail. For a civil libertarian, however, that's largely immaterial. The fact that they're having these trials—that Article 301 exists at all—is the real problem.

It would be exciting for Turkey to join the EU because of what it would mean for the country's people and, ultimately, for Europe as well. But the Turkish government needs to demonstrate that it deserves the chance to bring Atatürk's Westernizing dreams to fruition.
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