Monday, April 24, 2006

Turkey Too Testy?

I lived in Turkey for a little less than a year and in that time I probably saw Ataturk's image 100,000 times. At least. Turks love, love, love the founder of the modern secular Turkish Republic, and with good reason. Without his bold (and sometimes brutal) reforms, Turkey might have been more like neighbors Syria and Iraq than the burgeoning regional economic power it is today.

Turkey is a very patriotic nation, not unlike the United States during the 1950s when it comes to displaying the national flag and lauding the founding fathers. But in Turkey, there's only one father (in fact, Mustafa Kemal's adopted surname Ataturk means "Father of the Turks") and he's revered like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Lincoln all rolled into one.

There's nothing wrong with having pride in one's history; the problems start when it's against the law not to display such pride. I've written a number of times about the terrible Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalizes insulting Turkishness, the Turkish Republic and the armed forces. Now, troubling tales of the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk and other Turkish writers have given way to a truly bizarre case.

Veysel Dalci, a regional governmental official, "was charged with insulting Turkey's founding leader on Monday for chewing gum while he laid a wreath during a ceremony" commemorating the 86th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish parliament. A military official present at the ceremony ratted Dalci out. For his part, Dalci has apologized, saying he "was chewing gum to freshen his breath after eating garlic."

As noted above, this is merely the most bizarre in a long line of overreactions on the part of the Turkish government in their efforts to protect "Turkishness." The sad truth is that every ridiculous prosecution like this, every journalist imprisoned or imperiled for telling inconvenient truths, every voice silenced for the good of the republic—each one of these outrages against freedom diminishes the value of that which they try so vigilantly to protect. Each overbearing attempt to bolster the strength of the nation through domination is just another sign of weakness. True respect for Ataturk would mean letting his ideas stand on their own two feet.
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