The Independent, 31 August 2005

Turkey hands its enemies an own goal

The case against Orhan Pamuk will raise questions about the wisdom of Turkey's EU membership bid

By Maureen Freely

Turkey was never going to have an easy ride into Europe. There was the question of Cyprus, and the question of the Kurds. Turkey's checkered human rights record was a cause for concern, as was the role the military played until very recently. There were also dark mutterings about the Islamicization of Europe.

But the ghost at the feast has always been the question of the Armenian massacres in 1915. Europe would like to see Turkey recognise its responsibility and apologise. Turkey continues to maintain that — while several hundred thousand Armenians may have perished — this happened in the context of parallel massacres perpetrated against Muslim Turks.

In certain parts of the Turkish intelligentsia, however, there is growing recognition that Turkey will not be successful in its European bid until this issue is aired in an open way and somehow resolved.

It was in this spirit that Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most famous novelist, said, in an interview last winter with the Swiss newspaper, Tages Anzeiger, that "30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it". His comments, reprinted in the Turkish press the following day, caused a furore, with leading commentators denouncing him as a traitor.

There followed death threats, ostensibly from offended members of the public, probably linked to right-wing paramilitaries. Fearing for his safety, Pamuk's friends advised him to leave the country. In his absence, the story ran and ran, with the Turkish press seizing on every comment from abroad to paint him as a Turk who shames his country abroad.

As his friend and translator, I would like to make it very clear (here and in the Turkish newspapers where this piece will no doubt appear tomorrow) that this image is wholly false. This is a man who loves his country deeply, defends it fiercely, especially when abroad, and who cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Pamuk is not the only Turkish intellectual to have brought the Armenian question into the public domain in recent months. Last May, a group of Turkish academics — some from Turkish universities, some based in the US and Europe — tried to hold a conference on the subject at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

Entitled "The Ottoman Armenians during the Era of Ottoman Decline", its aim was "to understand and recount a historical issue that ... has become trapped and increasingly politicised between the radical Armenian national and official Turkish theses." There was also, a recognition amongst the (largely pro-EU) participants that if Turkish academics were able to find a space in which to "own" the issue, this would in itself be proof to the European community that Turkey was a maturing democracy, intent on promoting and protecting freedom of thought.

Sadly, the Justice Minister, Cemil Cicek, saw fit to indicate otherwise in the National Assembly the day before the conference was due to open. When an opposition deputy denounced the organisers as traitors, he rose to concur, going on to call the conference a "dagger in the back of the Turkish people".

The conference was postponed. Many of those who were to have given papers vented their anger in the press, and though they were roundly condemned by very angry others there were those who saw this fiery exchange as proof that matters previously viewed as untouchable were at least getting a public airing.

The optimists were vindicated when the conference was rescheduled for late September, and they were further encouraged when Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told the organisers that he supported the conference and wanted it to take place before his own talks with the EU on 3 October.

But now this same government seems to have decided to shoot itself in the foot. For a public prosecutor has brought a case against Orhan Pamuk, having found his remarks in the Swiss newspaper last winter to be an infringement of Article 301/1 of the Turkish Penal Code. This states that "the public denigration of Turkish identity" is a crime and recommends that those found guilty be given prison sentences of six to 36 months.

Because another law prohibits Pamuk from commenting on his case while it is pending, the statement that his Turkish publishers will be sending out today is a three-sentence affair which sets out the facts and offers no opinion. It is up to us to decide how to read it.

There is no doubt that it will raise questions about the wisdom of Turkey's EU membership bid. How can it possibly claim to be a European country if it has such laws on the books, and if public prosecutors can bring such cases? No doubt the censure has already started behind closed doors. No doubt it will be followed by more public denigration of Turkishness in the European press.

This does not preclude a fairy-tale ending: common sense could prevail. The government could persuade the public prosecutor to drop his case. It could then put its full weight behind the conference, and signal to the right-wing paramilitaries to stay away.

If the government fails to achieve any of the above, it may well be because it can't. Since December of last year, there has been a slow but steady rise of nationalist, anti-EU sentiment inside the ruling party, an even more dramatic rise in nationalist rhetoric in the main opposition party, and a growing recalcitrance in the vast state bureaucracies that must implement the sweeping legal, social, and economic changes Turkey must make if it is join the EU. In the same period, the government's ability to make a case for Europe has been severely weakened by the stream of anti-Turkish voices in from Europe.

The then French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, set the tone during the French referendum, when he cast doubt on Turkey's EU bid by wondering if it was wise for "river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism in Europe". (Did they forget to tell him that Turkey has been a secular state for more than 80 years?) The great man did not intend his remarks for the Turkish public, but of course, they read it, too. Now, with Merkel and Chirac promising to block Turkey's EU bid altogether, resentment can only grow.

This is good news for all those inside Turkey who would like to stay out of the EU, and especially good news to hardliners who would like to see the state and the military returned to their former power, and the intelligentsia muzzled. The badmouthing from Europe has greatly strengthened their cause. The case against Orhan Pamuk is more grist for their mill. Unless it is handled wisely, that is. If you care at all about democracy in Turkey, don't let them use him as a pawn.

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