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Turkey 's home truths

About the author
Elif Shafak is a novelist and essayist, and currently professor in the department of near-eastern studies at the University of Arizona.

"Can you go out? Can you walk on the streets without fear of assassination or an assault from Turkish nationalists?" asked the Belgian journalist at the end of the line as he was conducting a phone interview with me over the weekend. "Are you safe in Turkey?"

Am I safe in Turkey…? I wanted to ask him back: Tell me please, are you safe in Belgium? And I wanted to keep asking: Are we safe on this planet…?

Can each and every one of us, wherever we might have put down our roots, effortlessly and assertively answer that question affirmatively and claim that yes indeed, we are safe and sound, and so are our children? I don't think so. In the post 9/11 world, in a world where the number of those who believe in a "clash of civilizations" increases day by day, no one is safe anymore.

This holds equally true for someone living in a nice, quite suburb in the USA as someone living in Israel or Lebanon today. This is not to deny the fact that some parts of the world are far more dangerous and less peaceful than some others but when it comes to personal safety, who can guarantee to be safe in this or that particular place at this or that particular moment? This is what the world we are living in has granted us: abiding ambiguity and angst.

Also in openDemocracy on Turkey:

Murat Belge, "Between Turkey and Europe : why friendship is welcome" (December 2004)

Murat Belge, "Love me, or leave me? The strange case of Orhan Pamuk" (October 2005)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation" (October 2005)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (December 2005)

Anthony Barnett, " Turkish freedom: a report from the frontline"
(February 2006)

Orhan Pamuk, "Freedom to write lecture"
(April 2006)

Fear and loathing in Turkey

And "abiding ambiguity and angst" happens to be precisely what the ultra-nationalists in Turkey thrive upon. It is this motley cluster of people that fervently opposes Turkey's EU membership and churns out a set of knee-jerk reactions against any progressive development towards an open society. Interestingly and significantly, in Turkey, the opposition to the EU process did and does not come from the so-called "Islamist" party in power, as many in the west expected a few years ago. Rather, the biggest and deepest reaction came from a mixed group of strange bedfellows: the staunchly Kemalist, secularist and nationalist forces. These were the ones who were most perceptibly alarmed about a radical change in the conventional vested interests within the Turkish nation-state, and in their fear of losing leverage, managed to produce more politics of fear.

Such politics of fear eventually plays into the hands of the "deep state", which happens to be one of those special Turkish products difficult to translate into other languages. The deep state is "a state within the state". Political analysts have time and again pointed out that this intricate network dates back to the old Ottoman era and stretches across a wide range of professionals from the security forces to parts of the bureaucracy and judiciary. This is tantamount to saying that the government is not always in charge of politics in Turkey. The government and the state is not one and the same thing here anymore. There are times in which they might not even be on the same wavelength. Being a statesman in this country does not necessarily mean being part of the state apparatus.

But Article 301 was not dictated by the deep state. Ironically, it was produced by Erdoğan's government in their endeavour to please many sides at the same time: nationalists in Turkey and reformists both in and out the country. Refusing to see the difficulty, if not impossibility of this task, the government amended the Turkish penal code in haste in order to meet EU deadlines. The product of such "discernible haste and delicate balancing" was Article 301, which asks for up to three years in prison for anyone who "insults Turkishness".

What exactly that means, nobody knows. It is precisely this elusiveness that causes recurring problems. "Insulting Turkishness" is such a vaguely formulated phrase that it can be interpreted in endless ways, and can thereby be easily misinterpreted. It is this vagueness that gives the ultranationalist lawyers in the country the opportunity they were looking for: to exploit the flaws in the judiciary mechanism and to attack and harass open-minded voices in the society.

Today's Turkey is home to a clash of opinions. On the one hand are the ultranationalists who oppose EU membership and manufacture politics of fear. They keep filing complaints against anyone whose words they might find "offensive". They wait outside courtrooms chanting provocative slogans and, sometimes, using violence. They choose their targets deliberately, knowing whom to attack when.

To this day they have assaulted more than 50 people – writers, journalists, human rights activists, editors, and publishers. In almost all cases the targets of the ultranationalists were Turkish citizens, although European Parliament member Joost Lagendijk too has been prosecuted due to their efforts.

The big taboo

In this turbulent framework there is nothing "new" about my trial. It is yet another case in a long series of Article 301 trials. Yet at the same time, my trial happens to be a bit unusual, if not absurd. This time, it is a novel that is being charged with insulting Turkishness. The fictional Armenian characters in my latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, are blamed for defaming and belittling Turkishness. Thus for instance, a character named Auntie Varsenig is in trouble now for saying the following on page 57:

"Tell me how many Turks ever learned Armenian. None! Why did our mothers learn their language and not vice versa? Isn't it clear who has dominated whom? Only a handful of Turks come from Central Asia, right, and then the next thing you know they are everywhere! What happened to the millions of Armenians who were already there? Assimilated! Massacred! Orphaned! Deported! And then forgotten! How can you give your flesh and blood daughter to those who are responsible for our being so few and in so much pain today? Mesrop Mashtots would turn in his grave!"

Similarly, another character, Dikran Stamboulian, is in dire straits now for saying the following:

"What will that innocent lamb tell her friends when she grows up? My father is Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, my great-uncle is Dikran Stamboulian, his father is Varvant Istanboluian, my name is Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, all my family tree has been Something Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha! What kind of a joke is that … Ah, marnim khalasim!"

As much as I believe in their vivacity, my Armenian fictional characters cannot go to court to be tried under Article 301. Instead of them, my Turkish publisher, Semi Sökmen, and I, will be there when the time comes. It will be a long legal battle from then on, and certainly a hassle and cause of stress. But, we Turkish writers are not pitiful or forlorn victims unable to go out into the street for fear of nationalist assault. After all, we do know, perhaps not intellectually but intuitively, that a similar clash of opinions between the progressive-minded and the close-minded xenophobes is under way almost everywhere and the world is not a safe planet anymore.

Statement on Elif Shafak's agent's website:

"One month ago, on 7 June 2006, the Beyoglu Public Prosecutor in Istanbul dismissed proceedings launched against Shafak after hearing Shafak and Sökmen's argument that the book was a work of literature and it was therefore not appropriate for prosecution. They added that the book aimed to promote the culture of peace. However, in early July the Istanbul 7th High Criminal Court over-ruled the decision not to proceed, following a complaint filed by Kemal Kerincsiz, a member of a group of right wing lawyers known as the 'Unity of Jurists' who have been active in the launching of prosecutions of numerous writers and journalists in recent months. The trial date has not yet been set."


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