Novelist takes on Turkish ‘taboo’
Arizona Republic, AZ
July 30, 2006
University of Arizona Professor Elif Shafak has a freedom problem.
She used the freedom of speech to exercise the freedom to tell
But by doing so, she may have cost herself, well, her freedom.
Shafak, a 35-year-old native of Turkey, is waiting to stand trial
in Istanbul on charges of "insulting Turkishness." A trial date has
not been set. The reputed insults appear in her novel The Bastard of
Istanbul, written in English but translated into Turkish and published
in Turkey on March 8. The book is already a bestseller there.
The problem comes down to a disagreement about what happened to the
Armenian population living in Turkey in 1915. Ethnic Armenians say
Turkey killed up to 1.5 million of their people during a genocidal
war that lasted about eight years.
The International Association of Genocide Scholars, the definitive
body of researchers who study genocide, has affirmed the historical
fact of the Armenian Genocide. Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, when
he coined the term genocide in 1944, cited the Turkish extermination
of the Armenians and the Nazi extermination of the Jews as defining
examples of what he meant.
A character in Shafak’s book talks about "genocide survivors who lost
all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915."
In a telephone interview from Turkey, Shafak said that "the Armenian
Question is one of the biggest political taboos in Turkey."
Though she hasn’t been jailed and is free to do what she wants,
Shafak has endured weeks of interrogation by a Turkish prosecutor.
She was indicted under Turkey’s Article 301.
That law states that "a person who publicly denigrates Turkishness,
the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be
punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years."
Shafak calls it "a huge obstacle in front of freedom of expression"
in her native land.
So does the European Union, which has repeatedly warned Turkey that the
existence of the law could hinder its chance to become an EU member.
"The biggest danger concerning the article is its vagueness," Shafak
said. "It penalizes those who ‘defame Turkishness’ but what exactly
that means, no one knows. The article is so vague, it is open to
interpretations and therefore, misinterpretations."
Many authors, publishers and journalists have been charged under
What’s unusual about Shafak’s case is that she has been indicted
for writing a work of fiction. The ultranationalist lawyers have
specifically singled out Armenian characters in the book for
One of Turkey’s newspapers even asked, "Are you going to bring
fictional characters into court?"
Minister Counselor Tuluy Tanc of the Turkish Embassy in Washington,
D.C, points out another element of uncertainty in implementing
"In the last paragraph it says that expressions of opinion made for the
purpose of criticism cannot be a crime. If the purpose is criticism,
then that’s all right. It’s a good point: What’s the difference?"
Tanc, too, said the law is too general.
But, Tanc said, just as the Turkish government does not view
what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the Turkish
government does not view Article 301 as the suppression of the
freedom of speech. Despite acknowledging the international criticism
of Article 301, he said that due to the separation of powers under
Turkey’s democracy, "the government cannot comment on its merits. The
Parliament has passed it. The courts that interpret this are also
entirely independent of Parliament. Anything I would say would be an
invasion of their duties."
Tanc added that Turkey is not concerned about the criticism of
A Turkish court convicted an Armenian-Turkish journalist in February
under that law. He received a suspended six-month sentence.
Tanc said case law will determine how Shafak’s and others’ indictments
Authors, artists, scientists and professors in the United States and
around the world are campaigning for the charges against Shafak to
Shafak appreciates the international community’s passion for her cause.
Yet, she emphasizes that it is precisely because Turkey’s culture is
becoming more progressive that this tension between ultranationalist
and democratic forces has arisen.
Shafak urges those outside Turkey to ally themselves to the
progressives within her country to propel democracy forward. She
cautions people not to paint all of Turkish society black.
"This is precisely what the Turkish ultranationalists want. They
want to increase the distance between Turkey and the Western world
by defining them as mutually exclusive. We need to prove them wrong
by building more and more intercultural dialogues that transcend
nationalist and religious boundaries."
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