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Freedom of expression in Turkey and... Europe

Thursday 12 October 2006, by Elif Shafak

Source : Hürriyet

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These days Turkey is busily discussing Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. While the major party in opposition disappointingly resists any attempts to change this law and the government tries to navigate a nifty solution that will ideally satisfy both the voters and the EU top officials, Turkey’s columnists left and right are industriously probing the implications of the article and making suggestions as to what to replace it with. Although the number of people complaining about the harmful effects of Article 301 has visibly increased, among the cultural,
political and military elite, there are also those who claim that this article needs to be left intact to discipline and penalize any potential “traitors.”

The vagueness of the article

Being put on trial under Article 301, I do know firsthand how perilous and restraining the vagueness of the article can be and I strongly believe it needs to be changed and improved as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Until today this infamous article had been used many a times to sue numerous critical-minded people, — among them publishers, journalists, editors, writers — but now, in addition to this sequence, a work of fiction was being brought to court.

I was indicted for denigrating “Turkishness” in my latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, which tells the story of two families — one Turkish-Muslim, living in Istanbul and the other Armenian-American, living in San Francisco. Three months after the book came out in Turkey, I have been sued by a group of ultra-nationalist lawyers who apparently had plucked the words of a number of Armenian characters present in the novel and claimed that I was maligning Turkishness through the words of my fictional characters. A well-known progressive newspaper, Radikal, countered by asking: “Are we going to be the type of country where fictional characters are prosecuted ?

“A possible nationaaliste backclash”

To this day, I do not know what exactly “belittling Turkishness” means. But I do know what it means to dream, to imagine, to speak your mind, to write fiction and to empathize with the “Other” until there is no “us versus them” anymore. I believe in the freedom of expression. Not solely in Turkey but everywhere and at all times. This is why it is impossible for me not to become worried by the recent developments in Holland and by the mood in France. The news that three Turkish candidates have been expelled from their parties in Holland due to their refusal to accept “Armenian genocide” is very distressing. By the same token, the attempts in France to introduce and impose “a genocide law” and punish anyone who denies this understanding is completely against the spirit of freedom of expression and against the spirit of an open democracy.

If we are pro-freedom of expression in Turkey, we cannot have double standards. Being pro-freedom of expression requires defending this fundamental principle in all countries. What is happening in Holland and France is highly problematical not only in terms of curbing freedom of expression but also in terms of undermining any potential bonds of empathy and amity between Armenians and Turks. This move will only create a nationalist backlash in Turkey. It will harm all attempts to build dialogue. Perhaps more significantly, both the Dutch and French governments should recall, just like the Turkish government should, that it is not up to states or the state elite to write or dictate history. It is not democratic to impose one version of history and silence all other conflicting interpretations.

It is my contention that if we are genuinely democratic and fully pro-freedom of speech, we should be able to simultaneously criticize both the implications of Article 301 in Turkey and the recent anti-democratic developments in France and Holland.

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