Imagine if insulting George W. Bush were a crime or if we jailed writers for being critical of U.S. policies. Half the authors on the New York Times‘ best-seller list would be behind bars.
It’s different in Turkey. For the crime of “insulting Turkishness,” best-selling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak is facing up to four years in prison. Her trial is scheduled to begin on September 21.
At issue are several remarks made by a fictional character in Shafak’s latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, already a top-selling book in Turkey and set to be published next year by Viking in the United States.
The charges against Shafak involve the word “genocide,” spoken in her novel by a fictional character of Armenian ancestry regarding the death of Armenians during World War I.
“I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915,” says the imaginary character, “but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha.”
In the United States, some fictional Apache in a novel could say much the same thing about the fate of his tribe at the hands of European settlers and no one would be headed for the courthouse.
A historian at the University of Hawaii, David E. Stannard, unincarcerated, described the forced removal and killing of native Americans as “the worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents nonstop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people.”
No American churchmen went to jail when the National Council of Churches adopted a resolution that branded the journey of Christopher Columbus an “invasion” that resulted in the “genocide of native people.”
In Turkey, however, public comment, even by a fictional character, about the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during and after World War I is a taboo subject and potentially illegal.
Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, adopted in June 2005, states that:
* “Public denigration of Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.”
* “Public denigration of the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security matters shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.”
A third section of the Penal Code, applicable to Shafak, a Turkish citizen and currently an assistant professor in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona, states, “In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country, the punishment shall be increased by one third.”
Under Article 301, internationally acclaimed author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most famous novelist, was charged last year with “insulting Turkishness” after he stated in an interview with a Swiss newspaper that “30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were murdered in these lands and no one but me dares talk about it.”
The Turkish Publishers’ Association reports that more than 60 writers and journalists have been charged under Article 301 with various forms of “insulting Turkishness,” including the intellectual transgression of allegedly insulting Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder of modern Turkey.
Five journalists were charged last year for articles they wrote challenging the decision of an Istanbul court to ban an academic conference dealing with the killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917. The writers’ crime? Attempting to “influence judicial procedures” by objecting to the court’s interference with academic freedom.
The complaints against Pamuk and Shafak were filed by attorney Kemal Kerincsiz, head of the Turkish Jurists’ Union. “We will not allow insults and abuse of Turkishness in the name of freedom of expressions,” explained Kerincsiz.
Less narrow-minded, Shafak portrays her upcoming court battle as part of an ongoing struggle for modernity and freedom of expression: “What’s going on right now is a backlash. There’s a clash of opinion. On the one hand are the people who are much more cosmopolitan-minded, much more multicultural, who want to keep Turkey as an open society and who very much support wholeheartedly the European Union process. But on the other hand are the people who want to maintain Turkey as an enclosed society, more xenophobic, more nationalistic, more insular.”