The Associated Press
Published : September 5, 2006
ISTANBUL, Turkey Kemal Kerincsiz believes Turkey is one of the greatest, freest countries in the world. Insult it, and you could find yourself facing him in court.
To some in this country of 70 million, the ultra-nationalist lawyer is the voice of a proud people against a patronizing West. To others, he is the voice of intolerance and excessive patriotism - a major embarrassment that could derail Turkey’s more than 40-year-old bid to join the European Union. As the ubiquitous, mustachioed leader of the Turkish Lawyers’ Union, Kerincsiz is the reason writers and intellectuals are regularly put on trial in Turkey.
When the European Union talks about slow progress on democratic reforms, they’re largely talking about him. Kerincsiz gained international notoriety this year for dragging celebrated novelist Orhan Pamuk to court for allegedly insulting Turkishness. Pamuk, often cited as a candidate for the Nobel prize in literature, was acquitted. But the lawyer has met with success in less high-profile cases, winning a conviction against an Armenian-Turkish journalist for the same offense.
He has also opened dozens of other cases against journalists, writers and intellectuals, including one set to go to court this month against Arizona-based Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. And he recently leveled charges of insulting the Turkish military against Dutch European Parliament member Joost Lagendijk, a frequent official observer of Turkish affairs whom Kerincsiz calls a "foreign invader." "The Lawyers’ Union is behind nearly all of them," the disarmingly polite lawyer said of the cases in an interview with The Associated Press at his cluttered, lightless Istanbul office.
"We have several cases open against writers. Most of them are for insulting Turkishness, insulting Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey), cooling the people’s willingness to serve in the army, you know. There are dozens of cases we have running." Kerincsiz and his organization of some 700 nationalist lawyers have exasperated not only EU officials - who have said the cases must be stopped or Turkey will jeopardize its hopes of joining the EU - but also Turkey’s Western-looking intellectuals and its leadership. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul complained once that the freedom of expression cases hurt Turkey’s image as much as the 1978 film "Midnight Express," in which an American drug smuggler is sent to a hellish Turkish prison and brutalized, tortured and raped by Turkish guards.
But nevermind, Kerincsiz says, there’s not much use in trying to improve Turkey’s image in the West anyway. "The Turk is not a race to live with the European. He is always the other, the rival," the thin, smooth-talking Kerincsiz explained from behind stacks of files on his desk. His office was decorated with Turkish flags and featured a tree chart in the waiting room showing various branches of the Turkic races. Kerincsiz believes Turkey’s future is in the East and represents a growingly powerful faction of Turkish society tired of being told it must aspire to be more like the West. Recently, his view appears to be gaining traction in the government, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Egdogan increasingly making foreign policy overtures to the Middle East - and away from Europe.
"The Easterner has to insult himself and degrade his own culture to ingratiate himself with the West," Kerincsiz said. "Our place is in Eastern culture, our real aim is finding allies among our own people." By that he meant primarily the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, which he hopes to see included one day in the "Turkish Union" led by Turkey. He admits this is a far-off dream, but it’s possible, he says, especially when one looks at the mishmash of different cultures joined together in the EU. He denied the court cases were attempts to derail Turkey’s EU bid. But Kerincsiz makes no effort to hide his view that the European Union is an enemy of Turkey, one intent on breaking it apart and keeping it from becoming a major world power.
In the year that has followed Turkey’s opening of EU negotiations last Oct. 3, it has become clear that even if they don’t entirely share Kerincsiz’s view, Turks are cooling in their enthusiasm for accession, and he is tapping into the sources of their discontent. The latest Eurobarometer survey found only 44 percent of Turks surveyed thought EU membership would be a good thing for Turkey, compared to 55 percent last autumn. Last spring, 66 percent said they supported EU membership. Analysts suggest the drop is a backlash against Europe’s disapproval of Turkey - a backlash from which nationalists like Kerincsiz who play up Turkey’s strengths and disparage the EU’s "insults" are likely to benefit most. There are indications that it’s already happening.
"More Turks think their membership would be primarily in the interest of the Union than of mutual interest to both," reads the text of the July Eurobarometer survey. This growing mutual resentment is not likely to be improved by the latest draft of Monday’s EU progress report on Turkey, which said reforms had slowed and accused Turkey of "regression." The author of the report also urged Turkey to recognize the killings of Armenians by Turks around the time of World War I as "genocide" and to reform its penal code.
But Kerincsiz isn’t worried. "The EU won’t last long," he says, and dares any Turkish government to try to change the laws against insulting Turkishness or the Turkish republic. Kerincsiz and his Lawyers’ Union believe such laws have great support among a population increasingly frustrated with Europe and looking to its own potential greatness. "Don’t worry, we won’t be unemployed," he says with a smile. "The only salvation will be a nationalist government."
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