Turkey and the Armenians
A prize affair
Oct 19th 2006 | ISTANBUL From The Economist print edition
Orhan Pamuk, the French parliament and the Armenian massacres
WAS it for his writing or his commentary ? The question has consumed the country since Orhan Pamuk became the first Turk to win the Nobel prize for literature (or indeed any Nobel). The comments, about the mass slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, led last year to Mr Pamuk’s prosecution on charges of insulting the “Turkish identity”. The charges were later dropped on a technicality, but not before they had attracted a storm of international criticism.
Ascribing to him the Byzantine wiles displayed by some of his characters, Mr Pamuk’s enemies are now saying that he engineered his own trial so as to win the Nobel. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the mildly Islamist prime minister, urged fellow Turks to “put aside polemics” and congratulate Mr Pamuk, but the (pro-secular) president remained pointedly silent.
The novelist’s detractors were given a boost, hours before the award was announced, by the French National Assembly, when it voted overwhelmingly for a bill to criminalise denial that the Armenians were victims of a genocide. The bill is unlikely to become law, but it still sparked a wave of anti-French demonstrations and vows that France would somehow be made to “pay” for its misdeeds. Why not boot out some 70,000 illegal workers from neighbouring Armenia, suggested Yasar Yakis, a former minister from the ruling AK party ?
The European Union enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, said that the French bill “instead of opening up the debate [on the Armenians in Turkey] would rather close it down.” Mesrob Mutafyan, the Armenian Orthodox patriarch in Istanbul, voiced fears that his 80,000-member flock might now become targets for ultra-nationalist vigilantes. Happily, no Armenian has been hurt (or deported) so far. Nor have efforts to break the ice between ordinary Turks and Armenians stopped-an exhibition by Turkish and Armenian photographers depicting daily life in Istanbul and Yerevan is to open soon.
There may even be a silver lining to the French cloud. Basking on the moral high ground, Mr Erdogan said he would not be trapped into responding to France’s “assault on free speech” in kind. The justice minister, Cemil Cicek, is hinting that Turkey’s article 301, under which Mr Pamuk and scores of fellow writers and academics have been prosecuted, may be scrapped. If it is, Turkey’s EU hopes would be resuscitated-and future award-winning novelists could then claim to have been judged solely by their works, not their deeds.
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