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Silenced : The nationalist war on Turkey’s intellectuals

Silenced : The nationalist war on Turkey’s intellectuals

Free-thinkers are under siege from a campaign of intimidation by the far right which has created a climate of repression and self-censorship. Elizabeth Davies reports from Istanbul

Published : 07 March 2007 The Independent

Perihan Magden is not, by her own admission, "a bodyguard kind of woman". Energetic and feisty, with a mass of tousled hair falling in her face and a decrepit, fading rucksack slung carelessly over one shoulder, she doesn’t look like someone who would need - or want - protecting. A best-selling novelist and celebrated commentator, hailed by the Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk as "one of the most inventive and outspoken writers of our time", Magden regularly shuns the spotlight in favour of a quieter life at home in Istanbul with her teenage daughter. She rarely gives interviews and, she says, has no desire to see her face on the evening news or "spread across the papers". It is hardly a high-profile, celebrity lifestyle. Yet last month, despite all her efforts to stay out of the public eye, Magden was considered to be sufficiently at risk to be given a 24-hour security detail. For 10 days after the murder of the prominent Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, her every move was watched by a government bodyguard. In an indication of the gravity of the threat, at least a dozen others needed similar protection. All of them, from novelists to researchers to newspaper editors, had at some point voiced their criticism of the Turkish state - and now all were paying the price. "We don’t want to live like hunted animals," Magden says, her eyes blazing with indignation. "But we have been made international targets. It’s a lottery and this time it stopped at Hrant’s slot. What if next time it stops at mine ?" She breaks off, gazing wistfully through the window out to the glinting blue of the Bosphorus. Turkey’s intellectuals are living in fear. Dink’s assassination in January was just the latest, if by far the most brutal, manifestation of a rising tide of nationalism which is posing an increasing threat to the country’s pro-European aspirations and democratic reform. A climate of repression and of self-censorship has set in among the intelligentsia, leaving the people who should be their country’s most eloquent and effective ambassadors scared to speak out - and those who are the country’s worst enemy holding the rest of the nation to ransom by means of a relentless campaign of violence and intimidation. For a great many people it has become almost impossible to live a normal life. There are those like Ismet Berkan, the editor of the liberal newspaper Radikal, who receive death threats in the post. Those like Baskin Oran, a 62-year-old professor of political science at Ankara University, who are unable to leave their house without police protection. Others have lost their jobs after writing reports just a little too critical of the military, or the judiciary, or the enigmatic quality of "Turkishness". For Orhan Pamuk, the author of a string of acclaimed novels including Snow and My Name Is Red, it was all too much. Just days after Dink’s funeral he abruptly left the country for self-imposed exile in the US, declaring himself to be "furious at everyone and everything". It was a coup for the far-right mob and a major blow for liberal, pro-democratic Turks. The man who, through his writing, had done more than perhaps any other to introduce modern Turkey’s complexities to the West had been forced out. It is as yet unclear when he will return. In a sign of how deep-rooted and fundamental the problem is, by far the most effective method of intimidation has proved to be none other than the Turkish penal code itself, which decrees that denigrating the national identity is punishable by up to two years in prison. At least 50 people, from a 92-year-old archaeologist to the Nobel laureate Pamuk, who enraged conservatives by referring to the mass killings of Armenians in the early part of the 20th century as genocide, were charged with offences under the infamous Article 301 in 2006 alone. As Magden, herself on trial last year for defending conscientious objection, says, the process is highly disturbing. "They show you that you are being threatened. My life was shattered. Isn’t that punishment enough ?" Magden’s case was unusual in that it was brought by the still-powerful military, which was enraged by her defence of conscientious objection in one of her columns. Almost all the other cases have been brought by members of the ultra-nationalist Turkish Lawyers’ Union, at the helm of which is a lawyer called Kemal Kerincsiz who has made it his mission to protect Turkey and "Turkishness" from such malevolent outside forces as the EU and democracy. If there is one man in Turkey who is reaping the rewards of the surge in support for nationalism, one man who has almost single-handedly waged a legal war on intellectuals and is driving home the message of the far right to the people most vulnerable to its rhetoric, it is Kerincsiz. Speaking from a workers’ cafe after the Taksim rally, where he moved stealthily through the side crowds, a little man with a long dark overcoat and toothbrush moustache, he explains with unfailing politeness but absolute conviction why Turkey should be left alone. "There is no evidence in world history that Muslim and Christian civilisations, East and West, can peacefully co-exist with one another," he says, passing trays of steaming glasses of tea down the long trestle tables to his bevy of supporters. "The democracy that the EU is trying to impose is an elite democracy. It is just for people like Elif Shafak, Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink [all of whom he brought charges against under Article 301]." Freedom of speech should not be abused, he proclaims. His friends down table smile and nod. "Laws like 301 protect freedom of speech," he says, adding with chilling logic : "Because if they didn’t exist those people who talk against the nation would be shot." Does he feel responsible in any way for Hrant Dink’s murder, perpetrated by a 17-year-old boy pumped up on deadly nationalist rhetoric ? "I bear no responsibility for such violent acts. We have always worked within the framework of the law." And, again, that logic : "We were more sad than anyone else because we would have preferred to show Turkey how wrong his ideas were. We would have liked to teach him a lesson." Article 301 has attracted the attention of human rights groups the world over, with Amnesty International repeatedly calling for its abolition. Brussels has urged Ankara to make further reforms of the penal code. In Turkey, too, protests are continuing despite the scare tactics of the far right. But campaigners complain that the government is hamstrung in the run-up to elections later this year. Tuna Beklevic, the leader of a small, youth-oriented political party, has urged the government to repeal the clause. "Politicians are not standing up for freedom of speech," he says from his ramshackle office in the centre of the city. On the seats around him lie the discarded placards waved by thousands at Hrant Dink’s funeral in solidarity with the Armenian cause. "The government is losing its power to do anything before the elections. It has made a lot of progress towards EU integration but now it is acutely aware of the nationalists. It cannot turn its back on them completely." Although liberals are keen to dismiss the nationalists as a noisy minority, at the moment it is clear that they are punching well above their weight. Recent polls show that support for the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, has gone up from 8.4 per cent in the 2003 elections to 14.1 per cent. The AK party, led by the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has fallen meanwhile from 33 to 26 per cent. And, while there are hints that the more moderate wings of the government would like to change Article 301, there is no chance they will risk alienating key support. Come April, the Prime Minister will have to announce whether he is to run for President - a post in which the former Islamist would wield veto power over all legislation. The very idea of this is enough to make many conservatives’ blood run cold ; the last thing Mr Erdogan wants to do is enrage those in the powerful and staunchly secular military, judiciary and bureaucracy, or "deep state". This has all led to what Volkan Aytar, of the leading independent think-tank Tesev, calls "a society of lynching" in which the far right is able to lash out at those it wants to silence because the government lacks the will to stop it. "These people are not comfortable with the idea that there are people out there challenging the basic notions of what it means to be Turkish. They have always thought of those things as unchangeable, that you cannot talk about them, that you just have to accept them as they are. And the only way they can fight is with violence." Last month, after the arrest of Dink’s killer, photographs surfaced showing the teenager posing with smiling police officers beneath a Turkish flag. The collaboration between nationalist forces and the establishment, says Aytar, is still very much a problem. "You are tried for what you say, not what you do. There are still institutions within the state who do not want Turkey to progress. And when you follow through this line of thought Hrant Dink’s murder was not such a big surprise." Ask many nationalists whether they too believe Hrant Dink’s death had been predictable and chances are you will get a similar response. At a recent rally of die-hards, the red and white of the Turkish flag flying high and the chant of "We are all Turks" echoing around the bleak, concrete expanse of Istanbul’s Taksim Square, a young IT technician with a flag tied around his shaved head explained why the journalist’s death was necessary. "He was a danger to the nation, so it was his fate," Tahir Ozan says bluntly. He was not keen to go into detail. There are a growing number of people like him in Turkey, young, impressionable voters who are feeling increasingly resentful towards the outside world, Brussels in particular and the West in general. Since the partial suspension of EU membership talks in December, mounting frustration has in some groups boiled over into nationalist fervour. Turkey’s young people are facing a dilemma, says Tuna Beklevic. "The EU integration period is causing problems, as is the US involvement in Iraq. They see a lot of Islamophobia in the West, they are becoming more nationalistic because they feel shunned." Magden, formerly a vociferous advocate of EU accession, agrees. "Now even I want to tell them to bugger off," she admits. It is clear where this could all go horribly wrong. Turkey is at a kind of tipping point. With a very young society and high levels of youth unemployment, observers warn it could be sleepwalking towards disaster. "It’s like Nazi Germany ; it’s a ticking bomb," says Magden. "The land is very fertile for a great rise in nationalism." For many, the choice is clear. As Elif Shafak, a novelist put on trial by Kerincsiz last year after one of her fictional characters spoke of the Armenian genocide, says : "I think we should ask ourselves this simple question : What kind of a Turkey do we envisage ? One that is part of European civilisation, open, democratic, egalitarian and pluralistic ? Or one that is insular, xenophobic, closed and governed by politics of fear ?" The future is there for the taking. But now, more than ever, those Turks who do want to see their country progress are in need of their most articulate representatives to fight their cause for them. The far right has voiced its intentions loud and clear ; it is no time for those who despise it to keep quiet.

Word - 38 ko
mercredi 7 mars 2007,
Stéphane ©

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