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Deadly Nationalism: The Struggle of Orhan Pamuk and Turkey's Intellectuals

By Annette Grossbongardt in Istanbul

The culture war in Turkey against critical authors and journalists is intensifying, as murderous nationalists agitate against dissidents. Many liberals are under threat, including Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who has now left the country.

Orhan Pamuk flew to the Cairo International Book Fair on the day of the funeral of his friend Hrant Dink. There is "great interest in all aspects of Turkish literature and culture" in the Arab world, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature said, but it sounded as if he were attempting to justify his trip abroad, now that the situation in Turkey has become precarious for him and other liberal writers and journalists.

Author Orhan Pamuk standing in front of the home of murdered journalist Hrant Dink: "I am furious at everyone and everything."
DPA

Author Orhan Pamuk standing in front of the home of murdered journalist Hrant Dink: "I am furious at everyone and everything."

By that point, Pamuk's moves were apparently prompted by fears for his own life. He did not attend the morning funeral procession two weeks ago for Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was murdered by ultra-nationalists. More than just a funeral procession, the event turned into a protest march of demonstrators who chanted "We are all Armenians," making a strong impression on Europeans. But despite his absence from the procession, Pamuk did not hesitate to publicly criticize the Turkish government, judiciary and society, which he held partly responsible for Dink's death. "The murder of my courageous, golden-hearted friend has soured my life," Pamuk confessed, "I am furious at everyone and everything, and I feel boundless shame."

As if to reinforce his words, Turkey was in an uproar last Friday over images of several police officers who were photographed in a chummy pose with the young murder suspect. The officers were suspended from duty, but not before the newspaper Sabah condemned the incident, writing that a nationalist murderer was being treated like a hero.

By then Pamuk, who has become the most prominent advocate of a modern, liberal, cosmopolitan Turkey, had already left Istanbul for the United States, where he plans to stay, for the time being, and give lectures at several universities. He cancelled a reading tour in Germany last week and ceremonies at the Free University of Berlin and the Catholic University of Brussels. Both institutions had planned to award Pamuk honorary doctorates, but the author simply declined to attend without so much as offering an explanation. The Carl Hanser Publishing Company, which has published his books in German, including "The White Fortress," "Snow" and, most recently, "Istanbul," received nothing but a blunt fax to explain Pamuk's absence. The answering machine at his house in Istanbul was switched off, and whenever journalists did manage to reach him, he would hang up the phone.

"More will die"

"Tell Orhan Pamuk to wise up!" one of the principal suspects in the Dink murder, right-wing extremist Yasin Hayal, a man with a criminal record, said publicly. The threat must have made a strong impression on the author.

Last week the self-proclaimed "Turkish Revenge Brigade" (TIT) posted a video on YouTube depicting Dink's corpse next to photos of Pamuk. The lyrics of a song that accompanied the images read: "We cannot be friends with them." The video ended with a shot of a Turkish flag and the head of a wolf -- the symbol of Turkish ultra-nationalists, and the threat: "More will die."

Dink's funeral procession in Istanbul Jan. 23, 2007: "We are all Armenians."
REUTERS

Dink's funeral procession in Istanbul Jan. 23, 2007: "We are all Armenians."

Pamuk, Turkey's most famous writer and a man who ought to be the pride of this country as it seeks European Union membership, has been pursued by hate-mongering nationalists for some time, and he is not the only one. About a dozen Turkish writers, journalists and academics are currently the targets of hate-spewing, fanatical right-wing extremists.

Pamuk's hasty departure shines a spotlight on the clash of cultures and the climate of agitation, intimidation and fear dissidents in Turkey currently face, especially those who dare to tackle national taboos -- of which there are many, including the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which the Turkish government continues to dispute, Christian minorities, the Kurds and the PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party) and, of course, Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

According to statistics compiled by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, close to 100 intellectuals have already been hauled before courts for voicing their critical opinions. Most have been charged with the crime of "insulting Turkishness," or disparaging national institutions. Reactionary prosecutors use a notorious Turkish law known as Article 301 to persecute critical thinkers.

Elif Shafak, 35, a popular and courageous female author, had done nothing more threatening than write a novel ("The Bastard of Istanbul") that tells the interweaving stories of a Turkish and an Armenian family in the United States and Istanbul. Her novel prompted a group of nationalist lawyers to take Shafak to court in 2006, merely because one of her characters says: "I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their lives to the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915."

Shafak was acquitted, but she confesses that she felt "quite shaken" by the "ordeal" of the trial. As happens in all of these trials, angry nationalist activists gathered outside the court house. The same brand of activists threw eggs at Pamuk, who was also accused of "insulting Turkishness," and berated Perihan Magden, a journalist who had written an article defending conscientious objectors, as a "whore of the PKK." Shafak was well into a pregnancy when her trial began. She had been receiving threatening letters for some time, but only after the Dink murder did the government finally acknowledge the danger she and other journalists faced. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now assigned government bodyguards to writers and intellectuals considered in danger.

Hrant Dink's supected killer, Ögun Samast, has been treated like a hero by police.
AFP

Hrant Dink's supected killer, Ögun Samast, has been treated like a hero by police.

Grassroots snitches

Ideologically obsessed citizens often act as informers, such as the attorney from Izmir who filed a complaint against Muazzez Ilmiye Çig, a 92-year-old female archeologist. The case against Çig revolved around the religious headscarf, one of the central symbols of conflict in Muslim but highly secular Turkey. Çig, an expert in the history of the Sumerians, had written that headscarves were originally worn by Sumerian priestesses to initiate young men into sex. Çig was accused of "inciting hatred" but was acquitted.

The portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish nation, hangs in every Turkish government office, every business and every classroom. He has been dead 70 years, and yet criticizing him as a historic figure remains taboo. When Atilla Yayla, an Istanbul political scientist, dared to describe the first few years of Atatürk's government as a "step backwards, not a period of progress" and criticized the official cult of hero worship surrounding Atatürk, he was promptly suspended from his job.

When journalist Ipek Çalislar wrote about an episode in which Atatürk dressed in women's clothing to escape an assassination attempt, she was accused of having tarnished Atatürk's reputation. "Atatürk was an incredibly brave man and would never have done such a thing," wrote an angry reader who filed a complaint against the author with the public prosecutor's office. If Çalislar had been found guilty, she could have faced up to four and a half years in prison.

Even translators of undesirable books are not safe against persecution, nor are publishers like Fatih Tas, who published a study by an American professor on "the human costs of the US arms trade." Turkey, a US ally, is criticized in the report.

"A wave of nationalism"

For the European Union the trials, which seek to muzzle the freedom of speech, are a barometer for Turkey's suitability for EU membership. Each new trial creates fresh doubts as to whether the country is in fact succeeding in transforming itself into an open, pluralistic society.

The roots of the problem are deeply embedded in a highly traditional, conservative society, large segments of which have suddenly chosen to obstruct the country's efforts to become integrated into the West. "The Turkey of today harbors a smaller modern society and a vast pre-modern society that live side by side, but not in the same era," says sociologist Dogu Ergil.

Nationalists who prefer to drive their country into isolation rather than deliver it to "imperialistic enemies" in the West currently dominate the pre-modern segment of Turkish society.

The country has been seized by "a wave of nationalism of unprecedented scope," complains political scientist Baskin Oran, who was also once put on trial, in his case for writing a critical report about the situation of Turkish minorities. The Erdogan administration, which campaigned on a reform platform but is now eager to gain reelection, does little to stem the country's reactionary mood.

The other camp, the modern segment of Turkish society, is embodied by the 100,000 people who took to the streets to mourn murdered journalist Dink, but also by the country's economic elite, who know that Turkey can only have a future as part of the West. But the nationalists have met the show of solidarity with the country's Armenian minority with renewed attempts to wrest public opinion away from the demonstrators, and they are now holding up banners that read: "We are all Turks, our names are Mehmet, Hasan and Hüseyin, not Hrant Dink." A bitter fight has erupted over the future direction of Turkey, waged on one side in parts with murderous fervor. Which side will emerge victorious is still undecided.

Constant threats

The day Ismet Berkan, editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper Radical, had to be accompanied by bodyguards to leave his office was the day he began thinking about leaving the country. "But that's exactly what they want," he says, "and that's why we must stay and raise our voices against those who want to cut Turkey off from the rest of the world."

Hrant Dink's wife Rakel (left) and her daughter Sera (second left) shed tears as they follow the funeral procession for their husband and father.
DPA

Hrant Dink's wife Rakel (left) and her daughter Sera (second left) shed tears as they follow the funeral procession for their husband and father.

This requires courage, especially for someone who receives up to 50 threatening anonymous letters a day, letters that read: "We will get rid of you, we will kill you." A year ago, Berkan and four other journalists were put on trial for having criticized a court decision banning a conference on the Armenian question.

Baskin Oran also refuses to be driven out. The 62-year-old political science professor perseveres in his small row house in Ankara, clinging to the conviction that Turkey "is getting better every day, even if we are passing through hell on the road to paradise." He solicits understanding for his country, which he says is rushing through a development process in a matter of decades that lasted for centuries in Europe. Oran regularly receives e-mails, telephone calls and faxes in which fanatics disparage him as a "bastard" and "traitor," messages peppered with threats like "we will fuck your mother" and "we will kill you." In a report he wrote on Turkish minorities, Oran proposed the use of the term "citizens of Turkey" instead of the ethnically defining word "Turks."

Prosecutors accused Oran of "inciting hatred" and, with his ideas, of promoting "chaos" and jeopardizing the "fundamental elements of the Turkish Republic." Oran defended himself with a 40-page "counter-accusation," which he said he owed to his students, "whom I have been teaching, for the past 37 years, to take a stand against anti-democratic positions." His efforts were successful -- for the time being. But he nevertheless requires police protection every time he leaves his home.

"I live in a country that celebrates and honors its generals, police officers and statesman, even while they are still alive, but persecutes its writers with court trials and prison sentences," Pamuk said last year, when he was still embroiled in his own trial.

A difficult relationship with intellectuals

The hostile mood in Turkey reflects the country's difficult relationship with its intellectuals and its deep distrust of its pro-Western authors who criticize the system from within.

"We are always seen as potential runaways, if not potential traitors," says writer Shafak. "Criticizing the country is considered practically the equivalent of hating it." In a recent television interview, she was asked: "Did you ever say that you were not feeling at home in Turkey?"

When Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October, a first for Turkey, his otherwise staunchly nationalist fellow Turks were restrained in their praise for the author. To this day many are convinced that the only reason Pamuk received the prize was that he openly criticized the Armenian genocide.

Pamuk has toned down his rhetoric since then. "Especially now that I am a Nobel Prize winner," he says, "I am no longer interested in talking about minor political matters as much," he admits. Nevertheless, he adds, he sometimes becomes so furious that he is unable to hold his tongue. It seems that there are currently plenty of reasons for Pamuk to begin talking again.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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