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Turkey struggles to define itself 25 janvier 2008

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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The International Herald Tribune, January 24, 2008

By Sabrina Tavernise, Izmir

When Atilla Yayla, a maverick political science professor, offered a mild criticism of Turkey’s first years as a country, his remarks unleashed a torrent of abuse.

« Traitor! » a newspaper headline shouted. His college dismissed him. And state prosecutors in this western city where he had spoken opened a criminal case against him. His crime? Violating an obscure law against insulting the legacy of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

« I need thoughts to counter my ideas, » Yayla said. « Instead, they attacked me. »

Turkey’s government is expected as early as Friday to announce that it has changed a law against insulting Turkishness. Amending that law is considered a crucial measure of the democratic maturity of this Muslim country as it tries to gain acceptance to the European Union.

But while the article, called 301, is known to many in the West – Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist, was prosecuted under it – it is just one in a bigger universe of laws that limit freedom of expression for intellectuals in Turkey. The law under which Yayla was prosecuted, for example, dates to 1951 and is not even part of the country’s penal code.

While the change in 301 is likely to stop the wanton application of that law – the single most common law used against critics of Turkey’s official version of history – the government was ultimately unable to remove it from the books completely, as liberals wanted.

The reason goes to the heart of the state of Turkey today: Despite its booming economy, gay pride parades and ambitious European aspirations, a large portion of Turkish society is still deeply conservative and many Turks support the prosecutions.

As nationalism has been rising in Turkey, in response to the broad changes sweeping society, so have the number of court cases against writers, publishers and academics. The European Union, in a report on Turkey in November, said the number of people prosecuted almost doubled in 2006 from the year before, and rose further in 2007.

In all, about 39 articles lead to limits on free expression in Turkey, though only 13 of them are commonly used, said Zafer Gokdemir, a rights lawyer who has defended freedom of expression cases since 1995.

The laws are deeply damaging for the country, liberals argue, because they postpone the work required for Turks to process their painful past by blocking society’s thinkers from asking difficult questions.

Turkey was born fighting for its life against European powers that were carving it up at the end of World War I. It was left defensive, with low self-esteem and weak institutions, and a deep-seated insecurity still lingers.

And unlike Russians who were deeply cynical about the motives of the Soviet state, most Turks strongly believe in their system. Nationalist taboos on questioning any part of official history are held in place as much by society as by Turkey’s controlling state.

The cases, for that reason, emerge from the most insecure part of society: a nationalist, sometimes violent fringe, whose backers are the secular old guard. With vast power, but small public accountability, they are not unlike senior Soviet apparatchiks. The heart of this class works in the military, an elite institution in Turkey, and in its judiciary.

In Turkey’s court system, private citizens can file complaints, which require prosecutors to investigate, and the vast majority of the freedom-of-expression cases begins that way. Kemal Kerinsciz, an ultra-nationalist lawyer who started the case against Pamuk, said in an interview that he had successfully gotten about 50 cases opened since 2005.

Yayla’s speech, in 2006 at a youth conference here, drew eight complaints, one of them from the Izmir Bar Association. His argument – that the early years of the Turkish republic were less democratic than the period after Turkey became a multi-party system, and that Ataturk’s monopoly on public images would be perplexing to Europeans – « had no basis in science, » said Huseyin Durdu, a Turkish patriot lawyer and a complainant.

Asked what would happen if the law was taken off the books, Durdu looked stricken.

« People would be insulting each other, » he said, in an immaculate office in downtown Izmir, a small bust of Ataturk on the wall behind him. « It would be conflict and chaos. »

Yayla, for his part, said he was simply trying to provoke a thoughtful discussion on the monopoly of political symbols.

« Of course we need to have Ataturk statues, but there are other people in Turkish history and they deserve statues, too, » he said.

In a surprising twist, it is Turkey’s Islamic class – deeply despised by the secular old guard primarily because it is now, as the top political party in Turkey, a serious threat to their power – that has pushed to reduce the power of the laws. President Abdullah Gul has said that article 301 is as damaging to Turkey’s reputation as « Midnight Express, » a 1978 film about an American drug smuggler brutalized in a Turkish prison.

But the old guard, which professes to stand for Western values but in fact is deeply suspicious of the freedoms they would bring, deftly place obstacles in the path of the observant class by drawing the specter of religious extremism.

Yayla, who effortlessly cites John Stuart Mill and John Locke, is harder to attack.

« My ideas are coming from the West, not from the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad, » Yayla said. « This is infuriating for them. »

Indeed, Yayla’s speech was so scholarly that the only thing the authorities found to charge him with on paper was for referring to Ataturk as « this man. » For reference, in Turkey’s Constitution, Ataturk is described as the « immortal leader and unrivaled hero. »

The prosecutions result in suspended sentences, fines, closures of publishing houses, but rarely in actual jail time. Even so, they have had a chilling effect on speech. Public trials drag on for months, and draw leering ultra-nationalists. Last year, one turned lethal when a nationalist teenager shot and killed Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist.

Yayla is now in self-imposed exile in England, after months of moving around with a government-imposed bodyguard in Turkey.

The cases that can get jail time are those against Kurds. An arsenal of laws relating to the charge of terrorism is aimed at Kurdish writers, publishers and artists.

« When you use the word Kurd or Kurdistan, you are conducting terrorist propaganda, no matter what you are saying, » said Ahmet Onal, a Kurdish publisher who has published 270 books, for which he has stood trial 27 times and served jail terms twice.

The issue is sensitive because Turkey has fought a bloody war with a militant fringe of its Kurdish population since the 1980s, and the lines between expression and revolt are blurry. For years the old guard refused to acknowledge its own Kurdish population.

« I’m trying to show Turks the pure facts, » Onal said over tea after one of his court hearings last month, « so they can wash off the ugliness of the past and move toward the future. »

Another law, against « praising crime and criminals, » has been used as a weapon against mayors in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast, with at least 54 charged with it last year, according to the Bar Association of Diyarbakir, the capital of the region.

Many Turks say that Europe should be more understanding of Turkey, a far younger state with bigger problems. European democracy is a « thornless garden, » said Umit Kocasakal, a lawyer who supports article 301 but advocates a more judicial application of it.

Besides, he says, Europeans have similar laws. Articles 90A and 90B in Germany prohibit disparaging the state, its symbols and its constitutional institutions, and article 290 of the Italian penal code prohibits vilifying the Republic and its armed forces.

But application in Europe is rare. Germany has prosecuted some neo-Nazis, and in Italy a ranting separatist politician was once convicted but a fine was the only punishment. The European countries do not punish insulting Italianness or Frenchness, although, as part of the government’s amendment, that phrase will be changed to « Turkish nation. »

Yayla spends his days reading in English. He says it feels good to pore over pages about the possibility of free societies in Muslim countries. Despite the fight that Turkey’s liberals are now fighting the rigid, dying old guard, it is the new religious class that will determine the future of Turkish democracy, and Yayla wants to be prepared.

« I am an individualist, » he said. « I believe in the value of human beings. I don’t like insulting people. I can usually make my point without it. »


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