The Threat of Art

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak must defend herself in court in Istanbul for violating Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The charge? Prosecutors claim that she insulted “Turkishness.” How did she insult Turkishness? In her novel The Bastard of Istanbul a character refers to the deaths of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide. Yes, she is being prosecuted because of the words of a character in her novel. If convicted she could face up to three years in prison. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk faced down similar charges in 2005. Coincidentally, Shafak is expecting the birth of her first child this week.

She dodged this charge once, convincing prosecutors earlier this year that statements made by fictional characters were not subject to prosecution. (She said “if there is a thief in a novel it doesn’t make the novelist a thief,” a statement so indubitable that it should end the discussion.) After the charge was dismissed a right-wing group that opposes Turkey’s membership in the European Union succeeded in filing a new complaint and getting the charges reinstated.

The penal code violation Shafak faces is a skirmish in a larger, more fundamental battle. The European Union requires member nations to conform their laws to certain standards, including guaranteeing freedom of expression. A successful prosecution under Article 301 would throw Turkey’s failure to guarantee free expression in the face of those promoting full Turkish membership in the EU. Said Shafak “I believe they want to derail the EU process because that would change many things in the structure of the state and the fabric of Turkish society . . . They would rather have an insular, enclosed, xenophobic society than an open society.”

Isn’t this the primary source of conflict in today’s world?

Viking Penguin will publish an English version of The Bastard of Istanbul in January. Shafak is an assistant professor of of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

(Source: Susanne Fowler, “Novelist accused of insulting Turkishness,” Boston Sunday Globe, Sep-17 2006, p. A16)