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)

3 thoughts on “The Threat of Art”

  1. I did extensive research on Turkey last year for a class. The topic: Whether Turkey should join the EU. First of all, Turkey still has a long way to go in joining the EU (maybe 10-15-20 years) but Turkey’s denial of free expression has been an ongoing concern. The country needs to address its human rights issues before anything further can even begin. Armenian deaths in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 have been an existing topic for the past year to the point that there was actually a conference organized. With such publicity on the subject, one could only assume (based on the strict laws on expression) that the Turkish government would jump any chance they got on someone who would interfere on Turkish excellence. They have pretty much instilled fear in citizens to not mention anything negative about the country. Look at America! People make horrible comments about our CURRENT PRESIDENT all the time and nothing ever happens. Granted we are talking about two different countries but this is a comment about something that happened over 90 years ago by a character! These weren’t Shafak’s own personal thoughts, it was fitted to the context of her book. If Turkey continues to plan on joining the EU, it must do away with Article 301. If the government were to realize this (sadly the only way they may is through public oppositon in response to this case) then they MAY stand a chance to prove it can overcome its old-world principles and have a freer country where their people can express themselves without fear of persecution.

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