and free speech
A couple of years ago, I came across, quite by accident, Peter
Balakians Black Dog of Fate, an elegant and moving autobiographical
memoir of an immigrant Armenian family in New Jersey in the
50s and 60s. It was my introduction to the Armenian genocide
of 1915-18. In the book, Balakian explored secrets of his
familys past and, in particular, his awakening to the
Turkish governments silence regarding what most people
view as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Milan Kundera, the great Czech writer, once said that humankinds
struggle against power is the struggle of memory against
forgetting. Balakian hardly forgets. He wrote again
about the genocide in The Burning Tigris in 2003.
Why is any of this important or relevant?
Last month, in Turkey, the writer Orhan Pamuk went on trial,
accused of committing a crime by mentioning in an interview
with a Swiss newspaper that 30,000 Kurds and a million
Armenians were killed in Turkey after World War I. Pamuk
faces up to four years imprisonment for insulting
Turkish identity, by speaking out about the genocide.
To quote him: Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians
were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me and
the nationalists hate me for that. This was the evidence
of his crime.
Historians are widely agreed that the killings constituted
genocide, but the subject remains taboo in Turkey. Turks killed
Armenians, the nationalists say, and Armenians killed Turks,
in the world war and in inter-ethnic violence, but not in
Britain has never officially acknowledged the genocide; neither
has the US. European states, however, and France, in particular,
have insisted that Turkey make the acknowledgement, as a precondition
for entry into the European Union.
In response to general EU criticism, Turkey revised its penal
code. The new code, however, still criminalises public comments
that denigrate Turkishness or criticise the state,
the army, or the founder of the republic, Ataturk.
The government was not alone in attacking Pamuk. Nationalist
groups and the press joined in the assault, amidst a wave
of nationalistic sentiment.
In the West, reaction was uneven. The NY Times had a solitary
critical piece by Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer and literary
critic. Londons Sunday Times, on the other hand, only
noted that Pamuks case has been an embarrassment
for the Turkish government. The Independent felt that
Turkey was giving excuses to her enemies. There was no wave
of protest regarding the obvious, that Turkey had denied Pamuk
his right to free speech.
This right ordinarily never lacks for advocates and champions
in the West. One thinks of Salman Rushdie.
In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death,
for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad in his novel, The
Satanic Verses. The fatwa created a huge consensus
in the West among editors, columnists, fellow novelists, and
poetsall defending Rushdies right to freedom of
expression. The Ayatollah stood for what fundamental rights
had freed human beings fromobscurantism, dogma, and
religious mind control.
Interestingly, as Mishra noted, opposition to Pamuk comes,
not from religious extremists, but from the political right
wing, which in Turkey means the determined secularists.
Turkey is often upheld in the West as an example of a Muslim
society that forswears fundamentalism and wishes to embrace
all the modern values. It sees its future as very much at
home with Europe, not the Middle East.
This is perhaps why Pamuk has not caused as intense a reaction
as Rushdie. Its not only that Pamuk is a lesser known
writer, but that his situation does not fit the prevailing
orthodox polarities: fundamentalism vs liberalism, democracy
vs extremism. You dont expect to find a flat denial
of a basic constitutional right in a society that claims to
endorse liberal values.
What it means is that Turkeys nationalist agenda, in
one significant respect at least, is more important than its
liberal creed. All the emblems of modernitysecularism,
democracy and a free market economyare no guarantee
of free speech.
Its a bad mix when uncritical nationalism and patriotism
become linked. The brave become silent. We know now, for instance,
that it was in part the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic
that kept the free press in the US from rigorously examining
official justification for the war in Iraq.
These issues are not that foreign to us. Its not so
very long ago that our own late distinguished Prime Minister
and nationalist famously said: when I talk, no damn
dog bark. Some of those in his centre of influence would
later remark how frightened big men were to be
on his wrong side. But its more than a matter of an
isolated, personal trait.
The modern political party will kneel before a liberal constitution
and still disallow criticism of its policies by individual
members. The value is not the individual but the monolith.
Free speech is really like one of those framed testimonials
one sees on office walls: this is our mission statement.
Democracy and fundamentalismthe polarity can be abstract
and simplistic. It leads us erroneously to believe its
only those who live in rigid societies who are denied fundamental
rights. They dislike our values, President Bush said famously
after 9/11. But its not too hard sometimes to understand
why. One gets the feeling at times that Westerners think its
only extremists who see nothing wrong in withholding fundamental
rights from people who have full title to them.