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Democracy and free speech

A couple of years ago, I came across, quite by accident, Peter Balakian’s 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 family’s past and, in particular, his awakening to the Turkish government’s silence regarding what most people view as the first genocide of the 20th century.

Milan Kundera, the great Czech writer, once said that humankind’s 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 a genocide.

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. London’s Sunday Times, on the other hand, only noted that “Pamuk’s 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 poets—all defending Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression. The Ayatollah stood for what fundamental rights had freed human beings from—obscurantism, 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 Turkey’s nationalist agenda, in one significant respect at least, is more important than its liberal creed. All the emblems of modernity—secularism, democracy and a free market economy—are no guarantee of free speech.

It’s 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. It’s 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 it’s 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 fundamentalism—the polarity can be abstract and simplistic. It leads us erroneously to believe it’s only those who live in rigid societies who are denied fundamental rights. They dislike our values, President Bush said famously after 9/11. But it’s not too hard sometimes to understand why. One gets the feeling at times that Westerners think it’s only extremists who see nothing wrong in withholding fundamental rights from people who have full title to them.

©2004-2005 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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