Turkey's McCarthy moment?

December 16, 2005
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

By Jack Miles

TURKEY'S FINEST novelist, Orhan Pamuk, goes on trial today on the charge of "insulting" his country. Article 301/1 of the Turkish Penal Code stipulates that anyone "who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or the Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be imposed to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years."

Pamuk's "insult" was printed in a Swiss newspaper last February. "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it," Pamuk said in the interview. A further clause in Article 301/1 requires that if a Turk insults Turkey while abroad, the penalty shall be increased by one-third. Pamuk thus faces a maximum term of four years.

Will he be convicted? Vasif Kortun, the Turkish co-curator of the Istanbul Biennial art festival, recently told German radio that Pamuk will be exonerated and that "the prosecutors will realize that they can never try something like this again." Not all share Kortun's optimism, however. PEN, the international writers organization, has expressed deep concern.

It certainly seems strange that the internationally admired, widely translated 53-year-old author whose novels include "Snow," "My Name is Red" and the most noticed single book in many years on Istanbul itself, should face prison for speaking one sentence in an interview on a subject that was also the subject of a breakthrough public conference last September in the Turkish capital.

The reality is that the Armenian genocide of 1915 — deny it the label "genocide" if you will, but Hitler declared it his inspiration — is no longer unmentionable in Turkey. The ice has been broken, in part because of the Pamuk case, in part because of last year's conference. The river of commentary is flowing. If some Turks are furious, others, apparently growing in number, seem relieved.

Turkey's violent struggle with its Kurdish population has been yielding as well to slowly but steadily improving relations under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among other things, Turkey hopes to have oil from Kurdish northern Iraq flow through Turkey to the Mediterranean — providing substantial transit fees — and that is a powerful motive for Turkey to cultivate good relations with the Kurds.

Historically, Turkey's closest European relationship has been with Germany, now home to millions of expatriate Turks and their German-speaking descendants. Over the last half a century, Germany's greatest cultural achievement — a heroic moral achievement as great in its way as any artistic, musical or scientific accomplishment — has been its confrontation with its past. Turkey, if it can muster a comparable heroism vis-a-vis its own past, will reap a comparable harvest of world admiration — not least in the European Union, where Turkish membership is pending.

The moment when the treason tactic begins to backfire in a country can be historic. In recent American history, such a moment came when Sen. Joseph McCarthy crossed swords with a cultural icon, the respected Edward R. Murrow. Ironically, McCarthy's one lasting contribution to American political culture is the word "McCarthyism" — the form of political manipulation whose rejection he mediated by personifying it.

Perhaps a similar moment of rejection and self-definition will be at hand when Turkey's overreaching prosecutors face their country's subtlest, most respected and most disarmingly plain-spoken novelist in court. But this very uncertainty is what makes the moment potentially historic. Pamuk has been admired as a humane guide to the great civilizational encounter in which, whether we like it or not, we are engaged. For the Golden Horn and for us as well, Dec. 16, 2005, may be, paradoxically, a moment of golden opportunity.