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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Fear and Loathing in Istanbul

    On Sept. 21, UA Near Eastern studies professor Elif Shafak will face trial in Turkey for “”insulting Turkishness”” under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. Shafak, a prominent novelist and Turkish citizen, is the victim of an increasing nationalist backlash occurring in Turkey, a country that just recently began accession talks to join the European Union.

    In a Time Asia article written soon after she was charged, Shafak illustrated this internal struggle: “”Like a pendulum, Istanbul swings obstinately between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, memory and amnesia – between a weighty past we can never fully shed … and a hopeful future we can only run after but never quite grab hold of.””

    Shafak is accused of insulting Turkey in her most recent novel, “”The Bastard of Istanbul,”” which will be published in English in January. In the book, an Armenian character refers to the “”Turkish butchers”” who carried out the forced dislocation and related deaths of approximately 1.5 million Armenians living in Turkey from 1915 to 1923.

    The Turkish government does not consider the forced migration to be genocide, but rather, the byproduct of inter-ethnic strife during the upheaval of World War I. Many scholars disagree.

    Regardless, elements of the Turkish judiciary, led most notoriously by ultra-nationalist prosecutor Kemal Kerincsiz, are defending the government line by prosecuting those who disagree, like Shafak.

    In all, more than 60 writers, journalists and publishers, including Turkey’s best-known writer Orhan Pamuk, have faced trial in the past year, many under the onerous and arbitrary fiat of Article 301.

    In fact, Article 301 and its hazy application are not the product of an anachronistic legal regime. Although Turkey’s penal code was lifted from Mussolini’s Italy, Article 301 was written as a compromise between internationalists and conservatives during the reforms leading to EU accession talks. With careless haste to meet EU deadlines, the Turkish government left openings for more nationalist elements to sabotage Turkey’s momentum towards EU membership.

    As Turkey works its way through EU accession talks, might these trials and the reaction to them be growing pains? After all, without Turkey’s official intent to join the EU, trials against writers and intellectuals would certainly disappoint Western observers, but would hardly produce the anger and admonishment heaped on editorial pages across the West.

    What is clear is that a struggle is occurring within Turkey between the conservative old guard and more open-minded internationalists. As Sara Whyatt, director of the Writers in Prison committee of International PEN, a writer’s trade association, observes, “”It seems to me that these prosecutions are being driven by a rightwing element within the Turkish judiciary, which is concerned about the Turkish application to join the EU.””

    Shafak would agree. She has written that a “”similar clash of opinions between the progressive-minded and the close-minded xenophobes is under way almost everywhere.”” That assessment could very well include not only the neighborhoods of Istanbul, but also the streets of Baghdad, the banlieues of Paris and the recent American backlash against Mexican immigrants.

    At the UA, support for Shafak has been professional. Provost George Davis sent a letter on behalf of the UA community to the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, urging the Turkish government to drop charges against Shafak. Despite a request, the contents of the letter were not made public.

    The Center for Middle Eastern Studies also sent a letter of support, signed by colleagues and students of Shafak.

    Shafak, who is currently pregnant, will stand trial with her translator Asli Bican and her publisher Semi Sokmen of Metis Publishing House. If convicted, they each face up to three years in prison.

    Such an outcome would be a tragedy on multiple levels; for Shafak and her colleagues, certainly, but more than that, actual convictions would set Turkey back 40 years in terms of international respect. EU accession talks would be dashed. The country itself might backslide into authoritarianism, ending the Middle East’s greatest experiment with democracy.

    Despite the capriciousness of Article 301, no one has yet been convicted under its absurd terms. Let us hope that Shafak – an asset to the UA, Turkey and the world of literature – is not the first.

    Matt Stone is a senior majoring in international studies and economics. He can be reached at

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