- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

The acquittal of writer Elif Shafak on Thursday marked a major victory for free-speech proponents in Turkey. Mrs. Shafak, who was brought to trial on charges of “insulting Turkishness” via a fictional character in her most recent novel, “The Bastard of Istanbul,” gave birth to a baby girl last Saturday and was therefore unable to attend the trial or celebrate the outcome of the hour-and-a-half-long session during which a panel of judges concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict her of any crime.

According to the Turkish Zaman Daily Newspaper, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “welcomed the acquittal” and even “signaled an amendment on the much debated Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code,” which prohibits negative discussion of Turkey and is the same article under which Mrs. Shafak was charged. Mr. Erdogan noted that it would require an agreement by all parties, but it is a hopeful message nonetheless.

Turkey’s accession into the European Union is hinged on many factors, but lately the country has been feeling added pressure from Brussels to amend Article 301 and prove its dedication to improving human rights for its citizens. The European Union has suggested that freedom-of-speech cases stand only to further solidify concerns about the country’s inability to fall in line with EU legal standards. Whether the case was thrown out because of a genuine commitment to protect free speech in Turkey or an attempt to appear to be doing so to mollify EU decision-makers is debatable: Regardless, it was the right move.

Unfortunately, the small but vocal faction of anti-EU nationalists who encourage such trials were not silenced by their defeat in the courtroom. More than 20 protesters gathered outside Beyoglu Court in Istanbul and “laid EU flags, adorned with a Nazi swastika and the slogan that read ‘EU fascism,’ on the ground and stamped on them,” Zaman Daily reported. A photograph of Mrs. Shafak was also burned. These extreme ideologists fear that EU membership will erase all traces of Turkish individuality and make them too “Western.” Derailing accession to the European Union would therefore help retain their Eastern identity. Suppressing free speech, an issue at the core of a democratic society, has thus far been the most obvious way to achieve that goal.

Perhaps Mrs. Shafak herself embraces the issue of East vs. West most eloquently. She is quoted in the Guardian Unlimited as saying: “My ideal is cosmopolitanism, refusing to belong to either side in this polarised world. Too many people see the world in black and white, us and them. That’s wrong. Ambiguity, synthesis: these are things that compose Turkish society, and that is not something to be ashamed of.” Thursday’s outcome suggests that her philosophy is not yet dead in Turkey.

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