- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

The upcoming trial of best-selling Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has reopened the debate surrounding a decades-long struggle for freedom of speech in Turkey. On Sept. 21, four days before she is due to give birth, Mrs. Shafak will face charges of “insulting Turkishness,” a crime under Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code. If convicted, she could spend up to three years in prison.

It is no secret that, in terms of its commitment to freedom of speech, Turkey has a less-than-stellar track record. In fact, according to PEN American Center, an international literary and human-rights organization, Mrs. Shafak is one of “more than 70 writers, publishers, and journalists who are currently under indictment or standing trial in Turkey” for similar offenses. This most recent example of literary stifling is especially remarkable, however, because Mrs. Shafak is being prosecuted for the words of a fictional character.

In her newest book, “The Bastard of Istanbul,” a character says, “I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide.” The mere mention of the Armenian Genocide, arguably one of the most highly contested events in Turkish history, has landed countless men and women in the same predicament as Mrs. Shafak. She told the Associated Press, “I think my case is very bizarre because for the first time they are trying fictional characters.”

Other free-speech trials have been thrown out for technical reasons in recent years. However, pressures from Europe for Turkey to prove its dedication to improving human rights may have prompted officials to drop charges. Nonetheless, such trials send a clear message to all Turkish writers: “Blaspheme at your own risk.” Mrs. Shafak’s trial in particular begs the question: If convicted, what is the future of creative expression in Turkey?

Perhaps more intriguing is the correlation between the fight for free speech in Turkey and the country’s application for membership into the European Union. Kemal Kerincsiz, a member of an ultranationalist group of lawyers known as the “Unity of Jurists,” led the crusade against Mrs. Shafak. Groups such as this, while not necessarily garnering much mainstream Turkish support, appear to be pushing speech prosecution in an attempt to imperil Turkey’s application to the European Union. These nationalists insist that they will not bow to European requests — for example, by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide — merely to gain membership into the European Union.

It seems that by and large, Turks support free speech rights and EU membership but for this small faction of nationalist extremists. The irony is that those extremists — who promote building a stronger Turkey by remaining true to its Eastern heritage — are actually destabilizing the country by jeopardizing its future as an EU member.

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