a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Turkish author under attack for remembering genocide

Posted by Thomas Nephew on May 2nd, 2005

Last week, I posted a small commemoration of a terrible event: the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, 90 years ago. I wrote that “What happened was genocide, and Turkey needs to face both that and its coverup to earn a place in civilized society. It appears that will not happen any time soon.”

But not everyone in Turkey denies what happened. A friend has pointed out a Guardian article by Nouritza Matossian, about the celebrated Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (My Name is Red, Snow, Istanbul: Memories of a City), who has got himself into some hot water in his home country with some forthright statements about the genocide:

His crime was one sentence in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger this month. ‘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.’ All hell broke loose. The press attacked him for dishonouring the Turkish state and incitement to racial violence. He has been called a liar, ‘a miserable creature’ and a ‘black writer’ in the daily Hurriyet. Professor Hikmet Ozdemir, head of the Armenian studies department at the Turkish Union of Historians, rejected his statement as a ‘great lie’. […]

Mehmet Ucok, an attorney, filed charges at the Kayseri public prosecutor’s office. Another charge was filed by Kayseri Bar Association attorney Orhan Pekmezci: ‘Pamuk has made groundless claims against the Turkish identity, the Turkish military and Turkey as a whole. He should be punished for violating Articles 159 and 312 of the Turkish penal code. He made a statement provoking the people to hatred and animosity through the media, which is defined as a crime in Article 312.’

The administrator of the Turkish town of Sutculer went so far as to have Pamuk’s books removed from the town library stacks and burned;’s Omer Erzeren reports that this, at least, seems to be going too far:

The Ministry of the Interior instituted preliminary proceedings against the overzealous administrator, and even the nationalists who had thoroughly condemned Orhan Pamuk were reluctant to be lumped together with book burners.

Erzeren sees Pamuk’s vilification as part of a wider pattern of backlash by Turkish nationalists, who are irked by recent Kurdish demonstrations and the country’s efforts to join the European Union. But unlike Matossian, he prefers to argue that the recent Pamuk controversy shows the Turkish glass is half full:

In the 1890s, when the famous novelist Yasar Kemal denounced the practices of the Turkish state in its fight against the Kurdish guerillas, he was fighting for a lost cause. His accusations appeared in foreign newspapers and journals.

He was deprived of the chance to express his views in his own country. Orhan Pamuk fared better in recent months. The educated middle class publicly supported him, and the administrator was branded a “book burner”.

The country’s highest-circulation newspaper, Hürriyet, published a several-day series on the events of 1915, including statements by Turkish and Armenian historians who described the massacre as genocide. Just a few years ago, this kind of debate would have been unthinkable.

Erzeren is clearly strongly pro-E.U., so his descriptions of somewhat marginalized Turkish nationalists, some people rallying to Pamuk’s defense, and some openness in Turkish media about the Armenian genocide may just be his attempt to put the best face on the situation. But for all I know he’s describing the beginning of significant change in Turkey; I certainly hope so. The pressure is hopefully on: in her article, Matossian writes, “Recent discussions of Turkey’s possible entry into the EU were dominated by France and other countries demanding that Turkey first admit the Armenian genocide.”

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