In Turkey it's against the law to desecrate symbols of national pride
A novelist awaits trial for his words.
BY MATTHEW KAMINSKI
Thursday, December 15, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
ISTANBUL, Turkey--A tidy mind may not appreciate Turkey's contradictions. It is a place where the ruling Islamists blindly push the country into Europe while the old Westernized establishment threatens personal freedoms. Its booming capitalist economy coexists with a militant dislike for all things American. It's an experiment in secular Muslim democracy that could, in a decade or more, almost as easily end up in the European Union's postmodern paradise as in an Iranian-style theocracy. Unless, of course, yet another coup restores Kemal Ataturk's military-dominated republic.
At another time, Orhan Pamuk might delight in these paradoxes. Yet Turkey's most famous novelist finds himself ensnared by them. He must appear tomorrow before an Istanbul court to answer charges of "public denigration of Turkish identity." For a single sentence uttered in a Swiss magazine interview last February--"30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and almost nobody but me dares to talk about it"--Mr. Pamuk faces three years in jail.
His lawyer tells him to keep quiet, advice that the author ignores. "Of course, it's a disgrace for any state today to try to convict an author, especially a novelist," he says. Indictments on this charge, including his own, are the "habit and nature of nationalism and authoritarianism," a legacy, along with rigid secularism, of Ataturk. This thin-skinned Turkey is one side of the medal; on the other, popular democracy is thriving as never before. "We're all freer now," Mr. Pamuk continues. "It's an irony that I'm saying it, but it's definitely true. Only compared to a Western democracy there are so many taboos here."
Surprisingly tall, dressed in a fashionable blue shirt and black pants, Mr. Pamuk speaks English in a fluent staccato. Born into Istanbul's upper class 53 years ago, Mr. Pamuk is at turns prickly and personable. His office balcony offers a breathtaking view of the Bosporus and the entrance of the Golden Horn. Atop a pile of books and papers, lies a thick Borges collection in English. By his own admission, Mr. Pamuk resembles a happier Ka, the exiled poet and protagonist of his last novel, "Snow," about the rise of Islamism in the 1990s, who "is also consistently accused of 'not belonging here enough.' " He adds: "That may be a compliment for a novelist but not a good thing for a citizen who wants to be happy in his town."
The source of Mr. Pamuk's current discomfort is a nationalist prosecutor who brought the charge against him weeks before Turkey opened talks to join the EU. The message: Not so fast. None of this happened in a vacuum. Three years ago, Justice and Development, a party with Islamist roots, won a majority in Parliament, pushing out the old republicans. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan aggressively opened up Turkish politics to qualify for the EU. It's in his self-interest to consolidate a democracy with EU help: As before, the military might lose patience with the religious men in power.
Yet the Erdogan era raises big, unsettling questions. As greater political freedom brings more Islam, will more Islam end up destroying hard-won secular freedoms? Can representative government and religion coexist in an Islamic country? Turkey is a regional laboratory.
In "Snow," the rising Islamism clashed violently with the official secular order. A decade ago, the specter of another Iran haunted the Westernized elite here. In person today, Mr. Pamuk sounds more optimistic that Turkey can strike a novel balance. At EU prodding, Turkey adopted far-reaching reforms--including better treatment for the Kurds and a reduced political role for the military--in the past three years.
"The collaboration with Europe eases the tension over freedom of religion here," he says. "Another irony is that once . . . Turkey manages to have fully integrated into the European Union, the suppression of daily secular life through religion--and the legitimization of that suppression--will be harder." By this scenario, Turkey can be like Ireland or the U.S., Western countries with a sizable religious and conservative population.
So Islam can be reformed quietly to surrender its claims over political life? Mr. Pamuk bristles at the question. " 'Reform of Islam' has connotations of a Western patronizing outlook implying, We have done our reforms in our religion and if you want to be modern, you must do that too," he says. He adds: "I don't think Islam and democracy are incompatible. But it's a very delicate matter. That kind of harmony should come from the nations, from the people, from the politicians, rather than be imposed as criteria from the outside. It's happening but not with that agenda. What's much more interesting here is that the Islamists are embracing Europe."
While Mr. Pamuk and other pro-European Turks heartily welcome the criteria imposed by the EU, the novelist is scornful of America's democratization efforts in other Muslim countries. In his view, the Iraq war aggravated a deeper conflict not between East and West, free and oppressed, but between rich and poor. On this topic, the Westernized Mr. Pamuk sounds more like an "authentic" Turk. (Istanbul critics often fault him, and other novelists, for insufficient Turkishness.)
"All these nations that are producing less are damningly aware of what is happening because of TV, communications and Hollywood," he says. "They're learning more and more about the private life of Western people, while their life is . . . only looked down as 'headscarf girl,' religious, premodern, as something that should be reformed and civilized by some superiors." To him, Islamic nations "can also be considered to be victims of 9/11, because their religion, culture, history was represented as something annoying and threatening, and most of the time they're only possible killers and fanatics."
Without excusing or explaining terrorism, Mr. Pamuk does try to shift the blame toward the West--and toward the U.S. as the epicenter of this empire. But then, at once, he turns soothing. "Anti-Americanism is a very common and a very shallow thing," he says, "a light ideology that America can manipulate." Like Turkey, Mr. Pamuk is not a man without contradictions.
At one point, he claims to dislike all this talk of politics. "I'm a novelist." True, yet his recent books are all read with a close eye to the hidden political meanings. That even includes the 16th-century Ottoman murder mystery, "My Name Is Red," which made his name in the West. His current project, a love story set among Istanbul's upper classes who use their "Westernization" to dominate the country, will probably be no different.
The growing popularity of novels is a little noted symptom of globalization. And Mr. Pamuk expects non-Westerners to embrace and change the form. It sounds a bit like fusion food. Thinking of China and others with emerging middle classes and novelists, he adds: "I'm sure they will invent new things. . . . Subject matter, habits, culture, psychological depth are so, so different that once you want to address your people you change that art, you change the given form."
The "Istanbul" of the last Pamuk book, a memoir of his childhood in the 1950s and '60s, portrays a gray, beguiling but scarred city, struggling with the loss of the great Ottoman empire. Four decades on, after waves of rural migration saw the population rise tenfold, Istanbul is colorful, modern and shabby, at once more conservative and more free-wheeling. The changes are dizzying, and the optimist wants to believe all for the better. Maybe the Anatolian peasant girl in a headscarf can live happily next door to the upper-class Westernized one dressed in a miniskirt. For all his attempts to sound upbeat, Mr. Pamuk betrays doubts. "Honestly I may be too naive in my liberal outlook," he says.
No one seriously expects him to end up in prison, though Turkish courts are fickle. But already the case illustrates that this "model" Muslim society remains at conflict with itself. In "Snow," radical Islamists end up assassinating Ka. The Kemalists have his nonfiction doppelganger in their sights. In a novel, Mr. Pamuk would probably appreciate the symmetry.