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Turkey must relent

It would be a tragedy if Turkish membership of the EU were to be jeopardised by its treatment of its most prominent novelist

10 September 2005

12:00 AM

10 September 2005

12:00 AM

The issue of how best to approach a friend who has badly let you down is one more commonly dealt with at the back of this magazine, by our agony aunt on etiquette, Mary Killen. But this week it is one that needs to be addressed here. Over the past years this magazine has been a staunch defender of Turkey and its right to join the European Union, negotiations for which begin on 3 October. We have praised its economy, its founder-membership of Nato, and condemned the many Turkophobes within the EU — most notably Frits Bolkestein, the EU internal market commissioner, who last year fatuously claimed that the liberation of Vienna from the Ottoman Turks in 1683 ‘would have been in vain’ were Turkey allowed to join the EU.

Our point is that while Turkey is far from a perfect democracy, and still falls short of the standards we have come to expect of Western European nations, it is essentially a benign country travelling in the right direction. Alone among nations with Muslim majorities, it holds proper elections and, for the most part, maintains a legal system which Britons would regard as fair. It has 70 million industrious citizens who are keen to trade with us on equal terms. Moreover, as we have argued before, admitting Turkey to the EU would make it perfectly clear that, contrary to what some imams may say, the West has no desire to suppress Islam, only the malignant regimes which co-exist with it in the Middle East.

It would be a tragedy, therefore, if Turkish membership of the EU were to be jeopardised by Turkey’s ugly treatment of its most prominent novelist, Orhan Pamuk. Last week Mr Pamuk was charged under Article 301/1 of the Turkish penal code, which makes it an offence to insult the Republic of Turkey, punishable with between six months’ and three years’ imprisonment — increased by a third if the offence was committed abroad. Mr Pamuk’s crime was to make reference, in an interview with Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger in February, to Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of Armenians between 1915 and 1917 and to its ill-treatment of Kurds since 1984. ‘Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it,’ he said.


It goes without saying that jailing people for raising such issues is unacceptable in a modern democracy. Orhan Pamuk is no traitor. On the contrary, he is seen in the literary world as a great ambassador for his homeland, whose work shows a deep love of his country and who has been able to straddle the gap between East and West. He simply wishes to be free to discuss a couple of dark episodes in Turkey’s history. To jail him for doing so would be akin to our own courts sending down a novelist who dared to mention the Irish potato famine.

To give it some credit, the Turkish government does not entirely deny that a large number of Armenians came to a sticky end around 1915. The prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, recently announced his desire to establish a commission of historians to judge whether or not genocide took place. Yet no properly functioning democracy seeks to legislate in favour of one official version of history. Rather it tolerates a free market in ideas, knowing full well that it is lively debate which best ensures that the truth eventually seeps out.

Orhan Pamuk’s accusations of the scale of Turkish maltreatment of Armenians and Kurds are supported by eyewitness accounts. An American diplomat filed a report at the time speaking of Ottoman soldiers, aided by Kurdish tribesmen, ‘sweeping the countryside, massacring men, women and children and burning their homes. Babies were shot in their mothers’ arms, small children were horribly mutilated, women were stripped and beaten.’ Pamuk’s accusations are supported, too, by Halil Berktay, a professor at Sabanci University, who puts the numbers of dead at between 800,000 and one million.

But even if Pamuk’s charges were nonsense, it would be no excuse for jailing him. A confident nation has no need to suppress free speech, knowing that anyone who makes false accusations against their country’s past for political reasons will rapidly be crushed beneath the weight of counter-evidence. It is very irritating when some left-wing firebrand pops up blaming the British empire for Aids, using the tortuous argument that the buggery of black slaves by their British masters induced Afro-Caribbeans to violent homophobia, thereby suppressing condom-use in latterday Africa. But to bung them behind bars? Apart from the abuse of the firebrand’s human rights, it would merely serve to suggest that Britain had never got over its loss of empire.

Admittedly, Turkey’s problem over Armenia and the Kurds is not limited to the government: 80 per cent of respondents to a recent opinion poll said they could do without EU membership if it meant having to admit to past genocide. But if Turkey wants to join the EU, and become a full member of the wider club of Western democracies, it simply has to face up to its past, and to its present democratic failings. Article 301/1 of its penal code must go.


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