"A Thinker Must Be Allowed to Question Belief"
Turkish writer Nedim Gürsel may face a prison sentence because his novel The Daughters of Allah has offended Muslims' religious sensibilities. Ramon Schack spoke to the renowned author about religion, literature and politics in Turkey
Nedim Gürsel, your new novel The Daughters of Allah has caused you huge problems in Turkey; the book could land you in prison. You may serve up to three years because you have allegedly offended Muslims' religious sensibilities. Did you anticipate publishing the book would lead to a situation like this?
Nedim Gürsel: No, I did not anticipate this. That a writer should be threatened with prison because of a novel he has written does not fit with the image of a country seeking to be accepted into the EU. I wrote a book and my whole life changed. It has not been a pleasant change. I am also wondering how it can be acceptable, in a secularist state such as Turkey, that the so-called Presidency of Religious Affairs can pass judgement on my novel. This upsets me more than my concern about the outcome of the case itself.
The Presidency of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, is an official institution which ensures that Islam remains aligned to the state. How does this institution come to be delivering an opinion on a literary work and, not only this, to be involving itself in an on-going court case?
What was the Diyanet's actual criticism?
Gürsel: The Diyanet censors complained amongst other things that one of my characters calls the prophet Mohammed an 'ignorant child'. In that passage it is an opponent of Mohammed speaking; as such one could hardly expect him, at least in a serious novel, to be singing the prophet's praises. Of course these are only the ostensible criticisms; the real issue is that the prophet appears as a figure in a novel at all.
The controversy surrounding The Daughters of Allah is reminiscent of the uproar about Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Both novels are set in the seventh century AD and include the prophet Mohammed appears as a character. In the case of Rushdie's book, its critics expressed outrage without having even read the book. Have there been similar pronouncements in your case.
Gürsel: There have indeed. The expert charged by the Diyanet with assessing the book quoted it so inaccurately in his report that I wondered if he had really read it.
When the book was published you were accused of blasphemy in Istanbul, as reported last summer in the German, French and Swiss media. The court acquitted you at the time but several state attorneys appealed against this decision leading to a further court case which has now been taken to the highest court in the court in the country.
Gürsel: Indeed. The Daughters of Allah has been on sale in Turkey since last year and has sold 30,000 copies: a respectable figure in the Turkish book market.
Shortly after the book appeared the state attorneys began a preliminary investigation. I was initially able to convince the judge that the book did not contain anything offensive. Despite this, to my amazement, a higher court then instigated legal proceedings. We can thus assume that certain elements are determined that Turkey remain a country in which authors are tried in court. These times were meant to be over!
Following a barrage of cases against authors such as Orhan Pamuk the government made the instigation of such legal proceedings more difficult. The assurances from Ankara seem not to be worth much however. I have written an open letter to President Erdogan on the subject.
Has he answered it yet?
Gürsel: No, not yet. But I have had a great deal of sympathy and support from my readers.
You yourself live in Paris and teach Turkish literature at the Sorbonne. You possess both Turkish and French citizenship. Could it be that as a result of switching between these two worlds, Istanbul and Paris, you have misjudged the political realities in Turkey? The country's political reorientation, the changes to the secular, Kemalist state doctrine, cannot be overlooked.
Gürsel: I certainly haven't overlooked these developments but perhaps I have underestimated the dynamics of the process. I am convinced, however, that an author, an intellectual or a thinker who does not live in a theocratic country must be allowed to question belief.
Interview: Ramon Schack
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Steph Morris