Row over Book Burning in Turkey

Reactionary Forces Try to Create National Hysteria

Turkish nationalists see their country's liberalization and its moves toward joining the EU as a betrayal. They are joining forces against those they hold responsible for the eclipse of Kemal's legacy, including writers. By Ömer Erzeren

Turkish nationalists see their country's liberalization and its moves toward joining the EU as a betrayal. They are joining forces against those they hold responsible for the eclipse of Kemal's legacy – including writers. Ömer Erzeren reports

photo: AP
Targeted by nationalist fanatics: the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk

​​The farce began in the Central Anatolian town of Sütcüler in the province of Isparta.

The town's administrator, an ex-policeman named Mustafa Altinpinar, directly subordinate to the Department of the Interior, tried to advance his bureaucratic career with populist measures made possible by an atmosphere of nationalist hysteria.

The defamation of Orhan Pamuk

The famous novelist Orhan Pamuk was selected as the enemy. The town's public libraries were ordered to remove Orhan Pamuk's books from their shelves and "destroy" them.

In justification, the administrator declared that the writer had "stained the honor of the Turkish nation" in interviews with foreign newspapers. According to him, the annihilation of the books was dictated by "the Turkish nation's right to self-defense".

The writer had harshly criticized Turkey's political culture. In an interview with the Zürcher Tagesanzeiger he said: "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed here. And hardly anyone dares to mention it. So I do. And they hate me for it."

Turkish nationalists reacted by launching a smear campaign against the writer. Pamuk received abusive letters and even murder threats, branded as a "traitor to the fatherland".

The media became the forum for an embittered debate. Pamuk's statements were much criticized. But the number of people who took Orhan Pamuk's side in columns and commentaries was too great to overlook.

The "Book Burning Official"

In the middle of this debate, news came of an order given by the administrator whom the Turkish media soon dubbed the "book burning official". It created a scandal and a wave of outrage. The governor officially rescinded the order and called it a case of usurpation of office.

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.

But the farce of Sütcüler would have been inconceivable without the nationalist mobilization of the past months.

At a celebration of the spring festival of Newroz in the eastern Mediterranean town of Mersin, young Kurds had trampled on a Turkish flag and set it on fire.

In Kurdish Diyarbakir, crowds demonstrated with photos of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, condemned to life in prison. First it was the right-wing extremists who began hanging Turkish flags out of apartments and offices in protest.

The Turkish flags kept growing in number, flown even by those who felt no political kinship with the right-wing extremists.

Nationalist potboilers on the bestseller list

Another sign of growing nationalism, according to Turkish columnists, is the fact that the nationalist potboiler Metal Firtinasi, about a US invasion of Turkey, has made it to the bestseller list. Conspiracy theories depicting Turkey as the defenseless puppet of international intrigues are the order of the day.

A recurring traditional pattern in Turkish politics is the phenomenon whereby internal conflicts are not discussed, but rather are perceived as the result of influence by foreign powers.

Both conservative, Islamic-influenced political movements and secular parties try to make political capital with this pattern.

If the problem is the Islamization of society, the culprits are easily found: Iran or Saudi Arabia is secretly interfering in Turkish politics. Or the USA is trying to force a "moderate Islam" concocted in Washington upon the secular state of Turkey.

If the problem is the Kurdish conflict, foreign powers must be at work, attempting to undermine Turkey's strength and divide the country.

This mode of perception stems in large part from the conditions under which the Turkish Republic was founded, emerging upon the rubble of the Ottoman Empire after World War One.

The historical background

The fall of the Ottoman Empire is largely blamed on European powers' active encouragement of various brands of secessionist nationalism.

The Treaty of Sevres (1920) is still a sore point for the Turks. The victors of the war dictated a treaty which divided up even Anatolia itself among the victorious powers.

Today, schoolbooks give a heroic spin to the resistance against foreign invasion and to the nationalist movement under Kemal, later given the epithet Atatürk, father of the Turks.

The success of Mustafa Kemal's nationalist movement led to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which laid down the borders of the Turkish republic and created the preconditions for the development of a civil nation state.

More than 80 years after the founding of the republic, the basic coordinates of international policy have undergone a fundamental change. But to this day Turkish nationalism feeds on ideological clichés drawn from the origins of the republic.

Irrational fear of the European Union

The democratic reforms put into effect especially since the Islamic conservative "Party for Justice and Development" came into power, smoothing the way for accession negotiations with the European Union last December, have weakened nationalism's interpretive monopoly on political questions.

After decades of a policy of repression toward the Kurds which called into question the very existence of the Kurdish people and the Kurdish language, it is clear today that the new liberalism hardly threatens the republic's constitutional order. On the contrary, it creates problems of legitimacy for those who want to continue their armed struggle against the state.

Europe's openness toward Turkey strengthens the country's democratic forces. To slam the door in Turkey's face would be to strengthen the nationalists who seek salvation in isolationism.

Cyprus as a nationalist bone of contention

For them, the EU's position on the issue of Cyprus is proof that "the Turks have no friends". Last year the Turkish government radically changed its policy toward Cyprus.

The peace negotiations by the UN Secretary General were supported, and in a referendum a majority of Turkish Cypriots voted for the UN peace plan which would have reunified the island.

However, a majority of the Greek Cypriots voted "no" to the referendum and blocked the solution. Despite its claim to sole legitimacy, the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus became a member of the EU.

The (Turkish) north is not internationally recognized and continues to be subject to economic sanctions, despite statements to the contrary by the EU. However, despite the profound disappointment by the EU, it is regarded as certain that the reform politician Talat will be elected as the new president of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. The nationalists stand no chance of being reelected.

In Turkey, though, it remains uncertain whether democratic reformers or nationalists will shape the future. At any rate, the taboo against questioning nationalistic instincts has been broken.

In the 1990s, 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.

Ömer Erzeren

© 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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