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Why a great writer´s trial affects us all

Denis MacShane says Turkey must not be allowed to airbrush its past

Sunday December 18, 2005

The Observer

Across the world, a popular present for the reading classes this Christmas will be a novel by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. He has the politics of moneyed liberal-leftism, but all that matters to Pamuk is writing novels.

Earlier this year, he said Turkey should examine what happened to the one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds killed in Turkey in the 20th century. No nation easily examines its past. Serbs and Croatians remain in denial about the evil of the Balkan wars a decade ago. Japan cannot handle what it did in China seven decades ago; China cannot admit Mao’s murder of millions.

For Pamuk to go into taboo areas of Turkish history was therefore a risk. But writers are there to take on the creeping tide of censorship that has been fuelled by religious fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists.

Turkey’s new ayatollahs claim they are protecting the secular nationalist state, yet they ape the religious censors of Iran. The Armenian massacres happened in the decade before Ataturk launched his bid to modernise Turkey, and Ataturk remains historical enemy No 1 for Muslim fundamentalists, because he secularised Turkey, allowed Muslim Turks to drink in bars and encouraged dancing with women.

Turkey’s modernisation now means the EU. Ultra-nationalists in Turkey, like Notting Hill Tories, dislike the EU because it involves sharing sovereignty. In the court room where Pamuk’s case was heard, the hate word was ‘European’. Nationalists screamed abuse at MEPs and I was punched in the face by a nationalist lawyer.

The judge buried his head in his papers and never looked Pamuk in the face. He allowed a mob of nationalist lawyers to intimidate the court and refused to stop the prosecution there and then. Instead, he passed the case up to the Minister of Justice. Many right-wing Europeans are opposed to Turkey joining the EU. They have new friends in the nationalists, who also wish to keep Turkey free of European contamination. Ankara wishes the issue would go away.

It won’t. As in past centuries, state authorities or religious fundamentalists have put a writer on trial to stop him or her asking awkward questions, but end up in the dock themselves. After the hearing, a frightened Pamuk asked me if he should go into exile. I hope not. Turkey will not join Europe unless Voltaire wins, and the ayatollahs – secular and religious – lose.

· Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, is a former Minister for Europe

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