Thursday, October 12, 2006

Genocide & free speech in Turkey & France (via Ann Althouse, Orhan Pamuk, & Norman Geras)

In Turkey it is still against the law to acknowledge that there was a genocidal mass murder of Armenians by the Ottoman government during World War I. In 2005 the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was put on trial for the crime of "insulting Turkishness" when he mentioned this historical incident to a Swiss interviewer. An international outcry helped to get the charges dropped.
Pamuk, whose novels include ''Snow'' and ''My Name is Red,'' was charged last year for telling a Swiss newspaper in February 2005 that Turkey was unwilling to deal with two of the most painful episodes in recent Turkish history: the massacre of Armenians during World War I, which Turkey insists was not a planned genocide, and recent guerrilla fighting in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast.
''Thirty-thousand Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it,'' he said in the interview.
The controversy came at a particularly sensitive time for the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Turkey had recently begun membership talks with the European Union, which has harshly criticized the trial.
In a post today Ann Althouse quoted from a New Yorker piece that Pamuk wrote about his trial ("On Trial" - 12/19/2005). I will quote slightly more than Althouse did.
My crime is to have “publicly denigrated Turkish identity.” The prosecutor will ask that I be imprisoned for three years. I should perhaps find it worrying that the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was tried in the same court for the same offense, under Article 301 of the same statute, and was found guilty, but I remain optimistic. For, like my lawyer, I believe that the case against me is thin; I do not think I will end up in jail. [....]

My detractors were not motivated just by personal animosity, nor were they expressing hostility to me alone; I already knew that my case was a matter worthy of discussion in both Turkey and the outside world. This was partly because I believed that what stained a country’s “honor” was not the discussion of the black spots in its history but the impossibility of any discussion at all. But it was also because I believed that in today’s Turkey the prohibition against discussing the Ottoman Armenians was a prohibition against freedom of expression, and that the two matters were inextricably linked. Comforted as I was by the interest in my predicament and by the generous gestures of support, there were also times when I felt uneasy about finding myself caught between my country and the rest of the world. [....]

That said, the drama we see unfolding is not, I think, a grotesque and inscrutable drama peculiar to Turkey; rather, it is an expression of a new global phenomenon that we are only just coming to acknowledge and that we must now begin, however slowly, to address. [....] On the one hand, there is the rush to join the global economy; on the other, the angry nationalism that sees true democracy and freedom of thought as Western inventions.
Now Pamuk has been awarded the the Nobel Prize in literature for literature. This seems like a happy ending for him, at least for the moment. But the larger issues remain, both for Turkey and for the rest of us.

=> Now the French Parliament is on the verge of passing a law that will make it a criminal offense to deny that there was a genocidal mass murder of Armenians during World War I. There are similar laws, in France and in some other European countries, making it a criminal offense to deny that the Nazi Holocaust of the European Jews occurred.

The Turkish government always responds with outrage when there is any international recognition of the Armenian genocide, and in this case it has warned that the passage of this law could damage relations between Turkey and the EU. Norman Geras, in some characteristically acute remarks, zeroes in on the two essential points. First, the French Parliament (and presumably the EU as well) should tell the Turkish government to go jump in the lake.
It might also, for good measure, give its support to educational and other programmes publicizing what happened to the Armenians in Turkey during the first world war.

On the other hand, the parliament shouldn't make denial of the genocide a crime.
However well-intentioned, this proposed law and other laws like it are almost always a bad idea. In free or even semi-free societies, trying to police historical and political debates by criminalizing the expression of certain views is a dangerous and often self-defeating approach--and that's true even when the views in question happen to be dishonest, pernicious, and morally despicable. Such views certainly ought to be refuted and condemned, but the best way to do this is through open discussion and argument. The courts are not a good place to resolve these issues.

I agree ... and so do several Turkish writers who have been charged for trying to tell the truth about the Armenian genocide.. Read Norm's discussion below.

--Jeff Weintraub
Norman Geras (Normblog)
October 12, 2006
Talking about the Armenian genocide
The French parliament has been warned it could undermine relations between the EU and Turkey if it passes a law tomorrow making it a crime to deny Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks during the first world war.
I think the French parliament should tell Turkey what it can do with its warning. It might also, for good measure, give its support to educational and other programmes publicizing what happened to the Armenians in Turkey during the first world war.

On the other hand, the parliament shouldn't make denial of the genocide a crime. I've argued this in relation to the Holocaust, on standard free speech grounds (and further here); and the same arguments apply to the Armenian genocide. Two writers previously charged for writing about that genocide seem to take the same view:
Yesterday Turkey's foremost Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, who has been repeatedly tried for "insulting Turkishness" by urging Turkey to come clean on its part in the massacres, said passing the French law would be a mistake. "I will go to France to protest against this madness and violate the [new] law if I see it necessary. And I will commit the crime to be prosecuted there so that these two irrational mentalities can race to put me into jail," he told Reuters... Other Turkish writers criticised the French bill, including Elif Shafak, who was acquitted last month after she was charged with "insulting Turkishness" over one of her fictitious characters who referred to the Armenian "genocide".