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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Secular Insecurities

January 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Secular Insecurities

Nibras Kazimi counsels a soft touch with Turkey

January 25, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/26479

Turks tense up in a display of natural, reflexive patriotism when outsiders discuss their country's problems. But in some places of the world, patriotic myths are stringent and uncompromising, and such is the case with Turkey. Outsiders who want the best for Turkey should be mindful of this ultra-sensitivity and work around the useless outcome of provoking it, while Turks should take into account that their own edginess is holding them back, to the delight of those who mean them malice.

Enter Orhan Pamuk, the world renowned Turkish novelist at the center of a civil rights saga that was resolved over the weekend, when charges against him were dropped for denigrating "Turkishness." The court case had been pending since late August. Pamuk had run afoul of Article 301 of the penal code by casually self-promoting his own bravery in speaking out on incendiary topics that still play out in real time like "what to do about the Kurds," and some others swept under the carpet for decades such as "whatever happened to the Armenians?"

In Europe, taboos yet to be broken probably revolve around matrimonial unions between man and goat; most of the Old Country is pretty much libertine. But Turkey, which hopes to meld into the European commonwealth over the course of the next decade, still considers the circumstances as to how hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians ended up dead - a series of events that transpired 90 years ago and under a repressive policy of a long-defunct Ottoman Empire - as a "don't go there" taboo.

Remnants of Turkey's militant right - responsible for an era of state-directed mayhem and bloodshed in the 1970s - led the effort to prosecute Pamuk and broke out in fisticuffs with his legal team, but it would be a mistake to characterize all those who felt miffed by his statements as dyed-in-the-wool fascists who would offer no measure of reconciliation on such hot-button issues as the Armenian "genocide" and the civil war in the Kurdish regions.

Pamuk waded into these overgrown thickets of national denial in a blatant act of self-aggrandizement, for he is after all, an artist and that is what artists do. He set himself up as the conscience of a nation, but he talked to them through a non-Turkish organ (his comments were carried in a Swiss magazine almost a year ago). One would have expected Turkey's liberals and democrats to come out for Pamuk, but that was not the case. His only cheerleaders were those who can point to his predicament and say that Turkey has a long way to go, especially those with an agenda for disbarring Turkey from Europe. That is the reason as to why Turkey's most enlightened did not side with Pamuk: there is a deep sense that there are still forces out there out to hurt their country and that they should be on guard.

Most of Turkey's secularists did not take issue with Pamuk's right to criticize, but were flummoxed by his inability to administer the right kind of criticism, given his international stature. See, Pamuk had made Turkey look bad, which is fine to do among Turks, but he spoke out publicly and thus played into the hands of those who want to keep their country at arm's length, or in other words those who believe that Turkey will never be good enough for Europe.

A favorite pastime of Turkey-watchers is to take a whack at describing its made-up national identity. Most approach this task in a manner reflecting the disdain of old money for the nouveau riche. The leaps made by the founder of the modern state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in his effort to catch up with the West, and especially the West as defined by the amorphous quality of European civilization, seemed superficial and comical. By a change of dress and script, and through learning to waltz and shedding other trappings of the Orient, Turkey was supposed to become a member of Europe. Some deride Ataturk as authoritarian, but forget that most of European rulers in his times (he died the year of the Munich appeasement) were too. What these detractors also miss is that he was not a flash in the pan, but rather a product of two centuries of attempted modernization and a turn towards the West. His actions were catalytic, speeding up the course on which Turkey had embarked.

But there is still something unresolved about his legacy. One can make out a pattern in this centuries-old Turkish quest for self-improvement, between an inward looking strain that sought to centralize authority and wealth to empower the Turkish nation, thus shoring up defenses against outside encroachments on its sovereignty, and another more liberal strain, that sought to emulate the West as a prelude to being admitted into its company as part of a mission to enlighten the nation. Ataturk could not have saved whatever remained of his country during the War of Independence if he had not adopted the introverted and combative line of his predecessors in the face of external threats, consequently inventing nationalist myths as walls against existential doubt and defeatism. Thus, he refashioned an Anatolian village deep in the hinterland as his capital, Ankara, doing away with the cosmopolitanism of Istanbul. But interpreters of his legacy say that his long term aim was to take Turkey further West, rather than just keeping it in the middle. Such is the vision that would have taken Turkey into Europe and Europe into Turkey, to escape from the suffocating clutch of outdated ideas.

The Islamist-leaning government ruling in Ankara today says and does all the right things: it lets Pamuk go free, vows cultural rights for Kurds, and is even willing to put Cyprus on the table. But its ethos is essentially an inward looking one, seeking to gain European membership for the material wealth such an association promises, rather than adopting the values of its civilization. While things look good on paper, Recep Erdogan's government satiates its radical wing by allowing them to victimize the Alevi sect in an ominous harbinger of where it intends to take Turkey.

Europe needs to get used to the fact that a foreign demographic spillover from its southern reaches is inevitable. Should the jihadists prevail in extending their terror, or even in holding territory, then Europe provides ample targets. The political and financial elites of that continent should be rooting for the final incarnation of Ataturk's legacy into its cosmopolitan form. And hence, they should be mindful about the path being set by Turkey's current rulers, and should try to gently massage an outcome for the victory of secularism instead. Disdainfully poking holes is counterproductive and alienates a secular and deeply patriotic constituency; Europe should be grateful that Turkey has come this far since it is the only model that can act as a buffer between Zarqawi's interpretation of Islam and its shores.

As for the Turks, yes, it stings to be embarrassed in public, but that doesn't change the fact that there are apparent glitches in the system clear for the world to see. To avoid future flare-ups like the Pamuk case, they should preempt events and fine tune the state that Ataturk founded in preparation for the historic opportunity of realizing his goal: an enlightened civilization and not just the outward mechanics of European membership.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >