Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Orhan Pamuk and Turkish sedition

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish novelist, but he is also an activist for freedom of expression and recognition of the blemishes as well as the highlights of Turkish history. Pamuk has been charged under Article 301/1 of the Turkish penal code, which states: "A person who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be imposed to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years."

Specifically, Pamuk has spoken out about the Armenian genocide in Turkey in World War I. It is estimated that one million ethnic Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey at the end of the Ottoman period, in the years 1915 to 1918.

There are some who claim that Pamuk's outspokenness is at least partly motivated by a desire for international prominence, but whatever his motives for speaking out, he is now facing trial and possible imprisonment simply for publicly raising the possibility that nearly a century ago the Turkish government's hands were unclean.

Turkey is hoping to join the European Union, but entry to the EU is absolutely contingent on acceptance of and compliance with the Copenhagen Criteria, including the existence of stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. That certainly includes the guarantee of freedom of political speech.

When I was in İstanbul earlier this year, someone asked our tour guide what he thought about the possibility of Turkey's joining the EU. We were rather surprised that he said he did not think it would happen in his lifetime. (That's a rather strong statement, since the tour guide was probably in his mid-thirties.) He said it would be a long time before the EU would accept a predominantly Muslim nation, even one as secularly oriented as Turkey.

Issues of religious tolerance aside, so long as Article 301/1 exists in the Turkish penal code, Turkey can never be admitted to the EU. If Turkey is truly committed to joining the EU, or even just to the basic principles of openness and democracy, it must immediately dismiss the charges against Orhan Pamuk and repeal the odious law under which he stands accused. The fact that the law was passed only last year shows that Turkey is widening, rather than narrowing, the gap separating it from EU membership.

More generally, I believe that an important measure of a nation is the way it handles shameful episodes in its history. Germany has, of necessity, been forthright in acknowledging the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Japan, on the other hand, has been far too reticent in acknowledging that it started a brutally violent war of aggression in World War II. The record of the United States is very much a mixed bag. Individual citizens are (thank goodness!) free to speak out about slavery, the American Indian genocide, and other horrors from our history, but yet our leaders continue to portray America, both at home and abroad, as somehow a uniquely moral, spiritually pure nation. In criticizing Turkey's stubbornness on this issue, I do not in any way dismiss America's faults, but neither will I let them deflect my criticism of something as obnoxious as Article 301/1. Likewise, in discussing America's faults, I seek to ensure that they are neither forgotten nor repeated.

Sedition is the crime of speaking unfavorably about the government. It was a crime in the early history of the United States (The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798) and again in the early 20th century (The Sedition Act of 1918) to incite disloyalty to the United States. Australia is currently considering an amendment to its anti-terrorism laws that would define seditious intention as the intention to bring the Sovereign (i.e., Queen Lizzie-beth) into hatred or contempt, or to urge disaffection with the Constitution, the government, or parliament. In other words, under the proposed law, saying, "I hate the Australian Constitution, and you should too!" could establish seditious intention. If the Australian Constitution indeed permits such egregious limits on freedom of speech, then you should hate it, although I would claim exemption under Section 80.3(1)(b)(ii) of the proposed legislation. [good-faith effort to point out defects in the Constitution with a view to reforming those defects]

The government of Australia does not have entirely nefarious intentions in proposing the new sedition laws. It aims to curb the incitement of violence, particularly against ethnic, religious, or political groups, and to prevent the recruitment of terrorists to attack Australia. However, the current attempt fails badly at the test of imposing the minimum possible burden on freedom of speech.

The Turkish law, Article 301/1, is simply irredeemable. It must be repealed and repudiated, and its ashes consigned to the toxic waste dump of bad governance. Article 301/1 itself insults the Turkish Republic. And by the way, the Turkish Grand National Assembly has bad breath.