Speaking Volumes: The Istanbul Conundrum

(Published in the Business Standard,  January 15, 2013)

When Turkey allowed several thousands of books to move off the banned list earlier this week, you might have expected anti-censorship activists to be delighted.


For years, the fact that these books—ranging from The Communist Manifesto to works by Lenin, Nazim Hikmet and the Marquis De Sade—were banned had allowed authorities to selectively punish students and activists who had these in their possession. Public prosecutor Kürşat Kayral was quoted in the Hurriyet Daily News: “Lifting the bans will make a clean break in society. If we cannot explain to anyone that freedom of expression is a complete body comprised of many different liberties, it won’t matter if we know if the king is naked.”


If the optimism around the world was cautious, though, that’s because Turkey’s trysts with censorship are complex. In the same week, PEN Turkey, a body that promotes freedom of expression, found itself under attack for the crime of defending a musician’s right to free speech. The pianist Fazil Say was summoned to court for “insulting religious values” in some of his tweets; PEN Turkey condemned this as a “fascist development”, and is under investigation for insulting the state.


Turkey epitomizes the contradictions of the modern censored state. Istanbul has dozens of bookshops, a rich literary and arts culture, and a long history of articulate debate among its citizens, to take just the capital city. But some years back in 2005, when Orhan Pamuk referred to the Armenian genocide, he was accused of “insulting Turkishness”—a crime now amended to “insulting the state”. PEN International reports that 2012 closed with 30 Turkish writers in prison, another 70 on trial. Those arrested include publishers, translators and academics as well as writers—and journalists have also been arrested by the score.


Turkey does not exercise censorship in the way we imagine censors work: through book-burnings, denunciations and mass persecutions of writers. Nor does it exercise censorship in the cat-and-mouse way of China’s censors, where, as the writer Murong Xuecun writes, editors and writers wrangle over what to cut until they are left with “castrated writing”. The basis of Turkey’s ability to act, selectively, against various critics of the government or writers who are deemed to have insulted whatever “Turkishness” stands for are two key laws. As Index on Censorship reported, Article 301 came into existence in 2005 and was modified in 2008. It makes insulting the “Turkish nation” or the “Republic of Turkey” a crime, punishable with two years imprisonment.


Article 216 is broadly worded, according to the Index, and forbids inciting “people to hate and hostility”. These provisions can and have been interpreted so widely that anyone who expresses criticism of anything from the government currently in power to an incident in Turkish history might find themselves in court, or in jail. What works in terms of chilling speech and shutting down this debate is not just the existence of these laws, or their application in the courts, but the knowledge that they can be arbitrarily, at any time, used against the mass of citizens.


The contradictions for Turkey within the space of a week are stark. On one hand, you have the prosecutor’s awareness of the desirability of free speech—and like many non-Western countries, Turkey has its own long and rich history of debate, a space for contradiction and argument. On the other, you have the unprecedented—in modern times—spectacle of a state attempting to prosecute an independent body that works worldwide for the preservation of writer’s rights to free speech.


The choice Turkey has to make is a thoroughly modern choice, one that many countries, including India, are facing. For some, free expression is seen as the cornerstone of democracy—take it away and the entire edifice crumbles. For some, free expression is seen as a luxury good imported from an entity known nebulously as “The West”, and in these states, the argument will often be made that free expression must be curtailed, for the greater benefit of equally nebulous masses. In India, the argument for curtailing free expression is often made based on our fears of the incitement of mass violence—riots, uprisings, insurgencies; in Turkey, the argument for free expression is currently made on the basis of protecting the nation’s proud history and protecting the state from criticism.


From Turkey’s literary past, one much-loved folk tale might offer some illumination. Karagoz and Hacivad are traditional players in a shadow puppet theatre folk form made popular during the Ottoman Empire. The story goes that they were based on two real people, workers whose buffoonry and story-telling were amusing—so amusing and so distracting that they were eventually executed. In one version, Sheikh Kusteri, saddened by their deaths, creates puppets in their names. In another retelling, which I am fond of, Karagoz and Hacivad return after the executions. They search for their severed heads, reattach them and walk away, undaunted by the axe.







One response to “Speaking Volumes: The Istanbul Conundrum”

  1. Dr. Koshi Avatar

    This is typical of any country that wants to become a democracy. There are groups of people that are already liberal. Then others whose knees are locked in sinking sand and who are happy, the orthodoxy of the land. Finally there are those that do the hot potato dance. They jump like frogs from one lily plateau to the other, unable to think privately.
    Isnt America like this and India for that matter.
    This situation comes up when people are free-er so welcome, Turkey, you arent alone.

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