Friday, December 16, 2005


Bestselling Turkish author Orhan Pamuk faces prosecution for "denigrating the Turkish national identity." His offense was to have recognized, in an interview with a Swiss magazine, that the Armenian genocide actually happened, something the Turkish government still denies.

I've been hugely interested in Turkish history and culture since I visited in 2000. It was that trip that inspired me to go back to school to study Islam and the Middle East. The history of the Turkish republic itself is a fascinating and often inspiring story of the radical transformation of a society, and continues to be very instructive on the tensions and conflicts of democratic republicanism in an Islamic society. It should go without saying, however, that prosecutions for "offending the national identity" have no place in a liberal democracy, especially when the offense involves simply not being willing to maintain a national fiction.

Pamuk comments on his prosecution in last week's New Yorker.
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. In recent years, we have witnessed the astounding economic rise of India and China, and in both these countries we have also seen the rapid expansion of the middle class, though I do not think we shall truly understand the people who have been part of this transformation until we have seen their private lives reflected in novels. Whatever you call these new élites—the non-Western bourgeoisie or the enriched bureaucracy—they, like the Westernizing élites in my own country, feel compelled to follow two separate and seemingly incompatible lines of action in order to legitimatize their newly acquired wealth and power. First, they must justify the rapid rise in their fortunes by assuming the idiom and the attitudes of the West; having created a demand for such knowledge, they then take it upon themselves to tutor their countrymen. When the people berate them for ignoring tradition, they respond by brandishing a virulent and intolerant nationalism. The disputes that a Flaubert-like outside observer might call bizarreries may simply be the clashes between these political and economic programs and the cultural aspirations they engender. 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.


As tomorrow’s novelists prepare to narrate the private lives of the new élites, they are no doubt expecting the West to criticize the limits that their states place on freedom of expression. But these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret C.I.A. prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world.

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