A prize-winning Turkish novelist is scheduled to stand trial September 21 on charges of belittling Turkishness. The case is the latest in a string of prosecutions pitting liberals against nationalists in this European Union candidate country.
Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul has topped Turkish bestseller lists since it was published in March, winning critical praise for its portrait of the friendship between two girls, an Armenian-American and a Turk. But the work's direct treatment of the mass murder of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 has also attracted the attention of Kemal Kerincsiz, the nationalist lawyer whose rise to prominence as an opponent of free speech has paralleled Turkey's EU accession process. Kerincsiz has figured prominently in a number of high-profile free speech cases, including the prosecution last December of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's best-known author. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Shafak's case, Kerincsiz's gripe is not with something she said, but with comments made by characters in her book. Sitting in his cramped central Istanbul law office, the soft-spoken Kerincsiz doesn't take long to find one of the passages that offended him.
"I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915," he reads, quoting Dikran Stamboulian, a minor Armenian character. "There's plenty more where this came from," he adds. Turkey and Armenia have long disputed the tragic events of 1915, when over one million Armenians perished amid the upheaval of World War I. Armenians insist that the actions of Ottoman Turkish forces constituted genocide. Turkish leaders steadfastly deny this. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Shafak is being prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. Facing a possible sentence of three years if convicted, she is fully aware of the seriousness of her situation. "Until recently, I took comfort in the fact that nobody had ever been convicted under [Article] 301," she said. "Then, in June, a higher court confirmed [the Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink's six-month suspended sentence. That's terrible news for him, and it could constitute a precedent for me."
Shafak gave birth to her first child on September 16 and has yet to decide whether to attend her trial. "She wants to be there to defend herself against these ridiculous charges," her husband, Eyup Can, said on the phone from the Istanbul hospital where his wife is recovering from a caesarean section. "The doctors are opposed, and so am I, to be honest."
He hasn't forgotten the scenes outside the Istanbul courthouse where Orhan Pamuk was tried last December. Nationalists smashed the novelist's car windshield and attacked his supporters as the police looked on.
A similar welcome could be in store for Shafak. For weeks, a website belonging to Kerincsiz's nationalist group has called on "patriots" to turn out in opposition to the "newly-chosen princess of capitulationist intellectuals."
"I oppose all violence," Kerincsiz said, "but if you call somebody's grandfather a butcher, there is no telling what reactions will be."
"It's an invitation to a lynching," ripostes newspaper editor Ismet Berkan, another victim of the nationalist lawyer's attention. "Let's hope the police are prepared."
If the language in the debate over Shafak's novel is violent, it's ultimately because this trial is symbolic of a much deeper struggle going on in Turkey. For nationalists like Kemal Kerincsiz, the clash of civilizations is real, and Turkey, a Muslim country, belongs with the East. What the European Union is trying to do, he claims, is "strip away our Muslim and Turkish identity."
Those like Shafak who support Turkey's integration into Western economic and security structures, Kerincsiz says derisively, are "world citizens, half-Turks."
Though intended as an insult, Kerincsiz's comment doesn't seem to offend the Strasbourg-born Shafak, who has spent much of her life outside Turkey. Both in her life and her work, she is an enemy of easy categorizations. "My ideal is cosmopolitanism, refusing to belong to either side in this polarized world," she says in her perfect English. This attitude helped prompt her to agree to serve as a columnist for a religious newspaper, a move that generated considerable criticism.
"Too many people see the world in black and white, us and them. That's wrong. Ambiguity, synthesis: these are the things that compose Turkish society, and that is not something to be ashamed of," Shafak said.
It remains to be seen which side will win the debate. Few take Kerincsiz's claim as the voice of the Turkish people seriously even the country's ultra-nationalist political party has been put off by the violent actions of his supporters.
But nationalism has traditionally proven a powerful force in Turkish politics. And a growing sense among Turks that Brussels is just playing with Ankara over the accession issue has played into the hands of people like Kerincsiz.
"Turkey has been changing rapidly over the past five years, but it hasn't yet reached the point of no return," says political analyst Umut Ozkirimli. "These are critical times."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.