Twelve years ago, in 2006, a Turkish lawyer had to defend some fictional characters from the novel The Bastards of Istanbul and its writer—best-selling author Elif Shafak— at a trial for “insulting Turkishness.” Charges were brought against her under Article 301, which was open to misinterpretation and exploitation. The prosecutors used remarks made by some characters of that book as evidence: the novel refers to the massacre of the Armenians in the First World War as genocide. Soon, Shafak was acquitted of the charges at the prosecutor's request, but apparently, it was not a victory for freedom of speech.
Within one year of its introduction, more than 60 writers have been charged under the same law in Turkey. Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk was one of them, who in an interview with a Swiss magazine stated about the genocide, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”
This year, Elif Shafak, just one week before being longlisted for the Booker Prize, wrote an article for The Guardian entitled “Police officers demanded to see my books” to speak about “Turkey's war on free-speech.” Her latest book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which is in the Booker longlist, has been a target of hatred on social media. The book, like her other novel The Gaze, explores subjects as “sexual harassment, gender violence and child abuse,” which are unpleasant topics to the conservatives, says Elif Shafak.
The hysteric response from the social media that she has been getting is part of what she says is the “digital lynching of Turkish authors.” “No country is immune to the rise of populist nationalism. As liberal democratic values continue to be endangered, we storytellers are now facing unexpected challenges,” she says in her article. This also holds true for the freedom of the press. In the latest 2019 World Press Freedom Index run by Reporters Without Borders, economic and military superpowers like Russia, China, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia got a really low ranking. Though the world's most powerful country the United States holds the 48th position, it is criticized for promoting fake-news and a false sense of patriotism, even on social media that results in dumbing down of the political and moral discourses. It is little wonder why politicians and analysts claim that Donald Trump is like autocratic Erdogan and Putin.
In the article, Shafak examines how since the failed military coup against Erdogan, his government declared a kind of war against intellectualism and freedom of expression: “29 publishing houses have been closed by decree, and 135,000 books have been banned from public libraries, including those by Louis Althusser and Nâzim Hikmet, Turkey’s greatest poet.”
According to a news published in The Guardian, after her acquittal from the charges in 2006, Shafak said, “I'm happy for myself but for my country there has to be a more structural change, both in the legal system and in society as a whole. Then we can celebrate."
The present state of her country tells us why she was skeptical at that moment.
Hironmoy Golder is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.