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Muslim Mob Torches Hotel, Killing 35 : Turkey: The target is the translator of Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses.' He escapes by firefighters' ladder.

July 03, 1993|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey — An angry Muslim mob burned down a hotel in eastern Turkey on Friday, killing 35 people and forcing the target of its protest, the Turkish translator of Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses," to flee by a fire department ladder.

Aziz Nesin, 78, was in the conservative eastern city of Sivas with other intellectuals for a symposium to commemorate the hanging of a 16th-Century Ottoman poet who wrote against repression. But after one of his anti-Islamic speeches to the congress was published, Turkey's aging literary enfant terrible found himself the object of an unprecedented onslaught.

Hundreds of people streamed out of mosques and into the city's main square, stoning government buildings and police barricades. Swelling in numbers as the day went on, they waved fists and shouted Islamic slogans in the style seen during Iran's Islamic Revolution.

Police gunfire failed to deter the mob from attacking and then setting fire to the hotel where Nesin had taken refuge. Crowds around the hotel also prevented the fire department from controlling the blaze. After his escape from the hotel to a police car, Nesin was treated for light injuries and escorted out of the province. But at least 35 people were killed and 60 injured, four of them seriously, government spokesman Yildirim Aktuna said.

Nesin's publication of extracts from "The Satanic Verses" in the left-wing newspaper Aydinlik in May brought fundamentalist attacks on Aydinlik's offices and death threats from Iran similar to those made against the book's author, Indian-born British writer Rushdie. The book, condemned by Muslims as blasphemous to their faith, is banned in Turkey.

In a statement from his guarded home in London, Rushdie condemned the Sivas violence as a "terrorist atrocity." But Rushdie distanced himself from Nesin. He said Nesin's translation of the novel was against his wishes and a "piratical act . . . a manipulative act."

After the riot, Sivas was tense as army reinforcements began patrolling and a two-day curfew was slapped on the town. The Cabinet met in emergency session after an appeal for calm by the new and largely untried Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.

The hint of an unexpected upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey could hardly have come at a worse time for Ciller, chosen to be the country's first woman leader two weeks ago. Disappointed rivals for the leadership of her conservative True Path Party are nipping at her heels, opposition is strong to reforms in her government program due to be voted on by Parliament on Monday, and the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey has taken a bloody turn for the worse.

Diplomats often play down fears of Islamic radicalism in Turkey, whose Muslim population is mostly pragmatic and has embraced a secular republic since the 1920s. The main Islamist party receives only about 14% of the vote.

Occasional, set-piece U.S.-flag burnings by small fundamentalist crowds outside mosques are usually seen as a marginal phenomenon, and a rise in the number of city women wearing Muslim head scarves is explained by heavy recent immigration from conservative villages.

Hakan Avci, a local reporter who witnessed the demonstration in Sivas, said the protesters were motivated by religious anger, not by any fundamentalist political agenda.

"It was a purely religious protest. People were very angry that the man who translated 'The Satanic Verses' was in the town," Avci said by telephone.

But the Sivas outrage came just two days after an arson attack in another hotel in the eastern city of Van, in which 11 people died. The dead included two Russian women believed to be prostitutes, whom Islamic fundamentalists had been threatening to attack.

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