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Turkish writers watch their backs

After an editor's killing, a nationalist resurgence has chilled literary life.

March 01, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — At a recent dinner party on the shores of the Bosporus, the bookish chatter among the Turkish writers and academics present took a sudden grim turn: Are you under police protection yet?

"We were all comparing notes about which of us had only one bodyguard and which of us had two, and we joked a little about being in competition with each other over this," said journalist and novelist Perihan Magden, who was among those placed under police protection after threats by ultranationalists. "It was comical, but also very tragic."

In the wake of the January assassination in Istanbul of prominent ethnic Armenian editor Hrant Dink, Turkey's intellectual community is feeling under siege to a degree not experienced in decades.

A mass outpouring of dismay and revulsion when Dink was gunned down, illustrated by a funeral that drew tens of thousands of mourners, has given way to a powerful right-wing backlash. Shadowy nationalist groups have issued chilling threats against authors and thinkers who, like Dink, speak out against Turkey's official denial that the mass killings of Armenians beginning in 1915 constituted genocide, or on the power of the Turkish military, or the status of minority Kurds.

As a result, novelists are canceling book tours, once-outspoken professors are maintaining a low profile, and crusading columnists like Magden wonder whether their words will wind up costing them their lives.

The man who temporarily stepped in for Dink has been afraid to put his name on the masthead of Agos, the bilingual Armenian Turkish newspaper his slain colleague edited.

"It's a real climate of fear," said Eugene Schoulgin, a board member of the writers group PEN, which together with other international organizations has been lobbying for repeal of Article 301, a provision in the Turkish penal code that makes it a criminal offense to "denigrate Turkishness."

Many intellectuals had hoped that the brazen daylight shooting of Dink, who received a suspended sentence of six months in jail in 2005 over his views on the slayings of Armenians, would prove a catalyst for abolishing Article 301. Turkey's curbs on freedom of expression are seen as a significant obstacle as the government seeks to advance the country's bid for membership in the European Union.

But amid the increasingly polarized atmosphere, many observers have grown more pessimistic than ever about prospects for reform. And in this election year, Turkish political parties, even mainstream ones, are reluctant to alienate voters with nationalist leanings, who make up a substantial chunk of the electorate.

Analysts point to Turkey's historical tendency to dig in its heels in the face of reform pressures from the outside world. They argue that the outcry over Article 301 is not only hardening domestic resistance but may even be adding to an already profound ambivalence over forging closer bonds with the West.

"Sometimes international groups create a reaction in Turkey, an overreaction, because the language they use is not always constructive," said Onur Oymen, an opposition politician and former Turkish ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Critics should be careful not to produce the opposite reaction to that sought."

Police officials have not disclosed how many dissident public figures have been placed under protection since Dink's killing, but estimates range into the dozens, including acclaimed fiction writer Elif Shafak, who was taken to court last year under Article 301. Her case, like most of the scores of similar prosecutions, ended with the charges being dropped.

Shafak, who was a close friend of Dink, has sharply curtailed appearances to promote her new novel, "The Bastard of Istanbul," a family saga whose complex plot line hinges on the Armenian killings. Now under police protection, she wrote in an e-mail that she remained "in mourning" and declined to be interviewed.

Shafak's husband, Eyup Can, told the Hurriyet newspaper about the couple being shadowed by a police guard whenever they ventured out. "He is inside your life," he said.

Shafak was so distraught after Dink's slaying, he said, that she was unable to breastfeed their baby.

"This is the situation of writers in this country today," he said. "It is really bad."

Orhan Pamuk, the winner of last year's Nobel Prize in literature and another writer to run afoul of Article 301, stood outside Dink's office hours after the Jan. 19 assassination and publicly declared that the editor "was killed because of his ideas, ideas that aren't acceptable to the state."

Pamuk, who has long been vilified on nationalist websites, was subsequently singled out for a seeming threat by Yasin Hayal, who police say has confessed to helping orchestrate the Dink killing, including recruiting the 17-year-old alleged gunman, Ogun Samast.

"Orhan Pamuk, better be wise!" Hayal called out as he was being taken into an Istanbul court in January. "Be wise."

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