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A modern mockery

Ankara's outdated laws to protect `Turkishness' only bar free speech and hold the nation up to ridicule.

March 09, 2007

GEORGE WASHINGTON and Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, had much in common. Both men led successful wars of independence; both fought ferociously against the British; both became the first president and "father" of their respective countries, and both proved to be uncommonly forward-looking statesmen who made sure their new republics were secular democracies.

And yet the national cultures that the two men helped to create are vastly different, which explains partly (if glibly) why the United States produced YouTube while Turkey is producing ridiculous justifications for banning it.

Though Washington's name graces the nation's capital and currency, it is also used for such crass purposes as selling used cars and mattresses. Ataturk, on the other hand, who died in 1938, remains the object of a cult of personality, one in which merely insulting his memory is grounds for imprisonment. That's why the file-sharing company YouTube was banned from Turkey this week after it hosted a sophomoric video titled "Kemal Gay Turk."

Playground stuff, to be sure. But against the law? The United States has learned through trial and error (and with the guidance of a remarkable Constitution) that allowing citizens to insult their leaders is an acceptable price to pay for a culture of free inquiry that holds no president, current or dead, above scrutiny. This allows Americans to learn from the mistakes of even their greatest presidents -- Washington owned slaves, for example -- while constantly questioning assumptions about how the country should be governed.

Turkey denies itself this opportunity, hobbling the very process that Ataturk so forcefully set in motion. Besides cordoning off inquiry into the country's founder -- who, like most revolutionaries, was a man of considerable flaws -- Ankara's illiberal speech laws notoriously prohibit the "denigration" of "Turkishness," a concept so vague and broad as to be meaningless.

Such laws are a barrier to Turkey's bid to join the European Union, which would be good for both Turks and Europeans. The good news is that more and more Turks are beginning to realize the injustice (and futility) of such laws, especially in the wake of the slaying in January of Armenian-Turk journalist Hrant Dink, who had been prosecuted for denigrating Turkishness.

Playground battles belong in the playground. Young Turks have responded to the offensive speech in question by launching a volley of crude YouTube videos of their own, mostly aimed at Greeks. But the underlying issue is dead serious: Turkey can, and needs to, fulfill Ataturk's goal of modernization by allowing him to be mocked.

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