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A dilemma

HDN | 4/7/2011 12:00:00 AM | ANDREW FINKEL

This piece was not published by Today's Zaman and led to its writer's release.

It was a bit over three years ago that I was recruited to write this column for this newspaper (Today’s Zaman). I remember the conversation well. The editor-in-chief anticipated that I might be hesitant to associate myself with a press group whose prejudices and principles might not always coincide with my own. He explained what I knew already, that the Zaman Group supported and was supported by the Fetullah Gülen Community and that I would have to take that on board. However, he explained the paper's mission was to fight for the democratization of Turkish society – that Turkey was no longer a country which should be ruled by military fiat. He also impressed upon me that he was committed to liberal values and to free discussion. And then, of course, he flattered me by saying that mine was a voice which the target audience of Today’s Zaman would want to hear. What helped me to make up my mind was the presence of columnists whose reputations I respected and whose standard of integrity had got them into trouble in other “corners” of the Turkish media.

In my very first column I explained that I saw the paper not as simply trying to explain Turkey to an English-speaking audience. Having to communicate to a wider audience or an audience to which you were not used to addressing, forcing yourself to engage in dialogue, was also a necessary way of re-assessing your own beliefs. If I can be forgiven the hubris of quoting from myself, what I wrote in that first edition was: “Turkey is a nation which has declared itself engaged in a process of reform. It is redefining many of its values. It is re-examining [the] cherished notion of sovereignty as it negotiates with Brussels. It is rethinking international priorities as it eyes troubles in the Middle East. It is looking harder at the received wisdom about its history and traditions. At the ballot box, in the work place or in meetings with teachers after school, it is redefining the individual’s relationship to the community and the state. This is not a time for ‘us’ and ‘them’, for one set of truths for home and one set for abroad.”

I make no apology for confessing that I feel this paper does not always succeed in those lofty objectives. It would be foolish to expect otherwise. Who is not guilty of sometimes engaging in denial or disengaging from dialogue to protect our core beliefs? And being surrounded by so many wrongs can make you feel right.

I have already expressed my concern that the fight against anti-democratic forces in Turkey has resorted to self-defeating anti-democratic methods. This in turn has led to a polarization in Turkey. If your side loses power then the natural fear is that they will use your methods against you. In case this sounds like I am speaking in riddles, I am referring to the aggressive prosecution of people who write books. These may be bad books, they may be books which are written with ulterior motives, they may be books which contain assertions which are not true. But at the end of the day, they are books – and there are libel courts – not criminal courts – designed to protect individuals from malicious falsehood. In short, writing a book offensive to the Gülen community is not a crime.

It may be in bad taste, it might be off beam. It might every bit as nonsensical as the conspiracy theories that fill the shelves of Turkish book stores. But it might not. And until we actually read it we cannot know. More to the point, we can only question the motives of those who don’t want us to read it. It blackens the names of the censors, increases the credibility of a book which no one has even read. It’s also extremely foolish because in an age of Internet, you can’t actually stop people from whispering your backs. The point about the ostrich with its head in the sand is that it only fools itself.

However, I write this in the interests of defending the good name of this newspaper, with whom I have been associated since the first copy appeared on the stands. Having started the dialogue, it cannot stop.

* Andrew Finkel was a columnist for daily Today’s Zaman but was released by the newspaper because of this article, which was not published by the editorial board. The writer himself provided the Daily News with the piece, which also appeared in daily Milliyet.

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