Let’s get some freedom fries
On Monday night, the French National Assembly did what it frequently does: issued a new ban. This time, the prohibition was not on the burqa, the headscarf or the cross. It was rather on an idea: the view that the tragedy that befell Ottoman Armenians in 1915 did not amount to “genocide.”
Accordingly, from now on, if you ever show up in France and dare to “deny the Armenian genocide,” you will spend a year in jail and pay a fine of 45,000 euros.
Most people here in Turkey are quite angry about this. I share a bit of that sentiment, too, but not because the French Parliament “insulted our nation” as many say. In my eyes, the French can certainly express whatever they think about history. But they don’t have the right to dictate official history and punish those who disagree. This is an appalling attack on freedom of speech.
But who are we Turks to complain about freedom of speech, right? Are we not punishing our own intellectuals for “insulting Turkishness”? Are we, at best, a mirror image of France that puts people in prison for not denying but confirming the genocide in question?
Well, not really. Yes, Turkey still has lots of authoritarian laws, but on this particular issue of the fate of Ottoman Armenians, freedom of speech has considerably expanded in this country in the past five years.
Change began in 2006 when a conference was organized at Istanbul’s Bilgi University in which, for the first time, the thesis of “genocide” was explicitly defended by liberal academics. Nationalists protested the conference, throwing tomatoes at participants, but then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül supported the meeting, giving it his official blessing.
In 2008, the government also amended the law that bans “insulting Turkishness,” which, at least in practice, blocked the zealous prosecutors who used to sue liberal intellectuals for their views on history, such as Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s only Nobel-winning novelist. Since then, no one has been tried in Turkey for calling the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Armenians, as I prefer to put it, genocide. (Since the beginning of the Ergenekon trial in 2007, no one has been assassinated by ultra-nationalist gangs, too.)
Moreover, the intellectual landscape has changed. Books of historians such as Vahakn Dadrian and Taner Akçam, who not only define 1915 as genocide but also refute the “Turkish thesis,” are translated into Turkish and published freely. In liberal-leaning papers such as Taraf, the “G-word” is used freely by most columnists. On TVs, too, you can hear such views and at least a growing acceptance that “something terrible” happened in these lands in 1915.
I am not saying that Turkey has become a beacon of freedom. We still have silly thought crimes generated by draconian anti-terror laws. (The Hrant Dink case has just become another icon in our hall of shame.) But, well, we really are freer than France when it comes to this particular issue of genocide. In Istanbul, you can say what you think. In Paris, you risk going to jail for that.
So, here is my suggestion to my fellow Turks:
Let France go down its own illiberal path; let us focus on expanding the liberty of our own. Let us, for example, organize more conferences and debates in Turkey in which the fate of Ottoman Armenians can be freely discussed by people from all views without any thought police.
If we want to boycott French products, let’s be lenient on Renault, Citroen and Danone. There are much worse French products that we have been unwisely buying for a century: assimilationism (instead of pluralism), statism (instead of limited government) and laïcité (instead of a liberal secularity). It is time to trash them.
Ultimately, unlike France, let us liberate minds from the dictates of power. Let’s make Turkey a country in which no one goes to jail for what he thinks. Unlike France, let us be free.