Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 5, 2006

Orhan Pamuk

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,repression — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 5, 2006

Many thanks to Gilles d’Aymery for calling my attention to the exceptionally well-written and interesting article (“Orhan Pamuk: A Novelist Where The Currents Cross”) by Peter Byrne in the latest Swans on Turkey’s most famous novelist and his arrest last year. It seems that defending Kurdish rights and for calling attention to the genocidal attack on the Armenians during WWI is a crime in Turkey.

When I was in Istanbul in December, I watched reports on the trial every night. I was a bit shocked to see the degree of open violence on display by the unruly nationalist crowds at the courthouse. Byrne refers to these incidents in biting prose:

A lawyer had punched the pink face of an elderly man who accompanied the accused. The same man, leaving the court, was kicked by an excited spectator who had been shouting “traitor.” The presumed criminal was then set upon by a woman who struck him with a rolled-up folder. The crowd surged as he stumbled toward a waiting car. But the police stood back. Some of their number in plainclothes were busy inciting the crowd. A banner called the accused “a missionary child,” an insult meaning foreign-bred, impure Turk. Shouts came of “Get out of Turkey.” Stones were thrown. Eggs splattered the car windows as it pulled away.

Just today, Turkish newspapers and the NY Times reported the arrest of Noam Chomsky’s Turkish publishers for the same charge:

NY Times, July 5, 2006

Turkey: Publisher Faces Prosecution

by Sebnem Arsu

A publisher who printed a book by the linguist Noam Chomsky was indicted on a charge of “insulting the Turkish identity,” which can carry up to six years in jail. The book, “Manufacturing Consent,” was written by Mr. Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in the 1980’s, but the indictment focused on a 2001 edition’s introduction that analyzed coverage of the Kurdish conflict.

This is not the first time that Turkish publishers have faced such a charge. In 2002, a publisher named Fatih Tas was acquitted by a court of promoting disunity after making Chomsky’s “American Interventionism” available in a Turkish language edition. The book was critical of Turkey’s efforts to suppress the Kurdish minority, and Washington’s role in backing the Turkish Government.

Despite Pamuk’s willingness to stand up to Turkish chauvinism, I found evidence that at least one educated and radical-minded Turk remained critical of him. In Izmir, a literature major at the local college who was a friend of the family, told me that he had little use for Pamuk, who he regarded as a postmodernist tool of the West.

My own exposure to Pamuk is somewhat limited. I tried to read his highly regarded (at least in the NY Times Book Review section) “My Name is Red” but found it unreadable. It is a historical novel with all the preciousness that you find in Tariq Ali’s well-intentioned but leaden historical novels, but with the added annoyance of postmodernist cleverness. On the other hand, I have his nonfiction “Istanbul: Memories and the City” at home and have skimmed through its pages. From what I have seen, it is difficult to imagine another work that captures Istanbul’s complex mixture of West and East. It is also utterly devoid of the kind of pretension that put me off in “My Name is Red.”

Although Pamuk tends to steer clear of making pronouncements on political issues not directly related to Turkish society, he did speak out on the looming war in Iraq in 2003. Whatever concessions this author has made to Western taste, he certainly shows no interest here in placating Washington or London’s war-makers:

The Guardian (London), March 14, 2003

Inside story: ‘I feel despair’: Turkey’s MPs surprised the world by voting ‘no’ to US troops being based in the country. Now it seems their new prime minister will overturn this – with the army’s help. Acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk fears that once again his country will become a military dictatorship

by Orhan Pamuk

Before Turkey’s new prime minister Tayyip Erdoan won a landslide victory in the elections last November, he was constantly maligned and abused by most of the Turkish media. They said that the naive Turkish people should be aware of Erdoan’s pro-Islamist past before voting for him. Nevertheless, those like me, who were afraid Erdoan’s election would pave the way for a military coup, said that his new pro-western and pro-European Union “liberal” stance should be taken at its face value. But the establishment press accused Erdoan of being a fundamentalist in disguise who would strike a blow at secularism in Turkey once in power.

In Istanbul now, the joke is that we were mistaken and Erdoan was indeed hiding his true colours. What he was hiding, however, was not Islamic fundamentalism but commitment to American military interests. First, he made it clear that he was displeased with parliament’s rejection of US demands for a northern front against Iraq. This “no” to war reflected the fury of the Turkish people, 90% of whom are opposed to the war. I was amazed and delighted by this decision, which should make the Turkish parliament proud. Even the pro-state and pro-army Turkish press briefly paid it lip service, since everyone’s national sensibilities were hurt by the coverage of Turkey in the western media as a country that would engage in a war it did not believe in for the sake of American dollars. In particular, a cartoon in which Turkey was depicted as a belly dancer writhing in front of Uncle Sam in order to get more money broke many hearts in the country. The reaction to the cartoon was so exaggerated in the Turkish press, which is as highly sensitive to any coverage in the western media as the Turkish public, that I expected the Turkish Society of Belly Dancers to protest that belly dancing was not as dishonourable as portrayed.

Since the image of the nation as a carpet- dealer upset everyone, Erdoan produced a new trump card that would force Turkey into cooperation with Bush and convince the public: Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq and, God forbid, demands for an independent state. Since some nationalist male Turkish politicians consider bombing poor Kurds far more honourable than belly dancing, it may be that this new argument will carry more weight. Already many columnists are hinting at the possibility of “undesirable developments” in northern Iraq in an attempt to influence the public and bewildered members of parliament. The idea of a Kurdish state is such a fearsome prospect in Turkey, such an unmentionable taboo, that it can only be spoken of as “undesirable developments”.

Erdoan’s party asked the army to make an announcement in favour of war to influence the parliamentary decision before the rejection of the proposal, but the army did not wish to grasp this thorny issue before parliament. When parliament, too, evaded the thorny issue, the job fell on Erdoan and the Turkish press, which had called on the army for help. The majority of the Turkish press have no qualms about carrying on war propaganda, despite the anti-war fury of the people, because most of their financial clout comes not from newspaper sales but from bribes received from the state by various subterfuges. Many nationalist Turkish columnists, whose heart was broken by the representation in the west of Turkey as a nation fighting for money, are now busily engaged in war propaganda for their own bread and butter.

The truth that emerges from all this irony and comedy is this: the Bush government’s relentless desire to launch a war against Saddam has nothing to do with establishing democracy in the Middle East. On the contrary, American military ambitions are curtailing democracy in Turkey and leading to more army intervention in politics. After the government and the press, the task now is to intimidate members of parliament to obtain a reversal of its decision.

The world should know about the damage that has been done to Turkish democracy by the Bush government, which, has bypassed the sentiments of the Turkish people, preferring to cooperate with the army. Already, parliament’s “no” to war has been dismissed and the massing of American troops in Turkish harbours is continuing as if nothing had happened. In response to this scandalous disrespect for the parliament, its president bravely declared that it made his hair stand on end, while his fellow party member, prime minister Erdoan, seemed quite undisturbed. The justified complaint that there is not enough democracy in Turkey, which we have become accustomed to hearing from the US for years has, thanks to the Bush government, been transformed into a grumble that there is too much democracy in Turkey.

Unlike some, I am not opposed to this war because I am opposed to globalisation. I believe that globalisation can be beneficial, opening the way for the free circulation of capital, goods, ideas, and even people, and weaken local nationalistic states and dictatorships. But the Bush government’s idea of globalisation is not freedom of goods and thoughts but the unconditional freedom of the American army to bomb what it likes, when it likes. For this purpose, it has shown itself prepared to undermine local democracies and spurn parliamentary decisions.

This approach, which attaches little importance to the UN, makes no attempt to understand the reluctance and indecision of its allies, and is intent on having the cooperation of local national armies at any cost for the sake of its own military victory, is not much different from that of Saddam, who recognises nothing but his own will.

Like the leaders of many other countries, the Turkish prime minister is trapped between the pressures of the Bush government and the indignation of the people. What distinguishes Erdoan from Tony Blair is not only that he has spent and enjoyed most of his political life in an anti-western and anti-American culture and discourse. With a debt burden of Dollars 80bn to international western lenders, Turkey could be plunged overnight into an economic crisis similar to that of Argentina if deprived of IMF support. Unfortunately, Germany and France, who took a stand against Bush’s policies, did not come out in support of the Turkish parliament’s “no” vote. More importantly, in the years when Blair was making the most of the joys of being prime minister, Erdoan was counting the days in prison, where he had been thrown under pressure from the state and army, for reciting an Islamist poem. Now his cooperation with the same state and army for a war that people hate and are protesting against may have tragic consequences for him.

Another consequence of the aggressive policies of the Bush government is, sadly, to see that in many countries like Turkey now the art of politics, whether leftwing or political Islamist, has been reduced to the skill of winning the popular vote and combining it with American military interests. Finding himself in such a predicament, Erdoan is telling courageous journalists, who remind him of his former words, that he “was not then in power”. If we are to believe this pretext, which pro-state columnists find convincing, we must draw the pitiable conclusion that the words of a Turkish politician are not to be trusted if he is not in power. If he is in power, America can trust him.

If Erdoan compels the Turkish parliament to change its decision to say no to the war and enter it with the US, he will lose the trust of the people which he earned so patiently over the years by his diligence, talent, outspoken honesty and time spent in prison.

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