Friday, February 1, 2008

Professor Yayla and Turkey's Modern Project

Still distacted by the snow, it is time to post about Mohamed Yayla's conviction this past Monday. Yayla was sentenced to three months in jail, although his sentence was suspended for two years under the conditions that he not commit the same offense during this probationary period. Professor of political science at Gazi University and head of the Association for Liberal Thinking, Yayla was charged under a 1951 statute that made it illegal to insult Atatürk. The charge followed a speech he gave in İzmir in 2006.

The speech was given at an AKP-sponsored youth conference and included remarks about the period following Turkey's full transition to a multi-party system in 1950 being more democratic than its formative years as a one-party state. Yayla continues to maintain that he was not insulting Atatürk, but questioning the idea that Atatürk's reforms were as purely progressive as some Kemalists maintain. He also questioned Atatürk's legacy as it has been applied by Kemalists following his death. Yayla is appealing the court's finding.

In an interview with the New York Times, prosecutor Huseyin Durdu was quoted as saying Yayla's speech “had no basis in science.” As Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise noted in her article, this is a particularly difficult claim in that Yayla's speech was so academic that the only specific "insult" the prosecutor could find was Yayla's one-time reference to Atatürk as "this man." Largely respected for his amazing feat in building a Turkish state following the chaos of World War I and European imperial designs for carving up Turkish territory, Atatürk's tremendous role in history should not be denied. However, it seems particularly difficult to claim that Yayla was insulting this heritage by simply questioning that the first year's of the Turkish Republic were not completely progressive. No state has ever been completely progressive and to further claim that Yayla's remarks were not based in science when his speech drew careful attention to Enlightenment thinking is more than a bit odd.

A similar conclusion was reached by Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Committee Co-chairman Dutch Green deputy Joost Lagendijk who was quoted in Wednesday's Today's Zaman: "What he said is a part of the debate in Turkey. Confusing his arguments with insulting Atatürk is completely wrong. He insulted no one. I hope he will be acquitted in the upper echelons of the judicial procedures."

Although a proposal has been submitted to amend Article 301 (see Saturday's post), the changes are unlikely to prevent similar prosecutions. There are plenty of statutes in and outside of the Turkish penal code that allow for such prosecutions and Yayla's case is a demonstration of just how they can be put to use against people with whom prosecutors disagree. If Turkey sincerely desires to gain entry into the European Union, criticisms such as Lagendijk's should be taken seriously. As the article quoting Lagendijk observes, EU diplomats are at a loss as to why AKP was not more aggressive with the proposal. With a huge electoral mandate, this level of disbelief is likely to continue to draw criticism of the party. While I do not yet feel knowledgeable enough about Turkey's internal political situation to comment as to what AKP should have done, if it is truly the case that little more could be done to press the establishment on lifting the article, it is a sad situation for Turkey indeed. However, this said, a vote to amend Turkey's penal code needs only a simple majority in Parliament and unless there is a serious risk of de-stabilizing the country, it seems have been completely appropriate for AKP to draft a more progressive amendment.

As Yayla's presecution attests, Turkey's lack of a serious political dialogue about its own past, present, and future will continue to haunt the country. To me, what seems most admirable about Atatürk was his ability to take risks and reign in a modern age against all odds. It is this sort of progressivism to which laws designed to protect free speech are instrumental in designing. One of the lasting legacies of the Englightenment is a free marketplace of ideas into which women and men can enter into meaningful and sustained dialogue with one another in hope that in so doing a greater truth might be produced. I think the most telling statement from this whole event comes from Yayla's declaration in the New York Times: "I need thoughts to counter my ideas." This sort of willingness to be challenged is the very basis of the modern project.

Sadly, Yayla is one of the lucky ones. As he told The Guardian, "I'm protected in some way because I'm more well known and recognised in Turkey and have international friends who will put pressure on the government. For those not known it is really difficult to speak out." One of the things that the number of freedom of expression cases wrought by statistics carefully composed by human rights groups will notably never tell us is how many people are quelled into silence by these laws. This chilling effect is likely profound and something the EU rightly took note of in its November progress report.

To close today's post, I would like to direct readers to a column Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote in last Saturday's Turkish Daily News about the dangers in squelching discussion of Atatürk.

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