NEWS

The military itself lodged criminal charges against Perihan Magden

Why do you think the military authorities reacted to your article in such an extreme way? They have always been very touchy about this subject. But this was a disproportionate use of their power. And in the end, virtually all Turkey’s columnists wrote articles supporting me so it completely worked against them. We have had conscientious objectors for 20 or 30 years in Turkey but the Turkish media censor them. Generally, the Turkish media practice self-censorship because of business interests (if you get along with the government in Turkey you get good business deals) so newspapers don’t want to be controversial. But surely there have been other Turkish writers who have criticized the military before. About 13 years ago, the academic and legal expert Ibrahim Kaboglu (formerly president of the human rights committee of the prime minister’s office) wrote a book called «Human Rights Law» which included a chapter on conscientious objection. The book was republished in 2002. This is the only real explicit reference to the subject in recent years. There has been veiled criticism but I was the first since then to express it clearly. ‘Strong clique’ The army’s reaction probably also has a lot to do with timing. It probably wants to appear stricter in view of Turkey’s bid to join the EU. There is a strong clique in Turkey, comprising army officers, bureaucrats, Foreign Ministry diplomats, lawyers, that does not want us to be part of the EU because if we are we will be fully democratized and they will lose some of their power, which is dependent on the current status quo. So, every now and again they will play new games. The (ruling Justice and Development) AK Party is incompetent in the face of this clique. Do you believe Turkey’s new penal code (and particularly Article 301, which has been criticized as curbing freedom of speech) makes it easier for writers to be prosecuted? Yes. This was something of a mockery. They developed the new laws which were supposed to increase freedom of speech in line with EU standards. But these laws are so wordy and rambling that they leave the field open to a range of interpretations by prosecutors. Basically Turkish laws are like a minefield; you can be walking along and suddenly get blown away without any warning. Also, we have a big problem with our prosecutors; they always strive for the strictest interpretation. I was charged under Article 318 («discouraging people from performing military service») as the prosecutors thought it would a surer bet than Article 301 («insulting being a Turk, the Republic or the Turkish Grand National Assembly»). The thing is that we have the highest acquittal rate in the whole of Europe, so it seems that we are starting many unnecessary trials. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan served time in prison for reciting a poem. If even reciting someone else’s controversial viewpoints is liable to be condemned, where does one draw the line? Erdogan once quoted (18th century French author and philosopher) Voltaire and said that he would do anything to defend Turkish writers’ freedom of speech, but he has abandoned this stance. Now his agenda is limited to whether he will become president or not. Do you believe that many of your fellow writers in Turkey practice self-censorship due to fear of the consequences of their statements? Yes, or fear of losing their jobs. They would rather write about soccer or philosophize abstractly about life than talk about sensitive issues. But other writers discuss sensitive issues such as the Armenian (genocide) question, because we think about our country’s problems. So why are we always accused of offending Turkishness? We are also Turks. And why must we always defend our version of Turkishness? Why is «their» Turkishness any more real than ours? Intellectual threat? Several dozen Turkish writers face persecution after being charged under Article 301 (charges were recently dropped against the internationally renowned Orhan Pamuk). What message are Turkish authorities sending to the country’s intellectuals through such drastic measures? «Shut up and sit down!» They always want us to live under threat. First there was the threat of communism, then the Kurdish issue, then fundamentalism. And when there are no more threats, they will create new ones for us, like the «intellectual threat» now. On what other levels do writers and intellectuals face resistance in Turkey? Have you faced any resistance from the public? Funnily enough, no. I was confronted by a lynch mob when I went to court last week. But they were 20 or 30 fanatics. And they looked ridiculous, like actors. This is a small group of extremists, the usual suspects who make regular appearances at all these kinds of trials. When I’m walking down the street, though, I don’t get heckled. Divided society How do you believe the role of women has changed in Turkey in recent years and what is the outlook? Turkey is too confused and confusing a country to draw any concrete conclusions. I am from an upper-middle-class background; such women can have any freedom they want. But in southeast Turkey they still murder women, the so-called honor killings. Meanwhile, in the big cities we have the «Sex and the City» girl. It’s a completely divided society. So is it a class issue rather than a gender one? Definitely. If a woman had economic freedom in the southeast she could go off on her own. But most women cannot make a living and if you can’t make a living you can’t run away to save your life. Do you think Turkey’s accession to the EU could alleviate these problems in the southeast? Of course, EU membership would solve this problem as it will make us more economically viable. It would boost economic development and education. What is your stance on the ban on women wearing the Muslim headscarf in public places? I wrote many articles about the headscarf issue when I wrote for (daily newspaper) Radikal. I see it as a right. If women believe that wearing a headscarf will get them into heaven, as they do, then it’s their right to wear it. But I stopped defending the issue when the AK Party came to power. Now it’s their problem, not mine. I’m an atheist. ‘Funda-statist’ Why do you think there has been such a strong reaction from the secular establishment to women with headscarves? You have parties that are fundamental and then others that are what I call «funda-statist.» They are like vampires faced with bunches of garlic when they see women in scarves, as if these women’s presence threatens their very existence. Do you believe that it was a similar fear of a threat to the status quo that inspired such a reaction against your comments? My article was published in a magazine with a circulation of 40,000-50,000; only these readers would have seen my article if the army had not intervened. The army simply ensured that I got the broadest possible coverage, in Turkey and abroad. But do you think this was triggered by a fear that your comments would turn Turks against military service and thus undermine the army’s authority? There is a Turkish saying: «A Turk is born a soldier.» Turks are generally very militaristic. So what’s the big deal if a couple of kids become conscientious objectors? They know they would be damned by society so they are always going to be be a minority. The Turkish nation was founded by the army; Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a general. Even I get tears in my eyes if I see a military band playing, as it stirs memories of the foundation of the republic. We’ve been brainwashed in this way. We’re all militaristic, so we have to regulate this.