October 2006

War of the words

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

From what’s been going on in this little world of ours, you’d think it was possible to change reality by changing a few words.

Don’t agree with Bush supporters? That’s OK — call them “idiots” and go back to feeling superior. Think Bush’s detractors are unpatriotic? Just label them “traitors” and go back to feeling superior. Bush himself is at war with “terror,” apparently never having learned you can’t send an army against an emotion. And folks who don’t approve of France’s politics simply order up a side of freedom fries.

Worse than such name games is when laws, and, sometimes, entire societies, are pitted against ideas, words and their authors.

Consider the September trial of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. The charge? “Insulting Turkishness.” The crime? Writing a novel, “The Bastard of Istanbul,” which features Armenian characters who happen to believe — contrary to the official Turkish government stance — that Turkey perpetrated genocide against their people during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

“I think my case is very bizarre because for the first time, they are trying fictional characters,” Shafak told the Associated Press Sept. 9, a few weeks before she was acquitted of the (ludicrous) charge. The acquittal, while a relief, is insufficient to overcome the situation’s sheer creepiness.

“Turkishness” is a concept. It is not possible to victimize a concept. This woman faced three years in a Turkish prison. For words.

When asked how trying Shafak might harm Turkey’s prospects with the European Union, a persecutor — er, prosecutor — complained about a lack of respect for Turkish culture. “The Easterner has to insult and degrade his own culture to ingratiate himself with the West,” Kemal Kerincsiz whined.

On a general level, he had a point. But there are a few things he could do with hearing. To begin with, paranoid Western nationalists have already overplayed the “our values are under attack” card. Accordingly, we’re very aware of both that tactic and its weakness. So very sorry, Kemal, but you’re going to have to find your own shtick with which to beat fury into the Turkish masses. Further, this sort of manipulation — the idea that Shafak is not a mere novelist but a “traitor” to Turkish ideals — is the tool of cowards and the meat of the weak-minded. Was Turkish pride really at such a low ebb that a single novel stood poised to undo it completely? This isn’t pride. It is fear. As Shafak said, “(The law) has been used as a weapon. …Things are changing. The bigger the transformation, the bigger their panic.” And she was the canary in the mine.

One of many canaries, it turns out. More than one person has reaped the whirlwind after challenging an establishment — whether through inadvertent dunderheadedness, as Pope Benedict did in September, or gutsy confrontation, as Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh did before paying with his life in 2004. (Van Gogh produced the TV documentary “Submission,” which portrayed the oppression experienced by some Muslim women. Former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains under threat of death for her role in the film’s creation).

As for Benedict, he quoted a centuries- old conversation between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian scholar, in which said emperor had opined, with a few choice words, that Muhammad hadn’t brought anything new to the table except a mandate to convert people at sword point. The emperor of course was wrong; there was nothing new or uniquely Muslim about that mandate. Benedict was probably unwise to mention it—but the extremists who exploited the remark hardly put it in the same context as Benedict had used it. Nor does the quotation place Benedict “in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini.” And it’s hard to stomach such a statement when it comes from the mouth of — brace yourself — a Turkish official. This growing phenomenon of hysterical overreaction isn’t just “Islamic” fascism.

This is — and must be seen as — intellectual fascism that is widespread. Can we forget that Austria, a country that most assuredly should know better, convicted British scholar David Irving for denying the Holocaust? Only the desperate and benighted would ascribe to Irving’s ideas, but that’s all they were: Crazy ideas. You don’t argue with a fool, Austria. And you don’t martyr a lunatic.

It’s equally hard to forget those Dutch Muhammad cartoons that touched off a firestorm of anti- Western sentiment. In this case, extremists exploited raw emotions to a deadly degree. In some instances, though, they also inadvertently revealed the foolishness of their tactics, as when Iran decreed the “Danish” would be known as the “rose of the Prophet Muhammad pastry.” Iran has also since renamed pizza “elastic loaves.”

What Iran has not done is explained what this sort of absurdity accomplishes. One must ask: What is Iran (and everyone else) so afraid of? Is it really so eager to tighten its grip that it cannot see it’s lost it completely? Besides, renaming food items in a misguided bid to protect national pride is, you know, Western. Pass the freedom fries.

Katharhynn Heidelberg writes from Montrose.