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Nobel Prize for Turkish Writer Focuses Attention on Civil Society Issues

In awarding the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature to Orhan Pamuk, the Swedish Academy stressed the Turkish author's literary skill. However, analysts and critics see unmistakeable evidence of political motives in the decision. Pamuk has a relatively small body of work for a Nobel laureate, but he has been a literary pioneer in trying to fuse Western and Islamic cultures, and has emerged as an outspoken proponent of free speech inside Turkey.

After the October 12 announcement, Pamuk said in broadcast interview with CNN International that he considered the Nobel Prize as "a sort of recognition of the Turkish language, Turkish culture, and Turkey." He is the first Turk to win a Nobel Prize, and in selecting him, the Swedish Academy appeared to offer a ringing endorsement for both Turkey's integration into Europe, and for the expansion of civil society in Turkey. The academy's statement noted that Pamuk, "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city [Istanbul], has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

In Turkey, the news of Pamuk's award was both a source of pride, and a cause for soul searching. Pamuk has been a central figure in an on-going free speech controversy, in which several authors have faced criminal prosecution under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which calls for up to three years imprisonment for "public denigration of Turkishness." In late 2005, Pamuk went on trial for comments made earlier that year in which he stated that 1 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turkish forces starting in 1915, amid the chaos of World War 1. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In early 2006, the case was dropped after the Justice Ministry declined to press the charges.

Today, Armenia wants that the killings be recognized as genocide, while the Turkish government rejects that the mass killings constituted genocide. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"This is a great achievement that no one should try to cast a shadow over," commentator Ilnur Cevik wrote of Pamuk's prize in an October 13 editorial published by the New Anatolian English-language daily. "Pamuk deserved what he got and has given us deep national pride and jubilation." Referring to Pamuk's earlier prosecution, Cevik added that the author "showed that our people should be bold and raise issues and have them debated in a free atmosphere."

Pamuk, by winning the Nobel Prize, becomes an instant symbol of the new Turkey, one that embodies both Western and Islamic cultural and political values. His laureate status also makes criticizing his views all the more difficult. Thus, the award could fan domestic debate on a variety of volatile issues, including free speech, the role of Islam in Turkish society and the tragic events of 1915.

Dogan Hizlan, Hurriyet's literary critic, wrote that a review of Nobel laureates reveals that many recipients have been "opponents of the establishments of their countries. However, I still tend to see the prize from a literary point of view, and therefore am happy that Orhan Pamuk as a Turkish writer won it."

Perihan Magden, another writer/journalist who was tried under Article 301, said "this prize won by Pamuk will increase interest in other Turkish writers, Turkish language, and Turkey. It is Pamuk's most natural right to state his opinions about Turkey's issues and history."

Leaders of the Turkish government, which is led by the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party, cheered the announcement. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul telephoned Pamuk, who is in New York serving as a visiting professor this semester at Columbia University, to offer his congratulations.

Gul, the Turkish foreign minister, told journalists on October 13 that the parliamentary vote will go down as "an unforgettable shame on France." Meanwhile, Mehmet Barlas, Sabah's chief editorial writer, blamed the vote on "irresponsible French politicians racing to try to gain ground against one another and hunt for 400,000 French Armenian votes."

Some international commentators stressed the irony of the two developments occurring on the same day. An editorial published in the British daily The Guardian described Pamuk's selection as "an inspired choice." It went on to note that Pamuk was prosecuted under Article 301 "the use of which is encouraged by rightwing nationalists [in Turkey] who complain that Europe is undermining the country's identity, and which must go if Turkey is to join the EU.

"But it is hypocritical of Europe to demand that Turkey modernize its laws when France is moving in precisely the opposite -- illiberal -- direction," the commentary continued. "Pamuk's world-class achievement should be a source of pride -- a compliment, not an insult -- to a sometimes oversensitive nation. Turks would do well to ponder its significance and try to look back at their history with a more open mind."

The editorial additionally asserted that "some in France are quite clearly exploiting the issue to prevent Turkey getting into the EU."

Celebrated writer Margaret Atwood, also writing in the Guardian on October 13, said: "It will be difficult to conceive of a more perfect winner for our catastrophic times. Just as Turkey stands at the crossroads of the Muslim East/Middle East and the European and North American West, so Pamuk's work inhabits the shifting ground of an increasingly dangerous cultural and religious overlap, where ideologies as well as personalities collide."

The Times literary editor Erica Wagner wrote on October 13 that "no award is apolitical; this year's Nobel Prize for Literature is a firm reminder of that.

Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.

Nobel Prize for Turkish Writer Focuses Attention on Civil Society Issues

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