The Turkish government often seems determined to strike propaganda coups against itself. It put 34-year-old author Elif Shafak on trial recently for questioning Turkish national identity, and dropped the charges only after predictably adverse publicity. But the charges will be a warning to other Turkish writers not to go too far.
In her latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, which has already sold 60,000 copies, Shafak tells the story of a Turkish and an Armenian-American family. On no subject is the Turkish state more sensitive than on the massacre of the Armenians in 1915. Was it just one horrible massacre among others, or the twentieth century’s first genocide? A lot turns on the question—or at least so both Armenians and Turks believe.
Shafak specializes in inflaming the sore points of Turkish history. She wants a Turkey less ethnically and culturally homogeneous than that of the traditional Kemalist vision, and thus not only questions the sanctity of Atatürk himself and the army that protects his legacy, but expresses sympathy for Kurds and even Greeks.
One may doubt whether the realistic alternative to the Kemalist version of Turkey is a multiculturalist paradise, where the Turk lies down with the Greek, so to speak, rather than a Muslim theocracy. But Shafak has every right to her views and should not have faced persecution for them (apparently, she has received death threats, too).
That does not make her a heroine, however, all of whose views we must accept. She subscribes, a recent admiring Le Monde article suggests, to those hackneyed views of the 1960s that have brought much social dislocation to the West, and would be more devastating still in Turkey. She is a feminist who seems not only to deplore Turkish machismo, no doubt understandably, but also to believe that men, beyond insemination on demand, are redundant. In reaching this conclusion, she reflects upon her own experience as an upper-middle-class intellectual and assumes that it is exemplary for millions of compatriots.
Her father abandoned the family when she was an infant, leaving her grandmother and her mother to raise her. Her mother, Westernized and highly educated, became a diplomat. Shafak was born in Strasbourg and lived successively in various capitals, including Madrid. According to Le Monde, “she grew up in a universe in which women were independent and educated, where the cultural heritage was passed from mother to daughter, and marriage and motherhood were assaults on freedom.” Having just given birth herself to a daughter, she said, “As for me, I will
always cultivate my independence, and my daughter will be raised like that.”
It seems scarcely to cross her mind (at least as Le Monde presents it) that this attitude is not necessarily a useful prescription for all of Turkish society, or at least for that considerable part of it that does not live in, and was not raised in, cosmopolitan diplomatic circles. In short, Shafak seems a typical example of the intellectual who uses personal history uncritically to draw conclusions about society as a whole.
Dangerous as such intellectuals no doubt are, they should not have to go to jail for their views. I disagree with what Shafak says, but I defend (to the death it would perhaps be too much to claim) her right to say it.