[Reader-list] Orhan Pamuk...

khadeeja arif khadeejaarif1 at rediffmail.com
Sat Dec 17 11:46:29 IST 2005


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Op-Ed Contributor
Secular Democracy Goes on Trial

Published: December 16, 2005

Simla, India

WHEN in 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran sentenced Salman Rushdie to death, saying he had blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad in his novel "The Satanic Verses," it was seen even in the Islamic world as an act of political opportunism, intended to boost Iran over its rival Saudi Arabia as the beacon of global Islam. It garnered little support among the clergy outside Iran, or among Muslims in general; and Iran itself seemed to acknowledge public revulsion in 1998 when it stated it would no longer carry out the death sentence.

The ayatollah's fatwa however created what, in retrospect, seems an extraordinary ideological consensus among the largely secularized Western intelligentsia. Writing in Mr. Rushdie's defense, novelists, poets, newspaper editors and columnists painted themselves as defenders of the European Enlightenment battling the dark atavism of religion.

This view of an unreformed Islam prone to anti-Western extremism re-emerged, of course, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many conservative intellectuals in the United States and Britain declared their resolve to fight to the bitter end against "Islamo-fascism"; and even the more liberal intellectuals demanded an immediate Islamic Reformation.

But these familiar generalities - Enlightenment versus Religion, Democracy versus Fascism - have always been facile, and are now being exploded by the ordeal of another prominent writer of Muslim ancestry, Orhan Pamuk, who goes on trial in Turkey today.

Mr. Pamuk is accused of a committing a crime by mentioning, in an interview with a Swiss newspaper, that "a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds" were killed in Turkey after World War I. The Armenian massacres are a widely documented fact. But it is an officially taboo subject in Turkey; and the government, nationalist political groups and press immediately joined in attacking Mr. Pamuk.

Many Western politicians and intellectuals reacted late, or confusedly, to this assault on a celebrated writer. This may be because the West often upholds Turkey as an example of a Muslim society embracing secular democracy. Turkey's apparently ongoing enlightenment underpins its claim to be considered part of Europe.

So what explains this latest Turkish assault on free speech? It won't do to blame religious extremists. Most of Mr. Pamuk's detractors belong to the political right wing, which in Turkey means that they are determined secularists. The prosecutor who instigated the legal proceedings belongs to a longstanding secular Turkish state that has cracked down on Muslim women wearing headscarves more harshly than has France.

What does seem apparent is that, like all nation-states, Turkey has its own sacred nationalist myths and will protect them as fiercely as, if not more than, any society claming the sanction of religion. This state-sponsored nationalism attracts a wide range of Turks, including many members of the educated elite.

And Turkey's middle-class nationalism, as Mr. Pamuk has pointed out, is hardly exceptional. Other nations wearing some of the emblems of Western modernity - secularism, democracy, a free-market economy - hardly offer any guarantees of free speech. Consider, for example, China, India and Russia, three multiethnic and officially secular nation-states that are experimenting with variations on the free-market economy.

In all these countries, a growing middle class turned a blind eye to, or even actively supported, the suppression of ethnic minorities in the name of national unity. In democratic India, up to 70,000 people have died in Kashmir in a violent insurgency that the Indian news media have yet to honestly reckon with. In Russian Chechnya, civilians and journalists have been as much victims as Islamic rebels. And such is the power of Chinese nationalism that even most dissident intellectuals in the West feel that Tibet and Xinjiang are part of their motherland.

The destructive potential of modern nationalism should not surprise us. Traditional religion hardly played a role in the unprecedented violence of the 20th century, which was largely caused by secular ideologies - Nazism and Communism. Secular nationalism has been known to impose intellectual conformity and suppress dissent even in advanced democratic societies. In America, it was at least partly the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic that held back the freest news media in the world from rigorously questioning the official justification for and conduct of the war in Iraq.

As for traditional religion, outside Saudi Arabia and Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban it has rarely enjoyed the kind of overwhelming state power that modern nationalism has known. Then why reflexively blame religion for the growth of intolerance and violence? Perhaps, because it is easy - and useful. Certainly, all the talk of Enlightenment, Reformation, a clash of civilizations and the like does help build up ideological smokescreens, obscuring the more complex political and economic battles of the world.

By setting up abstract, simplistic oppositions, the Rushdie affair helped metaphysics cloud the realm of geopolitics. The Pamuk affair, on the other hand, promises to help create intellectual clarity. But this will not only require renouncing the urge to populate the world with religious fanatics, dangerous "others." It will also require a willingness, as Mr. Pamuk has so bravely expressed, to question the myths of our own complacently modern and secular societies.

Pankaj Mishra is the author, most recently, of "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World."
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