Interview with PEN Turkey President Tarik Günersel
Freedom to Write: This year the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award is being given to your country’s Ayşe Berktay, who is currently in prison and on trial for “membership in an illegal organization” under Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws. In announcing the award last week, PEN American Center President Peter Godwin said, “That Ayşe Berktay’s activism could somehow be labeled terrorism reveals a great deal about Turkey today—a country that, despite so much progress in so many areas, is now prosecuting scores of writers and journalists, most of them on specious terrorism charges. This award, which honors Ayşe Berktay’s courage, signals PEN’s determination to reverse this disturbing trend.” Can you talk a little bit about Ayşe Berktay’s case in the context of the overall climate for freedom of expression in your country?
Tarık Günersel: Translator and peace activist Ayşe Berktay has been in prison for one and a half years. Ayşe Berktay became aware of the difficulties our Kurdish citizens have suffered, especially after the military coup d’etat in 1980, and she decided to become a member of the BDP party, the Party for Peace and Democracy which holds 36 seats in Parliament; she worked as a party member and on her own on behalf of women’s rights and the rights of Kurds in Turkey. Her imprisonment is incompatible with the so-called “peace talks” being held between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) party. Last year PEN Turkey Center presented the PEN Turkey Duygu Asena Award to both Ayşe Berktay and Professor Büşra Ersanlı in recognition of their work.
In Turkey today, if you say things that the government doesn’t like, you’re likely to get into trouble. It has grown worse recently, partly from a referendum that allowed people to vote on certain changes in the constitution, and partly because the present constitution was created under a military regime in 1982. In the past few years especially, the government has been manipulating the judiciary to allow for growing religious oppression, usually by the Sunni sect of Islam. We feel pressure in the form of financial and legal threats from the government in media, drama, literary publications, and television in what I think is an open attack against secularism. Journalists who speak their mind are either threatened, lose their jobs, or are sent to prison. The government is drafting a law that will practically eliminate independent TV stations and channels that are not part of big companies so that it will be easier to disseminate state propaganda.
FTW: Will the message of this award be heard in Turkey? How? Will it make a difference?
Günersel: I am sure the Freedom to Write Award from PEN American Center will have an impact and will be recognized in Turkey and around the world. I hope it will lead to Ayşe Berktay being released as soon as possible. The award is important because we must ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. People in Turkey who are global citizens shouldn’t feel left alone against growing religious pressures, and the government needs to receive feedback within Turkey and from the world arena. At PEN Turkey, we will do our best, along with several other organizations, to promote the award amongst media workers who have not been fired from work or jailed.
FTW: This past November, PEN International sent a delegation to Turkey to press for the release of more than 100 journalists and writers currently in prison or on trial in Turkey, meeting with top government officials including the President of the country in Ankara and staging a large protest reading. The delegation was an extension of PEN’s longstanding efforts to support writers and freedom of expression in Turkey; for example, PEN centers in Europe frequently send members as trial observers when writers are on trial. What kind of impact do these activities have, and what does this kind of solidarity and support mean for writers and journalists in your country?
Günersel: International solidarity is vital in Turkey. It gives hope and vigor to writers and other intellectuals who are in prison or under threat. The visit of the PEN International Delegation made a significant impact both in official circles and in public opinion. Visiting President Abdullah Gül was very important and he himself commented only recently that Turkey still has a lot to do in terms of free expression. I prefer to be optimistic and think he truly does want Turkey to become a real democratic country.
FTW: What are the major activities and main priorities of PEN Turkey these days?
Günersel: PEN Turkey has always defended linguistic plurality and freedom of expression in harmony with the PEN International Charter. Members of PEN Turkey Center write in Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Georgian and other languages. In addition to participating in protests at least once a week, we have recently organized panels on “Literary Freedom” and “Literature and Journalism” at the Istanbul Book Fair.
FTW: Last week, Fazil Say received a suspended sentence in Turkey for sending out tweets that were allegedly “offensive to religion.” What happened in that case, and how did it impact PEN Turkey? Where does the case against you and the board stand today?
Günersel: We think that the court case against Fazil Say was wrong, and we protested the verdict of ten month imprisonment for his use of Twitter. As for PEN Turkey, we participated in a protest last June that led to an investigation against our Board members and the editor of our website. The Ministry of Justice will soon decide whether we will be taken to court or not. PEN International and sister PEN centers are on our side, and so is public opinion and the democratic press in Turkey.
FTW: What is the most important thing that Americans should know about Turkey today?
Günersel: My personal opinion is that democracy is possible only with secularism. In Turkey secularism has been increasingly under attack, especially in the past decade. Believe it or not, the U.S. has supported religious fundamentalism in Turkey because foreign policy under former President Bush and others promoted the view that secularism was wrong for Turkey and tried to impose “mild” Islam. But this cuts against the legacy of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who believed in secularism. If you contribute to secularism, then there will be moderate Muslims who respect democratization, but if you support a religious state, then there will be radical Muslims, and what I call an Islamo-fascist regime. Besides, the religious radicals in Turkey do not embrace all of Islam. The Prime Minister, for example, does not even recognize Alawi holy places in the country, and there are 20 million Alawites. There is what you might call a bipolar disorder. One pole is the militaristic view, and the other is the Islamic fundamentalist view, and intellectuals in Turkey have suffered under these pressures.
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