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Beat the devil.

Turks Fry, Rushdie Peeved

Back at the start of May of this year one of Turkey's best-known intellectuals, Aziz Nesin, founded a left daily paper called Aydinlik, which means "Illumination." Nesin, now 78, is a Marxist famed for his humorous novels.

Aydinlik, set up with financial contributions from a number of Turkish leftists, takes broadly socialist positions, defends Kurdish rights, supports secular governmental traditions and is highly critical of Islamic fundamentalism. Amid a rickety economy, I.M.F-ordered austerity and declining standards of living, the fundamentalists have been flourishing, particularly among the poor. (Turkey has been a secular republic ever since Ataturk disfranchised the Muslim clergy at the founding of the republic in 1923. It's not true that he made the clergy wear peaked hats at all times so they couldn't pray properly.)

For one week in mid-May, Aydinlik, with a circulation of around 11,000, began to publish excerpts from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. This jumped sales of the paper by 20,000. In the opinion of one Turkish political economist, Ahmet Tonak, with whom I discussed the affair over the phone to Istanbul, excerpting the book was a way to signal resentment of government censorship. The Satanic Verses is banned in Turkey. On the third day of publication fundamentalists violently attacked a book publishing house, Kaynak, loosely connected to Aydinlik.

At the start of July, Nesin and a number of other intellectuals sallied forth to Sivas, a provincial capital in central Turkey and hometown of a renowned fifteenth-century poet named Pir Sultan Abdal, a member of the Alawite sect hanged for preaching rebellion against the Ottman sultan. The plan was to honor Abdal and dedicate a monument to him.

Nesin gave a speech critical of fundamentalism on July 1 in Sivas and, following this oration, had a session with a number of local journalists. They asked him why Aydinlik published The Satanic Verses, did the believe in God and so forth. Nesin said he didn't and after more exchanges, the reporters filed highly charged accounts for the local broadsheets which, like most provincial broadsheets across the world, have a conservative outlook.

Friday - in this case July 2 - is a big day in any mosque, and in Sivas the Sunnin congregation worked itself into a lather about the Nesin stories in the morning papers. In Turkey the Alawite sect is more open-minded than is the Sunni. Nesin's comments, combined with his honoring of Pir Sultan Abdal and mixed in with the Rushdie passages in Aydinlik, had the Sunnis in a fine fury, and they called on the provincial governor to resign, presumably for allowing the Abdal festival to take place. The fundamentalists then headed for the hotel at which writers, poets, folk dancers and Nesin were staying. After milling about there, they made off to the monument to Abdal and destroyed it.

By 7 P.M. the Sunni mob was back at the hotel baying for the blood of the godless pointy-heads, most particularly Nesin. Three fellows then torched the hotel. Some of the beleaguered guests managed to gain admittance to a building adjacent to the hotel, housing the local fascist party. Others were refused. Thirty-six persons, on the lower floors, were burned to death. Nesin, on the fourth floor, survived.

One fact about the events in Sivas is emphasized by Tonak. "By conventional political and journalistic analysis in Turkey," he told me, "the riot and conflagration represented purely a clash between two sects, Sunnis and Alawites. This interpretation ignores political differences. The defining characteristic of these two groups is their political position vis-a-vis secularism in Turkey. The Alawites are strongly secularist, whereas the Sunnis, within the context of the Sivas events, are fundamentalist."

Petulance Amid the Ashes

With the ashes of the Turkish martyrs to intellectual and political freedom barely cold, the July 4 edition of The Observer in London carried a piece by Rushdie. Its first paragraph set the petulant tone: "I met the writer and journalist Mr Aziz Nesin in 1986, when I took part in an event organized by British writers to protest against the Turkish authorities' decision to confiscate his passport. I hope that Mr Nesin remembers my small effort on his behalf, because recently he has done me no favours at all."

Islamic zealots, Rushdie continued, have for years "been quoting and producing decontextualized segments of The Satanic Verses to use as propaganda weapons in the larger war against progressive ideas, secularist though and the modern world, in which the so-called |Rushdie affair' is no more than a skirmish. I was appalled to find that these self-proclaimed Turkish secularists and anti-fundamentalists were using my work in exactly the same unscrupulous fashion, albeit to serve different political purposes. Once again, I was a pawn in somebody else's game."

Note the careful conflation of secularists and fundamentalists, though Rushdie invokes "progressive ideas" in whose promulgation he and the secularists are presumably allies.

Rushdie claims that Nesin had sought permission to publish a Turkish translation of The Satanic Verses. Then came publication of the excerpts in Aydinlik, to which Rushdie's agents responded with questions and stipulations. Nesin rejoined, accusing Rushdie of cowardice in failing to defend his own novel. Nesin added that he personally didn't care for the book but would publish it whether Rushdie agreed or not, and if Rushdie didn't like it he should take him to court. Rushdie also charges Nesin with hypocrisy for a accusing him of not standing by his book while at the same time saying he was not responsible for excerpts in a paper of which he, according to Rushdie, is the editor in chief.

"Cannon fodder" is what Rushdie says he's become, though "I, too, am a committed secularist ... and have used every opportunity in the last five years to struggle against the spread of religious fanaticism across the face of the earth."

Only last week, Rushdie adds, he was among those mustered in Paris at the Academie Universelle des Cultures, an outfit created by Francois Mitterrand, under the presidency of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. He joined Wole Soyinka, Umberto Eco, Cynthia Ozick, the Arab poet Adonis and other notables who "spent a good part of the day protesting against the murder of secularists by fundamentalists in Algeria, the persecution of secularists in Egypt, and, yes, the Iranian-inspired killing of the Turkish journalist Ugur Mumcu" (though presumably no, not the murder of Palestinian secularists by "smelly"(*) Jewish fanatics; it's hard to imagine Wiesel or Ozick countenancing that kind of divisive approach to intellectual and religious freedom).

Rushdie returns to the used-thing theme: "Mr Nesin did not see me as a combatant. For him, my work was simply a weapon, to use as he saw fit. I cannot avoid the conclusion that he and his associates did what they did, under the cover of free-speech rhetoric, precisely to provoke the violent confrontation that has now resulted. They wanted to bring matters to a head. Now, it seems, they have got more than they bargained for."

This is exactly the line taken by the Turkish government in its attack on Nesin.

The World According to Rushdie

Time for the judicious coda, which Rushdie duly imparts: "However, no matter how great our contempt for Nesin and his cronies, we must not fail to lay the blame for these horrible killings where they truly belong.... I am utterly appalled by these God-driven mobs and by their wild lust for the blood of unbelievers, and so, in spite of all his mischief-making, I send my grief, my sympathy, and my outraged support to the families of the dead; to all those who fight against religious bigots; even those who have done so with such lack of concern for my own fight; yes, even to Mr Aziz Nesin." Rushdie calls on the leaders of the G-7 industrial nations gathered in Tokyo to denounce terrorism.

Apparently, it's O.K. to make fine statements in Paris and not so O.K. to get up the noses of the Muslim fanatics in Istanbul or Sivas, where so many of those "cronies" perished in the flames a few hours before the well-guarded Rushdie sat down at his typewriter. The entire manner in which Rushdie's piece was written and presented in The Observer amounted to spiteful abuse of the Turkish secularists. One would have thought that whatever his sense of self-importance and injury, Rushdie might have concluded that the immediate aftermath of a murderous onslaught on his intellectual allies was not the moment for vindictive recrimination.

Rushdie's reaction aroused some indignation in Istanbul. "This is a very serious matter," Tonak said to me. "People here are trying to defend his rights and are taking enormous risks in doing so. The Satanic Verses is still officially banned, and Aydinlik was already attacked by fundamentalists when it started to serialized Rushdie's book. It would have been far better if Rushdie had expressed his full support for these intellectuals."

Four days after his escape from the hotel in Sivas, Aziz Nesin gave me his reaction to Rushdie's commentary, as well as his own reflections on the Sivas affair:

"I have read Rushdie's recent piece in The Observer and am planning a full response. But this much must be known. Aydinlik did not publish excepts from The Satanic Verses on accounts of their literary value. We did it as a statement against the Turkish government's censorship. Also, I consider their publication an additional weapon in our struggle against reactionaries and fundamentalists in Turkey. This is the political context that I care about and within which I operate.

"I had met Rushdie in London and discussed the possibility of publishing his book in Turkish. I do not think he is a great writer. Moreover, he is afraid of the threats by Iranians. He stopped defending his work, and instead apologized to the fanatics. He is a renegade. The only thing he lately cares for is whether he receives his copyright fees or not. Obviously, I am ready to make these payments."

Nesin explained that he is not the editor in chief of Aydinlik but a columnist. Away at the time in Germany and Izmir, "I neither initiated nor made the decision to publish the excepts." That was the work of the actual editor in chief, Ferit Ilsever, who knew Nesin was envisaging translation and publication of The Satanic Verses. "However," Nesin said, "I see nothing wrong in publishing excerpts and, as I said, if this requires additional payments to Rushdie I'm sure it will be handled."

"The cause of the events in Sivas," Nesin continued, "was not the incompetence of the current Turkish government. Rather, the real cause was a series of policies of many governments regarding secularism since the death of Ataturk. All of them made concessions to reactionaries. What has been taking place lately is the result of these mistaken policies. There is a fast and scary development of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey. Something must be done. Turkish governments have a double standard. When they deal with the Europeans, they present themselves as secularist, When they deal with the electorate, they make all kinds of concessions that in turn help fundamentalists in Turkey."

On July 7 the bodies of those burned in Sivas were brought back to Ankara and Istanbul, with powerful secularist demonstrations of 100,000 in each city.

Poor Taste

On the subject of religion, I should note God's decision to drown 315 people in the Bocaue River in the Philippines. they were aboard three boats celebrating the Catholic "Crucifix at the River" festival, honoring a local miracle. Survivors say a priest was leading devotees in prayer before a three-tiered altar and vast crucifix when the top-heavy shrine toppled.

During the war Randolph Churchill (Winston's son) was with some other British officers among the Partisans in the mountains of Yugoslavia. Churchill wouldn't stop talking, so someone bet he couldn't get through the Bible without opening his mouth. Churchill read silently as far as the book of Job, then looked up and said "Isn't god a shit!"

(*) Just to remind people that Tom Dine, for years the feared leader of the American Israel Public Committee, was recently forced to resign after disclosure that he was in the habit of describing Orthodox Jews as "smelly" Live by the word, die by the word.
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Title Annotation:reaction in Turkey to excerpts from 'The Satanic Verses'
Author:Cockburn, Alexander
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 26, 1993
Words:2052
Previous Article:The scapegoats.
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