09 June 2006

771) If alive today, the great French thinker Voltaire would be in tears

If alive today, the great French thinker, known for his unconditioned defense of dissenting opinion no matter what it is, would feel absolutely shattered. By the way his countrymen, with a great historic achievement in deep values of freedom for humankind, are unable to raise their voice against yet another “European” folly…

New bill, criminalizing denial of “Armenian Genocide” with prison sentence, to be debated in French parliament next week, is certainly a cloud of shame over that country. I am, not as a Turk, but as a journalist, deeply concerned for the mindset that has created it, and for consequences, if passed.

It was also with the same shared anxiety, a group of Turkish intellectuals printed an appeal to French politicians and opinion makers in Liberation.

They said, in brief, the following:

"We, the Turkish citizens, feel all the burden of the inhuman disaster faced by the Ottoman Armenians during the last days of Ottoman Empire. The agony of Armenians is our agony. The 1915 disaster cannot be denied by anyone who claims to be human. Looking for the reasons and aims behind such a tragedy is nonsense…”

"But the democratic process is on in Turkey, as was seen during the Istanbul conference held last Sept. 23-24. This process will chip away at the darkness confronting the public on that issue. Even though the people who struggle for this are branded traitors, we know that these are the stages of a democratic process, so we will keep on struggling through the issue.”

"But we have serious concerns about the French Parliament's possible approval of the Armenian bill. Whatever its aim, such an initiative would destroy joint efforts to investigate the facts. Such an initiative would curb free discussion in France and would also create a negative impact in Turkey.”

"Such polarization would encourage monologues, as France should very well know. In fact, we need dialogue more than such a vicious argument. Freedom of expression is a universal principle, just like the struggle for the crimes against humanity. Defending one does not mean neglecting the other.

"But today it's a shame that both sides are unable to communicate their understanding to one another. Such a deadlock carries the risk of further, more serious conflicts.

"The pioneers of such initiatives in France or in other places should take into consideration those circles who are trying to avoid free argument about the 1915 incidents..”

It is apparent there is something deeply wrong in Europe, in general, as the attempts to limit the free speech increase. Take the case of David Irving, or Ernst Zündel, holocaust deniers. The more they are subjected to trials or prison, the more popular they become.

Richard Bernstein wrote an article in IHT about the growing anti free speech trends in Europe and expressed his concern about it.

He wrote: “During the uproar over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, Muslims attacked the Holocaust denial laws in several European countries as rank hypocrisy because those same countries permitted insults to Muslims, and, as the American legal scholar Ronald Dworkin observed recently in The New York Review of Books, they had a point. But, Dworkin continued, the response should not be to broaden the coverage of the laws against insult to religion but to strike them down. Free speech, he argues, is an indispensable requirement of a democratic society, not something that can be bargained away to mollify this or that offended group. And so, as an American in Europe and a Jew mightily offended by Holocaust denial, I nonetheless come down on the side of free speech rather than on the prohibition of offensive speech. One of the cultural differences between America and Europe in this regard is that in America this issue is debated. In Europe it is not.”

So true. Perceived arrogance of some Europeans in these matters have strong elements of double standards, of hyprocricy.

Take Setif, a French case. As the subject stil haunts many French, as a dark point in their recent history, with some 60.000 civilian Algeriennes massacred by the French forces, France still rejects the attempts to deal with the issue properly, by not acknowledging that it was a crime of humanity.

Given the broad definition of genocide in 1948, it may even be called an “act of genocide”. By saying “let us leave it to historians”, it is rather easy to conclude that the world will have hard time to praise the French political class for championship in righteousness, will it not?

Pushing denialists in any issue into corner, into marginality may be a noble task, but, after all, it all comes down to free speech and its limits. Civilised societies, such as UK, Canada, USA deal even the most loathable, most nonsensical expressions with tolerance. You do not put those who say things that may offend some of us, however deeply the offense may be, to prison. If you do, you have nothing to say against others who do.

Truly disturbed by what the French bill represents, one certainly hopes, as Richard Bernstein does, that Europe really comes to its senses about protecting free speech with no ifs and buts. This bill, if it becomes law, will definitely pollute, even disrupt (what if Turkey criminalises, as a retaliation, acceptance of the 1915 events as genocide?) all civil attempts to reach an understanding and reconciliation between Armenians and Turks. It will, at the best, delay them.

I call –and expect - all French colleagues to say no this folly.

What is happening, for the moment, is an insult, an attack to a fundamental human right, a right constituted by Voltaire and his countrymen.

Yavuz Baydar

12 May 2006



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