19 October 2006

1159) Debates over Headscarf and Genocide

This week, I had actually wanted to write an article on the damage inflicted upon the scientific sphere by Article 301, which restricts the freedom of speech. . .

However, I thought it more appropriate to tackle that topic some other time, and decided to write about France when the law passed recently became a more urgent issue.

The prohibitory law of France is more important; because it involves more than one country (France, Turkey, and Armenia) and carries the potential danger of engulfing the whole EU. At least Article 301 is not “expansionist” by nature.

I have not been able to digest France’s action; and still worse, I have a hard time understanding it. This seems to be a big problem; speaking out against injustice while being haunted by inability to take any action doesn’t mean anything. Disliking or criticizing something when we are also not right could both be parts of the same picture. On the other hand, “understanding” is a totally different concept. Opposing the other party only after understanding its aim is far more consistent and safer. Reacting after having a full grasp of the problem, should not be as a result of a moment of rashness triggered only by sentiments.

What I mean by “understanding” is knowing what sort of thought system and belief an attitude stems from. The influence of the Armenian lobby, the base strategy of getting more votes from a small segment of the society and its desire to prevent Turkey from getting closer to the EU could all be explanations to a certain degree; but they are far from being adequate. How can mighty France be too blind to see that it has struck a sharp blow at the most basic principle of human rights? This is the France where “The Declaration of the Human Rights” was issued in 1789. Article 10 talks of a right that “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long a the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.” Liberty and independence have long been the national symbols of this country. How can those who claim to be proud of Voltaire criminalize a different view?

France Behaved Shamefully
When we look at France’s past actions and compare them with those of other European countries, like England, we seem to find some clues that will deepen our understanding. The French nation-state came to existence as a result of an extremely bloody revolution, not a compromise, and the killing of innumerous people was justified on the bases of a “sublime” ideal and a series of “truth.” This positivist understanding and limitless self-confidence became the dominant elements in the model of the French nation-state. The truths welcomed by the nation acquired claims to a sort of universality. On the other hand, the truths of Parliament were recognized as those welcomed by the “abstract” nation. The varieties, the marginal sections and the minorities got lost in this vicious circle. “Citizenship” was perceived as the general truth that should be followed by everyone, and opposing the truths was perceived as opposition to the “nation.”

Recently, it has been frequently said that the headscarf ban at schools and public domain became more widespread because of this understanding. (We have not forgotten those who hailed France’s prohibitive practices at that time.) Some proudly said that Turkey emulates France and its state model within the context of secularism. Now, we have seen and experienced the outcomes of this model. We are watching similar practices both in France and Turkey at the same time in a particularly interesting conjuncture. The headscarf issue is a problem in both countries, freedom of expression too. Both of them have resorted to a forbidden practice with the “state legitimacy” discourse. The contradiction between the two countries is not in understanding but in the aim. There is a consensus on the headscarf issue at the state level now. However, there is seemingly a difference of opinion over the genocide issue: One side says there was no genocide while the other says the opposite. Both opinions are the same when evaluated from the point of view of social life: They consider different views an offense and specify punishments.

What headscarf prohibiters don’t see
Punishing those who deny genocides, was first regarded as a sign of respect for the victims. Respect, without any doubt, is a good thing and no one is against it. But, when should a different view be considered a crime and when shouldn’t it? The important thing is not whether or not an event is considered genocide, but being able to express our views explicitly and fearlessly on any issue and not being jailed or threatened when we express them. Because, if the list of events we should “respect” increases tomorrow, new laws may be enacted. So, we may end up living in a fascist environment with a long list in our pockets of only the things we can to say.

What I have at least begun to see is: In both countries, a group of people, who know what’s “true” and “real” and constitute the majority, either ignore or try to suppress diversity, pluralism, small groups and the weak. The results of the debates over the headscarf and “genocide” issues are evidence of this. Those who oppose this approach are a small but struggling minority in both countries. From this viewpoint, the conflict is not between France and Turkey but between these two different approaches. Those who silence individuals in Turkey by means of Article 301, and those who put a gag order on people in France with a threat of sentencing them to jail, are not in conflict in terms of human principles but only agree to disagree on various fields. They are not against compulsion but are only trying to impose their own truths on a similar mentality.

If those who criticize the new bill in France dispraise it not because it bans diversity but because “it supports a wrong interpretation of history,” they are acting in the same way as France. This is the same for those who oppose the ban on headscarves. Those who oppose this ban not because this practice is against human rights but because a “right” choice is not implemented are also acting in the same way since they will try to implement their own “truths” at any given opportunity. In other words, defending our own truths may differ from defending principles for all.

If we look at the issue from this perspective, we can determine who’s friend or foe correctly. The implementers of Article 301 and those restricting the freedom of expression in France are the same, and are harbingers of a dangerous future. European Commission President José-Manuel Barroso, European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission Co-chair Joost Lagendijk and Turkey rapporteur Camile Eurlings, and thousands of European individuals, are closest to those who oppose the bans in Turkey. This is a human rights struggle; it is not a struggle among nations.

Herkul Millas


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