A Week in Books: Menaces to free speech

Click to follow

This year ends with legal menaces to free speech at either end of Europe. Today, Sisli Primary Court in Istanbul is due to host the trial of Orhan Pamuk on a charge of insulting Turkish national identity, after he denounced Ottoman massacres of Armenians in 1915 during a Swiss interview. At least eight other Turkish writers, editors and publishers face prosecution under the same or related articles. Their cases lie hidden away, far from the global media spotlight, but just as significant tests of Turkey's official claim to be an open society ready soon for EU membership.

Bear in mind, though, that diehard nationalist elements behind these oppressions want to see the EU negotiations founder. So every polemic that cites Pamuk's plight as proof of Turkish unfitness works as grist to their reactionary mill. I'd prefer to hail the 300 delegates who braved one previous ban and violent protests outside to attend a no-issues-barred conference on Turkish-Armenian history in Istanbul in October. Pamuk, thank goodness, is far from alone at home.

Less dramatically, the UK government plans to bring back into the Commons its much-mauled bill to outlaw incitement to "religious hatred". If this sloppy, opportunistic measure passes, even as amended in the Lords, it stands well within the bounds of possibility that an aggrieved zealot could innocently hire a lawyer to lay a complaint about - say - the satirical fun that Pamuk pokes at Islamist hardliners in his latest novel, Snow. The CPS would refuse to proceed against Pamuk, or any reputable author, and the net result would be an increase in resentment and distrust. The cynicism of politics sometimes beggars belief.

For some vital intellectual stiffening against the forces of censorship, beleaguered heretics should turn to the PEN anthology prompted by its campaign against the bill: Free Expression is No Offence (edited by Lisa Appignanesi; Penguin, £8.99). It ranges from Philip Pullman on the follies of "identity politics" to Hanif Kureishi on the writer's struggle with self-censorship; from Ian Buruma on the panic over freedom and faith in Holland to Howard Jacobson on the necessary anathemas of genuine art. This fine collection of essays and reports moves through a wide arc of debate from grassroots anecdote to philosophical argument, stopping at most shades in between.

All I missed here was a recognition that many Evangelical Christians have also worked against this bill - not always because they cherish the right to curse other creeds, but because the best traditions of Bible-bashing nonconformity ask no favours from the state except the freedom to mount a wayside pulpit and take on every scoffer who walks by. The Bernard Shaw who wrote Major Barbara grasped and liked this stance, but I don't think that secular liberals today really do.

Many of the PEN contributors take it as read that believers will wish to censor, ban and silence as a condition of their faith. There never seems to be any shortage of God-bothering talk-show prophets to prove them correct. John Milton - and the later pillars of the faith-driven British liberalism he helped to found - might disagree.

Remember, too, that Pamuk faces a ludicrous indictment today not because of the wrath of Islam, but because he upset last-ditch champions of a rigid secular nationalism. The gods of the state also continue to exact their sacrifices. And, on this edge of the continent, libertarians need to remind themselves that the would-be censors are using holy robes to cloak civil servants' suits. In modern Europe, statecraft trumps priestcraft.

Mind you, I can recall an earlier case where a ruthless secular power found it convenient to shift the blame for the despatch of a troublesome dissenter onto a fractious bunch of clerics. But that was in Jerusalem, nearly two millennia ago.