Turks say publisher provoked 35 deaths

TURKEY clamped a two-day curfew on the eastern town of Sivas yesterday as Prime Minister Tansu Ciller struggled to cool passions after the worst outbreak of Islamic fundamentalist violence for more than a decade.

Troops patrolled streets littered with debris after Friday's day of rioting in the provincial capital 500 miles east of Istanbul. At least 35 were killed when Islamic radicals set fire to a hotel.

Among the dead were intellectuals and poets taking part in a left-wing cultural festival, in which the star guest was Aziz Nesin, a maverick 78-year-old author and the unauthorised publisher in Turkey of his own translations of Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses. The government was quick to blame Nesin for the riots. 'By standing against public beliefs and making inflammatory statements, Nesin provoked the attacks in Sivas,' said the Interior Minister, Mehmet Gazioglu.

Rushdie said yesterday that, as a 'committed secularist', he condemned the fundamentalist onslaught on secular thought in many Muslim countries, and particularly the killings in Sivas. On the other hand, Aziz Nesin had 'stolen' his work and used it as a weapon in his personal war. 'It's very hard to avoid the conclusion that what has happened in Sivas is exactly what Nesin wanted to happen,' he said.

Rushdie first came to hear of Nesin's plans to publish The Satanic Verses in Turkish translation when Nesin issued a statement in the Turkish press. Then extracts began to appear in Nesin's newspaper under the headline 'Salman Rushdie - thinker or charlatan?' 'It was a pirate operation,' Rushdie said. 'I had no chance to vet it or stop it. I didn't know what the extracts were, how they had been translated, or the context in which they were used.'

Nesin responded publicly to Rushdie's protest when, two days ago, his newspaper published a letter of complaint from Rushdie's agent with a commentary under the headline 'What do I care for Salman Rushdie?' 'He said he had no interest in me as a writer. He attacked both me and my novel. His line, if you interpret it at its most high-minded, seemed to be that he didn't like the book, but he would defend its right to be published,' Rushdie said. He emphasised that the direct cause of the riot seemed to be a speech by Nesin, rather than The Satanic Verses. 'I'm damned if I'm going to carry the can for this one,' he said.

Versions of the speech that Nesin delivered differ, but all agree that he said he was an atheist, that religion should be adapted to modern times and that there was no reason to obey books written hundreds of years ago, including the Koran.

Order in Sivas broke down after Friday's noon prayers, when a crowd of people chanting Islamic slogans attacked the cultural festival and the local governor who had backed the festival, which was apparently loyal to the secular basis of Kemal Ataturk's Turkish republic. The crowd soon homed in on the hotel where Nesin and 60 others had taken refuge. They stoned the building, set fire to cars outside and yelled for 'the devil Nesin'.

Security forces tried to keep the crowd at bay by firing over their heads. Several policemen were injured. But, after eight hours, radicals in the crowd managed to force an entry and set fire to the lobby. Fumes from synthetic materials were responsible for most of the deaths. The only foreigner among the dead appeared to be a German woman tourist. Nesin escaped with the help of firemen and suffered only light injuries. But even in telephone interviews, he was unrepentant about his mission to shake Turkey's Muslims into questioning their fundamental beliefs.

(Photograph omitted)

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