Richard Dawkins' best-selling atheist manifesto The God Delusion was at the centre of a growing row over religious tolerance yesterday after the Turkish publishers of his book were threatened with legal action by prosecutors who accuse it of 'insulting believers'.
Erol Karaaslan, the founder of the small publishing house Kuzey Publications, could face between six months and a year in jail for "inciting hatred and enmity" if Istanbul prosecutors decide to press charges over the book, which has sold 6000 copies in Turkey since it was published this summer.
"A reader complained, saying that he wanted the book banned and the publishers punished", said Mr Karaaslan after talks with the Istanbul state prosecutor. Mr Karaaslan, whose company specialises in self-help books and children's literature, has been given a few days to prepare a written statement of defence.
This is not the first time Dawkins has come up against the wrath of the Turkish authorities. Published here in the mid-1990s, his less confrontational book The Selfish Gene also faced problems, with the Islamist government then in power trying to get it banned from bookshops. The God Delusion, the fourth of Dawkins' books to be published in Turkish, sparked controversy with its damning approach to religion and unashamed avowal of atheism. While some appreciated his frankness, many questioned the book's relevance to Turkish readers.
"It aims to explain atheism from the perspective of Christianity", one amateur reviewer wrote, "and I don't think that's of much use in a Muslim country, because Muslims are already aware of the contradictions and oddities of Christianity as it is." Another writing on a popular blogging website was more direct: "If I were God, I'd give Dawkins a good smacking" they wrote.
Mr Karaaslan is by no means the first publisher to face investigation in Turkey, a country that has become notorious over the past two years for a slew of cases based on laws restricting freedom of expression. Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink were two of dozens of writers to be charged last year under a controversial law that makes it a crime to "insult Turkishness." Pamuk was acquitted. Dink who was murdered this January by a 17-year ultra-nationalist - was convicted.
The fact is, analysts say, that for all that it has a secular constitution, Turkey remains a relatively conservative country. The word atheist has only recently appeared in Turkish, but "godless" still remains an insult here. "Only 2% of the people we interviewed said they didn't believe in God", says Ali Carkoglu, co-author of a 2006 study of religious attitudes.
"Given that we had a 2% margin of error that could mean nobody", he added. "In any case it takes considerable courage for a Turk to admit to a stranger that they are atheists."
In this atmosphere, writers like Richard Dawkins will invariably cause a stir. Polls done last summer showed that only 25% of Turks accepted evolutionary theory.
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