Novelists fighting for jailed Turkish writer Ahmet Altan is the kind of modern diplomacy we urgently need

With Western leaders failing us, we need great international minds to act. They have a clear vision and an audience of tens of millions of people

Alessio Colonnelli
Tuesday 13 September 2016 11:18
Turkish writer and journalist Ahmet Altan
Turkish writer and journalist Ahmet Altan

The Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan has been detained by his country’s Government. How many more journalists and writers will be taken away to rot in a crowded cell? From Turkey to Egypt, the imprisonment of creative and intellectuals has reached unprecedented levels.

Orhan Pamuk, JM Coetzee, Elena Ferrante and other prominent writers have already penned a letter to The Guardian to express their firm dissent. “The background to this letter is the coup attempt on 15 July 2016 … It is understandable that the government would have imposed a temporary state of emergency. However, the failed coup should not be a pretext for a McCarthy-style witch-hunt,” stated the acclaimed authors, who, taken together, have sold tens of millions of copies of their works.

These writers have huge international readerships, with their words translated into tens of languages. Their timely reaction is precisely what has been lacking in the handling of diplomatic and cultural events such as these up until now. We are seeing the direct engagement of our finest minds in addressing brutality on our behalf. We pay for their work, and they speak for us; a personal relationship between writer and reader of the type we used to see regularly until the end of the 1970s.

And now we have the added bonus of social media. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus used essays, novels, newspapers and universities classes to voice their dissent, today’s intellectuals have all that plus their readers who can propagate their message for them.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Western leaders to engage with countries like Turkey and Egypt where internal dissenters face jail or even torture. Our representatives do not act to prevent this. Cases like Altan’s number in the thousands.

Here is just one other: that of my fellow countryman Giulio Regeni, who had just embarked upon a career as a young reporter for the national daily Il Manifesto when he met his death. Regeni was a Cambridge University PhD researcher doing field work in Cairo. On January 25 he was taken in a street near his home.

A few days later Regeni was found dead at a spaghetti junction just outside the capital. An autopsy found that he had been tortured. To this day – and despite pressure from the Italian Government and investigators – the truth of what happened to him remains obscured.

Italy had to intervene: Regeni was an Italian national, and every government would do that for one of their own citizens. Yet, the Cambridge researcher was also a UK resident and worked for one of Britain’s finest institutions, but British authorities have played very little role in seeking justice.

There are, of course, implications fo9r intervention: oil and gas, a civil war underway in the region, the spread of Isis in Syria and Libya. Diplomacy is paramount, but we need our European statesmen to collaborate to fight imprisonment and torture – and this simply isn’t happening.

Video shows aftermath of Turkey car bomb attack in Cizre

So with our leaders failing us, we need great international minds to act. They have a clear vision and an audience of tens of millions of people. As the French Arabist and novelist Mathias Énard recently told the German newspaper Der Spiegel, “we mustn’t lose the East”. “The East is the twin of our West, but the political discourse doesn’t want us to see that,” Énard said.

So it is time for our intellectuals to grab the limelight, and they can only do it with our help.

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