Outrage over fictional child abuse may lead to extreme self-censorship in Turkey

When Turkish author Abdullah Şevki’s collection of short stories, “Zümrüt Apartment”, was published to little fanfare in 2013, he could not have guessed the book would one day place his name beside those of Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie and William Burroughs. Six years later, he probably wishes it hadn’t.

Last month Zümrüt Apartment became the latest in a long list of works whose authors and publishers have faced legal repercussions in Turkey. This time there was a critical difference: the book has been taken off the shelves, and Şevki and his publisher Alaattin Topçu face potential jail sentences, not at the whim of political authorities, but due to the demands of thousands who protested on social media.

Experts, authors and publishing industry insiders told Ahval they fear this could lead to extreme self-censorship in Turkey’s publishing industry.

The outrage was sparked when a social media user shared a screen shot of a single page from one of Şevki’s stories in which the first-person narrator describes himself sexually assaulting a baby. 

For author and critic Barış Özkül, it was a vulgar depiction, lacking the literary merit of a work that deals with the topic like Nabokov’s “Lolita”.  Yet an author’s value should be a matter for literary debate, not criminal prosecutions, Özkül said. “Today in Turkey everything can easily be subject to criminal investigation. Voicing a critical or opposition opinion is sufficient for someone to be prosecuted. Writing novels is no exception.”

It was not long before the outcry against Şevki developed into a broader wave targeting other authors whose works were deemed obscene, including renowned writers like Ayşe Kulin and the late Duygu Asena.

“In my novels I write about difficult subjects, including sexual harassment, rape and incest because these are major problems in Turkey and novelists cannot be silent on these issues,” said Elif Shafak, one of the bestselling novelists whose work has been targeted. 

After a social media user singled out a passage recounting sexual assault on a child in Shafak’s 2000 novel “The Gaze” (Mahrem), the author received thousands of harassing messages on social media in just two days. On Friday the Guardian reported that a prosecutor had begun examining her novels.

The bottom-up dynamic of the current furore is a far cry from the politically driven cases of censorship that have come before, said Elizabeth Nolte, a scholar at the University of Warwick who works on literary censorship in Turkey.

Nolte noted that periods of severe censorship and suppression of free speech rights in Turkey’s history had strongly correlated with political repression and restrictions on the media. “From the 1931 Press Law to the military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980, to the present, political transformations generally are accompanied by censorship and state attempts to regulate culture, morality, and Turkish identity,” she said. 

In the first two decades after the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, the single party state was able to apply direct pressure on authors, many of whom served as members of parliament, while the primary form of the publication of literary works was serialisation in newspapers. After the advent of the multi-party system in 1945, book prohibition, prosecution, fines and taxes became the primary means of literary censorship, Nolte said.

Most recently, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has applied the same tactics on literature it uses to control the media, she said, including monetary fines, incarceration, a flexible definition of terrorism offences, and the consolidation of the industry into official and pro-government entities.

Shafak was on the receiving end of this form of state repression in 2006, when she landed in court for her take on the Armenian Genocide in the novel “The Bastard of Istanbul”. The writer was eventually acquitted in what was one of the best-known freedom of expression cases of its time.

Visitors look at books at the annual book fair in Ankara on February 23, 2019. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)
Visitors look at books at the annual book fair in Ankara on February 23, 2019. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

An early censorship trial took place in 1939, after Nasuhi Baydar’s translation of the novel “Aphrodite: moeurs antiques” (1896) by French writer Pierre Louÿs was banned by authorities, and its publisher and printer brought to trial. The defendants were eventually acquitted in a lengthy legal battle that received widespread coverage and sparked public debate. 

But at that time, the authorities’ accusations of obscenity were opposed by a cross section of Turkish society.

“In contrast to ‘Zümrüt Apartment’, where there is public pressure from across the political spectrum for the investigation, public consensus and the majority of intellectuals, including the conservative Peyami Safa and the rightist Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, defended the translation’s literary merit and argued that ‘Aphrodite: moeurs antiques’ belonged to the canon of world literature. The trial of Aphrodite so captivated the public that the media coverage overshadowed the news of the outbreak of World War Two and the book quickly became a bestseller,” Nolte said. 

In another famous case in 1986, a court banned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn for inciting sexual desire in the public. The book was later allowed to be published as long as the offending sections were removed. In an innovative act of civil disobedience, the publishers followed the court’s order – but also published the court decision, which included the censored passages, at the end of the book.

So, what accounts for the shift to a public campaign against “Zümrüt Apartment”?

Shafak believes the outrage stems from the political context in Turkey. “Cases of violence against women and children have escalated by 1,400 percent in the last years,” she said. With cases of sexual harassment and abuse gaining more visibility in Turkey, many believe the government is failing to protect children.

In 2016, a 54-year-old teacher was charged with sexually abusing 10 children in guesthouses illegally run by two Islamic foundations. One of the institutions, the Ensar Foundation, is known for its close links to the Turkish government. Despite the public outcry, it was allowed to continue its work with the Education Ministry, including teaching religious education classes at schools.

This is one of a series of cases that have sparked campaigns joined by thousands on social media demanding action on cases of sexual harassment and abuse of women and children. The uproar against Şevki’s book last week coincided with reports that an 18-month-old baby had been raped and killed by a relative in Istanbul.

In other words, Turkey’s social media users are positioning themselves as moral arbiters in cases where they feel state institutions are failing them. In some instances, like the suspected murder of Ankara student Şule Çet and the suspicious death of 11-year-old Rabia Naz Vatan, social media activism has been a vital last resort bringing attention to grave injustices. The pile-on campaign calling for banning books and punishing authors could be seen as the darker side of this phenomenon. 

“A single page, a single paragraph, even a single sentence that can provoke rage can mobilise a mass reaction. We are in a time when one tweet can be much more effective than a book,” Özkül said. 

This kind of furious reaction was witnessed in Turkey in 1993, when controversy over a literary work led to horrific consequences. Turkish author Aziz Nesin’s translation of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” was a source of scandal when it was serialized in the Aydınlık newspaper ın 1993. 

Religious conservatives were horrified by reports of Rushdie’s depiction of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, and when Nesin attended a cultural festival organised by Alevi intellectuals and artists in the central Anatolian province of Sivas, a mob led by radical Islamists surrounded their hotel and set it alight. Thirty-five people, mostly participants in the festival, were burned alive in what is known today as the Sivas massacre.

This was, perhaps, an extreme expression of what Özkül calls a widespread tendency in Turkey to view literature through a puritan moral filter without distinguishing between fictitious characters and reality. 

For Nolte, this attitude has been sharpened by the recent public outrage over cases of child abuse, and she says it is leading to “a shift towards citizen censorship in the policing of cultural content.”

“The scale of the public’s response and the retroactive investigation of Zümrüt Apartment, which has been on the market for six years, distinguishes this from other obscenity cases and sets a dangerous precedent,” the scholar said. 

A shift towards outright political repression of transgressive fiction had already begun with 2012 obscenity charges against the translations of The Soft Machine by William Burroughs and Chuck Palahniuk’s satire “Snuff”, Nolte said.  

Rather than relying on expert opinion as to the literary value of these works, the judge postponed the trial for three years and warned the publishers that any future obscene publications would be added to the charge, a decision interpreted by the industry as a change in policy and an attempt to intimidate the publishers.

The prospect of public campaigns against novelists piles further pressure on the industry.

“My worry is because of this toxic climate of lynching, it will become much more difficult for authors and artists to produce works of art and literature. There is already widespread self-censorship among Turkey’s literati due to political oppression. From now on we will have even more of that,” said Shafak.

A crackdown on free speech since the anti-government Gezi Protests in 2013, and particularly after the 2016 attempted coup, has already made a level of self-censorship a necessity for Turkish authors and editors, Nolte said. The latest incident could push this to an extreme.

© Ahval English