Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Boycott for Mr. Naipaul

What is it about Turks and winners of the Nobel prize for literature? Their own home-grown one, Orhan Pamuk, has more-or-less been hounded out of the country for alleged insults against the nation. And now V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born 2001 winner of the prize, has been forced to cancel a speech he was to make in Turkey because of an uproar over alleged insults he made against Islam.

The story's background, via the Wall Street Journal:
Nobel Prize-winning author Sir V.S. Naipaul has pulled out of a writers' conference in Istanbul that starts Thursday, pressured by religious conservative media in Turkey that objected to statements he has made on Islam.
The move sparked two Turkish authors to pull out of the event, its organizers said Wednesday.
Mr. Naipaul, author of some 30 books, had been due to give the opening speech at the European Parliament of Writers, a literary event organized here to mark Istanbul's status as a European Capital of Culture this year.
For the past week, however, religious conservative Turkish newspapers, including Yeni Safak and Zaman, have been campaigning against the decision to honor Mr. Naipaul, a 78-year-old Trinidadian of Indian origin. While some Turkish authors supported his right to attend the conference, defending him on grounds of free speech, others said they would boycott the event if he attended.
"How can our writers bear to sit by the same table with Naipaul, who has seen Muslims worthy of so many insults?" wrote poet and Zaman columnist Hilmi Yavuz, who initiated the planned boycott last week and described Mr. Naipaul as "an enemy of Islam" and "a colonialist."
Is it me, or is there an ill wind of intolerance blowing through Turkey these days? From television stations being fined for what guests said during debates, to ministers suing columnists for perceived insults and armed gangs attacking art gallery openings, there seems to be a worrying trend developing here.

The great irony regarding the scratched Naipaul visit was that the cantankerous author was actually in Istanbul this past July and not a peep was heard. At that time, he came as a key speaker in something called "Istancool," an arts and culture festival sponsored by Turkish Airlines and the Turkish Ministry of Tourism. Four months later, Istanbul doesn't seem so cool, at least not on the cultural front.

Turkey is trying to position Istanbul as a global capital of, among other things, culture. The Naipaul affair is a sign that, at least for now, the internal forces and contradictions that continue to tug at the Turkish sense of self-identity will prevent the city from playing that role. Indeed, as Sameer Rahim, the Daily Telegraph's assistant books editor, wrote in a column about the affair, Naipaul's writing probably has a lot to offer Turkey:
Naipaul, like Turkey, contains unfathomable contradictions. (He does, after all, have a Pakistani wife.) Those Turks who opposed his entry might do well to ignore his provocations and read his powerful novels of inbetweeness.
A very interesting 2005 New York Times profile of Naipaul, meanwhile, sheds more light on his complicated and sometimes problematic approach to Islam, but also shows that the author and the two books about his travels in parts of the Muslim world, which have been the source for some of the criticism leveled against Naipaul, might also have something to say for today's Turkey. From the article:
The books raise but don't necessarily answer deep and vexing questions: Is secularism a precondition of tolerance? Does one necessarily have to abandon one's individual cultural and religious identity to become part of the West? Why do people willingly choose lives that restrict their intellectual freedom?


Unknown said...

you should have also mentioned that the papers "zaman" and "yeni safak" love to play "he savior of democracy while in fact they have zero tolerance to everything non-islamic.

emre said...

Turkey's going back to its roots. They smell pretty rotten to me.