Press reports say high-profile novelists are part of ‘international literature lobby’ recruited by western powers to attack Turkey’s government
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a session at the Turkish parliament. Photograph: Depo Photos/Rex
Major Turkish authors Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak have been accused by the pro-government Turkish press of being controlled by an “international literature lobby” that has the Turkish government in its sights.
An article in the pro-Erdoğan paper Takvim this week includes the claim that this literature lobby selects a few authors from each country and then uses them to attack the government. Images of Shafak and Pamuk have been circulated on social media, bearing the line “they are projects” – implying that they are projects developed by western powers to criticise the Turkish government. Earlier this year, a piece in the pro-government Yeni Akit said the two writers were “not human”.
Elif Shafak, whose most recent novel, The Architect’s Apprentice, has just been published in the UK, said: “One accusation was that we were being recruited by western powers in order to criticise Turkey. Whenever we say something critical, whenever I write a piece for a newspaper that is critical of Turkey’s government or history, this happens. But this is the first time I’ve heard of an “international literature lobby”.
“Unfortunately, in Turkey conspiracy theories are very widespread, and people believe in them. That kind of paranoia happens all the time,” said Shafak.
“They say the lobby is using novelists – imagining we have this power. Of course not many people will take it seriously, but enough do. So it’s all over social media, the picture is being circulated over and over, with lots of slander, hate speech and misinformation.”
Jo Glanville, director of English Pen, a writers’ organisation campaigning for freedom of expression for writers worldwide, said: “They are claiming that Orhan and Elif are tools of an international literature lobby, and that they shouldn’t be thought of as writers, that they are projects of this lobby. It’s very obviously a desperate attempt to undermine their credibility and their influence, by saying they are just mouthpieces, not independent intellectuals.
“It’s a completely routine intimidation practice. The government will use its supporters in the media to discredit anyone who criticises it. This time, it’s by creating this mythical international literature lobby, which clearly has absolutely no grounds to it at all.”
The press claims follow comments made by Pamuk on publication his new novel Kafamda bir Tuhaflik (A Strangeness in My Mind). The Nobel laureate was accused of criticising his country to publicise his book, after telling Turkish paper Hurriyet that it “deals with the oppression suffered by women in Turkey”, adding: “if we were to criticise Turkey from the outside, it would be about the place of women in society.”
Last month, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan drew fire for suggesting women were not equal to men. “Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women: motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood,” Erdoğan said, adding that treating men and women equally “goes against the laws of nature”.
“Their characters, habits and physiques are different … You cannot place a mother breastfeeding her baby on an equal footing with men. You cannot make women work in the same jobs as men do, as in communist regimes. You cannot give them a shovel and tell them to do their work. This is against their delicate nature,” he said to a summit in Istanbul on justice for women.
“Our politicians make thoughtless statements on this point as if they want to start a fight,” Pamuk told Hurriyet this week. “The worst thing is that there’s a fear. I find that everyone is afraid; it’s not normal … Freedom of expression has fallen to a very low level … Lots of my friends tell me that such and such a journalist has lost his job. Now, even journalists who are very close to the government are getting harassed.”
Shafak agreed. “In Turkey, novelists are like public figures. We get lots of attacks. I’ve been accused in the past of insulting Turkishness, being a traitor, siding with the Armenians. I try not to take it personally, but we have absolutely seen freedom of expression slow down in Turkey, particularly over the last few years, and it is becoming even worse. It is becoming more and more difficult to write critically,” said the novelist, who was prosecuted in Turkey for “insulting Turkishness” after her bestselling novel The Bastard of Istanbul was released.
Pen International called the latest attacks on Shafak and Pamuk – who has previously been accused of “insulting Turkishness” with remarks about Turkey’s persecution of Kurds – “a return to the defensiveness of Turkey’s old military regimes; where any sort of criticism was seen as an attack on the Turkish state and its people”.
“Pen International is particularly concerned that both writers, who were put on trial for insulting Turkishness in the past, are being targeted for their legitimate expression yet again and could face the same kind of threats to their lives that they did in the past,” said the writers’ organisation.