Orhan Pamuk and Bernard Lewis

There’s a great deal of indignation in Europe and America over the possible prosecution of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for words he spoke in an interview to a Swiss newspaper back in February. “Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and no one dares to speak out on this but me,” he told an interviewer. By speaking of “a million Armenians” killed in 1915-17, Pamuk greatly exceeded the number generally admitted by Turkey, and put the losses on the scale of a genocide. For these remarks, a prosecutor in Istanbul has indicted Pamuk for “public denigration” of Turkish identity, which is a crime under the country’s penal code. Pamuk is expected to go on trial on December 16.

Pamuk is widely admired as a Nobel-class author, and the decision to indict him is almost beyond explanation. It’s played straight into the hands of the legions of Turkey-bashers, especially in Europe, who’ve mounted their pedestals to declare that Turkey is still the heart of darkness. But the outrage goes beyond the usual suspects. That someone can be prosecuted for interpreting history as he or she sees fit is offensive to all people who value freedom of speech. The New York Times has just run an editorial criticizing the way Turkey “chooses to patrol its own history.” This time, the Times is right.

Unfortunately, Europe’s own record on this score is still tarnished by a disgraceful precedent set in Paris. I refer to the criminal and civil cases brought against Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, for words he spoke in an interview with Le Monde in 1993. Lewis had his own take on the Armenian massacres (he thought they weren’t genocide), and found himself hauled before a court for expressing it—the victim of benighted legislation similar to Turkey’s. Lewis lost one of the civil cases brought against him, and had to pay a symbolic fine and court costs. (The chilling verdict, right out of Orwell, is here.)

Where were the European intellectuals, authors, and parliamentarians back then, when a French court trampled on free speech? The historian Maxime Rodinson sided with Lewis’s right to speak freely, but I can’t recall any other overt expressions of solidarity. Fortunately, the great and free newspapers of America saw the issue with perfect clarity. The Washington Post, for one, ran an editorial on the case (September 9, 1995), reaching this conclusion:

When a court is willing to punish a scholar for expressing an ‘insulting’ opinion on a historical matter, even when debate on the point in question has been raging worldwide for years, the absurdity and the perniciousness of such laws is on full display. Once a court or a disciplinary body can be enlisted in lieu of argument to silence an unpopular viewpoint, all manner of trouble can and will result.

Indeed. If prosecuting Pamuk is wrong—and it is—then the finding against Lewis was just as wrong. Europe is right to hold Turkey to Europe’s standards, if Turkey wishes to join the EU. What Europe isn’t entitled to do is play by double standards. If you’re a Turk, you risk Turkish prosecution if you say the wrong things about history. If you’re anyone, you risk a French lawsuit if you say the wrong things about history. These crude laws look identical to me, and if the EU is serious about bringing Europe up to America’s gold standard of free speech, it can start by getting oppressive anti-speech laws off European books. Do that, and then preach to Ankara—in good faith.