The Perpetual 'Other': Nisanyan Discusses Court Sentence, Minority Politics in Turkey
by Nanore Barsoumian
On May 22, Turkish-Armenian columnist Sevan Nisanyan was sentenced to more than 13 months in jail for a blog post he wrote in September 2012. The Istanbul court found Nisanyan guilty of "publicly insulting the religious values of part of the population" for having written: "Mocking an Arab leader who centuries ago claimed to have contacted God and made political, financial, and sexual benefits out of this is not a crime of hatred. It is an almost kidergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression."
Sevan Nisanyan (Photo by Iris Nisanyan)
Nisanyan's statement was in response to proposed "hate crime" bills in Turkey following the release of "The Innocence of Muslims," a controversial film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, which gave rise to demonstrations around the World, and in some cases resulted in injuries and deaths.
Over the years, Nisanyan has remained defiant in the face of death threats, court cases, and hate mail. In 2010, the alleged coup plot known as Operation Sledgehammer specified eight targets for assassination, including Nisanyan and three other Armenians: Hrant Dink, Etyen Mahcupyan, and Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan. An entrepreneur, Nisanyan has faced demolition orders and over two dozen criminal charges—carrying 50 years in prison—for his hotels in Sirince, Izmir. In 2010, his comments on the Armenian Genocide during a television program were followed by the suspension of the stationthat aired the show. The order came from the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), which found that the comments "humiliated the Republic of Turkey." Two years later, RTUK fined CNN Turk for comments made by Nisanyan that were found to be "insulting and injurious"—once again in the context of the film, "The Innocence of Muslims."
The recipient of the 2004 Freedom of Thought Award by Turkey's Human Rights Association, Nisanyan wears many hats. Aside from his involvement in journalism and the hotel business, he has published a widely popular guidebook to small hotels in Turkey. As a linguist, his research on the old and new names of places in Turkey yielded a book and an onlinetoponymical index.
In the following interview with the Armenian Weekly, conducted on June 3, Nisanyan discusses the recent court sentence, freedom of expression, minority politics, and his struggle to define himself.
Nanore Barsoumian—What prompted your reaction to the proposed laws on hate speech following the controversial film, "The Innocence of Muslims?"
Sevan Nisanyan—Let me make it clear that my article was not about the truth or falsity of Muhammad's prophet-hood. I'd find that childish. My article was about the right to question the truth of Muhammad's prophecy. Some people may think Muhammad was an impostor, or a bad moral example, a joke, or whatever. Do they have the right to say so openly and without fear? That is the issue.
Last autumn, several people very close to the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] started pontificating loudly on the need for a "Hate Speech Law" curtailing disrespect of religious values. I found that extremely worrying. Prime Minister Erdoğan has grown fond of legislating Islamic morality on issues like abortion, adultery, alcoholic drinks, religious education, and blasphemy. I thought it was a cheap shot to equate "hate speech" with "anti-Islamic speech," and I felt somebody must stand up and say this.
N.B.—How would you define hate speech?
S.N.—I believe freedom of speech is a paramount value. Criminalizing "hate speech" means limiting that freedom. It can be legitimate only if it concerns expressions that directly and tangibly endanger the rights, the liberty, and the security of some individuals or groups. Hate speech is only a threat if it actually puts some people in peril. It is silly to talk about criminal hate speech where the object of hate is powerful majorities or dominant ideas.
N.B.—Have you also been critical of other religions or religious figures?
S.N.—I am not in the habit of discussing religious belief. Clearly people hold all sorts of irrational beliefs, and it is a waste of time to try to disabuse them of their faith. Religious belief only becomes fair game when it tries to impose itself by force or by legal subterfuge.
N.B.—In February 2012, tens of thousands of people gathered in Taksim Square in Istanbul for anti-Armenian protests. Some of the signs and slogans included, "You are all Armenians, you are all bastards." Among the speakers at the rally was Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin. Are prosecutions based on hate speech applied across the board, or are they reserved for certain issues?
S.N.— Mr. Sahin was something of a loose cannon, and he was fired because of that. But it is true that all sorts of outrageous libel is considered acceptable in this country, so long as the libeler is part of established power and the libelee is in the minority, whether religious, ethnic, sexual, or lifestyle-related.
I don't believe anyone has ever been prosecuted in Turkey for advocating the murder, mayhem, or massacre of Armenians, Jews, Kurds, atheists, gays, or liberals. Thousands, on the other hand, were prosecuted and convicted in the past for "insulting Turkishness" under the notorious Article 301 of the penal code. Now, "insulting Islam" seems to be replacing that old juggernaut as a favorite instrument to hit dissidents with.
N.B.—Back in October, before a criminal case was launched, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said, "Swearing and insults can never be assumed as opinion. Only ill-spirited people show such delirium…it is a crime defined within the Turkish Penal Code. If [the prosecutors] haven't yet, then I'm denouncing it from here: I'm announcing a crime. This is a typical hate crime. It is hate crime and it is a crime that is defined in our penal code." Why would a government official make such a statement?
S.N.—Mr. Bozdağ is a mouthpiece of the prime minister. His comments are usually taken to represent the views of his boss. I believe that, after 11 years in office, Mr. Erdoğan has become over-confident of his power. I find that disturbing, and even potentially dangerous.
N.B.—You also received criticism from within the Armenian community. Bishop Sahag Masalyan from Istanbul reportedly said your statement was provocative and offended societal peace. There have been other voices of criticism as well. How do you read that?
S.N.— Caution is second nature to most Armenians in this country. One cannot blame them, I suppose.
I have no pretense of representing the Armenian community, or even a segment or subset of the Armenian community. I represent myself and nothing else. So it is a little pathetic that the Armenian Church feels obliged to comment on my conduct just because I happen to have a surname that ends with "yan."
N.B.—You are often at the center of controversy in Turkey. Why is it that you are constantly pushing boundaries?
S.N.—It is fun. I enjoy it. I also think that I am performing a useful social service.
N.B.—As a writer, a commentator, a member of a group that has suffered persecution in those lands, how do you view your role, and how do you define yourself?
S.N.— A few months ago I published my autobiography, whose dominant theme was my lifelong inability to define myself. I don't like to define myself. I like being the perpetual "other."
I suppose being Armenian contributed at least partly to that attitude. I lived in the States for 10 years; with Yale and Columbia degrees, I think I had a bright academic career ahead of me. But I never felt at home in America. I feel perfectly at home in a country where most people would rather see me go. A paradox? I don't think so. I like the precariousness of my situation. I think I contribute a lot to the society I live in.
I am glad to say, a lot of people here seem to appreciate this. Some 50,000 people follow my blog and Twitter accounts. My books sell well. My etymological dictionary is now recognized as the standard work of reference in its field. My village, Şirince, prospers, largely thanks to me. My hotel is probably the most widely admired in the country. I build architectural follies as I fancy; I am increasingly commissioned to build them for third parties, too. What else could one want?
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