Before the meeting, some Turkish writers announced their intentions to boycott the event if Naipaul attended, citing the writer’s controversial remarks about Islam. Naipaul, a Trinidadian writer of Indian descent who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, offended many Muslims in 2001 when he compared the religion’s effects to “the colonial abolition of identity.”
He said it “has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples” following his visits to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, claiming that Islam had both enslaved and attempted to wipe out other cultures.
Several Turkish authors had threatened to boycott the event after Hilmi Yavuz, a poet and academic, wrote in his column in the Zaman daily that it was inappropriate to invite a writer who had insulted Muslims. His criticism set off a wave of angry comments, prompting organizers of the event to politely tell Naipaul not to come to Turkey.
Novelist and academic Nedim Gürsel, whose book “Daughters of Allah” led to a storm of reactions in Turkey last year over claims that he insulted Islam, argued that Naipaul was subjected to “an execution without trial” in Turkey because many, who did not read even a single line from his work, made hasty judgments about the writer and launched a campaign against him.
Gürsel, who read two of Naipaul’s books following the outbreak of controversy over them, admitted that his arguments about Islam and its influence on non-Arab civilizations are open to debate; however, he was treated unjustly.
“I am not trying to act like Naipaul’s lawyer here to get him off the hook. What I am saying is, let’s read his books, understand them and then debate. Let’s not judge him solely on excerpts from his books,” Gürsel told Sunday’s Zaman.
Yavuz, who is said to have triggered the debate over Naipaul’s attendance by addressing Muslim intellectuals in his column “Will the consciences of our writers be at ease when sitting at the same table as V.S. Naipaul?” said Naipaul made the right decision by not attending the event.
“His conscience as someone who directed so many insults at Muslims would be disturbed by being among so many Muslims in a Muslim country. His absence from the event saved him from such a disturbance. It was the right decision,” Yavuz said.
In remarks to the media last week, poet Cezmi Ersöz defended Naipaul decision to not come to Turkey, explaining that his remarks on Islam were not simply criticism but tantamount to a “hate crime.”
“He is not someone who criticizes Islam in intellectual terms. He hates Muslims. Just as we cannot make insulting statements against Jews out of anger at the state policies of Israel, the same goes for this as well. Naipaul harbors a remarkable Islamophobia; he committed a hate crime,” Ersöz said.
Turkey’s test with controversial figures
This is not the first time that international figures who made controversial statements have sparked protests at cultural events in Turkey. Last month, Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica withdrew from the jury of the 47th edition of Antalya’s Altın Portakal (Golden Orange) International Film Festival as a result of protests against him. What made Kusturica a target of harsh criticism were his reported comments in support of the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia perpetrated by Serb forces.
Yeni Şafak columnist Fatma K. Barbarosoğlu approached the issue from another perspective. She said what makes the debate over the attendance of such controversial figures to cultural events in Turkey so heated is the fact that different reactions are given according to the background of the institution that invites them.
For instance, she recalls Kusturica’s uneventful visit to Bursa earlier this year and İstanbul’s Bilgi University inviting Naipaul earlier for another event. Both drew no protests from anyone and there was little, if any, media coverage.
Kusturica attended an event in Bursa upon an invitation of the Bursa Municipality, which is run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), several months before the film festival in Antalya. This led many to attack the government because Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay was among those who protested Kusturica’s attendance to the festival.
“Such controversies are usually used to take revenge for past events,” Barbarosoğlu told Sunday’s Zaman.
She admitted that it is very natural for authors or poets to boycott events in protest of those they are highly critical of. Some people in Turkey just failed to respect the very right of the authors and poets embarking on a vigorous campaign to defend controversial figures, which in turn increases tension, she said.