Why France Shouldn’t Legislate Turkey’s Past

Ömer Taşpınar and
Omer Taspinar headshot
Ömer Taşpınar Former Brookings Expert
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

October 30, 2006

As European nations debate the idea of accepting Turkey into their ranks, vestiges of the country’s authoritarian nationalism–particularly its tendency to constrain free speech in the name of national honor and unity–have antagonized proponents of the European Union’s accepted liberal values. For example, when Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was recently prosecuted for claiming that a million Armenians were massacred by the Ottomans during World War I–in violation of a Turkish law that prohibits “insulting Turkish identity”–Europeans howled in protest until the charges were finally dropped. In recognition of his politics and his writing, Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

More recently, the Turkish stance on the Armenian massacres themselves is becoming an obstacle to its entry into the EU. On a recent visit to Armenia, for example, French President Jacques Chirac suggested that Turkey should not be allowed to join the EU until it recognizes the Armenian genocide. The European Parliament has similarly requested that Turkey “acknowledge” the genocide, although it has so far avoided making that a formal condition for membership.

But, while liberal states that demand accountability for the past are usually well-intentioned, they can also go too far–as new legislation in France clearly shows. In a blatant ploy to win over France’s 500,000 residents of Armenian origin, the lower house of France’s parliament passed a bill on October 12 that, if agreed to by the Senate, will make it illegal to deny that the 1915 massacres of Armenians constituted genocide. The Socialist-proposed bill, which gives sentences of up to a year in jail or up to a ?45,000 fine, passed by a lopsided vote of 106-19, and it was supported by the two leading candidates in the presidential election scheduled for next spring, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal. The parliament even rejected a proposed amendment to exempt scholarly research from the reach of the bill.

Not surprisingly, the reaction in Turkey to all of this has been furious. Well beyond the extremists demonstrating in the streets, nearly all Turks–including the most liberal and pro-European ones–resent seeing one of the most sensitive issues in their history being used as a pawn in French politics. Pamuk himself, no flack for the Turkish government, has criticized the French legislation. Turks rightly see the legislation as a cynical ploy not only to win Armenian votes but to put one more obstacle on the path to Turkey’s EU membership, which France has formally, if unenthusiastically, promised to negotiate. The backers of the new law claim that its purpose is to facilitate Turkish-Armenian reconciliation; its effect will likely be the opposite.

Worse, the French parliament’s vote is a dangerous step down a slippery slope. If it is a crime to disagree that what happened to Armenians 90 years ago should be considered genocide, why stop there? Shouldn’t it be a crime to minimize the impact of other historical tragedies, such as colonialism or the slave trade? Should the Turkish parliament pass a law making it a criminal offense to deny that France practiced torture in Algeria or that a million Muslims were killed there? Should African governments make it illegal to deny that genocide took place in Rwanda? Once you go down that road, it is hard to see where the line should be drawn.

Indeed, the new French legislation is just the latest illiberal policy in Europe masquerading as liberalism. Since the end of World War II, a number of European countries, including Germany, Austria, and France, have passed laws against Holocaust denial. Proponents of the laws argue that they allow these nations to atone politically for their past sins, while working to ensure that Holocaust deniers could not foster the same sort of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust in the first place. Now, however, they could also serve as inspiration to scores of different ethnic and religious groups that wish to win legal acknowledgement of their own past suffering and historical grievances, as the Armenians have. But parliaments across Europe would be better off taking the current legislation off the books than giving equal treatment to every group’s claims. Do we really want the government to start deciding that some historical views are acceptable but others merit prison sentences? And would the historical narratives that won legislative protection be those most clearly supported by “the facts” or those which had the most powerful political support?

Moreover, though the laws against Holocaust denial were–emotionally and politically–difficult to oppose, the consequences of compromising free speech are becoming clear. This February, for example, several months after European leaders defended the right of a Danish newspaper to publish a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad that offended Muslims, an Austrian Court sentenced historian David Irving to prison for Holocaust denial. The trial exposed European free speech advocates to charges of hypocrisy and undermined their efforts to convince Muslims that their tolerance of the cartoons was based on principle–and not a double standard.

To his credit–and despite his wish that Turkey acknowledge the Armenian genocide–Chirac and his government opposed the new legislation, arguing that history should be left up to historians, not lawmakers. He took the same principled stance last year, when he successfully opposed a law, backed by a majority in his coalition, that praised the “positive role” of colonialism.

As Pamuk’s prosecution reminds us, Turkey’s own record on free speech is far from pristine, and Turks would do well to be more open about their past. Instead of prosecuting those who challenge the official history, Ankara should support debating it openly and accepting its scars. Already, there are signs that this is taking place. Last year, Istanbul’s Bilgi University held a conference on Armenian history at which a range of views were presented. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported that conference, and he has also come out in favor of a joint Turkish-American committee of historians to study and report on the issue.

Turks should keep moving in this direction and do more to acknowledge that atrocities–however characterized–occurred. But these initiatives need to come from Turks themselves in a spirit of reconciliation, instead of being imposed from the outside under threat of prosecution. Ultimately, historians, not governments, should be the ones to decide these sensitive issues. The response to illiberalism in Turkey must not be illiberalism in France. What an irony if Turkey is kept out of the EU because of its position on free speech by a country that would put historians in jail for questioning the official line.