Imprisoning academics isn't write

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With Europe already fussing over Turkey's less-than-progressive freedom of expression laws, a Turkish court has decided to do the country's hopes of joining the European Union a favour by... sentencing an academic?

On Mon. Jan. 28, a Turkish court sentenced professor Atilla Yayla to a 15-month suspended jail term. He was charged with making defamatory comments about the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Yayla is a well-known Turkish liberal who claims to be trying to illustrate the desperate lack of freedom of expression in that country.

This case has tremendous relevance for Turkey's hoped-for accession into the EU. For many years the EU hesitated to engage in membership talks with the secular republic because of, among other reasons, its poor human rights record. Since talks officially opened in Oct. 2005, the EU has placed constant pressure on Turkey to democratize. Specifically, Turkey has received intense criticism for many laws limiting freedom of expression, including the notorious Article 301, which has been used to attack numerous writers and intellectuals--even Nobel laureate Orphan Pamuk.

Turkey is already facing an uphill battle to gain entry into the EU. Some member states are concerned because Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, which, if granted admission to the EU, would be the single most populated state in the union. The fact Turkey is less well-off than much of Europe (though perhaps not throughout) is also seen as a problem. It is feared that once granted membership--which allows citizens to travel and live freely throughout EU states--Turkish citizens will flood Europe. Neither of these cases for denying Turkish membership are legitimate, though. It would be absurd for Europe to reject Turkey for religious reasons. There are already millions of Muslims living peacefully in the EU and granting Turkey membership would go much further towards mitigating militancy than would any other course of action. As the EU has accepted other impoverished nations into its ranks in the past, the argument that Turkey is too poor to join is also doomed to fail.

The biggest concern for Turkey, then, should be improving its human rights record. Clearly imprisoning intellectuals is not the way to go about this. If Turkey is serious about joining the EU, it needs to get rid of intellectually deadening restrictions on freedom of expression. It is almost inconceivable that with this goal in mind a court decision like the sentencing of Atilla Yayla could have happened.

The other problem caused by this ruling is the damage to Turkey's intellectual climate. Criticism and debate are necessary for the development of new ideas, political and otherwise. As such, it is not difficult to see merit in Yayla's contention that academics must be granted freedom of expression to pursue their work. If the intellectuals of the country have to watch what they say for fear of being arrested, they are certainly going to be either less willing to push the boundaries or less willing to remain in Turkey. This, then, cripples intellectual progress which requires an open environment for the exchange of ideas, including controversial ones. Turkey, which in the last few months has been writing a new, more liberal constitution, is not doing itself any favours by silencing the very individuals who are most likely to make positive contributions to these sorts of reforms. The importance of a robust intellectual community is even more apparent when considering Turkey's location, as the bridge between East and West. Situated so close to the troubled areas of the Middle-East, Turkey cannot afford to slide into intellectual stagnation.