Commentary

Turkey’s writers are among its most articulate ambassadors. Yet instead of being lauded, many are pr

Literature matters in Turkey - really matters. Just about every Turkish writer with an international reputation has been persecuted by the state, from the nation's greatest poet, Nazim Hikmet, who died in exile in Moscow, to Orhan Pamuk. Even the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did time for misquoting poetry.

So perhaps it's no surprise that the controversial columnist and novelist Perihan Magden is to be prosecuted, too. Magden's bestselling latest novel Two Girls, the story of an intense lesbian affair, was recently published in the UK to acclaim. Writers such as Pamuk and Magden are among Turkey's most convincing ambassadors as the country bids to join the EU, not because they peddle any political agenda, but because they articulate the complex and compelling hybridity of modern Turkey. You'd think they would be lauded for providing a fresh vision of their homeland, but instead Turkey seems intent on prosecuting its writers.

Magden will stand trial on 7 June, charged with "alienating the people from military service". In a column in Aktuel in December last year, she drew attention to the case of Mehmet Tarhan, a conscientious objector imprisoned for refusing to do military service. Magden suggested that a modern country with ambitions to enter the EU should respect the rights of conscientious objectors and provide non-violent options such as community service. For this she faces three years' imprisonment.

Magden isn't alone. Around 60 writers, publishers and journalists have been before the courts in Turkey in the past year, many charged under Article 301 of the penal code, which states that "a person who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be imposed a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years". Recent cases include Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian-Turkish-language weekly Agos; the publishers Ragip Zarakolu and Fatih Tas; and the journalists Ismet Berkan, Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin, Hasan Cemal and Erol Katircioglu. Turkey amended its penal code last year, in an attempt to remove human-rights anomalies from its law. But the EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, has said that such trials have cast a shadow over Turkey's application. Perhaps that's just what Magden's prosecutors want.

The plight of Turkey's writers reflects clashes in the wider culture. The country's identity is in flux as it moves into the 21st century, with capitalism, minority rights, feminism, Islam, secularism, socialism and multiculturalism coexisting uneasily. Magden is a feisty and courageous woman. She's a playful writer, but that doesn't mean she isn't serious. When it comes to freedom of expression, there's everything to play for in modern Turkey, but the stakes are high and the game is a dangerous one. Without international pressure, Magden could end up in jail.