It was a bad day at the office yesterday for Turkey’s apologists for genocide. First, the lower house of the French parliament passed an opposition-sponsored bill to make denial of the Armenian genocide a crime, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $75,000 fine.

Then the the award was announced of this year’s Nobel prize for literature to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who has previously faced prosecution under a law criminalising the opposite opinion: he had expressed sympathy with the Armenians in a country still deeply in denial over the 1915-17 genocide.

The Swedish Academy, whose selections have looked increasingly political in recent years, could not have timed it better to make a point.

The first thing to say is that there is no moral equivalence between a law banning the truth and a law banning lies. Nonetheless, any move to criminalise opinion is an affront to free speech, and most of them are counter-productive. The proposed French law looks like no exception.

Pamuk himself said that this was not the time “to make political comments”. But fellow Turkish writer Elif Shafak, also prosecuted for Armenian sympathies, wrote in The Guardian that the French moves “cannot have a positive role in solving this deeply-rooted historical problem. If states try to dictate one version of history at the expense of all alternative readings, not only freedom of expression but also a genuine interest in history is stifled. No matter how benign the ultimate aim might be, such attempts only make matters worse.”

Armenians, who constitute a large immigrant community in France, argue that the proposed law merely mirrors that on the Holocaust. But questions about the Armenian genocide are not confined to the sort of lunatic fringe inhabited by the Holocaust-deniers. And even that law can stifle legitimate debate, and give unnecessary publicity to bigots such as David Irving, still imprisoned in Austria under an equivalent measure.

With Turkey in the queue for EU membership, in which role it could serve as a vitally important bridge to the Muslim world, tackling its historical forgetfulness is a serious priority. But the Nobel prize judges seem to have taken a better approach to it than the French lawmakers.

Peter Fray

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