Like Lenny in James Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t understand much about how the world works. He does understand, however, how to lead a slow motion social and religious revolution in Turkey and transform a once vibrant if dysfunctional democracy into a strongman dictatorship. In his first decade in power, Erdoğan’s animus has been strongest toward the press. Turkey now ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom; Reporters Without Frontiers labels Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Indeed, Erdoğan strokes journalists like Lenny strokes rabbits.
Now it seems that the Turkish government is beginning to turn its animus toward classic literature. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission is seeking to ban certain parts of John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ for several “immoral” passages, according to daily BirGün.” This should be especially worrying because Izmir is not some provincial Anatolian town, but in the heart of the Europeanized Mediterranean.
Now, many American progressives and liberals will note that American conservatives have tried on moral and religious grounds to censor classic literature. Two wrongs don’t make a right. America has the courts and the legal structure to resist such attempts at censorship; the censors in Turkey, however, have an intolerant prime minister on their side. The AKP has already reformed high school curriculum to insert religious content into secular subjects. “Muslim philosophy” has replaced the classics of Western philosophy in the new AKP-imposed curriculum. Islam is therefore mandatory even for students who opt out of religious studies. In May 2006, Turkey’s chief negotiator for European Union accession ordered the removal of references to Turkey’s educational system as secular from a negotiating paper.
If European and American diplomats do not stand up to Turkey now, the censorship will only get worse. Perhaps it’s time for the Congressional Turket Caucus to stop running interference for Turkey and to start demanding Turkey adhere to the standard of Western democracy to which it once claimed to aspire.