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Orhan Pamuk

Turkish writer and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk doesn’t mince his words. In a 2005 interview with the Swiss magazine Das Magazin, the novelist smashed two major taboos when he said, “Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.”

In Turkey, a veil of silence surrounds the military’s violent suppression of the Kurdish independence movement, and the government still denies the existence of the Armenian genocide during WWI. By alluding to both of these issues, Pamuk wasn’t just taking a strong stance against some of worst choices his homeland has made in the past century. He was also thumbing his nose at the idea that citizens of a country shouldn’t ever discuss its moral failures or question the purity of its origins. And he was doing it while Turkey was on its best behavior, negotiating a timetable for admittance to the EU.

The backlash was swift: An avalanche of death threats prompted Pamuk to briefly flee Turkey. After he returned, the Turkish government drafted a new law and retroactively charged Pamuk with breaking it. His crime? “Insulting Turkey’s national character.”

All nations have their self-serving historical myths and their jealously guarded blind spots. In the West, artists and political dissidents often base their careers on exploding these myths—look at Andres Serrano in the 1980s, or Howard Zinn now. In much of the world, though, such people end up in prison. By raising the issues he did, when he did, Pamuk forced the Turkish government to choose whether it would tolerate or persecute dissidents.

Fort the time being, the Turkish government has made the right decision. It dropped the charges against Pamuk, though on a technicality. Meanwhile, the novelist is still talking: He brings up the Armenian genocide and the plight of the Kurds whenever he’s interviewed, insisting it’s both a matter of human decency as well as one of free speech.

Next page: Apostate radical Wafa Sultan

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