BITTER RIPPLES are still traveling from the Salman Rushdie affair, some in places where they stand to create considerable mischief. Not long ago in Turkey, a country long known for a determinedly secularist governing philosophy, 37 people died in a hotel fire set by a mob that was trying, authorities said, to lynch a 75-year-old poet who had translated parts of Mr. Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." The dead were mostly poets and writers, in the central Anatolian city of Sivas to attend a conference on a 16th-century Ottoman poet who had opposed that regime. "The Satanic Verses" is banned in Turkey, and the poet, Aziz Nesin, got in trouble last fall for translating and publishing excerpts from it in a magazine he edits. But the other stated cause of the recent violence, which Turkish government people are hinting was orchestrated, was that Mr. Nesin had given an "openly atheist" speech to the conference the day before.
This was the worst sectarian religious incident in Turkey since 1978, when the country was torn apart by unrest that finally brought on the 1980 military coup, and its aftermath has been troubling. Some government officials, and many newspapers, have taken the line that, while freedom of speech is important, Mr. Nesin "provoked" the attack with his speech. In it he is said to have argued that religion should be modernized and people need not obey scriptures -- as it happens, not only views held by large numbers of Turkey's Westernized elites but also substantial parts of the modern nation's founding philosophy and that of its revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Mr. Nesin, the author of some 75 books of poetry, satire and short stories, has been for decades one of the nation's most popular if consistently left-wing writers. That makes it more peculiar yet that conservative religious students at an Istanbul university were reported to have rallied with cries that Mr. Nesin "now has been given his penalty" and that "it must be carried out," or that Iran took advantage of the situation to proclaim that all the Nesin books are now banned in Iran, where they have been widely popular in translation.
There is an important distinction, of course, between secularism in the sense of hostility to religion and secularism as a form of government neutral toward it. But how robust is secular government when the expression of secular sentiments carries this degree of danger? Longtime Turkey-watchers point out that the Rushdie issue, with the uniquely inflammatory life it has taken on, is a bad case by which to gauge any Muslim country's commitment to tolerance. But that quality also makes the issue a wild card, capable of creating unforeseen havoc in otherwise placid places. At a time when the West holds up the "Turkish model" -- secular and democratic -- as an example for the Mideast and the new Central Asian countries, it's an understatement to say the health of secularism in Turkey is something to watch with care.