“We lost the ability to make fun of ourselves”

Turkish author Elif Shafak talks about the relationship of her government to humour, the problematic deal for the refugees and the responsibility of European populists for the situation in Turkey.

She speaks softly, polite and thoughtful. Even so, each of her words are being heard loud and clear: Many of her 14 books have been bestsellers and many were translated in dozens of languages. Her most recent book was “The architect’s apprentice”, Penguin, 2015. The voice of the 44-year old Turkish intellectual carries considerate weight in social media, too. She has 1,7 million Twitter follower. Shafak lives in Istanbul and London, where she met profil in a coffeeshop in Marylebone for an interview.

Profil: After the scandal surrounding German comedians and their “Schmähgedicht”, an abusive poem about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, I would like to ask you if you thought that comedy shows have to draw lines of decency? And where would they be drawn?

Shafak: I have always seen humour as an important criteria for democracy. In Turkey one of the things we have sadly lost is our ability to laugh at ourselves. Loss of humour is one of the biggest indicators of authoritarianism. Since the day Erdogan became President, more than 1800 people have been sued for 'insulting the President.' Among them are even high school students, they have been arrested for something they posted on Facebook. In addition to journalists, academics and writers, a number of cartoonists have been put on trial. I find this very, very wrong.

Profil: But can you say whatever you want as long as it is meant as critical sense of humour?

Shafak: I am sensitive about dangerous hate speech towards minorities and individuals. Any discourse that inflames violence against subcultures should be monitored by the democratic society. Because minorities and ordinary citizens are vulnerable. But when it comes to the State, it is a different thing altogether. It is definitely OK to make fun of the state, the bureaucracy, the power elite, the religious elite, the ruling politicians etc. They are already too powerful. Turkey's leaders need to remember that humour is a beautiful gift. Without humour people cannot breathe.

Profil: The Turkish government is sending some refugees back to war torn Syria instead of taking care of them. Was it a mistake of Angela Merkel to make a deal with president Erdogan?

Shafak: The EU-Turkey deal on refugees is problematic for several reasons. Human rights advocates across Europe and UN Humanitarian Agency have been criticizing the deal openly. This is an international problem, a massive humanitarian crisis that can only be solved through international cooperation. Not by 'outsourcing' the problem to somewhere else. There are almost 3 million refugees in Turkey. This number is too high. Refugees are everywhere in cities, towns across the country. It is not good for them to live on the streets, in the parks. There are social and cultural clashes, security concerns. There are child brides. Some Turkish men are marrying Syrian women as second, even third wives. Even though polygamy is illegal! No one talks about these issues. No one knows how they can be accommodated in the long run. In the meantime' there are serious concerns among Turkey's democrats that the EU leaders have stopped talking about the apparent problems in Turkey's democracy and freedom of speech in order to secure the refugee deal.

Profil: In Western Europe people already turn against the refugees.

Shafak: In the meantime we have the Gulf States with their crazy wealth not doing anything. How can that be ok? These are Muslim countries! Turkey has three million refugees, it is not sustainable. Sufism tells us about the importance of balance. If you put too much pressure on one spot, problems will arise. We have to act all of us together as world citizens.
Profil: Was it a mistake of the EU to talk to Turkey in its current situation about EU membership again?
Shafak: We have huge dilemma. Turkey’s EU membership is not an option at the moment, but it should be encouraged. Tu rkey is becoming more authoritarian, more conservative, more illiberal. In 2005/2006 we experienced the big moment when it seemed almost possible to join. But then it failed for two reasons. The Turkish government did not fulfill the criteria to enter the EU, Turkish politicians did not meet the requirements. And I am very critical of this because we needed those criteria to be implemented - not only for the sake of joining the EU. But for us, for our own democracy, for our own human rights and freedom of speech. I am also critical of populist politicians in continental Europe. They have acted in a very shortsighted way. In their election campaigns they have used the fear of Turkey as a political card.
Profil: Turkey is on an authoritarian track for more reasons than just the EU closing the door on it. Should the EU allow now free visa travel from Turkey to the EU?
Shafak: Right now we have a mess. The EU-Turkey agreement is not realistic. I am very sad. Not democracy, but stability and security are the priority now. I think we can try to solve the refugee crisis and make democracy and human rights a priority at the same time. It can be done. Because the other option is a mistake. And in the Middle East we have seen this mistake over and over again. Since 9/11 people in the West think, if they live in a world that is based on sameness, they will be more secure. If the neighbours dress like me, look like me and worship where I do, then we are safer. But this is an illusion. Because we are far too globalized to create imagined, isolated communities. The unhappiness of someone living in Pakistan affects the happiness of someone living in Canada.
Profil: You have 1,7 million Twitter followers, you have a real impact as role model. Also for women who wear headscarves or miniskirts. Ho important is the scarf for the debate about selbst-determination?
Shafik: I have been critical of the head scarf ban because I taught at universities for many years and I have seen 19 year old students been stopped at university gates because of their headscarves in a country where women find it already difficult to have education. Turkey is still a country, where many families find it unthinkable that their daughter takes off her scarf. To have that girl in the university, to have that girl get education, to have that girl read books in the library to me seemed so much more important than taking off her headscarf. Banning things top down does not work well. I want to see Muslim feminists. We need them. We need women who believe in women’s right to work, to vote and to take political positions. Whether they wear headscarves or not does not matter. But personally I would not like women to cover themselves, of course not. I am very European in that regard.
Profil: Has president Erdogan read any of your novels?
Shafak: I wish. I am not sure he is reading any novels.
Profil: Why is it important?
Shafak: The novel as genre is based on individualism. When I write a book I am very lonely. And the reader, too. Writing and reading is the opposite of fascism. Totalitarianism is a collectivist disease. For fanaticism to work the multitude of thousands are needed. There is no individuality in fascism.
Profil: Erdogan was a figure of hope when he came in. Bridging the more traditional but still pro-European forces. He was seen as an experiment to have democratic Islam in power. The experiment failed. Why?
Shafik: AKP has been in power now for 14 years. In the beginning they were a very different party. More pro-EU, pro reform, pro new constitution. Many liberals supported it, we thought it was a progressive step forward. Now they say: “You Liberals did not see this coming, they always had an Islamist agenda.” I don’t agree with that. I think power corrupts you.
Profil: After the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s eve there is a big debate about “What have we brought to Europe?” Was this a mob situation, when things got out of hand or do you see this as a general problem?
Shafak: Sexual harassment is very widely spread in the Middle East. I personally have experienced harassment many times as I grew up in Turkey. When you take a normal city bus as a woman you usually carry a safety pin. Because someone next to you will come and try to molest you. If you have a safety pin, you can defend yourself and poke them. Can you imagine you have to think about this before you go on a bus?
Profil: How shall Europe deal with these incidents?
Shafak: What happened in Cologne is completely unacceptable. I wish Europe would invest more in refugee women. Bring the girls and the women to Europe. This way you also protect them from the situation they are in in the Middle East.


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz