"We should not leave patriotism to nationalists"

The interview with Elif Shafak was published in profil on June 8th 2019 and in Cicero Online on June 7th 2019.

Elif Shafak is the most successful female author of Turkey. She lives in London for more than ten years. A sign of her global identity perhaps. And of the political situation in Turkey. Her books have been widely translated from English and Turkish, her most recent book "10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World" is a very thoughtful, sensitive and painful exploration of the lives of outcasts in Turkey, who form a water family in mutual support and respect. 

President Erdogan does not accept the results of the Istanbul elections and ordered a second vote on June 23rd. Is this the end of any democratic procedure?

Shafak: It's unacceptable, unlawful, undemocratic. There is no justification for what they have done. And it's really ridiculous because the voting turnout was quite high. So the overwhelming majority of the Istanbulers voted. Now the AKP government is canceling it just because they didn’t like the outcome. And the interesting thing is every single person has voted four times and put their votes within the same envelope. Because you choose the mayor, but you also choose officials at different levels. So the other three votes are counted. The fourth vote within the same envelope is annulled. What does that even mean? There's no logic behind that there's no justification. I find it very unfair. What has been done to Ekrem Imamoglu( the opposion mayor who won) has been very unfair.  

If the opposition is not allowed to win at the polling station, how can you fight Erdogan?


Shafak: As you know the AKP has been in power for more than 15 years, a very long time and they came to power with very reformist promises. So the first five years was very different. And then the party changed. They became more and more inward looking. I think disconnecting from Europe was a big, big turning point. Turkey became more isolated in general. And today we have pure authoritarianism. That's for sure. But the interesting thing is although most of them almost all of the media is controlled by AKP and most of the social media is controlled by AKP. And when you as a Turkish citizen, when you turn on the TV you only hear one voice. You just switch, you flip the channels, you hear only one voice. But despite this half of the society continues to vote against the government. And that's quite interesting because they are very strong. They dominate everything. They dominate the entire political narrative. But still half of the society votes against them. So this also shows us how complex Turkish civil society is.  

Istanbul is more progressive compared to other parts of Turkey.

Shafak: Istanbul is a fascinating mixture. For instance Izmir is invariably progressive. But Istanbul is a place of conflicts and we have lots of different cultural elements sometimes coexisting sometimes clashing so it's not like it is only purely progressive. It’s more complex. In Istanbul you have the conflicts as well. And of course Turkey has been experiencing an enormous brain drain, which we have to take into account. Many educated people have left Turkey. I've been here in London for more than ten years. It’s like an exile as well. So there is a growing Turkish diaspora. And this is different because people who have left are not working class because they're middle class upper class most of them leave because it's not a democracy anymore. It's just a different kind of migration. And if it had never happened before there was a research done recently. The number of people who have left Turkey in the past two years is reminiscent. To the number of people who leave war torn countries or countries where there is a famine like a big natural disaster. Many people within such a short span of time leaving a country you know in such large numbers is quite quite unusual.  

Are intellectuals specifically targeted? Like University professors and artists?

Shafak: Ayse Gül Altinay, my friend was arrested, she is a Professor of Cultural Anthropology. You know she has educated hundreds and thousands of students all over the years, an amazing world class scholar and now because she signed a peace petition she has been sentenced to two years in prison. Nurcan Baysal, a wonderful journalist and human rights defender has had so many trials and was detained just this week. So you know it's incredibly dark. It's unacceptable. And Turkey definitely has become the world's biggest jailer of journalists, not only journalists but also writers scholars academics as it as like in the case of Ayse Gül world class scholars are being either put in prison or they're being put on trial or their passports are confiscated.

If you go there might you be arrested because you are one of the most outspoken critics? 

Shafak: I don’t know, really. I try not to think that way. There are so many wonderful people in Turkey. But the politics is demoralizing. When I look at the people they have been accusing of are completely ridiculous charges it's just unbelievable. For instance, Osman Kavala. He's a businessman and a philanthropist and a defender of civil society and human rights. One of the most gentlest souls I've ever met in all my life. This man worked for peace and coexistence. He supported Turkish Armenian peace, Turkish Kurdish peace, he supported LGBT groups, women's rights groups, children's rights groups, you name it. All the progressive causes and now he's in jail. It's almost 600 days  - still he doesn't know what he's accused of. Still there's no indictment. So I don't think anyone feels secure in a system like this. That's why there is a lot of self-censorship. And we need to talk about self-censorship. It's a very difficult subject. But I think among Turkey's literati  - writers, journalists - there is a lot of widespread self-censorship which is a difficult subject to talk about. Because how do you deal with the kind of self-censorship? It is that what we swallow. We internalize it. 

What should the outside world do? The European Union in general has this big debate: Should we cancel negotiations about accession with Turkey. Shall we?

Shafak: There was a moment around 2005 when it seemed like almost Turkey was going to join the EU. It seemed almost possible and at the time the support for Turkey's EU membership within Turkey was incredibly high. Around 80 percent. Today it's fallen down because of the government's rhetoric. But these things change. You know people would change their feelings. The reason I am mentioning this is because I criticize the Turkish government for failing to fulfill EU criteria because we needed those criteria primarily to improve our own democracy. And the Turkish governments did not do that. But I also criticize populist demagogue politicians in Europe who have pushed Turkey away and used Turkey for their rhetoric of fear. 

So would should the EU do?

Shafak: I always make a distinction between oppressive governments and people. I think we should be very critical of authoritarian governments and issues like human rights, democracy, freedom of speech. But while we criticize governments, we need to connect with the people. We cannot abandon people. So to me it's very important that the civil society in Europe supports a civil society in Turkey for instance writers in Europe support Turkish writers or feminists in Europe support Turkish feminists or LGBT groups in Austria support LGBT groups in Turkey. We need to think beyond boundaries because populists are saying to the people you see Europe doesn't care about you, because it's a Christian club, you don't belong in that club anyhow. So we need to break that dualistic narrative that populists in Turkey are also imposing on people saying you know we're culturally different, we can't be part of Europe anyhow. To me it's very important that we have a more humanistic global solidarity. But at the same time be very critical of human rights violations. But I also criticized populist politicians in Europe who have used Turkey as a fear card. These billboards said Turkey is joining the EU with its 70 million population. And that was a shameless lie. Everybody knew that Turkey was not going to join the EU anytime soon. I mentioned this is because Turkey is always used by politicians. 

But if we say the obvious fact that the EU accession negotiations are going nowhere?

Shafak: It's complicated because also as you know there are four million refugees in Turkey and there are politicians in Europe who worry about the repercussions. I think politicians cannot find a solution. That's my sincere observation in this moment in time. And I think the change, the impetus needs to come from citizens, from us, from civil society. You know we are the ones who should push our politicians to say openly that human rights matter. That freedom of speech matters. So I as a writer for me the emphasis is on civil society. I’d rather think about how we as citizens can make a difference.

But the EU needs Erdogan for the refugee deal. Is it a blessing or a curse?

Shafak: Brussels has has been quite paralyzed vis a vis the refugee crisis which is interesting because the refugee crisis did not happen in one day. It did not happen in one month. It evolved in front of our eyes. Year after year after year. You know we're talking about like five years six years. So there is a huge mistake not understanding the gravity of what was happening in Syria that was in my opinion a major mistake. The first response was to outsource the problem and hope that the refugees would stay in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. And the third problem in my opinion in Turkey with populism authoritarianism is not only confined to Turkey. It is almost like there's a playbook. When I look at Viktor Orban and partly when I look at what's happening in Poland. There are. Incredible similarities. When populists come to power they change the state structures. They change the electoral system.  They change the judiciary...

And the media…

Shafak: And the media. And then they inflict huge oppression on academia. Again when I look at the EU's response to Hungary it's incredibly limited. Because there were so not expecting this. But I'm sorry. You know so EU also needs to reform itself. But I say you of course the decision to the leaders the decision makers. I think they need to be more clear in their response to populism and authoritarianism at the moment. I don't see that. And that's also that vagueness is problematic.

If you react too strongly, you might just crumble the entire system of the EU.

Shafak: But that's that's why I think it's incredibly important to make a distinction between the people and the government because all populist leaders, they say the same thing, they say: “I am the people”. So that means if you criticize me you're criticizing my people. In this country Nigel Farage, when the Brexit vote was announced, he said “the real people, the decent people in this country have spoken”. He said it's a victory for decent people and real people. So that means almost half of the population who didn’t vote for Brexit are the “unreal people” or “indecent people.” We need to break that dualistic narrative of populism.

You are a classic global intellectual, do you feel the Zeitgeist is currently not on your side?

Shafak: We live in an increasingly polarized world. This is the age of anxiety, anger, fear, resentment and divisions. We need to come up with a new progressive approach that embraces diversity, inclusivity. We need to go beyond our echo chambers. My Youtube algorithm thinks I'm a young male American white supremacist because I do listen to what they're saying a lot. I pay attention to how racist, sexist, xenophobic narratives are built. I think many terms have been hijacked. It's not a coincidence that populist movements in Sweden, in Austria, in country after country they're using the word “democrat” constantly. You know Marine Le Pen she says in every interview : “I'm a Democrat”. Steve Bannon says “I love democracy”. So what they're trying to do is to “divorce” democracy from liberals. An illiberal democracy. They want the kind of democracy that doesn't have liberal components, such as separation of powers, diverse media, minority rights… If you don’t have the liberal pluralistic institutions and if you only have the ballot box, that system cannot be a proper democracy in the long run. It can only be majoritarianism. And history shows that from majoritarianism to authoritarianism it is a swift decline. So I think we need to be very careful about the way they hijacked the word democracy. All populist nationalistic movements are anti-pluralistic and anti-liberal to begin with, and eventually, inescapably, they are anti-democratic. 

The Western world goes through a process of polarization. What is happening there

Shafak: It is our human instinct that we want to go back into our tribe when we are angry. We want to retreat into our own zone where we feel safer among our own likeminded people. That's a mistake. You know we have to go beyond tribes and all kinds of tribalism. So I'm longing for a kind of progressive movement that can speak to people from different economic backgrounds cultural backgrounds and find the coexistence between the common elements.

It seems easier for many to live in a black and white worldview. 

Shafak: It's all an illusion they are trying to create and we should not fall into that trap. But to me what is interesting is that they thrive on duality. You know populism sees everything as a referendum. And I hear either you're going to vote for this for this or for that. So every issue in the populist narrative is turned into a random black and white issue. They say: Are you the kind of person who is pro open borders so that anyone can come in? You know millions of people come in to bring us to breaking point or are you the kind of person who cares about safety and security and peace and harmony. And I think many people make the mistake of saying well I do care about safety of course. And then so we follow them. That's a huge mistake. What we should be saying is: We don't have to have only two options. I want to have a third option so I can be pro immigration and at the same time care for safety and security and harmony and peace. The duality that you're imposing on me is a lie, it is an illusion. So we have to constantly break this duality. And this is my biggest worry because we're falling into this trap. Of debating things within the dualities that the populists are imposing on us. We have to go beyond those realities. And if we can create a language that goes beyond dualistic way of thinking we can connect with people from different backgrounds because there are people who care about safety and they are worried about changes in the society. At the same time we can have a sensible immigration you know that cares about safety security filters. This can be done. So all I'm saying is we need to be very careful about these dualities binary thinking that they are imposing on us. The duality they want to impose on us is a lie.

 The refugee crisis brought a rightpopulist government to power. The coaltion just fell apart. What does this teach us?

Shafak: One big mistake of mainstream politicians  - this is not only happening in Austria, it happened in Holland as well  - they are worried about the rise of the far right and the rise of populists. The mainstream politicians have become even more nationalist and even more populist. You know to prove that they can also speak the same language. That's a huge mistake. You know you can't do the right thing by becoming even more populist than populists. You can't do the right thing by becoming even more nationalistic than the nationalists. I find it a big mistake when when politicians try to play the populist game better than than populists. And I think that is damaging everything. It is also in my opinion a big mistake to bring far right into the government as we have seen in Austria. They mostly go key positions of power and intelligence such as the ministry of interior. Again as we have seen in Austria people who have been investigating far right movements had to be very worried now. Because all of those files were suddenly in the hands of those people. 

Where do you draw the line between Populism and Nationalism, between Populists and the Far right?

Shafak: Populism is the fake answer to some real problems. The problems might be real, but the answers by populists are totally fake. We need to bear in mind that populism is a very weak ideology. It's not a robust ideology because it doesn't have a lot to say about existing problems. It criticises a targeted status quo but never tells us what it's going to replace it with. So it's not an answer oriented movement, which means also that as an ideology it's quite thin. Because it's just an ideology it needs to be accompanied by something else. In some cases that's socialism as we've seen in South America. So we need to talk about populist socialism but in the majority of cases it's populist nationalism so inherently you know it needs to be accompanied by a more established ideology. An older ideology. That's why I think there is no such thing as you know populism staying in the centre. It will move towards the far right - or the far left in some cases. And I find it's very problematic. We need to make this distinction between patriotism and nationalism. You know even for me as a writer this is a distinction I've been thinking about talking about for such a long time because you know having multiple belongings I do know that it's beautiful to feel attached to a country to care for your country. You know your culture to be emotional about it these are beautiful human values. But nationalism is something else and nationalism is has a very ugly core inside. You can't put a makeup on it. It can look very civilized. But the core is there. It takes only one financial crisis. For the ugly core to emerge. It takes only one political crisis for that ugliness to surface. So nationalism in my opinion by definition always needs an us and always needs a them. And the assumption than US is better, a superior US. So I am very critical of nationalistic movements all over the world. Patriotism is something else. The problem with the liberal left and the progressives for such a long time all these issues were ignored. 

Not only the nationalists are developing a new form of a narcisstic “Me”, also identity politics might harm those it wants to protect: minorities, women, LGBT-people?

Shafak: I am very critical of identity politics. I don't see it as a progressive force. Identity politics can be a starting point for awareness of who we are and to honour past centuries and cultures and how that accumulation shapes us today. It can be a starting point but it cannot be where we end up. So in my opinion we need to move beyond identity politics. And that's why I'm critical of people who think that identity politics is progressive. I think it is not. What I like synthesizes multiple belongings, you know I am an Istanbulite. I'm attached to Istanbul. I'm also attached to the Balkans, to the Aegeans, put me next to a Greek person, you know I have so much in common. I am and I carry in my soul so many elements. I'm a European by birth by choice. The values that I believe in over the years. I became a Londoner I am now a British citizen. And I would like to think of myself as a world citizen despite what Theresa May says.

The story of the father of your main character over the years also becomes more and more and more religious. It's like a symbol for Turkey in general. 

Shafak: True. Turkey also has become more and more religious. And I think as countries become more religious and more nationalistic they also become more sexist. You know it's not a coincidence, if ultra nationalism increases, religious fundamentalism increases and sexism, patriarchy and misogyny, too. And in my opinion homophobia also increases.

Your answer is the story of a prostitute who forms an alliance of the outcasts with her friends.

Shafak: That's why I say I call it water family. You know we create our water families. It's not related by blood or race or ethnicity it's related by water you know the things we share fluid identities fluid belongings.

Did it come out in Turkey yet? 

Shafak: It has just come out in Turkey. So I don't know how it will be received. I know these are difficult issues. I think just being a writer, a novelist in Turkey is a bit like being slapped on one cheek and being kissed on the other cheek at the same time. You're constantly slapped by the elite - the political elite. But at the same time people read my books. Although I've been put on trial and I've been prosecuted. I had to live with a bodyguard, you know, for writing about issues like Armenian genocide and other political taboos. I mean I gave a TED talk recently in New York. It's a manifesto for multiplicity. I talk about multiple belongings. In one part of the speech I also mentioned that I was bisexual and I said you know it always in my work. I talk about homophobia. I talk about that I supported LGBT rights in my interviews but I never had the courage to talk about myself. After the talk it was put online. The reaction from Turkey was incredibly, incredibly sick abusive, full of slander, ridicule, hate speech. Attacks and Islamist papers calling me pervert. Nationalist papers attacking me, on TV people talking as if they don't have anything else to talk about. Particularly for women the language is very nasty.

Keep me updated!

© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz