Monday

30th Jan 2023

Interview

'Don't push Turkey away', says writer Elif Shafak

Turkey is "sliding backwards" but the EU should not isolate it and should keep in contact with its civil society, Turkish author Elif Shafak has said.

"Freezing everything would play into the hands of populism," she told EUobserver about the call from some EU politicians, including the European Parliament, to stop accession negotiations with Turkey.

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  • Turkish writers "can get into trouble so easily" but they have "to speak up," Elif Shafak said (Photo: Elif Shafak)

"Democrats in Europe need to understand that when Turkey is isolated, this only plays into the hands of isolationists, which means nationalists, Islamists, and authoritarians," she added.

On Tuesday (13 December), EU ministers could not agree on their position, after Austria opposed further talks but failed to convince its partners to adopt a "freeze".

"Turkey should not be pushed away or isolated," Shafak warned in an interview last week, conducted in part by email and in part in Brussels in the margins of the European Angst conference of which EUobserver was a partner.

She said that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan "should be criticised, especially for its violations of the rule of law," but that "the Turkish people is more diverse and complicated" than its government's course would suggest.

"We need to make a distinction between the Turkish government and the Turkish people," she said, adding that it was "very important to maintain a dialogue with civil society."

Shafak, a novelist and essay writer who lives in London, has not been to Turkey since a failed coup in mid-July triggered a hardening of Erdogan's rule, with the arrests of thousand of militaries, judges, academics, journalists and politicians.

She said that she maintains close ties with people in Istanbul, especially women's organisations and human rights NGOs, and that she would go soon to promote her latest book.

She said that she did not want to think that going back was dangerous. She noted however that in today's Turkey, "every journalist, writer, academic, or poet knows that words are not free."

In 2006, Shafak herself faced an Istanbul court, charged with "insulting Turkishness" for her book The Bastard of Istanbul, in which she wrote about massacres of Armenians during First World War.

Nowadays, she said, "you can get into trouble so easily. Because of an article, a novel, a poem, a tweet or something you say in an interview."

"Your words can be distorted by pro-government papers, completely taken out of context and used against you. You can be slandered, demonised, stigmatized, almost lynched on social media by pro-government trolls. You can even be put on trial, arrested, even imprisoned or exiled," she said.

Wide self-censorship

"Under these circumstances", she added, "there is a wide self-censorship," even if writers "do not talk about it much, because it is embarrassing."

"Yet at the same time we have to speak up," she said.

Fourteen years after Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, Turkey has become "divided" and "fragmented", the author said.

She noted that "there is no proper separation of powers. Only an increasing monopoly of power under Erdogan."

"The AKP elite confuses democracy with 'majoritarianism'," she said. Turkey was "sliding backwards" when it comes to the rule of law, pluralism, freedom of speech, media freedom, women's rights or minority rights, she added.

Shafak said that for Erdogan and his party, political Islam was mainly "a means to keep power" while taking advantage of Turkey's conservative trend.

"Turkey is more conservative, patriarchal and homophobic than before, and that goes hand-in-hand with an aggressive masculinism," she noted.

Europe not granted anymore

Turkey is not the only country where nationalism and populism are on the rise.

"We are all far too globalised to ignore the connections," in Europe and now in the US, she said, noting that Turkey, Hungary and Poland now share "similar patterns of 'illiberal democracies'."

"We in Europe cannot take liberal democracy for granted anymore. We cannot take Europe for granted either," she warned.

Shafak spoke with EUobserver a few minutes before participating in a debate with Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek on how to construct "narratives to face extremism and the disintegration of Europe."

For her, it is time that "liberals, leftists and democrats join forces and come up with a fresh, new approach."

"We cannot fight by staying in our echo chamber," she told this website.

"We live in an age of anxiety and we have to understand this anxiety," she said, adding that "in the post-truth world of populist demagogues, we cannot solely talk with reason and logic."

"We need to have an emotional intelligence" and explain that "it is OK to have fears. We all do. But it is not OK to be guided by fear."

Combine heart and mind

Is she trying to put these ideas into her books?

"When I am in a novel, I stay there as deep as I can, far from reality," Shafak explained, adding that in fiction she felt "more free, more courageous."

She added that as a political scientist, trained in international relations - she has published essays in many newspapers and is a founding member of the London-based European Center for Foreign Relations (ECFR) - she did "a lot of research" for her books.



This way, she said, she could "combine heart and mind" in her literary work.

Shafak, who was born in Strasbourg, France, and lived around the world with a diplomat mother, said that for her the EU was "primarily about values such as rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights."

"I do not want my motherland to walk away from these values," she said about Turkey.

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