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Turkey Is 'Sliding Backwards,' Says Top Turkish Novelist

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 12/03/2016 Farah Mohamed

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and essayist whose celebrated works include "The Bastard of Istanbul" and "The Architect's Apprentice." The WorldPost spoke with her in the wake of the recent crackdown on media in Turkey. 

Turkey is being shaken by a number of crises at once -- from the massive influx of Syrian refugees, the fight with the Kurds and now the crackdown on free expression, including the seizure of the country's leading paper, Zaman. What is going on?

Turkey is going through a deep, dizzying, dangerous social and political transformation. So much is happening so fast there is no time to stop and think and analyze. Abnormalities have become the new normal.

Turkey's ruling elite from President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan's AKP, or Justice [and] Development Party, has been confusing "democracy" with "majoritarianism." Democracy is not only about the ballot box and the number of votes. That's only one of the essentials. Democracy is also about rule of law, separation of powers, a free, diverse media, freedom of speech, women's rights, minority rights. In all these respects, Turkey has been sliding backwards sadly. It is a very polarized country between those who are staunch supporters of Erdoğan and those who are against him. We have become a society of anger, paranoia, intimidation. And artists, writers, academics -- people who have been trying to build bridges so as to promote coexistence and peace -- know that they have lost big time.

'Turkey is going through a deep, dizzying, dangerous social and political transformation.'

Is there a link that ties all these crises together?

Turkish society is becoming more conservative and patriarchal while the state is becoming more authoritarian and patriarchal. These two processes are deeply related. A recent Pew research [survey] showed that half of the Turkish society thinks it is not okay or legitimate to criticize the government publicly. Anyone who dares to express a critical opinion is labeled as a "traitor" or a rotten apple.

Critical-minded people are lynched on social media, demonized in pro-government newspapers, intimidated from all sides. Every journalist, academic, writer, poet or cartoonist knows that because of a book or an article or even [a] tweet we can be prosecuted, even imprisoned. The editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dündar, wrote a powerful letter to European leaders reminding them not to forget democracy and freedom of speech in their dealings with Turkey. But at the moment these vital issues are not a priority for Europe.

Is what we are seeing in Turkey today in line with the autocratic tendencies of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia -- to root out the "contamination" that is harming what they regard as the national soul of some imagined utopian past? Is this a contest between the cosmopolitan and national soul as we see elsewhere in the world?

We are witnessing the dissolution of a unified Europe. Simultaneously, [we are witnessing] the dissolution of liberal democracy in many parts of the world. Then there are people who say the Middle East is not ready for democracy, so better have strong leaders instead. I find these trends very dangerous. In Turkey people talk about "the need for one strong leader with a group of technocrats" instead of bottom-up civil-society-based pluralism. They say [that] that way we won't lose time with multiple opinions. We in Turkey are experiencing a loss of pluralism. Nobody talks about cosmopolitanism or diversity anymore. The ideology of sameness is the motto of the day. Dangerously.

It was often said that Erdoğan and his AKP led the country's "modernization from below" by bringing the largely Islamic Anatolian population to power by democratic elections after the long decades of authoritarian modernization from above imposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his secular descendants. These Islamic constituencies regarded themselves as the mazlum -- a term meaning victims -- who suffered exclusion under the metropolitan elites of Istanbul. Now, after 14 years of neo-Ottoman renaissance, are the tables turning? Is it those with the secular values of women's rights, free speech, lifestyle diversity or independent courts that are the new mazlum?

The AKP, as you say, has been in power for 14 years. It is a long time. Throughout this time they changed dramatically. In the beginning, the party and their rhetoric was different. Both inside Turkey and with the Western world. At the time the rhetoric was pro-EU, pro-reform, pro-civilian rule, pro-pluralistic democracy. Many liberals supported them, believing that this would be a step forward for the country. As a feminist, I empathized with young headscarved university students who were not allowed to go to college unless they took off their headscarf. I found this unfair.

'What is incredibly sad to see is how yesterday's "others" have become today's oppressors.'

What is incredibly sad to see is how yesterday's "others" have become today's oppressors. Honestly, I don't want anyone in Turkey to have too much power: the AKP, the Gulen community, the Kemalists in the past, the Turkish nationalists or the militant hawks in the Kurdish movement ... whoever gets power, desires even more power and then more power. It's never enough. It's mainly because we do not have the culture of democracy.

There is no real respect for diversity and pluralism. A society of collectivistic identities does not respect individualism. A society of collective amnesia is unable to learn anything from the mistakes of the past. As a result, Turkey keeps drawing sad circles and going backwards instead of making any progress.

Recently the president's wife, Emine Erdoğan, said the Ottoman harem was an "educational center." Do you agree?

I believe we need feminist historians to tell us more about the reality of the harem. We need scholarly, academic and non-partisan studies. It is a well-known fact that the harem was overcrowded, full of hundreds of women who were slaves of the sultan, some of whom had access to the sovereign -- and most never did. There are very sad, heartbreaking stories waiting to be told. The harem was a place of gender discrimination, segregation and the embodiment of male power. Today there is an increasing number of Turkish men marrying young Syrian women as their second wives, third wives, even though polygamy is illegal. They are forming their own little harems. Women's activists have been drawing attention to this alarming fact, to no avail. In such a patriarchal environment, I find it dangerous to romanticize the Ottoman harem. Or to romanticize the Ottoman past.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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