Turkish Author Elif Shafak 'We've Forgotten How to Laugh'

Turkish author Elif Shafak sees her country as a "wobbly democracy," increasingly authoritarian, polarized and depressed. And she is disappointed by European silence.

Turkish author Elif Shafak is concerned about polarization in her country: "Erdogan is, in my eyes, the most polarizing politician in recent Turkish political history."
Andrew Testa/ DER SPIEGEL

Turkish author Elif Shafak is concerned about polarization in her country: "Erdogan is, in my eyes, the most polarizing politician in recent Turkish political history."

Interview by Juliane von Mittelstaedt and


SPIEGEL: Ms. Shafak, you are from a country where one wrong word could land you in court. Do you still dare to say and write what you think?

Shafak: Words are heavy in Turkey, and every writer, every poet and every journalist knows that, because of a word, because of a sentence, because of a tweet or even a retweet, you can be sued, you can be demonized by the media and you can even land in prison. So when we write, we write with this knowledge in the back of our minds. And if someone says: I am not affected by this, I would not believe that person. The truth is: nobody can escape this pressure. And as a result, there is a lot of self-censorship. When I am writing political op-eds, yes I do think carefully about the impact of my words. When I am writing fiction, it's a different story. In my fiction I am more reckless. I don't care about the real world until I am done with the book.

SPIEGEL: In 2006, legal proceedings were initiated against you because of what one of the main characters in your book, "The Bastard of Istanbul," said about the Armenian genocide. Even though you were ultimately acquitted, it shows that even fiction can be dangerous.

Shafak: Yes, it was a very, very surreal experience, because a work of fiction was put on trial for the first time. For me, that was a very unnerving experience. Not only because of the trial, but there were ultranationalist mobs on the streets protesting against me, spitting on my pictures, swearing at me. But the feedback from my readers was amazing. They supported me, even though they come from all different sorts of backgrounds -- there are conservatives and proponents of secularism, feminists and liberals. So I have seen both sides: I have seen that you can get in trouble with your books in Turkey, but that at the same time books really matter.

SPIEGEL: Ten years later, "Reporters without Borders" now ranks Turkey 149th out of 180 countries with regard to press freedom and several journalists have been arrested. Most recently, two editors with Cumhuriyet were taken into custody for publishing material incriminating the government. Is press freedom under threat?

Shafak: Yes, it is under great threat. I am afraid we have gone backwards, in terms of freedom and diversity of media. Different views are not tolerated anymore. Critical minds are suppressed, intimidated. And it's not just going backwards. It's sliding backwards very, very fast. It's not only arrests and trials. The other issue is a widespread depression among the liberal-secular part of society. I remember a time when it was ok to make fun of politicians and powerful people. Now, it's not ok anymore. We've forgotten how to laugh.

SPIEGEL: Many in Europe are unsure how to view Erdogan. Is he an authoritarian ruler, an Islamist, a nationalist or a failed democrat?

Shafak: I would call him an authoritarian politician who is very divisive. This is a society of the baba, the father, the patriarch. It starts in the family, continues at school, in the family, on the street. In every aspect of life, including football, the Turkish society is baba-oriented. And our mentality in politics is not that different. I think this is a big part of the problem: Our politics is very masculine, very aggressive, and it's very polarizing. And the pace of this development has increased in recent years. Erdogan is, in my eyes, the most polarizing politician in recent Turkish political history.

SPIEGEL: Can you see the results of that polarization within your family or among your friends?

Shafak: Yes, I am seeing it in my close circle of friends. Among us are some who support the government and there are others who are very critical. But the fact that we speak and discuss with each other is almost an exception in Turkey. Why? Because the society has become divided into ghettos with glass walls. Everybody is on their own island, and doesn't talk with the people on the other island. And it's a society of anger, mistrust, paranoia and conspiracy theories.

SPIEGEL: Where did this extreme polarization come from?

Shafak: It has a complex background, but one of the answers can be found in a recent Pew study. In 38 countries, the research center asked people if it was legitimate to criticize the government vocally and publicly? In Lebanon, 98 percent of the people said yes, it's ok. In Jordan, the number drops to 64 percent. In Pakistan, it's 54 percent, and in Turkey, it's 52. That means that almost half of the Turkish population believes it is not legitimate to criticize the government. Interestingly, this correlates with the number of supporters of Erdogan's government.

SPIEGEL: And yet, of the countries you just mentioned, Turkey is actually the most democratic. How can that be?

Shafak: This is a new phenomenon -- and yes, it's a big paradox. Mainstream media constantly says they are enemies everywhere, both inside and outside -- and anyone who speaks critically is stigmatized as "traitor." So the conclusion people draw is that they should not criticize the government. As ridiculous as it may sound, I have been accused of being directed by an "international literature lobby." The claim is that there is a big lobby somewhere abroad and from every country they chose two or three authors and they use them to criticize their governments. There are a lot of people in Turkey who believe in such crap.

SPIEGEL: Did this only start with Erdogan and his AKP party, or are his politics merely reinforcing societal insecurities that were there before?

Shafak: For sure, this has to do with our history. Many analysts compare Turkey with countries in the Middle East, but I think we need to compare it with Russia. Both countries come from a tradition of empire, and also from a tradition of the strong state. In a normal democracy, you protect the individual from the excessive power of the state. In Turkey, power elites try to protect the state -- as if this state were fragile and needed protection -- when in fact, it's too powerful already. This is where we started from, though -- in the last five years, Turkey has become more and more authoritarian.

SPIEGEL: If Turkey is like Russia, are there also similarities between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin?

Shafak: Erdogan has changed a lot since he came to power. In the beginning, he used to talk about being all-embracing. No longer. It's no secret that he wants to change the constitution in order to have a presidential system, and I am sure he will do everything he can to get there. I am very worried about this concentration of power, and it's not only because of Erdogan. We have the ballot box, but we don't have the culture of democracy. The government says: You see, we have the majority, we're entitled to do anything we want. But that's not democracy, that's majoritarianism.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean you wouldn't call Turkey a democracy?

Shafak: I wish we had more nuanced words to define democracy. Obviously, Turkey is not a typical authoritarian regime, and obviously it's very important that there are free elections. But it's also obvious that this is not a liberal, mature democracy. This is why I call Turkey a wobbly democracy. At any time, it can tip over and fall down.

SPIEGEL: Last Sunday, the European Union invited Turkey to a summit in Brussels for the first time in a long time -- and promised €3 billion, visa freedoms and a revitalization of the EU accession process. Human rights and freedom of speech weren't even mentioned, despite the fact that the Cumhuriyet journalists had been arrested only a short time before. Did this sudden political upgrading of Erdogan surprise you?

Shafak: These two journalists wrote a letter from prison to the EU leaders saying: Do not forget freedom of speech, do not forget democracy. But that's exactly what happened. Yet if we forget (those values), more journalists will be fired or arrested and lose their voices. Human rights and freedom of speech are vital, urgent issues and they are non-negotiable.

SPIEGEL: European leaders are now essentially begging Turkey to help slow or stop the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe. Is Turkey able to do such a thing?

Shafak: Turkey has taken more than 2 million Syrian refugees and cannot be made responsible for the refugee crisis alone -- the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Any solution has to be a joint, international one, but that's not what is happening. Instead, the EU's approach has been: Ok, we'll pay you so the refugees stay in Turkey.

SPIEGEL: Which is why the EU is willing to support Erdogan and refrain from criticizing him despite human rights violations in Turkey.

Shafak: Facing all these crises, more and more people are favoring stability over democracy, in Turkey and in the West. The EU, it seems, wants stable regimes, and therefore it's not emphasizing human rights any more. They have become postponable issues. But these are not postponable issues! There can be no stability without democracy.

SPIEGEL: You sound disappointed.

Shafak: You know, sometimes I feel I have more faith in European ideals than some of my British or French friends. For them, it's a financial burden. For me, Europe is primarily about values, about fundamental rights, freedom, women's rights. The message from last week's summit, however, was: Europe has put its values on hold.

SPIEGEL: Do you still think Turkey should become a member of the EU?

Shafak: I was and still am a big proponent of Turkey's membership. In 2005 and 2006 it seemed almost possible. It's a huge tragedy that this historical moment was missed because of the short-sightedness of populist politicians on all sides. As an EU member, the government couldn't have become so authoritarian. There would be better checks and balances. Look at what happened since: Turkey turned its back to Europe and walked the other way. But what is more beneficial for us: A Turkey that is part of Europe, part of the liberal democratic world and the sphere of free speech -- or a Turkey that sides with more authoritarian states?

SPIEGEL: Do people in Turkey still want to become a member of the EU?

Shafak: At the height of the EU debate a few years ago, up to 82 percent of the people wanted to be in the EU. We grew up reading Balzac and Goethe, we feel European. But after it didn't happen, the mood changed very fast. The support for EU membership has now dropped to 20 percent. It's almost a childish reaction: If Europe doesn't want us, we don't want Europe. We are emotional people. Emotions are subject to change.

SPIEGEL: Might the refugee crisis be enough to bring Turkey and Europe back together again?

Shafak: I would like the refugee crisis to become a new beginning in the Turkish-European relationship. But it would be very problematic if, during this process, human rights were forgotten. Democracy needs to be the priority.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that there might one day be another protest movement like the Gezi protests in 2013?

Shafak: I don't think so. Not only because of fear, but also because of this collective depression. People think nothing will change when they take to the streets. I see two opposite tendencies in Turkish society: people feel demoralized, they lose the interest in politics and retreat to their private lives; or they become very angry and even more politicized, and radicalized. Both trends are troublesome.

SPIEGEL: Turkey just recently shot down a Russian jet. In reaction, Putin called Turkey an "accomplice of terrorists" for helping Syrian extremist groups. Is he right?

Shafak: Nobody knows what is happening, that is the sad truth. There are a lot of conspiracy theories floating around, and I don't want to get into them. But the fact that we cannot ask those questions is an indication that our political system is in disrepair. Turkey in general became too involved with what is happening in Egypt and in Syria. Some politicians with neo-Ottoman dreams developed this idea of being a major player in the Middle East, which hasn't gone as expected.

SPIEGEL: The Middle East is not the only troubled area. Within Turkey as well the situation has escalated into fighting between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the government. Do you believe it is possible to restart the peace process?

Shafak: It's not very promising. The peace process was taken hostage by hawkish people on both sides, caught between the violence of the PKK and Turkish ultra-nationalism. We could have had a coalition after the election in June with representatives of many parties, including the Kurds. Had that happened, the situation would be different today. But Erdogan did not want to. He wanted an absolute majority, which is why he wanted new elections. Since then, more than 600 people have died in the fighting and attacks.

SPIEGEL: You sound quite weary. Is there no more hope for political change in Turkey?

Shafak: I'm half pessimistic and half optimistic. Or like the author Antonio Gramsci would say, I believe in optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. But my hope is the people, the society, which is ahead of the government. Turkey has a very young, dynamic, curious population. In Europe, Facebook and Twitter are mostly about sharing daily experiences while for Turkish people, social networks are political platforms. The more the media lost its freedom, the more politicized social media became. The government tried to ban Twitter, but it was not successful. The digital world is developing with such force and such a pace that you simply can't ban or control it. People want to be globally connected. There is hope there.

SPIEGEL: What will Turkey look like 10 years from now? Will Erdogan still rule the country?

Shafak: I don't know, but we are at a critical juncture. It can't go on like this. The polarization is so deep now. In the past, there were people who could bridge these sides, both liberals and conservatives. We don't have these bridge builders anymore. After the Ankara bombings on October 10, people were asked to hold a minute of silence, but many refused. Our society can't even unite in grief to honor the victims. We've lost our empathy. That's maybe the worst.

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broremann 12/13/2015
1. empathy
this lack of empathy is sadly lacking not only in Turkey but also in Europe as a whole. It didn`t use to be like this, but with higher living standard came a dislike of refugee frightened that thy may share the spoils of oil; I especially think of Norway here, who has takn in a paltry 4oo Syrians
p.groussac 12/29/2015
2. Title Says It All
We have indeed forgotten how to laugh. Perhaps because we've forgotten how to think, and hide behind labels and slogans instead. Thanks for interviewing Ms Shafak. Not familiar with this author, but I'll correct this omission. Best wishes to all for a happy new year.
glasspix 01/11/2016
3.
Elif, we in Europe are not laughing either when this dangerous dictator is rewarded for his crimes by 3bn of our tax money and an invitation to join the EU, or whatever is left from this morally and politically bankrupt institution.
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