By Charalampos Tsitsopoulos
Ece Temelkuran is a prolific Turkish author and journalist who has spent her career tackling the deep political and societal fissures of her native country, Turkey.
In her 2010 book Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide, Temelkuran tackles the most sensitive issue in Turkish history – the Armenian genocide. The book is dedicated to Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist who was murdered in Istanbul in 2007 and was a close friend of Temelkuran.
After more than a decade of work as a journalist for both Turkish and international outlets, Temelkuran was fired from the Turkish network Haberturk over criticism of the AKP government in the wake of the 2011 Roboski massacre, when the Turkish military killed 34 civilians on the Turkish-Iraqi border after mistaking them for militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Temelkuran’s most recent work continues her tradition of probing Turkey’s most entrenched socio-political issues. In Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, Temelkuran traces Turkey’s culture of authoritarianism from the founding of the Republic in 1923 to the modern day.
As can be expected of almost any recent study of Turkey’s domestic politics, her book includes a sharp analysis of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. However, Temelkuran also dives into Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish conflict, relaying events and anecdotes that rarely make it to the international media.
The book comes at a time when Turkey is reeling from a devastating and deadly coup attempt that has triggered a new round of authoritarianism in a country that is no stranger to it. Turkey has been under a state of emergency since July, which has allowed for a series of mass purges and arrests of government opponents as well as a crackdown on human rights, including freedom of the press.
Against this backdrop, Independent Turkey contributor Charalampos Tsitsopoulos sat down with Ece Temelkuran to discuss her most recent book, the unique character of Turkish authoritarianism, and her experiences as a Turkish writer.
Independent Turkey: Talk a bit about yourself. You’ve travelled and lived in many places. Where are you now? Any particular reasons for it?
Ece Temelkuran: I really envy those writers who use soundbites and who can take out that line whenever needed, turning the space into stage. I can’t use an all-inclusive sound bite; my story is rather long and only for those who have the patience, I guess.
I have lived in many places to write. I suppose writing is the most legitimate reason to be a vagabond. And it is the safest place for the eternal homeless. I am in Zagreb now. The reason, like it has always been, is writing. I like to write in places where I don’t understand the language. Not knowing the language blurs your surroundings, which enables you to clear your head. At least that is the case for me.
InT: Emotions in Turkey are running high. The country seems to be on the verge of transformation. Do you think that this is an issue of the forced modernization imposed by Turkey’s founding fathers, to which you allude in your book? Are we experiencing a “return of the oppressed”?
ET: This was surely the legitimizing narrative behind what had happened to Turkey in the last decade, but it hardly is the reality. The main political narrative behind the “one man show” in Turkey is, “We are taking back what is ours, what has been stolen from us by the modernist elite”. This narrative mobilized first the conservative masses, then the ignorant crowds. However, as you can see, beside the particularities of the Turkish case, this same narrative is now used in the U.S. or France, which shows that the reasons behind it are not specific to certain countries and their historical conflicts but rather part of a bigger global movement.
InT: You allude to a culture of mass oblivion and forgetting when it comes to the injustices of the past. Are there significant differences in the treatment of the past between Turkey’s secular and religious elites?
ET: Recently Mikhail Shishkin, the Russian novelist, in a panel we joined together said that everything can change in Russia in a lifetime, but then you also see that nothing changes in three hundred years. I guess from a certain perspective you can say that for many, if not all, countries.
InT: The Kurdish issue in Turkey is well known. The Kurds demand cultural autonomy and not political and territorial secession. Why has the crackdown of successive governments been so severe? Is it because of a perennial fear of losing the east?
ET: There was a very precious opening – a chance, if you will – in Turkish history during the ‘70s when all the progressive forces of the society were joined to demand a more democratic, equal, and free country. As happened in many other countries after the [fall of the] Berlin Wall, all this political energy scattered to pieces when identity politics took over the global political stage. On a more local level, the Kurds have been a problematic matter in Turkish modern history due to the “minority or not?” dispute. Turkey is still a young country that is born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This reality has always determined the anxiety about land. I don’t consider Turkey as being more sensitive than any other nation state in the world. On the other hand, obviously Turkey has never been good at dealing with the past. That is a known fact.
InT: You shrewdly bring up the issue of Turkey serving as an “Islamic role model” for the Western intelligentsia. Hopes were quickly dashed. Why have intellectuals, even people as smart and well-read as Slavoj Zizek, been so uniformly clueless as to what was going on in Turkey? Is it because this particular part of the world needs success stories? Is it wishful thinking?
ET: Certain times bring certain intellectual fashions, I guess. That was the fashion of the last decade. It was mesmerizing though to see that rewriting history – especially about the Ottomans and how peaceful the Ottoman era was, – is so catchy even among the so-called “well informed”. I talk about the intellectual euphoria and celebratory mood for the neo-Ottomans a lot in the book. That was the mistake that brought these dark days. Because if the political power in Turkey had not had this intellectual legitimization, things would have been completely different now.
InT: İhsan Dağı, a professor at METU, wrote a book about Turkey’s transformation into an illiberal democracy. He makes the point that Erdoğan’s political model is not very dissimilar to that of Atatürk, meaning increased centralization and concentration of power. How do you see that? Is Erdoğan negating the Kemalist legacy in some respects and using it in others?
ET: Drawing such similarities almost always ends up in anachronism. Lately the famous historian İlber Ortaylı made a point saying that “[w]hen we did not have bread to eat, Atatürk was raising Hittitologists”. If you look at power as a homogenous matter and strip it off from its content, you can end up making not only ideological but also ethical mistakes. Because under Erdoğan, another Turkey is shaping where education is cursed, let alone raising scientists.
InT: Brave writers seem to have come out of Turkey in recent years (including yourself). Is literature being censored to the same extent as journalism, or is the latter more targeted because of its more immediate, dangerous nature? Is an artist freer in Turkey than, for example, in Iran?
ET: Years back maybe you could have made a distinction between literature and journalism as one being safer than the other. Today, however, anybody who has a critical word, be it literary or journalistic, is intimidated by the fact that anything can happen to anyone.
InT: What are you working on at the moment? Politics or literature?
ET: My literature, even the books seemingly non-political, is all political. I do believe that having a “non-political” attitude is the most dangerous political stand one can ever adopt.
InT: Thank you very much indeed.
Join us for our Sunday reading post and a review of Ece Temelkuran’s latest book.