“People in Turkey didn’t think it would get that bad”

an interview with Ece Temelkuran

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

Ms Temelkuran, who is your book “How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship” addressed to?

I wanted to tell the story, the experience of Turkey, and relate it to other countries. I started observing that a similar malaise is occurring in several other countries in exactly the same way, with the same patterns. I wanted to save others the time and energy, that lost us fifteen years in Turkey and I wanted to clarify their hesitations and take away the burden of trying to understand. I do think that this is a global phenomenon, right-wing populism and rising authoritarianism. And I do think this global phenomenon should be responded to with a global political answer, and in order to do that we have to join a global conversation.

How do people react to you, as a Turkish writer, a Turkish women, trying to teach us those lessons that Turkey already learned. You say: “Just watch us and learn from us, and do not make the same mistakes.” How did people react?

If a Turkish woman comes from this crazy country called Turkey and says “you know darlings, I am going to tell you what's going to happen next in your country,” people don't take it very well. Somehow it is quite natural for a British or Dutch intellectual or writer to come into Turkey and talk about Turkey and our politics, and simply fire our complicated history back to us. But when a Turkish writer does that it is, to say the least, unprecedented. Some people found it offensive and many people reacted in a defensive way. Of course, several people took it seriously and understood what I am trying to do. But to tell to Europeans: “You have to learn from Turkish experience” is not a statement that is easily welcomed. I have a story about this, two days ago in Eindhoven or Amsterdam, a journalist in the audience spoke up. And I gave my speech, it's a long speech, showing the similarities between Dutch politics and Turkish politics and how they are dealing with Thierry Baudet, their populist who had a recent victory in elections. After showing all the similarities, and after everybody was convinced, that right-wing populism is a global phenomenon and it reoccurs in every country, a Dutch journalist raised his hand and said: “But you're Muslim”. And I said, “Oh great, you think Christianity will protect you from right-wing populism? Perfect! Go for it!” so this is just one of the examples, but there are other examples as well. In Britain, especially, I had a Brexiteer in the front row, he raised his hand and he, very bluntly, said: “You cannot talk about my country! You can talk about your country, you can talk about the United States, that is easy” – his words, “but Great Britain is complicated!”. And I said, “If you want to see complications come to Turkey!” Of course, every country is complicated, every country has unique conditions, a unique backstory, unique soft spots, unique fragile consensuses, and so on and so forth. But this is why we are not talking about the differences, this is why I didn't write a book about the differences between countries, but rather about the commonalities of what we are going through. It is not because only right-wing populism should be responded globally, but also, in order to get my country back, I need a global solidarity, we all do.

You came up with seven warning signs, why seven?

The book is ironically written for a beginner dictator. It's like a manual for a dictator, because there is a big market for it right now, you know. *laughs* Hence the, seven steps. This is what I have seen, the book is designed to say: “This is what it is. I solved everything, listen to me, this is the answer!” It is actually inviting people to a conversation, which, I believe, will save the entire planet - hopefully.

And you talk about how these countries think they're immune, thinking “It might not be that bad” or “It won’t get that far!”

You know what, maybe, if there is an eighth common pattern it should be this. This feeling, this illusion of immunity. Because in Turkey, in fact, fifteen years ago the majority of intellectuals, opinion makers, journalists, politicians, white-collar people, we all thought that it wouldn't happen. We had the same defensive illusion, manufactured illusion to protect ourselves from this crazy, dark idea. Because we thought: “We're not an Arab country after all!” This is true, I don't know if you remember the first years of AKP in Turkey, it was like that. Of course, it can happen in Iran, it can happen in Iraq, but Turkey is not that. But then it happened. Just like it happened in Britain. It is so interesting to see that the British establishment at the moment is trying to overcome the fact that they cannot come up with an idea for Brexit.

We are talking about right-wing-populism. But you don't feel comfortable with that term, do you?

Not at all. I think it's a calming word, term, right-wing populism. Because we don't want to say fascism, because it has connotations and repercussions. We don't want to say authoritarianism, because it doesn't really fit. And right-wing populism is the word that everybody seems to be kind of fine with. Although I really would call it political and moral insanity, because it is what it is. It is not only political in fact, there is a moral disaster going on. And I do think that there is a history of it. Many intellectuals, opinion makers and journalists see right-wing populism as if it hit the world all of a sudden, a natural disaster that happened out of the blue. I argue in this book that it is the very consistent and a very expected fruit of neoliberal ideology that has been imposed on the world for the last forty years.

Populists managed to create this concept of 'we' and they created this feeling of unity or the understanding of an 'us' that belongs together. How did they trigger this feeling? How do you make people believe in a common 'We'?

After the Second World War, for the historical reasons you already know, people thought that human beings won't fall for the magic of the word 'we' anymore. Whereas now, we see that they can. In a different form, absolutely, but in the very essence of what we see today lies in the fact that human beings need to be part of a bigger entity, and they can compromise their individuality to dissolve into this big entity. The word movement is quite promising! Especially, in these times, when we are going through the probably biggest crisis of representative democracy, which has been stripped of the notion of social injustice by the neoliberal ideology. Let's create a movement, not a party, a party's over! It is a twentieth century concept and we are trying to deal with a twenty-first century problem.

Right-wing populists claim the monopoly on big terms like 'respect' for example, or ‘pride’.

The entire political struggle between right wing and left wing in the coming years on a global scale will take place around these two terms - pride and dignity. People like me, people like you probably, we want our dignity back from the dominant neoliberal ideology. But these people, these spin-doctors, right wing populist leaders, they want to mend people’s lost pride. That is how they mobilize and politicize. The difference between dignity and pride is that dignity is about human love and it's a word of equality. Whereas pride automatically refers to hierarchy and hostility.

In Germany we have been debating for a while if we should talk and understand right wing populists’ arguments or not. You have a very clear stance concerning that question.

My stance is, that I am not talking to right wing populist spin-doctors and leaders and I don't have to communicate to them. You know, the thing about the “finding a common ground or not”-question, is that we cannot find a common ground. Because one, and this is the second common pattern in this book, because right-wing populism disrupts the rational and it terrorizes language. So, it is logically impossible to find common ground. Second, to try to find a common ground should be coming from the powerful, and should be coming from the hostile. As critics of right-wing populism, on a global scale, we are not on the winning side right now. So, if we ask to find a common ground, if we are asking for reconciliation and that actually means surrendering.

You now live in Zagreb, not in Istanbul anymore. What happens to a country when its citizens decide it is not their country anymore, when they decide to leave?

I don't think we really left our countries, all those people who physically traveled from Turkey to Germany, to London, or to several other places in Europe. We didn't leave our country, I think we are just trying to survive for the time being. In the meantime, we became citizens of a different nation: the nation of screens. Like Iranians, Iraqis, or Syrians, we are stuck to the screens of our computers, of our televisions, of our telephones, and actually we are looking at our country from far away countries, or from faraway lands.

Our dream of Turkey was completely different, and we are critical of Turkey’s previous democracies, and yet we still are the products of republican projects, a secular Turkey. But now somebody says that that project is no more, it's over. So, we all in a way, feel unnecessary, left out, as if a ship is sinking and they're trying to get rid of us, the products of the previous project. And you know people have been imprisoned, peopled have been exiled, or they exiled themselves, they've suffered – especially academics, who cannot live or allowed to do any kind of jobs, nor are most of them allowed to have passports. Hunger is one thing, being discredited is one thing, being oppressed is another thing. Many hearts are broken in Turkey right now. Everything is so violent, so harsh, so difficult, that we don't have space, time or energy, to talk about how our hearts are broken. One of the things that right wing populist regimes, authoritarian regimes, are stealing from us is the joy of life. And we have to remember that it is a form of resistance to keep that joy. And the only way to keep that joy is through solidarity. Not even political solidarity, practical, basic human solidarity. Only friendships, at this point in our lives. And now I am thinking of writing a new and probably more joyful book to theorize and maybe even politicize the concept of friendship. It's not because I need it personally, but because I think the world needs a new political tool.

an interview by Dilek Güngör.

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