Nobel laureate Pamuk: West focuses on migrant crises, not Turkish democracy

Nobel laureate and renowned Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has said the West does not care that much about Turkey‘s diminishing democracy and growing pressure on the media, saying it instead focuses on problems about migrants and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) when it comes to Turkey.

Speaking to Today’s Zaman in an exclusive interview, Pamuk shared details about his latest book titled “The Red-Haired Woman” and his comments about the current political and social atmosphere in Turkey.

When asked what kind of questions are being directed at him about Turkey from his friends from the West, Pamuk said:

“The whole issue of the ruling party’s authoritarianism is being forgotten and replaced now with thoughts about the problems presented by immigration. Ever since summertime, everyone’s been talking about immigrants and the ISIL.”

He further said almost no one — except civil society organizations — really focuses on the state of democracy in Turkey.

“It’s only when I say, ‘Hey, our journalists are being thrown in jail,’ that my friends abroad start paying attention. The West wants Turkey’s friendship so that it will help fight ISIL and to hold the door closed on unwanted immigrants,” Pamuk highlighted.

There are currently more than 60 journalists behind bars in Turkey, where freedom of the press has significantly deteriorated over the past several years.

Pamuk further says there has been no loud outcry in the West about how freedom of thought has slipped backwards in Turkey for the past six months.

“It’s always human-rights-type organizations, democracy institutions, academic institutions, places that are already concerned about freedom of thought that speak on these topics. But it remains at that level because, in the end, the defining topics are now the immigration crisis and the ISIL crisis. For the West, the fear and threat posed by ISIL is more pressing than whether or not Turkey is democratic,” he says.

Here are some excerpts from the TZ interview with Pamuık:

In an interview with you last year, you said: “I have plans in my mind for another 11 novels. But I won’t be able to write all of them; my life won’t last that long, unfortunately.” We have not often seen Orhan Pamuk write a whole novel in just over a year. What is this rush? Are you worried about time running out?

Yes, I am worried about time. Don’t forget, in my 40 years of novel-writing, I’ve kept a pace of around 200 pages a year. So, really, 200 pages in 14 months is quite normal; it was my plan anyway. Yes, there are another 10 novels I have in mind to write. It used to be, around the time when I was writing works like “Kara Kitap” (Black Book) and ” Cevdet Bey ve Oğullar” (Cevdet Bey and His Sons), that I would spend half the day writing my novel, and the other half reading and learning things. But now, I admit, I read less; instead, in a sort of panic, but with pleasure as well, I spend all my time trying to write the novels I have in mind.

This latest work is much shorter than, say, “Kafamda Bir Tuhaflık, which was a 480-page novel. Why did you limit yourself to 200 pages with “The Red-Haired Woman”?

There are just certain things you can do with a shorter novel that you can’t do with a longer one. This new book approaches cultural history from the angle of thoughts, legends and theater … but when it gets longer than this, in this style, the reader is pushed away, and the story falls apart.

There are two or three places in the novel where it’s mentioned how Turks have not stood up to embrace and protect their pasts. Does this topic trouble you as much as it seems to trouble the character of Cem in your novel?

Well, it’s true, but not necessarily like that. Everyone who visits Iran comes back saying things like “Wow, those Iranians have really kept their traditional culture going. They can repeat lines from all the great poets, from Hafiz to Mevlana.” And it’s true. We declared and decided that, in the name of Westernizing ourselves, we’d forget our traditional culture. And Mashallah, we managed it! But they, the Iranians, did not. The good or bad results from this do not concern me. There is a different aspect to this all that influences me. I would like to see Turks feel closer to the West not through forgetting traditional culture, but through perhaps modernizing old stories, or changing them. I take old stories and change them a bit. I compare them and make the features of the heroes more recognizable. I love to do this. Modernization does not mean forgetting old culture; you need to know about that traditional culture, know the West, and create something new, a third thing maybe. That’s more interesting anyway. Forgetting, that’s just like [Milan] Kundera’s forgetting. Forgetting does not modernize you; it just means that you too will be forgotten.

What kind of questions do your friends abroad ask you about Turkey these days? Do you have a hard time answering their questions, especially when it comes to topics like freedom of expression?

I have different friends in varying professions, so the questions really change accordingly. I guess you could say that little by little, the whole issue of the ruling party’s authoritarianism is being forgotten, and replaced now with thoughts about the problems presented by immigration. Ever since summertime, everyone’s been talking about immigrants and the ISIL. But no one’s really that focused on the state of democracy in Turkey. It’s only when I say, ‘Hey, our journalists are being thrown in jail’ that my friends abroad start paying attention. The West wants Turkey’s friendship, so that it will help fight ISIL, and to hold the door closed on unwanted immigrants.

So, you’re saying the West doesn’t really care about the fight for democracy here?

They essentially say, ‘Well, just how much democracy will Turkey ever have anyway?’. We’ve had previous eras when democracy was so much better, but they’re not really interested in these differences. So, colleagues like Can Dündar really face some tough times now.

But people abroad have reacted to the actions against the academics, right?

I think that’s just part of the general solidarity between academics in the world. But for the past six months, there have been no loud expressions in the West about how freedom of thought has slipped backwards in Turkey. It’s always human rights type organizations, democracy institutions, academic institutions, places that are already concerned about freedom of thought that speak on these topics. But it remains at that level because, in the end, the defining topics are now the immigration crisis and the ISIL crisis. For the West, the fear and threat posed by ISIL is more pressing than whether or not Turkey is democratic. In the end though, I can’t blame Western politicians, because they already have democracies.

But what about people like Noam Chomsky…

Well, Chomsky is special, he’s a real exception to the rule. And the conditions that define him are special as well.

There are fewer and fewer media outlets in Turkey where intellectuals and academics can really speak their minds. What sort of end result will this lead to?

Yes, the arenas for intellectuals are definitely narrowing, but I’m not actually that pessimistic on that topic, because in the end, there are always websites. But as for newspapers, it’s true they are getting worse and worse in quality.

So do you read the papers?

I do, I love buying newspapers. But in the meantime, sales of newspapers are also dropping. Everyone reads the columns or the papers that speak to their beliefs. There are two kinds of attack underway against freedom of thought.

One kind is the fairly open attacks we’ve seen against journalists like Ahmet Hakan, where people get beaten up or threatened, or have legal cases taken out against them and are thrown into jail. And then there are the more subtle attempts to control newspapers and their bosses. Or the use taxes to wield control. But there’s a development I guess we can see as positive. And that is websites.

You can fire Hasan Cemal as much as you want from his job, but he’s still going to write, right? And when you are curious about what he’s been writing, you can go to the web and read him.

But these are, of course, websites that appeal only to certain factions of society. And then there are the pro-government channels and sites, whose rhetoric of hatred and anger we are all familiar with.

But they don’t have that much power actually. I believe people really don’t watch those news shows controlled by the government. Yes, no matter what you say about the president, it turns into an insult, according to some — even if you don’t actually say his name. But in places where things are forbidden, words become even more valuable. There is an embarrassing sort of oppression in place, but I’m still not pessimistic.

You say people aren’t dying in the streets anymore, but in the Southeast, you can still lose your life at the breakfast table. Is this a reality of part of Turkey that just isn’t visible from here?

It’s not the same thing. Over there, it’s a war. We are talking about two armies over there. Both Turkish soldiers as well as local fighters on that front are dying. We are saddened by this, and wish for peace to come. And when I mentioned people not being killed in the middle of the sidewalk, I was referring to the 1970s; those were not deaths like the ones we see today in the Southeast, in clashes with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party].

There are two Turkeys right now. What sort of wounds is this leading towards? And what will be the solution in the future? Is there one?

There was something some famous thinker in England once said: “There are two peoples in England, the upper class and the lower class.” Now in Turkey, we have this polarization. And unfortunately, those at the helm of the state, as well as many columnists in the pro-government papers, are placing many hopes in this polarization. I am not happy about this. There is such great potential in Turkey. But it can’t be achieved through polarization, but rather through utopian thinking, through belief. It is important to become more prosperous, of course, but it cannot be our only ideal. In addition to prosperity, we must see freedom, cultural variety, respect for individual rights, and freedom of thought and expression. These things are all vital.

What do you think about the recent news relating to the declaration signed by academics about events in the Southeast?

Well, as far as I’m concerned, those academics did sign off on a problematic declaration. I’ve signed many such things myself; you get something to be signed, and you don’t read the whole thing. But just because someone signs something with the larger intent of declaring a desire for peace, I certainly don’t think it’s right to label these people traitors to the country, or threaten them with having to account for what they’ve done. Also, everyone has children who will go to these universities. People who decide early on that they want to be professors have a sort of idealism in them. They want to live with books, with knowledge. And now the ruling authority makes them rub their nose in this. But the result will be that the students will suffer. In these kinds of authoritarian societies, one person hits another, and the person who’s been hit hits someone else. That’s the way it works. But is that really what we want? What should really happen is that yes, something like that declaration happened, but move on with it, don’t over focus on it. Be more relaxed, trust yourself. You’ve won the elections. You got 50 percent! Believe in yourself, what more do you want, who else do you really need to beat up now? Especially since with this much oppression, you’re bound to start losing votes. You won’t though if you smile a bit, and try to be softer. But anyway never mind, what, is it really up to me now to explain how this works?

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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