Protesters flee police in Diyarbakir, 31 December. Photo: Getty
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Slavoj Žižek: Is something rotten in the state of Turkey?

A reply to my critics. 

My short comment on the "war on terror" published online by New Statesman has triggered a series of critical reactions which definitely looks like a well-coordinated campaign, so it deserves a short reply.

With regard to the statements quoted in my text and falsely attributed to Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, things are simple and clear. After friends informed me about these statements, I searched for them on the web and found a couple of sites with them, plus I did not find any sites denying them. So I quoted the statements, mentioning the website where I found them. After it was discovered that these statements are false, the paragraph containing them was immediately deleted. What more could I have done with my limited resources? Furthermore, I find totally out of place the attempts to locate this accident into a series which allegedly demonstrates my "passion for plagiarism and fabrication", and where I am accused even of plagiarising myself (in one of my columns for NYT, I used two passages from a book of mine).

But the main voice in the debate was that of Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesperson for the Turkish presidency, who published on the al Jazeera website a column on "Zizek, Turkey and intellectual frivolity" - a very strange text indeed. It attributes to me "the laughable claim that Turkey is somehow responsible for the Paris attacks" (which I never made), plus the claim that "Turkey buys oil from ISIL" (which I also never made) as well as the claim that "Turkey is fighting the Kurds fighting ISIL in Syria" (also never made by me).

My claims are much more modest and cautious, in accordance with the obvious limitation of my sources: I speak of the "benign neglect" towards ISIL, of "facilitating" oil commerce of ISIL, I mention Turkish attacks on Kurds in Turkey itself, not in Syria. I explicitly put the blame on all sides: Russia and the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. I am well aware that, in its bombing operations in Syria, Russia is following the pro-Assad agenda and also bombing non-ISIL opposition to Assad. My sources are numerous reports and comments in the Western (not Russian) press, as well as in the Turkish opposition press – I refer to David Graeber's comment in The Guardian.

In contrast to me, Kalin writes as an official spokesperson, giving us the official version of the situation. From following the news, the least I can say is that I find deeply problematic not only many of Kalin's particular claims, but also his overall stance. While he reproaches me for my silence about the PKK terror (a reproach that I find meaningless: of course I didn't mention it, as it was not the topic of my very short text), I find it politically and ethically deeply problematic how Kalin reduces the Kurdish resistance to terrorism, ignoring the blatant fact that the fate of the Kurds is an authetic tragedy of colonialism imposing artificial borders: divided among four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey – they are deprived of cultural and political autonomy.

Kalin writes: "The PKK is trying to conceal its terror crimes on the pretext of fighting ISIL. The fact is that Turkey does not bomb any Kurdish targets in Syria. It only goes after the PKK terrorists that put Turkish and Kurdish lives in danger." Some acts of PKK are definitely problematic, but to reduce PKK to a terrorist organisation and to ignore its roots in the actual situation of Kurds is a frivolous obscenity. My impression from reading numerous reports is: Turkey definitely "goes after the PKK terrorists" in an incomparably more brutal way than it goes after ISIL, without seriously addressing the justified Kurdish demands for cultural and political autonomy. Turkey endorsed the "war on terror" so that, under its banner, it was able engage in a new wave of brutal attacks on Kurds, not only on PKK (ignoring strong forces within PKK which are ready to renounce armed struggle) but also on Kurdish legitimate political organizations which are denounced as the public face of terror. The true question is how much of Kurdish armed struggle is simply a reaction to Turkish oppression.

This is why I find deeply problematic Kalin's claim: "If we are against terrorism, we must be against them all whether it is ISIL, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ETA or PKK terrorism." Yes, but we must also be against STATE terrorism which is most dangerous of them all. "The fact that PKK is a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organisation does not absolve it of its crimes." Yes, and the fact that Turkey is a state also does not absolve it of its crimes.

Kalin writes: "The fact that the vast majority of terrorist acts in Europe and the US are committed by home-grown terrorists should be a wake-up call for the failure of multiculturalism and social imagination in Western societies." I am a long-time critic of the predominant Western multiculturalism, but what, exactly, should replace it? Certainly not the way Turkey is dealing with its own other "cultures", especially Kurds – to paraphrase Kalin, PKK activity should be a wake-up call for Turkey, a clear signal of its failure to deal with Kurds, of the lack of "social imagination" in allowing Kurds to attain cultural and political autonomy.

It is also clear that the core of the problem does not reside in how Turkey relates to the Kurds. Turkey's inability to integrate Kurds as an autonomous ethnic group is part of a larger struggle that is going on in Turkey, a struggle for what Turkey is and will become. Continuous tensions between the Turkish state apparatus and intellectuals, journalists, etc - tensions which spectacularly exploded in Gezi Park protests in 2013 - are a clear sign that Turkey is in the middle of a struggle for its identity. There are good reasons to presume that if the political forces which oppose the Erdogan regime were to gain the upper hand, the struggle of Kurds would enter a new stage.

Incidents like the one with Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, are indicative of this predicament. After they described how Turkey’s secret services had sent arms to Islamist rebels in Syria, Dundar and Gul were accused of spying and “divulging state secrets”, and placed in pre-trial detention. Erdogan personally filed a criminal complaint against Dundar, demanding he serve multiple life sentences.

Such incidents bring us face to face with what goes on in today's Turkey: threat to the freedom of press, obscure links with Islamists, etc. An observer has to make a choice here: are all these accusations reported in hundreds of texts part of a gigantic plot – or is there effectively something rotten in the state of Turkey?

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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