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?

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Why Britain’s Bangladeshis are so successful

In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.

No day is complete without fears about immigrants failing to integrate in Britain. Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups now seen to be a burden on society, poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.

A generation ago, much the same was said of the Bangladeshi community. Tower Hamlets, where the concentration of Bangladeshis is greatest, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998. Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.

Today the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62 per cent got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2015, five per cent above the average. The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particular spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to analysis of Department for Education figures.

Partly this is a story about London. If London’s schools have benefited from motivated Bangladeshi students, Bangladeshi pupils have also benefited from the attention given to the capital, and especially Tower Hamlets; 70 per cent of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital. But even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students “are doing very well”, and outperform Pakistani students, something that was not true in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.

The success of Bangladeshi girls, who outperformed boys by eight per cent in 2015, is particularly striking. Increased gender equality in Bangladesh – the gender pay gap fell 31 per cent from 1999-2009 – has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously, says Abdul Hannan, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.

The roots of the Bangladeshi population in Britain might be another factor in their success. The majority of Bangladeshis in the country hail from the city of Sylhet, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food. “Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90 per cent of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.

Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities”.

Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.

As Bangladeshis have become more successful, so younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that, “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition. 

Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Nine per cent of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found. It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.

But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan tells me that he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership”.

Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.