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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Whatever Arlene Foster did, at least no one died

After all, Northern Irish voters forgave Martin McGuiness his spell in the IRA. Plus: why did Boris Johnson get a pass on Brexit bungling?

What was Sir Ivan Rogers trying to tell us when he referred to “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” in his letter of resignation from the EU ambassadorship? According to “friends” quoted in the Times – which almost certainly means Rogers himself – he thinks that Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, were guilty of a “failure to understand briefings”. Put more crudely, he thinks the two Brexiteers are a bit thick.

I do not like the political positions of either Fox or Davis. But I note that both have science-based first degrees from universities other than Oxbridge (Fox studied medicine at Glasgow; Davis took molecular and computer sciences at Warwick). Both were also brought up in council houses. The third leading cabinet Brexiteer, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian raised on a large family farm on Exmoor, is, like Rogers, a Balliol arts graduate. He is apparently excluded from complaints about brain capacity. I wonder why.

 

The Cummings man

Rogers is not the first to question Fox’s grasp of the issues. Vince Cable said in September: “He doesn’t understand what a customs union is.” If so, he is not alone, according to Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign. In a 20,000-word blog that purports to explain the referendum result, Cummings states: “I am not aware of a single MP or political journalist who understands the single market – its history, its nature, its dynamics, its legal system . . . Cameron, Osborne and Clegg certainly don’t. Neither does Bill Cash [the veteran Tory Eurosceptic]. Neither does any head of the CBI. Neither do Jon Snow, Robert Peston, Evan Davis or John Humphreys [sic] so they do a rubbish job of exposing politicians’ ignorance.”

Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, offers no evidence of his own grasp of the subject. But since his rambling screed cites, among others, the 19th-century German chancellor Bismarck, the American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the 18th-century English statistician Thomas Bayes, I suppose we must take his erudition on all matters for granted.

 

Cash for ash

After the First World War, Winston Churchill observed, “The whole map of Europe has been changed . . . but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” Now, as we grapple with Brexit, Northern Ireland’s troubles return in the contemporary form of renewable heating subsidies overpaid to businesses and farms, some of them no doubt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and nearly all (one guesses) to members of the Loyalist community. The subsidies, overseen in an earlier ministerial position by Arlene Foster, the Unionist first minister, have led Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Foster’s deputy in the power-sharing executive, to resign, threatening the survival of the province’s eternally uneasy peace.

McGuinness argues that Foster should stand down pending an inquiry. Perhaps he is right. But whatever Foster did or didn’t do, nobody died. Which is more than can be said of McGuinness’s spell as an IRA commander, into which no inquiry was held.

 

Firm smack of regulation

The trouble with trying to create a sensible system of press regulation, which ministers are still struggling to do, is that somebody must finance it. In my view, neither government nor newspapers can be trusted as paymasters likely to respect the regulator’s independence.

Perhaps some charitable foundation or private individual with no axes to grind could be persuaded to step into the breach. But, no, the only available source of finance is Max Mosley, the ex-head of Formula One motor racing. Through family charities, he bankrolls Impress, the sole regulator recognised under legislation passed after the hacking scandal.

It is hard to imagine a less suitable paymaster. He is the younger son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader in whose Union Movement he was once actively involved. More recently, he sued the now-defunct News of the World for breach of privacy in reporting his involvement in a sadomasochistic sex orgy. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination can he be described as a disinterested party. Following the News of the World case, Mosley tried to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the law should require newspapers to give advance notification of their intention to expose private matters. The “victims” could then, if so minded, seek pre-publication injunctions.

This form of censorship was denounced by Milton in the 17th century. Mosley has no grasp of the most fundamental principles of press freedom and fair regulation.

 

A poor prognosis

A bad Christmas and New Year for the Wilby family, with all of us suffering colds/chest infections/flu/bronchitis/pneumonia (delete according to dramatic preference). But at least we didn’t have to risk treatment in an NHS hospital, encountering what the British Red Cross rather fancifully calls “a humanitarian crisis”. Of our two nearest hospitals, one is in special measures, while the other didn’t have a single spare bed from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve.

The Labour Party came to office in 1997 determined that the NHS should provide standards of choice and personal attention as good as in the private sector. Only thus, its leaders reckoned, could middle-class support for the service and willingness to pay the necessary taxes be maintained. The Conservatives’ goal is the opposite: to reduce the NHS to a condition in which the middle classes abandon it, leaving a rump service for the poor. Taxes can then be cut, with the affluent needing the money for private insurance. The Tories are well on the way to success.

 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge