Protesters flee police in Diyarbakir, 31 December. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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?

Getty
Show Hide image

The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

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 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt