An open letter to Slavoj Žižek

Turkey's record on human rights means it is no model for the Arab world.

On his recent visit to Turkey, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek praised the country and suggested that it could taken as a model by the Arab world. Here, one of Turkey's leading commentators responds. (NB: We have linked to Turkish-language sources where none are available in English)

Dear Mr Žižek,

As an attentive follower of your work, I feel obliged to write to you after hearing your comments on Turkey. I share your admiration for my country, which I think made you say "if the Arab world really needs a model, Turkey can be taken as a model". Yet I can not help but repeat the sentence with which I concluded my contribution to The Doha Debates on 12 January: "Turkey can not be a model for the Arab World because it has enough problems already."

One of the distasteful things about authoritarian regimes -- as you might already know very well -- is that they turn writers into imbeciles by forcing us to repeat the obvious over and over again. Such as: "Journalists should not be jailed"; "It is cruel to put Kurdish minors in jail"; "Teargas shouldn't be used excessively, especially to a degree that causes death"; "Students holding a banner for free education shouldn't be put in jail for years "; "There should be no punishment without law"; etc etc.

I have experienced an intimidating decrease in my own IQ lately, due to repeating the fact that Turkey is turning into a state of fear. Turkey's good people are already exhausted from running from one courtroom to another following political cases that could even inspire Kafka to revise his oeuvre.

That is why my dear friend, the journalist Ahmet Şık, when defending himself against a ridiculous indictment, quoted Roland Barthes saying: "Fascism does not only silence people but also forces them to speak." With another 103 journalists Ahmet has been jailed for about a year without any verdict. I invite you to admire the latest judiciary fashion of the season in Turkey: blurry accusations, no solid evidence but months or even years of detention. With more than 9,000 applications filed against it at the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in 2011, Turkey is the worst offender when it comes to freedom of speech.

If those figures are not enough, you should know that a few days ago Ahmet's lawyer, during his defense statement, told the judges that prosecutors have been threatening him, arguing that his defense statement could result in prosecution under anti-terror laws. I think you would agree with me on his right to be alarmed, given that there are 40 lawyers in detention under that very anti-terror -- thus anti-democratic -- law.

I already know that you have no faith in Europe anymore so these figures might not interest you. Though I've heard that you are still inspired by Tahrir Square's call for freedom. I think our mutual friends in Egypt, Tunisia or Syria deserve better than our life in Turkey. Having lived in Beirut for a year, and covered the Tahrir stories and currently being based in Tunisia, I think that Turkey might even be inspired by some of those countries' appreciation for human life.

Because my compatriots who burn themselves to death have never been as legendary as Mouhammed Bouazizi of Tunisia. On 22 June 2010, the 20-year-old Erkan Gümüştaş set himself alight to protest the living conditions in prison. I am quite sure that only a few know his name in Turkey. His death hardly made it into the Turkish Human Rights Association reports, let alone setting the media ablaze.

Our police forces are no less merciless than the SCAF in Egypt. Metin Lokumcu, a teacher, died of a heart attack caused by the excessive use of tear gas during an assault on an anti-government protest on 31 May 2011. His friends were arrested under the anti-terrorism law when they wanted to protest against the violent crackdown on protesters.

The Kurdish children who, in order to earn some money, had to smuggle cigarettes across the mountainous border with Iraq, have been no luckier than the young Syrian casualties. Their pictures didn't make it to the news when nine of them were killed after an "operation accident" in Uludere. The government decided to hush up the incident, and our prime minister stated that those who criticise the event are unfair towards the government. In the end, maybe Turkey simply has more shiny window dressing and better marks from the IMF for its economic adjustments.

The last thing I want is to be one of those writers who have nothing to say about their countries except exposing the sins that are committed there. It is not only unfair to my country but also deeply hurtful for myself. Especially when you are doing it in another language, it bruises your emotional ties to your beloved country. I am sure you know what I mean. But it also hurts to see that you are serving the goals of an international marketing project by saying "Turkey can be a model for the Arab world". We, as people of Turkey, deserve better. As do the Arabs.

Yours,

 

Ece Temelkuran

 

PS: I would very much like to introduce you to my arrested journalist friend Ahmet one day. He is certainly much more witty than me. Somehow a year in prison has increased his capacity to mock our tragedies, beginning with his own.

Ece Temelkuran is a Turkish journalist and political commentator, who has written for the Guardian and New Left Review. Follow her on Twitter @ETemelkuran

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit