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.



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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.