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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.