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Shafak: 'Erdogan is the most divisive politician'

Gero Schließ
September 11, 2017

Turkish author Elif Shafak blames President Erdogan for transforming Turkey into an authoritarian country. She tells DW that western writers must do more to support Turkish civil society.

Elif Safak
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K.Lütscher

DW: You gave the opening address to the International Literature Festival Berlin. What message do you want to bring to the audience?

I think these are very exciting, but also worrying times. These are liquid times. When we are living in liquid times, what can writers do, what can artists do? I think it's a time in which writers need to speak up louder, bolder about fundamental universal values, because we can not take those values for granted anymore.

For me, these values are democracy, pluralism, they are women's right, they are LGBT rights, freedom of speech, rule of law. They are the most basic values that we all need to speak about and defend, in my opinion, much more passionately, firmly and loudly than we have done before.

Read more: Elif Shafak tells writers how to support democracy in Turkey and the world

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing criticism for not doing enough concerning Turkey? What is your view on this?

Personally, I think Angela Merkel's presence as a woman sends a very important message to girls and women all around the world. We don't have enough female role models in politics and I think it does matter. And this is something I would like to highlight.

Turkish President Erdogan
Europe should not isolate Turkey - despite Erdogan, says SafakImage: Reuters/O. Orsal

With regard to debates about Turkey, I always make a distinction between the government and the people. It is clear that the government in Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian over the years. Even though they came to power through elections, eventually they ruined democracy by diminishing rule of law, separation of powers and media freedom. 

But at the same time, I do know there is a civil society in Turkey. There are many open-minded, progressive people in Turkey - women, young people, students, minorities, social democrats. These people are ahead of their government. And we don't hear their voices in international media.

So the dilemma is, how can we be critical of authoritarian governments, but at the same time be supportive of the people? Let us never isolate the people! Let us never disconnect from the civil society! This is a very big challenge for many politicians.

Which steps are necessary to support the civil society in Turkey?

Turkey is a big and important country. It is very complicated and multi-layered. Active citizens and NGOs -- such as Amnesty International or International PEN -- in Europe put pressure on European leaders to talk about the human rights situation in Turkey, the decline of democracy in Turkey, the decline of freedom of speech in Turkey.

As we are speaking right now, Turkey became the world's biggest jailer for journalists, surpassing even China's sad record. As we are speaking, there are people who have lost their jobs - thousands of academics, many of them only because they signed a peace petition. As we are speaking, there are people on hunger strike. It's a long, long list. Turkey's democrats are deeply demoralized. So I think we need to focus on the civil society.

So you think that civil society in so-called stable democracies like Germany are not doing enough? They could do more and speak up louder?

Absolutely! I think we can speak up more loudly. And also it's very important that, for instance, feminist organizations in Germany support feminists organizations in Turkey and elsewhere, that journalists in Germany support journalists in Turkey, and so on. 

Why can't we have more dialogue between German and Turkish civil societies? There are many organizations in Turkey that support journalists, cartoonists, writers, and also minorities. And these people need support, too. They need to know that the world cares for their struggle and they are not all alone. 

So for me it's very important to have dialogue across national borders and global solidarity. This matters much more than what is going on between German and Turkish politicians, because in mainstream politics things come and go, but the life of real people matters enormously.

Read more: Freedom is acting without asking permission, Edward Snowden tells Berlin

President Erdogan carries the ultimate responsibility for the decline of democracy in Turkey, which you mentioned before. Do you link your criticism to him personally?

I want to emphasize: The longer Erdogan stayed in power, the longer his political party stayed in power, the more authoritarian they became. Thousands of people have been put on trial for insulting the president. A critical comment on Facebook, a small joke on Twitter or a cartoon… anything can be a reason in Turkey to be put on trial.

In a proper democracy citizens can criticize presidents all the time, but in Turkey there is no freedom of speech. It makes me sad that Turkey is so polarized. It is deeply divided. We lost the culture of coexistence. People might have different world views, but they could have still shared common democratic values and respect.

This did not happen, and the AKP government acts as if they are only representing half of the society. But what about the other half? It is clear that Erdogan is the most divisive politician in Turkey's modern history. He never tries to unite people around shared values; he always divides people into "us" and "them."

But despite Erdogan, Europe should not isolate Turkey. Isolationism only works into the hands of isolationists -- most of whom are nationalists and Islamists. It's not a solution to isolate an entire society or the country. But I am very clear that we should be openly critical of the government and its unacceptable authoritarianism.