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Cem Erciyes in this interview with Haluk Şahin, author of the book Liberals, Nationalists, Islamists and the Others, explores the themes covered in this book. This interview was published in the daily Radikal on 19 February, 2008.
Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.
ISTANBUL “Nationalists, Islamists, liberals articles have been written asking, ‘Who are the top eleven among them?’ They didnt put me in any of these teams; I realised anyway that I did not wish to be included in any. So which team am I from? I decided that I belonged to the category of ‘others’. I share a good deal of common ground with the liberals as well as the nationalists. Then I wrote three articles in Radikal about the liberals’ support for the AKP and the points on which I diverge from them.”
A well-received interview given by Radikal writer Prof. Dr. Haluk Şahin to Devrim Sevimay for the Milliyet newspaper about these articles was later expanded into a book entitled The Others. The book begins with the emergence of new intellectual stars in the course of the transformation which the Turkish media underwent in the 80s, and focuses in particular on those liberals who today support the AKP. According to Şahin, they have become transfixed by power and have all turned into AKP supporters. Şahin, concluding that this coalition has set about creating a new “ideological hegemony” capable of influencing people of all persuasions in Turkey, adds, “I wish for the ‘others’, whose number I do not believe to be small, to raise their voices above all this confusion and attempts to impose hegemony.” As of today, a web site, focusing on Haluk Şahin’s personal stance and assessments, has been launched with the aim of broadening the scope of the book. The replies given by Haluk Şahin are as follow:
You say that the liberals converged after 28 February. What brought the liberals and Islamists together; could this not merely be a coalition in the name of freedom?
No, this was a search for room to manoeuvre. 28 February handed the liberals to the Islamists on a plate. When, in the wake of the stern measures of 28 February, certain liberal writers found themselves unemployed, Yeni Şafak made an important gesture in offering a platform to these people. This cooperation turned into an alliance that marched to power in that it changed the ideas of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the modernisers within the Fazilet Party. I believe that the four months which Erdoğan spent in prison will in the future come to be seen as an important turning point in Turkish political history. Erdoğan left that prison with a fundamentally different set of ideas and circle of contacts. The critical factor here is the position concerning the European Union. Having embraced a policy of exploiting the EU to create room for political manouevre where 28 February had left none, nothing could have been more natural than for them to cooperate with the liberals. The great service performed for them by the liberals was to clean and overhaul their ideological baggage and make them marketable to the West as they moved from Milli Görüş onto this new platform.
In one of your articles in Radikal, you say, “Since nothing happens in politics without a payback, it should come as no surprise that they have attempted to reward directly or indirectly the representatives of this group.” What kind of reward mechanism are you talking about?
Political intoxication is a very dangerous thing. It considerably weakens people’s critical independence. The AKP found itself in power shortly after it had been founded. There are a great many advantages to being close to the source of power. I make a particular effort to avoid using terminology which implies that this relationship is based purely on material gain, but if you are close to those in power, you can make various television programmes that you were previously unable to make, you can board planes that you couldnt get on before, you are invited to places where you were previously uninvited and you can get various grants and subsidies that were previously unavailable to you. This over time can weaken your critical senses. A cloud of intoxication forms above you and stays there. You may set out on a road side by side as equal companions, and at a later stage continue to march in a warm embrace and having lost your independence; this is what has happened.
Has Islamist-liberal cooperation created an ideological hegemony?
I would not go so far; I would say that they have gone a long way towards doing this. This is a point to which a great many important thinkers, from Marx to Gramschi and Mills, have attached a lot of importance. If holding power in a society is tantamount to maintaining ideological hegemony, in other words, if your definitions concerning society are considered to be normal by society, maintaining that hegemony assumes a great deal of importance. This is precisely where intellectuals have an important role to play in prising open cracks that enable an alternative hegemony to take the place of that hegemony, tearing away pieces and pounding away at the dominant hegemony. There, the struggle for power turns into conflict between different intellectual groups, what I term gangs. There was a need somehow to eliminate the hegemony with its positivist, pro-Western basis of the traditional guardians of the republic who were previously in power. There thus had to be a struggle to conquer or destroy ideology-creating institutions like the religious institutions, family, education system, media and army. For instance, I see signs of a creeping process by means of which the media is being conquered. The liberal intellectuals have been assigned a very special role in this ideological struggle. They are placed in the shop window as a symbol of trustworthiness; and at the same time they are well equipped and well versed for front-line duty in the campaign to tear down the old hegemony. Let us say in matters where the military is concerned.
You say that this coalition behaves boorishly towards the army and in matters that concern Ataturk. Is this not at the same time positive in so far as it involves Turkey questioning itself and leads to a breaking down of taboos?
Of course. I say that it is necessary to come to terms with these things. I do not say that everything about the old hegemony was good, what a pity that a false and new version is replacing it. But I do say that we are right in the middle of a wide-ranging ideological shift. Otherwise, I as an intellectual note with pleasure that there was an aspect of the old Kemalist ideology which efforts were made to shore up with prohibitions and which had retained no explanatory value, leading instead to a distorted perception of events, and that new areas of thought have been opened with their elimination.
It seems as though recently the AKP has reached an understanding with the military. Then there is the headscarf understanding that was reputedly concluded with the MHP such that no steps would be taken in matters like 301 or the EU. With the AKP coming to an understanding with one wing, could this on the other hand distance them from their old allies, the liberals?
There is a new climate of trust between the AKP and the soldiers. We do not know what lies behind this mending of ways, but I think that the EU factor is an important component. The EU is a matter that both makes it easier for liberals to defend the AKP and establishes common ground between them. That the AKP has begun to take this matter forward, but, on the other hand, has joined forces with the MHP on the headscarf question and has together with the army placed more weight on the military option in the South East, a further source of doubt for liberals, and has caused the appearance of question marks and criticism in certain quarters. Such criticism will, I believe, cause some liberals to abandon their common path with a heavy heart, but some of them have become AKP hacks; they will remain in their places.
Has the time finally come for the “others” to join forces and create a team?
I think it has; if anything it is overdue. In organisational terms this does not have to take the form of a political party. The absence of the others has resulted in these debates taking place in a very unhealthy manner. There is a totally new globalised world and from now on it is impossible to achieve anything with the old methods. What I tried to accomplish in this book was to demonstrate that our numbers were not small.
Does it appear that this movement of which you speak - I ask because this is how you define yourself - will emerge from the ranks of “modern social democrats”?
I am not totally sure at the moment but I believe there exists such an intellectual tradition in Turkey. I am of the view that this movement should appear as a synthesis of modern social democratic consciousness and green consciousness. It should undoubtedly be very sensitive towards environmental and human rights issues, but it should be on the left; it should be on the side of the workers.
“Pamuk deserved the Nobel, but ” You mention Orhan Pamuk in the book. I think you did him a disservice when, making reference to his marketing tactics, and however much you say that, “He deserved it”, you ascribe his winning the Nobel to these. Was this perhaps a factor in persuading liberals to back Orhan Pamuk?
No, certainly not. For one thing, I do not think in general terms; in any case, being one of the “others” implies not thinking in general terms, and evaluating every phenomenon individually so as to place it in an orderly manner within a wider context. In addressing this point in my book, I show that there is nothing accidental about my position. At a time when Turkish literary circles were out to tear him to shreds there was one single columnist who defended him. I wrote four or five articles devoted to the “Assault by Mediocrity”, because at that time Orhan Pamuk was suffering injustice. However, in my opinion, Orhan Pamuk later did Turkey an injustice. I do not say that he won the Nobel due to this; I say this may have played a part, and there is in particular a need not to forget the part played in this by lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz and his friends.