The Big Questions: What do the protests in Turkey tell us about democracy and Islam? Should Erdogan step down?

This week's questions are answered by award-winning author Elif Shafak
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Are the protesters in Turkey right to be angry?

The early protesters who were in Gezi Park to save the trees are entirely right to be offended and angry. They went there with their tents and guitars for a peaceful sit-in and they were subjected to tear gas and pressurised water. After the excessive use of force by the police on that day, things escalated, and moved in several directions. Today, on the streets, there are people from all backgrounds; liberals, leftists, nationalists, ultranationalists, Kemalists, some extremist leftist groups and even disappointed conservatives. So it is not monolithic. Excepting those who have been resorting to violence and vandalising or trying to use this moment in time for their own ends, I find the protests important. I believe the Prime Minister and the government should communicate with the people and try to understand the reasons behind this burst, instead of tarring everyone with the same brush and calling them “looters”.


Should Recep Tayyip Erdogan step down as Turkey’s leader?

He is a democratically elected leader. We have to acknowledge that he won three fair and free elections and he still remains popular. The problem is, even though he might have been successful in the ballot, he has also been an increasingly divisive figure. Especially in the last years, he has been more and more reliant on the 50 per cent who voted for him, always prioritising them. The other 50 per cent, who did not, feel alienated, distanced, belittled. And now they react.


 Is Turkey a secular state, as Kemal Ataturk hoped it would be?

Turkey is a complex country and is, in my opinion, sui generis in many ways. It is a secular nation-state that needs to improve its democracy, pluralism, human rights, minority rights, gender rights, freedom of speech and freedom of press. And I am criticising this government for not doing enough in these areas. Article 301 has still not been abolished – people are still brought to court for their words. But we have to understand that authoritarian tendencies run deep in our political history. And both conservatives and Kemalists can be similarly intolerant at times. That is why I want to move beyond this duality. The previous Kemalist elite modernised the society top-down. Social, ethnic diversity was not recognised. Kurds were suppressed. It is as if whoever comes to power wants even more power. That is why we need checks and balances. This is especially important in a country with a tradition of a “strong state”. There is a tendency to protect the state over the individuals. Whereas in a true democracy, you protect the individuals from the excessive power of the state.


What do the events of the past fortnight tell us about whether Islam is compatible with democracy?

Islam is compatible with democracy. The main question is how we interpret Islam, how we read the book, using our own gaze, our own understanding and interpretation. Islam is no less compatible with democracy and pluralism and diversity than the other monotheistic world religions with which it shares so much in essence and in spirit.


What can people in the West do to support democracy in the Middle East?

First of all, we have to stop thinking about the Middle East as if it were another world, and the Middle Easterners as essentially different people. People in the Middle East want what people want all over the world. Happiness, equality, freedom, economic progress and human dignity. The one big mistake that was made in the past was to assume that the Middle East was a stagnant, sleepy land. Many Western politicians supported militarism and a corrupt political elite in the Middle East because they seemed to be “modern” on the surface. Democracy was not a priority. Stability was a priority. But that stability came at a high price. Corrupt elites suppressed their own people. We need a paradigm shift. We need to connect across borders as fellow human beings who share the same world as global souls and increase faith in both pluralistic democracy and humanism.


The first round of Iran’s elections were this week. Are you encouraged by what you see?

It is a positive step, and yet it pains me to see how limited it is. I find it so sad that women cannot be elected and liberal candidates are brushed aside. Nonetheless, it is a step. Iran has an amazingly rich culture and history, and beautiful young people. I have faith that, in the long run, the Iranian people will opt for democracy. No society can remain too isolated and enclosed and suppressed for too long.


What made you want to be a writer?

I started writing at the age of eight, and not because I wanted to be an author. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as dedicating your life to literature. I was a single child raised by a single, working, feminist mother in an extremely patriarchal society. I was also extremely shy and introverted, and at times would refuse to eat or speak and spoke only to imaginary characters. Books guided me. Books saved me. The need, almost existential need, to write stories and the hunger for imagination came to me much before the desire to become a published author. That is why I believe the love of and need for telling stories is deeply rooted in my soul.


Do you have a Kindle, and do you believe such devices will help or hinder the cause of literature?

I am not as worried about changing technology as some of my author friends are in Turkey and the UK. The format will keep changing as time moves on. That is inevitable. The book itself was a novelty once upon a time. What matters and what won’t change too quickly, I hope, is our need for stories. The art of storytelling is ancient and universal and here to stay. Whether we read on a Kindle or from paperback doesn’t really matter as long as we read, as long as we write and share our stories.

Elif Shafak is an award-winning author. Her latest novel, Honor, is publshed by Viking Adult