Stephen Sackur speaks to Turkish writer Elif Shafak, who lives much of her life in London. Does the West get anywhere close to understanding Turkey's complex culture and politics?
Browse content similar to Elif Shafak. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Now on BBC News, it is time for HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk. I'm Stephen Sackur.
A dozen years ago, Europeans looked to Turkey and thought they saw
a country becoming more like them, embracing Western values
and on a long-term track to EU membership.
But today, well, Europe sees authoritarianism,
conservatism, and repression embodied in the all-powerful figure
of President Erdogan.
My guest is Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist and writer
who lives much of her life in London.
Does the West get anywhere close to understanding Turkey's complex
culture and politics?
Elif Shafak, welcome to HARDtalk. Thank you.
When you write of Turkey today, I wonder what emotions draw you?
Would it be anger or sadness or incomprehension?
I think there is a lot of sadness. I feel sad.
I feel worried.
So much is changing in Turkey and so fast.
I think speed is important with many things that are happening,
with a bewildering speed which almost prevents time to stop
and analyse because something else happens next week and so it goes
on and on.
I am very sad when I look at the direction that my motherland
has taken, and I think we have become a very unhappy nation,
and unhappy people.
Do you feel that you and Turkey have a greater distance
between you than ever before?
Because I referred to the fact that you live most of your
life in London.
Even from being a young girl, you were very used to travelling
around the world, but doesn't the distance from your motherland
feel much greater today?
I wouldn't generalise like that because, as you know,
Turkey is a very polarised, bitterly divided, bitterly
So there is also a civil society in Turkey that perhaps we do not
hear much about.
But within that civil society, there are so many progressive
people, open minded Democrats who do know that their country deserves
much better than this.
Minorities, women, students, youth, so when I look at the people,
I feel very connected.
When I look at Turkey's politics and politicians,
then yes, the distance is enormous.
I want to dig inside the civil society that you see in Turkey today
in a minute, but I want to begin by focusing on perspectives
between Europe and Turkey today and the degree to which there is,
frankly, a complete lack of understanding.
Do you think there is mutual misunderstanding, both ways?
The journey of Turkey's EU membership I think has been
so important and there are several turning points,
misunderstandings, and mistakes.
Turkey no doubt is a very complicated country,
Sometimes European observers say they find it difficult to understand
Many Turks feel the same way about their own country.
But that said, I think we need to remember there was a time when it
seemed almost possible that Turkey was going to become a member
of the EU, around 2005, 2006.
Almost a historical moment, and that moment is lost now.
I remember that moment very well because actually,
as it happens, I was based in Brussels for the BBC,
following every move in the Turkey-EU relationship,
as they sought to get to a point where membership negotiations
would become real and meaningful, but here we are, as you say,
a dozen years later and there is no prospect at all.
In fact, I just want to read to you something that
President Erdogan said just a few weeks ago.
He said, "In Europe, things have become very serious
in terms of the extent of Islamophobia.
The EU is now closing its doors on Turkey and Turkey doesn't
close its doors on anyone."
But that's a narrative that suggests the currently pretty poisonous
relationship between Europe and Turkey is the fault of Europe
because Europe can't handle the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country.
We need to remember how the relationship has collapsed,
going back ten years.
I did criticise the Turkish Government for failing
to fulfil EU criteria.
We needed those reforms.
Primarily in order to improve our immature and wobbly democracy.
It was going to be good for Turkey's future and for Turkey's civil
society as well, but I also criticised some of the politicians,
particularly to make it more clear, populist politicians,
within Europe, continental Europe, especially in France at the time
of Sarkozy, who used Turkey at the time as the fear card
in their own electoral campaigns.
What they did was quite short-sighted and what we need
to understand is ever since the EU became more distanced from Turkey,
this directly worked into the hands of isolationists in Turkey,
and who are those?
They are the nationalists, they are the Islamists,
and they are the ones who want a more authoritarian regime.
So Turkey became more and more enclosed.
It is very sad that years and years ago, public opinion,
public support for EU membership in Turkey was incredibly high.
But not now?
I mean, the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr Yildirim, just told our programme
a couple of weeks ago, he said if there were a vote right
now in Turkey, he has no doubt that the vote would be
against membership of the European Union,
and I'll come back to this point about you and your country.
I mean, you do live in London.
You are westernised, if that phrase means
anything at all.
Of course, Turkey has always been seen as this country pulled
and pushed between East and West, and the western element
within Turkey does appear to have lost out.
Well, the Government officials are saying that the public opinion
right now is quite negative.
Yes, but that's also not unrelated to the fact that constantly
the government itself is producing this anti-Western rhetoric
and they're talking about joining the Shanghai pact, walking
in the opposite direction with Kurdistan, China and Russia,
and surely that is the right place to be for a country with such a poor
record of human rights violations, human rights and freedom of speech.
I personally never want to see Turkey walking in that direction.
I want Turkey sharing the same values that matters
so much in Europe.
We have such a long history together.
I am not only talking about financial, economic ties,
not only political ties, but also cultural ties that go
all the way back to the Ottoman Empire.
With regards to identity, it is a big issue in Turkey
and I wish we could see being in the middle of East and West
as a source of richness instead of as something to get rid of.
I wish we could see that diversity is a treasure in itself.
I have always believed in multiple belongings.
Yes, I am an Istanbulite, but I am also a Londoner.
There are so many elements in my soul, from the Middle East,
I am attached to the Asian, the Mediterranean, the Balkans.
I am a European by choice and I like to believe that I am
a world citizen.
Why not have multiple belongings?
We do not have to be narrowed down to a singular,
monolithic identity politics.
Well, it is fascinating you put it that way,
and you put me in mind of the recent novel you wrote which was published
last year, Three Daughters of Eve, which is about a Turkish woman,
Peri, who is living in Istanbul but still struggling to quite come
to terms with her complicated past which involved being educated
in the West, questions about her identity, relationship
to living in a Muslim country, albeit in Istanbul,
which is obviously in many ways the most liberal city in Turkey.
It strikes me that you are Peri, in a way.
There are a lot of issues that she is wrestling
with and uncertainties and other easiness that she has that you have.
In my recent novel, there are three women
characters, female characters.
All of them come from Muslim backgrounds but there
are relationships with identity, religion is completely different.
So we have Shirin, who is an Iranian British student,
and she is the child of exiled parents.
She is an atheist.
She no longer has any faith at all.
She is an atheist and she's very critical of all religions,
but in particular of Islam, because of the mistreatment
We have Mona, who is Egyptian American, who wears
a headscarf and is a practising Muslim.
Who has a belief.
But I am really interested in Peri.
Because it seems to me, if I may, that when you talk
about your Istanbul and your belief that in Turkey, yes,
there can be this third way, this wonderful synthesis of East
and West, you speak obviously for yourself and for a tranche
of Turkish frankly progressive liberal and perhaps not very
representative opinion, perhaps embodied by fictional
characters like Peri as well, but do you really feel that you tap
into the feelings of many ordinary Turks today?
I think it goes beyond Turkey, but Turkey is an interesting
platform in that regard because of our many,
We are a very confused nation about our identity,
where we stand.
So it is not a coincidence that I brought these girls together.
They jokingly call themselves the sinner, the believer,
and the confused.
And you are right.
I particularly wanted to follow the confused and write
about the confusions of our times.
I'm intrigued by this debate on faith.
Is there another path?
Is there another way of talking about these issues,
a more secularist approach?
A nonreligious way of talking about faith, is that possible?
Maybe to put it more bluntly, I'm intrigued by faith but I do know
that faith without doubt is a dogma and dogmas
are very, very dangerous.
But I guess my point is what you have just said
is fascinating and it is nuanced, and is there any room for nuance
in Turkey today?
Because look at the way Mr Erdogan handles politics.
He referred to himself once, rather famously, as a black Turk.
The idea that there is now this popularisation in Turkey
between the white Turks, who he would regard as the elite,
unrepresentative perhaps, associations with the military
and the state in the past, and then what he identifies
as the black Turks, who as the masses, the people
who have faith, have religion, and frankly follow him.
That is not a nuanced view of where Turkey is today
but it is Erdogan's view and Erdogan is by so far the dominant player
and character in Turkey's story today.
Populism in general thrives upon dualities and populist
demagogues like the distinction between us versus them.
They're creating us versus them.
They benefit from that.
I think it is the artist's, it is the writer's job to introduce
more nuance and hopefully to bring forth a more nuanced way of looking
at things, but you are definitely right.
Given the state of things in Turkey today, we have to bear in mind that
Turkey has become the world's biggest jailer of journalists.
Journalism is the most difficult profession in Turkey today.
And every poet, every writer, every journalist, every academic
in Turkey knows that because of a poem,
because of an article, a novel, or even a tweet,
we can get into trouble so easily.
We can be sued.
We can be almost lynched in social media.
We can be put on trial, may be detained or exiled or imprisoned.
So what I am trying to say is when we write, we have this
knowledge in the back of our minds.
As a result, there is a lot of self-censorship,
which is a subject we find very difficult to talk
about because it is embarrassing.
Do you self censor?
But I think we need to face it.
Well, I am asking you face it.
Absolutely, and I am facing it.
I think when I write fiction I never self censor not because of any other
thing but because the art of storytelling guides me
and when I am inside a novel I stay inside the novel for weeks
and months, sometimes over a year.
And those characters become my reality.
And I forget the so-called real world.
Only when I hand it to my editor I become very anxious and by then
it is too late.
And how can you say that, Elif Shafak, when you more than most
know the repercussions of writing things that cross a line.
In 2006, the Bastard of Istanbul was your novel which landed
you in court.
For a while it seemed you were going to be convicted
of crimes under Article 301, which essentially was accusing
you of insulting Turkishness because of the way you wrote
about the mass killing of Armenians, what many call
the Armenian genocide?
Yes, in my novel the Bastard of Istanbul, I wrote the story
of an Armenian American family and a Turkish family
and it is a book that uses the word genocide for what happened in 1915
and for that I was accused of insulting Turkishness under
article 301, even though nobody knows what that exactly means.
What is insulting Turkishness?
It is open to misinterpretation.
And it was a very unsettling, unnerving time for me.
I had to live with a bodyguard for a year and a half and the trial
itself was quite negative.
But that's a memory you can't get rid of.
Saying so frankly that you were unsettled, you were
unnerved, lived for a year and a half with a bodyguard, when you
write your books today, and I know you have just embarked on another
novel, surely you are carrying that in your consciousness and it does
impact the way you write, does it not?
I think it took me a long time to heal that psychological
turbulence in my soul.
Of course, I was affected by that.
But at the same time, when the book came out in
Turkey, I was experiencing the trial and so forth,
from the readers the
feedback, the warmth, was amazing.
Particularly women readers.
Women readers of all backgrounds, Turkish,
Kurdish, Jewish, Armenian, their words, it was just amazing.
It showed me one thing.
That words matter in Turkey.
And your connection as a writer with readers is very important.
That is why I always say being a Turkish
writer is just like being kissed on the one cheek by readers
and being slapped on the other cheek by the
system exactly at the same time.
But let me ask you this.
If you want to make a difference in Turkey today,
an you identify with the writers, the journalists, the
progressives, the academics, let's not forget thousands of those have
lost their jos and many been arrested since
the most recent round of
measures taken in the state of emergency.
If you self identify with this group in Turkey, how do you
make that voice, the let's call it progressive, liberal voice,
resonate and count across the country, because there's no
doubt the AKP know how to organise and
deliver politically, and one could also say
that the military and everything that goes with the
Turkish military, they know how to organise.
But it seems to me that the liberals and progressives,
though they may be quite substantial number, they don't really organise
or have a coherent vision for the country.
Yes, but first of all I am so glad you mentioned academics in
addition to journalists, writers, who are unfortunately...
Who have lost their freedoms today.
But the position of the academics is also so
Thousands of them have been sacked.
We need to understand that when you are dismissed as an
academic and Turkey, your prospects of finding another
job at another university is almost nil.
These people are almost left without money, without any job, and
completely unlawfully exact.
So to be frank about it, the progressives,
the liberals, they are too weak.
They are not united.
They don't have a coherent platform or vision and
therefore, for all of the individual efforts of people such as yourself
and many others, the voice doesn't resonate.
Yes, but there are so many important voices in Turkey today.
As we are speaking, I am very sad to say,
two academics are on hunger strike and it has been over 60 days.
They have now passed a very critical threshold,
which is life-threatening medical for them.
There are people trying to dissent, criticise,
express their sorrow or position sometimes at the expense of their
You are right.
The opposition in Turkey, the other half, is quite
fragmented, disorganised, but let us not also
forget what happened in
I would like to take a closer look at it.
In the run-up to the referendum, we have
seen a very unfair campaign.
Almost all of the state's resources, almost
all of the media outlets were is devoted to one side of the
referendum, which is the yes vote, pro Erdogan.
Essentially to change the constitution to the
presidency, not necessarily Mr Erdogan, because he won't be there
forever, but to give the presidency much more power.
Yes, but it was symbolised in him, certainly.
What I am trying to say is the other side of the campaign, the no voice,
was almost given no free space, and just the opposite.
People who dared to say no were either targeted,
slandered, stigmatised, sometimes physically
or verbally assaulted or
lost their jobs.
So within this climate of intimidation, we went to
But let's put all of this on the side and look at the
picture we have in hand.
It is remarkable that despite the intimidation half
of the Turkish society still said no.
And that says something about the strength...
Well, just under half.
The nature of democracy is that those who get the
most votes tend to win and obviously in this case it was close but
Erdogan's side won that argument.
It seems to me you have got to address the
most basic fact of all which is that since 2003, Mr Erdogan and his
colleagues in the AKP have time and again
proven themselves to be the
most popular force in Turkish politics.
You may talk about his authoritarianism, his oppressive
approach to free speech in the media, but he wins elections,
repeatedly, and if you travel perhaps to rural Antolia, you
will see just how popular the man is.
The distinction between the countryside and urban areas is not
only happening in Turkey.
Across Europe we have seen similar patterns.
Even in Austria, we have seen more far right being supported
across the countryside and in urban areas more liberal voices voting
So it is a pattern that we see over and over
There is a pattern.
You could argue that the sorts of things we
see in Turkey today could be linked to the political realities of Russia
today, where Putin is in the ascendant.
You could perhaps look at a country like Egypt, where 2011
brought the Arab Spring and so many pro-democracy voices onto the
streets in Cairo, but where is Egypt today?
Those liberal, secular, pro-democracy voices are nowhere.
But here is what I think.
Being popular or getting the most of the
votes, let's say, by numbers, isn't enough to gain legitimacy.
It is not enough to make a system a democracy.
And that is the biggest mistake the AKP elite
have been making over and
over throughout the years.
In short, what they are thinking is if we have
the ballot box, this is democracy, is what they are saying, and I am
saying no because the ballot box is only one
of the requirements for a
In addition to the ballot box, you need other things.
You need rule of law, separation of powers,
checks and balances, definitely a free media, definitely
an independent academia, you need women's rights,
you need LGBT rights.
Together with all these
components, you can have a proper, pluralistic, functioning democracy.
Now, if you don't have any of those other
components and only have the
ballot box, that system cannot be called a democracy.
It can only be a majoritarianism at best.
At worst, it will go towards authoritarianism.
What we have lost in Turkey is the culture of code systems.
What we have lost is the understanding that
we can have diversity and unity at the same time.
We can have shared values.
Rather than that, it has always been half of the society
pitted against the other half.
And this is the rhetoric that Mr Erdogan
used again and again.
And that kind of dualism is not healthy for any
And, yes, I think there is a lot of depression in Turkey at the
Would you like to escape from that depression by ceasing to
write about Turkey and writing about other things?
You have just started a new novel.
Is that going to be set in Turkey?
Frankly, I think if you are a writer from countries such as
Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, from places that have either wobbly
or no democracies, if you happen to be
a novelist from such a
background, you do not have the luxury of being able to...
You do not have the luxury of being able to
say, "I close my door.
I am just going to live in my own bubble."
What I like to do as a writer is to ask
Difficult questions about difficult issues, political taboos,
sexual taboos, cultural taboos, just to say, "Why is it like that?
Let's talk about this."
And then I like to leave the answers to
And in a word, if you continue to think like that and
write like that, you will be able to write in London, but you won't be
able to write in Turkey.
Does that bother you?
Yes, it does bother me, of course.
I mean, it makes me sad, this feeling of sorrow, melancholy I
think just follows you.
Istanbul is a city that you can't just leave
You carry Istanbul with you in your soul, in your writing.
On the other hand, interestingly, writing in English, I have
I have been writing both in Turkish and in English and that
commune between the two languages has also been an interesting
experience for me.
I realise over time, if there is humour in my work,
satire, irony, I find it much easier to express that in English, whereas
melancholy, sorrow, I find it easier to express in Turkish.
But one other thing I noticed is by writing in
English, maybe taking a step back and looking at Turkey from that
cognitive distance, maybe I can see things a bit more closely when I
write in English, paradoxically, because there is no baggage, there
is no cultural baggage.
It frees me from my anxieties and I feel maybe
more free to write whatever I want to write at that moment in time.
Elif Shafak, we must end there, but thank you so much
for being on HARDtalk.
It is a pleasure.
Thank you very much indeed.
Stephen Sackur speaks to Turkish novelist and writer Elif Shafak, who lives much of her life in London.
A dozen years ago, Europeans looked at Turkey and thought they saw a country becoming more like them, embracing western values and on a long-term track to EU membership. But today Europe sees authoritarianism, conservatism and repression embodied in the all-powerful figure of President Erdogan.
Does the West get anywhere close to understanding Turkey's complex culture and politics?