Fall 2009/Winter 2010
The Two Souls of Turkey
Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s best known novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. I spoke with him in his beloved Istanbul just after his novel Snow—which explores the clashes and symmetries of secularism, nationalism and Islam in Turkish hearts and minds—was published in English in 2005.
Nathan Gardels | As a novelist who has put himself inside the imagination of radical Islamists who plot to kill “godless” men who corrupt society, what do you think might have been going on in the mind of that young Moroccan arrested for shooting and then slitting the throat of Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street? [Van Gogh made a film criticizing treatment of women in conservative Islamic cultures—ed.]
Orhan Pamuk | There is no excuse for ruthlessness and intolerance of these so-called Islamic fundamentalists. For 20 years I have seen so many secular Turkish intellectuals killed by them simply because, like Van Gogh, they vigorously defended freedom of expression against religious suppression.
Even though I politically despise these fundamentalists, even though they are my enemies who, like Osama bin Laden, are a danger to the world, I entered into their murky waters in my novel, Snow, precisely because I wanted to understand what is going on in their heads. Why do they feel such anger?
Essentially, this is a person who does not understand freedom of speech, who is easily offended by any work of art that doesn’t speak the only truth he knows and soils the purity he imagines. And it is a person who feels free to kill as an answer.
This person also wants to express the anger Muslim minorities, especially those who have come under the sway of fundamentalist mosques and networks, feel as immigrants in Europe. They feel mistreated, despised and unrepresented. They are poor amid wealth and their living conditions are lousy.
My own sense is that most of the time Islam is a pretext. The anger is really more a nationalist, anti-Western sentiment. There is a furious resentment against the host country and the culture that doesn’t see them. They feel invisible, as if they’ve disappeared. They don’t count.
In Turkey, one sees also a nationalist, anti-Western sentiment that sometimes expresses itself as sympathy for fundamentalist Islam, even terrorism. But most of the time it is a more collective nationalist emotion that resents the gap in wealth between our country and the rich countries of the West.
Gardels | Would you agree with V.S. Naipaul, who has said that “there is an anger out there [in the Islamic world] that blames their failure on the success of another civilization,” the West?
Pamuk | Naipaul is very perceptive about the middle classes of poor post-colonial countries and he is right up to a point. But the West, led by the United States, is committing so many blunders—such as the invasion of Iraq and atrocities of this war and its continued support for the heavy-handed occupation of Palestine—that make the whole world, not just Muslims, angry. These infuriating acts of aggression and other policies also have to be addressed. The problems are not just the mistakes of these poor, confused, unhappy, miserable, misrepresented and nationalistic crowds, but some Western attitudes as well.
Gardels | What is the appropriate response by a tolerant country such as the Netherlands to a terrorist attack in the name of Islam on an artist?
Pamuk | A very strong line must be drawn between blaming extremist terrorists and the Islamic civilization the terrorist thinks he belongs to, a line usually blurred by the media. After the killing of Van Gogh in Holland, lots of Turkish schools and mosques were attacked and burned. Yet, in Turkey, we liberal secularists didn’t decry this as an act of Christian civilization. No, we said these are racist and extremist nationalists in Europe that do such things. Only the fundamentalist newspapers here in Turkey would say it is Christianity to blame. But in the West it is an easy thing for the popular media to blame Islam. In truth, there is no difference between school or mosque burning and the killing of Van Gogh.
Gardels | The issue is not only the terrorist acts, but the unwillingness of conservative Muslim immigrants from North Africa or Turkey to abide the liberal, tolerant norms of Europe concerning, for example, women’s right and homosexuality. This is what has led so-called “postmodern populists” from Pim Fortuyn or Van Gogh or Oriana Fallaci to claim that the conflict is really with the conservative Islamic cultures.
Pamuk | Oriana Fallaci’s view of Islam is not based in reality. It is a fanciful construct of some religion that doesn’t exist.
In the case of those countries where Muslim immigrants have been living for two and three and four generations, the failure of integration rests largely with the policies of those countries. This is not only the failure of Islam or Turkey or Morocco, but of Germany and the Netherlands and France as well. With respect to the new immigrants, this conservative intolerance is a problem, I agree. But so is the intolerance of those who burn the schools and mosques of poor, hard-working Muslims.
Gardels | But if Muslims are going to live in Europe, the bottom line is that they must accept, not resist, the liberal culture norms of their host countries?
Pamuk | And not only in Europe, in Turkey, too. Islamic civilization should be tolerant toward homosexuals, for women’s rights, and the rights of the minorities, a problem we are facing in Turkey now. But these are things that should be achieved by the civil society, by the liberals, democrats and the seculars inside the Islamic societies rather than by the American bombs or nationalist and simplistic intellectuals who enjoy making fanciful general judgments about civilizations.
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Gardels | The Muslim presence in Europe is not only about immigrants, but about Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Must Turkey itself become “mock European”—something the radical Islamists and nationalists in Turkey ridicule—in order to gain accession?
Pamuk | In my novel, Snow, the Islamists in the town of Kars make fun of Ka, the poet from Istanbul who lives in Frankfurt, for looking down on his own people and wanting to be European.
That is not my view. They are not right. For over a hundred years Turkey has made an ultra-effort to Westernize itself. Those conservatives, Islamists or anti-Westerners who resent that change call us liberal secularists “mock Europeans” and imitators. I don’t buy this. Turkey has Westernized and modernized in its own way—outside of Europe. We are already way beyond being “mock Europeans.”
The other point in my novel, though, is that if people resent going down this path of Westernization, you should not bomb them or kill them. You should not feel contempt for them and call them stupid. You have to understand the resentment and the anger and engage it. You have to have compassion for their fear and insecurity.
If you want to globalize the world, you have to do this. It is a tough job. You just can’t put them down as idiots like Oriana Fallaci or others who have a very simplistic understanding of my part of the world. There has to be a distinction between trying to move a civilization forward and just having an insulting attitude toward people, even if they are angry and full of politically incorrect rhetoric.
Gardels | As immigrants from Muslim countries become large minorities throughout Europe, and if Turkey joins the European Union, won’t Europe have “two souls,” like the ambivalent characters in Snow?
Pamuk | Yes, two souls. That is our common future, in Turkey and in Europe. If Turkey’s going to be a part of Europe, say in 15 years, it should definitely change radically. But so should Europe. Europe should re-invent, re-think itself as more democratic, multi-religious self-confident society, based not on religion and a fairy-tale history but on a tolerant anti-nationalist vision.
Gardels | Yet in your novel the protagonist, Ka, who has “two souls,” ends up tragically being shot by Islamists in Frankfurt. His two souls trip over each other because, at some level, they are incompatible. Is that a risk for Turkey and Europe, too?
Pamuk | There have been so many authoritarian politicians over the years trying to impose one soul on Turkey, one way of life or mode of being. Some wanted to impose Western secularism by military means; some wanted Turkey to be eternally traditional and Islamic. This approach destroyed democracy in Turkey. It was responsible for the coups in the 1980s. To have two souls is a good thing. That is the way people really are. We have to understand, that, just like a person, a country can have two souls. These souls are continuously in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other.
To have democracy is precisely to have this dialogue between these two souls.
Gardels | Still, at some level, isn’t a postmodern society that disbelieves in any absolute truths incompatible with a civilization based on faith in one absolute truth?
Pamuk | This idea of incompatibility of Islam with modernity or with secularism is an argument that adopts the fundamentalist logic. Liberals, democrats or Western thinkers should stop making general, vulgar essentialist observations on Islam every time they come up with some new problem, most of which is partly their making, too. The whole history of Islam under the Ottoman Empire has been a synthesis of the Book and what is happening in history and in the world. Islam is not a pure thing in and of itself, but related to the world and to history. Islam has long been influenced by the presence of Europe and the presence of the world situation. There is no pure Islam out there in a vacuum. Only the fundamentalists believe that.
Look at what has happened now in Turkey. We once had an Islamic fundamentalist party which has now converted into a more or less Western-style party whose historic mission is to take Turkey into Europe, and it is backed by the people! This approach is sober and compelling to most Turks today.
Gardels | Two years ago, in Davos, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the moderate Muslim leader of Turkey, hosted a reception with his wife, whose head was covered. The reception featured the Turkish beauty queen (uncovered) who had just won the Miss World contest in London after it had been forced to leave Nigeria because of protests by radical Islamists. Is this the image of the new Turkey?
Pamuk | Yes. Indeed, one of the joys of being a writer in Turkey these days is that all kinds of unintentionally ironical images abound. They are fun to watch and fun to write about. Both sides are a bit embarrassed: an Islamic politician with a beauty queen; the strange creature of a beauty queen backed by a Muslim prime minister—not a typical sight.
This says a lot about where things are in reality. More of this will come about. And that makes me happy. Once we can smile at these ironies, the tensions will mellow.