This essay, on the imprisonment of Osman Kavala and what it signals about repression in Turkey, was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Meghan Markle and why making inherited privilege more ‘diverse’ is not cause for celebration.) It was published in the Observer, 20 May 2018, under the headline ‘In Erdoğan’s warped world, even intellectuals are now “terrorists”‘.
Imagine a seminar in London. Around the table are Blairites and Corbynistas, Ukippers and Remainers, Scottish Nationalists and Tory Eurosceptics, Islamists and English Defence Leaguers, radical feminists and transgender activists. All discussing Britain’s political future, with deep disagreements but with mutual respect.
It would be difficult to picture this in London. Still less that a similar seminar could take place in Istanbul. Yet, when I gave a lecture there last September, that was just what it felt like. I was talking about populism and immigration. In the room were students of all political persuasions: supporters of the ruling Justice and Development party and critics, liberals and social democrats, Turkish nationalists, Kurds and Armenians. They had deeply differing views, but all had a commitment to open dialogue.
The seminar was organised by the European School of Politics, a brainchild of Osman Kavala. Kavala is one of the most important intellectual and cultural figures in Turkey. Two months after I met him in Istanbul he was arrested. Yesterday, he will have been in detention for 200 days. No charges have yet been laid. There have, however, been a flood of insinuations in the press and even in parliament – that he is an enemy of Turkey, has links with terror groups and was involved in the failed coup of 2016. The insinuations are nonsense. They are also ominous.
Kavala has played a prominent role both in defending the rights and liberties of all in Turkey, including Kurds and Armenians, and in bringing together people of different political viewpoints to discuss their differences in civil debate. He has funded a swath of projects seeking to nurture trust between Turkey and Armenia. He is chair of Anadolu Kültür, an organisation promoting cultural pluralism in Turkey, aiming ‘to build bridges between different ethnic, religious and regional groups by sharing culture and art’.
Back in September, we went for a meal with some friends in his favourite Istanbul fish restaurant. All were worried about the deteriorating political situation in the country, but Kavala was not concerned for himself. ‘I doubt if they’d be interested in me’, he said.
Kavala is a networker and conciliator, not a polemicist or a confrontational figure; someone who quietly brings people together to discuss and debate and sees in that process the makings of a better society. His detention is a signal that, having purged the army, gutted the judiciary, dismantled the civil service and eviscerated academia, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has now turned his attention to civil society; a signal that the nurturing of open dialogue is itself now seen as a threat.
The degree of repression in Turkey since Erdoğan imposed a state of emergency after the failed coup of July 2016 has been extraordinary. It is estimated that more than 150,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs, including almost 6,000 academics and about 4,500 judges and prosecutors. Up to 137,000 people have been detained. Almost 200 media outlets have been shut down and 100,000 websites blocked. Of all journalists imprisoned worldwide, nearly a third are in Turkey.
The aim is to expunge the slightest criticism of the government and its policies. And it is working. ‘Fear and self-censorship are like smoke’, a senior academic told Human Rights Watch. ‘It seeps everywhere and it gets thicker every day. We cannot breathe anymore’. ‘We now don’t only think twice, but three or four times before we write or say something’, added a student.
Last week, Erdoğan came to Britain on a state visit, meeting both the prime minister and the Queen. Britain sees Turkey as an important partner in the post-Brexit world; Turkey finds in Britain a key ally in the ‘fight against terrorism’. Britain has sold more than $1bn of weapons to Ankara since the failed 2016 coup. In a joint press conference, Theresa May spoke of the need for ‘democratic values’ to be upheld but sympathised with a leader facing ‘the extraordinary pressures of a failed coup and Kurdish terrorism’. Erdoğan insisted that all those arrested had been ‘terrorists’. In a world in which terrorism has become the catch-all justification for mass repression, Erdoğan has a free hand to pursue his policies.
Meanwhile, the victims of those policies continue to pile up: the dead, the imprisoned, the dismissed, the voiceless. In a fragmented world, in which social change is often driven more by inchoate rage than reasoned argument, a figure such as Kavala is indispensable. His imprisonment is the imprisonment, too, of hope.