It is almost two years since I first wrote about Osman Kavala, and it’s almost two years that Kavala has been imprisoned by the Turkish authorities, and still without charge. This is an open letter I wrote for Perplex!, a magazine produced by the Dutch organisation H401. (I have changed some of the dates, as the letter was originally written a few months ago). I really do hope to see Osman soon, ‘to have a drink in a café in Istanbul or Amsterdam or London. To talk about politics and history and culture, about Turkey and Britain and Europe, about populism and democracy, about conflicts and liberties’. But, to be honest, I don’t expect it to happen soon.
I do not know whether you will have the opportunity to read this letter. As I write this you will have spent almost two years in prison. You have been locked up without charge, but with a swirl of insinuations surrounding you, every one of which feels like a rage against truth.
You would be the first to point out that you are not alone in Turkey in facing such a predicament. That more than 100,000 have been arrested since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imposed a state of emergency after the failed coup of July 2016. That almost 200 media outlets have been shut down and more than 300 journalists arrested. That more than 150,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs, including 6,000 academics and nearly 5,000 judges and prosecutors.
The degree of repression in Turkey today is indeed extraordinary. Yet, amidst all the arbitrary arrests and false detentions, your imprisonment seems particularly significant. This is not just because you are a friend. By arresting you, and detaining you without charge for so long, the Turkish authorities are trying to send out a message that, having purged the army, gutted the judiciary, dismantled the civil service and eviscerated academia, it now intends to shackle civil society. For creating a flourishing civil society has been your life’s mission.
I remember the first time I came to Istanbul. You had invited me to give a seminar on immigration and populism at the European School of Politics, an institution that you founded to open up political debate in Turkey. Around the table in a packed room were students of all political persuasions: supporters of the ruling AKP and critics of the government, liberals, conservatives and social democrats, Turkish nationalists, Kurds and Armenians. They had deeply differing views, but all had a commitment to open dialogue.
It was as if in London there had been a seminar at which there were Eurosceptics and EU enthusiasts, Scottish Nationalists and UKIP supporters, Islamists and members of the English Defence League. All discussing Britain’s political future, with deep disagreements but with mutual respect.
Such a meeting is unimaginable in London. That an equivalent could take place in Istanbul seemed to me then, still seems to me now, almost miraculous. That it happened was testament to both your belief that society best works when people are able civilly to discuss their differences, and your gifts in nurturing such dialogue.
You have a deep commitment to civil rights and a fairer society. You have worked tirelessly on behalf not just of Turks but also of Kurds and Armenians, too. But you are not a polemicist or a figure of confrontation. I am, for good or ill, more like that. You are, rather, someone who seeks quietly to bring people together to discuss and debate, and sees in that process the makings of a better society. It is this, the fostering of free and open conversations, that the authorities so fear.
We live in increasingly polarised societies, and not just in Turkey. It has become common to bemoan the fact that too many of us inhabit ‘echo chambers’, only listening to voices with which we agree. There is a tendency to attribute bad faith to those with whom we disagree, to dismiss critics as ‘hate mongers’.
Politics rests upon a willingness to have a public dialogue and debate, a readiness both to listen to others and to scrutinise our own beliefs, an openness to accommodate others and to change ourselves. The erosion of such willingness and readiness and openness many find troubling, and yet seem unable to resist. It is against this background that your work is so important, your wonderful facility for listening, your inner desire to nurture conversations, your gift for allowing people to think through difficult issues.
It is shocking that you have spent almost two years behind bars. I hope it has not taken too great a toll on you. I know it has been difficult for Ayşe, your wife, and for your many, many friends. But whatever the burdens imposed by your detention, I also know it will not have quenched your tremendous generosity of spirit, the one that shone through the first time I met you at a Castrum Peregrini meeting in Amsterdam.
I hope to see you soon, my friend. To have a drink in a café in Istanbul or Amsterdam or London. To talk about politics and history and culture, about Turkey and Britain and Europe, about populism and democracy, about conflicts and liberties. I hope, too, that not only are you soon set free from a monstrous detention but that the monstrous shackles that today bind Turkey are shattered too, and that the kind of civil society to which you are so committed has a chance once more to flourish.
With love and comradeship
The image is of Osman Kavala in court by Zeynep Atalay.