Thursday 18 September 2008

Snow in Istanbul

Photoessay impression: Istanbul, and Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Faber)

It is 28 July 2008. We are sitting in the lounge of a condominium apartment in one of Istanbul’s well to do neighbourhoods on the Asian side of the city. It is far from the stereotype of a Muslim country: an enclave of European ultra-liberalism on a glam boulevard that looks straight out of Beverley Hills. Over a glass of Raki the discussion turns to the possibility of a full scale Islamic revolution, as the hosts disagree over the question: ‘Is Turkey the next Iran?’. One shrugs in resignation, the other argues against. ‘We are not like Iran,’ he says, ‘we have democracy, pluralism, the glue of national unity’.

He is probably right, but such wide speculation about the future shows an uncertainty amongst Istanbul’s liberal elite. Istanbul is growing: sixteen million and counting, and according to recent political polling, it is greening too. Not in the environmental sense, but the Middle Eastern one: political Islamisation is on the rise. Still, Turkey is probably the only country in the world where a secular leftist group commits atrocities whilst a nominally Islamist Party controls the state… just.

Istanbul: 16 million and growing: mostly young, mostly ‘green’

The TV is playing in the background on an American 24-hour news channel. We watch the presenter narrate in English the scenes of destruction. Yesterday an indiscriminate bombing ripped through the suburban Gungoran district, killing 16 people. Turkey’s secular Kurdish separatist party the PKK are suspected, but no one has taken responsibility. I once ran into one of the PKK’s more zealous sympathisers in London. Chain smoking in his taxi cab, he didn’t flinch from telling me, ‘Turks, I fucking hate Turks, I’ll kill fucking Turks; we stick them with bombs and anything over there’. I tell the anecdote to my hosts but they think it the most normal thing in the world.

Over another Raki we learn the outcome of the recent constitutional challenge to the ruling party’s legality, surrounding the question of whether the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been attempting to undermine Turkey’s constitutional secularism. The decision to let them stay is unsurprising. In a decade the party has come from advocating Sharia Law to governing Turkey under a more straightforward, conservative platform. This push to the centre doesn’t represent a drift towards consensual Western European style politics, however. Rather, the military’s policing of the state has forced the normalisation of the Party and limited the scope of its ambitions.

Since Turkey was founded as a modern nation state by Gemal Ataturk, the military has seen itself as the final guarantor of the state’s essentially European, progressive character. Officer training corps reproduce an ideological apparatus that emphasises the military’s honourable duty to uphold the secular state, purge corrupt civilian leaderships and, more recently, ensure the total liberalisation of the economy. No doubt a strange state of affairs for Western pundits used to the military’s subordination to civilian rulers. But the crowing by European liberals about the ‘absurd’ fuss made by the military over the AKP’s leader Recip Erdogan’s wife wearing the headscarf reveals a common misunderstanding of the relationship between state power and Islamisation. The Turkish military understand the nature of this power better than most.

Full burkas on display in the Sultanahmet district

In this context, the ambiguities of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow , which I was reading in Istanbul at the time, begin to make sense. The plot involves the return of political dissident Ka from Germany to investigate a wave of suicides of young girls forbidden to wear their headscarves to school. It is the mid-1990s and the Godforsaken town of Kars in Eastern Anatolia is on the front line between the state, Kurdish separatists and Islamists. What Ka is really after however is the love of beautiful divorcee, Ipek. This personal connection forces him from his aloofness as a member of the Istanbul elite into confronting the true demons of Islamisation. As the town is blocked off by heavy snowfall, Ka rediscovers love, God, overcomes his writers’ block, and during the course of a local military coup proceeds to lose all these things once more. Ultimately however, the diabolical thing about the Islamists is not cold-blooded callousness, but their pious purity.

A charismatic ‘terrorist’ called Blue turns out to be a holy fool not capable of hurting a fly, yet he is an icon of militant violence in the religious high school. The fanatical boys from the high school are racked by guilt over their love for Kadife: the ‘feminist’ Islamist leader of the headscarf girls. Kadife turns out to have only taken to the scarf out of pride: not wanting to recant an initially feigned political gesture. Muhtar, the leader of the local Islamist Party, turned to his local Sheik after losing faith in his Marxist agenda and finding out his wife couldn’t conceive, veering towards political Islam after the ecstasy of rediscovering his faith faded. Ka’s contempt for Muhtar’s naïve poetry about rediscovering God gives way to admiration for his certainty in the existential bleakness of Kars. And so on, ad nauseum.

Pamuk describes the experience of Islamism as what psychoanalysts call ‘lack’. The lack comes from more than the fact that many of Kars’ most militant leftists of the 1970s were reborn as promethean Islamist subjects; Ipek’s communist father for example approves of the Islamists’ spirit and gestures, if not their politics. It cuts deeper. In one scene, Ka experiences his bliss at finally making love to Ipek as a simulacrum of his pornographic fantasies during his last four miserable, sexless years in Frankfurt. Ipek is a prop, who fills in for the lack of the other in Ka’s fantasies. As this gives way to a deeper, more spiritually satisfying and tender love, the intensity of the experience fades to be supplemented by a further lack.

’So it was not Ipek herself who was arousing Ka but pornographic imagery, and the miracle was less her presence than the fact that he could imagine his fantasy here in bed with him…According to the notes Ka made about their lovemaking – notes that I feel I must share with my readers – his passion was finally reciprocated, and they fell upon each other with such intensity that they left the world behind. The same notes also reveal that Ipek let out a mournful cry when it was all over.’ (p254)

This lack is not just felt in regard to oneself, but by the knowledge that others’ lacks are interpolated upon oneself. Writ large, this is the logic of the social lack that cannot resolve itself into any positive social and political vision. Pamuk describes the miserable hordes of Kars:

’Most of them were too unhappy to sleep; they took pleasure in knowing that the cigarettes they smoked were killing them… they watched television not because they liked or enjoyed the programmes, but because they couldn’t bear to hear about their friends’ depression and TV helped to drown them out. What they really wanted was to die, but they didn’t think themselves worthy of suicide.’ (p198)

A familiar sight: employed but dog tired from 80-hour working weeks

Despite appearances, the moral of the story is not that, now Pamuk has isolated the insatiable lack at the base of Islamism, we have the intellectual means to dismiss the passion for politics completely. The dirty secret of Islamic radicalism isn’t that it takes root in some abnormal, individual pathology, but that it derives from mainstream society. Today’s cynical politics presents itself as being above the lack of any one individual, but in fact feeds the lack in each. Individual experience becomes pathological when it becomes dislocated from other individuals, or society, and once people internalise the ideology of passivity and infectiveness, they cease to be able to understand themselves as properly political subjects. In the United States, for instance, the poor blame themselves for their poverty and seek only moral salvation. Many vote for Republicans who sell them piety as a political programme, even if, and they know they surely deserve it, it robs to line the pockets of the corporate class. So, it is a no coincidence that once Islamic parties coincide with democratic politics almost all abandon their performative militancy and get out the vote by recourse to their supposed purity and incorruptibility. That is how Hamas dislodged Fatah in Palestine and why Erdogan is so popular in Turkey.

When Ka is interrogated by the military secret police, they trot through a well rehearsed speech about how woolly liberals like him give sympathy to Islamists, who would crush him if they ever attained power. It is only state sovereign power that preserves the liberal status quo that allows him to sympathise with the Islamists and criticise the government in the first place. But this is not unique to Turkey or the case of non-democratic Islamists. Indeed, the essential contradiction of liberalism’s misuse of state power is at the core of our increasingly authoritarian governance in the West too. Liberals, who are so quick to defend the rights of the individual from the political or economic power of the state, hide behind its power to enforce their cultural values. State power is used to enforce smoking bans, equal opportunity policies, food regulations, green taxes and so forth. But these ‘victories’ are not won in any political sense. They are packaged up as science, common sense, or even morality, and rely on the state power they otherwise claim to limit and disown to enforce them upon an apathetic public. The position of Turkish liberals is exactly the same as that of urban elites in the UK. To them, the vast hinterland of puritanical Islamists ‘out there’ is not even worth arguing with. Should they really come to power, then as our hosts put it: ‘we’ll just leave the country’. No debate, no argument, no resistance, just abandonment: much like the liberal reaction to Khomeini’s state in Iran.

The Guardian’s James Buchanan found Snow wanting:

‘A more serious challenge to novelists in Turkey, Iran and the Arab world is that the events of September 11, the Moscow theatre attack and Abu Ghraib are both more romantic and more desperate than even Dostoesvsky could have dreamed up or written down’.

But not only are these events devoid of relevance for Turkey’s situation, but this belies our comfortable prejudice that everything happening ‘out there’ is exotic, far from the green pastures of reasonable old England. But the logic of Islamisation is our logic too. It is the logic of the culture wars in the United States and ultimately – if sadly – the logic of politics in the United Kingdom, should our current political ‘consensus’ fall apart and be revealed for the sham it is. It is, in short, the logic of a world without communism.

Boys play in the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul


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