The Sunday Magazine

Turkey is a cautionary tale for the rest of the world, says writer Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a political scientist, and Turkey's most widely-read female novelist. Her new book, Three Daughters of Eve, explores terrorism, women's rights, and tensions between the religious and the secular.
Elif Shafak (left) is the author of Three Daughters of Eve. (MYCHELE DANIAU/Getty Images/Bloomsbury )

Turkish writer Elif Shafak describes her homeland as a "fluid, unsteady country," caught in a tug of war between pluralism and ultra-nationalistic paranoia.

Shafak is Turkey's most widely-read female novelist, as well as a political scientist and an advocate for women's and LGBT rights. She spoke with The Sunday Edition's guest host Laura Lynch about her new novel Three Daughters of Eve and the current state of of Turkish politics, two years after members of the military tried and failed to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.

Since the attempted coup, Erdogan has consolidated his power and cracked down on his opponents — firing more than 130,000 civil servants and arresting hundreds of journalists and academics.

At the end of June, he was re-elected for a five year term. He has assumed sweeping new powers, which were approved by voters in a referendum last year.

These excerpts from Elif Shafak have been condensed for brevity. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.

On the current political situation in Turkey

I think we have been, as a country, sliding backwards. I think Turkey holds important lessons for progressive-minded people all around the world, because it shows us that history does not necessarily move forward ... Sometimes it goes backwards, sometimes countries draw circles within circles, sometimes generations make the same mistakes that their great grandparents had made. So that's what I see in Turkey — as if we have drawn a full circle, and we have been sliding backwards into ultranationalism, definitely populism, authoritarianism, more Islamism, and together with these, an increase in sexism, misogyny and homophobia, because all of these go hand in hand.

Yet at the same time, I think we need to understand what a complicated, layered country Turkey is. While politics is quite depressing and very masculinist, very macho ... the society itself is far more complex, far more layered and in my opinion, far more ahead of its government. Probably that's the sad tragedy of countries like Turkey. The civil society is ahead of its government but lacks the power to change that government.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine Erdogan, greets the crowd during a protest against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

On why she sees Turkish politics as a cautionary tale for the rest of the world

I think until quite recently, there was this perception even among well-meaning people … they used to make this distinction, as if some parts of the world were more turbulent, liquid lands. And freedom of speech, human rights, activism and feminism were primarily needed in those countries — whereas some other parts of the world, namely the West, was regarded as safe stable and solid. Feminism was not needed in the West because the Western world was so over that threshold. And I think after 2016, that dualistic perception of the world has been shattered to pieces.

Now we know that East and West, we're all living in liquid times. There's no such thing as solid lands versus liquid lands. Now we know that we need feminism everywhere. Now we know that we need activism and care for democracy and human rights everywhere, that we can't take it for granted. Even in countries that are relatively advanced in their democracies, time can go backwards, and those rights can be taken away.

On the post-coup crackdown

I think the coup needs to be investigated, and the people who have taken part in it and plotted need to be investigated. I can understand that. What I do not understand is the purge that has followed, in which everyone has been lumped together in the same basket. So people with very limited means like teachers, civil servants, nurses, doctors — thousands of people have lost their jobs. Academics have lost their jobs. When I say lost their jobs … it's not like they can find another job at another institution in Turkey, because once you are blacklisted in that way, it is very difficult for these people to explain themselves. So I'm very critical of the coup, and equally critical of the purge.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks at his ruling AK Party's Istanbul congress on May 6. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

On her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve

There are three girls attending Oxford University, and they come from very different backgrounds, Muslim backgrounds. One of them is Shirin. She is Iranian-British. She is a child of exiled parents, and she is an atheist and she is quite critical of all religions, including Islam — primarily Islam, I should say, because of the lack of gender equality that she sees in majority Muslim countries. Then there is Mona, who herself is a practicing Muslim. She also covers her head, and she complains about Islamophobia, because this is something she experiences almost on a daily basis. And then there's Peri, the Turkish girl who has questions about everything and anything.

Together they call themselves, jokingly, the believer, the sinner and the confused. So I wanted to delve into that. It's possible to think of the believer, the sinner and the confused as three different women. But it's also possible to think of that as different stages of our lives. Maybe there are stages of our own personal journeys when we feel closer to being a sinner or a believer or confused.

I believe, in this life, we need both faith and doubt. Faith without doubt is a dogma, and dogma is incredibly dangerous.-  Elif Shafak

On the value of confusion

I cherish confusion. I cherish doubt...I believe, in this life, we need both faith and doubt. Faith without doubt is a dogma, and dogma is incredibly dangerous. On the other hand, there are moments in our lives when we need faith.

When I say faith, that's not necessarily a religious concept. When you start writing a novel, that's an act of faith. When you move to another country, that's an act of faith. When you fall in love, that's an act of faith. You don't know if you're going to be happy with that person, but you follow something irrational inside you. There are all these secular acts of faith in our in our lives.