One on One Writer and psychologist Gündüz Vassaf on totalitarianism, modern Turkey and the role of Islam in his life
Amongst intellectuals in Turkey, the psychologist and author Gündüz Vassaf is a bit of a rock-star. He writes a weekly column for the newspaper radical, was a founding member of the Istanbul chapter of Amnesty International and resigned from his post as university professor in protest of the 1980 military coup. Born and educated in America, Vassaf is regarded as one of the most important critical voices in Turkey. Currently, he is in town for the Prague Writers’ Festival, and we spoke to him ahead of the gala opening. The interview opens with the question of whether he is familiar with the city at all.
“Actually, I came here many years ago, under socialism, so that must have been about 25 years ago, and I came once more in between, and this is my third time in Prague. And I have to say of all the cities I have seen; it is the most beautiful manmade city in the world.
“I think Istanbul, for instance, is a beautiful city for its nature, the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, the Seven Hills of Istanbul, etc. but Prague is human-size in its scale, it is friendly to you, because the buildings are not so big, the streets are not so wide, it’s not an imperial city that makes you know your place in the world.”
You are in town for the Prague Writers’ Festival. Could you talk a bit about what you will be reading, what we can expect?
“I will be participating in three panel discussions. One of them is on the invisible republic America, so we will see how a superpower can be called invisible. It is a mystery to me, too, but we will discuss it. The other is on Islam, and I know nothing about Islam.
“But I was at Harvard last week, I went to a conference given by one of the professors of Islamic studies at Harvard, and the title of that conference also was ‘What is Islam?’ and his opinion also was that no one knows what Islam is. So we will discuss that and I will be reading a piece about the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. This is a bridge that was built in the 15th century and it was destroyed during the last Balkan wars. And I was there for two months, on the bridge, everyday, writing about the bridge, 10 to 12 hours a day. So I will be reading a short piece from the Bridgewatcher's Diary.”
You have also spent some time in Germany, which has a large Turkish community. Maybe you could talk a bit about the Turkish experience in Germany as compared to other Western European countries?
“It is a unique experience in the history of Europe, because it was a secluded and homogeneous community, Europe. Since the years 600, 700… whereas you get communities in the Middle East or India where you have many religions. In India, you had four or five religions, in Turkey you had Christians, Orthodox, Catholics, Jews, Zoroastrian people living near the Iranian border etc. The rest of the world really has been used to many religions, languages and cultures coming together, whereas Europe was really a predominantly Catholic continent, Western Europe especially.
“So the Muslim experience, of these people, all of a sudden, millions of people coming to go to schools, to workplaces etc. was a very unique experience in the history of Europe. So it takes time for adjustment. Also for the people who came, of course, it is difficult, just as difficult for them to adjust to coming as it is for the people who have been living there for centuries to adjust to newcomers. Eventually, there will be a multicultural society in Europe, but it is a painful process.”
It has been some 40 years that Germany has had a Turkish community. How has the relationship between Germans and Turks changed in that time span?
“The Germany of today is not really the same Germany that the initial immigration in the 60s happened in, when people from Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia came, because it was a growing Germany, economically healthy. And now we are in a period where capitalism is in a crisis. And when that happens, ethnic differences are always exaggerated. And religious identities come to the forefront, which leads to a lot of extremist movements as well.
“And I think what is happening in Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, and other countries, with the right becoming politically stronger, is a reaction to the uncertainty of the times, so people become more conservative. But I think it is a passing phase, and if there ever is a healthier and more just economic system in the world, where people do not have to fight each other for jobs, then I think racism will cease to exist.”
“The basic theme… At the time, in Turkey, there had been a military coup, one of the many that Turkey has had in the last century, so I began to see how people, and it is in the German experience as well, it is in the experience of many countries, I began to see how people under totalitarian regimes adjust to it, how they collaborate even.
“And at one point I realized that more than collaborating to such a regime, we adjust to it, because we are powerless, because we are too powerless to change it, and when you are powerless, then you adjust. And once I realized this, I didn’t have this rebellious attitude to what I called the collaborators with the regime, my colleagues at the university, and in the arts world, etc. So that led me to thinking how we adjust to the prisons we built for ourselves. So the subtitle of the book is ‘Prisoners of Ourselves’, how we become prisoners of ourselves with the different mental sets we create.”
Can the totalitarian system of communist states such as former Czechoslovakia be compared to military dictatorships like the one that existed in Turkey, or is it not that simple?
“I think we fool ourselves too easily by citing examples like the Peoples’ Republic of China, the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, military regimes in Turkey or South America, etc. calling them totalitarian regimes as if other states of totalitarianism in the so-called democratic countries do not exist. And I think that they very much do exist, because very much in the Western countries, in the Western democracies, the freedom of choice is doubted. Saying we have the freedom of choice, but the choices that you choose from are given by the system. So basically you choose from the choices given to you, and that is not freedom of choice.
“So for instance, the people in the UK and US, do not have the freedom to choose whether their country should go to war or not. The invasion by the Anglo-American alliance, basically, the majority of the people in the UK and eventually in the US, was very much against the war, yet in the UK, the cradle of democracy, the government party and the opposition party were for the war. So you have this case where the people are against the war, but the government is for the war. So is that choice? It is not that people choose to go to war.”
You actually resigned from teaching in protest of the military coup in Turkey. What role does activism play in your life and why did you make that decision?
“I do not consider it activism. It is more a state of being comfortable with my conscience than activism.”
So you felt that you could no longer have a clean conscience and go on teaching?
“That, and I could not physically go on executing my job, because the military unfortunately has their job, but as an academic at the university, I never interfere with the military in the sense that I would tell them: ‘If you attack somebody, this is what you should do. This is what you should not do, etc.’ But the military attacked the universities, saying: ‘These are dangerous books, this is what should be taught, this is what should not be taught, etc.’ So the university lost its freedom and autonomy, and there was no place for me there anymore. The university, which is based on critical thinking, cannot exist under a totalitarian regime.”
You write: “In the course of that time my experience with Islam has followed a zigzag course, a consequence of both my personal development and political events.” Could you explain the role Islam has played in your life?
“In the beginning, almost none. The Turkish republic was very much set up as a secular state, one was not even aware of religion, whether Islam, Judaism or Christianity. And you never saw people praying, at least not in the cities. So my parents brought me up in that way as well, without religion. And eventually, when I was studying abroad, in Washington, I had an identity crisis; I was trying to find out who I am.
“And at one point, I found myself fasting, just for a couple of weeks, and having the Turkish flag inside my car. I was looking to find out who I am: Am I American, am I Turkish, etc? So I had a flirtatious relationship with it for a couple of weeks, and outside of that, of course, Islam is becoming more of a political issue around the world. But I look upon Islam now more sociologically and culturally, then as a religion. Because the function and the role of religion changes across the years.”
Turkey is thriving economically right now. What is the cultural status quo in the country?
“The republic was built upon repudiating its Ottoman past. So the first ten or fifteen years of the republic, which was set up in the early 1920s, looked upon the Ottoman sultans as traitors and non-Turks as well, because it was the Ottoman family, the royal family. So the beginning of the republic was non-Ottoman, non-Islamic, secular, Turkish citizens, with the government trying to create a Turkish identity, for the Armenians, for the Greek Turks, Jews, Curds, etc. That everybody was to be called a Turk and have a Turkish identity.
“And as times passes, and one becomes comfortable with the distance from the monarchy, from the empire, then people begin to look at their past, in the 1930s, for a young person to want to study Ottoman history, it would be considered as if someone was looking at the history of witchcraft or something. Now, you can have Ottoman historians in Turkey, and with the economic strengthening, they are now looking more at their Ottoman past, and are more proud of it. And of course, being proud of a past brings chauvinism with it.
“So whereas in the beginning, Turkish culture had an inferiority complex to the West, and was trying to catch up with it. Now there is a superiority complex to the West, that Turkey has a strong economy and the mighty history of the empire behind the people.”
Gündüz Vassaf will be reading and participating in panel discussions throughout the festival, for events featuring him, go to the festival’s website at www.pwf.cz