Turkish novelist Elif Shafak warns of global populist, anti-intellectual current

Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s books were confiscated from her publisher’s office by police earlier this year after she was accused of obscenity, the novelist revealed in an article for the Guardian on Monday.

The incident was part of a broader anti-intellectual and anti-feminist current that is integral to Turkey’s authoritarian political landscape and becoming more widespread across the world, Shafak said.

Shafak’s 1999 novel “The Gaze” faced backlash in May, when furore over descriptions of child sexual abuse in another writer’s work led to a social media storm that drew in several famous novelists accused of obscenity.

Police searched Shafak’s publisher’s office as a result, confiscating several of the writer’s own books and those by the late feminist writer Duygu Asena, delivering them to the prosecutor’s office, she said.

The targeting of novelists came during a period of repression of intellectuals of all stripes in Turkey, which has led to 29 publishing houses being closed, 135,000 books being banned from public libraries, and writers including French existentialist Albert Camus accused of being members of a terrorist organisation, Shafak said.

The writer linked this authoritarian behaviour to the wave of populism that pits “pure people” against a “corrupt elite”.

“In the populist imagination, being elite has nothing to do with economic power or social status. It is about values”, Shafak said.

“In this way, a university assistant who cannot afford a house in the city and has to commute for hours every day but happens to have progressive ideas can be labelled ‘elite’, while a hedge fund manager will be called ‘a man of the people’ if he sponsors populist nationalistic movements”, she said.

This dynamic sees government-appointed university rector Bülent Arı declaring his unhappiness at the country’s rising literacy rate and praise for “pure” uneducated citizens, while writers and intellectuals in their thousands are targeted with legal action.

Among the targeted writers cited by Shafak is Nurcan Baysal, a journalist working on Kurdish Yazidi issues and Ahval contributor who has been tried for her writing and social media posts after being arrested during a dawn raid last year.

Women academics, like human rights defender Şebnem Korur Financı, and politicians, like main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancıoğlu, have been similarly targeted.

“Turkey’s trajectory shows that wherever there is a rise of nationalism and authoritarianism, patriarchy and homophobia are also in the ascendant. Last month, for the fifth time, the Pride Parade in Istanbul was banned and dispersed with rubber bullets, tear gas and police violence”, Shafak said.

This has been accompanied by conservative narratives pushed by the government urging women to keep to their “traditional” role as housewives and mothers, Shafak said, adding that similar drives are afoot in other countries veering towards authoritarianism in Europe including Hungary and Poland.

“Gender is an important part of this new narrative. If women can be convinced to return to traditional values, the population will increase and majority-minority ratios will be as they used to be”, she said.