In March 2015, I published this open letter. A few months later I found myself forced out of the Kurdish region of Turkey in what soon became a much broader campaign against Kurdish and pro-peace scholars across Turkey. Since returning into exile, I, like so many others, have been alarmed by the increasing normalization of exclusionary and tribalist discourse in the United States as well as the emboldening of neofascism in Europe. As an educator, I believe that if there is any hope for us to leave these dark ages behind, it is through education, and this letter comes in that context.
As a philosopher, I tend to search for the abstract in life and life in all that is abstract. When I reflect on contemporary social movements, for example, I situate them within a continual line of struggle that goes back to ancient history. One of the manifestations of that struggle has been the enduring conflict between mentalities that gravitate towards the prototype of an antagonistic tribe and those that operate on the grounds of a more universal, which is to say broader and more inclusive, world.
Fascism, in all its explicit and implicit forms, is one example of a tribalist way of imagining and engaging with the world, and it emerged a century ago on waves of nationalist fervor. For the next 36 years, nationalistically mobilized masses as well as artists, intellectuals, professors, and university students joined various fascist movements across the European continent.
It is now widely acknowledged that what made the fascist reign in Europe possible was the silent or indifferent majority that may not have been happy about the fascist rise to power but did little to stop it. That said, the other half of the historical truth is that fascism never enjoyed a day without resistance. There are always those in whose conscience and will the most promising parts of humanity persist.
To a fascist, the Other is fundamentally different, whereas there is no limit to the sameness of the in-group. What glues the in-group together is the shared hatred of the out-groups and above all the enemy. If there is not an enemy, the fascist opinion-makers shape the image of an enemy in the mass mentality, and the fascist movement creates enemies through repeated assaults on the most vulnerable among us. When it comes to committing violence, fascist movements across the world target those whose rights are always already violated, such as undocumented workers, refugees, and historically oppressed ethnic and religious minorities.
One of the most dangerous ways for a populace to become complicit in the rise of exclusionary politics is to get used to the absurdities that become part of everyday life. We are told there are thousands of refugees marching towards “our” borders, that many are criminals who pose a threat to “our way of life.” Let us be clear: criminals do not walk across forests, mountains, deserts, and rivers, putting their own lives in danger in the hope of finding a dignifying life. We are told these refugees are coming to steal our livelihoods, but it is not refugees who destroy the essential conditions of life and garner riches from people’s suffering. It is not refugees who make wars: rather, wars make refugees.
The only question worth asking in this regard is “who makes all these wars?” To answer this question, we must interrogate the centers of political and economic power. It should be most obvious that in the political arena, among the few who are directly responsible for making endless wars are leaders like Erdogan, Putin, Imran Khan, Modi, and Bolsanaro, who are more emboldened than ever thanks to the incompetency and corruption of the current American administration, headed by a president whose tribalist rage is likewise only directed at the most defenseless.
Today’s liberal democracies
On a broader level, just like the 1930s, today’s liberal democracies are obsessed with protecting their own privileges as fascism destroys millions of lives, beginning with the most marginalized. In the meantime, the real criminals are received with open arms until it is too late to save “our way” or any way of a peaceful life. To add insult to injury, the masses in the United States and Europe are mobilized systematically by the nationalist opinion makers to blame other victims, such as refugees, for their own sense of victimhood. Essentially, every single one of us has the option to reject the mythology of his/her ingroup that is presented as truth, and that makes all the deference in all historical and geographic contexts.
While it is indispensable to point to the evils committed by the fascist movements of the first half of the twentieth century, the more critical task is not to enable today’s forces of exclusion. The mental virus that is fascism has evolved so drastically since Mussolini and Hitler’s time that no form of patriotism, nationalism, or religious ideology is immune to it. Therefore, it is more crucial than ever for each one of us to be skeptical of othering discourse in whatever form it takes, bearing in mind our personal susceptibilities to a particular patriotic façade or divine source of legitimacy.
My personal struggle against exclusionary movements throughout my adult life, in whatever part of the world I have been, has been shaped by one basic principle: to stand with the vulnerable, the silenced, and the marginalized. I seek to uncover the nuances of fascism and align myself with, to quote Walter Benjamin, “the hopeless ones.” As citizens of democracies, it is crucial for us to learn about various ways in which oppressive systems have been resisted by the marginalized in regions all around the world.
There is, however, a gulf between the notion of “helping” and the urge to “stand with.” To cross from one side of that gulf to the other, we must first recognize that we are not inherently in the position of being able to help those on the margins. In fact, the marginalized will always have much more to offer those in positions of relative privilege than the privileged could offer them. One does not need to look afar to realize that humanity owes much of its progress to those very peoples it marginalized so brutally for so long. No arena of European progress can be imagined without the contribution of the European Jews. Here in the United States, the civil rights are a direct fruit of the long and bitter struggle of Black Americans.
Solidarity with “the hopeless ones” is the way out of the historical cycles of violence, alienation, and unfreedom. By the same token, standing by passively will only further deplete our historical and planetary mode of perception, making us regress deeper into the dark neuroses of chauvinism. Every wall, while excluding the out-groups, imprisons those inside, pushing us further into tribalism, making us less free, and saturating our being with more fear.
That said, wherever human society may be heading, each one of us is only responsible for what s/he chooses to do. While borders are inherently political, they need not determine our political identities. We each have the choice to help build more walls that will only further empower the tribalist leaders and isolate ourselves, or to demolish existing walls and from the wreckage build a home for hope, solidarity, and dreaming. We can choose to support war machines or to stand with those who have no armies, weapons, or bank accounts, but only the dream of a borderless world. Between barbed wires and damaged lives, there is always the option to take the side of the latter.
Those who are in search of freedom, whether they reach it or not, whether the freedom they seek is an illusion or not, have a much stronger tie to life than those whose fear of the Other roots their feet and walls their existence. Let us march with “the hopeless ones” away from the century of holocausts, to a future without walls, to a world where poetry is no longer impossible (as Adorno once forewarned).